Games are never innocent

The following essay is based on the third 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 impromtu replies by Tobias Winnerling and Robert Heinze. The second part „On political communication in digital games“ can be found here.

Political mythologies in digital Games

by Eugen Pfister

When analysing the different possible  aspects of political communication in video games I am most interested in those aspects that are normally ignored; political statements that are easily overlooked and therefore most of the time not questioned: aspects of the political, that are not per se “hidden”, but at the same time not consciously acknowledged. Political messages that dissimulate as „natural“ components of a given genre for example, that  claim to always have been part of these games. Think of the predominance of war and conflict in video game mechanics for example. We commonly hear that the merger of game and conflict is a natural, a historical constant. Bataille navale, chess,  go, etc. etc. The Prussian „Kriegsspiel“ is mis en scene as a direct ancestor to „America’s army“… It is suggested to be natural, that a large part of all new video games center on war, battles, armed conflict, etc. But what about early prehistoric role playing, what about gyan chauper ( the forebear of our snakes and ladders), a game intended to teach morality? If a presumed „common sense“ answer to a question is suspiciously simple, we should at least take the time to verify or falsify the answer.  The french philosopher Roland Barthes did exactly that when writing his „mythologies“ in the 1950s.

So, to better understand the process of unconscious reproduction of ideological messages in video games I adapted Roland Barthes concept of the mythologies for my purposes. Barthes understood the myth to be a message, a statement composed of many different signs. He argued that political and cultural narratives and symbols operate on a subconscious level. These myths appear to be natural (i.e. not constructed) to such an extent that they are normally not questioned, like e.g. the figure of the lonesome saviour. They are, however, in no way natural, but were formed to perpetuate an idea of society that adheres to dominant political, cultural and social discourses. In a certain way these myths are an instrument of any given social and cultural system to reproduce knowledge about itself. According to Barthes, the myth presents an ideology or set of values as if it were a natural condition of the world, when in fact it is no more than another man-made perspective. For a myth to be successful there are in my opinion four conditions:

  1. The myth is never a single sign (a symbol, a narrative fragment, a character, a song, etc.) but always a political statement composed of a system of mutually reinforcing signs.
  2. The myth is reproduced in various locations (games). Through its reproduction the myth enhances its appearance of naturalness and will therefore be reproduced henceforth unconsciously.
  3. The myth disguises history in his argumentation. It quotes known aesthetic predecessors and transfers their logic to actual phenomena. This said it does not actually reference historical phenomena but only uses their aesthetic shell for his argumentation. It gains its power of persuasion from this reference to alleged predecessors, which in turn enhances his appearance of naturalness.
  4. Despite or because of its superficial historical argumentation, the myth is deeply rooted in its actuality and can only be understood in a concrete historical context.

One such possible myth is as mentioned in the precedent essay the lonesome saviour of mankind, others are the mad scientist and the evil corporation. On other myth, the “Collapse of Democracy” is central to the narrative of the Zombie-Genre. Zombie video games which emphasized the inability of our governments and executive power to defend its citizens against the zombie plague can be read as translation of a rising weariness and scepticism about democracy. Society leads in theses scenarios to tyranny and it’s only the individual that promises hope of deliverance, thus fuelling a strong individualism: Brian Merchant wrote in 2015 on motherboard:

“The basic tenets of zombie logic also track with hardline conservative principles (self-sufficiency, individualism, isolationism), which have been increasingly forcefully articulated over the last fifteen years.”

Zombies thus lost their conscious political message in translation and became a myth in the sense of Roland Barthes. What is more: Due to the paradigm of apolitical games they became a discursive shell waiting for content. This Void was filled by the myth of systemic political failure.

