As we look at the global embarrassment that is the US General Election, and as the Brits watch a pack of lies crash faster than the pound, it is very tempting to escape away from our politicians into the world of games. They are designed to empower us and create pleasant memories. They provide purpose in a world where many of us feel like pointless cogs in a machine we don’t understand. Games are usually joyous spaces where we can be lord and master of all, and mercifully ignore the dumpster fire on the television.
It is therefore quite understandable that when we buy a new game only to find that politics has been injected into it, some people get very annoyed. Now, I’m not talking about when a game has a female protagonist and a bunch of random internet commenters lose their marbles, I mean when a game makes a deliberate political statement. I mean games like Deus Ex and Black Ops: The Line. And whilst it can be frustrating to sit down for empowerment and get more wretched politics, games like this are vitally important. They challenge the still held notion that games are mere toys, and they force players to think in ways they may never have considered.
So please join me for a little journey into how games explore politics. And please, be civil in the comments.
Let’s begin with the ever pertinent Papers, Please.
Papers, Please is a game about the great boogeyman of British politics: immigration. Papers, Please is a very serious game that worms its way under your skin. You play as an immigration officer in the face of a horde of people wanting a better life. Some come to you with their sob stories but incorrect documentation, forcing the player to decide whether to admit the immigrant (and be punished) or tell them to leave. It is a question of morality verses practicality. In making this problem the core of the game it forces us to consider a major political issue from the perspective of both the immigrants and the border guards – something the vast majority of us wouldn’t naturally do. Spec Ops: The Line also does this in masterful fashion. When we read about the atrocities of war we like to think that the perpetrators are inhuman, that they are monsters, that they are not us. But Spec Ops tears down this illusion by gradually corrupting you one act of war at a time until the player, of their own free will, does something unthinkable and abhorrant. The game isn’t even that anti-war, but it shows how the horrible nature of it grinds ordinary people down until they are fine with bombing civilians, hospitals and aid convoys.
The ability of the average human to consider new perspectives is depressingly poor, but in tying these perspectives into the game we are forced to put ourselves in the shoes of another and gain a whole new angle. It demands that you do what all people should do and consider problems from multiple perspectives. Better yet, the game isn’t a patronizing dick, making it better than most of our elected officials.
This ability to force players to walk in another’s skin is, I think, underused by developers. Playing as generic shooter guy is fine and everything, but a bit more variation wouldn’t kill us. This is why I’m a fan of This War of Mine putting you in the shoes of people living in a city under siege, in this case the Siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996. At the time it was a new take on the way we present warfare in this medium. You have to scavenge to survive, you may need to leave people behind, and you will have to deal with the unpredictability of other desperate people. In basing itself in historical events it avoids accusations of pandering or ‘injecting politics’. It presents a history; no more, no less - but it is a history that repeats itself. This game says to me ‘have your fun, but that shit exists’. And that’s ok. It shows the game to be able to handle these difficult subjects with maturity.
These games are a form of entertainment, but that is not all they are. A lot of people still see games as mere toys, and who can blame them? The games known to popular culture are the likes of GTA, Tomb Raider, Mario and maybe Skyrim - these are all entertainment above all else. This War of Mine, Spec Ops and Papers, Please are entertaining, but entertainment is used as a means to engage the player in political thought without them realising.
There are also games that make no attempt to be political, but still make a point.
Take out of touch politicians. Now, at the moment it is popular for a politician to try and seem ‘normal’. It’s hilarious, especially when they visit schools and try to act cool with the kids, as former British Prime Minister proves nicely:
The problem with this idea, one that strategy games really help me appreciate, is that you don’t actually want your average bloke to run a country. When I started up Democracy 3 for the first time I was met with an intimidating wall of statistics, percentages and sums of money. They were vast sums of money larger than I have ever had to comprehend; sums so large that £5,000,000,000 was pocket change that went missing very easily. And that's simple compared to the systems Democracy 3 tries to simulate. Governing is complicated, you don’t want just anyone to go and do it. Furthermore, whatever I did I was going to piss off millions of people. Perhaps that is why our politicians can seem like such a bunch of cretins, because to do anything you need to be ok with that kind of backlash, and that takes a certain type of person. You also need to have a mind that sees the bigger picture, one that can view a nation like a game of Europa Universalis. The problem is that this is all many politicians see; they do not view the public as people, but as an approval rating, as the little icon in a Total War game that tells you how much everyone hates you. When you have to think on such a scale, it is very, very easy to forget that actually my attempts to create a socialist utopia have resulted in 20 million people being poor. That doesn’t excuse it of course, but it does partially explain how our elected representatives stop caring about us. The game doesn’t try to make this point, but it is something I cannot help but take away from it.
Now I want to turn to a game steeped in politics, but one one that most players will never see as political: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2. The reason it never seems to be political is because it is in a fictional universe. Yet it is one of the most heavily political games I have ever played. The game is set in the aftermath of the Mandalorian Wars, where the Mandalorians (Boba Fett’s people) waged war on the Republic and the Jedi, being pacifist on principle, did nothing. However, a group of Jedi decide to intervene. This intervention makes the Republic and the Mandalorians evenly matched and a bloodbath ensues as they grind each other down, rendering several planets uninhabitable and trillions of people dead. In KOTOR 2, you play as one of those Jedi exploring the consequences of your destructive intervention and are asked several times whether you would do it again knowing how it turned out. I’ve written before about how fiendish and well constructed this dilemma is. There is no right answer, you cannot justify the carnage you’ve caused, but neither can you defend sitting back and watching the Republic get destroyed. It is analogous to so many military interventions in the real world, but gets away with it by being set in the Star Wars universe. I wish more games were able to tackle political issues with as much nuance and subtlety as this one.
It a shame then that some games that try to impart a political message do a bad job of it. Done right they can get us to consider issues and perspectives that we would never otherwise think about. Games can offer us insight into the mind of anyone as long as it is executed with the necessary nuance. Games like Papers, Please, KOTOR 2 and Spec Ops: The Line trick us into engaging with important political issues that we would ordinary avoid thinking about. So whilst games are mainly a form of entertainment, we should not be angry with a developer for including political themes in their games. It’s not like every game is doing it, it’s not like KOTOR’s politics annihilate the escapism I bought it for.
As I said at the start, it can be very frustrating to sit down to play a game and get the very thing you’re playing games to avoid, but as we all look at politics and just want the bullshit to stop, it is worth remembering that games are uniquely placed as a medium to examine politics, and some games do it exceptionally well. We also shouldn’t scoff at or dismiss games that do a bad job or games that do this incidentally, because it is one step on the path to games being seen as more than just entertainment. And when we really want to escape the world, DOOM will still be waiting.