On Political Communication in Digital Games

The following essay is based on the second part of my keynote speech at the FROG conference 2017 on October, 14th 2017 at the Wiener Rathaus. The first part „Keep your Politics out of my games!“ can be found here, as well as an impromtu reply by Tobias Winnerling. The remaining third part on political myths in games will be published subsequently.


by Eugen Pfister

Why a better Understanding of Politics in Popular Culture matters

It is true, not all video games have a conscious or an intentional political message but they communicate political aspects nonetheless. Games are not developed in aseptic laboratories under vacuum and without contact to the exterior. They are the result of their culture and society of origin. Their developers are not creating games ex nihil but are falling back on the world they know. They are – most of the time – recreating the world they are used too.  To give you a simile: just think of the „aliens“ in the Star Trek Universe. Therefore all games can be analysed for traces of a political discourse. Video games are an excellent source for ideological values and worldviews in mass media.

Classical political history traditionally focuses on political elites, on parliamentary protocols, memoirs of politicians, party programs, diplomatic correspondence, campaigning etc. This sources however represent only the political action and thoughts of a very small elite. The mass of the citizens however has to stay unheard by most of the historical researchers. If we are really interested in the popular understanding of a good government – what makes a good head of state for example – it’s not enough to analyse newspapers and TV reports or to question a sample of hundreds or even thousands on people with predetermined questionnaires. To fill this blank, this yet unanswered question of what people expect and how they understand their government, it helps to take a closer look at popular culture, and especially the so called pulp genres, like horror, science fiction, etc.

How we are socialized in Video Games

We have to keep in mind that digital games have become mass media over the past thirty years, reaching a public of hundreds of millions worldwide. Whether triple A or Indie games, they are all developed from inside of their society, culture and politics and are consequently shaped by these political, social and cultural ideas and discourses – both intentionally and unintentionally. Being mass media, games communicate, perpetuate and build collective identities. They are at the same time both a product and a producer of culture. Of course they are never alone in doing so; they are quite intricately interwoven into other media, our educational system, peer groups and families. They are first and foremost a perfect indicator of dominant political and cultural discourses. And it is critical and crucial for the humanities to analyse all processes of political identity construction (in video games) to better understand the logics of political communication in general. But it doesn’t stop there: Video games are not only an interesting historical source to better understand specific societies and cultures,[1] they take an active part in creating our societal reality. In the logic of discourse analysis they are not so much a reflection of reality but a component of its construction. In other words: we also learn from video games to understand our world:

“Whatever we know about society, or indeed about the world in which we live, we know through the mass media.”

It was Niklas Luhman who opened his reflections on the reality of mass media with this slightly controversial phrase.[2] Of course you could argue that we learn most about society from our parents, in school, maybe at university and later from our peers, at least concerning the knowledge that applies to our everyday interactions with society. But Luhman provoked his readers to make a point.

“What we know about the stratosphere is the same as what Plato knows about Atlantis: we’ve heard tell of it.”
– Niklas Luhman, The reality of mass media [3]

We never stop to accumulate new bits of information, when watching a new movie, when reading a newspaper or when playing video games. Normally we don’t have the means to check newly acquired information about the domestic politics of Bolivia, the American war on drugs, American Counter terror policies, stem cell research, naval warfare in the 18th century or the mechanics of international relations – which are all highly specialised kinds of information. But most of the time we don’t have to question this knowledge because we don’t need it for our daily life. Luhmann continued by stating that, of course, we know that we can’t trust media. We know for instance that the Assassin’s Creed series is not as reliable a source of information when compared to say a history textbook. We wouldn’t believe everything we learned about Karl Marx, Leonardo da Vinci or the Marquis de Sade from these games. But …

“Even if all knowledge were to carry a warning that it was open to doubt, it would still have to be used as a foundation, as a starting point.” – Niklas Luhman, The reality of mass media. [3]

Knowledge we acquired in mass media works as a primer, it frames our knowledge. To stay with the example of Assassin’s Creed this would mean, that while we would keep a critical stance towards the presentation of certain historical figures and events we could retain an overall impression of the French revolution as a bloody chaotic mess, that endangered the lives of all French citizens. And this unchecked knowledge is here to stay, somewhere hidden in our memory. The depiction of the French revolution in Assassin’s Creed and especially the role of Robespierre was deeply biased, and ironically for a French publisher, indulged a very critical British tradition: The revolution was not shown as a new start, as the dawn of the modern French republic but as a step back to darker times.

