Dystopia doesn't always look dark


I've been asked why the overall look and feel of Influence, Inc. isn't darker, given its rather nefarious premise. As a player, you are selling media manipulation services targeting a country hovering on the edge of authoritarianism.

There are many excellent games where the mood clearly underlines the idea that the situation is dire – like This War of Mine, Beholder, and Papers, Please. With Influence, Inc., I've purposefully taken a different approach to explore the idea that dystopia doesn’t always look dark on the surface.

The art, text, and initial music reinforce the idea that you are embarking on a fun new business venture. You're attracting clients, making money, and being creative! Missions feel fairly straightforward in the beginning and then creep towards more ethically questionable requests.

Are you willing to amplify social media enthusiasm about a new album? Exploit fears about the economy to sell a product? Use targeted marketing to encourage people not to vote? What about releasing compromising secrets about a celebrity to distract from political inquiries?


Eventually, perhaps you re-evaluate some of your earlier choices. Really, where is the line between marketing and propaganda? When did you cross it? And what will you do now? (Change course? Or, perhaps, now that you've crossed that line, it's easier to just keep going!)

Only over time do you begin to see the effects of your choices on the fictional country of Tiar and its citizens.


Most of us, in our actual, non-game lives, don’t sell media manipulation services. But I think that the concept of non-obvious dystopias also applies to modern media as a larger system, not just to the individuals working within it.

In some ways, media manipulation is nothing new. Today's advertising industry was built on propaganda techniques refined during the world wars. Practices like appealing to emotions, attacking the opposition, and creating distractions are time-tested methods of selling products and ideas.

However, services that make money though online advertising – this includes almost all social media, search engines, and news sites – embed some of the most concerning aspects of these practices into their business models.

On the surface, these services are pretty amazing. Access to information, ideas, and billions of other people – often at no additional cost, once you're connected to the Internet! And there ARE opportunities for connections and careers that just didn't exist before.

However, these "free" services create systems that favor whatever helps to drive engagement. More emotions lead to more time using the service lead to more ad views. Because these services are funded mainly through ad-revenue, our attention is what is actually being sold.

This bias towards the emotionally-charged makes it easier to spread misleading, false, and sometimes dangerous information using time-tested marketing methods, adapted for online audiences. Social media algorithms amplify this emotionally-charged information, since it leads to longer and more frequent engagement. This bias is built into the core of how social media companies profit, so what incentive do they have to substantially improve their systems?

News outlets that depend on ad-revenue are also influenced by these systems. Good journalism is vital for public discourse and positive change. But are the topics that drive the most ad views actually what's most important? And how do we make time for in-depth journalism in online systems that rewards speed and quantity over nuance?


To me, the long-term consequences of these systems are the most concerning. Attention is a limited resource. When attention is focused on the latest scandal, smear, or must-buy-trend, it's considerably less focused on critical, complex issues, like eroding democratic norms and climate change.

So, even if our own attempts at professional media manipulation are limited to games, I think it's important to question whether the online systems that influence so many our lives are fundamentally harmful. Are we willing to continue to sell our attention to the highest bidders via easily exploitable, ad-driven online systems? And if so, what are we willing to ignore as a result?

Influence, Inc. doesn't have all of the answers. But, my hope is that it thoughtfully raises the questions.

/ Amanda

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