Living in a game and how to leave the game

Sindi Breshani
Sep 4 · 24 min read

The immigration officer of Arstotzka is reviewing the documents of the immigrants and returning citizens that are trying to cross the border. Each new day brings a novel political occurrence that alters the rules outlined on his desk. He has to follow every instruction, as any error will lead to a penalty. In front of him, a bearded man claims to be visiting his sister and, as all his documents meet the required standards, the officer grants him permission to enter Arstotzka. Right after the man, his wife delivers her documents, but unlike her husband, hers have expired. A dilemma arises for the immigration officer: to separate the couple or violate the regulations imposed on him.

Meanwhile, inside a memory from the distant past, Liljana and Arben are completing their military training in the Albanian mountains, because the Party has advised them that their training will someday be beneficial in case of a potential attack from across the border. Any other country envies the wealth and the beauty of Albania, thus Liljana and Arben have to be prepared for any attempt to steal their blessing. They cannot make a comparison between their reality and the reality outside Albania as they have never left their country, but they trust the Party and the information it discloses.

Right now, I am scrolling through the endless newsfeed on my Facebook homepage while my Apple Watch reminds me to stand up for a minute. These two platforms categorise me into a user profile according to the data they collect from me and, in return, they offer a service tailored to what I need, or at least, what they think I need. I skip the third story about Brexit I have come across in the last few minutes, only to watch a video about immigration; after that, more ‘related videos’ are suggested for me to watch.

Four defining traits of a game

Gameplay is an intensive process that happens under the circumstances of exchange between a player on one hand, and the physical and virtual elements that structure a game on the other. At their core, games are ludic infrastructures that come to life through this constant interplay. Games are constructed worlds and fictitious narratives that players navigate, and they conceal operational complexity.

In her book Reality is Broken, game designer Jane McGonigal reveals that any game, at its core, is structured upon four defining traits: the goal, rules, feedback loop, and voluntary participation. McGonigal explains that the goal evokes a sense of purpose in its player; the rules limit the possibilities of achieving the goal, thus encouraging the player to think strategically and creatively; while the feedback system assesses the performance of the players and discerns their proximity to reaching the goal. The fourth trait, the voluntary participation, requires all the players to acknowledge the goal, the rules, and the feedback, and is the trait that allows multiple players to be immersed in the same game.

Papers, Please

Aiming to investigate these four traits, I played Papers, Please, a single-player game set in the fictional dystopian country of Arstotzka. Assuming the role of an immigration officer in an office situated at the border of East and West Grestin (a parallel to East and West Berlin), I was challenged to process as many immigrants or returning Arstotzka citizens as possible. My goal was to review the documents of each traveller, allowing only those who met the requirements set by the government to cross the border. As the set of rules that guided my decisions became more complicated due to alterations in the political circumstances of Arstotzka, the game system provided complex gadgets of investigation and interrogation.

My performance was rewarded with increased pay, proportional to the number of travelers that I had assessed, which helped me provide food, heating, and medicine for my family, thereby also functioning as a subplot for the game. However, the penalties and fines that condemned my mistakes constrained my moral decisions; I was forced to separate a family due to their lack of paperwork. While playing with the four defining traits in mind, the goal, rules and feedback appeared very obviously on the screen. What was not as apparent was my voluntary participation: as a player I tend to ignore the conditions through which I am immersed inside the game.

By ‘voluntarily participating’ in a game, I acknowledge its structure and submit to its system, and, consequently, enter a frame of reality which, for the duration of the game, is a construct I accept as real. My submission as a player to a game system is analogous to how my parents submitted to the Albanian communist dictatorship; the game existed only inside its own frame of reality, albeit not lasting forty-six years as the dictatorship did.

