Always a Lighthouse: Video Games and Radical Politics




Introduction

VIDEO GAMES, as Robert Cassar recently noted in his Games and Culture essay “Gramsci and Games,” are often “sophisticated texts that can represent not just ideas but entire worlds, which invite players to explore them.” Video games contain a unique combination of expressive dimensions, including audiovisual language and narrative along with their distinctive ludic and interactive elements. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, in their essay “The Play of Imagination” also for Games and Culture, make the crucial point that through these elements, games can introduce novel pedagogical practices that differ from other interactive and educational media. They characterize traditional paradigms of instruction as being concerned with “learning about,” distinguishing this from video games which approach knowledge as “learning to be” — a crucial and largely unexplored dichotomy:

[Video games] allow players to construct vivid and meaningful “conceptual blends” by taking different worlds (such as the physical and the virtual) and combining them to create new and better ways to understand both the game world they inhabit and the physical world.

It’s increasingly tenable to think that games “may teach us to see the world differently and to understand global conflict from new perspectives,” as Harry Brown put it in Videogames and Education, given the sheer number of titles that challenge players about serious political and moral dilemmas. As with other art forms, video games are often ambivalent toward questions of ideology, class, and authority. When the San Andreas police force in Grand Theft Auto is exposed as a corrupt institution feeding off the squalor of Los Santos crack addicts, the revelation comes across as slightly less bold when the protagonist, Carl Johnson (CJ), decides to counter the threat by teaming up with psychopathic casino managers and government agents. Likewise, the Metal Gear Solid and Red Faction series crystallize the political and economic forces of corporate capitalism, while crucially providing means of resisting them.

The potential for radicalizing players into concerned and active citizens is clear, but becomes more complicated with the rise of MMOGs: massively multiplayer online games, which encourage a form of resource management around personal wealth in game worlds, where the notion of, for instance, social responsibility is completely alien. Though MMOG titles will not figure in the discussion that follows, it’s useful to note that they also “encourage the use of imagination to bridge the gaps and boundaries between worlds to provide a more complete and a more complex understandings of both the virtual and the physical worlds the player inhabits,” as Thomas and Brown explain. Likewise, games (in particular role-playing games like the Elder Scrolls and Final Fantasy titles) deliver “embodied empathy for complex systems” in the words of James Paul Gee, encouraging players to feel as if they are part of the system under analysis and not mere spectators.

MMOGs also encourage a sense of agency which Thomas and Brown call “emergent collective action,” something that can be detected in forms of progressive activism worldwide:

There are times, however, when, against all odds, the players are able to do just the right things in just the right ways to survive and defeat the patrol [in World of Warcraft]. These are moments of emergent collective action, where players accomplish something they thought was impossible, often with little or no knowledge of how they accomplished it. They are also moments of simultaneous joy and reflection, where players are elated at the accomplishment, but also likely to wonder how it is that they accomplished it.

Although the topic goes beyond the scope of this essay, games can also generate unique levels of immersion, with one review of studies into this phenomena by Jamie Madigan in his essay “The psychology of immersion in video games” concluding:

[T]he process starts with players forming a mental model of the game’s make-believe space by looking at various cues (images, movement, sounds, and so forth) as well as assumptions about the world that they may bring to the table. Once that mental model of the game world is created, the player must decide, either consciously or unconsciously, whether she feels like she’s in that imagined world or in the real one. Of course, it’s worth noting that this isn’t necessarily a conscious decision with the prefrontal cortex’s stamp of approval on it. It can be subconscious, on the sly, slipped into sideways and entered and exited constantly.

This essay is concerned mainly with an analysis of the narratives, textual content, and ethical perspectives of a small sample of titles, but will also consider the construction of political ideologies, both radical and reactionary, through gameplay.

