One of the biggest questions facing the gaming industry is about the role politics plays, whether games can remain neutral and whether they should even try to.
This is the first part of a feature examining politics and games.
Some people interviewed for this article requested to remain anonymous. Their names have been changed for this article for their protection and so that readers can understand that different quotes may come from the same person rather than multiple sources. Their names will be marked with an *.
Content note: This feature and all of its parts contain discussions of bigotry and violence.
The cute, cartoon-like Yoshi spins wildly on a banana peel just before the finish-line and Donkey Kong snatches the win. I just about hold in the swear word I’m longing to scream which is the only fitting reaction for such a defeat but certainly not in a public café. I settle for giving up. I flick my Nintendo Switch off, put it away and take a swig of water, looking around while I wait. Almost everyone picks up their phone at some point. Some grabbing it to check messages or scroll through Instagram as they chat to people with them, and others who are pressing buttons a little too rapidly to be on social media. Although it’s doubtful they’re playing the new Harry Potter game by the fact they seem to be playing at length.
When I finally get home, a new package is waiting for me. It holds Detroit: Become Human, a game I have waited impatiently for and can finally get lost in, a game where every choice is supposed to have consequences for the entire story and the society depicted within.
Millions have similar ideas. Gaming has become so ubiquitous that it is one of the biggest industries in the world. Its variety means that it is endless; we play mobile games or Nintendo games on our commute, can play on our desktops during breaks and/or switch on our consoles as soon as we get home. There are thousands of games, and each have their own concepts.
Yet, somehow, the image of the average gamer remains stuck in the 90s. Games are everywhere, and still we only really think of nerdy, young, white, cis men playing them and often the sorts of games they might like. This doesn’t align with what is really going on. The average gamer may be 31, but that’s still not matching up with the teenage idea that is often held with gamers. In fact, nearly half of all gamers are between 18 and 49. There are also now more women than ever gaming.
Gaming has permeated our culture. It might not quite have secured the reputation of TV or film, but it’s definitely got the popularity to match them. Despite this though, there are still ideas that gaming should be resistant to the very culture it comes from. When Overwatch confirmed character Tracer was gay, many fans wanted to boycott the game, there was uproar when Wolfenstein II focused upon why exactly Nazis really are bad guys. There was also the horrific instance of Gamer-Gate which became a brutal campaign to harass women out of gaming spaces (it was so bad the FBI even got involved although their response was arguably incompetent). Women – particularly marginalised women – were sent death threats, rape threats and faced constant online harassment.
The perpetrators behind these sorts of acts are angry and loud, but are they truly reflective of the gaming audience? Throughout these controversies, developers may claim to be listening, but to whom is the concern. Additionally, whenever politics is directly asked about how different brands have acted rather defensively. Nintendo, for instance, has said it will never touch politics. The Far Cry 5 team were quick to claim that their game, which contains a takedown of an American cult, did not have any deliberate political influences, and wasn’t trying to make any kind of statement about the current climate of politics. Potentially political stories are at risk of being gutted. Yet, should gaming try to stay neutral and is that what audiences really want?
The film industry has had its own backlashes to get through of late. Both The Last Jedi and Black Panther upset a huge number of people who felt that a ‘politically correct’ agenda was being shoved down their throat by their inclusion of reflective representation. Films have long had an agenda of elevating white cis men, of course, and both of these recent films were a shock to the system for some movie-goers. These films, however, didn’t suffer one bit and they roared their way to incredible success in both critical reviews and money taken at the box office.
The relationship between politics and media can be fraught then, and gaming is an area that has developed a particularly toxic discourse across different media platforms. An examination of the gaming industry is truly needed from the people who know it best: gamers. The people who play games from all walks of life are the ones who know the products well, and sometimes intimately, in some cases, due to having played through them dozens of times. It is right that they are given the platform to really discuss this industry; whether games are political and whether it is right or wrong that they should be. But this should be a conversation with the average gamer, and not the average gaming troll which are two very different concepts.
