There's No Such Thing As A Game Without Politics Or An Agenda

Things get complicated when the real world seeps into games. Some players don't like it, because it ruins the whole ‘escapism' thing. And developers can come under fire for inserting agendas or politics that players don't agree with. Here's the thing though: there's no such thing as an apolitical game and thinking otherwise can be dangerous.

Yesterday I sat down with the new SimCity, where always-online play means that Maxis can watch how you play. That's not new; developers like accruing player information to access the efficacy of the game design and to refine future titles. What's interesting about this is that Maxis will be looking at global player trends in order to create special challenges for players. Asking about this further, I found out that these challenges will also be created to mirror real-life scenarios, and tackle real-world issues.

On cue, the Maxis PR representatives clarified that there's no underlying agenda or political stance that SimCity will push on players. There are only player-determined approaches to problems, and Maxis will try its best to present balanced options. That's noble, but not realistic or possible.

The thing about games is that they're abstractions of actual things. To code something, to include something at all in a game is to define how it works. Maybe that seems obvious, but there are implications that come with how systems in games are defined -- particularly so for simulation games, which aim to define society. There is no mechanic or system out there that does not carry politics with it: it's just a matter how how visible those politics or agendas are.

Think, for instance, of player creation in any game. Look at the options. Are there women? What race or gender does the creation screen default to? How many options are there for people of colour -- be it skin tone, or hair type? What kind of dialects are available in the voicing options? Do the choices have race-specific abilities that make some characters innately better than others at certain things?

Depending on what's included or shown, we can gleam the developer's stances about race and gender, amongst other things. Maybe they don't feel a race or gender is important enough to include, for example -- typically, there will be excuses surrounding time and tech, but these are flimsy when you take a look at the superfluous things a developer does decide to include instead. Or maybe there's the uncomfortable implication that Caucasians are, as far as the game is concerned, actually more important than other races -- and that's why there's more options for them.

Every single one of these things carries politics with it: and we're not even in the hypothetical game proper yet. Nothing explicit had to be said, and worst of all, it's almost invisible if you don't stop and think about it. I'd go so far as to say it's worse than not outright forcing a stance on players because it's insidious.

Nothing explicit had to be said, and worst of all, it's almost invisible if you don't stop and think about it. I'd go so far as to say it's worse than not outright forcing a stance on players because it's insidious.

With SimCity, the way these politics manifest themselves in the challenges could be interesting. What will the win-states be for a challenge? That carries politics with it. How is the challenge based on a real-world scenario even framed? I think, for instance, of this famous scenario on the original SimCity. The game came with preset scenarios, one of which was based on Detroit (named "snro.666" in the code - another thing in games that carries politics invisibly is the naming, as we've learned from Techland's Dead Island fiasco). As Play The Past details, there's crucial elements missing from how EA frames the scenario:

"By 1970, competition from overseas and other economic factors pushed the once "automobile capital of the world" into recession. Plummeting land values and unemployment then increased crime in the inner-city to chronic levels.

You have 10 years to reduce crime and rebuild the industrial base of the city."

Where are race and class, two of the crucial aspects in that situation? Not even present in the game code, that's where. That hasn't changed in the new SimCity.

I say this not to skewer Maxis, but to posit the idea that there are always powerful socio-economic factors at play that may be absent in a simulation. This is important to realise as we continue to push for games' potential to serve as a positive educational tool -- developers must strive to be cognisant of what they include, and what it implies.

To be sure, I ask for this because of my own personal agenda -- which aims to be more inclusive and progressive -- but there's a tangible benefit for the gameplay, too. Taking into consideration aspects of a scenario that are tricky, like race, can make for simulations that are richer and more complex. Hopefully, that can create a simulation that better mimics the situation at hand.

Should SimCity take a particular stand? I don't think there was ever a choice.


    There’s No Such Thing As A Game Without Politics Or An Agenda?
    Don't you mean: Politics and an Agenda can be gleamed from some games?

    So... can somebody please explain the underlying political agenda of Tetris? Super Mario Bros? Journey?

      Tetris is easy to work out the political agenda. It was the Soviet's secret weapon to try and get back into the arms race with America after it fell into economic trouble.

      Super Mario Bros is a anti-union, pro-monarchy statement about how independent contractors are the building blocks of a successful society.

      Journey is about our reliance on other people, even if we do not know or understand them. At it's heart, it is an anti-war game trying to trick us into letting our guard fall against our enemies.

        Ok smartguy, how about Pong? :P

          The eternal conflict of humanity where there will always be two sides and it doesn't matter how many points they manage to score or what harm they inflict upon the other, there will never be an end.

