Talking About Games: Video Games and Politics

Words: 2398 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes

Something that has preyed upon my mind for a long while is the relationship between video games – and entertainment and art more generally – and politics. As someone who studies the last part of that equation specifically, I find the discussions surrounding the topics…unsatisfying.

Often when we think of discussions about video games and politics, it’s in the context of video games that have caused some kind of controversy. A video game has done something to spark outrage, illustrating something about either the creator or the critic depending on what the outrage is about. This leads to some people suggesting that video games should stay out of politics, while others argue that all video games are political and so the previous claim doesn’t even make sense.

The debate in no way is unique to video games. For those in the American context, it’s easy to point to recent controversies over sports as a parallel to this issue. The fight over football players kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality against African-Americans and the argument that those players should be thrown out, that they have no right to use that moment to voice their personal views, became a huge rallying cry as part of modern “culture wars.” More recently, the decision by Major League Baseball to remove its All-Star game from Georgia in protest over a new law heavily restricting voting rights sparked outrage about the MLB poking its nose into an area it had no right to be in.[1] These arguments almost always exist in bad faith, but underlying them is a more general claim that things like entertainment are entirely separated from politics, and the two should never try to meet.

In the context of video games, there were controversies over video games starting to include gay characters and allowing the protagonist to be gay. There were controversies because critics pointed out how video games often picked a particular default state – the straight white male – as the protagonist and gave little representation to other demographics. There were controversies because of a game’s overt political themes and its veiled (or not-so-veiled) criticism of current political trends.

Some of these controversies were small, mostly surrounding an individual or a small group of people. Some were bigger and involved a larger system of discussions. What ties the controversies together, though, is that a key component of the topic centered around a single point of debate: should video games be “involved” in politics?

I put the word “involved” in quotes because the idea of involvement is vague in this debate. Sometimes involvement might mean including something that people find objectionable, or it might mean a game literally engaging in some form of criticism, or it could even mean that other people use video games to point out broader social issues. There’s no single way to be involved, but the argument is that all of this involvement should be done away with.

Now I present this idea because it’s just plain wrong. It’s wrong in many senses of the term. It misunderstands what art, entertainment, and politics all are. It misunderstands the point of things like social and political criticism. It endorses a narrow-minded view of what opinions are acceptable and unacceptable.

But by the same token, it’s worthwhile to wade into the discussion about what “politics” means, and its relationship to video games. Because the other side of the coin is often to claim that everything is political, and since video games – being part of “everything” – are political too they are thus already involved. I agree with this position more, but I still find it flawed. And it’s worth looking into those flaws.

Ultimately, I envision this project as a two-part essay, though the topic may well need revisiting over time. For now, I want to look at the meaning of politics and how video games – and by extension all art and entertainment – are or at least can be involved in some form. For that purpose, we’ll need to define some important ideas, and then apply those ideas in a few different ways.

What I’ll then do for the next essay is examine the claim of a game not being political, as a way of examining how politics can creep into art and entertainment, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally, and how criticism over those political themes is still valid as a consequence of that fact.

Defining the Political

So the first thing we need to do is define what we actually mean by “politics.” It’s pointless to engage in this discussion without making some attempt to clarify these subjects.

What we generally find is that there are two senses of “politics.” There are plenty of distinct definitions within these senses, but we don’t need to dig down into that much detail.

The first sense is what we’ll call the “narrow” definition. On this view, politics is understood specifically as how we use the power of a state to do things like distribute resources, create laws, punish criminals, and so on. This understanding presents politics as something specific and explicit: only those things that actually involve state power are relevant. Other things exist, of course, but those are sectioned off into distinct categories: culture, society, religion, family, etc.

The second sense is what we’ll call the “broad” definition. This is what is meant by the idea of “everything is political.” Since various components of our lives – culture, society, religion, family, etc. – are all influenced or potentially subject to the influence of politics, all of these things take on a political relevance. There is nothing that is inherently apolitical, because everything can be subjected to politics if we choose to do so. So when we say “politics” we mean all of these other things at the same time.

However, it’s ultimately irrelevant which definition we use here. While it’s useful to have the discussion in the abstract, for the purposes of understanding the relationship between politics, video games, and art, the differences are meaningless.

If the broad definition is correct, then there’s no further discussion to be had. Video games are the product of the various things that can be subjected to politics. Video games are made within particular cultural contexts, often rely on social ideas that have been cultivated during our lives, and use moral themes that are generally familiar to us. Video games don’t have to be trapped, necessarily, but they are still the product of these forces.

But if we use the narrow definition, does that change anything? Not really. All that is affected is the word we use. Rather than describing video games as “political,” we use some other term for the purpose of our criticism. Video games are cultural/social/moral products, and subject to cultural/social/moral analysis. Criticisms take place from a cultural/social/moral perspective.

So the sense in which we use the term doesn’t matter. Even if video games aren’t “political” using the narrow definition, the criticisms of how they portray people or ignore people or marginalize people are all still relevant and true.

