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coolbeans

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Tired of this Schmidt Episode VIII: The Last of Politics? (Part 1)

It’s been a while since I’ve broached the subject about politics in games (1). I figured why not make the—probably unwise—choice of going back to it again! This time: focus is less on a reviewers’ potential biases informing their review and more on considering a game’s own intrinsic messages, along with the creators behind them.

After all, video games have now grown into one of the biggest entertainment/artistic mediums in the world (2); and with such growing recognition in popular culture, it shouldn’t be surprising to witness more critics critiquing and creators creating such works with some kind of political viewpoint. One of the most common kneejerk reactions to this I’ve seen from a certain subset of the gaming community can be distilled down to this demand: “keep your politics out of my games!” Such a sentiment by Naughty Dog fan Christoff Coen was in fact directly shot down by The Last of Us and Uncharted 4 writer Neil Druckmann on Twitter (3), and was what inspired me to finally put these thoughts on paper.

For the full context:

Cristoff Coen’s comment: “@(Druckmann) TLoU is my favorite game of all time. Please try to keep your politics out of Part 2. Thank you very much.”

Neil Druckmann’s reply: “No can do. Writers work off their view of the world. For example, the ending of TLoU is very much inspired by my ‘personal politics.’”

Coen’s comment highlights a rehearsed insincerity I’ve seen from a specific throng of gamers within the community. It wasn’t too long ago when the late Roger Ebert (popular film critic) was criticized, both rudely and politely, for not considering video games as art (4) (5) (6); and yet, a reviewer that may sternly believe in their artistic qualifications and analyzes a game’s content and meaning are disparaged from doing so—at least when it’s broaching a topic they’re not comfortable with considering. The reaction oftentimes being that they’re only games, which suddenly shouldn’t be taken seriously in THAT sort of way. Either that or the agenda-driven reviewer must have some kind of bent towards the game itself. A similar type of disapproval can occur to developers & writers being forthright about their politics. And we’ve now reached the zenith of this unthinking where a fan can request the writer of his favorite game to amputate an integral quality that went into crafting his favorite game in the first place!

This behavior strikes a nerve with me. It reveals a myopic assumption that attaining the position of a medium worth serious consideration would somehow come without any concomitant cost. Achieve the respectability of film (that this blockbuster industry’s been chasing for generations now) without a due expectation of accountability on its artists. It’s a strange phenomenon to see being someone who’s visited gaming sites long enough to witness this pendulum swing both ways over the years.

For clarity’s sake: I want to firstly focus on games and how they can influence reviews.

Reviews:

I think there’s two fundamental aspects to consider on why some have reached this point of caviling to reviewers for supposedly dragging in politics. The foremost being a critical misunderstanding of oftentimes treating games as little more than boxed products—or at least when it’s convenient to do so. The demand for so-called objective reviews suggest that critics ought to do nothing more than run down a list of features included and assess how well they work. And this consumerist outlook to the point of fetishizing technical aspects can feel akin to me looking for the best power tools at Home Depot, implying as though they’re stripped of political perspective. I mean, granted, one can easily show how often the AAA industry tries marketing games like a list of features: the size of the open-world map, average runtime, physics engines. And it doesn’t take much exploring in the past to see modern games criticism inherited this kind of mindset. Nevertheless, neither marketing nor lineage excuses just how facile that expectation looks upon review.

Such a warped perception is what brought a lot of umbrage towards Carolyn Petit’s 9/10 score for Grand Theft Auto V back then (7) (8), including a petition calling for Petit to be fired (9) and some of the grossest collective bile I’ve had to clean up in N4G’s comment section. Disregarding the overall nastiness—though I don’t want to do so lightly, one of the running themes from several comes back to this topic of political stuff “dragged into” the discussion by the reviewer. But that rebuke doesn’t really land when we’re talking about a game series that makes political commentary all the time. Whether it’s race, sex, immigration, economy, current social mores, gun culture, to The American Dream, Grand Theft Auto’s been barraging players with overt political topics ever since it revolutionized open-world games. Sometimes it’s in the frame of cheap visual gags or perhaps the very mechanics themselves may be commenting on something about American culture. Going after people who’re critically and/or culturally examining such a game that seems to openly invite these conversations is naïve at best; at worst, it can come off as revolting like the case mentioned above where Petit receives such treatment despite believing GTAV to still be a superb game.

Let’s not stop at GTA’s politics though. Satire isn’t the only consideration for opening a political conversation, after all. Heck, I can open up my Steam library or skim through the storefront to find several other titles with politics on their sleeves. How about the Democracy series? The developers basically thought of a choice-based game system and incorporated almost every big political dynamic you could think of in today’s world. Or, here’s a short description of a game called Big Pharma (10):

“What if you had it in your power to rid the world of disease, to improve the lives of millions, to ease suffering and cure the sick… and earn a tidy profit? As the head of your own Pharmaceutical Conglomerate you have this power resting in your hands. Will you use it for good?”

Imagine that! A Tycoon-esque/business management gameplay system spotlighting capitalism’s influence on pharmaceutical drug development like in the US. Is there not some kind of political discussion to be had about what the game may be communicating about real-life Big Pharma, especially when the game itself is handing it out on a silver platter?