 

1. The Politics of Gaming

Whether video games can engender a viable form of populism is difficult to tease apart. Many are positioned as alternatives to the neoliberal lives we are all leading — our narratives increasingly dominated by the spiritual, emotional, and existential flattening out of the free market, which has become the dominant organizing force around social and political practices, and citizenship. Others focus on the problem of widespread nuclear proliferation, or inculcate scepticism about state intelligence agencies and the culture of surveillance in which we all live our lives. Within the world of modern gaming, users can seemingly escape, if not downright challenge, these systems.

But while many games traffic in radicalization, and often revive the trope of “evil corporate” antagonists, most are themselves more corporate than ever. Owned as they are by multinational conglomerates, it is of little surprise that video games have merged with other corporate forms of entertainment. The X-Men have their games, Max Payne has his film, and World of Warcraft has its novels. Universities and businesses also regard the virtual world of Second Life (celebrating the economic interactions and institutional structures of corporate capitalism) as a “fun” platform from which students and employers can “socialize” and host meetings, while companies like Apple and Nissan flood its poorly textured streets with electrifying logos and adverts. These and other franchises promote the core tenets of neoliberalism: privatization, deregulation, commodification, and a celebration of personal profit. Other games like Saints Row and Need for Speed buttress a consumerist culture, often exulting in greed and self-indulgence.

Meanwhile, games in the Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid sagas, while radically opposing capitalist imperialism, are often undermined by the way in which they respond: with purely individualistic solutions, based on a more neoliberal lone-man heroism rather than popular pressure and collectivism. Neoliberalism as a social and political doctrine takes as given that all forms of social solidarity be subjugated to privatization, including state government — in a neoliberal world, community doesn’t exist. Games that specifically indulge in solo action and vigilantism against the system also indulge in the same philosophy. The 2012 first-person shooter Syndicate, set the New York and Los Angeles of 2069 and taking on the theme of corporations forming their own version of government, ultimately falls into the same trap.

At the same time, more recent titles in the former series, Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row IV, contain perhaps the most biting and intelligent satire of consumer capitalism and the multi-billion-dollar mainstream game industry. Alternatives to these “lifestyles” are potentially open for discussion through games, since they can successfully represent complex economic and social systems in ways books and films can’t. As Ian Bogost observes in his First Monday essay “Playing Politics,” “By understanding how games express rhetoric in their rules, we not only gain a critical vantage point on videogame artifacts, but also we can begin to consider how to design games whose primary purpose is to editorialize, teach, and make political statements.” Although most games aim to disguise the artificiality of their characters and settings, by making the narrative and gameplay intensely self-referential the Saints Row series also encourages players to question the ethics of artificially constructed power systems, e.g., Zinyak’s Virtual Steelport.

Stealth games like Deus Ex and the early Splinter Cell titles, while potentially falling into conspiracy theory fiction, and with the latter being part of the post-9/11 generation of anti-terror games, nevertheless exhibit sober reflections on the nature of hierarchical authority and modern warfare. Their very gameplay styles also encourage a more thoughtful and analytical mindset than the frantic mayhem promoted by other titles. Square Enix’s 2011 Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a remarkable and imaginative detective story, explores issues relating to social justice, the intricacies of international law, and, through examining the nature of the self, exposes the insipid fictionality of corporate personhood. While the nods to ’90s singularity fiction and ’80s cyberpunk themes in the game are clichéd, this is more of a reflection of the series’s roots in cyberpunk-inspired adventure; Human Revolution’s underlying message of anti-corporatism remains clear throughout the in-game dialogue.

 

2. Neoliberalism and Its Discontents

Some games have approached the matter of politics from a more satirical perspective, parodying the real-world gamespace to the point of excess. Grand Theft Auto is undoubtedly the most infamous of these, being in many respects the ultimate simulation of the imperial city, exploring the endemic patterns of inequality inherent to the neoliberal period of which the series’s notorious violence is only a symptom. Dan Houser, cofounder of Rockstar Games, once claimed that GTA “is about creating a reinterpretation of the U.S., a socially and virtually distorted prism of the real thing.”

