We talk a lot about politics in games. We’re not of the opinion that anything can be truly apolitical; people create games, and people have beliefs and ideologies that inform what they create. This often causes friction, as sometimes a game we enjoy may rub up uncomfortably against our own beliefs, or a game may attempt itself to brand itself as apolitical when it’s clearly anything but.
But some games embrace politics, leaning hard into exploring a tricky idea, a creator’s identity, or other elements that encourage the player to think more deeply about whatever issue the game is tackling. The Sidequest crew sat down to talk about what these games are doing well, and how games that play with politics can be both interesting and fun.
Do you seek out political games? Are there any creators you regularly turn to?
Melissa Brinks: I do! One of the things that most interests me about games is the way that interacting with them, pushing against the boundaries, and experiencing them on our own terms is pretty unique to the medium. Because of that, I find games that wear their politics on their sleeves—such as Molleindustria’s work, Orwell, or Papers, Please—particularly interesting. I like seeing how these developers get the point across by using play, particularly because they’re so often deadly serious while also being fun and interesting. I remember playing McVideogame when I was in high school and engaging with it beyond the way I had when reading Fast Food Nation. I think that’s really powerful, and it’s why I love playing them.
Zainabb Hull: I’m definitely always interested in games that are explicitly political, like Papers, Please and No Pineapple Left Behind, but I usually let these kinds of games come to me. More often, I’m actively looking for politics in games, regardless of whether a title is overt about its politics. I believe that all art is political, and engaging with video games means engaging with the values, beliefs, and interests of the creator(s). Like Melissa, I’m fascinated by how games as a medium allow the player to interact with politics and ideologies. There are single-player experiences that can encourage players to think more deeply about an issue or to empathise with various ideologies, behaviours, or political contexts. And there are multiplayer games that can really complicate how we navigate politics and ethics. In particular, I’m thinking of board games that ask players to lie to or persuade each other, or include more overtly political scenarios like the global health disaster of Pandemic, where your choices can reflect pre-existing racial, cultural, and sociopolitical biases.
E. Forney: In my experience, tabletop RPGs are usually about two things: 1) interaction between player-characters and their environment, NPCs, and each other, and 2) conflict and its resolution (or attempt thereof) as a plot point. I think it’s almost impossible to have a completely apolitical game. I tend to seek out smaller indie systems rather than the big names because I find they usually have more of a “thesis statement” that’s worth exploring than what large systems come with. In larger systems, it is usually up to a GM to create a scenario, which can definitely be fun, but I like the constraints that smaller systems set up based on what kind of game they want to you play. A really obviously political system is Misspent Youth, which is literally taglined “Teenage rebellion in a fucked-up future.” The game has the Authority (GM) and the Youthful Offenders (players)—together the group picks a person, company, force, ideology, whatever to be rebelling against. The system challenges you specifically to feel what rebellion is like.
I think the difference is that when some complain they don’t want to see politics in games, what they mean is they don’t want to see real-world scenarios.
MB: I definitely agree with you both that apoliticism is not a thing—to make something apolitical is still taking a stance, after all. I think you’re both right, too, that tabletop games, whether RPGs or board games, have a lot of potential for exploring political themes, especially because they encourage us to work with or against other people. I feel like it’s even harder to avoid politics when you mix conflict and people; even if we all agree, the nature of having an objective kind of necessitates politics, doesn’t it? I’m trying to think of a way to create an interactive narrative, especially one with real people, that entirely excludes politics, and I just can’t think of anything, but maybe that’s because it doesn’t interest me?
Angie Wenham: Like Zainabb, I tend to let political games come to me, but I also think that’s because most games are political. BioShock, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed, Deus Ex, Skyrim… They all contain political themes and it honestly stumps me that some players don’t see this. I think the difference is that when some complain they don’t want to see politics in games, what they mean is they don’t want to see real-world scenarios, e.g. Not Tonight and its Brexit theme. I get the need to escape from the horrors of everyday life, particularly now, but most games mirror the real world in some way. How else would we know how to interact with them? Their worlds must be based on political systems we have or could experience; otherwise we’d have no frame of reference, no opinion on whether it was right or wrong. Many RPGs, be they video or tabletop, force you to make choices that pull on the players’ biases and preconceptions, as Melissa and Zainabb have said. Am I more likely to trust this NPC than others? Why? Is that because they’re a certain race, or have a certain social class? These games, whether the player realises it or not, get the player to make decisions based on their personal politics and the political system in the game.
