Donald Trump and Dominic Cummings video games: Making Your Reality Come True in Dreams PS4
Are user-generated video games the future of political commentary?
As Metro and countless other outlets have reported, a satirical game called ’30 Miles to Barnard Castle’ was recently released on Media Molecule’s creation tool and media platform Dreams on PlayStation 4. The user-created mini-game allows the player to control British political adviser Dominic Cummings as he drives from Durham to Barnard Castle to ‘test his eyesight’. Although it is quite a simplistic and short experience, it packs in a lot of comedic, satirical points. It entails avoiding obstacles on the road whilst coping with blurry vision and the wails of a nagging child in the back seat (because Cummings supposedly drove with his wife and child in the car, despite being disorientated by Covid-19). On the surface, this mini-game might seem like an insignificant and silly bit of fun, but it provides a glimpse into a potential future. A potential future where it is not just the ability to broadcast one’s opinion to others on social media that is democratised and available to all, but also the ability to realise these ideas in film or game form without the need for inaccessible, high-end equipment.
If you were unaware, the unique selling point of Dreams is that, apart from a few games and assets that were made by the game’s developers, all of its content is user-generated. Even then, the games made by the developers were put together using the same set of tools that are available for all players to use. Imagine a version of YouTube that could host video games too and came installed with all the tools you needed to make the content you wanted to publish (from music to animation to lighting)... Well, it's a bit like that.
Much of the content that people have made so far consists of delightfully absurd memes and admittedly, some genuinely impressive artistic sculptures and gaming experiences. Obviously, this is an innovation in and of itself as people can create fully realised, 3-D versions of their ideas in a matter of hours. Not only this, but it has the potential to change meme culture into an even more interactive experience. Whilst it could be argued that political cartoons on YouTube or any other social platform could provide the same level of fast, user-generated social commentary, none of these mediums have the potential to deliver what I shall dub – ‘virtual empathy’ on the same level that a video game can. This is especially true of video games that are made by just one person (as many of the games on Dreams are) because like any form of media, a video game can provide a window into the creator’s ideas. However, they also allow the player to climb through that window and interact with the world that the creators' ideas have conjured. This is what I mean by ‘virtual empathy’ – the sensation that you are actually rooting through somebody else's head.
As of this current moment, Dreams that are based around real events and social commentary are a niche, but steadily growing, category on the platform. During this pandemic, several levels have been made to document creators’ personal takes on quarantine life. The results have been... varied. Whilst some have been informative, giving helpful tips and reminding people to wash their hands, others have depicted characters going mad from staying indoors all day (I think we can all relate to that one). Alternatively, some have embraced the absurdity of this situation. For example, one user parodied Donald Trump’s suggestion to treat the virus with an injection of disinfectant by creating a still of the President in front of a range of deadly 'remedies'. Others went even further and had Trump defending the White House from giant Covid particles… with a laser rifle. But on a more serious and moving note, following the death of George Floyd, one creator made an abstract, artistic tribute film called ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the platform which shows that genuine, heartfelt political statements are at home on the platform too.
But, the one thing that makes this type of user-created media so potentially revolutionary is the virtual empathy they allow the player to feel. Dreams is essentially a system that allows people to play around inside the world of creator's ideas and unlike other video games, it does not require a lot of development time, professional training or funding. We cannot yet determine what the psychological impact of this will be – this newfound ability to immerse others and to be immersed in three-dimensional worlds of our own creation – especially when political messaging is added to the mix. However, I would imagine that employing virtual empathy may be a very effective method of bringing people over to a new point of view.
Sure, the level of immersion that Dreams creations can muster is not on the same level as the interactive virtual worlds we often see in science fiction films like Ready Player One or The Matrix. Although, Media Molecule are introducing virtual reality headset compatibility for Dreams in the near future... Scary stuff! However, creative media platforms like Dreams have the potential to be much purer than those dystopian nightmares. Because unlike Ready Player One and The Matrix, where the world we enter is created by and serves the interests of our corporate overlords, these Dreams are made by ordinary people and cannot really be monetised. Well, unless they are shared as videos online, which essentially takes away the virtual empathy anyway. As a result, this seems like a much less corruptible simulation of our reality in its current state. Instead of reflecting the interests of large, corporate conglomerates who are intent on squeezing money out of the public, it currently just reflects the ideas of ordinary people. Well, ordinary people who are actually good at making things on Dreams (i.e. not me). But where will it go from here? We can only dream…