Barack Obama, the 44th President of The United States Of America, a 57 year-old man and father of two, does not care one bit for your pocket monsters.
ATTN: got him to sit down to help make a “get off your ass and vote” video for the upcoming midterms recently, leveraging his charm and wisdom to dispel seven popular excuses that people use to avoid the polling booths.
Pokémon is mentioned right off the bat, and if there’s ever a cause worth throwing them under the bus for in this day and age, it’s this one:
Whatever your feelings on Nintendo characters and their associated card games, please go and vote.
They don’t really want to debate you, those randos who crawl into the comments of your Facebook posts and your tweets and your blog posts (hi!) asking to “debate” you over shit we should all agree on by now. You can’t debate them in any meaningful way, because they are mouths without ears. You can block them or take your account private, but maybe that leaves you feeling frustrated and powerless. How do you leave this situation feeling any type of satisfaction?
Political strategist Aaron Huertas lays out a comprehensive guide to these pseudo-debaters in “A Field Guide to Bad Faith Arguments.” He explains the futility of debating with these people on their terms, and instead recommends a strategy for each type of bad-faith debater. For example:
The “cartoon strawmanner” presents counter-arguments to something you never actually claimed; they’re fought by pointing out that no one claimed it.
The “lie detector,” an evolved form of the strawmanner, insists you mean what you don’t mean, and should be mocked for acting like a psychic.
The “purity tester” points out that sometimes, advocates of your view have behaved hypocritically, or in a way that looks hypocritical if you squint, real judgmental-like. They’re bullshitting you, they don’t really care about ideological purity. Ask them whose authority they believe in.
And so on. Huertas’s recommended courses of action aren’t foolproof; some of them are basically engaging your debater. You might find it more satisfying to just read this takedown and feel very correct and superior to your commenters. I mean Facebook repliers.
For a deeper analysis of the most ridiculous bad faith arguments, their appeal, and the danger of engaging in good faith, read Fred Clark’s essay “False Witnesses.” Clark unpacks the 1980s (and 90s) rumor that Procter & Gamble’s CEO literally worshipped Satan.
Christians all over America spread this lie, not despite the utter lack of evidence, but because of it. Clark describes the dossier P&G built, full of counter-evidence and religious endorsements. None of it worked, Clark said, because the people spreading the rumor didn’t really believe P&G was Satanist, not on a rational, literal level. They believed something bigger.
For the Amway salespeople who encouraged the rumor, the motive was simple greed. But for everyone else, boycotting a Satanist P&G was just a way to prove that you were a true Christian, and no Satan-lover. If someone tried to argue the facts with you, you just got mad, because your commitment to Jesus was at stake. So P&G kept losing the fight until people found someone new to accuse of Satanic influence. They didn’t learn the lesson: do not engage a bad-faith debater on their own terms.
Jesse Jackson might have lost his 1988 bid, but his campaign lives on in South Korea as youth fashion.
If you’ve spent any time in Asia, you’ll know that it’s not uncommon to see interesting English slogans and expressions on t-shirts and sweatshirts. (Likewise, the English speaking world does the same with foreign languages!)
Earlier this year, Jesse Jackson themed threads started appearing in South Korea. W. David Marx, author of the excellent Ametora, recently pointed out the trend.
The shirts come in a surprising variety. You know, for Jesse Jackson 1988 campaign tees.
Jesse Jackson is, of course, known in South Korea. Some even tagged their images with 제시잭슨, which is the civil rights activist and presidential candidate’s name written in Korean.
People are supposedly wearing them, too!
A number of retailers appear to carry them.
And there are hats!
So what gives?
In the past year or so, Jackson has become increasingly involved with and interested in Korean politics. Last month he met with South Korean president Moon Jae-in.
That, combined with feelings of 1980s nostalgia plus pure Americana might explain the shirts.
The developers making Supreme Courtship always had a tricky needle to thread. To educate players about American government they would let them date Supreme Court Justices. It was meant to be upbeat and a little silly. It’s become a thornier project over the last several weeks thanks to Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, and the investigation of his alleged sexual assault.
In Supreme Courtship, which is early in development and does not yet have a release date, the Justices have all been aged down into fit and hip 20-somethings. Ruth Bader Ginsburg sports a ponytail and a sweatshirt that reads “Dissent.” Sonia Sotomayor has a leather jacket. Clarence Thomas, who wears a green vest with no shirt underneath, shares his secret: “I listen.”
Originally, the two-person team behind Supreme Courtship hoped to follow in the footsteps of fellow successful dating sim Dream Daddy, but with an educational goal: trying to get people to be politically active. They’d lure people in with the funny concept, and then earnestly try to educate players about the Justices and the Supreme Court. This is evident in the art they’ve released for the Justices, which presents them as, well, fuckable. If this makes you raise an eyebrow, that’s kind of the point. It’s like Mary Poppins: a spoonful of horniness makes the politics go down. The game’s unusual portrayal of the Justices, as well as the real-life news cycle, has led to a complicated development cycle for the game, even before they’ve had a chance to launch their Kickstarter campaign, slated for January.
Sexualizing the justices of the Supreme Court is an unusual activity and in the case of one justice, Clarence Thomas, it’s already been controversial.