For this article, many people wanted to have their say and they have been allowed to do so. For this reason, though, this one feature will be broken up into separate posts purely for readability as sources took the time to provide over 10,000 words. This is an issue people are clearly passionate about, and they care deeply about the media they can become so immersed in. It must be said though, that people have gone out to be critical of the media they themselves otherwise adore, and so if you’re easily offended by the idea that your favourite product has flaws then this article may not be one you enjoy reading, but it is necessary. Only by having conversations with the audience, can games know how best to develop and how to produce truly great stories and games. They may not shout the loudest, but their voices must be heard.
Are games political?
Games are hugely varied in content, in one game you can be a purple dragon breathing fire on dragonflies and in others you can be shooting Nazis. There are truly thousands of products out there. But are developers pulling their punches and in the main, avoiding controversial content? Or, are they really tackling political issues?
Alwin Nijsen (also known as Badassperger) is a media critic who has been gaming since 1991. Alwin believes firmly that gaming and politics cannot be separated, no matter how much certain brands, such as Nintendo, try to force them apart.
“Hah!” Alwin comments when I ask about Nintendo’s position. “Games explore politics whether they want to or not. I’d say that for some games it’s more relevant than others. There was this game called Super Princess Peach. For the first time, Peach starred in her own game where she had to rescue Mario, hurray! But all of her powers were somehow related to her emotions. Of which she had exactly four. I mean, how’s that not political? Games should be honest about the views they propagate. Anything else is cowardice.”
Alwin emphasises that even the games which seem the most politically irrelevant or distant, actually do stray into political analysis more than most would like to acknowledge due to the very nature of telling stories.
“From the more obvious like GTA [Grand Theft Auto] and all of its (attempts at) satire to Civilization to things like Overwatch and Final Fantasy,” says Alwin. “Every game that depicts people, or analogues for people, is political. Because you portray a group, a person, a culture. I’d say even some of the games that aren’t usually seen as political, are very much political.
“Something like Tetris, a game featuring Soviet music and images, being a major success in the West? That’s absolutely political. And a game like Sleeping Dogs, it takes place in modern day Hong Kong, so there’s a mix of English and Chinese being spoken, with a mix of Asian and English characters. And by English, I mean white. The only black person in the game just happens to be a drug dealing, sex addicted gangster rapper. For how well it depicted Hong Kong (as far as I know) this was a real shock to me.”
Christopher McMahon is currently completing a PhD focused upon gaming and the idea that capitalist society has created games which have work-driven forms of play. Christopher believes the idea that games aren’t political stems from the fact some gamers just don’t want to acknowledge the politics that is there.
“I think it’s inevitable that a game will have some form of politics,” Christopher says. “Especially, if there’s violence in the game. I think the idea of games and politics being separate comes from the fact that some gamers don’t see the politics that’s already there because to them it’s just how it is. For example, look at the way sex workers are represented in the Grand Theft Auto series. The player is effectively motivated to murder sex workers for an in-game reward, it’s naive in the extreme to think this sort of thing isn’t political.
“I think the idea of games and politics being separate comes from the fact that some gamers don’t see the politics that’s already there”
“Politics in media is inevitable so I think games should explore politics more. Declaring you won’t ever touch politics is political in itself. Politics is everyday life, everyday experience, to separate yourself from it is akin to ignoring issues that affect people.”
Some games make players specifically choose between political options. Whether it’s the Democracy series where you can run governments, Political Machine where you run your own presidential campaign or games where you are caught up in political (and usually military) conflicts. There are many products out there where politics is simply unavoidable while carrying out a play-through. This is perhaps most seen in role-playing games.
Evan Culbertson is a huge fan of role-playing games and recognises how politics is a theme which can utterly shape games – although questions whether they can stand the test of time as attitudes develop.
“Something like Bioshock, which had very interesting things to say about human agency and made Objectivism feel like something that people cared about, now feels like a woefully oversimplified version of the topic, 10 years later,” says Evan. “But the new God of War game is, at its core, about critiquing violence borne of toxic masculinity without ever using the phrase. Horizon: Zero Dawn remakes the world in a refreshingly diverse image and shows women at the forefront of technology and innovation without ever needing to say the word ‘feminism’. I think that might be the Trojan Horse that’s the key to all of this – change the minds of obnoxious dudebros without scaring them off.
