Phone Story: Why I Hate Politically-Motivated Gaming

I was (and still am) that gamer that spent most of his life constantly seeking examples of hip, contemplative games to show to his high school and college girlfriends, family members, and other general skeptics that video games are art, that they are documentary, that they are more than just mindless polygon killing sprees. It’s why titles like Deus Ex and System Shock, with their blend of politics, philosophy, and “fun” will forever sit at the top of my list of favorite games the same way someone would look at Blade Runner, Pulp Fiction, or Battlestar Galactica.

But then there is Phone Story. And despite my admiration of thought-provoking video games, there seems to be this uncanny coincidence regarding “political” games: while effective in conveying their stance/argument, politically-motivated games, like Phone Story, are simultaneously unable to deliver a strong, thoughtful game play experience.

Designed as a series of mini-games with an accompanying narrative, Phone Story is an “educational game” that seeks to instruct willing consumers on the dangers of smart phone technology and its relationship to exploitation through global capitalism and neo-colonialism without, in any way, attempting to condescend or insult their audience as responsible or complicit. But that, in and of itself, is OK. If the developers of Phone Story want to bludgeon over my head the dangers of global free market economy through a series of “mini-games,” I am fine with that. I take more issue with the way in which the game itself is designed, alluding back to the “uncanny coincidence.”

Beginning my first playthrough, on the first mini-game, I was so focused on hearing what the voice had to say that I was not aware of what I was supposed to do. I immediately failed, and was promptly told to start over. I did, and focused on the objective. I completed it, but I did not entirely remember what the voice was trying to say. And over this series of mini-games, I constantly found myself frustrated, struggling to hear the political narrative while at the same time completing the objective. I found it was easier to listen the first time, and fail, than try and listen while completing the objective.

I think this frustration came into climax about four or five “games” in, where I was to click and drag objects off a conveyor belt and give them to one of the four appropriate, color-coded sprites. I was so focused on this menial task, I was no longer listening to the activity. I was no longer listening to the narrative; I was mindlessly attempting to fill up the yellow bar and reach my “goal.” And, in a sense, that entire process of completing the game, of being “educated,” is cheapened.

But perhaps that is also the point? Perhaps I’m just that uneducated consumer walking into glass doors to get my next iPhone. It is impossible to get that daily dose of “mindless” entertainment while still remaining conscious of the economic impact these smart phones have on the population(s) of both developing and developed nations. We like to think of video games as thought-provoking exercises, equal to their print-friendly narrative counterparts, but even elements of Phone Story can be trivialized by objective-based gaming through progress meters and upper-right corner high scores.

So while I think Bogost is on the mark establishing “documentary games collide with a problem of participation,” I think Phone Story is an example where some documentary games are not too linear … but not linear enough. (69)