Before the 2016 election, game developer Jesse Shepherd worked at Apple for the Games Center team, climbing his way through software development in Seattle. He told Kotaku over the phone that he’d always voted and been politically active in a bare minimum sense. Then Donald Trump became president.
Shepherd and artist Soren Kalla at the 2018 Intel Buzz workshop in Seattle.Photo: Jesse Shepherd
“I started thinking more seriously about—how can I do something that will make an impact?” he said. His efforts started with community service and doing door-to-door campaigning. “But I also thought more seriously about some stupid game ideas.” One of those ideas was Supreme Courtship.
“The goal with Supreme Courtship is just to raise awareness among young voters about what the Supreme Court is, how important they are, and who the justices are.”
Shepherd describes himself as politically liberal, but says he comes from a family he describes as conservative and which has used their vote to try to push the court to the right. “Members of my family would say things like, ‘We don’t like Trump, but he’s at least going to appoint Supreme Court justices that are Republican,’ and I would never expect to hear any of my younger liberal friends say the same.” Maybe a game could make younger people care more about the court, he figured.
One of the biggest problems inherent in making a game about dating the current justices of the Supreme Court is that it casts a justice who was accused of sexual harassment as a love interest.
Shepherd was born just three years before law professor Anita Hill testified to Congress that Clarence Thomas, then nominated to be a Supreme Court justice, had sexually harassed her by making numerous lewd references to her about bestiality, putting pubic hair on a can of Coke and bragging to her about his sexual prowess. Thomas was confirmed anyway, denying the claims.
The Supreme Court Justices in 2017, before Justice Anthony Kennedy retired. Thomas is seated in the front row, second from the right.Photo: Alex Wong (Getty Images)
“I was born in 1988; too young by far in 1991 to have understood the importance of the #SupremeCourt or to have made a difference during the #ClarenceThomas confirmation,” Shepherd said in a tweet earlier this month. “I’m not too young now.”
He was tweeting in light of a sexual assault allegation made against Brett Kavanaugh, the judge nominated by Trump to take the seat of the retiring Anthony Kennedy. In a series of Tweets, Shepherd said he believed Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. Last week, Ford and Kavanaugh testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding Ford’s accusation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school. Kavanaugh denied the claims. The vote on Kavanugh’s confirmation has since been delayed so that the FBI can investigate.
In his thread of Tweets, Shepherd took aim at “power structures that deliberately diminish women, particularly those who have been targets of abuse. Our institutions should have higher standards than to admit men who need those structures to shield them from the consequences of their actions.”
What’d this have to do with the game? Shepherd said that his goal was to educate people about the court but that the potential inclusion of Thomas had already made the dating context difficult.
In an interview with Kotaku last week, he said he reached out to activists to get their perspectives and said he was leery of excluding one of the Court’s few minority justices. “We want to raise awareness about the real person Clarence Thomas and what he’s done, and we don’t want to be in a position where we’re making apologies for him that he’s never made for himself.”
Today, after reflecting on Ford and Kavanaugh’s testimony, Shepherd told Kotaku via email: “If I were in the position now to choose whether or not to quit my job and work on a game like this—a quirky, faux-romance game about the Supreme Court—I would seriously reconsider. However, other indie developers that I know well have encouraged me to finish taking the game to Kickstarter and let the audience decide.”
On September 21, the official Supreme Courtship Twitter account had explained how they came to the decision to include Clarence Thomas: he would still be a character in this romantic game, but you would not be able to date him. “After much discussion we’ve arrived at a course of action. #ClarenceThomas will NOT be a romance-able character in #SupremeCourtship,” the Tweets said. “We will not write a redemption arc for a man who has neither admitted to nor apologized for his actions. We will, however, keep #ClarenceThomas in the game, so that we can talk about his background and judicial beliefs. Lastly, we will discuss his behavior and sexual harassment in the game itself, doing our best to treat the topic with the seriousness it deserves.”
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford being sworn in during Kavanaugh’s hearing.Photo: Pool (Getty Images)
In a phone call today, Shepherd said that after listening to Ford and Kavanaugh’s testimony last week, he also has no interest in portraying Kavanaugh in the game. Luckily, Supreme Courtship has already sidestepped that issue.
As it stands now, Supreme Courtship will focus on Ginsburg, Roberts and Kennedy. Neil Gorsuch, who was confirmed to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat last year after Republicans had blocked Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, will appear as a background character. The game will actually be set right after the events of Scalia’s death in early 2016, and the player takes on the role of the ninth justice in that Gorsuch seat. With Kennedy still in the court in the game version of America, there’s no room for Kavanaugh on the bench. Bullet dodged.
Sheryl McCloud, a Washington State Supreme Court justice whose advice Shepherd sought, told Kotaku that after a skeptical first reaction, she’s hopeful the game will have a positive impact. “We’re at a low ebb in civics understanding and civics teaching throughout the country,” she said. “I think the advantage [of this game] is people learning more about the third branch of government, the one that’s not usually taught about, the one whose power really depends on respect for the judiciary, respect for the courts. Courts and judges don’t have a standing army or a standing police force. We can certainly enforce judgments, but the first line of enforcing them is through people agreeing that they’re worthy of respect. And I do think that we’re in an era where the judiciary, where judges’ authority, is being undermined.”