But the virtual mapping of New York, Miami, and Los Angeles also reinscribes dominant power relations, since GTA underlines class and race territorializations. Released in October 2002 for Sony’s Playstation 2, the open world of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City exhibited these tensions through depicting, with its token melodrama, the way in which land-rush economics, Latino immigration, and the rise of financial capital has transformed Miami. This “Miami growth machine,” as Jan Nijman called it in 1997 in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, led to a social polarization that the game’s drug baron Ricardo Diaz represents. The dizzyingly self-obsessed rollerbladers of Ocean Beach contrast sharply with the Vietnam veteran Phil Cassidy’s episodes of PTSD. The game also portrays the city’s low level of unionization (think of early missions like “Riot,” which alludes to Ronald Reagan’s aggressive war on labor) and its primarily service-oriented economy (Rusty Brown’s Ring Donuts: “I just love the batter, all over my face”), which earned it a reputation for persistent low wages.

The game’s parodies of the US entertainment empire mostly occur on its numerous radio stations, where we find commercials for the horror movie Knife After Dark, the sitcom Just the Five of Us, the Maibatsu Thunder sports car (“The awesome power of nature distilled into one vehicle”), and the fashion-conscious “Complete the Look”:

Italian loafers without socks? Deconstructed linen suit? Something missing? Complete the look. With the flesh toned sleeveless t-shirt, at Vice City’s one-stop-shop for people who dress for success. Wow, you look like everyone else. Complete the look!

To unlock certain items of clothing, the game requires players to participate in certain (typically violent) missions, as high-status apparel becomes inextricably linked with bloodshed and personal pride.

Though Vice City characteristically wears its influences on its sleeve (Miami Vice, Scarface), it manages to stand alone as an original, interactive homage to the international victory of neoliberalism in the closing years of the 20th century. Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter in Games of Empire go as far as claiming that Tommy “I work for money” Vercetti is “neoliberal theory incarnate.” The game’s distinctive Mission Passed music theme masks the brutal reality of capital accumulation and market imperatives. Indeed, in the GTA universe, like in the dreams of right-libertarians such as Robert Nozick and Ayn Rand, the state is completely absent with the exception of the police, military, and similar institutions, while the personalized, friendly presence of such corporations as Ammu-Nation, Burger Shot, Gruppe Sechs, 8-Ball Autos, Gnocchi, MeTV, and GetaLife satirize the public relations industry but also shape the social relations of GTA’s inhabitants. The game contains nothing closely approximating a democratic state system. The streets of Little Havana or Los Santos carry no sense of collective responsibility or justice, only the violent intersections of race, territory, and crime.

The next game in the series, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, depicted the Los Angeles of the early 1990s — a time when a militarized police force engaged in forms of low-intensity conflict against people of color, and private security forces combined with the majestic architecture of business districts and wealthy neighborhoods created new levels of fear and alienation. With San Andreas, Rockstar made a bold alliance between two subversive cultures: video games and rap music. Departing from the stereotypically white protagonists of most pre-2004 games, the story favors CJ, a black member of the Grove Street gang. At the same time, characters in the game “perform roles according to popular myth […] Asians are suit-wearing triads, Italians are mobsters, and the people in the backwoods of San Andreas are skinny, slack jawed yokels,” as Tanner Higgin pointed out in his 2006 essay “Play-Fighting.” While it is undoubtedly subversive in many respects (the game explores the nuances of police corruption), it becomes homogenized through its devotion to stereotype.

But as with Vice City, the talk radio of Los Santos is filled with attacks on corporate sensibilities. On one station, Mike Andrew advertises his self-help book Rags are Riches by telling a caller, “Society doesn’t owe you anything! The government has better things to worry about. Like killing innocent people! You already have everything you need, so enjoy your life!” These elements of the game crucially have “double” articulations, being marketed as they are to multiple audience segments, although even this coded structure fails to cautiously generalize the talk show hosts’ remarks, who are typically clear-cut in their attacks on corporate capitalism.