“Honestly, I think the ‘shrug-it-off’ ‘everybody’s wrong’ anti-political approach of Grand Theft Auto, South Park, and Far Cry 5 are on their way out. Games more than ever need to explicitly engage with feminism, queer liberation, racism, and the repercussions of violence. When people like Sean Vannaman of Firewatch are saying things in interviews like ‘The idea that games shouldn’t have politics in them is fucking bullshit. Everyone knows that. Art is politics. Like, welcome to Earth,’ I have a lot of hope. I just hope the market bears that out, because the times are a-changin’ whether people like it or not.”
Fellow gamer Charlie also believes that some games do cover politics, particularly BioWare, a developer which focuses predominantly on role playing games – a genre where every choice the player makes can have wider ramifications, whether that is regarding galactic politics or which character to romance.
“Yeah! Bioware games definitely do [include politics],” Charlie says. “Themes of racism, tyranny, sexism come up a lot. Even Skyrim, which I think most people would dismiss as a bit lightweight in terms of story, has the civil war, with interesting questions about freedom vs unity, that sort of thing.”
BioWare has won much applause over the years for its role-playing games. The choices often have outcomes which can ripple throughout the world’s (or sometimes galaxy’s society). The two major franchises BioWare is known for are Dragon Age and Mass Effect. Both put the choices the player makes at the heart of their stories, but one explores a world of fantasy whereas the other looks at a galaxy of politics. Due to the emphasis that the games have on consequences, it’s easy to see why they would be thought of as political – but some take a slightly different view to Charlie and believe that while politics may be present, it’s less powerful or overt than it could be.
Paul* has played games for 25 years and claims even Mass Effect, which has huge political content (even a galactic council), is “ham-fisted”. Joe* too has been gaming since childhood and questions whether Mass Effect or Dragon Age retained political power through their role-playing options or whether they were role-playing games (and how they were framed) diminished their potency.
“A lot of other games also somewhat touch on the subject of racism (although not on POC in the games, but on different species) like the Elves in the Dragon Age series, or the Quarians or Krogans in the Mass Effect series, but they don’t ever go fully into the subjects,” Joe says. “In fact, again in Mass Effect you have the choice to keep Krogan infertile in Mass Effect 3 during the mission to cure the genophage (which is something the Turians and Salarians used to keep the Krogan population in check and caused most of them to be infertile). It seems like in so many popular video games (at least in ones I’ve played) they play around with the idea of racism just for a plot device, but don’t actually care about addressing it in a correct or well done way.”
In Mass Effect, players can make different choices with the more diplomatic and moral approach being known as ‘paragon’ and the brutal win-at-all-costs strategy known as ‘renegade’, although there is a moral in-between. While the player is shown time and again to need different species and to need to unite a galaxy which ultimately promotes co-operation and diversity, the player can choose to ignore this and take a different path. The player can also set about pursuing this goal in an ultimately brutal and underhand tactic. Some will argue that the the power of Mass Effect is that it shows the different outcomes and the utter danger of not working together and the heartbreak of some of the tougher choices (as well as the fact the game rewards players who choose to stay consistent with their values particularly if they are strong), but is the fact that there are those options in the first place taking the political punch out of the games? People are free to walk their own line, but does this make light of the brutality?
Joe though thinks that generally the gaming industry has not tackled political content in the best way, which goes far beyond BioWare and is an industry-wide issue.
I think, a lot of games have had slight political themes but haven’t really done them in the best way,” Joe says. “For instance, Skyrim has the Civil War subplot with the Stormcloaks vs. the Imperials, and while they acknowledge racism as a thing (i.e. the segregation and harassment of the Dark Elves) they make it so you can side with the bigots if you want to (there’s even a dialogue option right as you enter Winterhold where a Dark Elf woman asks you if you think Dark Elves should be thrown out of Skyrim and you can tell her yes and that Skyrim is for the Nords). The fact that you can side with the Stormcloaks, who are just white supremacists under a different name, just shows that the makers politics are very skewed and, at the least, think you should look at both sides”.
