It’s been a wild year in politics these past few months, and there are no signs that this will change anytime soon. As with most cultural events, this tends to bleed into the media we consume. As such, there are both people who celebrate the addition of politics into media, and those who abhor it. This commonly manifests in the meme-level response “Keep politics out of x.” With the controversies and subsequent blowback over whitewashing (and lack of starring Asian roles) in Doctor Strange, Ghost in The Shell, Marvel’s Iron Fist, and Death Note, a large portion of people seem to want to consume media in a vacuum and ignore these issues. My personal experience tends to be more rooted in the video game space, considering the rise of progressive themes in games. Especially after the storm that was Gamergate, some people hate the idea of political themes in video games. I’d like to delve into why that claim is disingenuous, and why it’s never been possible.
When talking about politics in video games, a good place to start might be the Grand Theft Auto series. A lightning rod for controversy, GTA has never been shy about including political topics in their settings. GTA, with all its warts, does have a basis in satire, even if it is mostly present in the side content. In the worlds of Liberty City and San Andreas, for example, there are television programs parodying both “liberal social justice warriors” and “right-wing conservative firebrands” as uninformed, misguided, and wrong. It’s the classic South Park approach where “caring in one way or another is the ultimate sin.” Regardless, politics are incredibly present in these games. So, how could anyone ever claim that they don’t want politics in games?
Well, it’s a combination of two factors. 1) There is the difference between identity and personal politics, and the political theater, such as the struggle between Democrats and Republicans. Or in other words, ideological politics versus party politics. And 2) People are fine with politics in media as long as they agree with them. Looking at Grand Theft Auto, the discussion had been growing for a while, but GTA V really saw a rise in critique focused on sexism and the lack of positive female characters, or even any playable ones. As in the rest of the franchise, you have the ability to attack sex workers and generally participate in misogyny and view women through the male gaze, but this installment was the first to feature multiple main characters, all three of whom were male. This was the perfect opportunity to add a playable woman, but this suggestion was considered a political agenda by many while the actual in-game politics were deemed a non-issue. Asking to keep politics out of games in reference to Grand Theft Auto can only mean to ignore identity politics that a critic would rather not hear.
This leads me to my point: it’s difficult to keep politics out of media. Video games are inherently political since they exist in our world, and nothing is we consume exists in a vacuum. While many mechanical-focused games like Tetris or Dance Dance Revolution can arguably be called politics-free, games that feature characters, plot, and world-building will present an opinion. A game will always either say something about the world, or make a statement about a viewpoint. We can look back at a lot of the popular games from gaming’s early days and see this. There of course were games that purposely had a political leaning such as Missile Command and its despair with nuclear proliferation. However, even games that didn’t have an outright stated political theme still said something about the world.
Pac-Man is a great example of a game that gets humorously over-serious readings, such as being implied to be in the survival horror genre. Pac-Man has to eat all the pellets in a maze while evading ghosts, occasionally eating the ghosts to remain safe. (These ghosts all have names and personalities seen in cutscenes and by their chase patterns.) But specifically, Pac-Man definitely enforces a one-versus-many mindset. Someone can overcome persecution by a group if they have enough resources and determination. Maybe this is a stretch, but it’s not the only game. The Super Mario franchise is definitely pro-monarchist in its setup. The conflict hinges on Bowser kidnapping Princess Peach to destroy her kingdom’s power, and Mario defeats him to restore it. There’s never any indication that Mario wants to topple the concept of monarchy, just Bowser’s to maintain Peach’s. Nintendo’s greatest competition at the time, Sega, was doing similar work with Sonic the Hedgehog. The central conflict is Dr. Robotnik using woodland creatures to power his machines to gather the Chaos Emeralds. He plans to take over the world while having no concerns with being environmentally friendly. This is most obvious in Sonic CD, with the Bad Future mechanics. (If Sonic completes certain requirements, he’ll fight Robotnik in lush marriages of nature and technology. If not, the landscapes will be polluted and rundown.) Sonic is stopping Robotnik from abusing natural resources for his own personal gains. Overall, this gives the Sonic franchise a pretty pro-environmental theme. (Honestly, a fair amount of games from the Sega Genesis era had pro-environmental themes.) Additionally, with both Mario and Sonic, these games give the player the ability to completely destroy an entire army on their own. Again, the one-versus-many attitude is present here, promoting the idea that this societal viewpoint is viable.
Now, I’m quite aware that these themes are incidental: Mario is hardly ever regarded as a slave to a monarchy, nor is Sonic promoted as a warrior for the environment, but these interpretations aren’t exactly stretches. These are political messages in the games all the same, depending on how hard you look. Since the themes are subtle, or behind the lens of nostalgia, these games aren’t challenged for being political, but the ideas are still there. In stark contrast, the Call of Duty franchise brings us back to the dichotomy of disliking some political messages. Call of Duty is directly about war, from its World War II stories, to its Modern Warfare stint, and their futuristic wars. War is inherently political because there are clearly good guys and bad guys (even if there is a bit of a twist depending on who the bad guys are led by). To more abrasive critics and bigots, these politics, arguably party politics, are totally all right, but adding women or people of color, clearly ideological/identity politics, is the line that can’t be crossed. This logical path is disingenuous and only serves to maintain a status quo.
Games always have been and always will be political, even when the stories aren’t going out of their way to say so. Again, these stories don’t exist in a vacuum, and the characters often act how humans would even if they very specifically aren’t. So naturally, comparisons to real life events and situations are easy to draw. I think this concept should continue to be understood when we move forward with criticism. We can criticize the politics of a game, we can discuss how the mechanics and plot elements are used (or misused) to reach a desired effect, but we cannot pretend that these things exist in a bubble.
Hear more from BrothaDom on Character Reveal, the podcast he cohosts with Lady Saika!