Here is a short list of some video games with really interesting and overt political themes: Bioshock; Fallout; Grand Theft Auto V; Papers, Please; Civilization; Fable III, Beyond Good & Evil. GTA uses politics for comedy; in Fallout’s case, the political subtext makes it more chilling; in Papers, Please, your awareness of the real-life political context of the game makes it more thought-provoking. Some of these games consciously express a creator’s worldview, others end up revealing the player’s. In all of these games, their political themes make them more interesting to play and to talk about.
This might seem like a highly obvious thing to say, but the past six months or so have made it extremely apparent that not everybody agrees with this sentiment. One of the main refrains of people who identify with the GamerGate movement seems to be “keep your politics out of games” – many of them seem to be convinced that games developers, writers, critics and journalists are hellbent on pushing a political or social agenda. Their calls for “objectivity” in games criticism equate to calls for apolitical games criticism, or at least what they see as apolitical games criticism. There was even a (brief, ill-fated) crowdfunding campaign for a pro-GamerGate website specifically intended to “keep politics out of gaming”.
It’s not restricted to extremists, either: for years and years, the phrase “it’s just a game” has been deployed to deflect criticism and concern around games, sometimes aggressively. Try ever publicly criticising anything to do with the wonderful but conflicted Grand Theft Auto if you want a taste of that - ironically, as GTA is one of the most overtly political games you’ll ever play. A great number of people don’t seem to want to see any politics or philosophical messaging in games even when it’s blatantly there; something that Errant Signal skewered in the below video from 2013, entitled “Keep Your Politics Out of My Video Games”. In his words, “they want their games to be hard to play, but not challenging to consume”.
One of the things that Errant Signal points out there is the inherent fallacy of that “hey, games are just for fun, let’s leave the politics out of it” attitude, in that the very same people that say such things also claim to want games to be taken seriously by the ‘real world’ and throw a fit every time a cultural critic from outside the gaming world attacks them (see: Roger Ebert).
But there also seems to be a growing group of people that seem to believe, for reasons that escape me, that “politics” (or at least what they perceive to be “politics”) have no place in any art, which is just completely baffling. A tweet by a popular YouTuber a few days ago phrased it thus: “Injecting politics into fiction is naturally exclusionary and in my view regressive.”
This is an extremely bizarre thing to say – I’d expect that George Orwell, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ayn Rand, Terry Pratchett or, well, pretty much every other significant author who’s put pen to paper might have something to say about being suddenly labelled exclusionary and regressive. It’s indicative of an extremely odd worldview that’s far from uncommon in online discourse around gaming.
It also makes me monstrously uncomfortable, because in a former life I was an academic (I did a Masters in German and another in Comparative Literature before ducking out of the first year of a PhD to do this video game thing full-time), and every time I see language like this it kinda reminds me of the Nazi attitude to art. They very much took the view that art should be "apolitical", which of course eventually resulted in the extermination of all the art that didn't fit THEIR politics. I feel like anyone who's ever read anything about Entartete Kunst couldn't help but feel deeply troubled by the notion that art "should" be unpolitical.
Naturally, people who complain about not wanting politics in their games are probably not genocidal racist maniacs, but they probably are boring. It’s indicative of a fear of being challenged, and a desire to impose your own worldview. Without politics, Bioshock is pretty much just an underwater shooter. Papers, Please is just a paperwork simulator. I don't quite subscribe to the notion that all art is political by default - it's fun to theorise about the political situation of the Mario universe, but it's also nonsense. But the extremely obvious fact is that political themes often greatly enrich a story, and sometimes give it thought-provoking real-world context that gives it an intellectual life and vibrancy outside the confines of the game (or book, or painting) itself.
Why would anyone be against this? It makes no sense. Upcoming PS4 exclusive The Tomorrow Children plays with Communist imagery and concepts of communal betterment, and this is precisely what makes it interesting. Developers are very often keen to deflect questions about their games' political context, or to downplay its significance - witness the developers of The Saboteur turning the rich and troubling setting of WWII occupied Paris into a wilfully stupid Nazi kill-a-thon - but it's when games embrace their political context that the most interesting work gets done. Metal Gear is inseparable from the Japanese anti-nuclear sentiment post-WWII and from its creator's view on American military dominance. Fable III alludes closely to the distressing politics of real-world revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries, making you think about them in a new light. Why wouldn't you want this?
I suspect, ultimately, that a lot of the feeling behind "keep politics out of games" is really "keep politics that I don't agree with out of games". And I can relate to that. I find Hatred properly abhorrent - and man, the politics of its creators could not be more relevant to the themes of the game. But I have to support its right to exist, even though it makes me feel ill. I find Randian political philosophy gross and vaguely dangerous, but man, am I glad I read it. Deciding not to play games that you find politically disagreeable is one thing, but mandating that no game should be political at all? It's got to stop. At best, it's ignorant. At worst, disturbing.
Art MUST be political, because it exists to challenge and educate and edify, to reveal the world to people and to question established ways of seeing it. If you’re saying that games or any other art should be apolitical, what you’re saying is that it should be universally unchallenging, and you’re restricting the scope of games as a form of artistic expression.