Politics and Gaming
I watched an interesting video on You Tube recently, exploring the perennial subject of “politics in gaming”. Produced by the Extra Credits, who specialise in video games studies, it succinctly points out that it is impossible to remove any sort of political input from creative content. However, this is not a universally held point of view. The recent release of Mass Effect: Andromeda has seen a lot of discussion regarding whether politics and political agendas negatively impact upon game development. This has ranged from measured debate about inclusivity and representation to diatribes about how “feminazis” are “ruining gaming”.
Two years ago, John Bain AKA Total Biscuit, British gaming commentator and critic on YouTube, made a series of tweets about the effects that mixing politics and gaming may have. He stated that "injecting politics into fiction is naturally exclusionary and in my view regressive". It was a bold statement if nothing else. He further went on to say “we're going to be inclusive by naturally antagonizing people with different ideas? We'll you're rubbish at being inclusive then”. However, he ignored the obvious fact that you face exactly the same dilemma if you try not to be exclusionary. Wilfully ignoring politics and maintaining a bland status quo will inevitably lead to a minority or fringe group feeling marginalised. It would appear that sitting on the fence doesn’t forestall the problems associated with picking a side.
Introducing overt or even oblique political subtexts into a game is potentially exclusionary but that is not unique to politics per se. There are many other factors associated with game development that can be a stumbling block to some players. Game mechanics such as permadeath, art design and even the business model can all have a similar effect. There is no such thing as a catch-all product that is universally appealing. It is a mythical Holy Grail. Games like music, books and movies are pitched at specific markets. These can be broad or niche but there is seldom any universal consensus. In fact, I’d say the world we inhabit both on and offline is more fragmented than ever before. The reality of the situation is that genres, styles and idioms are exclusionary by their very definition.
The concept of the apolitical game has been a regular and persistent rallying cry over the years. It is founded on the benign notion of keeping games free from real world issues and ideologies. Thus, the gaming environment becomes accommodating to all. However, I do not think this is actually achievable or even desirable. Many academics and thinkers have argued that nothing is truly apolitical. To try and purge such themes from games is itself a political act. I also question the motives of some of those who lobby for apolitical gaming. Is it really about creating a safe neutral zone or simply eliminating the inclusion of ideas and concepts that some do not like?
Some of the world’s finest literature and art is based upon political themes or the critiquing of specific dogma. Consider the works or George Orwell, Sergio Leone, Picasso and Johnny Cash. If you don't care for any of these artists, then replace them with ones that you do. You’ll find that they all nail their colours to the mast at some point and if you find someone who doesn’t, the conscious decision they’ve made to be neutral is in fact an act of political choice. As for argument that we shouldn’t seek to antagonise those with differing views in the name of inclusivity, it really does beggar belief. If that is the case Harper Lee patently wasn't considering the needs of racists when she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Such a mindset is hardly beneficial for creativity.
So, I personally do not reject the idea of allowing politics, social issues and moral conundrums to bleed through into creative work. I do not particularly enjoy obvious political and social hectoring in gaming, preferring a subtle approach rather than being belaboured with an obvious metaphor or plot device. However, that is more of an issue of poor implementation to the detriment of an idea, rather than the idea being bad per se. Ultimately, I think that refuting the inclusion of politics in creative undertaking is a very naive position. It ignores a fundamental truth that we are essentially tribal by nature. Mass appeal based on an apolitical approach simply leads to homogeneity, which doesn't make for good gaming, movies or music etc. As for mainstream games development, isn’t it problematic enough at present, without making it duller?