And even if we use that narrow definition, we’ll still wind up with games that most definitely are focused on politics. On portraying or exploring or criticizing existing or historical or imaginary states with real or imaginary policies.

So we’ll stick with the broad definition, just to make things a bit easier to follow. Where appropriate, merely substitute terms like “cultural” or “moral” or what have you into the ensuing discussion.

Video Games and the Political

So what are the ways in which video games can be described as “political”?

The first, and most obvious, sense is that the game is about politics. The game might criticize an existing system, directly or indirectly. Or the game might use its setting to critique a broader political idea, again either directly or indirectly. On the other side, the game might praise a political system, or try to propose some new model. Or the game could attempt to explore different political ideas. There are plenty of ways to make a game consciously political. And what ties these methods together is that politics becomes a conscious component of the game’s narrative and/or theme, something that the player’s attention is drawn to for a specific purpose.

We often see criticism of video games for being political in this sense, and here is often where the argument comes in that games should “stay out” of politics. But using politics to tell a story is important for many reasons. In the history of literature and political thought, narratives and fiction have been employed in numerous cases. Sometimes because there was a need for the author to hide their ideas in some way for fear of retribution. Sometimes because fiction allowed the author to explore an idea in more fullness, or tell a more coherent story. The idea that fiction has no place in politics – or vice versa – misunderstands how politics and literature have both worked for thousands of years.

Note that games don’t have to be political in this sense. We certainly aren’t required to seek out games that have conscious political themes and narratives. But it’s also not the case that we can demand that games stop using fiction to explore political themes.

The second way in which games can be political is by being unconsciously political. There are a couple ways this can happen. Firstly, games are often political because they will invoke political themes not for the purpose of exploration, but merely to help orient the player in the game’s world or story. Even something as simple as having a political system in the background – a game taking place within a kingdom and pointing that out, or having an evil empire – can qualify for this kind of politicization. Secondly, games can be political in the sense that they use politics as a springboard for some other purpose. A game might use some major political event to set up the game’s world, and then never expand on that event. But even then, the event is still important and still makes the game political.

Many games are political in this sense. There’s nothing wrong with it. But it can certainly open games up to criticism for using something thoughtlessly. The idea that a game is not trying to explore whatever theme brings up, or make any statement about that theme, does not save it from the fact that it still used that theme in the first place.

We can also often see a lot of pushback against the idea of politicizing games here, but from a different direction. Rather than the claim that the developer is adding politics into a game that “shouldn’t” have politics, the argument is that critics are essentially “reading too deeply” into the existing politics of a game. But this framing mistakes the concept of “the political” by assuming that criticism is only valid if a game is consciously political. However, how we use politics – even merely as a premise and not for the purpose of making an argument or exploring a political theme – cannot escape criticism. If we are using those premises to do things like promote stereotypes, marginalize groups, or imply support for particular ideas or policies, then we are ultimately throwing ourself into the political realm.

Thirdly, a game can be political because we can interpret politics into it. By this I mean that we can take a game that – for the sake of argument – is not political in any way, and yet explore the game’s themes in a way that makes those themes political. In this sense, any game can be made political. Games don’t need to be explicitly political to be seen in a political light. Because the world we see, even insofar as it relies on some kind of core reality, still relies on our own perception and experiences. And so stories and themes and narratives that may be specifically “non-political” can still be perceived as political by others. Interpretation is sort of all-powerful in this way.

Once we get to this form of politics, we’re now talking about the politicization of games in a different sense. It’s not necessarily about the game itself, but about the interpreter, and the focus shifts as a consequence. But this still counts as a form of politicization, and it’s important to capture and understand what’s going on.

The reason we include all of this is that it’s all important. The things we ignore are just as important as the things we focus on. What we leave out of a story is just as important as what we put into a story. And what we consider to be “non-political” is just as important as what we consider to be “political.” All of these things can be revealing, and we need to examine them – and ultimately ourselves – to see how politics influences much of our life, including video games.

Concluding Remarks

This brief journey into the intersection of video games and politics is by no means complete nor exhaustive. We will be revisiting this topic next week, and there will no doubt be many opportunities and reasons to revisit it in the future. A lot of the problems and debates we encounter have happened many times before, even if they appear different. Knowing the basic themes of the discussion can help us to spot it and remember it later on.

Politics belongs in video games because politics is a part of our life. For some people it is something that happens in the background, but it still happens, no matter what. I make no demands here that we all start writing consciously political stories, or that we all begin playing and analyzing consciously political games, or that we all attempt to interpret games through a political lens.

But while we can choose to not engage with those games, we cannot will them away. They still exist, and they are still important. We still need to recognize their existence and their relevance as a whole, rather than trying to hide them from our collective conscience or burn them away so that they don’t disturb our sensibilities.

[1] MLB’s decision here is a lot more complex, and it’s not necessary for us to go into detail about the various forces that pushed it to make this decision. What matters for our purposes is the backlash against the decision.

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