When the curtains of the dictatorship fell, Albanians found themselves in poor economic and social conditions, contradicting what they first trusted blindly and then accepted fearfully for a very long time. The shadow of the dictatorship still prevails, not only imposing its presence through the hundreds of bunkers built across the country, but also hidden in collective memories of control and manipulation. As the child of two parents who grew up in a totalitarian regime, I have been haunted by their account of a system they once worshiped but now recall as an absurd memory from the past.

My perception of the dictatorship is formed from various pieces of information collected during my upbringing in Albania, and is thus distinctly different from that of my parents. I sometimes caught them using verses like ‘flete rufe’* or ‘for comrade Enver we are always ready’**, remnants of an absurd system engraved in their brains.

*Flete rrufe is a synonym of ‘lajmerim’, the Albanian word for announcement. It was a letter written by the Party to address citizens that had misbehaved. Placed in the neighbourhood of the individual they were addressing, they intended to publicly shame the individual in question. This information is sourced from the recollections of my parents, who nowadays refer to almost any letter as flete rrufe.

** Enver (Hoxha) was the dictator of Albania. My parents remember singing the national anthem every Monday in school. When they were done singing, their teachers would ask them: “Are you ready?” and they would reply: “For comrade Enver, we are always ready!” They still respond in the exact same way to any “are you ready?” question.

Four defining traits of a dictatorship

In order to understand the system that Albanians submitted to almost thirty years ago, I conducted an interview with my parents. I devised my interview based on the commonalities between a dictatorship and a game as two systems constructed and trapped inside a frame, and adopted the McGonigal’s four traits to excavate the goal, rules, feedback and voluntary participation that supported the Albanian government’s totalitarian system.

My parents revealed that, as citizens of a communist system, the ultimate goal was to become communists — or as they put it — ‘valuable children of the party’; their mission was to not demand from the country, but to sacrifice themselves for it. They were made to believe that they lived in the most developed country in the world and were the happiest citizens, and were therefore obliged to undergo military training in order to prevent any other country from stealing their prosperity.

My father and his comrades during military training

My parents suggested that the government operated on very strict rules, as the Party had constructed an ethical and social framework that outlined what Albanians were allowed to do. They were aware of the restraints in their individual freedom of speech, but the Party dictated a communist model even for their hairstyle, their dress code, the furnishing style of their homes, the songs they were allowed to listen to, the dance moves they could use and the people they could befriend.

Their performance was then assessed against a very strong feedback system manifested in the state police and civilian spies; failure to stay inside the imposed framework would be critiqued publicly, subsequently leading to punishment by imprisonment, deportation or death. The final question I asked regarding their voluntary participation unveiled that fear was the key element that drove them to submit to the totalitarian system. Furthermore, they confessed that they accepted a system built on lies because they were not aware of any other alternative. Their performance was then assessed against a very strong feedback system manifested in the state police and civilian spies; failure to stay inside the imposed framework would be critiqued publicly, subsequently leading to punishment by imprisonment, deportation or death. The final question I asked regarding their voluntary participation unveiled that fear was the key element that drove them to submit to the totalitarian system. Furthermore, they confessed that they accepted a system built on lies because they were not aware of any other alternative.


As a second-hand witness to the construction of a totalitarian system, I fear my own reality, especially when immersed in insecurities engendered by the post-truth era in which we live, wherein we allow the machines and structures we have constructed ourselves to deceive us. Are there any lies that stand at the core of my reality? How am I being supervised?

In Book VIII of Republic, Socrates explains to Glaucon the transition from democracy to tyranny:

“Whenever a democratic city which is thirsting for freedom has fallen under the presidency of a set of wicked toastmaster, and has quaffed the wine of liberty untempered far beyond the due measure, it proceeds, I should imagine, to arraign its rules as accursed oligarchs, and chastises them on that plea, unless they become very submissive and supply it with freedom in copious draughts…”

Their dialogue uncannily foretold the erosion of the value of objective facts that would define governance several centuries later, in our present-day post-truth era.

