Politics in games! What if, it's actually bad and I don't like it?

Lately (like over the last 5 years maybe? 10 years?) there’s been an increasing amount of discussion around ‘politics in games.’

Much of this has been around super explicit representation of extremely political issues - for instance Watch Dogs Legion’s “post-Brexit London” just directly claims to be about probably the loudest political debate in England today (at least from my perspective over in Seattle). Or on the indie side for instance there’s Tonight We Riot, a game about I guess justly fomenting a violent revolution, made by a coop that is really pretty explicit about its communist politics.

Some (a lot) of the discussion around these games (see Waypoint’s E3 podcast about Legion for instance) then tends to obsess itself with whether these games are clear enough about their politics, or whether their politics (supposedly clearly readable from even pressers I guess) are the right politics.

As an artist working in the same medium, critics being critical sometimes makes me anxious about how my own work might be perceived, given the same lens. In this case, I feel overwhelmed and exhausted. Like, when some games say “this one is Politics,” and specifically for those games the discussion gets political, wont people be less inclined to see the politics in games that don’t shout their politics as a selling point? Will people see my work as apolitical because it’s not called “Property Is Theft”???

I think I’m particularly bothered about this because games are taken less seriously than other art, and I wonder whether as an artist working in a medium where folks aren’t going out of their way to engage with the themes on a deeper level, is it necessary to surface those themes more explicitly?

And too, it seems like everyone wants games to be real clear, even in their marketing matierals, about what their politics are exactly. I feel like I need to have policy proposals in my store description or everyone’s gonna cancel my game for being centrist, lol.

I just wish there was more nuance here. I get that we’re in a nightmare spiral descent into madness in the real world, but I don’t think art needs to be the place for explicit politics. I don’t mean that art shouldn’t be, or isn’t political (of course it is, everything is). But I think art is a space for sloppiness and exploration and playing with ideas.

I mean propaganda’s great and important, but I don’t even think art of this sort is good propaganda.

I expect the games in question actually do ask questions and explore ideas within their themes. But I also expect that not having a really clear singular vision of their politics might count against them in the critical discourse, and that’s what really fucks me up.

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This reminded me of an interview with Natalie Wynn. They were talking about how to discuss an issue without accidently impling that your mind can’t be changed and you have contempt for the opposition. Their example was using the phrase antivaxer signals that you already have contempt for people suspicious of vaccines.

Watching the trailer for Tonight We Riot I was thinking that it’s speaking to people who already hate capitalism. I think there is value in not shouting the politics (avoiding the political vocabulary particularly) so you are not just preaching to the choir. Bring people in slowly and convince them with your compelling game!!

I do wanna remark that being clear about the politics is important to stop people from avoiding them. There are people who loved Harry Potter and support fascists irl. And there are people who love Harry Potter and found nothing wrong with treating other species (elfs and goblins) as second class citizens or slaves.

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It might feel nasty to think about people with bad politics enjoying your art, but idk if that should really be something artists pay attention to. Like a fascist admiring your landscape paintings, or buying your ceramics or something, just… you can’t stop them, and it doesn’t really reflect on your work or you.

HP is more political than the above and so maybe it could be seen as a failure of the author, but I can’t imagine expecting artists to be even more explicit about their intentions than HP is. It just feels unavoidable that people are going to interpret your work differently. And although obviously it would feel bad if someone interpreted your work as like, endorsing slavery, I still think it’s better to preserve some amount of nuance and subtlety, to let the audience interpret the work.

Like, some would say the audience having room to interpret the work and relate it to their own lives in complex ways, is actually a good thing, taken broadly. (Me, I would say that.)

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Oh boy do i have feelings about this… Buckle up for a ramble pals, sorry in advance.

I’m always upset about the way all popular media criticism clived from “politics do not exist” to “everything is a singular political entity which can be distilled into a single message, with a correct take that thou must adopt on it”-- i can’t explain comprehensively how that happened but i think it’s pretty clear that modern social media, attention economy and consumption/engagement dynamics explain a lot of the shift, and even with the best intentions it’s really hard to not fall into that kind of facile criticism practice because the platforms we use and the vocabulary we developed both point to something like this. I have a bunch of points to make in reflection to that so i’ll try to keep each sort of compartimentalized in its own paragraph, hah

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I read this from TheCatamites about difficulty in games, it’s a very good read with lots of points adjacent to this discussion but there’s a footnote that stuck with me in particular, on the incentive to intellectualize our gaming experiences, in particular to legitimize playing on easy mode OR legitimize sinking hour after hour on a difficult game, trying to find a moral hook that justifies what was mostly an indulgence either way:

Just imagine it - instead of endless essays on “how completing, not completing, not playing VIDEOGAME made me a better person, worse person, more divorced person delete as appropriate” we would instead get endless essays on “how playing VIDEOGAME left me more or less the same person, I suppose, I don’t really remember. But I did like the beach level”.

