176: Pixels and Picket Lines

Pixels and Picket Lines

Videogames have been a useful tool for politicians for decades now, first as a scapegoat and now as a vehicle for reaching an elusive demographic. So why haven't they taken a stand of their own?

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Id put it down to an industry-wide fear of rocking the boat. Gamining is still trying to achieve real mainstream acceptance (or more specifically, access to mainstream wallets) & fears that anything genuinely contraversial & contemporary (no GTA is not this) will just add fuel to the fire & keep games on the sidelines, always there to be a pundits punchbag. I personally also think that any game attempting to deal with a contemporary issue would be seen as cheapening the whole thing. There are games that do, infact, address contraversial issues like Darfur. But look at the kind of game that is commercially successful these days & you realise any attempt to apply that modal to a genuinely contraversial issue would ultimately reduce the whole thing to just another shoot em up (see Call of Duty 4)

I see the industry treading in fear of having a Comics Code Authority rammed down its throat, and walking delicately around the sensibilities that led to the hobbling of the American comics culture for forty years, as the reason games are so apolitical these days. (How crippling yourself is better than having someone else cripple you is left as an exercise for the reader.)

-- Steve

Clearly, flash games in web pages is not to be counted with regards to political messages, huh? I encounter that stuff at places like www.newgrounds.com - a veritable hive of degradation and villainy where the occasional gem can be found.

That said though, I find games to be either very subtle in the political stances or pragmatic simply because a team of people built the damn things. Unless perhaps you are developing The Political (USA) Machine, which if I recall correctly is Stardock and available on Impulse, where it is a goal of the game to get specifically political, politics in a game is not so much pushed to the side but a practice in compromise and cooperation.

In my humble opinion, games can and do bring us together, even while we maintain our individuality. It is disappointing to see the broad brush gamers can be painted with at times thanks to less than stellar representatives of our community gaining the spot light for sensational intentions, like at civil and peaceful protests its not usually individuals in suits and other modes of dress that are the accepted norm who get camera time but the colorful and 'shocking' individuals - often those the other protesters regard as fanatics. Gamers on the whole get along with each other, see common ground and find common cause in defeating our virtual enemies, even when that may be another player, there is understanding. There is a reason things like PAX exist and it doesn't break out into violent riots.

Extremists, despite what some fan boys of a particular gaming brand may have you believe, are at odds to what games do. You can't exactly have a game with people who insist on having confrontation, now can you? So you compromise and learn to get along or you don't play.

Does that mean games are a conduit for complacency and conformity though? Not necessarily because a game only makes sense if the individuals are having fun. A game needs to meet the needs of the individuals to satisfy the community as a whole, without that there is no community. Games as a business are about tapping what communities find to be fun. Could there be anything more political than that?

With such ridiculous reactions of very mild things like the sex in Mass Effect, who can blame the videogaming industry for being a bit politically shy?

I like to think that as fans and audiences become increasingly more bored with the cookie cutter generic fantasy and sci-fi settings that games revolve around, developers will pursue any edge they can get over the competition. That includes making games with a bit of controversy and finding subject matter that connects with audiences on a wide variety of levels. It's not like a bit of controversy hurts a game's sales.

You can already see the process getting started. Gears of War 2 hired a writer and added a more humane element. Mirror's Edge's plot is being panned for its bland same old same, old story. Fallout 3, which is set in a post-apocalypse Washington D.C., is as much a cynical commentary on American culture as it is mourning its destruction. The sales of that last game speak for itself.

Persuasive Games a company dedicated to making Political games this article asks for. Their claim to fame is letting their players explore a topic in a more compelling way than just reading about it.


To me asking why big name commercial games don't push the political envelope is the same as asking why bug budget action movies don't push the political envelope. For the amount of time and money invested in one, it is not worth alienating even a small part of your audience with political propaganda.

What about Call of Duty 4? That was pretty fierce in it's politicisation of war, by, for example, putting the player as a prisoner who gets executed.

And I think GTA IV has got to be one of the most political games available - and the reason a lot of players hated it. It was dripping with satire and was a general condemnation of America and capitalism.

Drive around with the black ex-prisoner who is constantly whinging about his life and childhood, talking about how he had a black and white TV as a kid, and Niko puts him in his place by telling him in Russia he had no electricity in his town - that is really putting Americans in their place in a political sense.

I think a big reason why you don't see video games about hot button issues is because games (at least polished ones) take a long time to make. If at the moment Hurricane Katrina became a debacle a company started making a game about it, by the time it came out the nation would have collectively stopped giving a shit. That's why games cover broader topics; they can insure they will still be relevant.