          War is pointless but inevitable. That is the message of Pong.

            Top form you two, gave me quite a laugh =)

          Pong - Highlighted how the system works by exploiting the workers. By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society and that supreme executive power should derive from a mandate from the masses.

            I don't think so. There's a distinct lack of farcical aquatic ceremonies in Pong.

            If it had some watery bint lobbing scimitars at people, I'd be making the same argument as you.

      Dose not have to be a poltical one. You could say that Tertris supports netness, as if you don't netly put everything in place, you can quickly loss control.

      Super Mario, or mario in genral, is that no matter what, good beats evil, even tho in the real world, this is completly wrong.

      As for journey, don't know, as I have not played it.

    Players dont like being preached too or told what to think. One of the things which bothered me with games such as Deus Ex HR was it's real-life reference to political issues. While it can work, and i know they tried to show issues from several points of views, i think a lot of conservative players (such as myself) really felt alienated. It felt like the game was telling us to hate large corporations, government helps the rich - forgets about the poor, global warming must be stopped, police are brutal towards citizens etc etc.
    Maybe the developers didnt mean that, but thats how i interpreted it.

      Well the other side of the political coin is pretty well represented in almost every other game, so maybe a bit of balance isn't the end of the world.

      Must be really tough for you to live in a world where you're forced to confront media that ask you to reflect upon your views. I mean, JEEZ, if I have to start thinking about why I believe what I believe, what's next? GAYS MARRYING EACH OTHER?!

      Sorry if that's a bit overzealous. Lot of political rage on twitter today.

    Came in here looking for Will Wright dialogue, left dissapointed.

    So the CFMEU and Grocon could resolve their conflict if they followed TF2's agenda on reshaping industrial workplace relations?

    If you chaps could get over the title, it's a bloody good article and makes excellent points.

    Say you were making a competitive game, and through a random process, the colours of the opposing sides were black and white? Even if you decided to not randomise it again, the implication occurs to you.

    It's interesting stuff, and everyone does it; just one the things about the sub-conscious.

      It's actually a pretty average article, at best, and the title is horrible; it's on it's own level of bad and immediately invites criticism to the detriment of the point trying to be made.

      If nothing else, it can be argued that every game is designed to be played, and therefore has an "agenda" to keep you playing (Global Thermonuclear War is a strange game, and the exception to this broad generalisation).

      Truisms, absolutes and moot points make for a very poor discussion.

      Chess is a competitive game and the two sides are (often) black and white. That doesn't mean there's some kind of racial / political agenda at work. It just means they need two contrasting colours.

    Oh yes, Anno 1701 is a frigging brilliant game. But they left out Slavery. A game based on running economies in a New World type setting, and there's no slavery.

    Anno 1404 deals with the subject of religion/crusades to an acceptable point (as well as the games generally containing good historical reference to faith in general). There were some over-the-top and under-played elements, but overall I was very pleased with their balance of gameplay, fiction and history.

    "Where are race and class, two of the crucial aspects in that situation?"

    If they included these things there would be 10 fold the number of articles condemning them for including it than there would be complaining that they didn't. It's not worth it, because the bloody internet can't view an issue that's vaguely related to them on a personal level without getting wildly excited / offended / disappointed and acting on these most base thought processes in an immature, often furious, way.

      Also, does the writer remember the power and memory constraints of computer games when Sim City came out? It couldn't reasonably pretend to model any number of crucial aspects of a real city's economics and social dynamics. It had a crude measure of land value (based on the value of nearby property, proximity to amenities, traffic, crime and pollution) and a flat tax rate, and that was all.

      I don't disagree with the premise of the article, but using the original Sim City and its Detroit scenario as an example is pretty lame. If you wanted to talk about political agendas in Sim City consider whether it was pro or anti-nuclear power (I think it did a very balanced job there, actually). It was certainly anti-pollution (but is anyone pro-pollution?).

        I must admit that I personally never even have played simcity..
        But my girl friend is right now. And when she had her second nuclear meltdown in not very much playing I kinda reacted!
        Here I could go on with arguments on how safe nuclear power is in reality, but I'll just present the facts the scientific journal illustrerad vetenskap (Swedish scientific journal) presented.
        It's the same risk to smoke half a cigarette, or take a bicycle ride for half an hour that it is to live neighbor with a nuclear power plant in 300 years

        I don't say that nuclear power is the perfect power source, just that it's the best we got right now!

    For someone who purports to be a journalist your command of the English language is egregiously poor. Doesn't help that you're talking crap either.

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