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Sweatshop is a new browser game, developed by Littleloud for Channel 4 Education, in which players fill the role of a factory floor manager in a developing nation. Taking design cues from the tower defense genre, the game tasks you with placing skilled workers and child laborers along a conveyor belt. It’s also one of the most compelling and effective political games I’ve seen in recent years.

Orders for different kinds of garments — including hats, shirts, bags and shoes — come down the line, and laborers assemble these products at varying speeds according to their specialty (or lack thereof, in the case of the children). For each completed garment, the player receives a small amount of cash that is then reinvested into hiring more workers or purchasing support items such as water coolers, fans and portable toilets. Some support items increase the speed or profitability of workers within their zone of effect, while others are required to prevent their inevitable exhaustion and (later in the game) bodily harm.

Over the course of 30 stages, players are scored on the efficiency and, ultimately, character of their management decisions. This is reinforced by a trophy system, a karma meter, and a version of the classic shoulder angel/devil duo: a pitiable Child working in the factory and the comically inhumane Boss.

The Child, who is always placed on the line for free at the beginning of each stage, explains how new support items can be used to help keep workers safe. In between stages, the Child presents brief factoids on sweatshop labor around the world. The Boss harangues players at the beginning and end of each work day, only taking a break from shouting and spewing his bad-taste humor to take phone calls from the pompous fashion industry moguls who send in orders.

A full-featured political game

Littleloud and Channel 4 previously worked together on Bow Street Runner and last year’s The Curfew. The latter was essentially an interactive drama that depicts the dangers of a potential future police state in the U.K., written by comics author (and game journalism alumnus) Kieron Gillen. Because The Curfew only featured mini-games tangentially related to its full-motion video acting, I didn’t know what (or how much) to expect from Sweatshop. What I found was one of the most subtle and full-featured political games that I’ve come across in the past few years.

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For American readers who aren’t exactly sure how Channel 4 works, it is a state-owned broadcaster established in the United Kingdom (UPDATE: corrected misunderstanding that it was the “fourth” UK state-owned broadcaster). Channel 4 commissions all of its programming from external companies, meaning its content has often been eclectic and cutting-edge, and over the years it has established the “4” brand as a significant name in culture and entertainment. Channel 4 Education, the department that published Sweatshop, is primarily tasked with providing entertaining pedagogical content to U.K. teenagers. Each year, C4E picks themes especially relevant to contemporary teens and invites indie games developers from around the United Kingdom to a pitch session.

“Sweatshop was Littleloud’s pitch for a game about the fashion industry, one of the key topics suggested by the broadcaster for its 2011 slate,” said Simon Parkin, the game’s designer, writer, and producer. “As young people generally have limited disposable income, they are likely to buy cheap, fashionable clothes from high street retailers who drive down their prices by employing sweatshop labor.”

During the first five to ten levels of the game, play isn’t particularly difficult enough to raise any obvious alarms about the unfair labor practices that become necessary evils in sweatshop economics. As Parkin explained, “There’s no leap of abstraction to view workers as ‘towers’ working on targets when they enter their ‘area of effect.’” (In fact, the pairing of theme and play here is so strong that you might not even notice that it’s a tower defense game at first.)

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But that isn’t the extent of the game’s argument. For this early phase of Sweatshop, the factoid text bubbles at the score screen deliver most of the crucial information about sweatshop practices. If the game stopped here, it would be comparable to PETA’s Mama Kills Animals; the latter doesn’t actually encapsulate its social message about the inhumanity of factory farming in play itself, relying on external links and short documentary clips.

Increasingly complex

But Sweatshop is a game that, in accordance with the genre conventions of tower defense, becomes gradually more and more complex to control over time. As its play deepens, so too does its procedural rhetoric.

The first thing players will notice is that, in order to attain gold medals on each stage, they must almost constantly run the conveyor belt at double speed. At this pace, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep on top of worker fatigue and a proper mix of skilled labor for each type of garment.

My first “a-ha” moment came when I realized that I could nab a gold medal on many levels — and minimize the amount of clicking and thinking I needed to do — simply by covering the belt in child labor, rather than planning for and maintaining a large force of skilled workers. These workers are cheap and replaceable, meaning they also contribute to build speed and a high “money saved” score at the end of a level.

Of course, you’ll still end up scoring closer to 100 percent if you replay a level many times to figure out the ideal build order for skilled workers. But why would you, if you can attain a satisfactory score with so much less effort?

The next layer of the game’s rhetoric unfolds more slowly. The fact is that you can’t really convey the extent of the hardships faced during a long, underpaying shift on a factory line in any medium. (You could craft a time-accurate simulation, but it would be difficult to rope many into playing it.) Instead, Sweatshop’s strategy is to pull you into the antagonist’s mindset; it forces you into the cold logic of sweatshop management and leaves you to reflect on your own descent into it. In the design of Sweatshop, Parkin and the others at Littleloud struck upon what Ian Bogost calls “tight coupling.” According to Parkin:

It was one of those rare cases where the mechanics and the message seemed to align neatly, and once we began speaking to experts in the field of sweatshop labor it became clear that there was a huge amount of relevant content that we could bake into the game mechanics.

Baking in real-world content

Essentially, the game begins as a cartoon sketch of factory labor. You don’t need to worry about worker fatigue, safety and morale. But Littleloud gradually “bakes in” more and more of this real-world content. By the end, you need to keep the floor stocked with water coolers, repairmen and fire marshals to keep your workforce alive.

And then, if you’re taking the game seriously, you really start to hold it against them. You cut corners, gambling on the low odds that one or two workers outside the repairman’s safety zone might harm themselves. Instead of blaming yourself for demanding too much from them, or for not planning ahead in your support item infrastructure, you get angry at your sim-workers for getting tired at the most inopportune times. It is this reduction of human beings to numbers, pesky weak flesh in the way of the profit, that is Sweatshop’s frightening strength.

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Of course, not everything about Sweatshop works as well as it could. For instance: radios, fans and portable toilets all contribute in some way to worker productivity. While we can certainly see the case for radios increasing morale and fans reducing fatigue, one of the game’s factoid texts explicitly critiques many sweatshops for not allowing workers to use the restroom in order to maximize productivity. The support items are so helpful that, at the end of any given level, your floor is likely to look a lot more hospitable than most actual sweatshops would be.

But incongruities such as this are only a minor problem. The biggest obstacle I see is that, because it is so full-featured and modeled after commercially viable tower defense games, Sweatshop’s rhetoric burns so slowly that many players might never encounter it. Even if you play to the end, it really requires a desire to attain gold medals on your part for much of its skillful mental manipulation to take effect.

That said, Sweatshop’s many animated cut scenes and factual texts will arguably hit harder for the intended teenage audience than they did with me. There’s not as much of a direct causal link between the game and the practice of buying cheap clothes (the stated target of the project) as one might like, but it’s a huge step in the right direction for Littleloud as a studio.

Although Parkin couldn’t provide details on the game’s budget, he did offer a timetable for the game’s production. It was pitched to Channel 4 last summer, but it didn’t enter production until January. The development cycle lasted around six months with a small team of four, though other members of the studio provided ongoing support. These rough numbers attest to the thoroughness and determination of both Littleloud and Channel 4, showing what can be done when one waits until a game is fully realized before pushing it to press.