Propaganda, manipulation, or fake news are not only facilitated by the populist demagogues or the algorithms behind the screens we use, but also by what Fernbach and Sloman called “the knowledge illusion”. Liberalism is built upon the belief that the voter knows best and the customer is always right, placing the myth of the rational individual at the base of society’s structure. However, as a species, humans tend to think in groups; Sigmund Freud has identified this as the effect of “mass psychology”. This term describes the tendency of the masses to follow a trusted leader, replacing their individual thoughts with emotions and impulses.

These (pre)dispositions prompt the historian Yuval Noah Harari to call humans a “post-truth species”: we are the only creatures that build fictions and believe in them, and this ability has helped us collaborate in large numbers and, consequently, overrule the planet.

Although the classification of this historical period as ‘post-truth’ is ambiguous and naive, the era it classifies is dangerous. As per Socrates’ prediction, our democratic system has fallen into the hands of toastmasters, both in political and technological spheres, and can easily transit into a totalitarian system which (as identified in my research on the Albanian dictatorship) is frightening. With this in mind, the following writing analyses reality to understand the conditions that lead to the current situation of control and deception.

The goal

The layer of fictions constructed in the game system supports its narrative and allows the player to perceive the purpose of their role in the game: in Papers, Please I embarked on a fictional scenario that made me believe that immigrants were trying to trespass Arstotzka. On the other hand, in communist Albania, the Party told fictional tales on the wealth of the country and invasion plans of countries across the border to encourage its citizens to undergo military training. When immersed inside Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo, we can easily dissect the mythical elements of its storyline without realising that we live in Macondo as well; our social institutions function as a layer of fictions structured on top of our physical, tangible world.

In his book Sapiens, Harari identified that humans are the only species that can talk about and be convinced by abstract entities that do not exist in the physical realm, from creation myths to the national myths of modern states. He explains that a monkey would not trade a banana for a green piece of paper, but a human would, because she or he believes in the fiction of money. The value of money does not arise from the physical object that represents it, but the universal fiction constructed on top of it and, most importantly, the extensive belief us humans have in it.

Harari traces our ability to communalise fiction to the beginnings of our cognitive evolution. These shared fictions are thus indicative of a matured communal mentality, as Harari further identified that we as humans are able to collaborate with each other when we have a communal belief in a myth, akin to how multiple players can play in the same game because they believe in the same goal.

“Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the cognitive revolution, Homo Sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens Language.” — Yuval Noah Harari

Harari draws a comparison between a church, a state and a legal system, claiming that all of them are built upon myths. He suggests that the objective of two Catholics is to fight in a crusade or raise funds for their Church because they both believe that God sent his Son to our planet. Likewise, the purpose of two Serbs is to save the lives of one another because they both believe in the Serbian flag and nation. In the same vein, two lawyers aspire to defend another stranger because they both believe in the juridical system (and the fiction of money).

Harari discerns a simple lie from a fiction following the criteria that a fiction can build an imagined reality that a large number of individuals can believe. His judgment criteria effectively suggest that, since the earliest stages of cognitive evolution, humans have been living in a dual reality that blends the physical world of rivers and trees with the fictions of states and corporations. Furthermore, as time goes by, this imagined reality becomes so powerful that it controls the survival of the physical world.

For the duration of the game, players accept its goal as truth and are usually aware of its fictional nature whereas outside the game they believe in the imagined orders of democracy or capitalism set upon them because they are not proposed as fictional. Humans are introduced to fictional orders as soon as they enter this world, tracing fictions incorporated into fairy tales, songs and political propaganda. In his book The Philosophy of As If, Hans Vaihinger, echoing Harari, conveys that our performance in the world is facilitated by fictions rather than facts, which we treat as if they were real, and this is why we believe in them.