But what about games that have no declared historical background setting? What about SF and Fantasy-games for instance? Of course we – the players – are all well aware that we can’t implement all the knowledge gained from a Japanese role playing game or a FPS, taking place on mars in our everyday life. But nevertheless we learn while playing these games. We learn to master them, to develop our skills. We learn to anticipate the good guys and the bad guys. What are the virtues of the good guys for example: democracy? Free speech? Equal rights? Non-Discrimination? Conversely, what is it that makes an evil empire truly evil: Racism? Tyranny? Corruption? Fundamentalism? These are norms and rules of our society that we internalise every day. This transfer of knowledge, this process of learning is a normal part of all media consumption. It is the normal way of our societies to communicate and adapt dominant values.

Theories of Cultivation, Socialisation and Narrative Persuasion.

There are different methodical approaches to better understand and analyse the idea of unconscious political communication in video games. The media researcher Christoph Klimmt for example aimed to find – with a thorough content analysis of the images and narrative of video games – the construction of a “social reality” in games. Thus Klimmt understands video games as an expression of analogue social processes and constellations. Prior research on “traditional” media (i.e. TV), has proven that there is a substantial influence on the values and opinions of recipients, especially concerning fictional TV-movies and series. Media studies then speak of cultivation effects. Preliminary research on cultivation effects in video games has shown, that such an influence on moral concepts and attitudes could also establish such an influence in video games. The narrative persuasion theory assumes, that video games could be a perfect media for such persuasive effects, because the recipient, the player, usually isn’t prepared to encounter ideological content and therefore isn’t in the situation to take a crictial stance. Klimmt supposes that such unconscious attempts of persuasion could also take place in video games. Unfortunately empiric research has mainly focused on the presentation of violence in video games, due to the political interests involved in the subject. This means that whereas Klimmt believes that video games could have a real political impact on our moral concepts and in extension even on our voting behaviour, there are unfortunately no studies until now to verify this hypotheses.[5]

Where media studies and psychology speak of cultivation and persuasion, the social studies speak of socialisation. This concept was coined by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim as early as 1893. According to Durkheim man is born into a cultural system without having the means to understand it only with his natural instincts. He has to learn the meaning and functioning of the system. He has to learn the language, the symbols, the norms and taboos, in short what we would call upbringing and education. This learning happens for one through traditional parental, scholastic and academic education which Durkheim calls methodical socialisation but also unconsciously on a day to day basis, through our participation in social life and the acquisition of social roles. Our social reality is being created here. Contemporary studies now argue, that the role of traditional social institutions (family, neighbourhood, school, religion) looses more and more importance in the process. Media socialisation in video games differs from other media because of its interactivity. The idea of immersion – which means the temporal elimination of personal distance to the action in the game – could supposedly impede our capability to critically question political content in the games.[6]

Despite different names, the concepts of cultivation and socialisation describe more or less the same phenomenon. They try to grasp the process of acquisition and adoption of values and moral concepts of the individual. Our collective identities are a result not only of our childhood and our education, but also of our interaction with mass media, especially when related to the more abstract concepts of politics and society. The further away such knowledge is from the experience of our everyday life, the more likely we are to learn it in popular culture.

“It is also in the cultural imagery that significant political battles are fought, ‘because it is here that coherent narratives are produced, which in turn serves as the basis for any sense of community and political action’”.
– Kyle Grayson, Matt Davies and Simon Philpott, Pop goes IR? Researching the Popular Culture  [7]

If we agree with the presented political statements we could incorporate them in our political identity. These are all some rather abstract concepts. Let’s therefore try to present to you some plausible examples

So wait, are games rewriting our political worldviews?