What do you get out of playing political games?
MB: I mean, with some games it’s just nice to have my beliefs affirmed? It’s nice to be seen and understood. But it’s also nice to explore things that I don’t agree with in a safe setting; something like Papers, Please lets me be a real piece of shit when it comes to the lives of other people, and I like being able to get inside of somebody’s head that way. Is it worth it to enforce fascism to keep your family alive? I don’t know, because I didn’t make it far in that playthrough! But I got to dabble in it and make myself deeply uncomfortable in the process, and I appreciate that.
ZH: Most of all, I appreciate the way that I can interact with politics in games, to varying degrees, in a way that I just can’t with “passive” mediums like film and literature. Melissa sums it up: when I know a game is going to align with my own politix and ideologies, I can just appreciate feeling less alone for a while. It’s even better if I get to see myself and my worldview presented in a world I wouldn’t normally get to experience, whether that’s a mundane setting or somewhere fantastic, like Thedas (shoutout to my best boi, Cole). It’s empowering to feel seen.
At the same time, I think it’s really important to create political narratives that explore lots of different perspectives and experiences. I think Papers, Please is an ideal example, because it asks the player to consider how fascism is rooted and upheld without glorifying or excusing it. Games can encourage players to get critical about politics in a unique way, with most offering different narrative branches or choices so that the player can engage in ways that interest them most.
Games can encourage players to get critical about politics in a unique way, with most offering different narrative branches or choices so that the player can engage in ways that interest them most.
EF: A political tabletop RPG usually involves commiserating with your friends, finding points on which you agree (or maybe disagree, but when you’re playing with friends, I find it’s usually agreement). You bond over things.
MB: This is reminding me I need to play more tabletop RPGs, especially ones that are particularly political in nature. Do you have any recommendations?
AW: I have one or two! Red Markets is one I haven’t played yet but very much want to try. It’s essentially a game about economic horror, using zombies as a way to talk about the effects of economic uncertainty on people, pressures on migrant workers (without being exploitative), and how capitalism changes our priorities. You play as Takers, people who trade between quarantine zones, rising their lives for profit and survival. Another one I’ve heard good things about is Sigmata, an ’80s cyberpunk dystopia where a quasi-mystical radio signal is upgrading ordinary people and driving them to fight fascism. I really need to set up a group to play these!
I agree with everyone about how it feels good to see your political viewpoint represented in a game, but I also like seeing what unintended impact there may be. When my choices have poor or unexpected consequences because I thought I was doing the right thing, it allows me to explore the complexity of real life.
When my choices have poor or unexpected consequences because I thought I was doing the right thing, it allows me to explore the complexity of real life.
EF: For recommendations: I mentioned Misspent Youth already, which is a great game to play when you want to rage at something. Mad about sexism or bodily autonomy or capitalism? It’s time to raaaage. Fiasco is a GM-less game that has really light mechanics and ends up feeling like putting on an improvisational short play with a few friends.
There are a ton of modules for Fiasco outside of the base ones they created for the system, so there are bound to be some that are the brand of political you want to explore.
The Quiet Year uses a deck of playing cards instead of dice, and the players basically draw a card that allows them to choose what a member/faction of a community does over the course of a peaceful year that follows some sort of chaos (war, disaster, whatever). That one is an interesting look at cooperative governing, because the players do not control individual characters—they can make moves for any established character or group.
There is a game I’ve yet to play called Circles of Power which is explicitly political. There are five communities in this fictitious world that basically represent 1) Native folks and those who suffer from colonialism/imperialism; 2) the physically and mentally disabled; 3) the queer community; 4) people of color, religious minorities, immigrants, and foreigners; and finally, 5) The Dominant Society (the kyriarchy). The catch is the only people who can learn magic in this world are from the first four groups.
