One of the popular memes causing certain members of the gaming community to shit the bed right now is the idea that political ideologies are being inserted into games by critics and journalists who are looking to push an agenda. It's a naive point of view, but I've found that just saying that to people doesn't make for a convincing argument. As an experiment, I'm going to explain how I reach that conclusion.
To begin: Understand that, in real life, there is no such thing as objective neutrality. Everything that everyone does, at all times and places, occurs within some kind of political context - even if you're stranded alone on a desert island, the absense of society still contributes towards this context. You can assume you will not be arrested for scrumping the odd coconut, for example.
When people say they have a 'neutral' political stance, what that usually means is that they've adopted a centrist position within their particular political environment. It's a kind of local neutrality, perhaps, but not a true global neutrality; a position between two, more extreme camps, not an absense of position. People who believe they have no political ideology are in fact so fully immersed in their ideological environment that they don't even realise it's there - the defining features of their political views seem so obvious to them that they assume they are some kind of natural standard. To reiterate: There are no natural standards.
There's a great clip from Slavoj Žižek's The Pervert's Guide to Ideology on this exact subject. And bear with me if you're already feeling turned off by all this talk of politics - it features Roddy Piper and Keith David having a punch-up in an alley, a beautiful metaphor for the current state of public 'debate' about games criticism. (Seriously though, I love this film, and apparently it's on Netflix if you're one of those people??)
Historically, videogames have usually been produced to serve as commercial entertainment products. This is the bulk of the games industry - games are developed, sold, played, and then eventually shelved and replaced with a new game. In the developed world, this generally takes place within a liberal free market setting in which free speech is protected, and so on, and so on. This is (a quick sketch of) the political context in which most big games are made and sold. There are alternatives, but we'll get to that later.
Many consumers (in the western, English-speaking gaming community, at least - the one I spend most of my time in) seem to accept this political context as being such a given thing that they don't acknowledge its influence. People are aware that this capitalist ideology exists - how many times have you read some forum bore trying to drone out criticism of a game with arguments like "But they make the game that way to suit the audience!" - but they accept it so unquestioningly that they consider it politically neutral.
Games are developed, sold, and consumed within political contexts. Sometimes these don't all align - consider cases of piracy, creative hacks like Mario Battle No. 1, or people selling copies of freeware games - but there's always something there. You cannot develop, distribute, or play a game in a vacuum, outside of the political environment in which you live. Making a game is a political act; playing a game is a political act.
Politics are not inserted into games by critics, but are in fact an integral part of the design process. I think this kind of tweetable summary is the point where most people would start to have doubts, so we're going to drill down on two examples and make stunningly obvious observations about how their political context has influenced their design. Exciting stuff, right?!
Battlefield 4 is a big-budget commercial game developed in Sweden by DICE (in collaboration with other businesses around the world), and published by EA. It exists to make money and, consequently, raise stock value. There are some other motivations behind its creation - 'tech demo for the Frostbite engine' springs to mind, and if you keep working your way down the list you'd eventually reach some sincere artistic intention - but first and foremost it is tentpole product which drives profits. How do politics influence its design?
- Sweden's liberal free market economic context means (in short) that people need salaried jobs to pay rent and taxes, buy food, and so on. Recruiting these people to work on a game requires that you pay them - you can't just draft a hundred programmers and artists to work on your personal project for free. It costs a lot of money to hire enough people to make a game as polished as Battlefield 4 ($100 million, apparently), which means only an organisation with a large amount of money to begin with (such as EA) can afford to do it. Without passing any moral judgements, this is an obvious barrier to entry - only a large corporation like EA could afford the development and marketing budgets afforded to Battlefield 4. That whole section of the market - your Grand Theft Autos, your Battlefields, your Call of Dutys - are an exclusive members-only club for well-funded developers.
