The 'get politics out of games' crowd has never really had a leg to stand on. Politics has been a part of the medium since its early days as a commercial industry and, within that forty-year-odd history, a number of releases have reflected various civic ideologies, or even created entirely new ones under the guide of AAA blockbusters.
Some political games have an explicit agenda, and some don't. Cliff Harris's Democracy series is focused on simulating the economic and political systems we live under, rather than applying a personal ideological bent. The Civilization and Tropico franchises, to pick a couple of examples from a popular genre, invite the player to experience the hurdles of governing in quasi-historical settings. Numerous war-themed games are funded by the U.S. Department of Defence in order to manufacture a pro-Western agenda. Then there are those attempting to instil progressive values and/or demonstrate the alternative – Lucas Pope's much-lauded Papers, Please, Molleindustria studio's Queer Power and Faith Fighter, or the rising tide of small video games focused on a specific election or figure (such as the multitude of games about punching Donald Trump).
What is the point of the more ideologically-driven games? Some developers might answer: "Well to change the world, of course!'' But is that desire ever realised? There is an abundance of politically-motivated games, but are they ever going to change anyone's opinion from one side to another?
Swedish Fine art curator Maria Lind has an apt analogy for this question: if, when you are about to tell a joke, you make the declaration "This is going to be really funny!", then in all likelihood the listener is not going to find the joke funny. The initial declaration defuses the humour – the surprise factor is gone, and the listener prepares in advance for something that might be funny.
You could argue a similar thing happens with politics in video games. If a developer announces that their work is going to be highly critical of the status quo, it is likely to lose that criticality straight away. Up-front declarations of intent mean that the players purchasing and downloading such games are already aware of its political propositions. More often than not, these socially-conscious video games simply reflect the divisive times rather than offering solutions to any particular issues. And it would be naive to think that people who disagree with the message behind a given video game will care to download it and, more importantly, be open-minded enough to have their opinion changed.
This is where The Uber Game differs. Released in October 2017 through the centre-right leaning Financial Times website, the classy title screen asks simply "Can you make it in the gig economy?" This proposition needs to be understood in the context of the FT's audience, which is broadly speaking a conservative with a small 'c' group that are probably not as concerned with stories about worker exploitation and unionisation as – for example – The Guardian's readership..
The Uber Game.
In the game, the player gets put in the seat of an Uber driver – whom we know has a family to support, and a big mortgage payment coming up in a week. Incidental details like these help the player form an emotional relationship with the main character (even thought the game's length is only around ten minutes) and, although we must complete repetitive tasks with often unpleasant clients, overall the experience doesn't seem that bad – what is it that these drivers are complaining about?
At the end of the game – real-life spoiler alert – the player's heart drops when a realisation hits. Your earnings melt into a fraction of the original sum as your driver's expenses are taken into account: car rent, petrol, insurance, repairs, Uber's profits. The player finally realises that, as an Uber driver, they've often been earning only half of the minimum wage. The game's point is obvious and its effect is striking, not least because it's in a place to be played by the Financial Times readership – a group of people that generally praise the gig economy, and its lack of bothersome unionisation.
By creating a bond with the character, and making the political message an implicit outcome of mechanics the player has 'agreed' to – through the act of play – the game's ending becomes something of a bombshell. There's no way to measure this, but I would speculate that this technique has a larger chance of challenging a player's perspective on this issue, and possibly affecting a change of heart. Or in other words, the Uber Game's developers skipped the "This is going to be really funny!" moment. The player is not prepared for the impact.
There have been any number of well-meaning video games. But does stuff like Re-Mission (2006), Recharged (2013) and Get Water! (2013) ever really succeed in talking to a wider audience? Or just preaching to the converted? On a more depressing note, is it possible that the social capital gained through overtly politically-themed games is a larger driver than any sincere desire to change perspectives? Trying to produce real cultural change, creating art that is not simply political but designed for political impact, is a much lonelier and tougher task.
The Uber Game's political argument has two key aspects: the design, aesthetic and mechanics of the game itself, and the method of distribution. The history of fine art has parallels here – political artists such as Ai Weiwei or Agnes Denes are widely renowned for their social commentary, but whether their work escaped the insular art bubble is debatable. Hans Haacke, on the other hand, leaks his investigative findings about New York real estate corruption to journalists and calls it art. Santiago Sierra's practice transforms the lives of low-paid migrant workers. Even a kitschy artist like Banksy smacks the viewer with a political message somewhere in the street, when one least expects it.
The modern gaming industry is incredibly sophisticated in some areas, but one that hasn't been thought about so much is what methods to use to best reach your target audience. A lot of shtick currently used in political games might go viral, but such interventions only really work within a certain social-sphere and, even worse, that same mechanic is unlikely to have the effect when weaponised again. Any developers with political intentions must escape the dead-end enclaves of Steam and the Apple Store. What could your game offer to a Sun reader? Is it even a game one can buy, or is it found hidden in the corners of a popular left-leaning or right-leaning website? The possibilities are enormous but require a fundamental re-think of how 'games with a message' – whatever that message is – might work.
My intention is not to dismiss political games altogether, but rather point out their lack of lasting resonance. The creators behind The Uber Game state that games we play are an important but under-explored use of interactivity in journalism – the paper has covered numerous stories about Deliveroo and Uber drivers, but none of them adopted emotional intelligence as skilfully as The Uber Game. One could argue that were this game to have been released on The Guardian website it wouldn't have achieved the same impact.
Good art gives rise to new insights, while better art arms the spectator with tools for concrete action. Video gaming's immersive properties are unequalled by any other medium, and has the potential to teach and share tools that question the status quo, both implicitly and explicitly. With more traditional information outlets becoming so polarised, it is increasingly difficult to reach an audience that hasn't already got a certain political preconception. Games may be one way to breach those barriers, and developers that look beyond their own ideological limits to find an audience are the medium's pioneers.