David* finds it similar to Grand Theft Auto and puts the responsibility on gamers. Developers may offer options but it’s up to gamers which buttons to press and which actions to take. As he states, “if you wanted to be a dick you could be”.
A gamer of thirty years, John Aridi believes many games contain politics.
“A lot of them have [politics] as plot elements – maybe a little basic but Final Fantasy 7 is a political story,” John says. “And a lot of my strategy gaming experience involves politics as a game mechanic rather than a plot element. Choices to be made can often fall on a good-bad axis, but can also be seen as political choices too – austerity versus popularity.
“I think that some games aren’t suitable for politics, but that games as a media should very much explore politics, as should every other medium. Not all the time, and I don’t think that games that have little to do with politics are any worse or lesser than those that do, but people seem to think that politics isn’t important and making the importance of it obvious to the general public is a thing that video games could achieve.”
But two gamers, Jane* and Chris McIntyre state that most of the games they have played aren’t political – at least overtly.
“Not overtly, no,” Chris says. “But nothing is apolitical, as much as people would like to imagine that isn’t true. For example, Minecraft couldn’t possibly be political, could it? It’s basically just Lego with cutesy fictional monsters. And yet the fact alone that by default your avatar is a white male (or more recently, a white female, if you so choose) is evidence of the creator’s politics and opinion of what is ‘default’, what is important to include in a game, etc. I’m sure I could find more examples in this game alone.”
“Nothing is apolitical”
“Most of the games I play aren’t overtly political in of themselves,” Jane says, “but I’d say you could certainly read politics into them and perhaps get an insight into a player’s political leanings from the choices they make in the game. I know that I’m always very interested to see how other people play games like Dishonoured, in the same way that I think you can often tell a lot about someone by how they treat waiters/shop assistants etc.
“I think it’s nice to have some that do explore politics but also some that don’t. I don’t think anyone is crying out for a deeply political Mario game. Games are an escape for many people so I think it’s important that titles are available that are just enjoyable without the burden of exploring something more serious. That’s not to say that those games should be allowed to exist in a vacuum absent from political criticism if they warrant it.”
Jane goes on to add that while Nintendo may avoid clearly tackling politics, there are environmental issues tackled in Pokemon games.
Gamer of 17 years, Jamie Hagen has a wealth of experience with the products which come out of the industry. Jamie believes that games, as a form of media and art for people to consume, should deal with politics.
“Arguably, that’s one of the duties of art in a social sense – to reflect the times in which it exists in, and to provide alternate perspectives on and solutions to current concerns. It’s not as though there’s only room for one or the other in any medium, after all,” says Jamie.
Gamer, Rachel Clark-Raee believes that as the industry is so wide, politics almost inevitably gets tackled to different depths.
“I think gaming is a hugely wide industry like literature so there is always the opportunity for games to be political,” Rachel says. “Like with books I think the joy of games is that they can explore political themes and ideas but do so in a less charged environment. Allowing people to get to grips with their own thoughts on ideas as well as challenging bad thinking.”
Some people play games for escapism, and it’s not surprising with the twenty-four hour news cycle we have right now or the pressures millennials are facing. But a lot of games reflect life and give us a chance to explore who we are and the choices we want to make, as well as dystopian realities. Not all are blunt, you can’t try and stop Trump’s presidency in all of them, but even in seemingly ‘light’ games there can be political ideas hidden away, whether to inspire us, or challenge us or perhaps even accidentally if that’s what developers want to go with.
Politics is already in gaming, and it will be here to stay. Developers must wrestle with that fact and how they reconcile it with the loudest parts of their audience.
Part two of this article is available here.
Part three of this article is available here.
If you enjoyed reading this article, we’d appreciate your support, which you can offer by buying Stand Up a coffee here.