Gaming, Politics, and an Industry Fighting with Who It Is: Part Two

Part two of this special feature asks whether games inadvertently have created sympathy for the far right.


This is the second part of a feature examining politics and games. The first part can be read here

Content note: This feature and all of its parts contain discussions of bigotry and violence, including sexual violence. 

The image is from BagoGames and available here.

Playing Detroit: Become Human feels more consequential now. The game isn’t too far from what the creators of Black Mirror would dream up; what would a world shared by android and humans look like? Yet, the other role-playing games I love linger on my mind. Mass Effect had always been a radical story of inclusion and resistance to me, but perhaps some of the commenters were right; maybe the fact that the player is allowed to choose whether to follow a path of peace or a brutal path is actually a problem. While the framing is engaging, has it implicitly said certain choices are okay? Or, is it as originally held, a way to show that those choices can be made, but we should always try for better? What role in our culture and society do games play with the messages they contain?

Games are intrinsically political; from the content, the music choices, to even who works on them and who they are marketed to. This is a truth that it is getting harder to deny, even though some gamers may cling on to the idea that their world is one of a neutrality. If politics is present, and if it is inescapable, then the next question must be whether games are doing politics right.

How the games industry tackles politics – and whether they’ve made Nazis unintentional victims.

For many, the landscape of global politics feels like it has radically changed in the last few years. The unthinkable happened: there is now a President Trump, there is Brexit, a refugee crisis the world is ignoring, accusations of genocide in Myanmar, a far right fervour gripping many countries, utter devastation in Syria and the rising global threat Putin poses.

It may seem ludicrous but certain events gamers hold responsibility for. Gamergate, a campaign of harassment against women and marginalised gamers, was the first major online trial of tactics the far right (many of whom were either involved with Gamergate or supported it on the periphery) would adopt during the Trump campaign. The trolling, the Pepe the Frog memes, the use of 4Chan as a hate hub can all be traced back, at least in part, to a time when gamers were so furious at a woman they set about harassing her and an entire community with death threats and rape threats as well as other acts of intimidation.

But why gamers?

Sure, anyone who has loved any form of media will know that fandoms are often toxic places, and this even includes queer fandoms. Acts of bullying, tribalism, online harassment are now the norm. But gaming is now known more for its misogyny and bigotry from its community than it is for its endless products. A world of Mario Kart, orange bandicoots and blue hedgehogs has turned into something sinister. Has gaming become a home for the far right, and if it has, why?

Stories in themselves can never be free from bias. How they are framed, how they are presented, the people they are told by all come to influence the audience. In some cases, this can be good, in others shocking.

Take one of the most popular shows right now, and books of all time, The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s story is seen as revolutionary by many critics for one important reason: it’s a story about the violence of women – but told by women. Women’s trauma has long fascinated audiences, particularly those of men and we need to look no further than the gaming industry to see that. The trouble is, that games are rarely ever made with women in mind or with them leading the story. The Handmaid’s Tale feels different because audiences of women aren’t being exploited, and their stories aren’t been thrown in as an excuse to show the pain of men. Whereas, if you take the Yakuza game series, while it shows well the problems toxic masculinity poses on men and how it is dangerous, it does this largely by using women merely as plot devices and doesn’t give them their own agency. One glaring instance, is Majima’s ex-wife whose story revolves around the fact she had an abortion and this upset Majima, who is the real character who is served by plot. Or take Makoto, she’s put through trauma after trauma in the main simply to show how this slowly breaks Majima.

Then there is often the shocking use of sexual violence against women in games, which is only designed to infuriate men. The women who consume this media are quickly forgotten. In Metal Gear Solid V, a game which is part of a series dominated by men and framed in very masculine ways, a bomb is actually placed in a woman’s vagina. This can set the tone of the entire culture around gaming, whether women are seen just as props to stories, or as human beings worthy of respect. When men are telling women’s stories, the framing and the story being told is often quite different.