I almost don't want to ask because people are being serious here but . . .

How can one figurtively be a pigfucker?

Why are we the only medium afraid of rocking the boat? Because we hate condescending assholes who think that they have to tell us who and what to vote for, and the minute we go the political route, the moment we needlessly corrupt our medium in the hopes of being recognized as "complicated", just like movies.

Entertainment's inherit clause is escapism, pure and simple. We don't want to be reminded that we're in a war or the economy is going down the tubes: we want to escape all that. Blacksite: Area 51 was the only game in recent memory with any political undertones: a clear anti-war one. Midway was so caught up in the political message that they neglected gameplay. Area 51 was a generic shooter that was swept under thanks to the more competent Halo 3. It's not just games, either; The Kingdom, Lions for Lambs, and the most recent Body of Lies failed miserably in theaters. People saw through the guise of a thriller and saw it for what it is: politically-charged bullshit.

Developers are a surprisingly down to earth bunch and our medium is pure, simple escapism in comparison to Hollywood and their smug directors and actors and their self-important political views that nobody gives a shit about: let's keep it that way. Let's keep it from becoming thinly-veiled PR shit, developers turning into narcissistic pricks, and fun thrown out the window so that some self-important condescending asshole can force his views on the "little people"

Keep the themes broad enough to where they don't hit too close to home: I go to games so I can escape the constant reminder that the economy is collapsing, we're in two needlessly botched wars, and that I'll have to shell out a few extra hundred bucks for tuition.

In my experience, games do a remarkably good job of addressing political issues. The problem is that no one notices because it's just "part of a game" and usually happens though an analogy. To my knowledge no one has made a game about Hurricane Katrina, but the concept of a devastating natural disaster and a government that fails to properly respond shows up quite often (just look at the Enclave in any of the Fallout games)
Games fall into the same trap here as a lot of science fiction: without someone hitting you over the head with an analysis stick and saying "look! here's what this is!" most people will simply not think to draw parallels. And even if they do, there's a very strong cultural prejudice against applying anything remotely geeky to serious political discussion.
As an example, look at the Starcraft campaign: the Terrans are overthrowing a corrupt government by supporting a popular dictator who ends up being just as bad. We play though this in extensive detail from multiple perspectives, and get to experience firsthand (on the losing side, no less) governmental abuse of powers and betrayal of trust. The entire Protoss campaign is about racism and fundamentalism and how they can tear a civilization apart. The Zerg just happen to be the product of genetic engineering undertaken with the best of intentions. And that's just the really obvious stuff - if you want to go digging a bit deeper and actually assume that political commentary is intended you can find a whole lot more.
And yet, because all of this is set in fictional world, nobody ever thinks of Starcraft as a detailed portrayal of corruption and racism. That's why games aren't political, because no serious political debater will draw from a fictional world to make a point.

You'll notice all of the games mentioned who accepted in-game political advertising are run by EA which makes it less suprising.
Totally on the authors side on not wanting advertising and real-world issues in my game, I don't think they shouldn't be made though, thats entirely up to the company, someone might enjoy it.

Good insight Far_Wanderer.

Liked this article a lot too.

In this respect the video game industry has become quite alike to the comics industry. Both mediums which could bring forth great meaningful points. In fact, they do just that. But they are ignored because they're seen as an inferior medium.

Why didn't Black Summer raise an eyebrow? A superhero deems the president of the States to be a villain and kills him for the crimes he's committed. If that were a movie or a book everyone'd be talking about it, but because its a comic nobody cares. There's even a direct discussion on the Iraq war between two soldiers, leading to an outright condemnation of it from the mouth of the military itself...

Alternatively: DMZ, you have to be blind not to see the points there, just like Bioshock's opening "Is man not entitled to the sweat upon his brow?"

The article does strike a chored with me, and it also raises an eyebrow. I actually thought that there had been a few games which poked at real-world concepts.. just not current ones.

Back when Final Fantasy Tactics, I heard all kinds of rumours that it was targeted by religious figures for its unabashed view on origanized religion and the way that such organizations will openly and willfully use God's name to wage war on innocents. Which in itself reminded me of a story that was poking not so much "fun" but calling religion itself out for the crimes it has commited in the past. I had even heard that the game was banned in some countries (or attempted to be banned) for some of the content in regard to religion.