Like-- yeah!! Sometimes you just play a videogame because it feels good like flopping your pillow over to the fresh side feels good or having a piss after a long work meeting feels good, lol. It doesn’t have to be Noble or Life-Changing. And making games that “only” evoke these kinds of emotions is fine, actually.
I think a lot of us right now feel a sense of political urgency because we’re in a time of global crisis, but it’s not quite started hitting yet (at least not for privileged fucks from the global north, which i assume is most of this forum’s members–it certainly is me). So we want to do something, anything, but what we know how to do is make pixels move on a computer screen, and the crisis isn’t There enough that we give that up for the sake of something that actually helps like all becoming surgeon-therapist-builder-engineers or whatever. (segue: this is also because we currently live in an individualistic society, so we struggle to formulate a solidary collective uprising, which wouldn’t necessitate this kind of personal ground-zero moment).
Probably a lot of this feeling comes from the intersection of the capitalist & neoliberal propaganda that your job, your passion, your pleasure and your expertise should all overlap in one perfect singular Activity that you dedicate yourself to entirely - it’s hard to feel like we can both meaningfully engage ourselves with politics and make our nonpolitical art, so we try to merge both. Turns out it doesn’t work out for most people and we all feel hollow as hell now!! woops.

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Gonna introduce this one with a quote too, from a Felix Colgrave tweet:

The idea that art is for making “statements” seems unnatural to me. I find art much better at addressing unresolved thoughts than resolved ones- things you could rant about for hours without saying anything conclusive. If you have something concise to say, words are great at that

This is definitely also how i feel about the art i make. I’ve never made art with the motivation of delivering a message, and i don’t see why i’d do that when i can just say the thing i want to say. I’m making art because i feel compelled to create Things which i don’t even really understand myself, i just know there is a resonance between the medium i’m using and an aesthetic instinct i’m feeding it. This is not to say that art is formless apolitical chaos, but to expect it to deliver a neatly packaged Progressive Message is kinda nonsense imo. It’s not how art works at all!
To an extent i feel like contemporary conceptual art and the established process surrounding it–the expectation of an artist’s statement that explains the piece, and often supersedes the actual emotional resonance of the piece as a result and dominates its discussion–is trivializing and commodifies art into packaged statements, and this is increasingly the critical framework we apply to culture at large as well. It also usually leads to shite art.

Making art in my opinion is a way to explore subject matters that escape language–either because the vocabulary for it doesn’t exist, or because the subject doesn’t resonate with rational readings provided by language like it could resonate with emotional and sensory readings, or any reason. Often i find that if i try to explain my games, or any kind of art i make, with words; i lose a lot of what makes it compelling to begin with. It often trivializes the point dramatically or outright misses it. If i take Orchids to Dusk as an example: it’s a game where you don’t have a lot of oxygen, so you die pretty fast… but if you don’t rush and panic, and instead calmly enjoy these last few minutes, you can get the cool death. Doesn’t that sound trite as all fuck?? But people still cry after playing the game, so i guess it’s not as trite as it sounds!! And that is the power of aesthetics, i guess.
And that being said, Orchids is still a game that is very easy to spin into a Politically Apt Statement if you know what to write about it. But i think the phenomenon is widespread, and often games have a depth that can’t be summarized in a convenient PR blurb. I also think about how some people recently talked about how hard it is to talk about games that do not rely on a singular pillar but are just… good in a wide variety of ways, making it difficult to explain really what they are about and why they’re good.

In the end i think that this assumption that culture makes statements is kind of reversed–often culture is reflective way more than it is declarative. By that i mean both that culture reflects the society it is made in, through the material means that allowed it to be created and the mindsets that the creators adopt; and also that what the spectator brings to the experience becomes part of that reflection and hence each person’s experience of a cultural artifact will be different.
Culture is a multifaceted prism that you can shine your uhh personal-experience-light-beam through to make it split and splatter into a thousand different colours and i don’t know where i’m going with this metaphor but the point is, there is no Statement, there is only bouncing reflections and resonances. As an artist, i feel like it’d be presumptuous to pretend like i know exactly what my art will say and how it’ll resonate. I have vague ideas and i try to make things that don’t suck, but fundamentally i make my art because i’m vain and i want to bring this into the world like i’m screaming I FEEL THIS. DO YOU FEEL IT TOO, WHEN YOU LOOK AT IT? and i don’t think that’s a political statement.

