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About the Story
You are a community organiser. This is your job, four nights out of five; you sell people hope on their doorsteps.
But your passion for the work is waning, and you're struggling to hit your targets. Can you recruit enough members before the end of your shift? Or will your fallible human body get the better of you?
A short workplace simulator about knocking doors, slacking off, and falling out of love with a movement.
26th Place - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
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Number of Reviews: 7
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(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
I spend a lot of time in my reviews pontificating about prose style and engagement and puzzle difficulty and all sorts of stuff as though I were some sort of expert, but of course the truth is that’s all just based on having read a bunch of books, played a fair number of games, and written a couple myself – hardly specialized knowledge, since that describes like everyone who writes IF reviews. And subject matter wise I have to confess I’ve never been stuck in an abandoned spaceship, transported to a surreal otherworld that’s a reflection of my undigested trauma, or gone on any sort of fantastical quest at all, so all that’s a strikeout too.
All of which is to say that I was very excited to come across a game where I actually do have relevant experience that most players probably wouldn’t! No One Else is Doing This is all about canvassing – the fine art of knocking on doors (or shooting people an aggressively cheerful wave and “hi!” in a busy public place) to talk to folks about issues, encouraging them to sign a petition, support a candidate or ballot measure, and/or (preferably and) donate to keep a nonprofit afloat. I’ve never been a full-time canvasser, but for many years I worked for an organization that ran outreach operations like the ones depicted in NOEDT across the U.S. (admittedly, the game is set in the U.K.), and besides spending a lot of time talking to colleagues about how they were run, I headed out to turf myself a fair few times to see what canvassing was like. So in addition to assessing the game qua game, I’ll also review how accurately it portrays the experience of canvassing – on its Comp page, NOEDT twice brands itself a “simulator”, so I think this is a fair exercise.
With all that introductory rigmarole out of the way, what’s the game actually like? It’s a short, minimally-but-attractively designed Twine game that briefly introduces you to the situation – you’re employed as a door-knocker by a community union, which I think translates into Americanese as a community-based organization, trying to recruit more dues-paying members to increase your union’s ability to pay its staff and make change (reading between the lines, it appears it works primarily on local issues, primarily housing). After an initial sequence that sees you bundle way, way up – it’s set on a Friday night in early December – you head out on your shift, needing to raise one more five-pound contribution to hit your weekly quota.
Once you hit turf, you’re presented with a dashboard of sorts where you can plan your work. There’s a status indicator up top letting you know how much time’s left in the shift and how much you’ve raised so far, plus warnings if you’re getting too cold or need to use the bathroom. There’s a short glossary explaining some of the (honestly not that technical) specialized vocabulary the game uses. There’s the option to take a break to see to some of the aforementioned needs. And then there’s the list of doors, authentically arranged into two rows of first the odd numbers, then the evens (because of course the most efficient way to work your way down a block is to knock all the doors on one side, then cross and do the other side – this is how pretty much all walk lists are printed).
The meat of the game comes when you select a door. Much of the time nobody will be home (or nobody will answer – not necessarily the same thing!) and you’ll just drop some lit, leaving a pamphlet for the resident in the forlorn hope that they’ll read it instead of chucking it in the bin, and maybe decide to donate to you sua sponte (mostly they wind up in the bin). When somebody answers, you’re given a choice of two dialogue options as you move through your rap (the canned speech you use to tell folks who you are and what you’re doing) and try to make enough of a connection for them to join the union (or just throw money at you so you’ll go away).
Sometimes you’re doomed no matter what you do, of course – the dad in the middle of making dinner for screaming kids doesn’t have time to listen to your schpiel, and the chav in the middle of watching a football game just wants to get back to the telly. And some folks will want to talk to you, but either conclude that organizing isn’t the answer to society’s problems – it’s the fault of bad education/laziness/those Muslims – or that while they’re totally with you, they’re just completely tapped out of time and money. There are a few, though, who will donate if you do a good enough job of figuring out what would motivate them, or at least just get lucky.
