There’s a Wired News article on games about the Arab-Israeli conflict out, in which I am quoted a fair bit.
As I told Quinn Norton, there’s a long history of games that deal with political issues. One of my favorites is Hidden Agenda, which is apparently abandonware today and still playable on a WinXP box. In this game, you take on the role of president of a newly democratic fictional Central American country called Chimerica. It’s dated today, set in the midst of the Cold War, but still packs a massive punch when you play it; trying to juggle the priorities of agrarian reform, free market economics, improved health care and education, and keeping the left and right wings of your populace is still an eye-opening experience.
This sort of game is unlikely to be made by major publishers; instead, we see titles like Food Force made by NGOs, essentially as propaganda tools in a good cause. The MTVu game Darfur is Dying, which I have referenced before, is a noble attempt to convey the horrors going on there. Most of these games aren,t on the average, as rich and compelling an experience as Hidden Agenda despite their newer, flashier graphics. Hidden Agenda was accused of having political biases to it, by forcing the user to cater to the extreme left, but it’s precisely the need to reach accommodations that makes it a richer experience. It’s the difference between games as propaganda and games as education.
This all has resonance because of the Dawson College shootings in Montreal, which may have begun as apolitical as you get, the actions of a deeply troubled individual; but which are now politicized just as most major acts of violence are. The latest video game scapegoat is Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, a totally indie game made in RPGMaker. On a mailing list I am on, a fellow developer described the game as “sick,” yet my experience with it is quite different; it’s more akin to a novel that tackles trying to understand the mind of the serial killer than anything else. Whether it succeeds, I am not sure.
In other words, it’s a game that no game publisher would touch, but that a book publisher might take on based on its artistic merits. I mean, this is a game that opens with a quote from André Breton and features a delivery quest to Nietzsche; it’s a far cry from a glorification of what Klebold and Harris did, and indeed the second half sends them to Hell. Whether or not Super Columbine Massacre RPG! is effective at accomplishing its goal is an open question; the real question is whether it’s a statement, and that it most definitely is, commenting on political issues ranging from separation of church and state to gun control.
Games are a medium; we’re therefore going to see a lot more statements made using games. Some will be simplistic, and some will be complex. Some, like Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, may well be confused and confusing. Given the entertainment media’s infrastructure, getting complex statements through can be hard; big companies try not to offend anyone, so the messages they espouse tend to be inoffensive at best. At worst, they are bombastic oversimplifications, summer movie exaggerations that can end up espousing rather disturbing points of view when considered in the cold light of reason (vigilanteism being a popular one).
Audiences, by and large, don’t like complex statements either, and this is why something like Super Columbine Massacre RPG! will always have trouble gaining acceptance. You can be sure that a balanced and comprehensive treatment of the Middle Eastern political situation would piss off people from all sides, as well. People tend to gravitate towards that which confirms their worldview, not that which challenges it.
In general, the entire debate surrounding games as addictions reflects this sort of polarization; Aaron Ruby’s recent article on the subject prompted a reply from Jack Thompson — yes, that Jack Thompson — that reads in part
Aaron Ruby is simply a flack for an industry with blood on it’s hands, now in Montreal.
In general, reductionist thinking gets humanity into trouble. Here we see propaganda being used in the opposite direction. The difficulty, of course, is that simple or simplistic messages are easier to hammer home, and discussions with nuance tend to get lost.
Long-term, one can hope that we continue to see games that push the boundaries of games for mere entertainment. I tend to think that most likely, the games artistically successful on this front will be the ones that leverage the power of games to model systems, rather than the games that are presenting typical borrowed gameplay with a propagandistic wrapper. But there’s room for all sorts, from grand NGO-driven efforts to educate about the challenges in delivering food to disaster areas, all the way to games that are intended as little more than tone poems.
In the long run, it’s precisely the most ambitious endeavors that we in the games biz need to be encouraging and defending — yes, even the stuff we may not like — precisely because those then form the outer bounds of what we are capable of doing — and perhaps, what we are allowed to do.
Edit: while I wasn’t looking, CAMRA passed.