Should politics and PlayStation mix?

Ever since man discovered how to use a pen and paper (they’re these things people used to write with, before the internet) people have been creating texts, plays and books that are meant to be escapist, but actually carry messages that are a lot more closer to home than you might think. A lot of classic novels are built on the very fact that they’re so politically minded and satirical (think 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 for example). But it doesn’t stop there; with the rise in popularity of films and TV, specifically in the past 50 years, audiences have seen more and more media texts with hidden agendas and politically motivated ambitions. Even last year’s weirdly awesome LEGO Movie had a pretty obvious take on what it was like to live in a capitalist culture, and the sense of homogeny it can bring about.

In 2014 we don’t need to tell you Awesome Gamers out there that our industry is positively booming, with AAA titles such as FIFA and COD raking in millions of dollars in their first weekend of sales alone. It’s no surprise, then, that writers and directors have turned their keen eyes to the gaming industry as the latest way to propagate political messages that target mass audiences. Now I’m not saying in any way that I disagree with the messages they display, in fact I’d go so far as to suggest their messages are part of why I think they deserve so much appreciation.

But what is it about these games that make them so political?

In the large part, they all attempt to challenge the status quo in some way, and some even try to tackle delicate issues such as racism and slavery head-on as players journey through them. In my opinion it is these types of games that deserve the most kudos, ones that don’t just offer great gameplay or stunning cut-scenes, but hold a looking glass up to society and ask players to challenge what they see.

Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag

The unique selling point of the AC franchise (apart from giving players the tools to clamber around ancient cities and feel pretty cool whilst doing it) was its ability to place players directly into some of history’s key turning points, suggesting of course that the Assassin brotherhood was a sort of catalyst for these events. Black Flag, however, is a ‘far cry’ (that’s right, a Ubisoft game pun…) away from the series’ origins, which featured players slowly uncovering Al-Mualim’s conspiracy to gain power through tactical planned murders.

And I would’ve gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for you pesky kids!

The latest AC cast players as pirate Edward Kenway, the last of a dying breed trying to oppose imperial control of the Caribbean waters in which the game takes place. Now, all Assassin’s Creed games follow a loose narrative formula – the underdog Assassins take on the powerful, better equipped, seemingly endless and slightly right wing Templar forces. Black Flag, however, and it’s DLC Freedom Cry attempted to tackle the difficult slavery question, painting Edward more as a liberal protagonist who endorsed equality, with his half-mate Ade taking centre stage to liberate Port-au-Prince in the expansion pack. The AC franchise’s general endorsement of liberalism should be applauded at all times, none more so than Black Flag, which was also, by the way, a great game.

BioShock Infinite

If you ever venture over to the dark corner of the Sumonix About Us page, amongst all of our mugshots you’ll see that BioShock Infinite listed as one of my favourite games, but that’s not the reason it’s on this list. The dystopian cloud city of Columbia is beautiful, a paradise in the clouds where the sky is quite literally the limit (if that phrase isn’t used in the game it definitely should have been)… if you’re rich and white of course. Infinite isn’t afraid to delve into America’s dark past, and the open discrimination against Irish and coloured people in the game is plain to see. The game was lauded upon release for choosing to confront rather than ignore this aspect of American history, and quite rightly so! Booker himself isn’t whiter than white either, having been involved firstly in the slaughter of countless Red Indians and also in the shady Pinkerton detective agency.

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Director Ken Levine didn’t stop there, however; the Bioshock franchise constantly asks to what extent governments should exert control over the very people they govern. Andrew Ryan and Comstock both reject government, creating Rapture and Columbia respectively to give birth to a society wherein ‘great minds’ can continue to work uninhibited. Rapture is an eerily realistic depiction of a utopia gone wrong; the freedom afforded to it by its rejection of government being the very thing that caused its destruction. In Rapture, Levine explores just what might happen if genetic engineering is allowed to carry on unregulated. Columbia is also seemingly undone by its own ideals; the privileged white society it represents is very quickly dragged into a war which is the product of its original policy of racial inequality.

Rapture is an eerily realistic depiction of a utopia gone wrong.

DmC: Devil May Cry

It’s no secret that UK developer Ninja Theory (Enslaved, Heavenly Sword) is openly a very political company, so when they announced their reboot of the popular Capcom Devil May Cry franchise, fans were intrigued to see just how they’d fit a political agenda in to some hacky-slashy demon goodness.

And the answer as it turns out was very well – very well indeed. Yes, admittedly the new Dante isn’t as good as the old, and the whole rebellious teenager storyline feels a bit played out before it has even begun, but take a closer at DmC and you’ll see a lot of disturbing similarities to 21st century culture.

Guilty! Of being part of a kick-ass reboot!

Perhaps the most resounding similarity is the constant surveillance culture that pervades Limbo. Dante is constantly in hiding (or supposed to be anyway) and the game has players destroying demonic CCTV systems in order to progress. This type of culture and imagery borrows directly from Orwell’s 1984 which painted a version of the future that, disturbingly, came very true.

Limbo’s inhabitants gorge themselves fat and stupid on ‘Virility’ a fictional drink that apparently makes consumers sexier and smarter… Furthermore the ‘Raptor’ news network is very obviously a poke at mainstream media; its ‘God-fearing’ reputation and the way it twists public perception, throwing around terms like ‘terrorist’ and ‘public nuisance’ (terms we hear on a daily basis) is enough to encourage gamers to think twice about institutions they blindly trust. DmC took an old franchise and breathed some life into it, and its merging of startlingly real political conspiracies with biblical mythology mean that it should definitely be given another chance.

Metal Gear Solid

Hailed as perhaps the most visionary video game director of our time, Hideo Kojima isn’t afraid to touch upon political issues in his epic series. The games are built on the subject of nuclear warfare, with the iconic Snake donning the bandana numerous times to thwart various terrorist groups that seem to have gotten their hands on some nukes. This, however, is only the beginning.

Later instalments in the series are seemingly becoming more and more politically minded, asking players to think further about issues they’re exposed to in the news every day. Peace Walker, for example, doesn’t just question the need for nuclear armament, but forces players to confront the complex ethics involved in nuclear retaliation. The game taps into real fears of the time in which it was set, contemplating the threat of nuclear destruction and examining the philosophical theories behind it.

PS3 title MGS4: Guns of The Patriots looked at the increasing privatisation of the military, but also questioned the ethics involved in the intervention of science and technology in warfare. It painted an image of a not too distant future in which wars are fought with proxies and data, and soldiers’ senses are genetically numbed to achieve optimum performance on the battlefield.

mgs4 politics post

God! All this political stuff is giving me a headache!

Kojima clearly crafts his games with current affairs in mind, and with recent trailers for The Phantom Pain featuring child soldiers and revealing an Afghanistan setting, we can bet that the fifth Metal Gear instalment won’t be any less controversial.

The tag-line of this article asks whether or not gaming is an appropriate arena for political debate and deeper questions, and I think these games resoundingly prove that it is. Part of what makes them awesome is that they attempt to deal with current issues; they ask gamers not only to consider but in many instances play through difficult circumstances, forcing them to make complex decisions and deal with the consequences accordingly. Games like BioShock Infinite and MGS have encouraged me to think about complicated political issues that I never would have, had I not picked up the controller. Great games should always strive to challenge, tackle and confront current affairs head-on.

Feature Image Credit: okiir Markus H