What Makes a Game Political

Screenshot from Cart Life

Since we’re discussing games today (Or more specifically, games that try to teach you something), I thought this New Statesman article might be useful. I think politically charged games, in their attempts to make arguments through the limitations of a designed system, face challenges similar to those faced by the Edutainment games we read about in the article assigned for class.

The New Statesman piece raises questions like “What makes a videogame political?” and “What happens when unforeseen consequences undermine a game’s intended argument?” The article highlights some games that have clear, political agendas and others that would probably prefer to be considered on the basis of artistic merit.

McDonald’s Video Game, mentioned in the title of the piece, is funny, dark, and disturbing. In this game, you play as CEO, and try to run the McDonald’s corporation successfully, which necessitates maltreatment of animals, injecting food with ambiguous drugs, regularly firing and rehiring employees, and strategically implementing devious ad campaigns. Though the game is effective and presents a persuasive case, an observation from Ian Bogost deftly addresses a hole in the game’s argument:

It’s very anti-corporation, but a lot of students play it and say, ‘wow, I really empathise with the CEOs of multinational companies now – they have such hard jobs!’”

This pattern suggests to me that the game’s capacity to inspire empathy was underestimated by those who wished to harness its persuasive power. Before presenting McDonald’s Video Game as a persuasive tool, one assumes that the player’s response will be,  “I really hate all of these terrible things this corporation does to get ahead!” But instead, the player might think, “Wow it’s really hard to be a successful corporation!”

But perhaps it’s unfair to attribute this presumably unintended response to a flaw in the game’s design. Perhaps we should consider this response as one of the inherent complications of the society in which we live. After all, the game encourages its players to do terrible things by placing them in a situation in which they must do terrible things to succeed. This situation creates some level of empathy, whether it’s intended or not. In order to keep the company afloat, the player must exploit the system. When playing this game, morality isn’t just gray; it becomes invisible. One might argue that the cold, calculating numerical system underneath McDonald‘s Video Game doesn’t carry any political connotations; the manner in which the system is dressed up is what makes it political.

After playing McDonald’s Video Game, one might be compelled to ask: Can McDonald’s be “fixed?” Is it possible for something like McDonald’s to exist without most of us looking the other way when it’s convenient? Does focusing exclusively on the corrupt practices of a corporation like McDonald’s allow us to overlook more important, underlying, systemic issues that allow those problems to exist in the first place? Such questions, I think, mark an effective political game. No one likes to be preached at, and if a game is just an excuse to shout at people on the internet, then I think that game must resign itself to irrelevance.

It’s interesting to see McDonald’s Video Game, Sweatshop, and Darfur is Dying discussed alongside more personal works such as Cart Life, Lim, and The Castle Doctrine, which were presumably designed with artistic intentUsually people consider political games, educational games, and entertaining or artistic games as separate entities, but I think these categories are too easy, and they’re holding back people who are interested in games. This is probably why the designers of both Cart Life and The Castle Doctrine actively resist the labeling of their games as “political.” I think Richard Hofmeier’s reaction is more justified because I believe Cart Life is one of the most important, affecting games ever made. Until now, I hadn’t much considered its embedded political argument because I don’t think it’s as important to Cart Life‘s aesthetic.

I first played Cart Life last year, while I was working at Starbucks. For me, playing this game was a poignant, personal experience that spoke to working in a retail environment, repeating the same claustrophobic set of routines everyday, and trying to make a living while retaining emotional stability. But now that I think on it, it’s true that political statements are embedded in Cart Life. The game inspires empathy by evoking a feeling of constrictive repetition, which implies a political argument about the systemic problems of capitalism and bureaucracy. It’s not an easy argument that you can put in your pocket and save for your next political debate, but it is one that helped me try to become a better human.

One thought on “What Makes a Game Political

  1. Joseph Santoli

    Videogames seem to be highly underrated as “texts” in our education system. When I say text, I mean a media that is valuable to criticize based on merit (whether it be aesthetic, political, or any of our other literary theories). We use film, and we use other media in our classrooms like videos and sometimes comic books, so why are videogames absent? Because its interactive? Or maybe we just haven’t taken videogames seriously enough yet. What you’ve written here shows us that videogames can be rich with interpretation, and have value in our positions as literary critics.

    The questions that you’ve raised about the McDonald’s Game seem to be the same kinds of questions we ask when we read books like Animal Farm or The Jungle. If a game can create the same kinds of questions we find meaningful, can create the same contexts that these famous books have, then why don’t we make a place for these kinds of videogames?

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