The following essay is based on the first part of my keynote speech at the FROG conference 2017 on October, 14th 2017 at the Wiener Rathaus. The second part on Political Communication in Video Games can be read here and the third part on Political Mythologies in Games here. The remaining third part on political myths in games will be published subsequently.
by Eugen Pfister
Games and politics
To start a discussion on games and politics was for the past decade a sure bet for at least a handful of flaming ripostes: “Keep your politics out of my games” was one of the more polite examples. For many self-proclaimed “gamers” games and politics appear to be two antithetical concepts. In their logic they form two independent and incompatible spheres. A contact – or worse a blending! – of games with politics appears to be a sacrilege for many. When analysing the vocabulary of the relevant commentaries, you’ll see that political agendas in video games are understood as a sort of contamination. The “Political” is here understood as a stain, as something corrupting the fun. This alone is indication of a fundamental political problem of our society; we will get to that later.
In the following short essay (as well as in two following texts) I will demonstrate, that on the contrary games and politics cannot be thought separately and – what is more – that the interaction of every game with politics is something natural and in fact prerequisite for every media to work. I will try to prove, that every game is the result of a very specific cultural and political environment and therefore gives evidence of very concrete world-views.
So, let’s talk about politics and games. We could, for instance, discuss the social and political mechanics and implications of the self-proclaimed “Gamergate”-movement and its ties to the far right, we could talk about the ongoing debate on violence in video games, about censorship, or about the newfound interest of many politicians for the video game industry. I am however far more interested in a fundamental question: video games as a media of political communication. In my ongoing research I’m actively searching for discursive political statements, for ideologies in video games, ideologies that potentially influence us – the player – that communicate and construct world-views and values that we incorporate in our collective identities.
I’d like to make one thing clear from the very beginning: I’m not searching for conscious acts of hidden or open propaganda. On the contrary, I’m talking about a popular political discourse. I will not investigate and expose hidden agendas in video games but I want to better understand a very common if unconscious process of collective identity construction in popular culture.
In the following, I will explore therefore the possibilities of conscious and unconscious political content in video games. I’m going to introduce you to some of the existing theories on this subject. But before diving into theories I think it is important to review the on-going debate on politics in games. So, let’s take a first glance at some of these discussions with a special focus on official statements from the industry itself. Because it is especially the game industry itself that frequently asserts that they have “no particularly political message”
“Making political statements are for other people to do.”
“At the end of the day, it’s a videogame, it’s an entertainment product… There’s no particularly political message with it.”
– Julian Gerighty interviewed by Michelle Erhardt- .
This quote, for example, is taken from an interview with Associate creative director Julian Gerighty from Ubisoft concerning the game Tom Clancy’s The Division (Massive Entertainment: SE 2016) from 2016, which is an open world first-person shooter with heavy reliance on multiplayer. While the eponymous author Tom Clancy died in 2013 – which means that he didn’t write the scenario of The Division – his name and franchise still stand for a very distinct worldview. Tom Clancy became – so to speak – a brand for “conservative” entertainment. He was fervent admirer of Ronald Reagan (and vice-versa) and dedicated many of his books to conservative political figures. The Division is a game that tells the players the story of the total collapse of a modern western democratic government when threatened by a biological terrorist attack, which starts a smallpox epidemic in Manhattan. After a total failure of the infrastructure: police, hospitals, fire rescue – and let’s not get started about the waste management – the US government places the island under quarantine and activates – now comes the twist – some local sleeper agents from the Strategic Homeland Division who are supposed to guarantee law and order by force of arms(!). That’s us the player.
Any scenario in which it is insinuated that our democratic system is incapable of withstanding a biological terrorist attack communicates in fact a very particular political worldview, regardless of the definition of politics you apply. Be it now a broad definition: “politics as the process of making decisions applying to all members of each group” or a narrow “the art or science of government”. And I haven’t even started talking about the stereotype of the black low-level street-thug and the leftist eco-terrorist, perpetuated by the game. It is interesting to note, that, would The Division have been a film it would be called a political thriller. Again: this is not a critique of the game. Video Games have the same right to be political thrillers as movies, tv-series and novels. In fact video games have every right to propagate conservative world views. It is however not only irritating but also deeply dangerous that the publishers insist on repeating, that there are no politics in this game. As a historian I was trained to always search for the historical context of my sources, and this is also here of great importance. When Gerighty asserted that ““At the end of the day, it’s a videogame, it’s an entertainment product… There’s no particularly political message with it”, it was in the context of an interview by Michelle Ehrhardt on Kill Screen. What should interest us are the earlier questions: Ehrhardt asked the most obvious question ““So when you have a disaster scenario set in New York, the obvious comparison is to 9/11,” Gerightys response was surprising: “I didn’t,” he responded. “I don’t think even the parallel between this game scenario and 9/11 exists.” This question and answer explains to some degree the no-politics-disclaimer: Gerighty was afraid to touch a taboo. As of this moment it isn’t acceptable to make a video game about 9/11. Gerighty most certainly had a possible media backlash in mind comparable to the outrage that followed the never released military shooter “Six days in Fallujah”.
