Can you spot government manipulation and censorship? Resist the system in Blackbar

Columnist Susan Arendt says the revolution will be [REDACTED]

Can you spot government manipulation and censorship? Resist the system in Blackbar
| Blackbar
Welcome to the latest in a series of columns on Pocket Gamer. We've sought out the best writers and most experienced gamers in the industry and given them a platform. Today we welcome the marvellous Susan Arendt once again and this week she reveals how the puzzle game Blackbar polices our thoughts... Blackbar column by Susan Arendt How words manipulate us

If you’re at all like me, you probably think your life is pretty boring. Oh, I’m not saying that getting kids where they need to be after working a full day and then figuring out something for dinner that isn’t fried isn’t a challenge worthy of Greek poetry, but it’s pretty ordinary in the grand scheme of things. Certainly not the kind of life anyone would find at all scandalous or - and I have to chuckle a bit as I type this - dangerous. I often joke that my email is hackproof simply because it’s not worth that much effort to see cat GIFs and complaints about my mother.

Play Blackbar and you won’t make jokes like that anymore. Because when viewed from the right perspective, everything is dangerous.

In Blackbar, you receive letters from your friend who’s just nabbed a plum job in the big city. All correspondence has to go through the Department of Communication, so some things get blacked out.

While that doesn’t seem all that unreasonable on the surface, it only takes a few letters for you to realize it’s not just secrets being protected. Figuring out the words that have been blacked out requires a bit of logic based on the context of the sentence and the length of the bar, as well a willingness to put yourself in the mindset of someone whose basic freedoms are slowly being eroded. Why would "love" be redacted? What’s wrong with your friend describing her Department-appointed apartment as "old" and "small"?

The compromises we make Solve a few more of Blackbar’s puzzles and you realize what’s being removed are anything that paints life as less than perfect - your friend feels [REDACTED] that her mom is ill, and wishes she could send her some [REDACTED]. This job came at the [REDACTED] possible time, she [REDACTED] take any time off, and she wishes she never [REDACTED].

And then you get to the letter from your Neighborhood Board reminding you tip them off to anyone communicating with "unsavory" or "unusual" individuals ("no particular proof necessary!") and you really start to get creeped out.

It’s not just about what the department is enforcing, but also how your friend becomes a willing participant. It’s not long before she refers to words being blacked out as "corrected," rather than "redacted" and suggests you both should write more "appropriately" in the future.

It takes so little, really, for us to make bargains with ourselves. Is it really such a hardship to just not use negative words if it means you have a good job and a safe home? And I wonder if I would make a different choice. I like to believe I would, but I don’t know for sure.

Recognizing when our freedom is threatened

Most of us lead fairly comfortable, ordinary lives, unaware of the fullness of our freedoms.

When someone comes our way, yelling about the government reaching into our homes, we tune out, because... well, that sort of thing simply couldn’t happen anymore, now could it? Not with all the technology at our disposal, and we’re all just so much smarter than people used to be.

And, ok, sure, that may all be more or less true, but Blackbar elegantly reminds us that tiny annoyances, like having to watch how you phrase things in a letter to your friend, can be harbingers of more dangerous mindsets.

It does what the best kind of fiction does: makes its point about our real world without bashing you over the head or lecturing. It’s just a game and you have more immediate concerns, like getting that Powerpoint together for Thursday’s meeting and why the hell hasn’t Nelson gotten you the data you need yet - but maybe just tuck this away in the back of your mind, yeah?

So if you ever do see this kind of manipulation, you’ll recognize it for what it is.

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Susan Arendt
Susan Arendt
Susan Arendt is an industry veteran who comes by way of 1up, Wired, The Escapist, Joystiq, and GamesRadar. She's probably the reason everyone in your office is playing that new game on their phone.