“I fully believe there is a significant culture of bigotry in general in gaming, though misogyny is probably the most common,” says John Aridi. “I’m in a position of privilege so I see it less than others, but sexism is inescapable in gaming – you can see it even in character creation and design choices, pandering to a specific mindset and attitude. I believe some companies let it happen and others set out deliberately to change it. Saints Row allowing your character to basically dress however they want regardless of gender and being assumed to be basically pansexual is a good example – in contrast to Grand Theft Auto, which hasn’t seemed to escape its fairly ‘edgy’ roots.”

“Games can be a good space to explore political issues,” says Christopher McMahon whose PhD focuses upon gaming and its relationship with capitalism. “Not only that but I think it’s necessary that games do so. Video games tend to be really awful in the field of representation. Metal Gear Solid’s depiction of women is awful for example, and to go even further back to show the persistence of sexism in games the princess in Mario is a bit ‘damsel in distress’. Video games can explore political tensions by just being better at representing people that aren’t straight white men.”

Jamie Hagen has been gaming for 17 years and hasn’t found a genre not to love yet, but still thinks games can give greater depth of their content as well as representation.

“Something I’d love is for games to explore the effects of the geopolitical actions of world power,” Jamie says. “An accurate depiction of something like the British Empire, or the actions of the US in South America would be fascinating, for instance. But generally, games that have the courage to explicitly confront political themes without the need to water it down or go entirely by allegory.”

Yet, representation can risk taking a backseat to easy engagement and shock-and-awe stories that can be shareable, drive clickbait and increase media attention. Stories can sometimes be gutted from their true purpose due to the overwhelming influence of the other elements to gaming. If role-playing games risk becoming apolitical by allowing an anything goes style, including fifty different stories in one package and not showing either path as right or wrong, then games with strict narratives can also become weak as the focus switches to gameplay and combat rather than the one story it is trying to tell. It seems, no matter which route is taken in presenting a clear story, games have become shells of their own concepts.

This is a worry for long-time gamer Paul, who feels that narratives are pushed aside in favour of gameplay.

“I think in all my time playing games, the military shooter is the one that worries me most,” Paul says. “Because these are the most popular, and thus these are the games whose politics and viewpoints will be absorbed the most, especially when discussing the alt-right, Gamergate crowd. These games, on the whole, do NOT explore the realities of war, or even attempt to discuss the political aspects of war. This makes them political by way of deliberately not being political, weirdly.

“This makes them political by way of deliberately not being political”

Call of Duty, particularly the Modern Warfare trilogy, is a terrible series for narrative and motive. I can’t remember a single point in any of the CoD games where you question why it is you’re killing people. Nazis used to be a pretty obvious target, but given what’s been happening with the alt-right, even the reasoning behind them being the enemies isn’t as obvious as it needs to be. I think part of the problem is that games are designed gameplay-first, with a story being created to explain how your gun works or how to crouch. It’s simply too enjoyable to question the reasons for killing hundreds of people.

“I can only think of one exception – Spec Ops: The Line, which explored the shooter mentality and attempted to discuss the consequences of blindly killing what’s in front of your crosshairs. Even that was undermined by the fact that the mechanics of gameplay and the physical feedback of the controller made it fun. There’s a visceral quality to a controller rumbling heavily every time you press the trigger, and it’s easy to overlook the intellectual aspect of the game in favour of ‘this feels good! Pew! Pew!’ It’s alarming and slightly disturbing, quite frankly.”

It’s not the first time Call of Duty has been questioned for its content. It may be established as a fan-favourite series among gamers, but that doesn’t mean it it is free from seriously questionable elements to its games. While the gameplay is hugely enjoyable for many fans, that is often in total contrast with how serious the subject matter should be. It is a military game after all, but that has arguably become just a pretext to be able to deliver a game where people can shoot each other, and the danger of that is that Nazis become as well written as husks, zombies or androids and audiences may not realise just why they are supposed to be shooting Nazis.