Shepherd plans to launch a Kickstarter for Supreme Courtship in January and hopes people will find the whole enterprise worth supporting. “Ultimately, I still think there’s still a lot of good that can come out of this project—perhaps now more than ever,” Shepherd said. “But I’d be lying if I said the stakes weren’t staggeringly high, especially for a small team working on their first game.”
The world of Cities: Skylines “builder” YouTubers is substantial. Video creators like Strictoaster and Fluxtrance have carved out a space on the platform for themselves by recording the process of building beautiful cities, landscapes, or strange architectural feats in Skylines, speeding the recordings up, and then talking through their process.
Donoteat, who humorously self-describes as a “disgusting neckbearded STEMlord with a degree in civil engineering,” counts himself as a socialist, and whose real name is Justin Roczniak, saw these kinds of Skylines videos and decided to do something different.
“Talking about the game itself or how you modded it to achieve the visuals you wanted is all well and good,” he wrote in an email exchange with Kotaku, “but I thought maybe it would be more interesting to talk about how cities actually work while doing the video rather than just talk about how I’m painting a pretty picture.”
Roczniak’s main Skylines series is centered on a city named Franklin. The videos are unflinching looks at how American history and politics have created its cities. The series approaches cities from a historical angle, beginning with the time before colonization in North America and then slowly building period-to-period from there. There is no blank slate from which cities emerge, the videos argue, but instead they are founded through mass displacement and control. The early videos are dominated by discussions of trade and mercantile systems because Roczniak is plainly claiming that thinking the American city without taking those things seriously means that you’re not really addressing what cities are.
Franklin exists as a kind of allegory for real cities, not being based on any one in particular, but the things that happen in and around the city of Franklin are all based on the history of city development. The design decisions we see Roczniak making when he is plopping down water features, roads, or houses are grounded in decisions that have been made in real-world cities. He’s playing out the DNA of the modern urban area with a digital clone.
One of those is about Mohammed. Mohammed is a shopkeeper with a cat who dislikes belly rubs. He’s planning to buy the building he lives and works in. It is demolished to make room for a freeway, and his compensation is two years worth of rent.
Roczniak narrates this fictional story with a complete deadpan voice, and it makes it all the more chilling. As he explains, stories like this have happened across the U.S. during the 20th century in cities like New York, Detroit, and Baltimore. “People’s lives are buried in abutments and pillar foundations,” he says solemnly.
That video is from “Power, Politics, and Planning,” a side series that takes on broader issues than the Franklin series, but both are committed to showing the human cost of urban policy making. And when you watch Roczniak play it out, you really get a sense of what those costs are.
After all, cities don’t just appear. They are built at the intersection of many different complex systems that are often elided or ignored in city building video games. Roczniak specifically mentioned Paulo Pedercini’s keynote at the International City-Gaming Conference from 2017 as a way of starting to think about his Cities: Skylines videos. As Roczniak explained, in city builder games “there’s no towns or villages on the map, no indigenous populations that you kick out to build your 50th MegaCity 2000” and there’s “no simulation of social, racial, or economic issues beyond a city budget.”
Without these elements, Roczniak suggests, you’re not really simulating much at all when it comes to cities. It means that telling a truer story requires some narrative work. As Roczniak noted,
“I tried to do a series where we compensate for that by telling a story, and that story has to start in the pre-colonial era so folks realize just how much of a civilization was there before, and how we kicked the indigenous population out to build our cities. And then as we go along we’ll see more plenty more cycles of people being kicked out to make room for more people or more development, and see how people grow rich or poor from economic circumstances beyond their control, and conflicts between labor and management, between different races, between different genders, and so on and so forth, and all the really messy stuff that goes on to build a city.”
Roczniak is quick to point out the historical injustices between bosses and employees or slave owners and slaves and to track those injustices into our contemporary period. In one video, he explicitly calls to abolish ICE while explaining how the organization is an outgrowth of some of the systems of power that were developed during mercantilism. The connections between now and then are significant.
When asked why he takes a specifically political angle with his YouTube videos, Roczniak explained that the Franklin series was originally intended to merely be historical and not necessarily political. “Of course it turns out staying ‘apolitical’ with regard to history is impossible so I just let the leftist politics run wild rather than try to hold to some absurd standard of apoliticality,” he noted.
Letting the politics run wild allows Roczniak to delve deep into the relationship between historical facts and the cities that are created in the wake of that history. In his episode on the creation of the water system in the fictional Franklin, he lays out all of the wonderful and positive effects of water distribution before historically grounding how water was explicitly classed. The working class was too poor to get access to water or experience any cultural changes that came along with running water.
He also uses this as a way of seamlessly move into a discussion of water resource management and the different uses for dams and reservoirs in our historical moment. Storing water for wildfire control is not one of those, Roczniak explains while showing a tweet from the President. Immediately afterward, he shows a tweet from the California Department of Corrections that demonstrates that “youth offenders” are being used as volunteer firefighters in that state. With deep sarcasm in his voice, Roczniak states that “effective wildfire fighting requires more conventional means, like child prison labor.”
