“Keep politics out of games!”
You may have read this statement before, likely online, from the keyboard of a person who is sick and tired of those damn political agendas infiltrating their favourite hobby.
Controversy surrounding political discourse in games is nothing new. Heck, anything that can be interpreted as political in any artistic work rustles jimmies, irrespective of medium. Following the recent release of MachineGames' Bethesda-published Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, discussion around the “P”-word has been particularly fiery. Why Wolfenstein – a decades-old fictional game series about rising up against Nazis? Why is this such a big problem now? Let us dissect some marketing material for The New Colossus.
Cleverly running parallel to current political discourse in the United States, The New Colossus positions itself as a timely piece of art. Hinging on the common catchcry of “Make America Great Again”, American extreme right-wing activists parade ideologies of white nationalism, inexcusably believing multicultural races to be lesser people. Australia is not exempt from such beliefs, with followers of ultra-conservative parties often spouting harmful rhetoric aimed at dividing different religions and gender identities. Sounding suspiciously like beliefs held by a particular dominant political party from the early 1940s, these current-day activists bear a frightening resemblance to the villains of The New Colossus and every Wolfenstein game ever made.
I am, of course, referring to Nazis.
And how does The New Colossus respond to this neo-Nazi movement? By empowering players to “Make America Nazi-Free Again”. You bet it caused controversy. While progressive followers praised Bethesda for taking a bold stand against the recent rise of public xenophobic events, others felt victimised and upset that the publishers were being so explicit with their political commentary.
“I play games to escape this political bullshit, not have it shoved down my throat,” is another common sentiment you have likely encountered online.
It is this very desire, the need for escapism, that makes the interactive medium of video games unabashedly political by nature.
Games are inseparable from politics. They always have been, and always will be.
Slinging political MUD
But games have the capacity to go much further. Indeed, there are designers who want to use the medium not only to create an environment in which the player is able to triumph, but also to model a better, fairer society for everyone.
Simon Perkin, Death by Video Game, p. 259
Addressing societal issues via games is nothing new. For decades, the medium has delivered social commentary in implicit and explicit ways. In Simon Perkin's 2015 book, Death by Video Game, he examines the motivations behind one of the original Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG), Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), forging arguably the most influential genre in video games today.
Motivated by the injustice of social class discrimination, UK programmer Richard Bartle, alongside university classmate Roy Trubshaw, developed the revolutionary MUD as a place where all people had equal opportunity. Both men only received entry into Essex University in the late 1970s because of the overwhelming demand for programmers at the time, otherwise their relatively lower socio-economic status may not have seen them through the application process.
"We thought the real world sucked," Bartle said. "...We wanted to make a world that was better than [class discrimination]. [MUD] was a political endeavour right from the start, as well as an artistic one."
A major feature of this endeavour was character classes and the experience-point-based levelling system many games utilise today, creating a meritocracy where players are on equal footing. Bartle describes the meritocracy design as "the least worst approach" to ranking players. Unsurprisingly, he is not a fan of any game where progress can be bought with real money, which is vehemently against the very philosophy MUD sought out to enact.
Many of today's games, across all genres, are based on this belief that games can exist to create a better world than the one we live in. This is perhaps why people so staunchly protest any hint of politicism in the games they play – they want to escape the endlessly depressing news cycle of governments and politicians creating conflict in the world. What this glosses over is that politics extends far beyond the basic definition of what many believe stays strictly in parliament, congress, or spouted by the bullshit-philosophers at the local pub. Politics encompasses socio-economic status, cultural institutions and beliefs, and our everyday interactions with others. Horrifyingly, in some parts of the world this also includes many individuals' and collectives' right to live – let alone live free of discrimination.
All games and creative works are influenced in at least some part by the creators' beliefs and experiences. In addition, this is reciprocated by the audience of these works, who make their own interpretations formulated by their own personal politics and values.
Personal politics spinning rims
Last year, a mild controversy of political positioning cropped up in the unlikeliest of places – Playground Games' beautiful sandbox racing game Forza Horizon 3 (FH3). Regular Hyper contributor, James O'Connor penned a feature for WayPoint stating FH3 depicts a better, more idealistic Australia than we Australians deserve. Predictably, controversy flared up among the gaming community, especially from those who mistook the article as a review of the game. O'Connor's observations were instead of the incongruence presented by the picturesque postcard depiction of the land Down Under which glossed over many of the hardships and discriminations occurring at the time, and still to this very day.
Recently, Australians voted in a 61.6% majority in favour of legalising same-sex marriage, albeit in a non-binding postal survey yet to be legislated in parliament (at the time of writing, the same-sex marriage Bill has passed in the Senate and is being debated in the House of Representatives). Discrimination has been rife during this time, with various campaigns established to incite fear and division, alongside the typical slurs hurled towards members and supporters of the LGBTI+ community. The sheer absurdity of the “reasoned debate” during this time is perfectly captured by Point & Clickbait’s Tim Colwill's satirical take on Mario Kart’s iconic Rainbow Road being pro-LGBTI+. Fear and hatred is a common denominator in Australia; towards Indigenous Australians, towards queer people, and towards religious minorities, just to name a few.
