Ken Levine's BioShock games have received lots of praise for their treatment of politics. The original offered a dystopian take on Ayn Rand's Objectivism; the newly released Infinite depicts warring movements that are something like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. And the series always pulls off its criticism with nuance—it's always more thought-provoking than offensive, even if you're sympathetic to some of the beliefs being parodied.
But why does BioShock stand out, exactly? To be sure, the high quality is part of it: If the games were movies, they would still stand head and shoulders above the competition. But BioShock titles also stand out because they draw attention to the otherwise dreary state of political video games.
Other games handle these topics poorly, or don't handle them at all. And whereas Hollywood has a well-known affinity for the political left, the video game industry doesn't seem to have a clear political bias, largely because it so rarely addresses politics at all. Certainly, game companies will defend their right to make violent, profane, or otherwise offensive games—but free speech isn't strictly a left/right issue, and this isn't the same thing as advancing an overall viewpoint.
Why is this?
As Levine has noted, it's hard to make a game based on current events because games take so long to make, but that doesn't explain the overall dearth of political video games. Not every political point needs to be tied to a news peg, and plenty of projects from small-time developers have tried to make a point—think of The McDonald's Game, Smuggle Truck, or the highly controversial Columbine RPG. And yet bigger-budget titles usually steer clear of anything politically provocative, even when they have ample opportunity to make a statement.
For example, for an industry that's so fixated on war, it's a rare video game that has anything interesting to say about it.
The Metal Gear Solid franchise has been one of the smarter series to deal with nuclear weapons and the problems of government secrecy, but thanks to the overwhelmingly science-fiction-based approach, I doubt many people take it seriously as political commentary. At most, the series has raised awareness of nuclear proliferation or inculcated skepticism of government among the small minority of its fans who take its cutscenes seriously.
And much more representative are the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises. By definition there's a somewhat conservative ethos to this brand of shooter—for this kind of game to work, the military has to be celebrated as a force for good throughout the world, and so on. But beyond that vaguely pro-military worldview, very few of the games reflect seriously on the ravages of war or the merits of various foreign-policy approaches. Every once in a while we'll see something like Spec Ops: The Line, a retelling of the Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now story set in the Middle East, but usually it's just good guys and bad guys shooting each other.
Some developers might worry that controversial content might make games less popular, but if anything the opposite might be the case. The violence and profanity of video games have drummed up plenty of free publicity over the years, and there’s no reason a political message couldn’t do the same thing. What’s more, the popularity of BioShock shows that gamers aren’t averse to intelligent depictions of politics.
To be fair, one facet of politics that is depicted frequently in video games is political intrigue. Countless RPGs and strategy games—especially those from Paradox Interactive—involve navigating complicated personal relationships that are tied to the levers of government power. If there's a message behind this, it's that people are flawed and often use their power for ill—not exactly a groundbreaking observation, or one that separates liberals from conservatives. But it’s a germ of an idea that political games might work off of.
Overall, I think we could use a little more politics in our video games. Not every third-rate run-and-gun title needs to make a point, of course, but it would be nice if more of them did. What if Call of Duty started featuring stories that were worth following, and that addressed U.S. foreign policy in a serious fashion? What if more science fiction games covered sociopolitical topics the way that BioShock and even Metal Gear Solid do? What if some talented game designers used their work to advance conservative or liberal ideas? I have a hard time seeing how this wouldn't make the world of gaming a much more interesting place.
No one likes being preached to—politics are a hard thing to cover without irritating a lot of people. But there's a lot of good to be done here, and that good won't be done if more people don't try.
Date: April 2, 2013