'Playing a game can even be a form of activism'

'Playing a game can even be a form of activism'


'Playing a game can even be a form of activism'

Midway through a university course in theoretical physics, James Long decided that he wanted to make video games for a living. “Video games are just more communicable than theoretical physics,” he says. “They’re more primal, more political.” Long’s realisation came at a key moment, not only in his development, but also in what he sees as the medium’s evolution. “Games were becoming a superset of all other art forms: painting, architecture, music, narrative,” he says. “And on top of that, they explore agency, discovery, and play itself.”

Long’s first game, made with four friends for an international student competition, seemingly does little to meet this grandiose potential. Sculpty is an iPad game in which players must squeeze, squash, and stretch an anthropomorphic blob while guiding it through a jungle’s sweltering terrors. Despite the game’s simplicity and child-like appeal, Sculpty, which was nominated for a Bafta, was a crucial learning experience for Long. He describes the thrill of seeing people play and replay the game as instrumental in giving him confidence to continue.

Top Secret, Long’s current project due for release this year, has far loftier themes and ambitions. In the game you are cast as an NSA analyst trying to discover who’s leaking secret documents. You receive surveillance reports comprising emails, phone calls, browsing history and communications “metadata”. Using this information, you survey targets and follow the crumbs of intelligence to their source. The game, which is primarily played via email, is based on real-world events. While some of your surveillance targets are fictional, many are living journalists such as Glenn Greenwald, Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras, who were all involved in the Edward Snowden leaks. Long has even gained permission from Snowden to use the original text of emails sent by the whistleblower.

For Long, video games provide an ideal lens through which to explore complex issues. “The ideas and issues raised by the leaks are abstract,” he says. “Games offer a great medium for exploring a topic that’s otherwise quite difficult for people to get their heads around.”

Despite Long’s belief in the medium, there are relatively few video games that choose such politicised and current issues for their subject matter. “I’d like to see more games that address real-world events, and which engage people politically. Playing a game can even be a form of political activism.”

Long, like many younger game designers, is particularly interested in exploring different kinds of emotion to those dominantly associated with video games – fear and exhilaration. “I’m more interested in how the player feels and thinks than dry mechanics and systems,” he says. “My strongest emotional resonance has always been with narrative and discovery.”

To that end, he aims to double down on the themes he’s exploring through Top Secret in future projects. “I think there’ll always be a political element to my work,” he says. “Human rights, democracy and freedom from oppression have always held my interest. They’ll likely end up in anything I create.”

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