Unlike the ambiguity of other radio segments — such as those related to celebratory gun culture, which at least have the potential for radical interpretations — the gameplay elements often fall short of this level of satire and typically revert to reactionary urban models. The “turf warfare” sections, in which CJ has to take over and defend significant patches of land, are some of the ways in which the game realizes existing dimensions of neoliberal cityscapes. After dismantling Officer Tenpenny and Big Smoke’s crack empire, The Truth (an aging “hippie”) tells CJ: “Far out, man. You know, I mean, you beat the system!” This is more than a little generous given that, for all his rebellious language and gritty cynicism, CJ’s saga can be summarized as the drawn-out overthrow of a crack dealer from his own neighborhood with the help of criminal capitalists. The game, then, appears to honor a particular form of individualism — although this may in large part be by dint of its single-player gameplay and not, for instance, its satirical talk radio stations and billboards.

A general picture begins to emerge here: games that focus on street crime inevitably deflect attention from the corridors of power, with drug deals distracting players from stock options. The way GTA is saturated with crime effectively normalizes it as the currency through which business, commercial, and family life operate. With a central message of the series being that “everything is permissible,” it gives players little reason to deem as reprehensible the way in which, for example, hedge fund managers and investment banks ran global economies into the ground by gaming the system. Like Bruce Wayne, CJ ignores the real levers of power — everyday politicians, bankers, and industrialists — and pursues cartoonish villains, petty criminals, and street thugs instead.

 

3. Ultra-postmodernism: I Love It?

Grand Theft Auto IV marked a stark shift in priorities and motivations for the series. Its plot concerned survival and existence rather than excessive wealth. The game is an intelligent, virtualized snapshot of class inequalities shaped by distinct experiences of migration: compare the protagonist Niko Bellic’s Eastern European background to that of Yusuf Amir, the property developer from the UAE who parties wildly with his “Arab money.”

When Niko attempts to visit Algonquin (Manhattan) early in the game, he is faced with a signature Rockstar barrier, with the bridge to the next island being closed (for gameplay and plot purposes). The reason given is that an unspecified terrorist threat may strike, and while the game cautiously provides no evidence of its existence, the commentators on Weasel News (a pun on Fox News, issuing “furry and balanced” reports) insist the bridge should stay closed to protect the land of liberty. When the city’s mayor attempts to reopen it, they respond by saying,

If he is foolish enough to reopen the bridges, he and the President should put out a clear ultimatum. If Liberty City is attacked the United States will respond in kind. We will throw darts at a map and bomb any country we hit, only stopping when we are satisfied. Arbitrary violence must be met with arbitrary violence.

The in-game cartoon series Republican Space Raiders serves a similar parodic purpose, equating the “War on Terror” with a series of relentless invasions on alien planets. After being welcomed with open arms by a friendly alien species, one of the Space Raiders asks, “What on God’s green earth is he saying?” A more senior member of the group replies, “I don’t know, sounds like some tai chi chu’an fandango transvestite bullshit.”

The most recent game in the series, Grand Theft Auto V, also adopts this disdain for what it calls, through one of its satirical energy bars, the “Ego Chaser,” with one in-game billboard advertising Bean Machine, a parody of Costa Coffee. “$8 for coffee, that’s a fair trade.” The player is told that “Democracy can suck my fatty” by a campaigner for marijuana legalization, with Rockstar being careful to criticize American culture from both the left and the right. Dennis Scimeca documented similar experiences for Salon when the game was first released:

I can visit the website for Taco Bomb, whose American owner is launching his “Mexican” restaurant in Mexico, thereby “proving you can market anything to anyone.” I can check the value of my shares in AnimalArk, a “national chain of all-natural pet food stores, because half the world is starving but Fido only eats organic.” I can buy a boat on docktease.com where the CEO writes “I started this business in 2008 to make luxury watercraft accessible to a broader spectrum of rich people.”