- Related to that, the only reason EA would spend all that money would be if they expected to make a great profit from the game (otherwise they'd lose money, weaken their position within the market, and most likely lose stock value). The development of a game as expensive as Battlefield 4 fully relies on (EA's reading of) market conditions - they would not make a game like this if they did not believe the audience exists.
- The plot of Battlefield 4's singleplayer campaign is (firstly: terrible, secondly: irrelevant to the play experience, but thirdly:) about a squad of brave American soldiers defending truth, justice, and the American way. I actually played through the game just a couple of weeks ago, and I still couldn't follow it... some rogue Chinese general was trying to start a war with the US in order to force some kind of military coup in Beijing? There were some Russians involved, somehow? I understood what I was doing, but I had no idea why any of it was happening - there was no real sense of the narrative extending beyond the limits of the game itself. Assuming the general's plan succeeded and he took control of the Chinese government, he would immediately have to deal with World War III kicking off as a result of his actions - are we to believe he thinks it's worth that hassle? And when you kill the guy and put an end to his plans - which have already sparked airstrikes and ground battles between the global superpowers in public arenas like Singapore - the game seems to imply that the whole conflict just comes to an immediate halt? Really? Really! And I suppose the UN declares it an official 'lost weekend' and everyone just shrugs off the thousands of military and civilian deaths? Anyway, the crux of the matter is that good, honest GIs save the world from devious foreign aggression. Again, not to make any moral judgements, but it's clear that a story like this is primarily written to appeal to a target audience of Americans and Europeans, and the political content of the story reflects the prevailant sentiment of these regions - you don't play as a rogue soldier trying to leak information about systematic human rights abuses within the military, for example, because military criticism (no matter how valid) is often considered distasteful and 'unpatriotic' in many of these countries.
- In broader terms: The whole premise of the game as a military fantasy, in which players pretend to be soldiers and run around fighting in wars, relies on certain prevailing attitudes towards war. There is no real possibility space within the game to negotiate a ceasefire. There is no representation of pacifist ideology, or at least Swiss-style 'neutrality', because that would water down the shooty-man experience and - ultimately - risk lowering sales. The game is designed for an audience who are satisfied with, at least, the concept of fighting in a war. The games industry certainly contributes to this culture, but it did not create it.
- Battlefield 4's DLC release schedule is much longer and more detailed than most games, with a steady drip of minor content (eg. customisation options) coming every week, and packs of new multiplayer maps (which are the real meat) being released every two months or so. The content of these expansion packs continues in much the same vein as the rest of the game, but the timing of their release is another expression of the game's capitalist conception - metrics show that a significant proportion of gamers sell their games on the secondary market (ie. eBay, trade-ins, etc) after about a month, which devalues the product in the primary market (ie. buying new copies from retail, digital services, etc). It has become standard practice among AAA game developers - which you can implicitly interpret as "developers who can afford it" - to announce DLC release dates before the main game comes out, as a way of persuading players to at least hold onto their copies of the game for a few more weeks. A crystal clear example of this in action is Battlefield 4's China Rising DLC, which was released about two months after launch but given free to anyone who pre-ordered the game. This incentivises players to both pre-order the game (ensuring strong Day 1 sales and generating free marketing buzz around the number of copies sold) and keep hold of it for at least two months in order to access their free bonus content, which stalls second hand sales, encouraging more primary sales, etc, etc. I'm starting to flog a dead horse here, but it's important to understand this: The release schedule for Battlefield 4's expansions, the resource investment being put into developing each of those expansions, and so on, are all determined as a direct result of DICE/EA's profit-maximising capitalist ideology.
- Seriously, those shortcut kits. For those who don't play Battlefield: The different player classes in the game come with a huge list of unlockable weapons and equipment which slowly become available to the player as they play more games and earn experience and level up. However, EA/DICE have released some premium puchase items which unlock all of this stuff immediately, for pretty much the same cost as a whole new game. I'm not going to try and second-guess the intentions of the designers, but it should be obvious that a profit-maximising company has, at least, an incentive to make this unlock chain longer and more boring, to try and nudge players towards shelling out money to skip the grind.