This was highlighted especially with the backlash Wolfenstein II received simply for emphasising why Nazis are the bad guys. After years of playing Call of Duty and rarely – if ever – being shown a real reason why fascists are the enemy, it may have been a shock to the system for some fans. With the rise of the alt-right (who are fascists), there are serious questions about whether media has portrayed Nazis accurately over the decades, or if the story has been watered down and this has led to an idea that they’re simply a different side rather than a force of evil.

“We make the assumption that everyone should know why the Nazis are the enemy by default,” says John, “and this has sadly proven to be incorrect. I think that the enemy should always be shown as to WHY they are the enemy, even if we are meant to already know – because many games just show you what the bad guy looks like, tell you ‘they’re the bad guy’ and let you get to it. Zelda: Ocarina Of Time is an example of this. When Ganondorf first shows his face, you’re told not to trust him because Zelda doesn’t, and gives precious little actual reason. If I’m going to have to see an entire swathe of society as an enemy that I must attack without mercy, I need to know why, and having a different uniform isn’t really sufficient.”

Paul adds that this extends well into gaming.

“It’s not a new thing, senseless digital murder,” Paul says. “Games like Cannon Fodder and the original Syndicate 20 years ago gave you guns, gave you targets and left you to it. The switch to first-person perspective though? There’s a sense of responsibility that I don’t think is ever communicated in any games that use it, except to wrench away control for narrative purposes. Sort of a reverse verfremdungseffekt, I suppose. By making the perspective first-person, literally, all the attempt at fidelity and experience mask the generally poor storytelling. Bioshock is probably one of the few games that made the perspective central to the story, but that’s not exactly the pinnacle of nuance.

“All this being said, I do think games can be a good space for exploring political tensions and issues of marginalisation, BUT they need to be written and planned by people within those marginalised communities. Developers in the AAA space [games developed my mid to large level publishers] need to invest heavily in diversity if the medium is to flourish over the next 20 years. If someone like Cliffy B decides he’s going to make a game that explores, I don’t know, the experiences of a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, I know it’s going to be a disaster and will inevitably cause outrage.

“The few games that I think have done their themes justice have all been developed by indie studios, or by publishers willing to take a risk – This War of Mine, Papers, Please, NieR:Automata (which was published by Square Enix, but had a surprisingly poignant story about the futility of war) are three that spring to mind. Then you have developers like Anna Anthropy and Christine Love, who are exploring the diversity of sexuality and gender. So there are already people out there making those games. Where I think the wrinkle lies is in a big studio, like Ubisoft, looking at the current global climate and thinking ‘let’s make a game, but sprinkle some politics on it to make it seem like we care, but make sure we don’t commit one way or the other’, á la Far Cry 5.

Jane agrees that the impact of using stock enemies without any real explanation is not widely understood or looked at enough, and yet this is something which can ripple through the whole industry of gaming. Jane adds to that there is a responsibility to not just give clear reasoning behind why Nazis are the enemy, but also to handle the content sensitively given its serious nature.

“I don’t think the reasons for groups like the Nazis being the stock enemy are examined enough and ultimately this leads to dilution of the historical reality,” Jane says. “However, I can see that including real detail of the suffering caused by, for example, the Nazis in order to get that across is a difficult line to walk. There’s the danger of becoming exploitative and diluting/trivialising the horror of those stories if it’s not done correctly. I could certainly understand people not wanting to see the suffering of groups they identify with/belong to used ultimately as ‘entertainment’ content to make billions of dollars.”

“I don’t think the reasons for groups like the Nazis being the stock enemy are examined enough and ultimately this leads to dilution of the historical reality”

“I think that sometimes it’s more effective to explore a political/social issue through one character than via a wider examination. Equally, exploring a real world issue in a fictional setting can be more effective than more obviously ‘teaching’ the player by rote about something that has really happened/is happening. I think that sometimes giving a player a fictional lens to look at an issue leaves them more open to learn. For example, I know that Mage/Templar conflict elements of Dragon Age prompt many players to think about real world social justice and liberation narratives in ways they previously haven’t, or a times they usually wouldn’t. But I think when fictional stories are used as metaphors for real world issues, it’s very important to avoid being reductionist in the approach. Saying X fictional group is a straight up, literal metaphor for Y real group is insensitive and lazy.”