At every moment, Roczniak is stressing that the history that he is modeling in his Skylines builds, in this case water management, is directly attached to what is happening right now in American politics. He’s showing that the vast infrastructural moves that have been made to historically support our urbanization techniques over the past few centuries have come at extreme costs in human life and happiness. From that perspective, from ICE to water management, it doesn’t seem like anyone can have a neutral perspective when it comes to the policies and organizations that operate in and around America’s urban centers.
When asked if he considered himself a “leftist YouTuber,” Roczniak cedes that he might be at this point, but that he thinks of his videos at doing something slightly different than other leftists on the platform. “I don’t think, like, Contrapoints is gonna come out with a 30 minute leftist analysis of Amtrak,” he explained. “What I really want to do is provide a different take on how we view cities and what cities are capable of.”
During the email exchange with Kotaku, Roczniak made an impassioned case for why this all matters. For him, the actual implementation of design philosophies like New Urbanism in current cities have produced novelty but not substantive change. In his own words:
“This mode of thinking around urban policy has bred a lot of mediocrity. Like building a tourist streetcar without dedicated lanes instead of a subway. Or a means-tested tax credit for renters instead of rent control. Or waiting for a hypothetical privately-funded magic vacuum train instead of actually investing in high-speed rail we could have built 40 years ago. These mediocre ideas shouldn’t be the limits; we can do better. I want a Philadelphia with more than 3 subway lines. I want to see a public housing scheme that actually drives home prices down. I want more trains going to more places. I want rent control, goddammit. So I’m making a series that shows how this is possible, why it hasn’t happened, and why it’s desirable.”
Roczniak’s video output is certainly unique both in the Skylines YouTube community and on YouTube in general. The platform has a notable contingency of right-wing content producers, and it is refreshing to see a creator in the video game space that is working to explain leftist issues through accessible video game build videos.
When asked if he had any must-read texts or websites for people who find his show interesting, Roczniak said to join the“New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens” group on Facebook. As for other materials, Roczniak recommended Robert Caro’s The Power Brokerand the same author’s Lyndon Johnson series for people who are interested in learning more about the concepts deployed in his videos.
Then “go online and take a poke through your city’s zoning code, and understand what the restrictions actually mean. Try to figure out and understand the reasons why things are built the way they are built, and the politics behind the reasons.”
This seems to be the real change that Roczniak is after. Cities: Skylines videos are just a pathway to get there.
Game developer Brianna Wu lost her bid for Congress yesterday and in a series of tweets acknowledged shortcomings of her campaign that she said she’d fix for a new bid for office in 2020.
“Our campaign raised almost $200,000,” she noted in Twitter shortly after polls closed. “And truth be told, I did not put nearly the amount of work into this that I should have.”
Wu was always a longshot, so her loss to eight-term Congressman Stephen Lynch in a try for Massachusetts’ Eighth District was not a surprise, nor were some of her admitted struggles.
Last week, Kotaku shadowed Wu and her husband Frank as they canvassed the neighborhoods near Dedham, Massachusetts. Wu spoke passionately about being motivated to push the Democratic party to the left, but her two-person door-to-door team came off as a practice round. The sales pitch for her candidacy, when delivered face-to-face on someone’s porch, didn’t always sound clear or fully formed, and Wu seemed to be spending as much time on spreadsheet data as working the phones.
Wu rose to prominence in the gaming scene in the fall of 2014 after clashing with the GamerGate outrage movement. Two years later, she announced she was pivoting to politics in a Facebook post the December after Donald Trump won the 2016 election. In the ensuing year she tried to appeal to the Bernie Sanders-wing of the party by focusing on issues like income inequality and Medicare for All, though her message has not always been consistent. With me, and often online, she’s called for socialized medicine, but the week before the election she hedged when speaking to The Patriot Ledger, saying, “Medicare for all could be an effective solution, but it would be scarily expensive, so I think we need a solution that is multi-factorial,”
At least this time around, the District she ran in, which includes some of Boston but also many of the less liberal suburbs to the South, ended up not going for it, at least this time.
In her Tweets last night she said her “biggest mistake early on was NOT HIRING EXPERIENCED PEOPLE at the beginning” (her emphasis).
Federal Election Commission records showed Wu’s campaign made payments to seven different people for their work during the campaign. On the day I spent shadowing her campaign, there were no other staffers around and Wu declined to discuss their current or former roles in the campaign, citing the potential for harassment if it was publicized they were working on her campaign.
“For 2020, I’m going to spend more time on this and hire a much larger team,” Wu said on Twitter. In an email to Kotaku, she elaborated. “Next time around, I need to do more call time and fundraisers, and spend less time doing graphic design, analytics and other things I enjoy far more.”
One thing Wu does think translated into her campaign winning 17,000 votes in the primary was her willingness to speak her mind. “I think I found a way to migrate my rebel indie developer persona to politics,” she wrote in another tweet. “This was very difficult. It’s hard for any woman to be authentic in the public eye – but I hope the real me still comes through.”