I could go on.
All of this stuff really just boils down to "EA are a large company trying to succeed in a capitalist system". I think the obviousness of this statement is the main reason why nobody stops to question what effect it has on games - it's often considered normal, neutral, a pre-requisite even.
The production and consumption of Battlefield 4 are acts which endorse and reinforce the capitalist system's status quo. I'm not inserting capitalist ideology into Battlefield 4; I'm not saying the narrative of the game is about supporting capitalism (although it is, but that's another story); I'm just pointing out that the political context in which Battlefield 4 was created (and distributed, and consumed, and so on)has such an integral influence on the game's design that you cannot separate it out.
HUGPUNX by merritt kopas is a game somewhat different from Battlefield 4 in both its aims and execution. Described by its creator as "a fluoro-pink queer urban hugging simulator", the player runs up and down a street dishing out free hugs to strangers until the world blurs together in a pink swirl of people and flowers and cats. Its primary inspirations are the game PUNKSNOTDEAD by mooosh, and the manifesto Towards A Cutie Aesthetic by Aevee Bee (worth reading for more observations on 'neutrality' in game design).
- merritt is a multimedia artist and scholar who writes, speaks, and makes games about the intersections between play, bodies, sex, and violence. HUGPUNX is a non-commercial work; it costs no money, it seeks no particular audience; it exists to provide an experience, with the intention of conveying a certain feeling. It is, essentially, a digital public artwork, in direct opposition to the principles of capitalism.
- Having said that... we can't ignore the fact that merritt, like DICE/EA, operates in a liberal free market economy. HUGPUNX may be freeware, but merritt's production process still requires her to pay rent and buy food and generally sustain herself. At the time of HUGPUNX's development she supported herself by teaching at the University of Washington, while working on a graduate degree. The constraints of time and finance that come from being a lone developer working a day job mean that merritt has far fewer resources with which to make games, compared to EA. HUGPUNX's visual design is a deliberate reference to PUNKSNOTDEAD, but also of significance is that it fits well within merritt's operational scope - its complexity is directly bound by the limits of her economic situation. It would be practically impossible for a single developer to reimagine a game like Bulletstorm through the same process.
- HUGPUNX replicates PUNKSNOTDEAD's visual style, but replaces the shuddering punk soundtrack with a cute song about cuddling. The player is tasked with hugging strangers instead of beating them to death; notably, the colour green now signifies a consentful opportunity instead of an imminent threat. There's an interesting observation here: HUGPUNX overtly copies PUNKSNOTDEAD's aesthetic while changing its underlying message for (anticapitalist) artistic purposes, while the Battlefield and Call of Duty series share the same underlying message (for fear of alienating their shared audience) but maintain aesthetic differences (due to capitalist legal requirements).
- As a graduate student, and a participatory member of a growing community of artists and academics who explore queer themes in games, merritt clearly spends a lot of time engaging with and responding to the substantive content of other people's work. The scholarly motivation to contribute to society's shared cultural capital (and, depending on how cynical you are, to develop one's own social capital within the community) is, I imagine, a great influence on her working practices. The tendency for artist (and academic) communities to relate to each other's work in terms of its substantive content should be contrasted against capitalist developers' tendency to relate to each others' work purely in terms of profitability (eg. compare Terry Cavanagh's free homagewareMaverick Bird to the plethora of Flappy Bird clones released onto the app store to try and take a slice of its revenue).
It's important to understand that merritt's anticapitalist sentiments did not just spontaneously condense in her mind, but have developed in a social context including the punk and queer communities, left-leaning academia, and so on. Her motivations for developing games outside of the capitalist framework are not a direct reaction to capitalism in itself; they are influenced by decades of political theory that have shaped anti-establishment subcultures in North America since the 60's (and beyond?!) After all, nobody would oppose their society's status quo unless they had first identified what it was, and found a motivation to go against it.