No, they are not rewriting our worldview. But this could mean that we learn something about our history from games. That for example all those of us who haven’t studied European mediaeval history, can learn from Mediaeval Total War or Crusader Kings about the different kingdoms and fiefdoms of Europe and about the technologies used in medieval warfare. In the best case scenario our curiosity leads us to further research, to google these historical information, to read some books, or maybe we just save the new learned word Trebuchet or Plantagenet in the depths of our memory as some amusing trivia. The same is true for information about the physics of space travel, ballistics, or the physics of driving a racing car through downtown Manhattan or Liberty City. But it doesn’t stop here. The acquired information can potentially influence our moral concepts. By condemning the bloodbath of the French revolution for example we could decide consciously ore unconsciously to take a more critical stance towards uprisings and revolutions as a whole. These games showed us that all uprisings bring death and despair. There must be a better way then that, don’t you think? Or think of Ghost Recon Wildlands: After playing an US Soldier in Bolivia defending the defenceless ensuring law and order. Would we now be more inclined to approve it, when confronted with a real life military operation in a South American country?

I must admit at this moment I don’t have the answers to these questions. I am however convinced that it is of paramount importance to ask them and to ask them now. Also please let me stress the point that this process is never a one way phenomenon. Modern sociology has shown the many limits of political propaganda. Elihu Katz coined the model of the “uses and gratifications”, which means that every cinema goer every reader and every player seeks out specific media to satisfy his/her specific needs. Katz assumes that audience members are not passive consumers of media. Rather, the audience has power over their media consumption and assumes an active role in interpreting and integrating media into their own lives. We – the audience – have to change our opinion, it is never the media that changes our opinion. Video Games and popular culture can never dictate new values, we have to incorporate them ourselves. This also explains why one video game alone can’t change the world. To effectively have an impact one and the same message has to be repeated over and over again. When we are confronted on a regular basis with one and the same message we could therefore decide to accept this message as more convincing. We might think: this has to be the new consensus. When not questioned this could lead us to replicate this message ourselves. To clarify these reasoning let’s try a thought experiment:

You’re wrong, and we’ll prove it! Let’s make a non-political game!

Let’s assume you are now a successful young programmer and you have developed a new graphic engine:

  1. To try out your shiny new invention and generate some needed profit out of your new engine you decide to develop a game.
  2. You were never a strong writer. You enjoy going to the cinema and playing video games but you never thought about an intricate narrative and you certainly don’t have a political agenda. On the contrary you see yourself as an apolitical gamer.
  3. But this shouldn’t stop you! You tackle the process of game development one step after the other: First comes the question of what gameplay to chose. That’s an easy one, what are most games based on a powerful 3D engine? First Person Shooters.
  4. But what about the story? Every FPS – even Doom – has a basal story. You could take a historical setting but then you would have to do research. So maybe a Science Fiction setting, something with aliens that attack the earth, maybe to enslave us or to steal our resources, something in that direction, we all know the drill.

So you made a game that only serves to showcase your engine, to make fun, no politics involved. Or so you might think. What you most certainly did was reproduce some of our collective values and moral concepts. You had to make the good guys good, so it had to be the aliens that attacked, and most certainly by a surprise attack without a declaration of war. And without doing it consciously you just communicated one of the most central dogmas of international relations to your audience. You just reproduced the taboo of a war of aggression, which is a consensual taboo. Everybody knows that you are never allowed to just start a war without being attacked first. That is why we all have ministries of defence and not ministries of war. Some of you however might know that they were in fact called ministries of war one century ago. This reminds us that the taboo of an aggression war is not something natural but a social construct, something new, a conscious historical decision to taboo it. But for a taboo to work it has to be communicated. Even if the taboo cannot be discussed openly – like sexual taboos – it will find informal ways to be communicated –as through games. In video games an unprovoked attack is an unmistakable sign to identify the bad guys.

