Gaming and Politics in 2010

Gaming and politics is not an unusual combination when you think about it. Many games deal with politics, just not real-life politics; politics as a general idea remains oddly popular. Just look at how many games this year revolve around the idea of a revolution:

In BioShock 2, Delta must save Rapture from Sofia Lamb’s perverted collectivism. In God of War 3, Kratos fights to overthrow the monarchy of the gods. In Final Fantasy XIII Lightning and her crew fight against their corrupt government, as does John Marston in Red Dead Redemption. In Fable 3, we’re tasked with violently usurping the throne from our brother, and in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Ezio must economically usurp Rome from the Pope.

But none of these plots play out as a meaningful discussion of modern politics. BioShock 2 at least touches upon some interesting political ideas, but even it stays as far away as it can from current events. These plots are really just narrative shortcuts used to make the hero an underdog because who doesn’t love an underdog? Players want to overcome great obstacles in games, and what obstacle is greater than a king, a president, a Pope, or a god?

Modern politics are divisive, to say the least, so it’s not surprising that expensive blockbuster games avoid any and all commentary on the subject but that divisiveness is also what makes it such a fascinating topic. Thankfully, this year saw a few big games that seemed willing to take a risk and comment, directly and metaphorically, on current events. Sadly, only one actually had something to say. The other two simply floundered about and failed miserably.

The Bad — Medal of Honor

The reboot of Medal of Honor was supposed to be an antidote to the over the top insanity that Call of Duty has become. The game was set in Afghanistan, where you played as a Special Forces soldier known as a Tier 1 Operator. Of course, being in Afghanistan, you fought against the Taliban, both in single player and multiplayer. The latter mode attracted the typical bleeding heart critics crying controversy, and eventually EA caved to pressure and changed the name from “Taliban” to “Opposing Force” in the multiplayer.

The removal was depressing because it would prevent the game from being an accurate representation of the current conflict. The potential of the game was eloquently summed up by Ian Bogost, “As Restrepo showed, the pure anguish of the Afghan war may obliterate the very notion of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ in Afghanistan in the first place. A generous interpreter might hope for such a subtle reveal in the game, one that might send a knowing chill down the spines of its presumably sophisticated playership” (“Persuasive Games: Free Speech is Not a Marketing Plan”, Gamasutra, 4 October 2010).

But this never happened, not because EA changed the name but because no one making the game, developer or publisher, wanted to get political, despite setting the game in a much politicized war. Patrick Liu from DICE said in an interview with PSM3, “We can’t get away from what the setting is and who the factions are but, in the end, it’s a game, so we’re not pushing or provoking too hard.” And producer Greg Goodrich said in an interview with Gamasutra, “Medal of Honor has always been rooted in authenticity and respect for the soldier, but it’s also always been devoid of politics or political discussion or debate” (“The Meaning Of Medal Of Honor”, Gamasutra, 1 October 2010).

Everything about Medal of Honor was a missed opportunity. Its multiplayer could have been a unique representation of modern guerrilla warfare instead of the typical action movie propaganda: U.S. soldiers are trained to work as a team, so why not give those players a significant stat boost when they’re grouped together? The Taliban is less organized, so how about those players get penalized with a stat reduction when they move as a group, encourage them to “lone wolf” it, act on their own? Then populate each match with twice as many Taliban soldiers as U.S. soldiers but give the Tier 1 Operators superior weapons and armor. Maybe, make it play similar to “survivors vs. the horde” in Left 4 Dead or “miners vs. necromorphs” in Dead Space 2 (I make that comparison based on the multiplayer beta). These mechanics would have made the multiplayer more realistic and thematically relevant. It would still be an abstracted reality of course, as all video games must be, but it would at least have given the developers a legitimate reason for keeping the “Taliban” name in the game, and therefore a legitimate defense against all the controversy.

Instead, Medal of Honor turned out to be just another online multiplayer shooter desperate to be like Call of Duty.

The Bad — Fable 3

I’ve lambasted Fable 3 several times before but only because it had so much brilliant potential. As I’ve written before, the end of Fable 3 asked you how you want to spend your kingdom’s money and the choices boiled down to two options: social services or military defense.

Looking past the fantasy setting, these two goals fell neatly along Democratic and Republican party lines. Even though the choice reduced both ideologies down to a single action, such simplicity was necessary for the metaphor to work, and it at least acknowledged the parallels between the game’s fiction and reality. Add in a threat from a desert nation across the ocean and Fable 3 was perfectly set up as a metaphor for post 9/11 politics, and then went nowhere.

(One could argue that Fable 3 was never meant to be a metaphor for American politics seeing as it comes from a British developer, but Lionhead is owned by Microsoft and North America is the largest video game market in the world, so it’s only natural that games be made with this market in mind. Also, this setting is very archetypal: a divided people that must come together to fight a common enemy. Just rename Democrat and Republican to any two political parties fighting for ideological control of a given nation, throw in any existential threat, and the metaphor works just as well.)

If the game had actually made you choose between spending on social services and military defense, fitting both options with an appropriate amount of pros and cons and maybe an achievement or two, it would have essentially asked players to side with a political party on a variety of issues, including education, taxes, corporate bailouts, the environment, drinking age, capital punishment, and more and all within the context of a nation facing imminent danger. It would have been a masterful combination of politics and gaming, using the interactive nature of games to force the player to confront and possibly reexamine his or her own political beliefs within the safe context of a fantasy kingdom.

This did not happen. Instead, Fable 3 never once mentioned military defense despite all its talk of “save up money to protect the kingdom,” and no one seemed to care about the preordained invasion of Albion. Its deep themes were neutered until it became no more political than a Saturday morning cartoon. Its dedication to simplistic morality dragged it down into irrelevancy. Oh, it’s still a fun game at times, but like Medal of Honor, the biggest flaw of Fable 3 is that it’s just a game when it could have been so much more.

The Good — Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood

This one came as a surprise, as I only just discovered Brotherhood’s subtle poetical commentary last week when I solved each of the Truth puzzles. The puzzles are often broken up with what are essentially hidden object games: you move a cursor over various pictures looking for hidden Templar clues, and as you pass over people or places, text appears describing what you’re looking at.

Within these brief moments of exposition, the game conveys a strong anti-corporate tone, suggesting that the rise of corporate rights will result in the downfall of democracy and give more power to Abstergo. A lot of the pop-up text highlights many politicians’ suspiciously close ties to major corporations and hints that the U.S. Supreme Court is in cahoots with the Templars or is at least being manipulated by them. The game mentions that the court’s decision in the Citizens United case earlier this year was a big win for Abstergo and even implies that Chief Justice John Roberts is a Templar himself. A post on Kotaku has some good videos of just these parts of the game.)

Regardless of your own political beliefs, the fact that a big budget game from a major publisher was willing to make any kind political statement is deserving of respect. What’s even more impressive is that the commentary fits within the fiction of Assassin’s Creed, so it doesn’t feel forced or jarring but instead a natural extension of the conspiracy mystery.

When the Supreme Court was hearing the case about video game violence, a popular sentiment on the blogosphere was that the industry hadn’t done much to prove that it was worthy of protection under the First Amendment (not that that should be a requirement). Missed opportunities like Medal of Honor and Fable 3 reinforce this sentiment in me but then games like Brotherhood (and let’s be honest, BioShock 2 and Red Dead Redemption, which may not have discussed modern politics specifically but did tackle other grand themes deserving of the same respect) prove that this medium really is capable of more sophisticated speech. With evidence like that, at least I know that if the Supreme Court does side with California, it’s only because that Templar Roberts is trying to silence Ubisoft.