OAKLAND, California — It’s not often that something new for cultural alarmists to fret over just rolls up, all flashing and beeping. But here it comes: the homebrew Occupy arcade game on wheels. If conservatives are worried about videogames encouraging violence, imagine how they’ll react to an itinerant amusement designed to topple the 1%.
The OAK-U-TRON 201X console and the videogame that lives therein, Keep Me Occupied, are the most recent inventions of a movement that has spawned human-microphone apps and its own brand of music. They made their inaugural voyage Jan. 28 as Occupy protesters marched in Oakland, dragging the awkward cabinet along with them like ants shuttling weighty foodstuff. Protesters teamed up for games while miraculously avoiding the tear gas and flashbang grenades that eventually made their way into the crowds that day.
The OAK-U-TRON 201X (a nod to the Mega Man games that took place in the ambiguous year of 200X or 20XX) is the brainchild of game designers Alex Kerfoot, Anna Anthropy and Mars Jokela, a project designed both as entertainment and as a microcosm of the Occupy movement — collaborative, ambitious and optimistic. And it’s set to officially debut before the gaming community at San Francisco’s Game Developers Conference on Friday.
The premise of Keep Me Occupied is a simple one, though its execution is unique (see video of gameplay below). It requires no more and no fewer than two players, who have 60 seconds to ascend a tower loaded with switches. In order to advance, one player must hold down a switch while the other passes through the opening gate. When time runs out, the players parachute down to the last switch each tripped, saving their progress, in a sense “occupying” that switch. Although the next players begin the next game back at the bottom of the tower, their final gates from previous games will already be open. Thus can the team progress higher and higher with each turn.
Just don’t dare claim to be “winning” at the game within earshot of the game’s programmer, Anna Anthropy. And trying to play alone, with one hand on either set of controls, is downright sacrilege.
“The game [marries] the idea of the social movement where everyone who’s playing contributes to the overall success of everyone,” says Anthropy. “Someone who’s maybe not super good at videogames might only get to an early switch, but they’ll still stay behind and hold that switch and help all future players to still be contributing something that’s significant.”
The idea here, according to the OAK-U-TRON’s designers, is to capture the feel of the arcade era, when gaming was an inherently social venture. Before the proliferation of game consoles, folks went to their local arcades to play elbow-to-elbow, braving germs and blowing pizza-parlor paychecks in 25-cent increments. Keep Me Occupied mimics this sort of assembly — germs and all — though it requires no quarters and is open source (you can download it here).
“Since games are mostly designed for the home now, instead of arcades, they’ve lost that sort of uniqueness, that this is a game designed to be played in this setting and in this context,” says Anthropy. “I like the idea of a game that can travel, which is why it’s so much more interesting to have a game that’s designed for social events, rather than a game that’s designed to be downloaded on every computer, because it has more of a journey.”
While for the past month the arcade cabinet has been stashed in a corner at a community and event space in Oakland called The Holdout, the OAK-U-TRON saw its first action when Occupy protesters attempted to take control of the vacant Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center a mile to the southeast of the game’s current home. The goal was to establish a base of Occupy operations to provide health services, education and beds for the homeless.
Just two weeks before this Move-In Day — as it was dubbed — Kerfoot hit upon the idea for the Occupy arcade game.
“I’d heard that on the march somebody was going to be pushing a pool table on casters through the streets so people could play while they’re on this march,” he says. “And I thought about that and I was like, ‘That’s brilliant.’ You’re going to maintain this sort of festive atmosphere on the march to the building, and then also you’re going to have games in the building. It’s a social center.”
“Games bring people together,” adds Jokela. “It’s a shared social experience.”
The OAK-U-TRON, the team vowed, was to be a centerpiece of entertainment in the reclaimed building.
After their project was rejected by crowdfunding website Kickstarter, the team set up a campaign through WePay, quickly earning $1,000. Anthropy dug up an arcade cabinet she had stored away and got to work on the program, while Kerfoot and Jokela searched their garages and Amazon and Craigslist for the requisite components — the computer tower to the run the program, the LCD screen, the controllers. Not including labor, the project cost just under $700, a third of which was spent on the hefty deep-cycle battery required to power it.
So on Move-In Day, Jan. 28, Kerfoot and Jokela rolled the completed monster with the flow of protesters in the march toward the convention center, attracting no more attention from the police than the one officer who mentioned that from an engineering standpoint, the designers really should have gone with bigger wheels. But what was truly surprising for its architects was the attention the OAK-U-TRON garnered from fellow occupiers.
“The further we went,” says Jokela, “the more obviously difficult time Alex and I were having pushing it ourselves. People just flocked to it. We wound up with a crew with like eight people who were all helping to bring it to its final destination. Nobody knew where we were going, so we had people running out ahead, scouting ahead, figuring out where the group is, trying to identify where the handicapped ramps were through [Laney College].”
But as often happens when large-scale protests meet large numbers of riot-gear-wielding police, the march soon found strife. Police chucked tear gas and flashbang grenades into crowds. The crew surrounding the OAK-U-TRON, far behind the bulk of the protesters, watched a livesteam of the clashes on an Android tablet. They’d hear the pop of the flashbangs echo through the streets, then a few seconds later hear the mirrored sound through the tablet’s speakers.
Held back by their ungainly machine and realizing the seeming inevitability of not only arrest but the confiscation of the OAK-U-TRON, Kerfoot and Jokela hefted the cabinet onto an occupier’s flatbed truck, which made the getaway. Shortly thereafter, a kettle formed — crowd-control parlance for the police encirclement of protesters wherein lots of arrests are made. Ironically enough, after traveling 2.5 miles over three hours (see Kerfoot’s mapping here), the protest’s most graceless participant had suffered neither capture nor a Costanza-eque fate. Some 400 protesters who were eventually arrested that day were not so lucky.
Back in the relative calm of The Holdout more than a month later, the OAK-U-TRON’s three designers are taking turns ascending the virtual tower they’ve built, keeping quiet so as to not disturb a community meeting in the next room. They muse about the future of Occupy’s unofficial arcade game: getting a charger for the battery, backlighting the marquee, upgrading the aging computer, partnering with other developers to get their games onto the machine.
“What I invited people to do is change it up for their own events,” says Anthropy. “What I really hope is that more than people tinkering with the source, people will be inspired to make games that are like it, to make games that are designed for many people or to be part of marches. I hope that it has a lot of interesting children.”
Kerfoot opens up the OAK-U-TRON and fiddles with its insides. “We could tie the wheels to a generator, right?” he suggests.
“You could totally convert it to make the back half a bicycle,” says Anthropy. “Or having the front half be some kind of dual bike, so that you have to pedal as you play.”
A lone occupier in the corner of the community space’s library chimes in. “Actually, that’d be pretty tight.”