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Opinion – Video Games Should Embrace Politics

by Elise Favis on May 29, 2017 at 12:00 PM

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This editorial was originally published in issue 290 of Game Informer magazine.

As you roam through the world of Mafia III, you are constantly aware of the color of Lincoln Clay’s skin. Walking down the street, people stare at him warily, and upon entering segregated stores, shop owners order him to leave. In poorer neighborhoods, police take longer to show up to emergencies. Playing as a mixed race protagonist in 1968 New Orleans, you’re treated by the rest of the world with what feels like unjustified distrust. Forcing you to face this racial discrimination makes for powerful empathy, and without its politics, Mafia III would lose much of its impact.

A common sentiment seen through the gaming community is that politics are unwanted in games. This view is held so strongly by some that it’s embedded in radical movements such as GamerGate. Their argument is the real world has its share of grievances and antagonism over politics, so why should our entertainment, a prime tool for escapism, also feature these views? The answer is simple: Politics don’t only matter, but they also make for better games and better stories.

Escapism is a positive thing. Media can help remove us from the stresses of everyday life, and there will always be certain types of media that keep politics at bay. That doesn’t mean all should. Countless movies, literary works, and other forms of media already address hot political issues, and you don’t see people telling them to stop. For example, the X-Men series is inspired by the civil rights movement, and the recent thriller film Get Out has a lot to say about racial tension in America. Creators tackling these issues bring depth to the media we consume, but it’s also important for game developers to take certain things into consideration when handling political topics. They should be approached with delicacy, and not all attempts succeed.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s marketing campaign depicted the game as deeply political. Taking place in a near future setting, trailers showcased civilian uprisings in response to a “mechanical apartheid” – the racial-like division of humanity between those with mechanical augmentations and those who have none. People with robotic upgrades are feared and hated by the rest of society, and playing as superhero cop Adam Jensen, you sometimes feel that hatred radiate from police officers who stop you in the street. Mankind Divided’s downfall is that it’s conflicting: It sells itself as a power fantasy that also wants to make you feel vulnerable and segregated. Jensen becomes a walking contradiction and political themes are mostly left behind as the narrative trudges forward.

Mankind Divided dips its toes into fascinating topics, but never takes the plunge in order to be meaningful. However, several other games have succeeded where Mankind Divided fell short, and many are critically acclaimed despite their inclusion of politics. When approached head on and with tact, politics are just one of many components that can make a game fascinating. BioShock explores clashing political ideals between leaders as they face the downfall of a utopia, and is heavily inspired by the works of philosopher Ayn Rand. Smaller indie games are also becoming more politically-driven. The adventure game 1979 Revolution: Black Friday puts spotlight on the Iranian Revolution. Papers, Please turned heads with its brilliant depiction of immigration through the eyes of a border patrol agent. These themes don’t distract from these games’ ability to entertain, but instead add to it by creating sophisticated narratives in compelling worlds.

The industry is quickly maturing along with the medium, and it’s time we did too. When asked on Twitter by a fan if The Last of Us Part II would be apolitical, Naughty Dog creative director Neil Druckmann responded, “No can do. Writers work off of their views of the world.” Firewatch writer Sean Vanaman told Polygon that politics are integral to games. “The idea that games shouldn’t have politics in them is f---ing bulls---,” he says. “Everyone knows that. Art is politics.”

Many developers are not shying away from politics, but instead recognizing their importance. The most memorable games are the ones that leave you to ponder their meanings, and politics are just one of many methods to facilitate discussion.

Art reflects real life, and video games are no exception to that rule. Media is a means of expression, and it will contain views that don’t always align with our own. Video games that challenge us and entertain us are not mutually exclusive, as politics make for better games with more nuanced stories. The idea that video games should remain superficial and shy away from political themes is ludicrous because the two are, and will always be, interconnected.