“Alright,” one may say, “then don’t bother with politics when it’s not deliberate.” To that hypothetical retort: I’d have to disagree. There’s still potential for a political conversation to be had, in or outside of a review, even when it’s not incredibly obvious. We can still examine a game’s design, tone, etc. to assess different messages. One of Battlefield: Hardline’s copious issues is the identity crises of being a disjointed Battlefield and cop game. In other Battlefield games you’re just a gun-toting soldier taking out bad guys in all-out warfare. But how does the tone shift when such mechanics are incorporated into being a police officer (i.e. not somebody placed in a warzone)? Of course the game itself is never outright stating a pro-police militarization stance, but we can still assess the mechanics of shooting, arresting, etc. in the game and at least consider what they could be implicitly communicating. A similar consideration about the role of policing can be placed on more recent titles like This Is The Police or The Division; in fact, Extra Credits made a video about The Division’s problematic meaning in its mechanics last year (11). While I find certain points of theirs lacking, it’s self-evident that the ethical implications of a task force loosely inspired by the real-world politics of Directive 51 (12) opens itself up for this type of scrutiny.

The other fundamental issue I perceive in this discussion is an ignorance of just how broadly the term ‘politics’ is defined (13) (14); its utility is quite malleable to include anything like oft-termed ‘identity politics’ often discussed to a more abstract understanding of the relationship between people in society. With such consideration, let’s examine another politically-charged series on the opposite mechanical spectrum of GTA’s wanton theft and subsequent destruction of private property: SimCity.

The game systems bestow greater merit on effective urban sprawl: utilizing empty space to build up, up, up to a wonderful NYC lookalike. Other methods of city planning, like an organic rural environ, aren’t really considered as worthwhile when you interact with the game’s systems. You may think this is reaching WAY too far but even a GM of Maxis Emeryville acknowledged these design intentions (15): “The game's original design focused on the density of an intimate urban environment.”

Starting to see the near-boundless applications of political ideas & inspirations in games? Because I can quickly list some more:

• Spore / Argument of Intelligent Design vs. Naturalistic Evolution (16)
• 1979 Revolution: Black Friday / The Iranian Revolution
• Missile Command / Heightened fears of nuclear proliferation (17)
• Papers, Please / Immigration [also: frustrating travel experiences inspired the creator, Lucas Pope, to create this game (18).]
• The Tomorrow Children / Communism [Aside: a bit funny for it to be such a monetarily demanding f2p game.]
• The Church of Darkness (upcoming title) / Religious Fanaticism
• DmC: Devil May Cry / Mainstream news’ subversive manipulation of the general populace, specifically Fox News.
• ABZÛ / Environmentalism, specifically examining aquatic biodiversity harmed by unchecked industry.
• Spec Ops: The Line / Anti-war message criticizing USA’s foreign policy for past x years [directly inspired by Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” which examines colonialism].
• Orwell / Mass surveillance & profiling

While some more obvious than others, these examples are meant to display the plurality of various political topics encroached by video games before. And even if some examples aren’t going out on a limb to blatantly make a statement, you can still consider how the developers’ perspective and values finds its way into these games. I’m not the only one that sees this, am I? How we can investigate a game’s systems to see whether it’s buttressing or challenging certain political ideas, and games criticism—oftentimes but certainly not always—is simply dissecting what’s already present within a game rather than bringing their unwarranted political baggage into the conversation?

That’s why past tirades about this subject have rung hollow for me: personifying politics as some foreign entity that’s worming its way into games by a horde of latte-sipping liberal arts graduates these past few years. The reality is it’s always been here, to some extent, simply by the fact that creators have a habit of expressing their views—implicitly or explicitly—via their respective outlets.

“Well,” one may say, “maybe if that’s true then perhaps Coen’s method of wishing developers stop with their politics is the better method in directing our annoyance.” To that I say: “what a convenient segue to talking about creators!”

[ CONTINUED IN PART 2: http://n4g.com/user/blogpos... ]

Links:

1. http://n4g.com/user/blogpos...
2. https://consumerist.com/201...
3. https://twitter.com/neil_dr...
4. http://www.rogerebert.com/r...
5. http://n4g.com/news/509889/...
6. http://www.rogerebert.com/r...
7. https://www.gamespot.com/re...
8. https://www.youtube.com/wat...
9. http://www.gameskinny.com/b...
10. http://store.steampowered.c...
11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wi...
12. https://www.youtube.com/wat...
13. https://www.merriam-webster...
14. https://en.oxforddictionari...
15. http://www.eurogamer.net/ar...
16. https://blogs.scientificame...
17. http://www.polygon.com/feat...
18. https://www.vg247.com/2014/...

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BeardedPriest101d ago

Good article man.
This is especially interesting considering how polarizing politics can be these days...
Makes me think of Andromeda and all the alleged SJW agenda stuff.

coolbeans100d ago (Edited 100d ago )

Thank you. :)

Indeed. Andromeda is a whole different can of worms when considering the crap hurled at that woman beefing up her resume.