Regardless of what worked or didn’t work, Wu said she’s set on running again. “Ultimately, this was my campaign,” she wrote in her final tweet on the matter. “The mistakes are mine, and I own that. We will course correct for 2020.”
Wu is a political novice and someone whose zeal for controversy has led some to react to her run for political office not with enthusiasm but with eyerolls. But she consistently expressed the confidence that she could be a contender and, before recognizing she’d lose, had been looking to add her name to the small but growing list of upsets that has rocked the Democratic party by women running to the party’s left. That’s what Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pulled off in June in defeating high ranking Congressman Joe Crowley who had previously represented constituents in New York City for nearly two decades. When I watched her canvas, she routinely introduced herself as “part of the army of women running for Congress.”
Back in 2016, Your Name creator Makoto Shinkai directed, edited and storyboarded a short commercial for an educational service. A recent Korean political ad has been accused of ripping it off.
Shinkai’s short commercial, titled “Crossroad,” was screened along with the previews during Your Name’s Japanese theatrical run.
Via NicoNico News, below is a comparison between the political ad from South Korea’s Justice Party (on the left) and Shinkai’s “Crossroad” (on the right).
Here are both spots running side by side.
There are noticeable similarities, no?
This is much more than a series of kwinky-dinks because the Justice Party has apologized after admitting to tracing Shinkai’s original work as well as stealing the director’s compositions. The person in charge of the political ad’s production is reportedly a huge Shinkai fan and traced the director’s work to meet the commercial’s deadline.
When I arrive at the headquarters of Brianna Wu For Congress, a modest house near the bottom of a quiet street in Dedham, Massachusetts, the candidate is just back from her morning run. She’s practically electric while telling me and her husband about a group of construction workers she’d run past. She had thought they were catcalling her, only to realize after she took her earbuds out that they were in fact shouting about how they planned to vote for her in Tuesday’s primary.
This, I would learn after spending a day on the campaign trail with the candidate, was pure Brianna Wu. Far from assuming she has a chance in hell of winning, Wu routinely appears surprised but emboldened by the fact that people want to support her candidacy.
Wu, whose studio Giant Spacekat released the action adventure role-playing game Revolution 60 in 2014, is one of the only game developers who has ever run for political office, and the biggest name in the scene to do so since former LucasArts president Jim Ward tried unsuccessfully for a House seat in Arizona in 2009.
She announced her intention to run in December of 2016, shortly after Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. She’d volunteered for the Clinton campaign and watched it fail. “I can’t sit by making pleasant video game distractions for the next four years while the Constitution is under assault,” she told Venturebeat at the time. In January she made it official, saying she would run in Massachusetts’ 8th district, which encompasses an eastern sliver of Boston and large swaths of the suburbs south of the city. By April of this year, she had secured the 2,000 signatures necessary to get on the ballot, and has been fighting hard to get a foothold in the race ever since.
Wu’s main opponent is moderate Democrat Stephen Lynch, an eight-term incumbent who last faced a primary challenger in 2010 and beat them two to one. This time he’s up against Wu and former fighter pilot Christopher Voehl. With no Republicans in the race, the winner of the seat will be all but decided during the Democratic primary on Tuesday, September 4.
Congressional districts are made up of roughly 711,000 people, but most don’t vote, especially in primaries. Wu has national and even international awareness as a proponent of women’s issues in video games and as a vocal opponent of the online outrage movement Gamergate. She’s been on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, been featured inThe New York Times and earlier this year propelled a discussion across the gaming industry about whether the founder of Atari was a sexist, a charge that some of the women who worked with him later refuted. She isn’t shy about sharing her political views or her accounts of ceaseless harassment against her—including briefly being driven from her home following threats after she mocked Gamergate in 2014—to her 80,000 Twitter followers, either. All of that may not amount to much against incumbent Lynch, who may just have 3,500 Twitter followers but has raised $647,958 this campaign cycle to Wu’s $172,941.
Heading into the homestretch, Wu seems exhausted. In fact, she told me a couple times throughout the day how much she misses the gaming industry. She’d rather be working on the next project from Giant Spacekat, the game studio she co-founded, she said. But she described running for office and trying to push the Democratic party left in the age of Trump as a form of public service. “I image people [fighting] in World War II didn’t want to do that, but you did because you loved your country,” she said. –”That’s exactly why I’m out here, too.”
The Wu campaign’s two-car fleet includes this Dodge Charger which Frank Wu drives as they canvass the neighborhoods. Brianna drives an older Porsche Boxster she bought used and has been fixing up when she needs a distraction from the campaign. Photo: Kotaku
In truth, my day covering the Wu campaign began before she came back from that run. It was 9:30 a.m., the temperature already inching into the 90s, when a jet-black Dodge Challenger with a “Brianna Wu For Congress” sign on the passenger-side door pulled up outside my hotel in Dedham. Behind the wheel was Frank Wu, Brianna’s husband and campaign treasurer. He’s also a pharmaceutical patent lawyer, moonlights as a science fiction fan artist, and helps with the campaign’s YouTube ads. In the most popular of them, Frank wears a Godzilla costume to represent how Wu will take on Trump.
