I once saw someone on my Twitter timeline unswervingly denounce the presence of political themes in video games. “Games are a way for me to escape reality, unperturbed by the harshness of the outside world,” she proclaimed, echoing the sentiment that so many gamers feel year after year. As election cycles come and go, the debate of whether or not politics—and indeed many other “serious” topics—have a place in video games remains persistent. On one side are those who wish to push the limits of video games as an expressive medium, a way to communicate ideas, political or not, in a unique form of interactive entertainment. On the other side are those who wish to preserve video games as a form of escapism, one that never purposefully engages with matters of the outside world. But it is never that black and white; the many contradictions between reality and escapism is what makes this conversation all the more interesting.
For starters, the fact that video game graphics are naturally driving towards a state of hyperrealism makes it especially difficult to maintain the escapism side of the argument. As character expressions and story arcs become increasingly believable, game environments become more vibrant, and graphical fidelity reaches near-retina levels, it is going to be impossible for us to not see video games as a reflection of reality. To experience such realism in our games allows creators to more easily populate real-world themes into our game worlds, bringing them closer to life with politics, religion, race/gender issues, and much, much more. In fact, there has already been a wave of such games containing these types of themes in recent years, though admittedly some (like Far Cry 5) are much better at communicating their ideas than others (like any David Cage game). Regardless, politics or any other serious topic seem to be an unintentional side-effect of realism, and as technology continues to grow and improve, we can almost certainly expect to see more and more “real-world” issues show up in our games.
That is not to say, of course, that all games are bound to see such hyperrealism in the future. Nintendo games like Mario and Zelda, for example, are far from “realistic” in the traditional sense, as their cartoony look and playful style make for fascinating game worlds that look nothing like reality. This seems to be a sticking point for those to embrace video games as solely a form of escapism, as the “purity” of these games makes for arguably superior experiences. Reginald Fils-Aimé, current president and COO of Nintendo of America, once even stated the following: “Making political statements are for other people to do. We want people to smile and have fun when they play our games.” Despite this, some of Nintendo’s more recent titles have no doubt touched on political themes, like last year’s Xenoblade Chronicles 2, which takes place almost entirely in the middle of a political brouhaha between warring nations, or the end of Super Mario Odyssey, which angered some antifeminism groups. It seems then that there is no escape; politics will find their way in video games no matter how hard we try on the contrary.
An important thing to answer before we continue on with this discussion is what constitutes a political theme. Recent times have much scrambled the traditional definition of politics, as it feels as though some traditionally non-political issues like public service and environmental protection have been transfigured to satisfy a political agenda. To take a step back, Merriam-Webster offers one definition of politics as, outside its traditional meaning in governance, “the total complex of relations between people living in society.” This gives politics an interestingly broad definition but makes one thing abundantly clear: politics is about people. It is about how they interact with each other, how they see each other, and how they treat each other. This would encompass almost every controversial “serious” topic that is out there, and it is no wonder then that politics is so hard to avoid when it comes to video games, a medium all about interacting with those who exist both virtually and in reality.
When we talk about people, we cannot, of course, forget about those who work day in and day out creating the video games we know and love. These are the people who are responsible for every video game character, every game world, and every game storyline we have ever experienced, many of which we would no doubt label as “realistic” or “believable.” Matt Krol from the popular web series Extra Credits puts it best: “Media are created by people, people are products of their culture and times, and so, intentionally or unintentionally, they are going to express their views through the outlets they have.” Indeed, it would seem to be impossible to remove politics out of video games without forcibly removing them from the creators themselves, and as every creator knows, it is often the experiences you have in reality that inspires and shapes the works you put out.
I would like to close this discussion with three games that touch on political/serious themes and how they benefit from it.
In Papers, Please, you play is a young immigration officer whose job is to decide whom to allow into the country and whom to turn away. The mechanics seem simple at first: check whether the entrant’s passport is valid and stamp their passport accordingly. Things get tough as regulations both tighten and loosen over time thanks to ill-timed terrorist attacks at the border as well as other events such as disease, and you are faced with ethical dilemmas that force you to choose between letting refugees in illegally or feeding your family. It is an apt commentary on immigration issues and border control that is more relevant now than ever, and such themes makes for a surprisingly tense experience that would have otherwise felt monotonous.
This War of Mine is a game that tasks players to survive in a safe house as war ravages the lands beyond. As a group of normal-looking civilians, you have no choice but to send them out on dangerous missions to scavenge for resources or face certain death. These situations vary in difficulty, but some of the hardest decisions come from when the choice to rob, steal, or even murder other civilians arises. It is a unique take on the war-survival subgenre, one that actively imposes moral questions to the player as your civilians converse about their experiences in the safe house. This War of Mine is a game that excellently weaves traditional mechanics with a powerful message on war, violence, and sacrifice.
Finally, Knytt Underground is a Metroidvania that takes an interesting approach when it comes to bringing up the topic of science and religion. In a game all about exploration and discovery, players take control of Mi Sprocket and her alternate form Bob the ball as they traverse through a sprawling underground cave to find a way to save a world that seems to be at the crux of philosophical fallout. The game offers a unique take on whether faith has a place in modern society, how to interpret things we do not understand, and whether opposing viewpoints are best left uncompromised. These themes compliment the discovery mechanics one might expect from a game of this genre, leading to a wholly fascinating universe awaiting to be explored.
These three games vary in subtlety when it comes to raising controversial issues, whether it be immigration, war, or religion. Many others, like the Bioshock and Just Cause franchises, only barely touch on similar issues somewhat but still manage to use them effectively to frame an interesting narrative. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a game that is not somehow informed by the world around us as creators find new and interesting ways to weave reality into the games we love.
A few years ago, I attended a talk by Paolo Pedercini, a game creator and founder of Molleindustria, an independent studio that produces simple video games to spread political messages and criticize mainstream games as a cultural form. Some of his many games have made headlines in the past for its use of absurdist satire to communicate ideas, like Faith Fighter and Queer Power. By listening to him speak and taking a look at some of his games, it suddenly dawned on me how exciting of an era we are in right now. Much like how books and movies have undergone transformative periods that saw those mediums go from casual diversions to meaningful affairs, so too are video games at this very moment. Game creators should not be afraid to speak their minds nor too willing to concede to those who wish to see their creations as mere escapism. Video games are a meaningful way to communicate thoughts and ideas in an interactive and impactful way, and the medium would not be as wonderfully diverse as it is today otherwise.