Sam Houser once explained that at Rockstar, “We take our games very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves very seriously. Because I think that’s a slippery slope for life. So we take the piss out of ourselves, and we take the piss out of anything we can think of. It’s sort of unilaterally offensive.” Perhaps on some level this is a justified approach to game development, but claiming not to take oneself seriously is quite often a cautious euphemism for apathy. Saints Row: The Third is probably the most drastic example of this wild, vibrant, crazy, but ultimately hollow philosophy. If Houser remains unaware of this, then his games will be left open to the possibility of falling into an old definition of irony: the song of a trapped bird protesting against its condition, all the while loving its cage.

Houser’s tactic of offend everyone may also lead to a situation in which the anti-corporate satire found in his games is effectively sanitized — the sound of its defiant and rebellious cries being drowned out by the heavy doses of sexism found in GTA V, for instance. The worlds of Vice City, San Andreas, and Liberty City lack any spaces of alternative, non-hierarchic societies, and any off-the-grid communities have been excluded from society either for their senseless beliefs (Phil Cassidy) or their hyperviolence (the Altruist Cult of Mount Chilead in GTA V), not for any genuine concern for the nation’s welfare. The series is clearly more intriguing and absorbing than the blatant war apologism and empire-building found in the Battlefield and Call of Duty games (for all their moving post-death quotations), or the Killzone and Crysis titles and others integral to what J.C. Herz called in his 1997 book Joystick Nation the “military entertainment complex,” with the former being particularly well-versed in portraying Middle Eastern countries as criminalized and primitive.

But while it never defended the “War on Terror” as noble or glorious, GTA ultimately sinks deep into its own irony and pessimism, while keeping real insights into imperial economics and politics at a safe distance.

 

4. Another Ark for Another Time

The Grand Theft Auto series provides sporadic allusions to the politics of black, Asian, and Latino communities in the United States, but only to undermine their radical potential. It presents no alternatives to its universal corruption. Perhaps this is asking too much from a parodic action-adventure game (Vaas from Far Cry 3 might call it “the definition of insanity”). But this is something the Fallout and BioShock games nevertheless achieve, going beyond mere cynicism into complex moral debate.

Bethesda’s 2008 Fallout 3, for instance, has been hailed for its magnificently dismal setting, striking art design, and gloomy sense of humor. Its political philosophy is harder to discern than its ominous deathclaws and mutant behemoths, but pausing the game every once in a while to reflect on the wasteland’s variety of power structures can make the intricate political implications of the game more clear. Ethics may appear to be in short supply when we see the player’s freedom to choose between disarming and detonating an atomic bomb in the town of Megaton. But as Matt Polen summarizes in a 2011 VentureBeat essay on the politics of the series, ultimately Fallout 3’s philosophy is “grim, cynical, and yet hopeful at the same time.”

Set in the post-apocalyptic zones of Washington, North Virginia, and Maryland, the protagonist is an anonymous survivor of the nuclear war backstory between “communist” China and “capitalist” America. As Bertrand Russell made clear in his later years, self-annihilation is the only likely option for a world divided by extremist ideologies. Rival factions, like the Enclave, the New California Republic, and the Brotherhood of Steel struggle for control over dwindling resources, whilst certain entrepreneurs like Allistair Tenpenny govern pockets of oases filled with pre-war indulgences. The game also associates nation states with internal corruption and violence. In the northeast corner of the Capital Wasteland lies the Republic of Dave, which the player learns upon arrival has declared itself a sovereign state and recently permitted elections, though only one presidential candidate exists, Dave, an ex-mercenary. School children are taught that Dave “never cried” as a baby, and is superior to all other inhabitants of the wasteland. The player is given the opportunity to tamper with the election box to make someone other than Dave become president. Substance addicts add a level of psychological depth with their musings on the wasteland’s apparent lack of purpose, with Jackson of the Point Lookout tribals claiming, “We are a family of dreamers, a band of astral explorers, and a church of the mind.” The player survives the wasteland by teaming up with one or another of these factions while exploring what remains of various shops and museums, with the ambient soundtrack, crisp graphics, and morose color palette yielding a potent sense of dread. More generally in the game-world, there is a persistent, underlying condemnation of those unwilling to embrace social and political evolution, with many who survived the nuclear holocaust reinstituting the rigid, hierarchical structures of the pre-war era. While it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Fallout 3’s depiction of human nature is disingenuously callous and pessimistic, the game’s gaudy post-war aesthetic encourages a suspicion of national self-adulation, with the plastic human models of its propaganda posters appearing entranced by the wonders of the “free market.”