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Media criticism that doesn’t have space for nuance and mushy, not-explicitly-political-but-still-resonating discussions is honestly dangerous and predatory as hell. Most contemporary media criticism is like this imo, because of the economic incentives behind it–the goal isn’t to deepen our understanding of the culture we bask in, it’s to elevate oneself with the end purpose of solidifying a platform via social capital in the pursuit of financial stability in competition with other critics. The effect of social media virality and the attention economy is that dropping a powerful and that’s the tea at the end of a firey take is usually more rewarding, in very material ways, than bringing a nuanced discussion to the table.
This i think entertains the dynamic where we not only want every game to be more political, but also fish for more political-ness in games in a way that feels like tunnel vision.
Also, while i agree with the statement that “everything is political”, i don’t think it’s a healthy lens through which to look at cultural media, especially if the media is trying to tackle complex issues. There are times where the difference between a complex issue treated respectfully and problematic indulgence is clear cut, but oftentimes it really isn’t, not to mention that media actually doesn’t fall neatly into such a binary system.

The most extreme results of this come up with the more taboo kinds of media, porn and sex in particular. There’s a bunch of relevant threads and articles on the subject which i think are good, though i don’t remember all details of them and they might not be Completely Politically Bulletproof (though precisely we need to be able to have non-bulletproof discussions for these things!!). There’s this one on Problematic Kinks and pornographic content, this one on portrayal of sexual violence in GoT (or any kind of story invested in medieval social dynamics)–and of course the current controversy on that cyberpunk game and the transxploitation ingame adverts. This isn’t of course to say that there aren’t very good counter-arguments to be made about any of these (there certainly are), but the fact is that the critical language and framework that pop criticism uses doesn’t afford for the necessary nuance of these kinds of subjects.
There’s also a tangential point here about the imperial anglocentric dimension of this criticism, and the way it inherently privileges those who can work out a presentation of their work that makes it look good. A lot of online criticism is tied to the use of specific terms that you’ll be berated for not keeping up with, and we’ve seen the kind of xenophobic sentiment it leads to when people from other places (in games this is especially visible with estern european/russian games, or chinese ones) try to explain their intent.

This doesn’t respond directly to the question of whether making games that don’t make explicit political statements is Fine, Actually; but i think it’s a question that relates to it insofar that the dominating framework for understanding politics in cultural media seems like an unhelpful trainwreck of shit to me. lol.

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I don’t have a clean conclusion to this but to go back to the question of mundane games and art: i think down the road we’re also flesh machines with needs that aren’t always super interesting or morally important, but it’s still fine to make things that fill those needs, whether that’s a 2D platformer with a cute gimmick or unchallenging instrumental music or pottery that looks nice or whatever. Social media and neoliberalism are fucking us up with this giant incentive to become 100% engaged, uncancellable politics terminators day and night but in the end we’re still just lumps of cells that breathe and poop and like to feel nice, and it’s cool if we go back to embrace being just that from time to time.

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i hereby apologize for the word barf but also i wanna add (bc i can’t shut up):

  • my opinion on these subjects is in big part informed by reading Liz Ryerson, Lana Polansky and Jessica Harvey’s writing and tweets, they’ve all got a very sharp minds and i owe them that i’m less of a dumbass than i used to be, i am but a small insect.
  • @ Badru: honestly the most upsetting thing to me about all this is that i can totally see where the anxiety and frustration here comes from but in the end you’re part of the core IWG team that’s trying to build a structure of horizontal solidarity and support between artists and workers… So it’d be deeply ironical for someone to come after you for not making political enough games when you’ve materially done so much more than any “my shooting game has a female protagonist” rando has.
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Okay first of all thank you for this huge dump of thoughts. I’ve just been sitting digesting it for a minute. I’ve ALSO got thoughts so gonna respond to yours. Also gonna steal your formatting for sectioning.

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Games being easy and loose and fun and lightweight and forgettable: Yes, and I love this essay and I have a lot of thoughts about this, about difficulty and ease and what those concepts could mean for games.

I think I came at games as an artist originally like, avante-garde or NOTHING, but as I’m ripening into my late 20s I’m realizing that some of the art that’s been most affecting and lasting for me is actually pop/low art. I’m often frustrated with what games are and aren’t, and I think that frustration initially led me to want games to be fine art, to aspire to be something taught in art history classes, because idk that just seemed like what’s desirable. But tbh lately I am bored by a lot of conceptual art and love a good landscape, lol.

