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The Worm Turns
Here's the thing: Though art and entertainment first come into politics as paid employees, they usually decide to stick around and be a nuisance. They kick up their heels, develop ideas and forget to act like well-trained poodles. Icons of every entertainment form - writers, musicians, actors, directors, sports stars, you name it - occasionally try and change something about the world, or at least express a real opinion. After Napoleon declared himself Emperor in 1804, betraying an earlier promise, Beethoven withdrew the 3rd Symphony dedication. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke out about the Soviet labor camp system, writing and distributing "The Gulag Archipelago." Protest songs in the U.S., Latin America, Cuba and South Africa have had a genuine effect on the political landscapes of their countries of origin, as have feature films. (Whether you consider it a documentary or a piece of propaganda, Fahrenheit 9/11 was a freight train.) It's hard to remember today just how controversial the young heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay became in 1964 when he revealed himself as a member of the Nation of Islam, took the name Muhammad Ali and voiced opinions on virtually any political question put to him. Even porn is political in its own way: Faced with a level of pressure that Rockstar Games would recognize, Larry Flynt and Hustler magazine have become electoral savages to make Lyndon Johnson proud. Somewhere in all this lies the realization that, evil and corrupt as it can be, politics is the big stage, the real thing, "the only game for grownups," as JFK once said. Given an audience and a voice, any art or entertainment medium will eventually decide to get its hands dirty and participate in public life. Unless, it seems, that medium is videogames.
Videogames became politically controversial as fast as rock 'n' roll or cinema. For more than 30 years they've been available as a quick-fix, "think of the children" way for politicians and public figures to grab headlines. Defending itself against charges of corrupting the youth has become a rite of spring for the industry. Yet beyond the self-created issue of virtual violence it's surprising how apolitical most commercial games and game developers are.
There's been plenty of social commentary, as titles from GTA to Mega-Lo-Mania to The Sims have put modern life under the microscope. Broad historical and environmental themes pop up in waves (Caesar, Nukewar, Civilization), and there's an inherent (if confused) point about intelligent design in Spore. But too many games seem content to exist on a superficial Mad Magazine level, or to retreat like BioShock or Fallout into the tropes of 40 years ago. This leaves a lot of possibilities on the table.