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A bottom-up view of political activism, January 9, 2023
(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!