Politics and Video Games
I frequently read blog posts, forum comments and reddit rants that can be broadly filed under the heading “keep politics out of video games”. Actually, there’s a tendency to put a far more possessive inflection on the statement by saying “keep politics out of my video games”. It’s a rather unsophisticated response to a broader and more nuanced question about the whether it is both desirable or indeed possible to keep a socio-political subtext out of any gaming narrative. But as a lot of gamers don’t do “nuance” and there’s a growing aversion to thinking per se these days, debating such a position is often an uphill struggle. However, I saw a gaming news story today that addressed this issue head on, and it wasn’t the usual pussyfooting around the issue.
Ndemic Creations, the developers behind the virus-spreading strategy simulator Plague Inc, are to add a new scenario to the game which sees anti-vaxxers as the threat. This is due to a request from core fans who felt that this subject was both topical and relevant to the game. They even went so far as to set up an online petition. Ndemic responded via Twitter and stated, “If this petition gets to 10k, will add a specific new anti-vaxxer scenario to Plague Inc.”. The requirement was subsequently met and so Ndemic are now working on creating a suitable scenario and integrating it into the game.
At a time where there is a significant increase in measles cases across the United States, it is reassuring to see a video games company buck the trend and make an overt political statement on an issue that affects everyone. Hopefully by adding to the public debate on the issue and robustly standing against the ludicrous position of anti-vaxxers, it will contribute to a positive outcome. Already State legislatures in both Washington and Oregon are considering laws that would remove non-medical exemptions for the routinely administered measles vaccine. Both states currently allow parents to opt out of the measles immunisations if they have a religious or philosophical objection.
As for those players of Plague Inc and the wider gaming community, who may object to such an overtly political subject being added to “their game”, I would encourage them to step back for a moment and reflect upon the nature of the what is it that they’re exactly playing. Plague Inc is a Pathogen simulator designed to infect the world. The game touches upon such issues as vaccination, global pharmaceutical companies and the political aspects of combating a global pandemic. The CDC have even talked to the games developer regarding how the game can be used to educate the public. All of which are directly or indirectly political issues in themselves. Surely this renders any complaints redundant?
Not all, but many video games have some sort of underlying narrative to facilitate the game’s systems and mechanics. Irrespective of the genre, there is usually some sort of plot that justifies the players actions in the game. It may be something simple and childish such as theft of bananas in Donkey Kong Country, but it’s there all the same. And unless the developers go out of their way to make this narrative as basic and neutral as possible, there is scope for it to be interpreted in wider socio-political terms. Furthermore, many mainstream, popular games are predicated on violence, conquest, the acquisition of territory and the vanquishing of an opponent. None of these are apolitical ideas and themes. Which is why I despair of the “keep politics out of my video games” mantra. It shows an immense lack of self-awareness. Plus consciously trying to purge video games of any semblance of political opinion is by its very nature, a political act.