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Sweatshop, a game sponsored by the UK's Channel 4, is one of the most interesting things to come out of gaming I've seen in a while. A simple premise: you're the foreman of a sweatshop, and have to meet quotas the owner imposes on you by hiring and hard-driving your laborers. You want to keep your job, right? And after all, they need the money too.

Uses very typical game mechanics simply but cleverly, in a way that makes things very uncomfortable to play. Hiring and firing various classes of employees, even kids, is from within a game-mechanics universe purely a calculation of how much they cost versus their output (hmm...). Gets even more uncomfortable as it gets into the higher levels and you're treating "worker loses a limb" as merely some negative points, a bump on the factory-management road to be contingency-managed.

Attempts to use medium of games for activism often end up falling flat, like John McCain's hilariously bad John Kerry Tax Invaders in the '04 cycle, a version of Space Invaders where instead of aliens, there are tax bills attacking you.

Here I think it works because the game analogy is fairly apt: in the completely amoral version of "just business", everything is really just points, some positive and some negative, and it's a big logistics problem. But when turned into games, like SimTower for example, the messy parts are often not included in the game. This one admittedly goes the other way, highlighting and caricaturing some of the messy parts, but it's a nice change.

It's also interestingly different than some previous successful uses of activist games, because the fact that it's actually quite possible to "win" is what makes it a bit disturbing, whereas it's more common for activist games to make their point by having you lose. A game like Darfur is Dying has its impact by throwing you into an unwinnable game whose unwinnability highlights just how untenable the situation of a Darfurian refugee is. Here, it's diabolically easy to "beat" the Sweatshop-running game if you play amorally, and pretend that the sweatshop is just some gears and the workers are just different models of robots with different costs and lifespans. Though, the game adds an interesting twist by subtly encouraging you to try to have your cake and eat it too: can you win at sweatshopping while also being fair to your workers?

Anyway, it's not a complex game on the whole, but I think very well done, and with a lot of subtle sub-critiques hidden behind the headline obvious critiques.

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