If games are to be considered art, then even the most sensitive topics should be fair game — but developers must tread carefully

Matt Edwards

Politics in video games is the sort of topic that is almost guaranteed to provoke an angry reaction on Twitter from someone aggrieved that their safe spaces are being invaded. The mere mention of politics going hand-in-hand with a video game narrative quickly sends some people into hysteria, driven by a fear that in future Nintendo games, Mario will be portrayed as a protestor, trying to avoid the brutality of the Goomba police state. There is a genuine aversion to politics having a place within gaming because there is an assumption that discourse will corrupt the games that have no political leaning to begin with, and it seems that many people would prefer that games be kept in a bubble.

Admittedly, the Mario protestor thing sounds like a decent alternate reality story…

I argue the opposite. The fear of having issues ‘shoved down a player’s throat’, as is often part of the response, results in an industry that is too afraid to make a statement, cowed by knee-jerk reactions that usually follow. People want video games to be elevated to the status of being an art form, like music, literature and art, but in order to do that, they must have room to grow. Social commentary is one of these development opportunities it needs, and bigger developers need to be less afraid of sticking their heads above the parapet to address the current issues of our generation — and there are many.

People want video games to be elevated to the status of being an art form, like music, literature and art, but in order to do that, they must have room to grow.

In a medium like gaming, with the access to unique methods of storytelling afforded to it by the technology it possesses, it is a waste to think that all it can do is entertain — it can also debate, and it can debate well. It’s like having a high-end computer that exclusively runs Minecraft. The full potential is not yet being explored as it could (and should) be. It’s possible to read a book that details the inner workings of current political personalities and to also read graphic novels that just want to tell a fun story. Why not have the same attitude with games? I can enjoy Papers, Please! just as much as I can enjoy Super Smash Bros: Ultimate.

This isn’t to say that this has never been done before, and in a grim twist of fate, one example is due to release soon. Detroit: Become Human, an allegory of the race issues in America, arrives on Steam on June 18th. Behind the tale of androids trying to find their place in a world that has already defined their purpose is a thinly-veiled commentary on how some classes of society are treated — and are currently being treated — in the USA. With a score of 78, the original release gained reasonably favourable reviews on Metacritic, with people praising its ability to branch the narrative in different, meaningful ways depending on your actions and choices in the game. Characters were supported by fantastic voice acting and motion capture, and the theme of the game felt futuristic without being impossible. Unfortunately for it, however, critics generally felt that the game’s political stance was rather heavy-handed, and in an industry where fans can react abrasively to the slightest hint of social commentary in their games, that can be a fatal flaw.

Behind the tale of androids trying to find their place in a world that has already defined their purpose is a thinly-veiled commentary on how some classes of society are treated — and are currently being treated — in the USA.

Just like in other forms of media, an underlying message has to be just that: underlying, and not overtly preachy. The effect of brute-forcing a particular issue into a story rarely achieves a positive result. Just look at the brutalising reaction that The Last Of Us Part 2 got when its story was leaked to social media. Neil Druckmann has been attacked for what a fair number of gamers believe to be an all-out offensive on social issues, at the expense of the story. Following on from DLC where Ellie kisses another girl, the leaks hint at characters that have been designed to appeal to people who do not conform to one gender or another.

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I’m not going to spoil anything here, but it’s important to clarify that nothing has been confirmed with the story being taken out of context like this. Sadly, the internet jumps to conclusions easily, and what followed was a barrage of ire towards Naughty Dog and its apparent “SJW agenda”. All in a context where story details aren’t actually confirmed. This is the level of sensitivity that game developers have to acknowledge.

It reminds me of an article I read last November on gamesindustry.biz that covered game designer Mike Pondsmith’s comments at James Cook University’s Retro Inspired Game Jam at Singapore:

“The first thing is, if you want to get somebody to kind of see your point of view, don’t preach [ . . . ] At least for Talsorian, we always had kind of a generally progressive leaning anyway. A lot of this is kind of like, ‘yeah, we were doing this back in the ‘80s.’ We had transgender people running around in Cyberpunk in 1989 [ . . . ] because my friends are transgender. So what’s the deal? Why not? But that’s not preaching — this is the world I see.”