This all seems super accurate, as do some of the constraints. It’s cold and miserable out on turf when you canvass in the middle of the winter. There are way, way more doors that don’t open than those that do, and pretty much nobody you talk to has any idea of what your kind of organization is so you need to keep the conversations really basic. There’s not enough time to get through all your turf, and while canvassing skill definitely has an impact over time, it’s totally possible to have a night go totally south because you hit a run of bad doors all in a row (the game is kind of sneaky about this, in fact – most players will probably start out hitting the odd doors in increasing order, since they’re presented on the first row. But the early odd-numbered doors are all pretty terrible, with almost all the donors found on the evens side of the street – it’s sufficiently disproportionate that I assume the intent is for a first playthrough to be miserable).
Breaking from questions of verisimilitude for a minute, all of this is presented in unadorned but solid prose that I think does a good job of capturing the experience, and especially the time and place (it’s set in 2020). Here’s a bit from the bus ride to turf:
"You just about manage to jump on the bus before it leaves. The schools have finished for the day and it’s over capacity, teenagers sitting in the seats marked out for social distancing. The elderly man behind you is wearing his mask underneath his nose. You put your headphones in and try to psych yourself up for the next four hours."
This approach extends to the actual door-knocking, where the conversations are compact and to the point, but do a good job of quickly sketching out the rich pageant of characters you’d expect to come across if you met everyone who lived on a street.
The writing is also where the protagonist’s growing disillusionment with the work comes through. They’re getting burned out, it’s clear:
"He shuts the door. You post a leaflet, impotently, through the letter box."
But this isn’t just a matter of worry that you’re behind on your quota (quotas are totally a real thing, FYI) – the protagonist is also questioning whether this work is actually adding up to social change:
"You don’t have the time to go back and see them again, and most of them will never come to a meeting or an action without support. They’ll just cancel their memberships, probably, and then you’re back where you started."
This is where my suspension of disbelief started to take a bit of a hit. Organizations that do this work don’t typically expect door-knockers to also try to get members to take further actions – or if they do, it’s not during the same shifts where they’re working through a walk list. There’ll typically be called a ladder of engagement, with other staff calling folks who’ve signed up as members to talk to them in more depth about issues and campaigns, invite them to events, and move them into doing more and more. If this community union’s organizing model is just “sign ‘em up and hope they do something,” it’s no wonder their staff are unsure what the point of all their work is!
The other reason the protagonist’s burnout is understandable is that the author’s put their thumb on the scales. As I mentioned above, if you run through the doors in the intuitively correct order you’ll struggle with a lot of empty homes and uninterested residents, and probably fail to raise a single pound, prompting a downbeat ending. But even if you, for some obsessive reason, decide to play the game five or six times and systematically mark down which doors are the best ones – then have to play it one more time because your planned-out “perfect run” got derailed when you forgot to stop for a pee break – and run up the scoreboard such that you raise almost your entirely weekly quota in one night, you’re told as you’re checking in with your supervisor that members you’d signed up on previous nights have cancelled their donations, so you wind up below quota after all.
It’s dumb to feel put out by this kind of authorial manipulation, I suppose – spoiler, everything in every game is authorial manipulation – but still, I think it weakens the work. As I mentioned above, it’s definitely possible to be good at canvassing, or just lucky, and have a good night. And I don’t think it’s critical to the protagonist’s gradual embitterment that they fail – after coming in below quota I was expecting the supervisor to fire me, but she was actually quite chill and philosophical about it. Canvassing is hard, grinding work; many of the organizations that employ canvassers think giving people an opportunity to work on issues they care about means they don’t need to be too punctilious about labor rights and practices; and it is the case that while, at least in my experience, community organizing is one of the few things that can create the power needed to win systems change, much if not most of the time systems succeed at sustaining an unjust status quo even in the face of top-notch campaigning. To my mind, grappling with these issues more directly would have made NOEDT’s critiques more incisive (for that matter, what exactly is the title referring to? I wonder whether it’s an indirect indication that the protagonist’s friends and relations think she’s crazy to be doing this work).