These fictions facilitate our immersion inside a simulation of reality analogous to that of a game, inside which we are unable to distinguish reality from the simulation, an inability that the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard interprets as “hyperreality”, a term coined in his book Simulation and Simulacra. Baudrillard described hyperreality as a model of the real without a reality to sustain it. He declares that humans have replaced reality with symbols and signs that have transformed human experience into a simulation of reality, recalling the tale of Jorge Luis Borges about the cartographers who created a map that was so detailed it ultimately concealed the area it was meant to represent.

Baudrillard concluded that the problem of this hyperreality is that “we can no longer imagine any other universe”.

The rules

When playing Papers, Please, my ability to achieve my goal was constrained by the rules imposed by the game; the book found on my desk and the daily paper comprised the information and the possibilities offered to my avatar, dictating what I needed to know and was capable of doing. Similarly, my parents revealed that the Communist Party had constructed a framework that defined the social and ethical rules that trapped Albanians. Even outside a game or a totalitarian system, reality is broken down into frames that allow individuals to grasp it, as the Italian philosopher Federico Campagna suggests in his book Technic and Magic.

Campagna defines reality itself as “the frame within which the existent presents itself to our experience”, referencing Martin Heidegger’s essay The Question Concerning Technology, from which he extracted the concept of “enframing”. Heidegger claimed that enframing is a necessary process that allows us to break the world into clear and distinct entities in order to experience it better. Campagna further draws inspiration from Emanuele Saverino’s notion that the sets of constraints are similar across various political doctrines. According to Saverino, systems as different as capitalism or communism are able to prevail simply because they impose constraints whose frames set the limits of the information revealed and the performance of individuals inside of it.

However, as my research on the Albanian dictatorship certified, the reality-frames act as a filter through which information is selected and revealed. The French philosopher Michel Foucault attributes the ability to outline limits and create a frame to ‘power’. He conceptualises discourse as the process by which power is rendered into language or images; infiltrating our thoughts and confining what we consider to be true or normal; framing a reality in which we organise ourselves and our social institutions, where contradicting discourses are confronted and often defeated. Throughout his work, he questioned how and why some discourses proliferate and others do not; some have infiltrated our reality-frames, actively producing meaning and defining the operation of individuals inside of it, while other discourses and their truths are absent.

Power has not only been the subject of analysis in philosophy, even writers of fiction have tried to investigate and unveil the power structures that exist in our social and political institutions. In Liquid Modernity, Zygmunt Bauman compares the dystopian worlds of Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, which, painted as playful yet tragic, controlled its individuals by pleasure, and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four which was built on destruction and fear.

Their visualisations seemed to contradict each other, yet both of them united on the vision of a world divided into the managers and the managed, a world controlled by a small elite that erases individual freedom. Although they had different imaginings on the path history would follow, they both feared that the future would bring more oppression, control and deception. They both felt that the tragedy of the world was its dogged and uncontrollable progress towards the split between the increasingly powerful controllers and the increasingly powerless controlled.

In spite of this analysis, Bauman makes a surprising observation that rules inhibit as well as facilitate. He proposes that if these guidelines are lifted, the individual is anxious and doubtful and “the desperate search for ‘solutions’ able to ‘eliminate the awareness of doubt’ begins — anything is welcome that promises to ‘assume the responsibility for certainty.’“ He proposes that the lack of constraints and guidelines that our social frames establish would force freedom upon individuals, essentially questioning whether freedom is a blessing or a curse.

The feedback

The third defining trait of a game, the feedback loop is a direct interaction between the game system and the player, as it regularly assesses their performance by constantly inspecting how close they are to reaching their goal. Initially, players develop skills to master the game, yet, as a consequence of the constant observation from the system, players begin to regulate their behaviour according to the response they receive from the system. Thus, as the game allows progression only if players comply with the coded instruction, the game begins to discipline its players

Michel Foucault discovered that individuals, similar to the players of the game, regulate themselves inside the structures of power imposed upon them. In his book Discipline and Punish, Foucault sketches a theory of modern disciplinary power which interprets power as a force that has penetrated the bodies it guides and controls. He examines the purpose and effects of disciplinary mechanisms by comparing modern prisons with public torture from the eighteenth century.

