Politics & Video Games

Politics is probably the last thing that most people have on their minds while playing a video game (that and the stock market maybe). This isn’t surprising after all most people play video games to get away from politics. The reason why I bring this up is because featuring politics is a very natural way to add depth to a video game’s story. In most instances, video games feature a bare-bones version of politics but the few games that don’t do this, are significantly deeper because they feature politics. Seeing as it is still the self-proclaimed concept month of February, I think it’s appropriate to discuss politics in video games.

As I said before, most video games that feature politics, have a stripped down version; it’s usually framed as a quest/mission. This is true for pretty much every role-playing-game. In most examples, political beliefs and morals are irrelevant as far as the player is concerned.The Mass Effect games do have  bit of politics in each installment, however most of the trilogy is spent fighting bad guys and flirting with sexy aliens (or humans). Unfortunately, the Mass Effect Trilogy, a franchise that is all about choice and consequence, misses the opportunity to allow the player to express themselves politically. There are moments in the trilogy (specifically in the first and third game) that resemble political issues but they are examined through a moral lens and not a political one. If a gun control debate, like the one currently going on in the US was brought up in Mass Effect, supporting gun control would probably be “Paragon” and opposing it would be “Renegade”. This doesn’t add any political themes to the game, it’s merely more content for the player to sift through.

To be fair, the Council would probably be more concerned about reporter security than gun control.

Despite Mass Effect’s political shortcomings, there are games that make a better effort to incorporate politics. For example, in KOTOR 2, during a mission the player has to support either an idealistic queen or an ambitious but tyrannical general. The games makes an effort to justify both sides and asks the player which leader, and by extension their personal political views, they believe in. The problem with this example is that these concepts don’t have any meaning. One side is good, and the other is evil. Unlike Mass Effect, the flaw is not in how it presents the choice but rather the choices themselves, but at the very least it allows the player to express their political beliefs. This is a good use of politics, for a video game at least, however there is one game in particular that does an even better job, and it’s a mainstream game of all things.

Skyrim is the last game I expected to find politics in. For one it’s a fantasy game; the point of the genre is to escape from the real world. The game is set in a land called Skyrim and takes place during a civil war between the Imperials and the Stormcloaks. The Imperials serve under an Elven Empire due to a treaty that banishes the worship of a certain god. The Stormcloaks worship this god and have rebelled against the Empire to defend their cultural independence. Certain cities have pledged loyalty to either side; the player is also able to take a side. The interesting thing is that this subplot is completely optional. Outside of material rewards (ie: gold), the player has only their political beliefs to motivate them. Furthermore the game never says which side is correct, it’s up to the player to decide. Whether or not the player realizes it, siding with either the Imperials or the Stormcloaks is making a political statement. Skyrim shows that allowing the player to express their political beliefs is great way to add depth to a game, however this is not the only way games can incorporate politics.

Pfft, those returning Dragons can wait, I’ve got an Empire to overthrow.

It’s impossible for me to talk about politics in video games without bring up Metal Gear Solid 3. The game is set in the middle of the Cold War. The player controls Snake, a CIA agent who is tasked with hunting down his mentor; a woman who has defected to the Soviet Union. Snake’s mentor (known only as The Boss) makes note of the fact that she has gone from being Snake’s most trusted friend to an enemy. This is because allies and enemies are constantly changing; the politics of war make no sense.  Being a soldier might as well mean being ordered to shoot your best friend without a moment’s notice. Without incorporating these political themes, MGS3 would simply be a game about a spy who is betrayed by his mentor, hunts her down and saves the world. While this isn’t a bad idea, MGS3 ascends it’s narrative by incorporating political concepts like cultural relativism and deterrence theory. The player experiences through Snake, the folly of politicians. The player is closer to the character as a result; this allows the player to understand the character better. Without writing a single piece of dialogue, the player knows at the end of the game that Snake, having completed his mission, is done being a soldier, at least for the United States government. The player is literally immersed in the political backdrop of the game.

Skyrim and MGS3 are both prime examples of video games that use politics to enhance the narrative. While it’s not required to make a game good, it would benefit the video games industry as  whole if more games tried to add a political flavor. You may not care about politics in real life, but it can add a lot of depth and intrigue to video games that you enjoy playing, and it’ll make them better as a result. That’s something that every gamer, regardless of political beliefs can agree on.

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About Sam Hale

Autistic, young adult and lots on my mind.

Posted on February 21, 2013, in Game Design and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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