It’s the same circus as always: a company announces plans to release a game with potentially Political Themes; the right-wing infosphere gets their hands on it and starts decrying how games should be pure escapism and that injecting politics into them is ruining video games; and then the company puts out a statement that actually the game was never a political commentary in the first place. It’s a cycle characterised by reactionary fervour and corporate cowardice.
So it is with Six Days in Fallujah, an upcoming game centred around the Second Battle of Fallujah in the Iraq War. The specific issues with this title in particular have been covered already – the developers are creating something little better than American military propaganda, by some accounting – but there’s arguably something more fundamental at stake here: how this aversion to letting video games say things about the world is impacting our cultural progress.
Games are a uniquely interesting medium to tell stories in; they are entirely unlike older styles of cultural artefact, like books, films, music, television and so forth, in that it is a discussion rather than a dictation. In other words, the only input to the work is from the creator; an author writes a book, a playwright scripts a play, an artist paints a portrait, and then that creation enters the public consciousness and does what it shall. We can read it, or watch it, or admire it, but we don’t have a role in the process. It’s static – we can interpret it, create things based on it, but in the world of the work itself, that’s as far as we go.
Games are different. They invite us to experience, rather than to observe, to partake rather than to respond. They present worlds in which we can act on its message, and its message can act on us. That sort of unique structure is one that we could use to tell all sorts of unique stories, present new ideas, and further cultural discussion – and the indie scene has caught up.
Studio ZA/UM’s critically acclaimed Disco Elysium, for instance, topped pretty much every best games of 2019 list going when it came out and is political to its core: presenting and discrediting fascism, for instance, when you choose to take it to heart, as the gasping verbalisations of a failed man. The best part of its counterargument, though, is that it doesn’t even need to say “fascism is wrong” to get its point across. You learn it by experiencing it.
It presents bigotry and prejudice as an active choice, and makes you feel the consequences for choosing it: by picking racist and nationalistic dialogue options, your partner, the charismatic, sharp-as-a-tack fan favourite Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi, will grow distant from you, and once you’re fully down the fascist path, fascist dialogue choices will actively damage you.
No other form of media can present cultural and political cases in this way. Yes, books, movies and the like can argue the toss through metaphor and literary imagery, but none can make you have the revelation yourself in quite this way. Games have expressed political messages before, obviously, but Elysium is a masterclass in the “how” – and one from which other companies should learn.
The major companies won’t learn this critical game design lesson, though. The problems, as they invariably do when one mixes big money with art, come down to the bottom line: contrast, for instance, the genius of ZA/UM’s Elysium with Ubisoft’s The Division 2. At a conference, Ubisoft Massive’s COO described their work being overtly political as “bad for business”, adding that “we cannot be openly political in our games… people like to put politics [into the world of The Division 2], and we back away from those interpretations as much as we can because we don’t want to take a stance in current politics”.
WIRED’s coverage of the game, a game set in a war-torn Washington, D.C. where you, a crack team of federal agents, are sent to restore order (conveniently – and parenthetically – the game came out only two months after the 2019 US government shutdown), describes Ubisoft’s position as “[trying] to capitalise on the atmosphere of the current landscape – but without any of the baggage”. It looks at the unstable political climate, points to it, expresses recognition that something is happening, and then backtracks, claiming not to have said anything at all. It then expects to profit on it. Profit The Division 2 did. This is cowardly and, frankly, lazy. Creating this kind of media and then not using it as a vehicle to say anything is a tragic missed opportunity.
Games can do better. Not only can they do better, but they can make money while doing better; Studio ZA/UM have the receipts. The capitalist incentive should not be the main takeaway here, though. Money is nice, but there’s a much more present issue at play here, and that’s that by supporting games that point at political issues but refuse to grapple with them, we’re contributing indirectly to the hindrance of our cultural progress.
“What is the purpose of art?” It’s a broad question, with as many answers as there are people, but to my mind the one thing that all art has in common is that it tells us something new: something new about the world, something new about the author, something new about ourselves. We progress as people and as a culture by learning new things, as well as by unlearning previous, harmful systems or patterns of behaviour. In doing so, we make the world better by degrees.
Inviting people to experience life through the eyes of another is what video games as a medium are all about – we enter the perspective of someone, or something other than ourselves. When executed correctly, we can project ourselves onto them, and they, in turn, project themselves onto us. In this way, the possibilities of video games to teach us new things, about each other and ourselves, is unfathomable. As long as we’re continuing to line the pockets of large companies who either don’t want to or are too afraid of a PR backlash to try, those lessons will never come.