There’s a debate, ongoing since really video games entered the mainstream consciousness, over whether games should be “political”. Are video games a distinct medium that are an escape from the drudgery of the day to day and which should be protected from the encroach of the “political”? Or should we endeavour for video games to be taken seriously as an art form and embrace its grappling with real world themes and issues?
This debate is flawed on a fundamental level for two reasons: first, that when it comes to politics, everyone except me is wrong. Second, that the debate is being approached from an incorrect premise: that it is possible to create video games that are apolitical. It is not.
It is – and I hasten to use this word, because I know Andy Richards will take his terrible revenge if he ever reads it – literally impossible to create a game that is not in some manner or another political. Every creative work is, when abstracted down to its core concepts and assumptions, a construct of its political themes. Don’t believe me? Here’s a bunch of examples.
Tetris 99: Oh, what’s that? Tetris but Fortnite is political? Crazy, but true! You see, the game design inadvertently makes it a near pixel-perfect analogue for the state of nature described by Thomas Hobbes in his landmark political treatise, Leviathan, in which he described it as a lifetime that is “nasty, brutish and short” and characterised by a “constant fear… of violent death”. Tetris 99 meets the criteria of this Hobbesian nightmare perfectly: you exist in a system where your sole objective and only route to salvation is to kill 98 other people as quickly as you possibly can. Those 98 people are also all trying to kill you. There are no rules; there is no state that can intervene to protect you; only the Sword of Damocles hovering at the top of the board, waiting for you to slip up and for someone stronger to remove you from contention. It is a hellworld where the weak must fear the strong.
Even winning is no escape: victory is brief, ephemeral, a short burst of endorphins followed up immediately by being thrown straight back into the meat grinder where you’ll likely be dispatched by one of your 98-strong cohort. In other words, “life” in Tetris 99 is nasty, brutish and short and characterised by a constant fear of violent death. Got ’em. Moving on:
Animal Crossing: New Horizons: This one’s a bit of an easy one, what with the capitalist raccoon running the show, but AC’s political underpinnings actually run far deeper than that; the new crafting system, combined with the implementation of the hot items feature at the local store, turns you into an assembly line for products in demand who exhausts the natural resources of various overseas islands to build them so that you can pay off your house loan to Tom Nook, the ruling class, only to have that economic freedom immediately replaced with more debt as you are pressured into pursuing larger and larger houses, fuelling your pixelated avatar’s thirst for materialist consumption. If that doesn’t sound like a Marxist critique of free market capitalism, I don’t know what does! God, I love journalism. Next:
Worms: Armageddon: This one’s an easy one. You’re multiple teams of worms – multiple disparate cultural groups – vying for dominant political control over a geographical space and are competing for that space by actively trying to kill each other. Therefore, it’s a critique of military conflict as a tool of international policy. But also there’s worms in it and you can shoot them and they go wheeee–
Insaniquarium: This supposedly “fun” game “for children” about “fish” is actually dripping with critiques of neoliberal economic policy. You feed fish and in return those fish drop coins. You can spend those coins on upgrading your aquarium. You can only drop a limited number of food pellets at a time, meaning more often than not you have some fish larger and better fed than others – and the smaller fish end up eaten by carnivorous ones. The player also gets a high powered energy weapon that defends the aquarium from outside invasion by space aliens. Taxation; investment; class hierarchy; national security. If you’ve played for more than five seconds, congratulations: you’re the state. That’s Politics™!
2048: This is literally just a game about moving squares with numbers into them into each other to make the numbers bigger. How can that be political, Harry, you idiot? You absolute brainless fool? Well, if you’ll stop insulting me long enough to listen, the squares are subsuming each other to become larger, and stronger than before, working together to become greater than the sum of their parts. That sounds an awful lot like an endorsement of social contract theory: working together to form a stronger, more cogent society, rather than existing in an anarchic state of nature like the one we were talking about earlier. Not to mention, all of these bonds are forming together in pursuit of the creation of the sovereign – 2048 – which enforces the rules that prevents society from slipping back into an anarchist void.
Bob the Builder – Fix it Fun!: This is a Bob the Builder video game for the Gameboy Color, a game based on a show intended for small children who don’t even know what a politic is yet. How can there possibly be any politics in this game? Well, hold on to your hats, my easily bemused friend. In the game, you go around repairing things for people. One of those people is Mr. Bentley, the mayor, for whom you sort some missing roof tiles at town hall. Sounds benign enough – but Mr. Bentley, the Mayor, is presented as a studious, concerned individual rather than a figure of ridicule, which makes this not only a video game, but a video game that is, under the hood, an endorsement of the ability of government on the municipal level to improve people’s lives. That blue Twitter checkmark is so close, I can almost taste it.
What’s the point of all this? Yes, it’s fun to take video games and overanalyse them politically (at least, to me), but there’s a more fundamental lesson to take away here.
Through a theoretical lens, it’s possible to find politics in everything: video games, books, films, TV shows, day-to-day human interactions – and that’s because, if you stop to look for long enough, there are power structures inherent to every aspect of the human experience, and that means people clamouring for an escape from the “political” will find themselves eternally disappointed.