Games are often politically charged. Whether it’s Doom promoting school shootings or the latest Grand Theft Auto controversy, video games have a tendency to cause outcry. But the political game is a rare beast.
It is simple to see many games as conservative because they play it safe, but what about seeing games as a space to explore liberal ideals? Some games like Bioshock are hyped as left-wing – but what does that actually mean? Other leftish games allow you to enact sweeping reforms as ruler, yet these systems are ethically murky and keen on violence and punishment.
You can’t walk into a game store today and not be confronted by games that celebrate neoliberalism in some way. The majority of games involve the pursuit of endless growth: levelling up, character progression, collecting money or coins for further investment – all of these are staples of both capitalism and consoles. So too do games often involve an armed protagonist, with gun ownership tied to conservatism in most people’s minds.
The Battlefield and Call of Duty series are fantasies of empire. America’s Army is literally a recruitment tool. And don’t forget that the storyline in games is all about you the individual: you are there to save the world, get the girl or become the king. But modern players moan about the repetitive nature of these games. As Leigh Alexander says, ‘Traditional “gaming” is sloughing off, culturally and economically, like the carapace of a bug.’ To play a right-wing game is common and thus boring.
What about games that are considered left-wing? Unfortunately, they still rely on similar tropes. Bioshock is left only in theme as it depicts the fall of a fascist government, with Rapture a take on Randian objectivism. However, as Clint Hocking puts it, Bioshock is victim to ludonarrative dissonance, which means it suffers, ‘… from a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story’.
More extreme is Red Faction: Guerrilla where you attempt to overthrow the EDF (Earth Defence Force) instigating an uprising via guerrilla tactics. But this is left in story only. Through its gameplay it instils individualism and the quest for power.
Often games utilise satire to make their point: Spec-Ops: The Line depicts the horrors of war and ease with which players perpetrate them, and Prison Architect makes cartoonish overtures about the modern penal complex. Yet, these games exist in opposition to conservatism: they do not present positive left-wing imaginings or possibilities, but rather negations of the Right. Perhaps a better example is Mirror’s Edge, a (mostly) pacifist game where the player must help subvert a totalitarian state by delivering dispatches via parkour stunts. Thematically the game is more libertarian than socialist, but the subversion of the run-and-gun mentality in a big release was promising. Unfortunately Mirror’s Edge was before its time, and the developers have gone on to spit out Battlefield sequels. Playing a left-wing game might mean never seeing a sequel due to lack of popularity.
But surely there must be games that enable interacting with a socialist utopia – it can’t all be Communist Mutants from Outer Space. True, there are titles like Civilization, which enable you to enact collective reform through government. But this is often followed by some kind of punishment, and creating a fully thriving liberal society is not easy. Generally, these nation sims, like the Tropico series, encourage totalitarianism more than any functioning communistic society. Democracy 3 is a good bet, as it quite easily allows you to achieve popularity while maintaining your integrity, enacting sweeping restructurings through its abstracted design. Alternatively there’s Fate of the World, where the player must try to solve climate change, an obviously important issue for the left. The game itself is hard. It’s a fantastic learning tool, full of real facts and based on true simulations, and may help players think and act in important ways. But its entry point is high and is perhaps a bit obscure.
While globe-spanning management games have varying degrees of popularity, there has been a rise in survival sims, which allow for liberal anarchism in post-apocalyptic worlds, an occasional leftish fantasy that usually ends in tears if players aren’t ruthless enough. DayZ and Rust are almost without rules beyond the code, and while you might envision a utopia, it rarely pans out. Perhaps these games point to a nihilist undercurrent, where even optimists just want to hit reset.
Minecraft, the most popular survival sim, does have anarcho-communism societies on some online servers, and while the game looks like human society on speed, it is possible to create self-sustaining designs so that the world isn’t plundered. But to be a pacifist in survival sims is difficult and often not fun, and you might eventually have to stoop to the level of your enemies – even Gandhi drops nukes.
It’s almost as if you can’t have a game without violence and developers seem to encourage a dog-eat-dog world.
There does, however, appear to be one developer with left-wing dreams: Valve. One of the better singleplayer games released last decade was Half-Life 2. In this instalment you take up the silent and secular protagonist, Gordon Freeman – no mansplaining from this guy – to battle and overthrow the evil regime that has taken over the world. Literal alien fat cats are in control, sending out dummy rulers and police henchmen and relying on insidious surveillance to keep the human populace down. There is a strong female character in Alyx Vance, one of the few who are realistic in nature and proportion. What more does a true progressive want? But while you only use Gordon as an avatar and there is less emphasis on levelling up, the game is still about a single player, a single narrative.
Perhaps for a game to be truly left, it needs to be multiplayer, where the playing field is even and the only way to win is to work together.
Valve are exemplars for online games. Their most famous is Counter-Strike, a game where a team of terrorists attempt to either bomb a site or keep hostages – you can insert your own ideology – while Special Forces try to stop them. More than vague thematic ties, multiplayer games like this are about a group of strangers coming together, sharing resources and ultimately trying to survive. Team Fortress 2 might be even more appealing to the progressive. Nine very different classes must come together and form bonds, and the distribution of resources (that is, how many people play from each class) must be even in order to win. In terms of inclusion it must be the only game that positively portrays a disabled person of colour who has a drinking problem (also a funny accent, the last acceptable prejudice). Not to mention that there are plenty of Soviet gags for the Leninists out there.
But perhaps for a truly left-wing game, the industry has to move beyond ham-fisted narrative gestures (see Bioshock and Spec Ops). If the right is about order – the industry on repeat – then the left is about change. A left-wing game should be radical and revolutionary in conception.
In recent years, there has been a renaissance as indie developers step up and provide something that fights the system – not on outdated terms, but in their own right. Think of titles like Dear Esther, Thirty Flights of Loving and Gone Home. The games are radical because they often don’t involve much conflict between player and system. Instead, they are artistic in nature and driven by narratives. At the same time, while ‘graphics’ have long-been an indicator of advancement as the pixel count improved, what could be more revolutionary than rejecting this in favour of 8-bit retro aesthetics? Improved access to technology has helped this movement, but it could also be because more progressive developers have entered the field. Certainly there has been an increase in female developers and journalists, which has had an effect on what is produced. But is a swing away from violence automatically positive?
Personally, I think there’s a problem with left-wing games. To The Moon and Dear Esther are, for lack of a better word, dull. The revolutionary idea of having a game in which you don’t do much is unsurprisingly tedious, leading to the heat death of videogames. The left consistently defines itself in opposition to the right. Without something to fight against, and after the violence and misery that revolt might have sterilised, liberals are left with walking simulators.
Diversity is key, in my opinion. Some counter examples are the overt Terrorist Killer, or the more subtle Every day the same dream – two games that have minimal input but maximum left-wing output. The original indie darling, Braid, is also a good example of the left-wing game, as it subverted thematic tropes while simultaneously playing with its mechanics to create import (plus it was actually pretty difficult). But a left approach isn’t achieved solely by story or mechanics, but also cultural cultivation – and the upswing in opposition to mainstream gaming and accepted tropes gives space to the radical game.
This is opposed to the recent obsession with games that don’t necessarily succeed as games. While too much right-wing ideology leads to repetition, too many left aspirations can create another type of blandness. So if you’re a progressive developer, journalist or player, aim to invest in revolutionary games – but don’t feel bad for playing the latest shooter. Level up to beat the Boss, but pray that they keep coming back. It wouldn’t be fun otherwise.