Now lets expand our thought experiment:

  1. Lets say you want to give your players more incentive to fight the bad guys. So you start with an intro where the aliens destroyed Manhattan or Los Angeles, war atrocities are shown. Millions of families were killed without warning. Earth was badly prepared for the invasion.
  2. Maybe you want to follow this train of thought, that we all learned to recognize from many movies and games. The human governments were unable to respond swiftly. Those senators and parliamentarians just were unable to agree on a useful strategy.
  3. So this puts the player in the difficult position to save the world by himself. The player is the “chosen one”, only he/she (most often however only he) can save the world. In a way this makes sense for single player campaigns it gives the players a maximum of agency.
  4. For this to work however normal political collaboration like the UNO or joint military operation has to fail in the narrative.

We are still in a scenario where the developer has no political agenda whatsoever he just reproduces to some level successful patterns. We know the story of the chosen one without help from above from Mass effect, Gears of War, Red Faction, Halo, Half-Life, Wolfenstein, System Shock, Dragon Age, The Witcher etc. etc. One reason for this of course are traditional game mechanics. It is quite difficult to program believable allies and cooperation with NPCs. But when you take a second to question the political message behind the figure you could be alarmed. It is a story of a lonesome hero abandoned by his government for different reasons only relying on his personal strength, intelligence and moral to decide what is good and what is bad, guaranteeing for law and order. Does this ring a bell?

The political Strongman in video games

Again when we play these games this doesn’t mean that we adopt all of its political messages. But for the sake of argument let’s assume that by repeatedly playing one and the same narrative over years and years and additionally by watching it in the cinema and in TV series, we could get accustomed to the concept of an independent strong individual being the guaranty of law and order in a corrupt world. To put this in some concrete terms lets finally take a look at the Mass Effect series (which I personally enjoyed very much). You have a male or female Commander Sheppard and are confronted with a global, an ultimate threat: the Reapers who threaten to not only destroy mankind but all intelligent life in the universe. You know of the danger and you informed the authorities, the Council. But you quickly learn that the council, a more or less democratic government, is unable to respond. So you decide to act on your own. You ally yourself with some suspect organisation for some time, but in the end it is you and you alone to decide the future of all intelligent life. Commander Sheppard is by all morale standards a good person, even if you decided to choose the evil responses you are still the saviour of the universe. Now let’s take a look at the political world we live in: Orban in Hungary, Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, Trump in the US: All these politicians live the role of the lonesome hero cleaning up a corrupt system. They present themselves as the only ones who can see what’s at stake and who poses the threat – most often immigrants or foreign countries. Again, if you played Mass Effect like me this doesn’t mean that you now would vote for a political strongman. But maybe you would now be more open to the idea of a single politician to be able to solve the problems and no longer look for a party, or and ideology or to the idea, that external threats are the main problem of our society.


[1] Todd K. Platts, Locating Zombies in the Sociology of Popular Culture in Sociology Compass 7 (2013), 547-560, 553.
[2] Niklas Luhmann, Die Realität der Massenmedien, Wiesbaden 2009, 9.
[3] Niklas Luhmann, Die Realität der Massenmedien, Wiesbaden 2009, 9.
[4] Eugen Pfister, „Das Unspielbare spielen – Imaginationen des Holocaust in Digitalen Spielen“ in Zeitgeschichte 4 (2016), 250-263.
[5] Christoph Klimmt, Empirische Medienforschung: Kommunikationswissenschaftliche Perspektiven auf Computerspiele, in: Tobias Bevc und Holger Zapf (Hg.), Wie wir spielen was wir werden. Computerspiele in unserer Gesellschaft, Konstanz 2009, 65-74.
[6] Johannes Fromme und Ralf Biermann, Identitätsbildung und politische Sozialisation in: Tobias Bevc und Holger Zapf (Hg.), Wie wir spielen was wir werden. Computerspiele in unserer Gesellschaft, Konstanz 2009, 113-138.
[7] Kyle Grayson, Matt Davies and Simon Philpott, Pop goes IR? Researching the Popular Culture – World Politics Continuum in Politics 29/3 (2009) 155-163, 157.


Bild: Техника – молодёжи 1965-02

Empfohlene Zitierweise : Eugen Pfister, „On Political Communication in Digital Games“ in:  Spiel-Kultur-Wissenschaften, <http://spielkult.hypotheses.org/1614> 08.03.2018.


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