Death of the Critic

Politics of Play - Games with an Agenda

Written by: Tom Blaich

Video games can be a powerful tool. They are unique in media in that they allow you to directly interact with the text in a way quite unlike anything else. And as time goes on, we are seeing games being leveraged in entirely different ways than we might have imagined when we first got our hands on the text adventures of the 1980’s. Instead of trying to make a game “fun”, creators are making games with messages. By allowing players to interact with the work in a meaningful way, the message carries so much more impact.

Where this was once in the realm of independent games almost exclusively, it has broken into the mainstream in a major way with the last console generation. It is hard to find a first-person shooter these days that isn’t making some sort of commentary about war or violence. More studios are willing to take a chance and say something significant with their game. But there are a few titles that stick out in the way they consciously communicate their agenda to the player, and actively try to change the way that player thinks. Games like
Spec Ops: The Line, Bioshock, or Papers, Please. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Games are changing, maturing into a medium like literature or cinema that can be used as tools to influence an audience.

Spec Ops might be the most famous of these, as you follow a group of special forces soldiers in sandstorm stricken Dubai as they search for a commander who has gone rogue. With a story ripped straight from the pages of The Heart of Darkness and it’s reimagining Apocalypse Now, it is no surprise what comes in the game. You do horrible things, and your slow descent into depravity makes you question if what you are doing is the right thing.

So many times we have hand waved our violence by saying that the ends justified the means. Gunning own injured soldiers in
Call of Duty or torturing goons in Splinter Cell. The moment a vague threat looms on the horizon, our morals go out the window and we lower ourselves to the level of evil. Spec Ops tackles that. You kill innocent people in horrible ways, and the end of the game leaves you to choose how your character walks away, or if they do at all. There is no apocalypse you are trying to prevent, or stolen doomsday weapon. It’s soldiers trying to bring justice onto one of their own, and dozens get caught in the crossfire.

In many ways it is a standard anti-war message. The occupying force terrorizing the innocent occupants of a city, but by giving you agency over the carnage, by making you pull the trigger, they make you implicit in the inhumanities that are occurring. You are the one who kills the women and children. It impacts you differently than seeing the same scene play out on film.

In a movie, you feel bad because the “good guys” did a bad thing. In a game, you feel bad because
you did a bad thing. And that is a powerful distinction. The same thing happens in Modern Warfare 2’s infamous airport sequence, where you tag along on a massacre that now hits all too close to home.

It is hard to play a shooter now that doesn’t venture into the realm of political statement about violence, and this trend really started with the critical success of
Spec Ops: The Line. 2016’s Infinite Warfare actually managed to do a really good job at communicating this message in a different way than the normal, “It’s cool to kill people, but you should feel bad about it.”

The idea that war is bad is one that almost everyone can get behind, and that is part of why you see it in so many games. More complex ideas, or ones that aren’t as widely accepted are harder to find, and are more often thought to exist as opposed to actually existing in games.

Look at the
controversy that Bioware went through when they added GSRM (Gender, Sexual, or Romantic Minority) characters to their games. They were quickly accused by many of promoting an agenda. The same thing happened with Gone Home or really any game that prominently featured any non-normative characters. But these criticisms miss one of the major parts of politicizing a game. Simply having a non-normative character does not mean that a game is pushing an agenda. There has to be an active component.

Seeing gay or trans characters is not trying to convince a player that they should be gay and/or trans. However, having a sidekick who proselytizes about the virtue of GSRM life while actively trying to convert you would be pushing an agenda. I am currently unaware of a game like this, but if there is one, I would love to know.

Bioshock goes on a different route, trying to explore a utopia and how it went wrong. This bacchanalia of excess and freedom sounds like a perfect world to some, and its concept was plucked straight out of Ayn Rand’s objectivist literature. A society of elites crumbling apart and the struggle between your own selfish desires and your morals is explored through the little sisters that you can choose to kill or spare. Killing them will give you more resources immediately, and sparing them has no visible benefits at the outset. They try to convince the audience that not only would this utopia not work, but that there is reward for “good” moral choices.

Once you start to recognize it, you can see these subtle, or not so subtle, pushes everywhere.
Papers, Please which asks you to either blindly follow or stealthily oppose a dangerous regime, gives you empathy for the people who are forced to live in scenarios like these to save their lives and the lives of their families. Metal Gear Solid 4 questions the increasing reliance on PMC (Private Military Companies) in our foreign conflicts. Flower looks at the widespread destruction of our environment.

If there is a cause, a game can be used to explore it, to try and convince the players of something. While there are more overtly political games, they haven’t manage to find broad, mainstream appeal. But it could happen in the future, and it is something we need to keep our eye out for. There is nothing wrong with a work trying to convince you of something. As long as we recognize that it is doing so and keep that fact in mind while we are playing. Our goal is to look at games with an open mind. The more ideas the better


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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