It has often proved futile to attribute any real-world meaning to the works of large video game developers. Most likely due to an attempt to refrain from causing offence to any key demographic, game makers are often unwilling to admit any political or societal undertones to their work, even when such comparisons seem somewhat obvious. Call Of Duty games, for example, when not set in the past, have followed wars taking place in hypothetical and nondescript near-futures, presumably in an attempt to avoid any correlations with current events. Even the irreverent Grand Theft Auto series has chosen to alter names, despite obvious similarities between their game worlds and real-world cities, refusing to unapologetically link itself with contemporary settings and events.
Despite some heavily politicised games from smaller developers, few big-name games have ever sought to tackle world issues in the way that other cultural mediums have. Where are the video game equivalents to Rage Against The Machine or Get Out? Well, recent trends could suggest they’re not that far off. Though it shouldn’t exactly be seen as a radical political stance to oppose Nazis, Bethesda’s recent marketing for the latest instalment in the Wolfenstein series has drawn some hysterical opposition from right-wing social media users. Using slogans like “Stop the Nazis. Save America!” that seemingly link the real-world events of Charlottesville to the plot of the game, Bethesda have tapped into the socio-political concerns of their audience, and perhaps even hinted at the catharsis that killing Nazis in the game could provide many living in modern-day America.
Wolfenstein’s political marketing is not the only inkling that games could be beginning to converge on a previously untapped market. Ubisoft’s upcoming Far Cry 5 is set in modern-day rural Montana, making it somewhat of a reality-check for games, especially when the game’s violent, religious antagonists are factored in. Sure, the Far Cry series has long been set in true-to-life locale; Africa (though an unnamed state), a group of Pacific Islands, Himalayan mountains and, less predictably, the Stone Age, but Far Cry 5’s setting and plot seems closer to home and noticeably less fantastical. Ubisoft have taken steps to avoid direct commentary by framing the adversaries as crazed lunatics rather than a conservative congregation, but it’s still a big step for the series.
Also noteworthy is last year’s Watch Dogs 2. Though not entirely political, the game was set in a depiction of San Francisco that envisioned a technology-reliant near future, divorced from reality only by the lack of rights to company names. Protagonist Marcus finds himself victim to profiling, and aided by the rest of hacker group Dedsec, whose work warrants comparisons with Anonymous, goes on to fight back against privacy-ignoring state surveillance lead by a Silicon Valley CTO. The game lets you take on a Martin Shkreli surrogate, a Scientology-esque sect and Google stand-in Nudle, borrowing from current events more than most would dare to.
The wave of political undercurrents permeating the gaming world doesn’t end here, from dismantling a racist crime syndicate in Mafia III to Mirror’s Edge Catalyst pitting you against a sinister conglomerate that controls media and commerce, games are beginning to appreciate the advantages of social commentary. Good thing, too, because as an industry, they’ve been hammering away at the mainstream for years, looking for affirmation and acceptance. For games to be considered alongside the likes of books, movies and music, they need to be willing to interact with the world they are born into as these mediums do. Art simply cannot devoid itself of any real-world meaning or consequence, and as an artform, games must admit that they are often, to varying extents, by-products of the socio-political climate in which they were formed. Not everything needs to make a statement to be poignant and meaningful, but apolitical art simply does not exist – everything produced by a society reflects its culture and political circumstance.
It’s almost a cliché to point out that political strife is often a catalyst for a new crop of artistic creativity, and games are profiting from learning the value of this, instead of consistently striving to remain indecisive and inoffensive. Just as socio-political events have informed some of TV’s most gripping instalments – from The Wire to House Of Cards – video games could decidedly benefit from realising that true-to-life fear can make for more compelling art. In short, few mediums can boast the immersive capabilities of the gaming world, and whilst the escapism it offers from modern-day events is often an advantage, games cannot truly present themselves as a modern storytelling force until they draw from real events and stories, whether political or not.