He investigates the House of young prisoners in Paris to trace the mechanism that modern prisons adopt to supervise each individual by separating them and regulating their daily routines, suggesting that punishment is no longer about crushing, dismembering and overpowering the body like torture, but instead, about isolation, evaluation and supervision

Foucault interprets our societies to be disciplinary, as the disciplinary agents exert power upon individuals as bodies such that their discipline largely self-manifests, thus making them responsible for their own surveillance. He reveals that the modus operandi of disciplinary agents is to train individuals by regarding them both as objects and instruments of its exercise, as power begins operating on and through them, producing what Foucault calls ‘docile bodies’. Parallel to how a player is constantly observed by the game, disciplinary power applies to individuals via a series of calculated manipulations: the human body enters a machine of power that assesses it, breaks it down, rearranges it, and ultimately, takes the power out of it.

Once the individual is assessed, the disciplinary agents are able to create spaces that define their position and operation inside of these spaces, which “carve out individual segments and establish operational links; they mark places and indicate values; they guarantee the obedience of individuals, but also a better economy of time and gesture.” Foucault claims that these architectures of control are physically manifested in the spaces and objects they arrange, but also fictional, as “they are projected over this arrangement of characterisation, assessments, hierarchies

Foucault highlights Jeremy Bentham’s plan for the Panopticon from 1791 as an example of disciplinary technology. “In this set-up, the prisoners could be watched at all times, but they would not know whether or not there was someone in the watchtower to observe them. As they were subjected to this gaze, they would modify their behavior and be less likely to instigate trouble.”30 The architecture thus generates a fiction of supervision presumed by the prisoner to be so real as to be internalized in mind and body. A self-fulfilling prophecy-like mechanism prompted by an inceptive agent: I think I am watched therefore I behave like I am watched.

“[But] the Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of power in its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system: it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use.” — Michel Foucault

The Panopticon thus becomes a metaphor that allows Foucault to interpret the operation of power, not just in prisons, but in other social constructs like hospitals, workshops and even schools, where disciplinary power has transformed the educational space from a learning machinery, to a machinery of supervising and rewarding. While the individuals begin supervising and assessing themselves, the element of the guard can ultimately be omitted, as control is no longer imposed from above through outright coercion but by disciplining individuals to relinquish power themselves.

The voluntary participation

The dangers of fictions and frames of reality arise when they dismiss other alternatives and evolve into what the French philosopher Louis Althusser describes as “ideology”. Althusser built his theory of ideology after Karl Marx, who interpreted ideology as “the system of ideas as representations which dominate the mind of a man or a social group.” Marx implied that ideology, similar to fictions, is an imaginary construct that defines how individuals position themselves within the world and alongside each other.

When discussing ideology, Althusser asserts that individuals refer to religious or political ideology from a critical perspective, sometimes openly claiming that ideology is dangerous because it is imaginary and deviating from reality. However, in this discussion, individuals fail to recognise that they might be part of an ideology themselves and this (in)voluntary participation worries Althusser. He associates ideology to “the existence of a small number of cynical men who base their domination and exploitation of the ‘people’ on a falsified representation of the world which they have imagined in order to enslave other minds by dominating their imaginations.”

However, Etienne de La Boétie believed that domination is constructed on the basis of popular servitude, and in his 1530 thesis On Voluntary Servitude, offered fundamental insight into how every tyranny is grounded upon popular acceptance. The central problem for La Boétie was the individuals’ subjection to their own enslavement.

“I should like merely to understand how it happens that so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power they give him; who is able to harm them only to the extent to which they have the willingness to bear with him; who could do them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up with him rather than contradict him.” This observation suggested that the structures of power and control depend on the servitude of the individuals — if the public ceased to obey, both tyranny and governmental rule would cease to endure.

