Exploring real-life protests in Riot: Civil Unrest

What are the social dynamics of a street protest? We interviewed lead designer Leonard Menchiari about his upcoming 'riot simulator.'

Riot: Civil Unrest is an upcoming simulation game meant to depict the crowd dynamics of street protests. First teased in 2013, the game led a successful IndieGoGo campaign in 2014 and recently exhibited at the IndieCade festival in Los Angeles.

What differentiates Riot from a number of other games modeling protest action (violent and non-violent) is the design decision to nest most of its complexity and meaning in complex crowd AI. Players assume the roles of a small handful of either rioters or riot police, and through a limited set of actions they can influence the reactions of bystanders and the opposing 'faction.' Protesters can, for instance, throw harmless colored smoke and take to social media to call in greater numbers, or take more direct action, destroying storefronts and hurling improvised explosives, which may spur police to a more violent response. Or someone playing the police might decide no provocation is necessary to start shooting, as is (horrifically) too often the case in real life -- resulting in ever-escalating chaos.

If it sounds like the police side has an advantage in terms of lethality, well, that's as intended. This isn't about an extremely well-balanced, opposite-but-equal competitive game played for fun -- it's about the actual subject matter of rioting, how emotions spread through a crowd, and how the crack of a single gunshot can change everything.

Through a series of unusual circumstances, I actually found myself playing Riot: Civil Unrest on the day of the U.S. presidential election. It's been stuck in my head ever since. I suspect that in the years ahead, a game like this will grow only more relevant. So I reached out to director and lead designer Leonard Menchiari to hear a little more about what Riot is doing, and where it's going.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length only.

ZAM: While it's clear you're drawing much of Riot's premise from recent events, are there any particular incidents you looked at specifically as a reference?

Leonard Menchiari: The main reason I started this whole project was to [raise awareness of] the NoTAV protest that is going on in Italy, which I ended up taking part of it personally. The fight is mainly against the construction of an apparently useless train line that has been burning several billions of euros with very little practical results. Most of the received funding has been vanishing (apparently around 90% of it, most assume because of government corruption), and a big part of the remaining budget has been used to finance riot police forces in order to stop the protests with the use of brutal force.

What really bothered me was experiencing in person several hundreds of innocent people being [beaten] almost to death, and watching on the television the next day those same people accused of violence they didn't commit. As for now, if you take part of a NoTAV protest you will be considered a terrorist (meaning same conviction, same treatment). Many still fight for the cause as the movement is getting larger and stronger through time, but the Italian news reports keep lying to the population in order to keep the protest very small and inefficient. Hopefully through this game we might be able to [share] not only this, but also several more similar protests that are going on around the world.

The news media also plays a role in the game, but mostly in the form of a newspaper clipping that appears after a match, reporting the final casualties. It seems to be pretty factual, impartial reporting, unlike what you described experiencing in real life. Do you have plans to explore media spin in the game further down the line?

Showing media manipulation is something that I would love to explore more in depth, but it's too big of a task for a project like this to handle for now, unfortunately. What we focused on mainly is having journalists [characters in the scene] that can influence the media results after each clash, creating a dynamic balance from match to match. Based on how you play each match, the ending result is going to change the amount of people and crowd hostility on the next match.

So these journalist units are also part of Riot's crowd dynamics. Could you explain a little bit more about how those work?

This is a very complex question to answer in a few sentences, but I'll try to scratch the surface and give you a general idea. What we've been trying to create in this game is having each single entity influence one another based on their emotional status. If someone gets angry, many or some around him could get angry as well. If someone gets scared, that person will cause the others near him to get scared as well, creating a wave of panic possibly throughout the entire crowd.

All these behaviors depend on each single individual's personality. So through each single character's personality and emotional status, you will determine the status of the crowd. The crowd will be the hardest thing to control, and while it could be very chaotic and hard to organize, if used right it could be extremely powerful. The other side will be the police faction, who through less units but more discipline, might be able to control the crowd, [as long as] the single policemen don't lose control [of] themselves.

The way you describe emotions influencing the crowd sounds very similar to how, say, a pandemic game might represent the spread of an infection. Are you working off a similar epidemiological model?

Other than watching tons of videos, I experienced crowd behaviors in person several times in different locations and observed what happened. I eventually figured out some patterns that happened every time, and tried to emulate them as realistically as possible while still maintaining the gameplay playable (as much as possible). I noticed that in some places the crowd is more dynamic and 'elastic', while in other situations it's much more 'stiff' and connected.

For example: I was present in the Indignados movement [in Spain], where every time a policeman tried to beat up a peaceful protester, other people would go in front of them and stop the beating (this happened also on my skin a few times). [Whereas at a] Trump protest [in the United States] recently, [I saw] literally eight cops able to move hundreds of people just by pointing their smoke grenade rifles at them and kindly asking then to "step away." A couple of rubber bullets were enough to disperse the entire crowd.

In the U.S. I noticed a very fragile and controllable crowd where each person had very little interaction with one another, while in Spain I noticed much more connection. Egypt was complete chaos on the other hand, which made it very hard to replicate in the game.

The "emotional contagion" is just a reaction to what we tried to emulate. It feels natural when you observe any kind of crowd (including other animals such as sheep or pigeons) [where] each one influences one another [rather than] being influenced by one external factor.

We're planning to have most of these values moddable, so that the community will be able to tweak whatever aspect of the game they want. But mostly, we hope that through our map and team editor the community might be able to create additional material and share real events with the rest of us, so that everyone who was denied their voice, can share their experience with the rest of the world.

How have players responded to the simulations? Do you get players who reach the end of a scenario and believe the whole thing was very pro-police?

Actually, reactions are pretty random among all the players that I've seen playing so far. Some people are very pro-police, and can't wait to beat the shit out of the crowd; others can't wait to throw molotov cocktails and literally destroy the police faction; others want to tactically use their police forces to disperse or control the crowd in the least violent way possible; while some want to peacefully reach their objective while keeping their own crowd under control without any use of violence. So far we're pretty excited to see that these are the main directions that people have been taking. All of this is going to be hell to balance once that more and more players are going to be on board (especially for only 2 people), but the concept is working, and we hope that we can make it function properly till the end, without taking sides, but most of all, without limiting the player's decisions in any way.

It's undeniable this is a politically-charged game, and it's clear you have strong opinions of your own on the matter. But the game itself avoids explicitly casting either protesters or police as 'bad.' Why is that?

If I wanted to make this game about police brutality, I could've done way, way worse than this. I had to contain myself at times, having seen some of the worse crimes committed by policemen themselves. But this game is not mainly about that. We've been focusing on trying to create a more objective, neutral representation, where people can experience as many aspects of riots as we could replicate, and decide in which way to move forward, with whichever desired approach.

The main focus should not be pointing the fingers to one of the two factions, but get an idea of what lies beneath the protest itself, and hopefully understand the meaning of it without our direct linear opinion.

But is it possible to be neutral with subject matter like this?

It's definitely not easy to be neutral in certain situations. After experiencing heavy violence done towards people who do not deserve to be brutally smashed by sticks and ballistics, it's hard to acknowledge that the aggressor is either 'doing his job' or is subject to 'emotional stress' (or both). But we try to see all perspectives, trying to understand that behind this whole conflict, there is something bigger going on. We should keep our eyes open, and realize that each time a crowd yells, it's because it needs to be heard in one form or another. Listening to what a crowd has to say is the first step to understand what needs to be changed, and we shouldn't ignore it, independently from which perspective we're looking at it from.

Riot: Civil Unrest is currently targeting an early 2017 release date for PC, Mac, and smartphones. You can follow along with the team's development here.