Is The Recession The Next Big Video Game Bad Guy?

Is The Recession The Next Big Video Game Bad Guy?

Would you shoot someone responsible for America’s horrible housing market? Would you like to? What if you met his wife and kid first?

How did we get here, and where are we going? What happens when the 99 per cent rise up, and more to the point, how happy will you be to play a video game that casts you as one of them? Or what if you’re playing as a police officer, an enforcer of the status quo?

The recent economic recession and its fallout looms over most everything these days, and video games are starting to reflect that. From GTA V to the newest Rainbow 6, it’s looking as though amid the zombies, aliens, cops and foreign soldiers we’ll be fighting, it’s the economy that will be the next big video game bad guy.

Given the time it takes to make a modern video game (generally a year at the fastest, and often two or three), it makes sense that big-budget AAA games would be a little bit behind the curve when it comes to tackling relevant social topics. It wasn’t until several years after 9/11 that we started seeing games referencing the “war on terror”, placing Homeland Security and FEMA centre stage, and sometimes openly referencing the attacks on the World Trade Center. (I should note that in this post, I’m discussing AAA games, not faster-to-make newsgames, though I don’t doubt there are plenty of those that deal with the economy already.)

Big-budget game makers are often skittish about approaching topical material. Hot-button issues don’t guarantee sales, and often they’re more trouble than they’re worth. Take, for example, the saga of Atomic Games’ Six Days in Fallujah, a documentary-style war game that attempted to show aspects of the grisly human costs of the war in Iraq only to be dropped by its publisher and never see the light of day. Or, look at the foofaraw that erupted just last year over Medal of Honor naming one of its multiplayer teams “The Talaban”, only to back off at the last minute and rename them “Opposing Force”. Whether it’s due to games’ spotty history with controversial material, their interactive nature, or their presumed audience, topical AAA games can be a tough sell.

In the first trailer for Rockstar’s just-announced Grand Theft Auto V, (among all the other things we noticed), we saw several signs of economic woes and general down-and-outness. An encampment of homeless people under an overpass, a guy begging for beer money on the street.


The most recent Grand Theft Auto, 2008’s GTA IV, was an at-times scathingly topical game. Between the right-wing blabbermouths on “Weasel News”, the constant looming threat of terrorism, and the internet-addled populace of Liberty City, I’d even go so far as to call it the most effective video game rendition of “America ca. 2007” anyone will ever make.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Rockstar capture the new American zeitgeist, four years later. And while it’s likely that while the nation’s economic woes will provide a backdrop for GTA V, it wouldn’t surprise me to see it play a more integral role in the storytelling, as well. I can easily imagine the economy factoring into the protagonist’s return to a life of crime, or a storyline revolving around helping out a homeless former banker, or a story about taking down a corrupt financial institution, or even a few missions poking fun at the Occupy movement.

In Take-Two’s earnings call today, a spokesman described GTA V as a story of the “pursuit of the almighty dollar”. For any other game, that would just sound like vague marketing language, but Rockstar tends to choose their words more carefully that most. GTA IV was described time and again as a story of the “pursuit of the American dream”, and the finished game very emphatically focused on that theme. Hearing GTA V described as a story focused on the pursuit of money makes me think that the American economy will be front and centre.


Kaos studio’s Homefront dealt with the economy in its own twisted, interesting way. In the game’s fiction (written by Apocalypse now co-author John Milius), America has lost its world standing due to economic imbalance and a shortage of oil, and as a result has become susceptible to foreign invasion. The main character is cast as an insurgent, the very same sort of “freedom fighter” that other war games label as terrorists. The game was a bit of a flop, but it’s heartening to hear that acclaimed developer Crytek has assumed the reins of the franchise. Kaos was playing with some very compelling stuff: What makes an insurgent? What drives us to acts of terrorism? What does it mean to truly have nothing to lose? One can’t help but hope that Crytek will explore those questions further.

What will we do when pitted against an enemy with whose cause we may sympathize?

Terrorists make for effective cannon fodder in games, but as villains, they can be difficult to write. One of the easiest ways to give a character or group of characters depth is by adding backstory–you know, “why did the chicken cross the road?” But with terrorists, it’s a bit more difficult to write motivation. For various reasons, religious beliefs are generally off the table with big-budget games, so most video game terrorist groups are motivated by some sort of vague anger at America and the West for imperialistic tendencies. And most if not all modern-day military shooters are perfectly content to avoid these sorts of questions entirely, often by putting some sort of Bond-ian villain behind it all. How many games have crudely taped a megalomaniacal mastermind and an army of “Russian Ultranationalists” onto their story in an attempt to give Western gamers a more palatable enemy to kill?

Ubisoft’s just-announced Rainbow 6: Patriots also features terrorists, but with a recession-flavored twist: they’re fuelled by rage at the nation’s economic elite and have risen up and begun destroying national landmarks. At the start of a new video of prototype gameplay, a man and his family are taken hostage by terrorists who tell him, “You really did cash in on everyone else getting foreclosed, didn’t you? Today you’re going to make up for that.”

In the game itself, players will be controlling law enforcers facing an armed uprising. It echoes real life in ways that may be uncomfortable to acknowledge — what will we do when pitted against an enemy with whose cause we may sympathise? As I imagine a law-enforcement or SWAT video game based on the recent Occupy Oakland protests, I have to wonder: would players be cast as beleaguered public servants trying to do their best or the jackbooted thugs who violently put down dissent?