These are just two examples I've picked because they make for a simple (but stark) comparison. If you examined other games in detail, you would start to see trends emerging along different socio-cultural axes. One thing that comes straight to mind is the difference in attitudes towards gambling mechanics between Asia and America - the way free to play games in the US make most of their money from steady, predictable microtransactions like paying for currencies, while in Asia they tend to make more money from chance-based reward systems like the kompu gacha mechanic (which was so successful the Japanese government made it illegal). This is not a coincidental alignment of design whims, but a trend that emerges from deep cultural differences regarding gambling that can be traced back for hundreds of years.
Other particular games that stand out as interesting case studies include Tetris (developed in a Soviet computer research lab and monetised in the capitalist west, but not without years of legal disputes over ownership rights in communist Russia) and the Kuma War games (military FPS titles not unlike Battlefield 4, but with missions explicitly inspired by real events like the fatal raid on Osama bin Laden's compound - broadly speaking, the same pro-military message as Battlefield, but without dressing it up as harmless fantasy). But again, I stress: You could look at any game and trace clear political influences, motivations and causality back to the political context in which it was produced and consumed.
Another quick point I'd like to make: Related to the "leave politics out of games!" argument is the "stop telling developers what to put in their games!" sentiment. It's funny! Some people think that the creative vision of the game designer is sacrosanct, and must be defended from outside influences like feedback from critics. Anybody who's worked in games knows that the designer's creative vision is just one of many influences on a game's content, and since we've been talking so much about capitalism I think it's worth highlighting that factor.
Let's say it again: Commercial videogames exist to make a profit. This is more fundamental to their creation than any kind of artistic vision - it's great to make a game like Shenmue, but if you can't do it profitably then your team will moved onto other projects (or fired) and your players will be left waiting indefinitely for the story's conclusion. Some key members of the team must be responsible for maintaining different aspects of profitability. This could be a product manager trying to raise microtransaction revenue, a producer fighting to cut an unfinished level in order to hit the release date, or a marketer trying to change a character's appearance to appeal to their target demographic; these are just some common examples. All these voices and motivations compete with 'creative vision' when making design decisions as a natural result of the capitalist production process.
The irony of telling a critic to "stop telling designers what to put in their game" is that players are constantly telling designers what to put in their game. That is precisely what the free market does! Nobody pumps $100 million into developing a game unless they are damn sure it's what people want to play.
I've focused on economics here because it's a topic I'm quite intimately familiar with, but it's equally valid to examine class, race, gender, subcultures (eg. the difference between doujin and indie communities), and other social factors that affect how people relate to one another. Also, it's important to remember that you don't have to agree with an analysis to accept the validity of making it. Even if you resolutely disagree with Anita Sarkeesian, for example, you should be engaging with her points in the context of criticism - look for gender theorists whose work points to different conclusions, and try applying their ideas to games criticism. To argue that critics shouldn't analyse games at all is to live in denial - games are a part of mainstream culture, and it is their inevitable fate to be elevated into the same clusterfuck of academic in-fighting as everything else. Don't worry, it's a good thing - it's a step towards more theory-led auteurs like Kojima and Tarantino, if that helps calm your nerves.
A lot of people don't have the energy to interrogate their political environment, and don't really want to (which is, you know, a large reason why these self-reinforcing power structures evolve, but never mind). It's okay! It's fine. You don't have to doggedly ask yourself what Mario Kart says about our conflated concepts of 'celebrity' and 'success' (yeah, I'm sure every single business we see advertised around the tracks happens to be figureheaded by a well-known character from the franchise). You're allowed to just sit back and enjoy playing games and abdicate responsibility for the effects of your actions. Society will still accept you.
All I'd like you to take away from this is that these political influences are in there, and they're worthy of study. If you don't want to think about this stuff, that's okay! But you should come to terms with the fact that other people will, because it's going to happen a lot more in future.