Modulo that one niggle, though, I think NOEDT works quite well both as a look into this important but infrequently-depicted vocation, as well as a portrait of a community, lumps and all – as much as I enjoyed seeing the impedimenta of canvassing show up in a piece of IF, similarly to how I’ve felt when knocking doors in real life I also enjoyed the surprise of seeing who was behind each door, and knowing that while most of them would be dismissive or busy or otherwise disagreeable, there’s a chance of meeting at least a few willing – indeed, excited – to have a quick chat about how to make the world better, if only a little.
I’ll wrap up this way-too-long-by-any-objective-measure review with two last PSAs for those who’ve played NOEDT: first, in the US we’re a month out from Election Day, and that means that if you live here you may soon be getting calls or door-knocks from canvassers for one cause or candidate or another. You definitely don’t have to agree with them or give them money by any means, but hopefully this game can be a reminder to treat them like they’re human beings – the difference between a sincere “I’m sorry, I can’t tonight” and slamming a door in one’s face is really really significant! And second, if you ever are doing any canvassing yourself, the bit here where the protagonist goes out on turf alone, with only a rape whistle for protection, is a very bad idea – always buddy up!
The United States had a census in 2020. Right in the middle of COVID. I didn't get a community organizer at my door, but I did get a census taker. Filling out the census had gone to the bottom of my priorities, below generally worrying how bad the virus could get.
I was glad to talk to them. I'm not a big talker, and we talked through the door, but I was also able to help them with the names of my neighbors, and I appreciated the reminder. I also appreciated not having any awkwardness about asking for money, or any of that sort of thing. It still must've been awkward to buzz up and ask for entry, more than usual.
And they must've appreciated that, well, they got paid for it, and it was a less than Sisyphean task. The more you went out, the fewer places you had to visit to remind people to fill out their censuses. Door-to-door nonprofit stuff holds no such relief--and, in fact, there's always the possibility that the cause you're espousing, or the candidate you're canvassing for, is wrong. I know certainly I feared being on the other side of that a lot. I'd feel guilty saying no and feel a sucker saying yes.
Before COVID, I did some cold calling for Elizabeth Warren back in 2020 and ... well, between the Trump supporters who yelled at me and the people who POLITELY asked to be taken off the list (these people were in Iowa and were sick of political ads) I realized how tough it was. Heck, it's tough to cold-call for your own profits, for different reasons. I'm just not cut out for that. I'm wondering if anyone is. Perhaps the overseers who say "you can do it! You just have to believe in yourself!" also primarily believed they could move up from cold calling to a leadership position.
And the kicker? Well, sometimes some black-swan event happens that's more effective than all the pavement-pounding. Or perhaps it's the tipping point that makes your efforts seem irrelevant. For instance, <img src="https://inthesetimes.com/article/rahm-emanuel-37-cent-tip">this photo</a> did more to make Rahm Emanuel look silly than a lot of community activism, and sadly, an unarmed suspect being shot 16 times was necessary before people really dumped someone people once thought might be mayor of Chicago for life.
Sure, someone had to do it, and anyone could've, but it feels like "oh geez all this hard work and someone else swoops in and makes a politician who deserves it look awful quickly." It isn't quite that way, of course. This guy had prior history with Emanuel. And there are far worse politicians than Emanuel. But he was whom we are stuck with. And now people have legitimate reasons to dislike his successor. So it goes. What was all that activism for, anyway? I say this as someone who has voted for people that turned out to be disappointments, or corrupt. Rod Blagojevich just seemed sort of obnoxious back in 2002, though he was possibly a bright young Democratic star. At least something good came out of Illinois in the oughts.