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Art as unresolvable messiness + the motivation behind making it. Yes, but also idk I feel like I’ve made art for lots of reasons that don’t seem so noble or good. Like because I had to for a class, or because I wanted to impress someone, or because it was fun, or because I saw some art and thought I could do better, or to build a portfolio for an imaginary future job I might apply for, or because someone told me to, or because someone told me not to. But then what comes out the other side doesn’t really care why it was made.

I think great art might be made with lots of goals in mind, including even the goal to make a clear political statement.

But I also think that the process of making art is almost unavoidably going to complicate that attempted statement. And also agree that the audience experience of the art object will further complicate and distort any attempted statements.

Personally I think the best art process is the process that makes you finish work and be relatively happy while doing so. Particularly in our world of unfunded games, where it’s so hard to really finish work. Bonus points if the process also helps you sell your work in a way that supports you while making future work (maybe this is implied in ‘finish work and be relatively happy’ idk, depends on your bank account I guess).

I think it’s probably foolish to make work expecting it to impart some particular meaning, in that you’re almost certainly going to be frustrated and disappointed when that meaning isn’t imparted, but also if that’s the kind of foolishness that gets someone to finish their work and release it, then I’m down with it.

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I really enjoy the discussion of politics around work being part of media crit lately, but yeah the overwhelming line seems to be about whether some piece of work Got It Right or not, with a very narrow window of what’s Right, so that basically nobody ever gets it right, and often there’s some kind of implicit call-to-action for the audience to materially harm the creators in some way as retribution for getting it wrong.

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Also thank you so much for not shutting up, and also for being directly comforting and supportive of me.

I don’t know if I’m really worried exactly about someone coming after me directly, so much as just the general population silently determining the work as apolitical without really engaging with it.

I’ve been working on a new trailer so it’s been really top-of-mind like, how much is appropriate to show? And listening to E3 coverage at the same time made me realize that the industry line on that question seems to be to be extremely loud and explicit about your politics, and the critical response is then to accuse them of not being clear enough, and just blah, yeah.

And also finishing the Earthsea Cycle, which is SO political but SO indirect and obscure about it, and I love what it does, and the idea of Le Guin writing it now and there being a pull quote on the front like “Smash the state! Dismantle the patriarchy! Dissolve your body into the earth! Do no harm!” makes me nauseous.

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Just had a thought - maybe a better way to think about this kind of critical response to E3 - these are big companies trying to build an audience and sell their work in advance by loudly claiming a political position, and the critics are holding them at a skeptical distance as a sort of gut-check response.

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(these are all super good points and i agree with all of it but to bounce off that last comment specifically:)
i definitely agree with this and i’d even say that the E3 games in question aren’t… actually political? or rather, that they tout a certain engagement with politics for the aesthetic branding of it, but don’t engage genuinely with them. I think that’s a big part of the negative reaction - it’s not so much that they aren’t political enough, rather that they invoke extremely political + historical questions but down the road they’re all mostly vacuous action games (until otherwise demonstrated).

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I guess my lingering frustration is that I don’t know we can make sincere statements about the politics of works that we’ve only seen press demos of.

sorry for the bump but i enjoyed the posts here and yes, I feel similarly! it’s not just how easily this stuff can be adopted by the industry (like there was that one interview with the Abe’s Oddyssey guy bragging about how his game was pro-violent worker uprising but oh unions in games? no, that would get in the way of the passion). it’s the way the discussion almost only makes sense in the context of AAA.

like, the assumptions i see when talking about how games should be more political are

  1. The game has an Audience, which itself is unlikely if you make hobbyist or small projects. Like, at best you have peers and friends and maybe can get a few curious look-ins. The idea of some captive body of people waiting for what you have to say seems kind of fantastical in current context.
  2. The Audience is apolitical by default, and needs the input of the game in order to become political. Again, this seems pretty specific to the kind of large monied mass market that AAA has traditionally courted and monopolised. If it’s an idea of political art that covers screening a sad documentary at Davos but not, like, marginalised outsiders making work for each other, you have to wonder how relevant it is.
  3. Most importantly - it’s not enough for a game to be political, it also has to be Significant in some way, slot into existing categories of Significance such as selling a lot of product or winning awards or having a really big marketing budget. Significance is prior to politics, since obviously if something is insignificant but political, like, who cares?

i remember seeing people discussing politics in games a few weeks back and the real question being bandied around seemed to boil down to “how should the same 8 franchises everyone already talks about market themselves”. i guess the problem is really just that nearly the entire critical infrastructure around this stuff is built around these kind of games no matter what they’re actually saying.

it feels like over the last ten years there’s been a lot more overtly political art which is great in many ways but makes me wonder where the pendulum will end up swinging back to, when that tendency ends up being identified with sassy coke commercials and the like…

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