The Politics in Video Games

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Disclaimer: This post reflects solely the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors

Video games are always a sensitive and controversial topic, despite how they are meant to be a source of escapism: a way for players to put aside their worldly troubles and to immerse themselves into a different world. As an entertainment medium, this means that many players and creators alike may want to keep it non-political and non-partisan to attract a wide audience. Marc Olano, an associate professor of computer science in the University of Maryland, Baltimore County stated, “Most big, mainstream games are not intentionally [pushing a political agenda] because they don’t want to limit their audience”. However, video games can still be political in terms of the content it shows as well as how politicians use video games as a topic or platform in their campaigns.

Political activists and politicians can make the use of online games to spread messages and to create awareness of their concerns. For example, Black Lives Matter demonstrations were displayed in games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft with virtual portraits of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black victims of police violence. By utilising  the mass multiplayer mechanic of video games, activists can rally and spread a political message. Politicians like the U.S. Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez went on an election campaign tour in Animal Crossing and delivered personal messages to other players in neighbouring virtual islands for her campaign; Ocasio-Cortez also streamed her playthrough of Among Us, and used its voting and democratic nature to promote the election. In Animal Crossing, citizens riled up by the Presidential elections would hang up virtual Joe Biden and Kamala Harris campaign posters in their front yards. In 2019, Presidential candidate Donald Trump blamed violence and shootings on video games, saying, “We must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace”. By eliciting national grief over famous school shootings such as the massacres in Columbine High School in 1999, Sandy Hooks Elementary School in 2012 and Douglas High School in 2018, Trump has been able to politicise  video games and fuel his party’s violent game rhetoric into his campaign. 

Video games can have an overt and obvious political environment, with the most obvious games of this genre being FallOut and Metal Gear Solid in their anti-nuclear messaging, Assassin’s Creed with their narratives supporting ethnic minorities and oppressed groups, and Detroit: Become Human’s 4000-page script assessing the dangers of artificial intelligence, with one android becoming a political leader to for an android revolution. In the 1990s, one of the first most successful political games was Wolfenstein 3D, which brought first-person shooter games into the mainstream gaming and political discourse. Set during the ending of the Cold War and recalling how the Cold War originated from the world’s attempts to prevent the rise of Germany’s fascism, players in Wolfenstein 3D assume the role of an American commando battling Nazis and was banned in Germany as it displayed Nazi symbols such as the swastika and the Horst Wessel Lied. Therefore, video games are able to communicate ideology at the level of mechanics and form.

Even seemingly innocuous games like Animal Crossing, the Legend of Zelda, and Undertale are all heavily influenced by the outside world’s capitalist politics and culture, thus incorporating elements of capitalism into the game’s characters and mechanics. These games may not outright support capitalism, but normalize the capitalist’s organising  of society to the player. For Animal Crossing, the player is “building capital” by catching bugs and fish, harvesting fruits and collecting items to sell for better ones, and its most familiar feature of capitalist policies is playing the stalk market to buy turnips at a low price in order to sell them later for a large profit. Merchant characters in Legend of Zelda and Undertale are integral to the games and become beloved by the player; the games would feel incomplete without these merchants, implying that the world may feel incomplete without some capitalist aspect of the economy. Furthermore, activists have protested against many games’ in-game purchases; for example, Counter Strike: Global Offensive has been accused of “skin gambling” where players spend real money on mystery items contained in virtual “loot boxes” that have varying degrees of in-game value. These activists protest against the predatory nature of the game because it advertises  gambling to minors as the game abuses capitalism and its flaws to collect more money.

Above all, video games can be political according to the content and story that it shows to the player. In Life is Strange 2, the player controls two characters’ journey as they lose their innocent father to police gun violence and are on the run in a country echoing Trump’s America – complete with a border wall. By exposing the player to real political issues of immigration, racism, police brutality and gun violence in its storyline, the game developers increase the salience of race inequality in the United States of America and the treatment of its minority population. The co-directors of Dontnod Entertainment which created Life is Strange 2 explained that this was their intention. Michel Koch shared, “when you’re creating something, it is political in every way because we hold up some of our own beliefs, and sometimes deciding to speak on a subject or not is a political decision in and of itself.” This nuance has been replicated in the game with moral dilemmas that the player must choose between, for example, whether to sympathize with the pregnant Mexican woman who was detained at the border or whether to punish racists. Co-director Raoul Barbet related their inspiration for the game’s political issues to his political surroundings in Paris. He shared, “I think all the themes we talk about are present in Europe and particularly in France, too. We’ve got a lot of issues with gun violence, and a lot of discussions about borders and immigration.” 
Despite discussions about how video games, with their political settings and imagery, are intended to be political or not, it rings clear that they do have real, political consequences. From simulations of political issues such as the treatment of oppressed groups or artificial intelligence, to the mechanisms of shooting games and the influences of the capitalist economy, video games seem to be a ripe platform for politicians and citizen players alike to raise awareness and support for their political concerns.

By Jey Chung,

Jey Chung is a second-year student in BSc Politics and International Relations, writing about anything that catches their attention!

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