Frank and I stop at a McDonald’s. He gets a breakfast sandwich and hash browns, telling the woman at the window he doesn’t need a coffee because he already has a drink, gesturing at a pair of Dr. Peppers sitting in the center console. All the while, we’re talking about the candidate’s focus on tech policy. Wu has recently been focusing on cybersecurity, an expertise which comes from her time in the tech industry making games and, she says, the need to protect her personal info seriously once trolls from across the internet began trying to hack it. Brianna had been expecting to attract educated, left-leaning millennials and Gen Xers, but Frank tells me about how scams around Social Security Numbers have helped her message around data privacy and cybersecurity resonate with older constituents. Baby Boomers in the suburbs around Boston might not be up on the latest Facebook data scandal, but many, according to Frank, are desperately worried about scammers getting hold of the key to their government retirement program.
Once we arrive at the house and meet up with Brianna, there are no staffers or volunteers. Instead I’m greeted by the barks of three small dogs, various mixes of Havanese and Bichon, named Kablam, Splat, and Rocket. For the rest of the day, these are the only other life forms associated with the campaign, outside of Brianna and Frank, that I will hear from. She says this is because of how the campaign is a target for online stalkers and harassers, and out of a need to protect her staff from the type of daily attacks she’s had to deal with since coming out in defense of women developers during the peak of Gamergate in late 2014. FEC records list about half a dozen workers on the campaign, but with no real detail or consistency to help illuminate how much the operation expands beyond Brianna and Frank.
Alone, the three of us set off to meet a group of about a dozen gas workers up the road who are entering the tenth week of being locked out by National Grid. These members of USW Local 12003 spend many mornings camped out on a high-traffic stretch of University Ave opposite several police officers. Negotiations for a new contract fell through in mid-June, and the union workers were replaced by contract workers. I ride shotgun with Brianna in her Porsche Boxster while Frank carries the campaign swag in the Dodge, the two cars eventually parking on either side, flanking the workers. Frank gets to them first. Brianna and I catch up seconds later.
“How are you guys doing?” she says, jumping right in. “I’m Brianna Wu. I’m running to be your Congresswoman. I’m really in support of what you’re doing.” She asks them how they’re holding up. They do most of the talking, with her occasionally popping in with comments like, “It just gets me so mad, It’s like you guys just want to make a living wage, you know?”
Frank tries several times to mention how Trump’s tax policies are lining companies’ pockets, but the locked-out workers are focused on National Grid’s actions. “Every quarter it’s a record quarter, every year a record year,” one of the union guys, who wishes not to be identified, says. She asks them what help they need that they aren’t getting. Their focus is on how the company refuses to negotiate in good faith.
They want to tell their story and she does a good job of listening, but when it comes to her Bernie Sanders-esque rallying cry of income inequality and stronger bargaining rights for workers, it’s like two ships passing in the night. A few trucks go by and honk in solidarity.
“If I’m elected, reach out to me,” Wu says. “I will have your back. ”
“We appreciate all the help we can get,” replies one of the workers. It’s hot. Everyone is sweating. The conversation progresses awkwardly but heartfelt.
From there we head over to the home of author and science fiction critic Thomas Easton. Frank’s already on the lawn talking with Easton by the time we get out of the . The author is white-haired with a finely groomed goatee and a twirly, white mustache. We’re at his house so Wu can drop off a yard sign for his wife, who the campaign has been trying to recruit as a volunteer. Easton makes a joke about Wu never inviting them to all of the hip parties they attend. He mentions a recent segment he heard on the Rachel Maddow show about children being kept at the border, flowing straight into a diatribe about how Trump is shredding the Constitution. Wu says she’s melting. He invites us in for the AC. Wu thanks him for his vote, but says we need to get going.
“We need Congressfolk who understand the trials faced by women, POC, and other marginalized groups,” Easton writes to me via Facebook Messenger later. “I’m hoping that Brianna Wu will be able to make a valuable contribution there.”
We head back to the Wu household. Brianna invites me upstairs to the second floor to see the makeshift office that houses her iMac and thus operates as the de facto campaign headquarters. She has to spend the afternoon sorting through a combination of public and private data on Eighth District voters in order to figure out who to target for her last-ditch push against Lynch.
Brianna Wu (left) speaks with district resident and writer Tom Easton (right) after dropping of a campaign sign for him to host on his lawn. Photo: Kotaku
Frank keeps busy setting up a third air conditioner, with the assistance of some duct tape and a dryer hose, to keep the campaign humming along at a cool 63 degrees. He asks several times whether I’m too hot. It’s fine, I say; my partner and I still use box fans, at least until global warming gets worse. “Yeah, we’re fucked,” Frank replies.
While Frank finishes fine-tuning the environmental controls, Brianna works on a fundraiser email. She says she hasn’t sent one in a while. “I’m very sparing, because it feels so fucking gross,” she says. She hopes doing so this time will pay off as she reaches out for the funds needed to buy targeted ads on Facebook and mount a texting-based get-out-the-vote-effort in the crucial days leading up to the election.
The room where Brianna Wu works is barely furnished, aside from her desk where her iMac sits, and a dining room table holding up a pair of monitors and a couple of phone lines. A light reflector stands along the opposite wall, presumably for when the candidate does video interviews. Behind her are a series of faux-canvas panels that together make up an abstract painting of the American flag. On the opposite wall are posters for Star Wars: Rogue One and for Mr. Robot, the television series about a rogue hacker.