Xenogears also strikes a tone, I believe, in the way it shows how corrupt people can become without even realizing it. The people who lived in advanced cities looked down upon those who lived beneath them, thinking them less than Human almost. Much the way that those of the upper class will look down on the poor and down-trodden as though they were less than dirt and not worth their time.

All right, perhaps it isn't the same as a game bringing up something like Hurricane Katrina or AIDS and so forth (by the way, Trauma Center does a pretty good job commenting on the way terrorism has reached bio-chemical stages) but it is still speaking out against some things.

Personally, I don't mind having at least one art medium where I can go without having political messages rammed down my throat, but yes, I agree with the g widespread acceptance for a while. We don't want a repeat of the CCA bullshit, and given the whole "AO games are verboten because Wal-mart won't stock them" thing, we're definitely teetering on the verge of it. Especially with the ridiculously strict standards the ESRB has for video game acceptability of video games compared with the ratings boards in any other medium, but that was to be expected in the early days of any new medium. It doesn't mean there's no hope.

But it doesn't mean the road is clear, either.

For the first several decades of the motion picture industry, you couldn't make any movies with black people in prominent roles, because people in the "Old South" wouldn't watch them. Nowadays, if you talked about instilling that standard in movies today, you'd get run out of town on a rail. However, now we have the MPAA and their egregiously corrupt ratings system (go out and rent This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Do it RIGHT NOW). They are very lax about violence, but they are almost Victorian in their standards about sex. And studios still won't release an NC-17 film, because Blockbuster Video won't stock them (sound familiar?).

But at least films with a political message can get made today.

Eldritch Warlord:
I almost don't want to ask because people are being serious here but . . .

How can one figurtively be a pigfucker?

First of all, the article merely means that he was literally calling him a pigfucker.

Second, a figurative pigfucker leads to a lot of examples, but the one that sticks in my mind would be about Sarah Palin's husband, if you believe that the "pig with lipstick" comment was about her.

Games have to do more than any other medium. GTA4 had messages and lessons and satire and politically polarizing themes coming out of it in every conceivable aspect. It cannot be faulted for being mindless like GoW2 for example. but unlike a television show or an editorial, a game can be written off for having shitty mechanics and annoying content. I loved the messages and irony and genuine intelligence of GTA4 but I'll likely never play it again because I never want a Slavic retard calling me up to join him at a titty bar again, never want to put up with the sloppiness of the controls ever again. If a game is to have a message people will listen to, it needs to first be good.

To be frank, if we want to see computer games with some sort of political commentary, we need developers who are actually interested in politics. Most developers are not interested in getting rid of the status quo, and I wouldn't expect them to be. There are a few developers in recent years that have produced some fantastic satire, but as you note, these games, such as BioShock and Fallout, tend to stick to the tropes of the past, and probably for good reason as well.

What are the "big" issues of the moment? Terrorism, drugs and the financial crisis. While I can see a serviceable game coming out of some satire on the "war on terror", I can't see anything productive coming out of the other two, regardless of the strength of satire from other media - especially evident in the print media, particularly with cartoons.

Thank you to everyone for taking the time to read and post - I'd hoped the article would generate some discussion and it clearly has.

To be frank, if we want to see computer games with some sort of political commentary, we need developers who are actually interested in politics. Most developers are not interested in getting rid of the status quo, and I wouldn't expect them to be.

This is an excellent point and one I'd have liked to pursue further in the main piece. Political involvement in the broad sense (not so much electioneering and shoving 'issues' down people's throats, but publicly expressing strong opinions about the world, especially through art) seems to be a real no-go area for developers. I can absolutely see why - for reasons including the status quo, corporate nature of most large publishers, the need to pay mortgages and feed kids, etc - but it does seem to me that every other popular art/entertainment form, whether music, film, or sports, has had high profile people who aren't afraid to get in a little trouble for their beliefs...



Wildcard & Far Wanderer hit the nail on the head for me. As a gamer, I don't want my escapism dealing with RL issues, not directly! I don't want a game that "deals directly and intelligently" with ANY of the issues you mentioned in your article. I want visceral amusement - period.

I found this article interesting and intelligent - if very misguided and troubling.

Personally I want to keep serious, real politics out of my videogames. I get enough politics just watching the TV or reading a newspaper... Or browsing the internet for that matter! I'm quite happy with only being visually amused. After all, that is the backbone of this industry.

Many people are forgetting: most of the really big companies are tied together at the top.
Or the at deeds of ownership, as it were.
And thus a few persons' opinions push the industry.


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