Games and Politics:
Having your Cake and eating it too?
I am in an awkward place when it comes to talking about games. As a game designer, graduated academic and consumer of video games I find myself talking about games as grand systemic political pieces as well as drivers of fun. This seems natural to me but there is an implicit assumption that games can’t both be simple fun as well as cultural touchstones. As much as we can marvel at the progress video games have made over a quarter of a century, we have to acknowledge that this medium is in a weird sort of adolescence. It has definitely matured but by how much? The short answer is… a lot. The long answer is… it depends on WHERE in the community you ask this question. When you tend to turn away from highbrow articles or online forums that specialize in the cultural impact that games have on people as a whole, you start to see an industry that is still divided over whether or not video games are culture for everyone or simply diversions for gamers. This results in an industry that wants to present itself as politically and culturally relevant without addressing the responsibility that position holds.
When I talk about the entire industry as having this problem, I do really mean the entire industry. That being said, a lot of games are able to tackle serious issues with maturity and nuance. Independent studios and older companies have made commentary on technology, racial tension, and geopolitics more directly and have done well for themselves. Cyberpunk series like Deus Ex (by Eidos Interactive) or smaller apocalyptic titles like This War of Mine (11 bit studios) have been eager and (mostly) successful in talking about politics and morality in meaningful ways. It might seem strange that I would complain about politically indifferent games companies when I can readily identify games and studios that are not trying to “have their cake”. When I talk about this political problem I am talking squarely about big studios and consumers that enjoy the promise of meaningful stories only to tear down any mention of cultural or political significance. It’s great to have studios that do care enough about the cultural content to own the politics they put into their games. What is disappointing is when the supposed leaders of an industry are unable to deliver on their grand promises of cultural content because they are worried about causing trouble for their bottom line. Big games and series like Detroit: Become Human (Quantic Dream), The Sims (The Sims Studio), and Far Cry 5 (Ubisoft Montreal & Toronto), show worlds that mirror our own, that have tough questions and situations that emulate our political and cultural climate. However, when their games launch they chide us for inferring politics that were implied in the marketing or mechanics of the game. Indies, smaller studios and AAA games even 10–20 years ago have already demonstrated the ability to be both political and amusing so why do big contemporary companies pretend that there are no politics in their games?
One of the first conclusions one can make (and that have already been made by other writers/publications) is that this is a matter of protecting the bottom line of companies. Controversy and political intrigue might generate buzz to bring people in but potentially “taking a side” or otherwise say something substantive can possibly alienate people. This is the last thing you would want when your target audience is literally as many people as possible. This logic doesn't really hold up.
Other mediums that are mainstream culture are and have been able to send clear messages while maintaining their broad audiences. The biggest movie of this year (as of writing this) has been Infinity War, which is less politically invested as other movies, but a close second was Black Panther. This movie was different culturally for forwarding the idea of afro-futurism and ultimately arguing for increased globalism. In America, people have become increasingly divided between both representation and the roles of foreign interests and domestic interests involving foreign parties. If we’re to believe that hot-button issues are too alienating to make compelling media for the masses, then how did that movie makeover nearly $700 million domestically (or over $1.3 billion worldwide)? We already know from movies, television, and music that being political is not a hindrance to sales. This must mean that something other than the bottom line is making companies squeamish around the topic of politics. That something is the “core gamer”. Or what we assume that demographic is.
Insinuating that it is consumers’ faults that AAA studios are still afraid to embrace more meaningful stances is not what I’m arguing here. The “core gamer” is not the actual core demographic or even the majority of the gaming space. In spite of this, games are still marketed and made with this specific idea of a demographic in mind. When I say the word, “gamer”, what is the stereotypical picture that comes into your head? Probably a young white male from a middle-class household (who is probably straight, cisgendered, and a political centrist). This model is perfect for the grand inviting vision of drama inspired by our world without any commentary. This stereotype of what gamers are given the impression that the best way to please the largest audience is to have fun games that reference mature themes (we’re not making games for children after all) but nothing too deep to alienate or otherwise offend the player-base. It is rather obvious that the demographics mentioned don’t preclude enjoyment of deeply cultural works. You can certainly be a white guy and like This War of Mine as much as all the white men that loved Black Panther. The problem is that this group has been historically seen as immature and receptive to only the escapist element of video games. Unfortunately, this idea is not only one stuck in our collective memory of the earlier days of games. These ideas are reinforced by a small but very vocal community online.
A good example of this is a Reddit post by “teckademics” about Polygon’s review of Far Cry 5. The post, “FYI Polygons review is a joke.” points out and criticizes the reviewer for scrubbing the game for its political content. What is strange, to me, about the post is that there are not any concrete reasons as to why the style of the review was unacceptable. The stance was taken by “teckademics”, has only 6 unsupported quotes from the original review. The only actual commentary is the title — “FYI Polygons review is. It’s more politics than actual game review. That’s why it’s a 6.5/10.” — and a single bolded sentence that criticizes the use of masculine and feminine instead of male or female. There are over 900 comments under this post, mostly in agreement. 900 comments is a lot and as a major place for talking about the Far Cry series, it seems that betraying this demographic is betraying a cornerstone of your industry. The problem with this is that it ignores the ethnic, cultural and political diversity that exists within the gaming community today.
The average age of a game console owner is 35, men make up only half of the people who play video games, and the driving consumers of the multi-billion dollar mobile space are mostly women. The gaming community is not as homogeneous as we thought it was and our other forms of entertainment are better at reflecting the culture that is okay with different ideas and political nuance.
I just hope that our industry leaders in the AAA space will stop being bashful about politics and catch up with smaller studios, older games and traditional media. They can’t continue to keep their cakes and… well, you know the rest.