NOEDT capture the futility well, for me. There are 32 places you can visit, asking what issues are important to the residents and--no obligation, of course, money's tight these days--for donation. They are not shuffled randomly on replay or, at least, not until you refresh the browser. You can pick off which have nobody home, for when you replay. You have four hours to visit as many as possible, and five to ten minutes to visit each place but, and here's a mean but effective trick the game plays, you can't use nearly all the four hours knocking on doors.
NOEDT was surprisingly exhausting, and it wasn't due to overwriting, but rather to me realizing I was trying to connive the most efficient use of my time and game the system (e.g. take notes for replay) to, ostensibly, fight against powerful people who gained their own system in much more lucrative ways. So you really can't win, and even if you plan well and have foreknowledge, it doesn't feel like a win. There's no DESPAIR DESPAIR DESPAIR at the end, just, you meet all manner of people in the process of doing so, and there should be variety, but there isn't.
I'm glad NOEDT went for that sort of tone, because I think it is effective, and even if this sort of community organizing isn't what you see in the USA, it's still so awkward to cold call or get cold called, to know how the game is played and hate being on either side of it, but also to know that the alternative (none at all) would make things far far worse. Of course, even if you play the game well, things go wrong (there's sleight of hand by the author that doesn't feel totally fair. The writing isn't heavy-handed, but the mechanics are. Perhaps the author is saying there is no way to game the system, and even in informal "fight the power" structures or ones that don't take marching orders from big donors, there's still a lot of arm-twisting or helplessness.)
I end on a note of positivity: I've seen these things work in Chicago, where a corrupt alderman is pushed out, or another alderman established good constituent services or uses community resources or feedback effectively. Or there are regular gatherings for people's rights, or over the years something like a gay pride parade is less controversial. So it does work, but man is it slow. Things that seemed ridiculous years ago are now taken for granted. I voted for Tom Tunney as alderman back in 2003, and he was the first gay member of Chicago's city council. It was somewhat of a watershed back then, but we don't care now. Halsted Street, once mocked in whispers as Boystown, now has rainbow-themed lampposts and such. There are free, clean and useful health centers, away from the stigma of AIDS. And so forth. People who were activists now have bigger roles in the community. Their endorsements are actively sought. Sadly, most people like the protagonist get less credit.
One other thing: I was amused to compare and contrast the performance reviews at the end of NOEDT and Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee's. Both about equally awkward, but NOEDT had better intentions. Or at least higher-minded. You never know, with anyone involved in politics.
This is a Twine game that has a brief intro followed by a large open segment where you can choose between 30 or 40 houses to knock on, each with their own mini-story.
You work for a community organization group and your goal is to collect a certain amount of subscriptions before the night is over. You have to monitor both the funds, your bathroom needs, and your body warmth. Each action takes some time to complete.
Out of all the 'simulator' games this year in IFComp, this one works pretty well mechanically, with clearly understandable variables and some ability to strategize how to use your time.
Storywise, I could partially identify with it. I spent 2 years as a missionary, and quite a bit of our daily time was spent knocking on doors, handing out fliers on street corners, or doing service work like English teaching or soup kitchen volunteering. I guess the difference is that I wasn't looking for money donations, but trying to share a religious message. I would say that the results in this game are much more positive than the ones I experienced on average!
It was well known even then that door-to-door is one of the lowest-productivity ways of making contacts. Referrals were much more effective, since you could find people who were already interested instead of bothering people who don't care. Door-to-door knocking for anything can be extremely wearing.
I'd be interested to see how community organizing plays out in real life. It almost sounds like a HOA in this game (give us money and we'll make decisions for the neighborhood). It's interesting seeing different problems people care about in the game and how the protagonist evaluates their importance.
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Outstanding Short Game of 2022 - Author's Choice by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2022 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the best short game of 2022, with the definition of short left up to the voter....