Another more recent example of this reasoning can be seen in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands (UbiSoft Paris: F 2017) another Ubisoft game from the Tom Clancy franchise. In the video game a Mexican drug cartel controls Bolivia and has turned it into a violent, anarchic narco-state. In a statement to Reuters, Ubisoft said the game is “a work of fiction” and that Bolivia was chosen as the background for the game because of its “magnificent landscapes and rich culture.” If you have played the game, you will maybe agree concerning the landscapes but you might wonder about the cultural aspects. Because in the end it is a game about a violent, anarchic narco-state, where you play an American soldier dispatched by the American army without any UN resolution executing one south American drug dealer after the other. It is in fact a direct reference to the respective action movies of the 1980s. A French game therefore adopts a genuine American pop-cultural trope. But for all those of us who aren’t too familiar with Bolivian politics the scenario set in 2019 might even appear to be to some extent plausible. This is why the Bolivian government has filed a formal complaint with the French embassy in La Paz regarding the depiction of the country. The game might very well have an impact on the exterior perception of the country, by reproducing the stereotype of a dangerous failed state, an impression that could have implications on the political and economic performance of Bolivia. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any information on the outcome of this conflict. This game which was ironically published by a French company legitimizes the Amercian “War on Drugs” declared by Richard Nixon half a century ago. Ubisoft responed by declaring again, that it was just a game. It is ironic that Tom Clancy himself had no problem to talk about politics in his oeuvre.
The most recent example I’m going to present you is taken from the Canadian Televison from June 15 this year. In the wake of Far Cry 5 (Ubisoft Montreal: CA 2018) the CBC newsreport “The National” was searching for politics in video games. And whereas the developers from Ubisoft Montreal now openly talk about “political zeitgeist”, Reggie Fils-Aime president of Nintendo of America stated in the same news item that:
“Making political statements are for other people to do. We want people to smile and have fun when they play our games.”
– Reggie Fils-Aime
Such assertions are highly interesting sources on our public perception of politics. Fils-Aime for example openly implies that politics are the opposite of fun and smiling. (I will return to this topic in the following essays). Why is Nintendo insisting on the apolitical? Again, it makes sense to examine the context. In another part of the news item, a certain Jesse Henessy who reviews games for family friendliness said:
“If you come across as preaching your political agenda, you’re gonna alienate everybody who doesn’t agree with you.”
– Jesse Hennessy
The news items than continues “And that’s what makes politics a dangerous game. Big developers have a lot to lose if enough of their audience identifies with the villains”. That is the exactly the point. Don’t get me wrong: In my opinion video games like all other media should have the right and even the duty to communicate all sorts of different political ideologies within legal parameters of course. The main problem however, is that politics are seen as something stained, as polarising, and as something dangerous. This is also the reason why the debate quickly escalates.
“If any activity is political, then political activity is a pleonasm”
The game developer Adrian Chmielarz, known for his controversial opinions in favor of gamergate and his latent anti-feminism, recently wrote a mind piece on Medium expressing his opinion on the question if all video games are political. He wonders:
“if any activity is political, then political activity is a pleonasm, and therefore we should stop using the unnecessary extra word.” – Adrien Chmielarz
In response to his question he defends however the use of the word: “Or should we keep using it to distinguish between things that are political and things that are not?” He then offers a sort of matrix to recognize the political: “As a creator I see three self-explanatory top levels of politics in any work of art: no politics, the coloring, and the message. As an example, in the world of video games, Bejeweled offers no politics, Resident Evil uses the politics as the coloring, and Spec Ops: The Line is all about that message.” While I don’t agree with many of his thoughts, I have to agree that if everything is political, then the word loses its meaning. The problem with Chmielarz text is however that he often speaks of the meaning of the term political, but he never defines the meaning of political. In fact it is unclear until the end, what he understands as “political”. And that’s a central problem of the discussion. He is right it makes no sense to simply state that all games are political, but it can be very productive to search for the political in every game to better understand modern politics.
So, what is political?