Her main objective of the afternoon is to pore over some 65,000 names on a spreadsheet, locate the ones most likely to be pro-Wu, and then convert them into actual votes. Federal voter data is publicly available and can include names, street addresses, emails, and phone numbers. This data can be combined with the type mined from internet users across any number of websites and platforms to fill in the blanks and offer a picture of each individual voter in a district. That information can then be used to focus on individuals for text messages, internet ads, donation requests, and door-to-door canvassing. It’s some of the stuff people are talking about when they say “Russia hacked the election” and also the type of stuff every modern campaign does, including one being run by a pro-privacy, pro-internet regulation candidate like Wu.
“I feel really gross,” she says. “It scares me just how much data is out there.” When I ask her what she cares most about, she shows me the government website for the United States House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and discusses why she wants so desperately to serve on its Subcommittee for Research and Technology
“If we get eight votes on this committee, we can absolutely run the table on literally everything to do with the game industry, with Facebook, with tech, all of it,” she says excitedly. “Eight votes. Eight fucking votes and you control every bill that comes out of the House on this.” It’s here she feels her experience and background would be most useful, she says, and where she could turn her ideas for better laws governing how data is shared on the internet into legislation. These proposals range from things like personal identity protection that would replace people’s SSNs and birthdates with cryptographic keys to making companies that buy and sell data more liable for its misuse. She also suggests the possibility of all data collected by companies to eventually sunset and be destroyed.
Frank Wu shows me the campaign’s map of Massachusetts’ Eighth Congressional District and explains the diverse mix of communities it includes.Photo: Kotaku
“I’m buying databases,” she says. “I’ve literally, as we’ve been sitting here, bought a database filled with 20,000 phone numbers of people here in Massachusetts. There were no checks on me. It wasn’t sent in any sort of tracking format to figure out who I am. I just called someone up who I just met yesterday, and asked to get those numbers and they sent it over within 24 hours.” Wu wants to get into Congress to try and pass a law that would make the people who purchase that data, like her, liable for how it’s used and for any damage that results from mishandling it.
For now, she’s willing to use the tools currently available, even as she finds the idea of buying a whole voting district’s worth of personal information for a few thousand dollars ghastly on its face. “We have to work with the system we have to win,” she says. As she bounces between fine-tuning the copy for her fundraiser email and discussing the details of new voter databases she plans to buy, she seems to relax. Twitter and email are a click away, and her logical problem-solving skills honed as a software designer can take center stage. “I enjoy quiet days at home in front of the computer,” she says.
As she sorts, copies, and deletes cells in her spreadsheet, Wu holds forth on a number of wide-ranging topics. “He just seems to not give a shit,” she says of her incumbent opponent. She reiterates that she thinks the Hillary Clinton/Nancy Pelosi playbook is obsolete.She wants to abolish ICE, the U.S. agency of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and take on racial injustice, but also laments that police have a difficult job and are underpaid. At some point she lets out a howl, and when I ask what’s wrong, she says she’s just seen Elon Musk’s latest tweet doubling down on his claim that one of the divers involved in the effort to rescue a soccer team from a cave in Thailand was in fact a pedophile. “I think he’s done more good than bad,” she says of Musk.
We eventually make our way to moon rocks, one of the more bizarre subjects Wu has gotten wrapped up in during her new political career. In February 2017, shortly after announcing her candidacy, Wu tweeted “The moon is probably the most tactically valuable military ground for earth. Rocks dropped from there have power of 100s of nuclear bombs.” She was mocked for it online and deleted the Tweet. The context was around it was an announcement that SpaceX, owned by Musk, was planning a mission to the moon. “A private corporation having access to [the] moon should give you pause,” she tweeted at the time.
“I thought the moon rocks thing was very unfair,” she says. “I’m sitting there late at night talking about how Elon Musk is talking about going to the moon and how the Moon has a lot of strategic importance as a military asset.” She cites is The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. In it, revolutionaries on a lunar colony launch rocks to terrorize residents on earth. “I used the phrase ‘drop moon rocks,’ as in, ‘drop into a gravity well,’ on Twitter and the fucking Washington Times goes into this ‘Brianna Wu believes if you drop rocks on the moon that they’re gonna fall here’ and it’s just like, you can’t say anything to defend yourself from it.”
Frank (left) and Brianna (right) go door-to-door in the final days of the campaign targeting households most likely to vote for her if they learn there’s an alternative to incumbent Democratic Congressman Stephen Lynch. Photo: Kotaku
During the three and a half hours we spend in her office, Brianna asks Siri several times how hot it is outside. Every time, the AI’s response is the same: 93 degrees. She has an app on her phone that feeds off one of the data sets she’s purchased and suggests where she should canvas. It looks a little like Uber, but for likely voters. It shows a map of the area with pinpoints for individual addresses called out instead of cars, the thinking being that if you’re a small campaign with limited time and resources, you only want to hit the potential voters you have the highest likelihood of winning over.