Much like its predecessor, most of the narrative and gameplay content in 2010’s Fallout: New Vegas was found not in the game’s primary quest, in which the player acts as a courier for the major delivery company of the post-apocalyptic Mojave, but is rather found in helping the inhabitants of the wasteland and exploring its almost overwhelming number of distant locations. New Vegas repeatedly presents the player with choices between potential future outcomes of events, rather than the ability to purely analyze and explore the present. The spirit of the game is found not in rote objective-completion, but in “free roaming” and encountering the various divisive ethical dilemmas separating the factions and travelers of the Mojave Wasteland. As with the Grand Theft Auto and Elder Scrolls games, Fallout is founded on the idea that the player should be unrestricted in where they go, what they do, and with whom they decide to interact. The game teaches the senselessness of armed struggles and the importance of dynamism in social change.

The anarchist Colin Ward’s stress in Anarchy in Action that the very notion of an “anarchist society” is by definition too inflexible and rigid — implying as it does a fixed set of guidelines for social revolution — is particularly apt here: Moira Brown, a supply store owner in Megaton, likens the wasteland to broken glass. The inhabitants are frantically trying to assemble it back to the way it was before the apocalypse. Moira instead promotes assembling the broken pieces in creative and novel ways, creating “a mosaic.” This artistic structure is the only guide the people of the wasteland have to successfully direct them away from self-destruction and toward civilization; powerful imagery with wide-ranging implications.

Like Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic wilderness, the BioShock games are among the most morally complex titles in recent memory. As is well known, 2007’s BioShock’s underwater city of Rapture marked an important shift in virtual radicalism. Owned by the revered Andrew Ryan, Rapture is an experiment in unregulated capitalism, right-libertarianism, and Rand’s Objectivism, with the heralded genetic modifications and physical enhancements of Rapture leading its citizens to compete with and ultimately feast on each other. The corruption of society that results leads to the young girls of Rapture being “harvested” and turned into Little Sisters, who have precious ADAM injected into their stomachs, a substance used to develop character abilities in the game. Little Sisters are conditioned to search for ADAM, a form of psychological torment the player has the power to remove. The controversial ethical dilemma the player encounters when meeting a Little Sister — to save her or harvest her ADAM — is an appropriately horrific reflection of the wider societal effects of instituting a right-libertarian business culture, in which human life is sacrificed daily in the pursuit of self-enhancement. While the game doesn’t constitute the most sophisticated critique of Rand’s philosophy (it essentially amounts to “power corrupts”), by even introducing such notions it drew more critical attention than most first-person shooters to the existence of anti-capitalist ideologies. Departing from the narratives found in a large number of titles in the superhero and military genres, the failed “utopian” experiment of Rapture was crucially not the result of Stalinist or Maoist state planning, but rather of capitalist hubris.

