Big-Budget Video Games Are Getting More Political, And That’s A Good Thing
Every time a new, mega-money, triple-A video game with significantly political overtones looms on the horizon, it seems that the people behind it immediately adopt a kind of rearguard action. What, this game, with its burning government buildings, or this one with its military agents gone rogue? Nah, nothing political to see here, mate. Move along.
Except, of course, that's pure poppycock. The Division 2 is a political game. Its ruined Washington, D.C. is the playground for an experience that is entirely about taking back control from apparently wicked forces who've exploited a worldwide crisis for selfish gain - although the lines between good and the bad in The Division 2 are, much like its predecessor, very blurred indeed. You don't establish a camp in the White House and trailer your game with images of the Capitol Building on fire and get to say: nope, not political.
Just recently, the makers of the forthcoming Ghost Recon: Breakpoint have come out to claim that - despite the game featuring big tech influencing global politics and assassination by drone - "there's no message that we're trying to send people, here". Again, this is nonsense, obviously. The game's set on a private island owned by a tech billionaire, whose company is embroiled in a controversy regarding its products falling into the wrong hands; and said billionaire annexes his island from the rest of the world when the wider powers that be begin to investigate the dodginess of it all. That... that is very political, indeed.
Both of these are Ubisoft games - and there's an interesting piece on VG247 right now, written by Jeremy Peel, that looks at how the publisher is going to approach the is-it-or-isn't-it-political discussion when it comes to showing off another of its anticipated titles, Beyond Good & Evil 2, again, the long-awaited sequel to a 2003 game that absolutely *was* a political statement.
Beyond Good & Evil depicted a fictional world rocked by aggressive invasion, and took narrative cues from the America seen on TV screens worldwide in the aftermath of 9/11. Director Michel Ancel has said that the game was inspired by "the theme of September 11", and "CNN... with army messages and the fear climate", alongside other, less-violent elements. No amount of fantastical creatures and sci-fi tropes could disguise what was really going on under the hood of its story.
And that scans true of so many other big-budget, triple-A-scale video games. Horizon Zero Dawn carries an enormous warning about our over-reliance on technology in its backstory; the buffalo in Red Dead Redemption were a limited resource, and could be hunted to extinction within the game (earning the achievement 'Manifest Destiny - not a good thing, BTW); and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus was a full-bodied punch to the ugly mug of the disturbing 21st century revival of fascism. Beating around no bushes, it titled one of its trailers, all-caps, NO MORE NAZIS.
"Video games are political," wrote Alfie Brown on the Guardian in 2018, in the wake of the no-politics-here claims of a then-pre-release Division 2. And he's right, of course, despite the inevitable comments-section backlash - the previous few paragraphs on this very page make that absolutely apparent. And no, obviously, not all video games carry a political message.
Sonic the Hedgehog, sure, there's a lot in that series about green sensibilities versus aggressive industrialisation. But Mario? I can't say I've ever seen much in the way of subliminal messaging in what is, at face value and some levels beneath that impression, A Game About Jumping On Stuff (although I'm sure that there's some kind of David Icke-style Lizard-People analysis to be had of Bowser, if we really stretch ourselves).
Tetris isn't political to play, but its development and roll-out on a worldwide level definitely is (if you get the chance, read Dan Ackerman's The Tetris Effect); Final Fantasy VII was concerned with big businesses brutally destroying the world they're built upon (um, and something something, space alien calamities, something); and Street Fighter II is, once the individual quests of each competitor are stripped from the slight-as-it-is story, about defeating a final-boss character, M. Bison, who is literally called Dictator in certain territories.
Suffice to say, you need not look too hard to see how, yes, video games *are* political (not all video games, not all video games, we repeat, 'til we're blue in the face). And if the more-recent titles mentioned in this piece tell us anything, it's that we're going to see more politics in our triple-A games going forward. What has been openly embraced by the indie sphere for some time - through titles like the Brexit-focused Not Tonight, the immigration-themed Papers, Please, and the spectre of nuclear warfare that weaves its way through readings of Braid - is set to explode into the bigger-budget sector.
Putting Breakpoint to one side, I cannot see how a new Modern Warfare - assuming there is one coming, and all the rumours aren't for nothing - won't be acutely political. Too much has happened in the world, in the media, since Modern Warfare 3 came out in 2011 for any contemporary Call of Duty, any depiction of *modern* warfare, to not at least lightly tickle themes of the alt-right, of automated combat, of drone use and even, perhaps, civil conflict brought about by escalating left-versus-right divisions in the US and Europe.
Cyberpunk 2077 will, one expects, highlight the ethical differences between augmented humans and those who refuse to incorporate tech into their born-this-way biology. And while it likely won't go as far as Deus Ex: Mankind Divided did in its themes of transhumanism, it's sure to start discussions regarding just how compelled we all feel to keep up with the Joneses with our tech consumption. Do you really need that new smart speaker? Would you ever have one effectively wired into your brain?
If the rumoured third Watch Dogs ends up being set in the UK - the UK of right now - there's no way that the political turbulence of the past few years can't be a factor in its plot, even if it's only a sideshow attraction to something else, something that devs can stick a flag in and declare: see, not political. Now, I know Ubisoft is the very same company that continues to bite its tongue in front of journalists pointing out the politics in their games; but should they lean into them, for Beyond Good & Evil 2 and the next Watch Dogs (and a new Splinter Cell, possibly), I see that as a big win for the publisher. Yes: this side of our game is present and correct, for those who want it. Those who don't? It doesn't matter - you can still batter people, fly spaceships, hack shit, delete as apt.
For flipping years now, people who've always liked video games, and stuck up for them as much more than toys, than playthings for escaping the extremes of the real world, have been waiting for naysayers and deniers to wake up to the fact that they matter. Like movies, like novels, like any form of art or media or expression, they can be disposable; purposefully, or optionally. But they can also tell stories that connect with the heart and the mind, and influence behaviour, and change directions. They can open debate where it wouldn't otherwise exist - if the audience wants it. And for the health of the whole medium, its makers and players, it's vital that the biggest games don't only incorporate politics, but own them throughout the promotional cycle, and beyond.
Featured Image Credit: Ubisoft