Akin to the dependency of a game upon the players’ acceptance of its goal, rules and feedback, the structures of reality depend on the individuals that acknowledge and submit to them. Yuval Noah Harari discovered that the layer of fictions humans have constructed depends on its participants’ acceptance. He compares our imagined orders against natural orders, identifying that natural orders are stable, as the existence of gravity does not depend on the belief of individuals, for instance.

In contrast, our imagined realities are constantly in danger of falling when people cease to believe in the fictions that structure them, while another reality built on new fictions is always ready to take its place. The fragile state of an imagined order thus encourages the use of regulations and disciplinary effort to sustain it, yet, in parallel to a game that requires its players’ participation and compliance to operate, our imagined orders are not sustained by control alone — they also need true believers.

The political situation that we have arrived to did not emerge merely through the recent technological developments, but it has instead developed through history. What stands at the core of this pandemic is the theme of oppression: we are stuck in a game. However, the concept of oppression inspires a quest for its antithesis: liberation. Liberation, as my research thus far advises, should be attempted in the final trait of voluntary participation, given that the individual (or “true believer”) has been understood to be the cornerstone of an imagined reality.

The notion of liberation is explored in Slavoj Žižek’s theories. The Slovenian philosopher launches the documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology with his claim that ideology is a trash can from which humans eat, which conceals what we are eating. He deconstructs our relationship to ideology by analysing the movie They Live, in which John Nada, the main character, finds a box of glasses in an abandoned church. When he puts them on, the glasses begin unveiling the subliminal messages behind everything around him. Žižek interprets the glasses as a critique of ideology, unraveling the dictatorship that sustains and hides behind our freedom and democracy.

He reveals that we erroneously interpret our era as post-ideological and analyses the glasses as a peculiar metaphor of our relationship to ideology. Instinctively, ideology would be perceived as glasses that blur our interpretation of truth; escaping from ideological oppression would mean taking the glasses off. Žižek recognizes this as the illusion of ideology, suggesting that ideology is not imposed on us and is, instead, a relationship to the world around us that we need and enjoy, making escape from it a painful experience. The act of liberation is portrayed in the movie as the literal, physical fight between John Nada and his friend in order to convince him to wear the glasses.

The Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire had a similar understanding of the fight for emancipation in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He introduces his pedagogy as a method that can be executed with, not for, the oppressed, becoming the vehicle of reflection on the reality around them, thereby also paving the way for the necessary struggle towards liberation. Similar to how John Nada fights with his friends to give him the glasses, Freire believed that the fight for liberation should be pursued in collaboration with the oppressed, not the oppressor.

However, Freire’s “glasses” would not show the truth behind reality, but would allow individuals to make up their own truth, thus serving to undermine the structures of oppression he witnessed, wherein individuals were not allowed to have a critical awareness and personal response to the reality they were submerged in.

Like Foucault, Freire, as an educator, identified schools as an instrument of maintaining a culture of silence. He described social apparatuses as systems that marginalised the oppressed, treating them as outsiders that needed to be integrated. However, Freire argued that the oppressed have always been within the structures that oppress them and every human being, despite their submission to a culture of silence, is able to become critical of reality if provided with tools to do so; they all have the ability to acquire (in Paulo Freire’s words) “critical consciousness” (or “conscientização”).

Freire suggests that the oppressed, having adopted the guidelines of their oppressors, are sceptical of freedom, as freedom would impose autonomy and responsibility.

“Manipulation, sloganizing, ‘ depositing’ regimentation, and prescription cannot be components of the revolutionary praxis, precisely because they are components of the praxis of domination. In order to dominate, the dominator has no choice but to deny true praxis to the people, deny them the right to say their own word and think their own thoughts.“

Freire reveals that the process of dialogue begins with letting individuals understand how they have perceived reality as a given, which ultimately does not lead to the reconstruction of reality, but a reconstructed perception of it — an approach notably adopted by this paper. He believed that activism is a false action for revolution, suggesting that individuals will become critical only if their thinking is reorganised and leads them to move from purely naive objects to mastering their thoughts and grasping the structures that compose their realities.

