One commenter nicely harmonized these two presentations as both calling for games to be games, but in many other respects Zimmerman and Thompson were coming at this question from opposite directions.
Zimmerman’s approach resonated with me: he identified “systems thinking” (which I recently found critical to modern legal practice) as a key affordance of games that most G4C developers are overlooking. He provoked the audience to aspire for better games with examples of genre-changing works (A People’s History of the United States, Maus). While he rejected my terminology in the Q&A session, I continue to see his appeal as for a level of sophisticated artistry in gaming. (When you use the Pulitzer prize-winning Maus as an example, it seems implied). To me this is not marginalizing but rather valorizing such efforts: at its best, art and literature call humanity to greater aspiration.
In answering his question (“Where are all the good games for change?”), Zimmerman points to Electrocity (which he prefers to pronounce to rhyme with “atrocity”) as a nascent example of what could be.
Thompson took the opposite tack by starting with “grassroots” (what some might consider “lowbrow”) games — games he compared with graffiti, raw responses to a raw world. Critiquing designers’ apparent preference for sim games — and specifically taking aim at SimCity for setting the bar for all G4C ever since — Thompson suggested that quick, dirty, to-the-gut games are what’s needed. Rather, he held up WTC Defender (can’t seem to find it, but here’s an article about its removal) as an ideal type of this genre. It’s a provocative point, but I don’t buy that WTC Defender is a game for change, nor that it’s a good model for the G4C movement to build off. It’s readable as a G4C only using Thompson’s interpretation: that, because the player is bound to lose eventually, it’s critiquing the notion that we can defend ourselves through military might. Perhaps that’s true if you can frame the game properly (Food Import Folly uses the manic quality of classic games to make a similar point), but even so the point is a relatively naive one.
In an age of increasing complexity, polarized debates such as those that would be engendered by games like WTC Defender can add fuel to the fire, generating more smoke to obscure the difficult issues we face. If existing games for change suck, it’s not because they are too earnest, but because they aren’t fun. Irony can take the sting out of poor execution, but irony provides only a single note at a time when social change demands an entire range. Yes, we need spoofs, satires, and parodies to discomfit the powerful, but we also need subtlety, complexity, and even earnestness to point the way to a new future.