Playing at Power

Carlos Matallana gamifies Chicago in “The Anger Games”

So how does that feel, to be in a position of power like that?” The young woman in the frame tossed her head at the invisible interviewer. Artist Carlos Matallana and I were sifting through raw, man-on-the-street footage from the first beta run of his large-scale roleplaying simulation, “The Anger Games.”

(“This is an interesting interview,” Matallana confided with a grin.)

“It feels very good,” the woman on-screen said. “I’m not drunk on power, but I’m not not drunk on power.” She bolted from the shot, detaining a passing player. “Oh—! Hi, you’re in my territory—!”

Matallana laughed. “I really like that phrase, I think.” He wound back the scene. In the same breath, the power-drunk high schooler equivocated about her newfound influence while hitting up a wayward player for additional rent revenues.

“They held most of the properties,” Matallana elaborated. “Between the three of them. So, they basically started running the city!”

“The Anger Games” belongs to Matallana’s ongoing “Manual of Violence” project—a comic book on youth violence, due out next spring. A teacher and artist who recently moved from Pilsen to Roscoe Village, Matallana seeks to identify and discuss the root causes of urban conflict. Toward that end, he developed the “The Anger Games” as a model of power relations in Chicago at the scale of a CPS gymnasium. It’s a twenty-four to thirty-two-player game, a live-action Monopoly blended with Diplomacy-esque backstabbery and overlaid with some hometown social philosophy.

The “Games” were set on a large-scale hexagonal grid laid out on the floor, divided into roughly eleven districts of three to four tiles each, with a central island for an elected mayor and his or her entourage. Players start with just a little cash, venturing onto the board with the personal incentive to avoid bankruptcy at the hands of social services and other players—and to eventually make others work for them.

First conducted over a four-hour playtest at Northside College Prep, “The Anger Games” was a culminating feature of Matallana’s research phase for the “Manual of Violence.” It was a chance for him to try out what he had gleaned from an eclectic reading list of everything from mass-market anger-management paperbacks to scholarly research on the pathology of aggression to the personal statements of community peace-builders and local teachers.

“I’m trying to put together different disciplines,” said Matallana, “that are maybe touching the same ground, but are not talking to each other.” It proved important to him that people—especially young people—attempt to explore the fundamental forces that shape their lives as citizens. “They need to understand what are the different phenomena that happen in the city,” he said.

Matallana initially distilled his groundwork into a conceptual diagram, trying to lay out the core components of any society. It looks a lot like a compass. Thinking about basic needs and the systems of control that have evolved to make gains in those needs, Matallana identifies, from north clockwise, four cardinal directions: government, culture, family, and social structures. He then introduces four ordinal directions, from north clockwise: education, housing, health, and finance. An elastic “spirituality”—the productive and emotional energy communities invest in these areas—hangs like Silly String on the points of the compass. Different societies map onto these directions with unique, spider-web patterns, distending or shrinking each element. Social democracies are long, east-west pancakes; autocracies bunch towards the north.

An anthropologist, probably, would gripe at the ambiguity of Matallana’s terms (“social structures”), but the diagrams at which he gestured—tacked up on his walls—signaled that the work of gamifying a place like Chicago had already begun. Folks who’ve assigned skill points to a tabletop player-character or invested time in unlocking paths down a strategy game’s technology tree might warm up to his thinking pretty quickly.

“Now, going back to the game,” urged Matallana. “How can we explain that to teens? And, in a more—I don’t know if ‘joyful,’ but—sophisticated way.”

He initially lamented the fact that it’s sometimes hard to hold onto young people’s attention, but found a solution in interactivity. “Thanks to my kids, I learned that the best way is in a game form,” he said.

A board game, however, wouldn’t have done the trick. Matallana wanted to engage more than six or eight people with every play-through. Furthermore, he had problems with perception.

“On a board—on a table—you can see the other players’ movements!”

By scaling up, he achieved the opaque bustle of a true-to-life city. “You can see people moving, but you can’t see what they’re doing, where they’re moving to, what their intentions are.” Matallana had made perceptiveness—a player’s ability to work the grapevine and know the state of play—a resource, in addition to the fake money in their hand.

During the run, a bevy of referees each shadowed four players at a time, approaching them to draw cards that dictated how many tiles, forward or backward, a single player could move. The circulation of referees effectively made travel around the board turn-based. Matallana’s ordinal directions of education, housing, health, and finance found space on the board as pillars, each bearing a box of chance cards. Players who passed the pillars drew prompts that might ask them to fundraise for a new library, find a soulmate, or obtain a one-time reimbursement on account of contaminated water in their district. Four governmental “directors” managed the transactions for these cards, acting like the bank in a traditional Monopoly game.

“You start finding out the rules by playing,” explained Matallana. He gave new players only a simple pitch: “You can become the wealthiest, healthiest, and savviest player of the game.” Referees prevented infractions and enforced the requirements on the chance cards, only offering explanations if they were asked for them. Matallana was thrilled the players took them to task, and put pressure on the rules of the game.

“We had some players that were questioning the cards!” He laughed. “They are actually questioning every segment of the game, which is great!”

Players had no trouble figuring out that they could hire other players to gather the money generated by the “property” available for purchase on each hexagonal tile. Holding property obligated visitors on that tile to pay the deed-holder a set amount, or else. Real estate magnates arose, with small cohorts of wage-laboring players, themselves content to earn their share of lucrative rents.

However, the players who owned the tiles nearest the pillars could draw the greatest number of chance cards—able to travel past education, housing, health, or finance at no charge. As often as the pillars hit players up for money, they also furnished the lone opportunities to obtain enduring modifiers (become a doctor, enter into a degree program) or to challenge the incumbent district representatives and mayors and step onto the political scene. The three largest landholders enjoyed the greatest mobility, the greatest access to the pillars, and ultimately managed to divide the mayoralty into a triumvirate.

Matallana leaned in over his laptop and played back another interview to demonstrate.

“So, we know you’re a new resident, but how has it been—getting acclimated to the space?”

“I’ve interacted with the mayor a couple of times. I just seem to be going back and forth over his property. But he’s given me a job, so I feel like he’s a pretty generous man.”

“Would you feel you’re going back and forth, though?”

“I’m stuck. I’m pretty stuck!”

“Is this a problem you wish the mayor would address?”

“I’m not sure it’s the mayor’s fault.” She shifted her weight, looking casually to her other side. “I think it’s just the way of life here.”

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