At dawn, police will advance into a valley in the Italian mountains with crew vans. They want to clear the campsite that is blocking the construction of a high-speed railway line. But the demonstrators have taken precautions: Hidden outposts warn the occupiers with fireworks about the approaching eviction squad. A few minutes later, both sides meet - stones and tear gas grenades fly. The occupiers keep their position, but a policeman dies by a thrown stone.
A riot simulator based on real conflicts
While the console version of the game has already been released some time ago, the PC version left Early Access on Steam this February 12th. Jumping into the role of demonstrators or the police, players can immerse themselves in the four main campaigns, with the so-called No-Tav conflict over the development of the Italian Valley being one of the four. Gamers can further get involved in the Keratea landfill protests in Greece, the Anti-Austerity protests in Spain against policies and unemployment, and the events of the Arab Spring. The riot simulator shows both sides of the conflicts and also tries to incorporate media dynamics and public opinion - unfortunately not very successfully.
The game is the project of game designer Leonoardo Menchiari - the idea for RIOT came to him when he directly witnessed the No-Tav protests of 2012. Menchiari uses pixel graphics in the style of early computer games: This intentional abstraction gives the game additional power, because much of the game takes place in the viewer's mind: the emotions of the opponents, the violence and its consequences.
Complex dynamics of large-scale protests
Basically, RIOT is reminiscent of real-time strategy games like Age of Empires or Starcraft. At the beginning of each campaign, players choose whether they want to be demonstrators or policeman. The campaigns consist of several episodes: In the Susa Valley conflict, for example, it's first about defending or evacuating a campsite, and later about defending or storming construction sites and police camps. The confrontations are limited in time and usually last only a few minutes. The aim is to manoeuvre your followers as skillfully as possible across the playing field. Players do not control individual figures, but predefined groups: You can order changes of location, defensive positions or the use of weapons such as Molotov cocktails or rubber bullets. The opposite side is controlled automatically or by other players - in multiplayer mode.
However, a conflict does not end with one of the party winning points, instead, at the end of each episode, the game draws two different results: a military one and a political one. In the scenario described at the beginning, the demonstrators won a military victory because they defended the campground. But the death of a policeman makes it a Pyrrhic victory: The media condemns the violence, the demonstrators lose many sympathies in public, and the police react much harder to provocations and violence in later episodes.
On one hand, one must praise RIOT for showing courage in tackling such a controversial issue, many protests worldwide have shown how complex the dynamics of these large-scale protests are. It often takes months or even years to reconstruct the events and escalations: In the case of the G20 protests in Germany, it was the meticulous analysis of minutes and a lot of testimonies, that showed how exactly the conflict escalated.
Demonstrations are more than columns of numbers
Unfortunately, RIOT falls short in exactly this, evaluating the conflicts - above all because of the depiction of the media dynamics. RIOT first presents the results of each encounter as a column of numbers: the number of people captured, wounded and killed, and the material damage caused. From these numbers, the video game then calculates the political and military outcome, which, when combined, result in either a police or a rebel victory. The conclusion then, for example, reads as follows: Insurgent victory. Demonstrators withstood attack. Policemen organized a bloodbath. Demonstrators were peaceful.
Finally, a newspaper article summarising the events in a few sentences appears. However, it is about as detailed as baseball game results. RIOT only depicts the complexity of the events in a very makeshift way: almost every article in a real medium contains more information than the fictitious newspaper report of the game. RIOT also fails to adequately reflect the dynamics of social media. The number of demonstrators may shrink during the conflict if the morale of individual groups as defined by the video game falls below a certain level: The group then leaves the demonstration front and watches as if paralysed. In this case, players can request supplies at the push of a button via social media, which then arrives promptly. But that's all it is, although social media does not work as simple as this - one emergency call and more people arrive.
The reality is not that simple
Despite these obvious shortcomings, RIOT is a thoroughly exciting and insightful game: it not only shows the perspective of both sides but also illustrates well how violence and counter-violence are caused. The conflict escalates with every episode in which violence occurs - as is often the case in reality. Players can influence the escalation themselves by determining the equipment of their troops. Posters or Molotov projectiles, police shields or water cannons? The choice of weapons alone can exacerbate the conflict.
If you are interested in the game, you can pick up RIOT: Civil Unrest cheap for PC in our price comparison.