And finally, I gotta mention Dialect, “a game about language and how it dies,” since I’m a linguistics person. I’m not sure I played it correctly since the rules were a little dense to understand, but it was still fun. You set up an Isolation, or a community that is othered somehow (the modules suggest a group of bandits, AIs starting their own world after humans are gone, Martian colonizers alone on Mars). And the game has you take turns inventing words (neologisms) for things your group would know. My friends played a group of bandits who were basically scavengers of the dangerous low-tide area that appears every 17 years, so we had terms for the phenomenon for the tide leaving, the types of creatures/plants/magic we’d find out there, but also more political words like slang for in/out groups, slurs, words for power imbalances, et cetera.
Do you play any games that run counter to your personal beliefs? What are they? Why do you enjoy them?
I think there’s room for games to make me uncomfortable, but it’s absolutely not by being regressive and centrist in their politics.
MB: I’m always playing games that run counter to my beliefs because many AAA games in particular are so wary of making an alienating statement that they instead try to play both sides—something like BioShock Infinite‘s mishandling of racism, for example. But if I know going in that a game’s politics will seriously disagree with mine, I won’t buy it. I have a finite amount of money and I’d rather spend it endorsing the kind of art I like.
Like I said above, I think that pushing on my own boundaries can be good—there are some of Molleindustria’s games that didn’t quite click for me on first playthrough, but as my views have changed, I come back to them with different perspectives and find more to appreciate there. On the other hand, BioShock Infinite‘s point of view didn’t add anything of value to the conversation, so I wasn’t challenged, just irritated. I think there’s room for games to make me uncomfortable, but it’s absolutely not by being regressive and centrist in their politics.
ZH: Political games only work when they are smart, critical, and don’t try to “sit on the fence”. There’s a huge difference between games that examine ideologies and behaviours and games that justify, glorify, or stereotype the same things. Games like BioShock Infinite or Detroit: Become Human have a very poor understanding of racism and how it works. World-building sims like Tropico might allow the player to explore a limited concept of communism, but the game is built upon racist foundations. Some titles try to appear deep but end up reflecting the creators’ own biases and ignorance.
I do not play games that are actively made to uphold ideologies I oppose, like fascism, white supremacy, and cisheteronormative patriarchy. I already know I hate these things, I don’t need to play someone’s gross game to remind myself. Unfortunately, most mainstream titles uphold at least some of those same values unintentionally, because we all live in a hellscape. Shooters usually make me at least a little uncomfortable because they’re so often uncritical about gun and weapon usage, as well as frequently maintaining western imperialist racial stereotypes. However, I do like gory games and OTT violence, despite absolutely rejecting real-life non-consensual violence. Ultimately, gaming offers a playground, and I appreciate the chance to safely vent rage, frustration, or just play with fake weapons, knowing that nobody is actually being harmed. It’s an added bonus if the enemies are Nazis.
AW: Like Zainabb, I won’t play games that promote and encourage harmful ideologies. I find shooters where you’re an Action Hero very difficult for this reason, as they don’t think about the use of violence in any depth. I’m writing this as I watch my husband play the Destiny 2 intro and it’s so simplistic—we are good guys, so here’s a big gun, go blow up the bad guys *dramatic music plays*. The whole NRA “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” ideology infests shooters, despite the fact it is so often untrue in real life. Promoting this hero complex makes me deeply uncomfortable as, from the outset, there is a refusal to acknowledge that life is more complicated than “good” or “bad” guys, or that violence is not a solution.
In the past, I’ve played several dating sims where the romances and characterisation have been problematic to say the least. I outright refuse to play games that portray women in exploitative ways and/or like they’re objects, as these games are incredibly unhealthy and only support the male gaze (looking at you, HuniePop). I now find myself playing dating sims/visual novels that are a bit more inclusive and have better representation, like Pairanormal.
