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YES, VIDEOGAMES ARE POLITICAL
October 5, 2009, 9:55 pm
Filed under: Features | Tags: ,

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In a recent piece over at Bitmob, Christopher Quach discussed the validity of conveying political messages in videogames, essentially concluding that the industry’s reputation as disposable entertainment, along with its desire to cater to as wide an audience as possible, precludes it from ever engaging in political discourse.

It is an interesting piece, well argued and certainly representative of the majority of mainstream opinion, but it is also flawed in a number of ways.

Perhaps most obviously the piece overlooks the work of many independent videogame developers. Games like Cutthroat Capitalism, Kabul Kaboom! and Super Columbine Massacre RPG! go some way to challenge the idea of an apolitical videogame landscape. With varying degrees of success and tastefulness, these modestly sized games use the medium to communicate overtly political statements, encompassing military, economic and social issues. There are many more examples out there.

That these games operate on the peripheries of the industry should come as no surprise. The same is true of all media, where overt political statements are best explored on the margins. But that doesn’t mean that mainstream games are bereft of political content, anymore than big-budget movies or the best-selling comics and novels.

Videogames, as cultural artifacts, are unescapably political. Even the most vacuous of games, despite their ostensible mindlessness, cannot fail to reflect the politics of the culture in which they were produced.

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Take this example. In the Eighties, western politics were dominated by two figures; Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The US President and the British Prime Minister’s relationship was a close one, due in large part to their advocacy of a particular brand of conservatism. Though they chose to express these beliefs in slightly different ways, their ideology was the same.

This quote from Margaret Thatcher conveys the message most concisely;

“There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then to look after our neighbour.” (M. Thatcher, Woman’s Own, October 31, 1987)

What Thatcher is trying to communicate here is that a successful country, indeed a successful world, is the direct result of individualism. Do not rely on others, just be the very best you can be and everything will fall into place. In short, look after yourself.

Similarly, Reagan’s ‘Social Darwinism’ embraced this notion of the individual, perhaps most obviously in the field of economics. Reagan stimulated the entrepreneurial realm by rewarding it with economic gain, while simultaneously cutting several welfare programs. The message was just the same as Thatcher’s; strive for personal glory, for individual gain. Look after yourself.

This is the reason that Gordon Gekko, the “greed is good” protagonist of 1987 film Wall Street, is rightly identified as a symbol of the decade. He was primarily self-serving in his quest for power and wealth.

pitYou can see this notion reflected clearly in the western videogames of the period, although in a less sophisticated way. The vast majority of these games employed a lone hero protagonist. While co-op games existed and were technologically possible, single-player reigned supreme. Regardless of the narratives and their sci-fi/world war/fantasy archetypes, the central political message was the same; You and you alone are capable of saving the world. Do not rely on help, do not rely on others – success, glory, riches, empowerment – all of this will come through your individual efforts.

Oh and there is a good chance you’ll be a white man too.

Fast forward 20 years and the political landscape has changed dramatically. While Thatcher and Reagan’s legacy is still apparent, attitudes are different. Most obviously, both countries are now run by liberal governments. As a result, notions of society and community are once again on the agenda. Just look at President Obama’s current efforts to introduce universal healthcare, funded by the taxes of those who have achieved their individual wealth. The language of Presidency has changed from “I” to “we.” Now we strive to look after each other.

Similarly, race and gender politics have progressed in the intervening 20 years. While inequalities still exist, the gap is closing. Racial tolerance and gender equality have vastly improved since the Eighties. All of this can be seen in current-gen videogames.

Perhaps the most profound shift in the games industry in the last few years has been the explosion of co-op. Not only are developers dedicating more and more time to providing co-op experiences in their games, they are also finding new ways of exploring the dynamic within it. Perhaps the best example of this is the work by Valve in the Left 4 Dead series. Here, rather than just providing a space for a team of individuals to progress through the game, they are explicitly designing them to punish those who do not co-ordinate their efforts.

In Left 4 Dead, the term co-op is not used as shorthand for campaign multiplayer, it is truly co-operative. You cannot look after yourself anymore, you have to look after each other. Only by communicating, compensating for team-mates weakness and working as a unit can you survive and ultimately ‘win.’

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Even in games where the co-operative element of co-op is less pronounced, the ideology is the same; you are not on your own anymore, you are part of a team. What’s more that team is more than likely multi-cultural and/or multi-gender. Don’t dismiss the presence of the Hispanic Dom in Gears of War, Black-African woman Sheva in Resident Evil or Afro-American Louis in Left 4 Dead as tokenistic additions. In today’s political climate it is expected that any representation of a group in any medium will be reflective of the society we live in. It is politically correct.

Now, this isn’t to say that the lone white-guy hero has been eradicated. Far from it, the bald, white space-marine is one of the most over-used characters in modern gaming. But it increasingly rare that they are lone heroes. A shift towards team-based, co-op featured games is undeniable.

In this way, mainstream videogames, even those seemingly void of political statement, are implicitly political. While for the most part they are not designed to tackle political issues head-on, or carry overt political messages, they do reflect the values and the popular ideology of the culture in which they were created. Be it the conservative, economically focused Eighties or the liberal, increasingly tolerant Noughties, politics are ingrained into the very code of the games we play.

So the problem with Christopher Quach’s article is not that it comes to the wrong conclusions, but perhaps that it asks the wrong question. Mainstream videogames are political, but can they be subversive or controversial? Can they challenge the popular ideology? Can they engage in discussion of a difficult political debate? It’s highly unlikely.

Subversion and controversy are divisive acts. Division means a smaller potential market. With publishers falling over themselves to make videogames as accessible as possible, and with the increasingly high cost of bringing games to platforms such as the PS3 and Xbox 360, only a profound shift in the industry would allow it. In this respect, Quach is absolutely, depressingly, right.

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