We head out around 5 p.m., a two-car campaign caravan. After a 10-minute ride, we’ve arrived. “Do I look okay?” Brianna asks Frank as we get out of the car to begin the handshakes. “You look great,” he says.
The first house is large, with a two-car garage. A child answers and says their parents aren’t home. The next house across the way is more dingy, and nobody stirs inside. Finally, on number three, we hear rustling inside but still no answer. Brianna points approvingly at a red 80s GT Mustang with a black stripe down the center in a driveway as we pass. She’s a car lover. Every time someone doesn’t answer the door immediately, Frank suggests we move onto the next house, but while his instinct seems to arise from a desire to avoid people, it’s also often accurate.
Several houses in, someone finally answers. “Hi, I’m Brianna Wu, I’m running to be your Congresswoman!” Brianna says. “Sorry, I’m on a conference call,” a stressed looking middle-aged woman responds in a thick Boston accent. Brianna gives her a flyer and wishes her well. Another woman is taking her trash out across the way. Brianna asks her what her top issue is. “Nothing I can say off the top of my head,” she replies.
Across the street, we approach a man taking out his trash and watering his tiny but immaculate lawn. He says he’s just back from the beach and has the leather-worn tan to prove it, but he doesn’t seem to understand what Brianna is up to beyond the fact that she’s a Democrat running for office. He says he’ll support her because he’s also a Democrat. Frank’s superlatives about Brianna being tough on cyber security appear to go right over his head.
“You gotta get in before you go to the finals,” says the man, suggesting he understands she’s running against another Democrat. His enthusiasm, wherever it’s aimed, is a welcome distraction from the rest of the encounters, although when we come back past him on the return trip and Frank asks if they can put a sign on his beautiful lawn, he declines.
Brianna Wu (right) consults the canvassing app on her phone to see which houses we’ve hit while Frank Wu (left) puts signs and literature back in the car. Photo: Kotaku
The canvassing trek lasts about an hour, leaving all of us soaked in sweat. Frank whispers about getting some ice cream. The two complement each other well. Frank is the cheery, happy-go-lucky supporter pouring endless amounts of positive energy into an uncertain venture, and Brianna is the unflinching fighter willing to introduce herself to an endless sea of strangers at dinner time on a late, soggy August evening. She’s spent the last hour introducing herself as “part of the army of women running for Congress” trying to save our democracy and pull the Democratic party to the left, only for them to respond with variations on “Sorry, ya caught me really off guard” as they close the door and head back into their clapboard-sided New England houses. The grind has led her to take up Pokemon Go, and on the way back from canvassing as we whip around another corner in her Boxster she points out a local American Legion meeting hall, the location of a Pokemon Go gym she says she’s taken over dozens of times.
Brianna Wu, currently 41 years old, assumes she’s going to lose on September 4, and for much of the day, she and Frank talk about what’s next. She’s committed to running again in 2020, the same year Trump will be up for reelection. Earlier in the day, Frank had spoken about how they’re “learning the mechanics of how to run a campaign,” suggesting the Wus already consider 2018 to be more of a practice run.
For next time, Brianna says she plans to “get more killer Democratic operatives.” She’d also like to rent an actual campaign office, so everyone working on the campaign can easily meet and plan events like phone banking and canvassing. She says she also plans to do more delegating, rather than managing everything from data analytics to public relations herself. For example, she intends to pay third-parties to collect the 2,000 signatures she needs to get on the ballot next time, rather than trying to do that all by herself, and also build up a more sizable warchest of fundraising from cybersecurity and net neutrality advocates much earlier in the process.
Whatever strategic and tactical changes does end up making, Brianna Wu is not ready to throw in the towel yet on politics, no matter how much part of her would like to.
“I never felt like I found my purpose in life until I was a game developer running a game studio,” she says. But there will be time for that later. “I really see what I’m doing now as public service. The truth is, America needs a leader to do the right thing right now more than they need another video game.”
Duncan’s charges are related to the filing of false records and the use of $250,000 in campaign funds to pay for personal expenses, which ranged from an Italian holiday to fancy dinners to purchases like:
Looks like somebody couldn’t wait for the Christmas Steam sale.
CNN reports that since the allegations first surfaced in 2016 Hunter has repaid approximately $65,000 of the $250,000 in misspent funds. His lawyer claims that any use of campaign funds for personal goods and services “were strictly inadvertent and unintentional”, while Hunter himself blames the Steam game purchases on his son.
He will appear in a Federal Court in San Diego on Thursday, alongside his wife Margaret, who is also facing charges.
Through the Darkest of Times is being made by a small German studio, and has you playing as a resistance member working against the Nazi party’s rise following Hitler’s election victory in 1933.
The developer’s long fight to be able to use important historic symbols is detailed in this Gamasutra post, which is definitely worth a read for the detail it goes into on the background behind the constitution’s prohibition.
The trailer below, released in April, obviously doesn’t feature any symbols, seeing as it came before the decision, but a version of the game submitted to the USK just ahead of GamesCom this week did and passed, meaning Through the Darkest of Times will be allowed to show everything from Nazi salutes to the swastika when it’s released.
It’s still in development, but it’s hoped an Early Access version of the game will be out soon.