Freire’s pedagogy extended beyond the educational system when Augusto Boal, inspired by his theories, constructed the Theatre of the Oppressed. Boal, a theatre practitioner, gamified the theatrical process and created a form of immersive theatre as a technique for discussing power and oppression. He coined the concept of “spect-actor”, participants that are both observers and actors of his theatre sessions, who would reimagine their conflicts and create alternate realities that explored opportunities for action.

Boal designed a series of games that facilitate his methodology and activated different parts of the theatre performance; some games allowed his participants to express themselves through their whole bodies while other games encouraged them to experience reality from different perspectives. He also developed his theatre into a multitude of forms that would perform a multitude of conflicts. Forum Theatre in particular immerses its participants directly by allowing them to physically enter the problem they pose and change it. At first, the participants would be asked to offer a story with social or political problematics and suggest solutions.

Then, actors would bring to life their solutions with participants actively interfering with and replacing them, thus ending up with a different solution to the problem. Interestingly, the participants had to act and take on the role of the actor, instead of simply voicing his or her ideas.10 Boal claimed that this theatrical form was a rehearsal of revolution, as the spect-actor, although placed inside a fictional space, practices a real event — “within its fictional limits, the experience is a real one”. Essentially, these forms of theatre aim to create in its participants an uneasy sense of incompleteness that seeks fulfillment through real actions, inciting in its participants the desire to practice in reality what they rehearsed in theatre.

Boal’s participatory methods that facilitate the development of critical consciousness in his audience are evident in the game industry. Juxtaposed against the traditional games played as an escapist method, in her book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal introduces “alternate reality games”, whose aim is to reflect the reality outside them. The Theatre of the Oppressed encouraged criticality in its participants by using games that fictionalised real events; correspondingly, alternate reality games stimulate engagement with real problems through gameplay.

McGonigal outlined the game World Without Oil, a massively scaled effort to engage individuals in creating a forecast for the future, in which players imagined for six weeks how an oil crisis would unfold around their local communities. Their stories then fed a fictional dashboard that produced news stories and video reports, while players were encouraged to live in the reality that they had imagined and manifest the life their fictional scenario could produce. Consequently, the game not only educated its participants but ultimately inspired them to look for solutions.

Players are transported inside a game through the avatars or personas, whose movements, decisions and fate they control, and end up identifying with them. The avatar becomes a vehicle for the player to not only understand the structures of reality but, as if performing the role of a spect-actor, to take real action.

As Federico Campagna declared, “imagining an alternative to that which rules our world today is a matter of necessity rather than of philosophical solipsism“ and probably the best we can do, in Socrates’ words, is to acknowledge our own individual ignorance.

Individuals can change reality if they treat it as a problem that can be solved rather than a static order that they have to adjust to, like how a gameplayer adjusts to their game. By taking the oppressed outside their voluntary participation, Freire suggested that each individual is granted the right to name their own world, instead of receiving an already-named world. When discovering that they can be creators of realities, individuals no longer remain passive and are instead more likely to decide to take upon themselves the struggle to change the structures of society, which until now has served to oppress them.


Liljana Breshani and Arben Breshani decided not to accept the miserable conditions of their universities and joined thousands of students who were protesting against the government. One by one, the country stood up against what they had blindly worked for and accepted. The demonstration culminated in the toppling of the gigantic statue of their former dictator, an event which marked the defeat of fear and renewal of hope, inspiring future generations not to abandon the hope that even an individual, albeit oppressed, can always renounce their servitude and contribute to social renewal.

Sindi Breshani

Written by

somewhere between design, games, and philosophy


An archive of games I play and games I create

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