Alwin Nijsen, media critic and gamer, believes that games should go beyond the shock-and-awe approach they can rely upon, and believes that fantasy games such as Dragon Age can be too weak in their approach to exploring and examining oppression.

“A game should focus on what it wants to focus on,” Alwin says. “However, if a game like Call of Duty has scene involving the liberation of a concentration/death camp, it should absolutely go into the horrors that happened there. If you use someone’s suffering as your backdrop just for shockvalue or “because it looks cool”, you’re being a shit. Spec Ops: The Line had a great twist where, after ordering down a phosphorous strike on a neighbourhood, you’re forced to walk through that neighbourhood and see the results. My point is: having Nazis as enemies is fine and you don’t need to get into all of the details. But if it touches upon certain people like Mengele or certain events like Wannsee Conference, it better damn well explain the context of those people and events.

“Games should absolutely explore political tensions, issues or marginalisation. I think the aforementioned Spec Ops: The Line did it great. Games that use fantasy races to explore issues tend to do less well in my opinion. I mean, I love the Dragon Age games but the way they address racism/anti-semitism with the Elves and the caste system with the Dwarves, that can feel like a copout, you know? Talk about something and be shocked at something without actually addressing a situation. I like how Watch Dogs 2 addressed issues of gentrification and privacy invasion by the government, as well as profiling. Why they had to have a male voice actor for the part of the trans woman I don’t know though. Oh and uh the South Park games can fuck off with their bullshit and how they handled transgender issues in The Fractured But Whole, as well as the ‘gag’ about choosing a darker skin colour supposedly making the game harder. “

South Park is a brand that has made its name by being explicit and evolved into an ‘anti-PC’ machine to some, whether through its show, films or games. To some South Park can punch up and hit hard with it but as a brand it’s as likely to punch down wildly. Yet, attacking everyone isn’t neutral and it comes as close to comedy as Ricky Gervais when he ‘joked’ “I identify as black”, and about as sophisticated. In an industry that wants to pack power into every product, to challenge the audience and expand on everything we ever thought possible, games have teetered closer and closer to a cultural void rather than a cultural renaissance. The graphics may be better, but when games are avoiding taking any position and show violence “on both sides” or show one side and then backtrack, they’re stalling in offering anything necessary to our times. When gamers have got products that run from themselves and hide from pro-justice messages, games which shows Nazis as the bad guy but not why (and thereby create a culture of victimhood for the far right) and think that being provocative is making jokes at the expense of disempowered people then is it any real surprise that these messages are passed onto the audience and that this may have an influence in shaping ideas and thought?

Christopher believes that gaming should become a realm of better story-telling, although there is still debate about the role of story vs gameplay among many fans. However, Christopher too is sceptical about whether some games can truly reflect sensitively and respectfully the horror of certain historical events.

“Personally, I would like to see video games develop as a storytelling medium,” Christopher says, “but I do realise this is a cause for a lot of debate as to the purpose of a video game… I watched a section of the latest Call of Duty (WW2) that shows an abandoned camp and indicates that atrocities took place. It seems a difficult task to cover the topic of the Holocaust a game like Call of Duty that presents war and violence as something fun but any telling of the story of World War 2 is incomplete without looking at the Holocaust so how do games deal with this? I think it’s something that could be done but I don’t think Call of Duty is the series to do it. Wolfenstein however put the inhumanity of Nazis central to the game and was the motivation the player had in their actions. The player knew that fascism had to be opposed.”

Rachel believes that stories should be able to focus on history, but they should do so with the correct depth of content so as to avoid making caricatures out of fascists which can diminish the understanding of history.

