At the Games for Change festival last week, Ian Bogost gave a keynote speech on a developing trend he sees in “serious games.” Bogost criticized these games for ignoring the complexity of “real systems thinking”, saying that serious games are often presented as “superficially transformative affairs.” The result is that they tend to feel burdensome to play and fail to reach an audience outside of those that already agree with the designer’s opinion on the issue at hand. Moreover, the transformative value of these games often seems to lie in their concept rather than in the real action of interacting with the game.
Canvasser, a freeware game released this May by designer Jackson Lango, bucks the trend. Through its mechanics, Canvasser presents an unbiased perspective on the occupation of canvassing (on-foot fundraising), illustrating both the highs and lows of the job without being heavy-handed or overly critical. The game is easy to play, especially for inexperienced game-players, and the information is conveyed through the player’s in-game actions. As a free, in-browser, flash game, Canvasser is perfectly situated to reach, educate and influence high school and college students that may be considering a job as a canvasser.
The game opens with text explaining that you are raising money to stop the clear-cutting of the local Evergreen Forest. The cause is outlined in some detail, building some exigency for the player’s actions. Then there is a brief tutorial explaining the primary mechanic of the game. To raise money, you click on a pedestrian to start a conversation, then you select dialogue options praising the organization you represent or explaining the need to save the forest. Values are displayed alongside each pedestrian associated with their “care” and “trust”, which increase based on what you say, but decrease the longer you talk. The player can ask the donor for money at any time, and that donation will be larger based on the donor’s care and trust values.
Before each round of fundraising the player is given a fundraising goal, and warned that if he is unable to meet that goal, he will be fired. Each round is set to a timer, which decreases with every dialogue click. When time runs out, your performance is analyzed by a supervisor who recaps how many people you talked to and how much money you raised. He then gives you a new fundraising goal for the next day. These goals increase each round despite the timer staying constant, forcing the player to improve their fundraising skills over the course of the game.
After two or three days or rising goals, it becomes clear that in order to make goal, the player must keep their conversations short and ask for money as soon as possible. The process becomes automatic; click on a pedestrian, click on the options that increase their trust and care values, then ask for money. As you try to get through as many conversations as possible, you stop reading the dialogue options or the responses of the donors, instantly moving the mouse toward the next dialogue choice. Through this fundraising mechanic, Lango has made a profound statement about the reality of canvassing as an occupation: raising money is best accomplished through speed, persistence and repetition. Educating potential donors or trying to raise awareness about the issue is a costly waste of time.
Lango has added several secondary game mechanics to emphasize the all-encompassing focus on raising money. With a fundraising goal that is constantly increasing, the player is forced to work faster and faster to make her target. Each donor has a “whim” value, decided randomly and hidden from view, that accounts for a large portion of their donation. This makes your results largely based on luck. If you fail to reach your goal, the supervisor puts you on probation, and reminds you that three straight under-goal days will result in a firing. There is no replaying levels in Canvasser, no matter how unlucky you may have been. If you come in under budget you have to face the consequences.
After each day’s assessment, there is a short interlude in which the player converses with other canvassers working at the same organization. One of these canvassers complains about the stress of the job, and how worried he is about being fired. He claims he is being asked to work in less populated parts of town, increasing his chances of coming in under his target. That constant fear of being fired is difficult to convey in words; Canvasser does a great job of making the player feel that pressure to deliver results, even when those results feel out of her control.
During another interlude, a different canvasser offers tips on how to succeed, pointing out that older people are more likely to donate higher sums of money. While this seems like benign advice, it is easy to see how this type of profiling can lead to racial and gender-based stereotypes among real life canvassers. Morality is not considered important in the canvasser world.
The narrative of Canvasser, that is, working to save the Evergreen Forest, is constantly referenced through a campaign goal, which serves as a larger fundraising target for the whole organization. When the goal is met, the game informs the player through a TV news report that the campaign to save the forest has been successful. The report cites unknown causes, but clearly implies that the collective work of the canvassers was responsible for the political victory. Rather than make Canvasser into a blunt critique of fundraising, Lango uses the ending to remind the player that there is a greater good behind the job, and that their hard work has helped to enact a meaningful result.
Canvasser differs from many serious games by avoiding taking a side on the political issue it is about. It isn’t arguing that your time is going to be wasted if you work as a canvasser, or even that you’ll be miserably unhappy doing the work. The important point it makes is that canvassing is formulaic and iterative, and that success isn’t achieved by making profound arguments about the political cause you are working for. You succeed by staying on script, finding the donors who can give you money, and making sure to ask them for it as quickly as possible. If you can’t do that, you will be fired. Evaluation is a constant part of both canvassing, the job, and Canvasser, the game, and all that matters in that evaluation is how much money you raised.
As a non-profit fundraiser myself, I can say with confidence that the most commonly discussed topic at my job is money. The great irony of working at a non-profit is that profit motivates every decision the organization makes. Constant evaluation is the reality of the job, and results are measured in dollars, without very much concern for the process by which they were obtained. But at the end of the day, and the end of the campaign, the money isn’t a waste. It’s exactly what is needed to save the next forest, or to fund the next great artist, or to elect the next great politician.
Because Canvasser is freely accessible and easy to play, it is perfectly situated to send that message to the thousands of students being offered canvassing jobs each year. Through the game, Lango isn’t telling them not to take it, he’s just explaining the reality that money drives the operation. No matter how strongly you care about the cause you are working for, if you can’t raise the money you are going to be fired. The fundraising world is obsessed with ideals, and this game does a great job of putting those ideals in perspective. That type of honest information about what fundraising work truly consists of is very hard to find.