In recent weeks the well-trodden argument that “games aren’t political” has resurfaced, fuelled partly by the refusal of the developer of The Division 2 to acknowledge the political significance of its forthcoming game, set in a devastated post-pandemic Washington DC kept in order by the military. On the contrary, like all art that arises from culture, games are deeply political. They are also often biased – even when their designers intend them to be impartial – towards conservative, patriarchal and imperialist values such as empire, dominion and conquering by force.
But video games can and should be put to work for leftwing politics at this moment of cultural and political uncertainty. Many games communicate progressive values in their narrative and content – but if they are to go further, we must reimagine what a game could look like.
Liberal themes in video games, from Detroit’s 4,000-page script assessing the dangers of AI to Assassin’s Creed’s narratives in support of ethnic minorities and oppressed groups, are not new. While some cultural critics point out that games tend to support militarist or conservative values, on the vocal rightwing of the gamer community, the claim is that games extol leftwing ideology by featuring marginalised characters: in short, any character that is not white, straight and male. But this liberal influence has failed to turn video games into a force for progressive politics.
In short, progressive content is not enough. Wolfenstein might be about killing Nazis, but it gave birth to the first-person shooter genre, in which players often spray bullets in the service of American foreign policy. Civilization and Tropico might allow identification as a socialist state or egalitarian democracy, but they require adherence to the principles of western capitalist empire-building to succeed on gameplay level. Video games communicate ideology at the level of form, and laying a progressive storyline over the top does not necessarily prevent a game from serving rightwing ideas.
Welsh Marxist Raymond Williams showed – years after the fact – that the form of the 19th-century novel still supported conservative values, despite containing leftwing content. For Williams, novels such as those of Charles Dickens might sympathise with workers or with revolution – even lionise them – but they could never instigate serious social change, because their political power was limited by the fact that the books were still a commodity to be read after dinner and for pleasure: a kind of storytelling that is easily consumed and doesn’t make the reader confront real politics. The same would apply to many video games today.
Eventually readers and writers in the early 20th century grasped this, and as literature moved toward modernism, writers realised that the form needed changing – rather than just the content – if literary culture was to become progressive and politically forward-thinking. Modernist novels refused to be comforting, introducing stream-of-consciousness techniques and unreliable narrators that unsettled the reader and made them confront the politics of their own relationship to the text. This kind of shift needs to happen with video games.
Content is not inconsequential. Some games succeed in using content to comment critically on their form. One example is Sweatshop, a management simulator that confronts labour conditions. Another is Cookie Clicker, an automation simulator that ends with an accelerationist collapse of capitalism. Both games subvert the form of management games and show it up. Autosave: Redoubt likewise subverts Counter-Strike to highlight monocular politics of the first-person shooter. The next step is to go beyond critiquing existing forms and produce new ones.
It’s perhaps impossible to predict what a formally progressive video game might look like, just as we could not have second-guessed the radical modernist novel before the works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. What we can see already, however, is a number of emergent games which experiment with form in potentially game-changing ways. Perhaps we will soon see video gaming’s Ulysses.
At E3, developer Media Molecule described its latest attempt to make the gamer an artist in Dreams. While the studio’s previous games handed players superficial involvement in level creation (a feature of games since the 1980s), Dreams makes the player a creator at every level, from art to music to design. The Beyond Good and Evil team has revealed a partnership with HitRecordthat will allow users to create content for the game and be paid for it, circumventing concerns surrounding “playbor” (gamers working for free whilst generating capital for a developer). Both projects imagine a more flexible form of gaming.
In the indie sphere’s Dwarf Fortress, the user must oversee and manage drunken dwarves. Other life simulators reduce their subjects to manageable data: but as the writer David Auerbach notes, Dwarf Fortress is built on algorithms with too many possibilities, making the dwarfs fundamentally unmanageable. This produces a whole new logic of people management.
In David O’Reilly’s Everything, the player starts as one species exploring the world but is encouraged to endlessly switch to the perspectives of other objects and species until the boundary between “subject” and “other”, so solid in the majority of games, collapses. If Autosave: Redoubt points to a problem of perspective in games, where events are viewed only through the eyes of one agent (the player character), Everything creates an alternative one.
The 2015 game Prison Architect achieves something comparable on a smaller scale by oscillating the gamer between prisoner and prison designer, so that the apparent aims of each (keep them in/escape) are broken down and the gamer starts working with their enemy’s interests at heart. These games – relatively rare at the moment – are formally different experiences which encourage the gamer to think in politically progressive ways.
These games show potential for a gaming canon that, like modernist literature, is progressive in both form and content. While telling stories about marginalised characters and from liberal perspectives might do some of the work, and commenting on the limitations of existing forms might do some more, gaming is at the kind of crisis point that literature was at in the early 20th century: it needs a structural renovation. Without this, video games might sometimes look leftwing, but they cannot be revolutionary.