It’s tempting to simply ignore #BlockLivesMatter, a still-in-progress game currently appearing in “early access” mode through Steam, a digital distribution platform. Everything about the game seems designed to provoke for provocation’s sake, from its social media–ready title to its disquieting promotional trailer, in which a blue cube guns down hordes of encroaching black squares while a mock–cable news ticker runs in the lower third of the screen.
You can’t currently download #BlockLivesMatter on Steam. Although a limited version of the game is available elsewhere on the Web, it’s only present on Steam through a section of the site called Greenlight, “a system that enlists the community's help in picking some of the new games to be released on Steam.” Primarily serving as a marketing platform, Greenlight gives independent developers a way to catch the public eye.
In this regard, Abandon Ship!, the Austin, Texas–based developer of #BlockLivesMatter, has already succeeded admirably. Uploaded to the site on Jan. 1, the game has accumulated hundreds of comments, many of them praising it for “triggering SJWs” (that’s social justice warriors, if you aren’t up on your progressive-bashing jargon) or “generating many lulz.” The majority of these affirmations appear to be coming from gamers who haven’t yet tried out the game itself, meaning that they’re mostly responding to its packaging. And the packaging is provocative. The Steam description calls #BlockLivesMatter
a fast-paced, action-packed, first-of-a-kind, socially-aware, excessively-hyphenated, puzzle-shooter! Wreak havok [sic] as a crazed gun-block on the streets of New Block City as it's [sic] citizens scramble to put an end to your crusade. Watch the media turn against you while simultaneously revelling [sic] in your destructive rampage. Unlock additional game modes that change the very nature of the game while perhaps making you question your preconceived notions of what it means to be a block person in New Block City (If you've had notions about that in the past, but probably not)! #BlockLivesMatter is not just a game, it's a movement. And a hashtag. Join the discussion #BlockLivesMatter.
A list of features notes that the game includes “[i]nnovative social media features that blend the line between player and spectator.” It also boasts that “[c]ultural sensitivity settings allow the player to customize the game to their own comfort levels.”
More than anything else, the resulting game is socially and politically baffling. On booting it up, you have the option to play as either a black cube or a blue one. While the blue blocks can fire off shots from a cannonlike gun, the black ones are only able to attack by rolling at their opponents. The developers told me that they felt this distinction was important because “inequality is a major theme in the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Though they occasionally parody the language of leftist activism, the developers never explicitly state what they’re hoping to achieve, and the product they’re currently presenting does nothing to clear that confusion up. In email correspondence, they told me that “one of [their] primary targets of satire was the media itself,” especially what they see as the simultaneous denunciation and promotion of violence. While you play, a “Box News” ticker running in the lower third reports on the events in progress as if they were breaking news, while tweets featuring the game’s eponymous hashtag, some of them days old, run below that.
Get past all this and you’re more likely to be frustrated by the sluggish controls and dull gameplay than you are to be moved by the social commentary. If Abandon Ship! hoped to make some point about race relations, it’s effectively been muddled by the clumsy delivery. But the makers seem surprisingly committed to making a good (as in well-developed, not do-gooding) game. “We believed that a large number of people would be drawn to the game just because of the social commentary,” they told me, “but we also wanted them to stay with us because it was a good game.” Perhaps this is why they’re now trying to divert attention from the game’s controversial characteristics. In an announcement posted to Steam on Jan. 4, the creators write that though they aspire “to create games that are thought-provoking … some of the comments on our Greenlight page are shifting the conversation toward an inappropriate place.” Though they beg their fans to remain “polite” and “civil,” they told me that they were actually surprised by how little hate speech had accumulated in relation to their game. “[T]he majority of the comments have been very level-headed and positive,” they wrote.
It’s entirely possible, of course, that they’re being disingenuous here—maybe they really did set out to offend, in which case, mission (sort of) accomplished. Nevertheless, the developers emphasize a different set of issues in a post. Laying out their future priorities, they emphasize gameplay rather than puckish incitements. They’ll be working, they explain, to create more levels, institute co-op play, and expand the game’s armory. Similar promises appear on the game’s Greenlight page, below its more attention-grabbing elements.
These aren’t the kind of details that you need to worry over if your only intention is to offend, which suggests that Abandon Ship! really does want to make a fun game. But they’ve made that project harder for themselves by setting up shop in troll town. Because of where they’ve begun, they’ve cloaked everything they do—and all the attention they receive—in a heavy layer of irony. Consequently, they’ll never be able to confirm whether the “support” they’re receiving derives from actual enthusiasm about the gameplay mechanics and level design or whether it’s a product of their racial brinksmanship. In our correspondence, the developers acknowledged that the controversy might be a problem for them, but they seemed more concerned about censorship than the possibility that people might fail to actually engage with the game itself.
As Slate’s David Auerbach has noted, a certain kind of dogged symbolic literalism may be a necessary component of playable game design. But that kind of functional minimalism typically doesn’t serve the well for the investigation of complex concerns. There’s certainly space to explore sociopolitical issues in gaming, but all evidence suggests that Abandon Ship! has missed the boat.