EF: In Misspent Youth and Circles of Power, most of the players will be standing up for what’s right, fighting for the oppressed, etc. But, unlike a video game, there isn’t a big boss coded into the game that we get to fight. So somebody has to (gets to?) play out the villain, the power we rage against, the oppressing force. I’ve never been the GM of a game, but I hope to get into that role eventually, so I would probably be acting out scenarios in which my character behaves in a way that I never would.
Have a game’s politics ever surprised you?
MB: I shouldn’t have been surprised by Tacoma, but I thought it was a game about one thing and it was, in fact, a game about a very different thing. I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t played it, but there’s a moment in the last chunk of the game where things take a turn that made me gasp—not because it was shocking, but because I didn’t expect it to go in that deep. I like that example in particular because it doesn’t wear its politics on its sleeve; you wouldn’t know from the trailer that it’s anything more than a mystery game. But when you look back, having played it, you see that all the pieces were there from the very beginning. I think there’s merit to games that are overtly political from the get-go and to games that weave politics into their story and mechanics in more subtle fashions. They have different goals, but both can be incredibly successful!
AW: I think I’ve sometimes been surprised at how the game’s politics have been introduced. Playing Reigns: Her Majesty was an interesting experience because of the subtle nuances of your choices as Queen. Things like choosing which lover you court, who you support, whether you can convince the Church to take you, a woman, seriously—they all build this fascinating story about how a woman with any kind of power will be continuously challenged and undermined by patriarchal institutions. For example, one of the possible deaths states you’ve been locked away “for your own protection.” The precarious nature of being a woman and facing constant threats hit me hard.
EF: I mentioned Dialect above, but here I go again! I was surprised to find how much nuance and discussion about society/politics our group got into. We were analyzing our choices for invented words pretty heavily—this is a really ugly word for a terrible concept, so are we using harsh enough sounds? Who uses this word? Why do they say it? Does it establish power over another person? Does it reclaim power? Even the prompts like “name a term for a phenomenon that occurs in your society,” which we decided was a rare low-tide period: was this a boon for society that suddenly alleviated scarcity? Who benefits from this? Does it create a free-for-all/The Purge situation? Are the resources strictly controlled by the forces in power?
It’s not exactly surprising that we don’t see a lot of AAA games handling politics especially well, but what features do you think that sphere could borrow from indie games to improve their themes?
MB: Is it too mean to say just taking a stand? Not playing both sides? Not effectively reaching out to people who feel strongly about any issue and patting them gently on the shoulder while saying, “Calm down”? I get it, they want to make money, but something like BioShock Infinite would have been far better (story-wise—the gameplay needed far more help) if there was any kind of cohesive message there beyond, “Racism… that’s bad, but you know what else is bad? Fighting racism.” Yikes.
ZH: Hard agree. AAA gaming has a real problem with exclusionary politics, and it’s just never going to get better while titles attempt to pander to “both sides.” Honestly, in 2018, I think it’s irresponsible for creators to pretend that any title can be apolitical, and I don’t think it would be better for AAA titles to just stop attempting political narratives. Instead, I think they need to start seeking out diverse voices and reflecting different demographics in their titles and behind the scenes. We mentioned it in last month’s roundtable on indie games, but my favourite thing about indie gaming is the sheer breadth of experiences, perspectives, and artistry that small creators bring forward. Currently, it feels like AAA studios know that players want political narratives that matter, but they’re too scared to commit and don’t have the representation and inclusion on their teams to change that.
And although games (and all media) are usually made to be sold, I think companies who produce them need to think about more than just a profit margin.
MB: I think you’re right. There’s this weird like, political specter happening right now in AAA games. I’m thinking of things like Cyberpunk 2077, which is definitely political in the way it discusses class (since it’s cyberpunk, it’s hard to avoid) but I also wouldn’t say that the game is doing anything particularly revolutionary, especially not with the gender jokes on social media and the lackluster apology, and not with the dialog in the gameplay video either. They want their cake (the audience who wants political games) and to eat it too (to appeal to the player who thinks ‘cocksucker’ is ha-ha-funny).