“I think a lot of times when you want your message out there about something that’s bigger than a game, you have to let them find it themselves. We just lay it out like a trap and they step on it.”

I think that this subtle approach to storytelling is a more efficient way of trying to broach a sensitive subject. Mike says that people do not like being preached to, and I agree. When developers stand to push their opinions into the game to the point where that’s the entire identity of the game to begin with, it will only please people who already agreed with the opinion. Everyone else would label it as an example of pandering.

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Despite this, a heavily-anticipated game he has worked on, Cyberpunk 2077, has not escaped controversy. It was revealed that the game will not feature gender options, in tune with its body modification theme. Instead, players can elect to swap out their voices and body modifications as they wish. This provoked an all-too-predictable response from some people on Twitter. Personally, I feel this is a good example of what gender actually means to people who have the ability to choose, without it being shoehorned into the game in the eyes of (most of) the community. If you don’t want a character with vaguely-defined gender norms, then you are perfectly entitled to go ahead and create a character that fits your style. However, the option is also there for people who want something different. Importantly, it doesn’t break the theme of the universe.

Storytelling must be weaved in a nuanced manner if it wants to portray and discuss sensitive topics. If you want to showcase a harrowing and traumatic experience that highlights a particularly shocking part of life, you need to let a player experience it for themselves. Developers must be willing to trust the player to form an opinion, rather than have an opinion spoon-fed to them. An arguably effective example is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s No Russian mission, which has the player participate in a terrorist attack (or not, if they choose not to play the level or shoot any civilians). The game’s plot was pretty generic and was more of an excuse for the FPS action than anything else, but this one mission sparked controversy for its no-nonsense portrayal of terrorist attacks on soft targets.

Developers must be willing to trust the player to form an opinion, rather than have an opinion spoon-fed to them.

Many video game journalists had said that it was unnecessary and was shock porn. I disagree. It was a powerful, bold choice to include this level in the story, and portrayed social events of the time in a memorable manner that people are not likely to forget.

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A more recent celebration is that of Disco Elysium, an RPG that dared to include political commentary not only into the game, but into its gameplay as well. In fact, they even called it the Political Alignment System. You don’t choose a political alignment — it is formed from the colour of your conversation choices over the course of the game. Your eventual ideology — right-wing, left-wing, centrist, nationalist — affects your stats and the choices available to you, and the masterstroke in this instance is that Disco Elysium needles them all equally. Well, perhaps the fascism route gets mocked a little more than the others, as judged by its in-game description:

This is the baddest of all the ideologies, so no one admits they’re a fascist. Rather, they’re “traditionalists”. Or “nationalists”, a term they get really angry if you associate with fascism. (No one wants leprosy on their brand).

The emotional draw here is, of course, that pretty girl who didn’t want to sleep with you. The other ideologies don’t explain why that happened. Fascism does. Because the commies pushed the king under a street car and now nothing in the world is holy or beautiful. During your stay in Revachol plenty of women will tell you no, so, naturally, most people will pick this one. I mean, who doesn’t want “absolutely giant fascist” in their Steam achievements? Also, it goes really well with alcoholism.

We do the games industry a disservice every time we say that politics or social issues has no place in video games. To keep the entire platform in a vacuum while the world evolves will harm the industry in the long run: it will become overly sanitised, becoming nothing more than a platform that occasionally becomes relevant for exposing young players to lootboxes and gambling mechanics. The industry generally seems to be deathly afraid to tread on any political toes, and in doing so manages to broadcast a message that is empty to everyone.

We do the games industry a disservice every time we say that politics or social issues has no place in video games.

If video games are to be taken more seriously as a work of art, then it’s time for some more developers to think about what they want to say about the world. As 2020 rolls on by, we’ve discovered a lot about how our society operates when a pandemic threatens us all. We’ve also learned about some of the saddening ways a country like America can disappoint its own citizens. It’s time to shine the light on the themes of today. Sometimes the bubble has to be burst in order to learn something new.

Now to write that fanfic about Mario’s trip to Hong Kong…



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