We have to clarify the most central term: What is political? What are politics? We all use the word on a regular basis. The problem is that we if asked for a short definition– myself included – we most certainly would begin to stutter and search for words. Something to do with the government? Yes, that is the most narrow possible definition: Governance, the organized control over a group of humans, the modern state. This very narrow definition is however not very gratifying in research, because it would for instance exclude all forms of grass root movements and NGOs like Amnesty International. Even political commentaries in the newspapers and TV as well as all of the writings of Noam Chomsky for instance would no longer be political in strictest sense. Political Science and the humanities therefore normally use a broader definition of politics: “as the study or practice of the distribution of power and resources within a given population as well as the interrelationship(s) between communities.” Hence politics are mainly about the distribution of power and its legitimation. Why do we accept the state monopoly on the use of force, why do we accept the rule of a majoritarian party even if it doesn’t coincide with our personal political view? Why do we accept the idea that it is important that the economy has to grow indefinitely? Why is it acceptable that men are paid more money than women for the same amount of work?
What happens if we superpose this definition on the three examples given by Chmielarz? The developers of Spec-Ops the Line (Yager Development: D 2012) have openly declared that their game has a political message. No change here. Resident Evil (Capcom: J 1996) is a game about mad scientists, scientific research gone wrong, the unethical practices of an evil corporation and political corruption. So there are definitely political elements here. Even if we assume that the developers had no political message in mind, they are propagating unconsciously a very distinct political worldview. I would therefore not speak of political colouring but more openly of political content. But what about casual games like Bejeweled (PopCap Games: US 2000) and Farmville (Zynga: US 2009)? I agree in principle with Chmielarz: it makes no sense to simply claim that they are all political. You won’t find any ideas on international relations in Bejweled Blitz (PopCap Games: US 2010) or on political corruption in Candy Crush (King : GB 2012). You could, however, question the goal of these games and that their game mechanics are based on the principle of accumulation. These games could also have been about the creation of intricate and exotic designs and colour combination but they chose to reward the accumulation of points, gems, money. (Think of Janets Murray interpretation of Tetris). This is most certainly not a conscious decision of the developers it is simply a translation of experiences of our daily life into game mechanics. Our economies are based on the accumulation of wealth, therefore we have learned to think this way. It is – so to speak – a natural thing to do. We are thus perpetuating mindsets we learned ourselves. This means it could make sense to also take casual games into account to better understand our ways of thinking, our economic dogmas and especially the public opinion on this matter. It would, on the other hand make no sense to search for the legitimation of democracy in these games.
The defensive attitude when confronted with the idea of political content in video games is the result of a deep and wide-spread mistrust towards everything political (more on this later). The resulting disclaimer of most publishers, that there is no political content is very problematic because it hides the existing political messages. While Tom Clancy himself actively searched a political debate concerning his oeuvre, “his” video games make every attempt to discuss the underlying political assumptions impossible. Of course it makes no sense to just proclaim, that every game is political, it would be a pleonasm, but it can make sense to search for the political in every game.
In the following two essays I will take a first glance at the underlying mechanisms of political communication in video games and how ideological world-views can be perpetuated unconsciously.
- The next part “On Political Communication in Digital Games”can be read here.
- The reply “Panem et Circenses: Bejeweled, Fun & Politics” by Tobias Winnerling can be read here.
– Rainer Sigl, “‘Es ist nur ein Spiel’: Eine Ausrede, die nicht mehr gilt”, in derstandard.at, 19.03.2017.
– Gareth Damian Martin, “The perverse ideology of the division”, in killscreen.com, 16.03.2016.
– O.A. [Errant Signal], “Keep your politics out of my games!”, in: youtube.com, 13.10.2013.
Bild: Техника – молодёжи 1968-04
Empfohlene Zitierweise : Eugen Pfister, „Keep your Politics out of my Games!“ in: Spiel-Kultur-Wissenschaften, <http://spielkult.hypotheses.org/1566> 08.02.2018.
8 Gedanken zu „„Keep your Politics out of my Games!”“
Very interesting and relevant keynote, Eugen. Thank you for sharing and I’m looking forward to the next two parts! Some of the various points throughout your keynote reminded me of several things:
1. I recently read Daniel Joseph’s very interesting take on the “keep your politics out of my games” border-patrolling by gamers/enthusiast consumers. He used a Andre Gorz quote to stipulate that video games are ‘the gardens of the bourgeoise’ which is to say that they are neatly and nicely curated by those in power as a private sphere separated from the pressures of capitalism. It’s an interesting short read -> http://dropouthangoutspaceout.tumblr.com/post/50472859975/videogames-are-the-gardens-of-the-bourgeoise
2. Ubisoft’s PR strategy of denying its obvious politics was also seen recently with Far Cry 5 where the employee goes to great lengths to answer a very simple question about the contemporary relevance of the game’s commentary on far-right extremism & US conservatism. It is mind-boggling read the responses: http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2017-12-01-desperately-trying-to-get-ubisoft-to-talk-about-far-cry-5s-controversial-us-setting
3. If you are familiar with the satirical site Pointandclickbait, they did a pretty entertaining sketch on the Keep Your Politics Out Of My Games: http://www.pointandclickbait.com/2015/12/no-politics-here-thanks/