AW: I’m with Melissa and Zainabb. I want these games to be brave enough to say “You know what? Sometimes there aren’t two valid sides to every story.” I mean, “Fascism is bad” should not be a controversial statement! I was talking about this kind of thing recently at a convention and we were discussing how big developers feared putting in diverse representation because they think it might affect sales. Even more so, they don’t want to offend who they think their player base is. I was really hyped for Cyberpunk 2077, but their Twitter account doesn’t inspire confidence. Their poor jokes and weak non-apology only make me think they don’t know how to approach gender in a decent and mature way. However, AAA games focus on making as much money as possible, and if this means appeasing the dude bro culture, I’m not sure they have any financial incentive to change it.
EF: Large RPG systems (and games in general) want to appeal to as many people as possible. They want to say “we have interesting mechanics, tell the story that you want to tell with them.” On the one hand, this can be really freeing—anyone can pick up Dungeons & Dragons and decide that their party is escaped slaves who are going back to free more slaves, or that everyone in the party is eventually dating in a big polycule, or what have you. But it’s just as easy to pick it up and say your party of dudes is going to fight a monster and rescue a group of princesses who become our wives because we saved them. With smaller games that explicitly say “You are going to play this kind of character in this kind of scenario,” you might attract a smaller pool of players—the kind that want to try that game. From a purely capitalistic standpoint, it isn’t the best business move to risk making a small game that might make it big with a certain audience. And although games (and all media) are usually made to be sold, I think companies who produce them need to think about more than just a profit margin.
Do you think that political multiplayer games and board games allow for more nuanced critique and exploration by potentially bringing together varying beliefs? Or do they just make players feel uncomfortable and shut down?
ZH: I maintain that Cards Against Humanity remains one of the most political games of our time. I’ve played that game with many a white male nerd (because honestly, my actual friends would never buy this game), and it can really educate you about the people around you. Playing political games with other people can give you an insight into their beliefs as well as what they find entertaining. Most of us have probably at least attempted a Renegade playthrough on Mass Effect (I struggled, friends, I struggled) and multiplayer can open up discussions around what we’re thinking and wrestling with politically.
However, I think that these conversations are highly influenced by who you’re playing with. Most of those white male nerds made and laughed at sexual assault jokes, for example, which put me on the defensive and unable to challenge them. I think playing political games with friends can offer a fruitful learning and bonding experience, but in other contexts can serve to make us feel even more marginalised.
MB: I love the example of Cards Against Humanity—I never would have thought about it that way, but you’re right. CAH has this kind of cathartic taboo about it when you play it with like-minded folks; you can be subversive and interesting with it, though, to be fair, that’s pretty rare because the game encourages you to just laugh at things because they’re shocking. I don’t know a way you could play the game and make it not feel dirty, but I think there are probably house rules or homebrew versions that achieve that, as well as playing with forbidden concepts in a safe setting; the problem, for me, is that I don’t think CAH was made with that intent. The game itself has always felt like punching down, and if I were a cleverer, more inventive person, I’d love to take the pieces of it and turn it into something new—if anybody is aware of house rules or hacks of the game that shake up its intent a bit, please let me know!
AW: I used to enjoy playing CAH, but not so much now, and I think this is because of who I’ve played it with and how. I played with white friends of various genders and sexualities. My mother is a Filipino immigrant: any jokes about race and immigration made me especially uncomfortable, but I would keep it to myself because hey, it’s just a joke, right? I agree with Melissa that the game itself punches down. It also doesn’t allow for someone to easily raise an issue, as it frames the answers as “just a joke” and so it’s instantly harder to challenge. It convinces you that you’re “making a big deal out of nothing” and so you shut down.
To have any kind of hope of nuanced critique in a game, you would need to trust the other players and have ground rules. Even then, this isn’t always a guarantee. I’ve played with men who made throwaway comments (or worse, detailed jokes) about sexual assault, people I had considered self-aware and sympathetic. I think you can explore differing political beliefs, but you should also be prepared for the fact this may change your friendships. If you’re hanging out with people who think nothing of dismissing someone’s identity just because they don’t understand it, maybe that’s not a bad thing.
Do you have thoughts on political games? Any homebrew hacks to make your favorite game better? Let us know in the comments!
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.