BioShock’s juxtaposition of ultranationalist fervor and religious fundamentalism was carried over to its sequels, BioShock 2 and BioShock Infinite. Undeniably, the latter can stand eye-to-eye with Half-Life 2, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and Final Fantasy VII in its level of narrative accomplishment. What makes it somewhat distinct is its heavy emphasis on class inequality and the nature of organized religion. But unlike the first two games, Infinite starts out in the classic format of a hero rescuing a damsel from a tower, with the protagonist Booker DeWitt (an ex-Pinkerton who fought at Wounded Knee, adding an important level of historical awareness) being promised by mysterious figures to have his gambling debts wiped clean if he does so. What stands in his way is the leader of the floating city of Columbia, Zachary Comstock (self-labeled “The Prophet”), where the damsel Elizabeth has been held captive since childhood. The city was initially created to fly around the world promoting the “values” of its host nation, the United States, in a similar fashion to the Great Exhibitions of Victorian England and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. While he constructed statues and churches dedicated to the worship of the Founding Fathers, Comstock claimed with jingoistic passion that the other US states were not “American” enough for him. When Comstock eventually decided to cede from the US and control Columbia himself, a small division of Columbians from its Shanty Town known as the Vox Populi decided to rebel. Led by Daisy Fitzroy, dubiously condemned as an “anarchist” by Comstock’s supporters, the Vox are by no means pure and noble warriors. Instead, their visceral and relentless violence against the upper classes puts DeWitt in severe danger in the streets of Columbia, with Fitzroy’s Leninist rhetoric echoing in the background.

It is for this and many other reasons (like the leftist sympathies of the game’s creative director, Ken Levine) that Infinite is far from the attack on labor and the Occupy movements many critics have condemned it as being. Rather, it is a more thoughtful and subtle depiction of the religious and authoritarian mindsets in all their ugly manifestations. Like the division between the Imperial Legion and the Stormcloaks in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the clash between Comstock and the Vox Populi is ultimately one of conflicting tyrannies. One scene sees laborers competing for a job outside an arms factory, with the foreman happily looking on as they proceed to underbid each other for the time in which they can complete a job, with the notion that capitalist modes of production encourage workers to compete against, rather than cooperate with, one another being emphasized throughout the game.

Despite this, there are numerous ambiguities surrounding the moral dilemmas in the Fitzroy-Comstock conflict, which often feel limp, and created more for the aesthetic effect on the gamer (à la Resident Evil 4) than the need to stir their heart strings (à la Shadow of the Colossus). While Fitzroy does not fall so easily into the category “communist,” Burial at Sea – Episode Two, the 2014 expansion of Infinite, does an impressive job of explicating Ryan and Comstock’s version of it. When an older Elizabeth visits Rapture in the months before its downfall, she encounters Ryan the Lion Preparatory Academy where a video reel is played discussing Peter the Parasite, a communist who suffers from a “delusion” and engages in “property theft” according to a blackboard on which the academy’s children have scribbled. Another blackboard proclaims empathy to be “for weak people” and is “not a value” and “not a virtue.” The video’s narrator explains:

Hello, children. I’m Ryan the Lion. I’m here to tell you about Peter the Parasite. If I bake a pie, isn’t it mine to enjoy? “No,” says Peter the Parasite. “We all deserve a piece.” If I earn a nickel, isn’t it my right to buy candy if I see fit? “No,” says Peter the Parasite. “You must only buy fruits and vegetables.” If I can afford to see the doctor, is it my concern that others cannot? “No,” says that damnable Parasite. “We must all crowd our way into the physician’s office.”

Based on a loose and poetic interpretation of quantum mechanics and string theory, the plot eventually explores the nature of parallel universes, with DeWitt and Elizabeth jumping in and out of tears in space-time. Comstock, it is finally revealed, is the parallel version of DeWitt who decided to take baptism after the massacre in which he participated at Wounded Knee (with the protagonist being the version of himself who rejected the church, preferring to face his past with a sober, but ultimately corrupting, conscience), convincing himself his sins had been absolved and he had been guided into higher moral planes. This led to a level of conceited superiority he believed permitted him to continue his preferred lifestyle of an insane, racist crusade against non-Caucasians initiated during his Pinkerton years. In the game’s final moments, after passing through numerous tears, DeWitt realizes that the only way to prevent Comstock from being born is to allow himself to be drowned during his (or their) baptism.