As I said before the process of political socialisation in video games itself is neither good nor bad, it is something ordinary an integral part of the functioning of our society. This is not an act of hidden propaganda, aimed at our young. Our society – our political, cultural and economical system – has to reproduce itself on a regular basis, to be communicated to everyone, to be sustained by everyone. I have given you examples of positive aspects of this process, especially when we touch the question of what makes a good government or society, or what is allowed in international relations. Another positive aspect for instance is a tendency to gender equality in the role playing genre for example. Messages against xenophobia and racism are a common staple not only of the RPG genre. But there are on the other hand many political problematic myths. The Staging of the lonesome hero and saviour of mankind is one such example, the pessimistic view on all forms of social collaboration in the zombie apocalypse is another example. These two statements still proliferate in video games, and while I sincerely enjoyed many of these games, what stays after the credits is a bitter aftertaste.

However I don’t think that video games as a media are to blame. I believe the main problem is that in contrast to all other media, openly politics, political messages and statements are still a taboo in video games. Directors are allowed to bring up their personal political world view, and of course the same is true for authors. But when video games are concerned it is extremely important to negate all things political. The political, politics is seen as a stigma. As Reggie Fils-Aime said it in the Canadian television: They want people to smile and have fun (while selling millions of games), which apparently isn’t possible when politics are involved. Well I think fun and smiling should and must be possible when politics are involved.

„I think sometimes criticising representation comes across to some people as saying “you’re not allowed to like this anymore,” but that’s never the intention. For me I could read some analysis about that and find it interesting, and then lose myself for hours in a campaign regardless because I fuckin’ love Civ and Total War. I think you can have both the analysis and the escapism.“ – Tom Senior, PC Gamer

I sincerely believe that the stigmatization of politics in video games as something unclean is itself really dangerous. Politics should be understood as an integral and normal part of all our lives and not as something separate, because in democracies all of us should be involved. And we should learn that on a daily basis. Video games should and in fact must therefore be allowed to consciously present political elements, because it is a normal thing to do. There should be conservative elements, liberal elements, social democrat elements, environmentalist elements etc. And the developers should feel at ease to talk about their politics. On the other hand, the player should be enabled through his education, to recognize political layers in games.

Because what happens, if political content is stigmatized, is that there are political messages nevertheless but they stay unchecked, uncontrolled and unquestioned. The political vacuum so to speak is automatically filled with ideological myths, that is to say with components of a dominant political and cultural discourse. This happens because we then just reproduce what we already know. This does however not guarantee that the message isn’t changed by the rhetoric of the media. To give you one example: because zombie narratives have been so successful, we produce more and more of them and try to copy the success. But if we don’t invest time in a proper story, we just copy the framework which then becomes more and more the content. This means that these zombie games more and more communicate the image of overstrained governments, of the futility of all forms of human cooperation let alone governance. And what we learn, by constant repetition, is that in the end we can only trust ourselves. A rampaging individualism enabled by traditions of game design and the heavy reliance on the simulation of violent conflict in video games. All these components appear to be natural but they aren’t. Early zombie games like Alone in the Dark or Zombies Ate my Neighbours didn’t use the image of the global zombie apocalypse.

In my opinion it is therefore of paramount importance first to understand from the begining, that there are potentially political elements in every game, and that we should question even those aspects of story and gameplay that appear natural to us. On the other hand I’m convinced that we have to withdraw our reservations towards political content. This isn’t something that has to be stigmatized, politics are an important part of all of our lives and we should embrace the idea. This could finaly also help to gap the growing conceived divide between the politicians and the normal citizens.

Further Reading:

–   Eugen Pfister,(2018): Der Politische Mythos als diskursive Aussage im digitalen Spiel. Ein Beitrag aus der Perspektive der Politikgeschichte. In: Junge, Thorsten/Schumacher, Claudia (Hrsg.): Digitale Spiele im Diskurs. URL:
– Tom Senior, Wes Fenlon, Tyler Wilde (2018): Let’s talk about politics in games. In:

Техника – молодёжи 1963-07

Empfohlene Zitierweise : Eugen Pfister, „Games are never innocent. Political Mythologies in Digital Games“ in:  Spiel-Kultur-Wissenschaften, <> 19.04.2018.


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