The late Roger Ebert is infamous in the video game community for his refusal to accept video games as a legitimate art form. While I and most other game developers disagree with his assertion, ultimately the question “what is art” is too semantical to produce constructive discussion. The requirements that Ebert sets for what media can be considered art are likely very different from the requirements you or I might have. For me, a key indicator of “art-ness” would be a medium’s ability and tendency to make political statements. Games have long been viewed by mainstream culture as toys; something you use to entertain yourself for a set period of time that has no influence on your world outside the magic circle.
But that notion has been challenged in recent years. From big budget titles like Deus Ex and Dishonored 2 to indie projects like Papers Please and This War of Mine, politics increasingly play a role in the mechanics and narratives of video games. These games use their medium to explore political topics largely through a speculative approach. They use imaginary worlds and fictional characters as a canvas to project real-world issues onto.
A more direct approach is also possible and in the past couple years there has been a surge of games aimed specifically at targeting real-world political figures and policy. The group GOP Arcade has made several games which criticize US policy (Thoughts and Prayers and The Voter Suppression Trail to name a couple) and the Republican Party. GOP Arcade has stated their intent to release “lightweight games designed to make all the hoopla surrounding the election slightly more enjoyable.” It appears they may need to update that mission statement but considering the tone of their content up to this point I suspect they have some fiery content in the works already.
While less targeted at specific policies, games like RIOT and Democracy 3 critique political systems using game mechanics. RIOT examines how and why protests devolve into violence by letting you experience the event from the perspective of either the police or the protesters. Democracy 3 lets you play as an elected ruler making decisions on how to please as many people as possible, but through it’s mechanics subtly critiques many contemporary examples of representative democracy.
Prison Architect is another such game, but it is particularly notable for its developers’ response to criticism. The game has the player managing the day-to-day activities of a prison, but because the developers were from the UK, many critics remarked it failed to include problems found in the US prison system. The developers responded to the criticism positively, posting a video outlining their future plans for the game and addressing the concerns expressed by critics. This response shows a commitment on the part of the devs to being both political and accurate in their critique.
Finally we have events like the Punch Nazis Jam, a game jam specifically dedicated to showcasing resistance in the wake of growing far-right sentiments in western politics. Perhaps surprisingly, this game jam is hosted on itch.io, a privately owned distribution platform, despite featuring submissions such as Richard Spencer Punching Bag, a game that certainly would not be allowed on Apple’s App Store. To me this indicates a strong desire from within the game design community to be more politically active. Game developers across the board have been issuing statements on the Trump Administration’s travel ban and many are donating sales to the ACLU and other civil rights groups.
In a political climate as tense as the one currently unfolding, it is heartening to see the games community using their platform as a means to protest. Also important is what this says about video games as a medium. Games are being used as a way to express the beliefs of their creators just the same as any other widely-recognized art form and its creatives are just as involved in politics as artists from other disciplines. Whether games are art or something else they clearly have the capacity to inspire change, and for me that is enough.