“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the FPS [first person shooter] style game where Nazis are obviously ‘the bad guy’ and there to shoot,” says Rachel Clark- Raee. “But I think there is a worry that it is too easy to paint them as a historical bad guy like the villain in the pantomime, which can shut down any discussions outside of gaming about their legacy and impact today. Real life and history are never as simplistic as gameplay.”

Outside of tackling history, first-person shooter games can still transmit powerful messages. Evan Culbertson was drawn into first person shooter games precisely when they started to be more inclusive – specifically through Overwatch, which has almost no-story depicted within the games but an abundance of diverse characters. Yet, perhaps it is because of the lack of story that Overwatch has been able to deliver empowering messages and not fall into the failings of Call of Duty.

“It was the first multiplayer shooter in my adulthood that didn’t make me feel excluded or ostracized for not being a Mountain Dew-swilling aggressive dudebro,” Evan says of Overwatch. “Something like Overwatch doesn’t seem overtly political – it barely has a story, and the story it has is almost entirely metatextual – but by my estimation, it’s also the most diverse AAA game ever. The fact that of its 27 playable characters, only 13 are male (and only two are white Americans) is progress! There’s still room to improve, of course, but Blizzard’s commitment to diverse representation is so important. I think that’s the way in which games have been pushing forward – and need to keep doing so – by crafting more diverse and representative experiences. We’ve seen progress, but I really hope the trend continues – more queer characters, more female and non-binary characters, more nonwhite, non-stereotyped characters…

“…I think Call of Duty, Far CryBattlefield, and similar games fail to explore any nuance whatsoever. That being said, I don’t think we especially need to keep harping on Nazis as the enemy! Obviously, they’re still more pervasive in culture than anyone could have ever imagined, but ‘Nazi’ is already such a buzzword for ‘enemy’ that it feels like an uphill battle to try to really drill down into the issue. That’s why Godwin’s Law exists, after all – ‘Nazi’ is such shorthand so as to have become almost meaningless.

“To counter that point, though, I want to praise a game that got fairly mixed reactions when it released amid a storm of political messaging last year: Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. It took its 2014 predecessor’s alternate-history vision of ‘what if the Nazis won the war?’ to new levels by showing that the ideologies of the Nazis are already a crucial part of American culture. Wolfenstein games are pulpy and over-the-top and still feature the white male protagonist mowing down thousands of unnamed Nazis with machine guns… and yet there’s SO MUCH that these last two entries totally nail, narratively and politically. Wolfenstein II ties the literal Nazi party to the KKK and Richard Spencer, humiliates Adolf Hitler, includes some interesting statements on body-shaming and interracial relationships, implies that everything the Nazis ever accomplished was secretly stolen from the Jewish people… and yet also sends the player to outer space, where they watch Ronald Reagan get shot in the head.”

Reactions to games which do delve into politics or history can be strong and, more than occasionally, toxic. There is often loud pushback against anything seen as “SJW” – even if that includes historical fact. The result is that many gamers demand products which cater to toxic masculinity, showing violence against women and fail to stand up to the poisonous ideology of the far right. We live in a time where excluding women while including Nazis is viewed as politically neutral.

The quandary for the gaming industry is how to proceed, and if it can undo the damage of watering down its own stories. By dressing up politically weak, and apologetic (and misogynistic) stories as neutral, there has been an acceptance that anything which tackles real-world issues, or has any hint of diversity, is an attack on gamers themselves because their entire culture has been catered to white cis men, even though we know that they are far from the only gamers in the world.

However, while this narrow sect of gamers ignores the larger gaming community which is far more diverse, they are without doubt the loudest population, meaning any critical content is met with with trolling, dismissal and sometimes outright hate. The comments on Twitter, Facebook groups and other forums are endless and usually full of bile at any attempts at making stories better. Many within the industry may be wondering if they have directly caused this monster, and if now they are at its mercy.

Part one of this article is available here.

The final part of this feature is available here.

You can read part one here.

If you enjoyed reading this article, we’d appreciate your support, which you can offer by buying Stand Up a coffee here.

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