The game’s gripping take on the notion of parallel universes (“There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man. There’s always a city,” Elizabeth tells DeWitt) also carefully exposes, like Spec Ops: The Line, the limits of player choice. For instance, early on in the game the player is granted the decision of choosing for Elizabeth a necklace with a symbol of either a bird or a cage on it. This ultimately has no gameplay or narrative repercussions, reminding the player that they in fact have no say in the content of the game, although they do crucially have a unique opportunity to experience it. The intricately anachronistic soundtrack — produced by certain Columbians diving into different dimensions to sample the sounds of the future — includes covers of Cyndi Lauper and the Beach Boys, informed as they are by the game’s 1912 setting.

But if there’s always another lighthouse, always another save point, always another “restart” button, why do games bother offering choice to players at all? The answer revolves around the nature of participation — a defining characteristic and strength of the medium. Replaying a section of Infinite may not alter the narrative, but simply being given the chance to ride along with it in such an engaging and emotionally resonant way makes the reality of Columbia’s racism and imperial power far more disturbing. It follows, as the episode with Elizabeth’s necklace demonstrates, that despite the futility of much of what passes for player (and, we might add, consumer) “choice” today, even the necessarily passive elements of video games can provoke debates over the nature of interaction, decision, and participation — in short, democracy.

With Infinite’s multiverse yielding an infinite number of possibilities for action, there is consequently no “hero” or “villain” in the conventional sense (your worst enemy could turn out to be yourself), and the game portrays no single, isolated ideologue as inherently immoral. Instead, it condemns those who blindly follow them without any sympathy for others. What saves Elizabeth from her tower and defends her from Columbia’s militants is not an ideological drive, but rather the emotional and empathetic core of her rescuer — something Comstock and Fitzroy never manage to grasp. The Splicers in Infinite’s first expansion, Burial at Sea – Episode One, also quote Mikhail Bakunin’s (poorly translated) claim that “the urge for destruction is a creative urge,” though use this maxim, like Fitzroy, in a purely self-serving way. In this manner, the nation state as represented by Comstock reflects the dangers the anarchist Gustav Landauer spoke of. “The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another.” When faced with the claim that this foundational institution of corporate capitalism can be overthrown by an anarchistic transformation, yielding different modes of social and economic relations, Infinite would appear to be in full agreement.

 

Conclusion

The radical politics of the small selection of video games surveyed here demonstrates the potential for, and the existing constraints on, interactive gaming that subverts, or offers alternatives to, contemporary neoliberal culture. While gameplay itself does not constitute the kind of resistance against corporate capitalism seen in mass demonstrations, sit-down strikes, and boycott, it nevertheless can, in its best iterations, encourage something these forms of activism also do: serious reflection. As Gonzalo Frasca put it in his 2003 essay “Simulation versus Narrative,” “the potential of games is not to tell a story but to simulate: to create an environment for experimentation.” The writer and blogger Richard Seymour stressed last year that “a form of leftist hyper activism can act as a type of passivity, insofar as it prevents one from having to address a real problem,” and so video games can yield a certain distance from everyday tactical decisions while both constituting and representing radical alternatives to neoliberal politics.

This final point is crucial: Many games surveyed here do not in themselves have the depth of exposition required to deliver the sort of counter-narrative seen in polemical essays or academic lectures, but they can nevertheless suggest a particular direction, as when the BioShock developers point the player in the direction of Bakunin. Video games are permeated with a mindful and lively sense of optimism about the possibility of change, both political and personal. It’s for this reason among many others that they will continue to be embraced in increasing numbers, exposing the contradictions and flaws of the modern world.

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Elliot Murphy is completing a PhD in neurolinguistics at University College London.



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