The Politicization of Games

So, in another video, Extra Credits talked about politics in gaming and, specifically, the calls to get politics out of gaming. This sentiment is opposed by the argument that it can’t be done because, as they put it, “All media is political”.

Unfortunately, there is a major problem with their argument. In an aside, they say that we shouldn’t get rid of politics in games whatever that means because of what politics in games brings to them and to other works, but by so saying they reveal that they don’t know or at least aren’t certain what those who want to get politics out of games mean when they say that. And yet they spend the entire video talking about politics in media and why it can’t be taken out of games, and making the bold statement that “All media is political”. This is an argument ripe for equivocation, where they spend their time arguing against people who don’t like politics in games by using their definition of politics, while ignoring the definition that those on the other side of the argument are using. Thus, they can insist that politics in media are good and that all media is political as if they are refuting those people, while never actually addressing the sense in which their opponents use the term to argue that politics in media are bad and that not all media are indeed political.

Which, if you watch the video, seems to pretty much be the case. They tend to argue that politics are the examination of real world issues, political concerns, philosophies, and ethical dilemmas, and that these things are part and parcel of what make up people and also provide some of the best conflicts in games, and that therefore games without politics would have to drop all of those sorts of examinations. The problem is that when most people argue against politics in a media, what they really mean is not examination of issues inspired by real life, but instead has as its primary intent an attempt to argue for a specific idea, with the aim of convincing the consumer of that media that their position is the correct one. It doesn’t examine the issue as much as it propagandizes it, setting up the world and the outcome so as to present the consumer with what they hope is a compelling argument to adopt their viewpoint. In general, such attempts are not subtle, and are often heavy-handed, because the message has to be received and understood by the consumer or else the work didn’t do what it was intended to do.

They give examples of some works that did this, and one of them is Star Trek, which I think is a good example to use to demonstrate the difference. Star Trek TOS — which is what they pictured in the video — definitely reflects the political views of Gene Roddenberry, and deliberately invokes his ideas of diversity. However, what got it acclaim is that, for the most part, it explores and examines various issues without being overly obvious about its messaging. For most of the episodes, a case can and often is made for either side of the divide. For example, in “City on the Edge of Forever”, Edith Keeler is presented as someone who preaches the ideals of Roddenberry and of the Federation as presented, and yet those ideas being listened to at that time is presented as something that creates a disaster against the Nazis. The message of the episode is not that those ideals are wrong, nor that humans at the time, at least, were just too primitive to understand how right she was and that humanity is now more evolved, but instead the message is, as I believe is directly stated “She had the right ideas at the wrong time”. This allows everyone to enjoy the episode and the exploration even if they disagree with that specific message, or with any of the issues stated or explored in the episode. This can be contrasted with the more explicit messaging in Star Trek TNG, especially in the early seasons, where it was criticized for being so heavy-handed in its messaging that anyone who disagreed at all with it — and even some who did — found the Federation to be insufferably smug, constantly preaching their message and going on about how evolved they were now over those poor humans of roughly our time, as best exemplified by the first season episode “The Neutral Zone”. TOS explored issues, while TNG preached them.

Now, I personally don’t really mind if a creator wants to preach their worldviews and so makes a work of fiction specifically to try to promote them, as long as they are up front about that and, of course, that not all works try to do that, because works that aim for messaging tend to be less entertaining than those that aim for entertainment or to explore ideas. But another issue that we’re coming across here is the issue of politicization, where games and other media are being infested with strong politics with exploration of ideas and simple entertainment being pushed out. This happens in two ways:

1) Where various sources are pushing for games to insert more explicit political messages in order to become more mature or more relevant to the real world.

2) Where various sources push that games should only express certain specific political messages, usually ones that happen to align with their own personal views.

And this video, seemingly inadvertently, supports at least the first form of politicization, by saying that games are mature enough to handle politics and that politics are good and provide the conflict while conflating the exploring real world issues and views that people hold with political messaging. Because they don’t really examine in detail what the opponents of politics in gaming mean by that, they end up arguing by implication that any examination of a real world view or even anything inspired by that is at the same level as an explicit and direct attempt to arguing for a specific political or philosophical position, and thus justifying both equally. This is only made clear in their discussion of Missile Command as an example of politics in games, looking at nuclear proliferation … despite the fact that you could easily play and enjoy that game if you didn’t make that link at all. Their argument that all media is political is also undercut by games that were contemporaries of Missile Command that didn’t even have that subtle level of messaging and were at least as good as it, like Pac-Man, Defender and Asteroids. You don’t really need to have any kind of political message to make a good game.

Thus, they justify the proliferation of specific and deliberate political message by buying into the “All media are political” message which is also exemplified by the feminist “The personal is political” philosophical argument: if all media is political, then there really is no difference between a game that references real world messages or explores a real world political and philosophical issue, and a game that sets out to promote a specific political message. This idea is then used to deflect any criticism that the creator is really propagandizing their game or message by insisting that everyone does that, while ignoring that often they really aren’t, because they aren’t presenting any of those things as a conclusion, but are either simply copying them from society in order to relate better to their audience or that explore the issues without presenting either position on the issue to be necessarily right or better than anyone else’s. Thus, a game that happens to have a damsel in distress or engage in some fanservice is suddenly just as political as a game that tries to shame people for accepting or engaging in those tropes, and a game that explores the question of privacy concerns vs security against an enemy that could be anyone is just as political as a game that deliberately tries to show that privacy concerns should always trump security concerns.

What we are seeing in our increasingly polarized society is that more and more people want to use media not to produce a great creative work for people to enjoy but instead to promote their own specific ideas, and to criticize media that promote messages that they don’t agree with. This has, of course, been common throughout history. But what we’re seeing as society gets more polarized is that even not taking a side is seen by both sides as, in fact, taking the other side in the debate. So presenting both sides in a neutral way is political messaging, and simply referencing the ideas shallowly and building off of them to create the unrelated conflict in your work is also political messaging. Doing anything is a work is now, suddenly, political messaging.

Because, after all, “All media is political”.

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2 Responses to “The Politicization of Games”

  1. natewinchester Says:

    In an aside, they say that we shouldn’t get of politics in games whatever that means because of what politics in games brings to them and to other works, but by so saying they reveal that they don’t know or at least aren’t certain what those who want to get politics out of games mean when they say that.

    That sentence makes no sense to me. Perhaps a typo messed up its meaning?

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