Economic anger feels intense and relatable, and it can make games more believable, complex and scary. It remains to be seen whether economic issues will merely be the latest window dressing for video game carnage, or whether some developers and writers will choose to go deeper.

I find myself expecting a lot of the former, but also hoping for at least a little bit of the latter. The recession is here, and whether our on-screen characters are fighting around it, against it, or because of it, it’s not going away anytime soon.


  • It was america’s own hubris that caused their housing crisis. They borrowed more than they could repay properly and banks needed their money back, people couldn’t pay. So if your asking me if I want to go around shooting all the Americans I’d have to say: I’m not sure.

    • You speak of America as if it is a collective hivemind. A very, very small percentage of people caused this catastrophe. A very small percentage knew what they were gambling with, the rest did not. Its not as if there were regular national meetings where everyone decided this was a good thing to do. If you go to a bank, ask for a loan, and they assess you as fit for a loan, would you question whether the bank knew what they were doing? Are you going to second-guess the approval for loan to buy your own house? No, that’s why you’re a customer and not a financial worker yourself.

      • If you’re asking for %130 percent of the house amount, and you have no deposit or an income that will pay such a loan… then you damn well should be asking if your bank should be giving you a loan you cannot afford.

        • I still see that as the function of a bank. Why is it the customer’s fault if the bank is too stupid to see that these people shouldn’t be given that kind of money? Should I ask each time I buy something at the store if there is enough margin in the price I’m paying to keep the shop in business?

          Its not the fault of the customer if the service provider/retailer/bank whatever is reckless with their business practices. Regular average people all want houses, they’re going to take a loan to buy one if they can. (Replace houses and loan with whatever you prefer to use as an example.)

          • Because it’s not buying something… it’s borrowing it with the expectation that you will pay it back.

            It’s endemic of the ‘no fault’ system. People should be responsible for their finances, and if they cannot afford something then they shouldn’t be thinking that because someone else was stupid enough to lend it to them everyting is fine.
            It is a failing of both parties and the lack of personal accountability is discraceful.

          • +1

            I wish Kotaku had a rating system. i guess we all would need to register an account if that was the case though 🙂

          • Exactly right. There is a lot of blame to be parcelled out for this economic debacle and it’s not all at the high end of town.

      • And it’s the majority that sit by and let it happen.

        Inaction is the most dangerous thing in this world, I won’t have sympathy for you when you watch your leaders rape your country and refuse to do anything about it.

  • Interestingly enough, though short with pissweak gameplay, I felt Homefront tackled the storyline aspect well… in a blink and you’ll miss it kinda way. I look forward to what the next few games will bring, especially GTA V and Rainbow 6 : Patriots 😀

    • I enjoyed most of Homefront, though a couple of bits were just stupid. Like when you’re going through the survivalist camp and your team mates tell you to climb up to the top of the church to snipe for them… they just leave you there to deal with a church full of enemies? wtf? Thanks for that guys. You couldn’t have gone inside with me first to clear it? Ugh… that sort of “gameplay over atmosphere of the game world” writing really ruins it for me.

  • Tezz shows why this sort of game may or may not be palatable in Australia. The average attitude towards the occupy movements and economic crisis here is quite immature. While most academics who speak on the subject for example of the European bailout point out quite seriously that democracy in Greece has been killed by the EU and IMF just recently our leaders and commentators repeatedly refer to the people trying to fight this as holding back progress. Most don’t even realise that our debt levels are actually comparable to the USA’s and since the GFC, in order to fuel another wave of growth many of the same ‘reforms’ to blame for their housing bubble have been proposed or implemented here. Of course, many will read that as me saying that the Labor government has spent too much money on ‘socialism’ again highlighting exactly how poor the understanding of economics is here. It’s not public debt that was to blame in the USA, but private debt, which the banks hoarded. We currently owe the same as our annual economic turn over and that’s a hole I don’t think any nation has escaped without recession, and all the beauracrats are doing is handing the government shovels. The problem here; the 1%’s voice hasn’t been deafened yet by foreclosures and/or austerity measures. So if you try to get Australian’s to be sympathetic to economic rebels or protestors they will probably just tell them to get a job and walk away from the game, while if you portray them as ‘terrorists’ like Ubisoft Montreal they will probably just nod solemnly and agree.

  • Oh and great article! I think this stuff will be the flavour of the decade outside ‘the lucky country’. Can’t wait to see some games that tackle this stuff with intellectual zeal. Games are becoming mature enough to really have an impact now and plenty of developers (including decision makers) can be comfortably included within the 99%!

      • Probably not, but you can bet they’ll lampoon it brilliantly like everything else they do. The 1% shit is topical so you’ll find it in everything. In Time was pretty heavy-handed too.

  • Like any suitably advanced artform the narratives will grow with the culture.
    Same could be said about modern art, literature, stage performance. The recession is a defining touchstone of this decade.

    • I agree, there’s a couple of writers that I’ll read even if I’m not into the subject matter and Kirk’s definitely one of ’em.

  • I’m glad I’m not the only one who noticed that the “bad guys” in the new Rainbow 6 guys are rather easy to sympathise with… I hope they actually work that into the story and don’t pretend that they’re nazi-evil.

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