O'Connor is absolutely correct in saying FH3 does not reflect an accurate depiction of Australia. This should be immediately obvious based on the liberties taken with the in-game geography. Specifically, what he means is that Playground Games made the conscious decision to showcase the best of Australia; stunning natural vistas, beautiful beaches, and plentiful car parks for screeching tyres in. Naturally, this is the type of locale any boutique car racing game wants to portray, and people want to play – it sells units. Would a Muslim, a refugee, or a queer person feel like FH3 represents their experiences of Australia after being subjected to discriminatory rhetoric and treatment for simply existing? Not bloody likely. One could imagine the Hot Wheels and Blizzard Mountain DLC packs probably tested better in market research than "Manus Island Circuit" or "Plebiscite Block Party".
Does this make FH3 a bad game? Absolutely not. FH3 is a fantastic game. As discussed earlier with MUD, many games are designed with idealistic depictions of fictional and non-fictional settings as an escape, an empowerment, from everyday life. However, it is crucial to note that decisions made by any artist are based on their own experiences and beliefs. How they use these core values within their work varies wildly, but nothing is ever created in a vacuum free of internal and external influences. The wonderful thing about this is the potential for abstract critique such as O'Connor's, which looks beyond the gameplay features and casts a personal lens on the overall experience.
Games are a deeply personal experience which resonate with people on infinite levels based on many unquantifiable measures no amount of market research can explain. This is precisely why colonisation-sim RimWorld generated controversy last year over its programmed portrayal of gender and sexuality. Developers are welcome to program games according to their beliefs, but they must also accept reasonable critique from their audience – especially because representation is important to many.
While many games, such as the Forza series, do not feature explicitly political themes, O'Connor notes "...our personal politics can't always simply be switched off," which ultimately influences our consumption of any medium, let alone games.
Extra Credits – all media is political
Prominent games analysis YouTube channel Extra Credits published a video earlier this year exploring the notion that all media is political. Pointing to notable examples such as Star Trek and X-Men, known for their commentary on class systems and discrimination, Extra Credits explains that political influences in all forms of media are unavoidable because they are made by people. Whether intentionally or not, artistic expressions draw upon people's experiences and beliefs, so to demand politics be kept out of games is an utter logical fallacy, at best.
Importantly, the Extra Credits video discusses how politics are presented in-game. Quality, nuanced games writing is able to present themes and topics in a way that feels organic, as opposed to the feeling of receiving a lecture. Development studio BioWare has a long history of games that explore morally grey scenarios, which rarely fit within the good-versus-evil dichotomy – just like real-life political issues. Many of the people who work at the studio hold progressive beliefs, reflected in the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series, featuring casts diverse in their race, gender and sexuality. However, players are able to independently make critical decisions in-game based on their own views. In Dragon Age, do you take the risk of allowing mages greater freedom and more rights, or do you support the Templars in their quest to restrict magic-wielders in an effort to increase safety for non-magic users? Decisions such as these impact the narrative without penalising the player. Characters may openly agree or disagree with your choices, but enough ambiguity remains to reflect the nuances of real-world politics without directly referencing specific issues.
Based on players' personal experiences, the mages and templars example could potentially serve as an allegory for religious freedom, or border protection policies – regardless of whether or not this was the creator's intention. It is because of our varying belief systems, cultural influences and political circumstances that allows for such analyses and critiques to take place. Essays such as O'Connor's introspective look into Forza Horizon 3's depiction of Australia should not be shouted down. Instead, they should be reasoned with, discussed and debated, all in good faith. If someone wants to interpret Super Mario Odyssey as a commentary on the western societal ideals of marriage, go for it! We lose nothing by playing and critiquing games through a political lens – it is only natural that we make sense of the world based on our own experiences and beliefs. We do, however, stand to lose much more if we as a community ignore the many influences behind our favourite games.
The New Colossus and the Wolfenstein games before it merely serve as recent prominent examples of the fact that games are made by real people, each of whom possess their own political views, which will always form part of their creative process. In turn, we interpret the end product with our own unique lens, reacting to the content accordingly. To deny this is to deny the human element of creating and playing games.
Wolfenstein as a comparative device
Pete Hines, Bethesda Softworks' vice-president of marketing, told Glixel The New Colossus does not intentionally reflect current-day events, but viewed the marketing strategy as a chance to have something to say about the current political climate. Obviously, MachineGames had no way of predicting how 2017 would unfold when they started development. Still, The New Colossus manages to cleverly lampoon media outlets attempting to normalise white supremacists via an in-game newspaper article about the Ku Klux Klan. Ironically enough, The New York Times recently received a barrage of negative feedback following a disturbingly fluffy story on a man expressing his white supremacist views.
Hines elaborates further on the political discourse of The New Colossus’ marketing, stating that an open dialogue with MachineGames yielded the chance to take a stance against the rise of Nazi sentiment in the US.
"We weren't going to hide from the fact our game is about killing Nazis and freeing the US from their rule, and if we can reference current events as part of about the game, so be it," Hines said.
"Nazis are evil. We aren't afraid to remind people of that."
“There are actual Nazis marching openly on the streets of The United States of America in 2017,” Hines said. “BJ [Wolfenstein’s protagonist] would not be OK with that – we are not OK with that – and the marketing reflects that attitude.”
The New Colossus’ setting also lends to biting satire from publications such as The Onion – pulling no punches in its commentary of the current leadership in the United States.
Games are escapism. However, seeking complete escapism from the real world and the prickly political issues we’d rather avoid via games will prove to be a fruitless endeavour. The real world is reflected everywhere you look; especially in artistic works created by the diverse teams of people that make up the games industry.
The New Colossus shows us that video games are capable of being much more than just entertainment. Whether implicit or explicit, intentional or otherwise, politics will always be in video games.