Pixels and Picket Lines

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When Barack Obama’s campaign purchased videogame advertising in the run-up to the November 4 election, many saw it as a sign of tactical sophistication. The Obama campaign knew there were votes out there in the land of Burnout Paradise, NBA Live and NFL Tour, and that those voters were tough to reach though old-school channels like TV ads. The available cultural avenues keep expanding with each election cycle: 2008 also saw the introduction of Twitter and increased use of online video. The cash spent on the videogame trial run was a fraction of the campaign’s total budget, but analysts expect this amount to grow in future elections.


This, to me, is the disappointing thing: Games are about to make a direct leap from political scapegoat to political ad platform without ever actually becoming political themselves. Why is the games industry so afraid of getting involved in the issues of the day? Why this desire to be the only entertainment medium that shuts up, takes its cash and never causes trouble?

Sex, Sleaze and Symphonies
Elections, and politics in general, are far more vicious than any deathmatch or pixellated chainsaw kill. There’s a legend about Lyndon Johnson running for Congress in the mid-1940s: With nine days to go he’s 10 points behind and getting desperate. So he calls his campaign manager and says to hold a press conference. At that press conference they’ll accuse Johnson’s opponent, a farmer, of enjoying carnal knowledge of his sows – of literally being a pigfucker. His campaign manager is shocked: We can’t say that. It’s not true. “I know it’s not true,” Lyndon Johnson, future President, replies, “but let’s make the bastard deny it!” Assassinations, false-flag operations, break-ins, honeypots, hookers, drugs, blackmail: Electoral politics at its most vicious is the graduate course to Grand Theft Auto‘s grade school.

Politicians have always grabbed any weapon they could find, including cultural or entertainment icons. Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony was originally titled “Bonaparte” after the French commander. The Russian composer Prokofiev wrote music to order for the Soviet Union. Virtually every American president since John Adams has invested in a campaign song, while the list of celebrities who have become political cheerleaders is long and terrifying: Who can blame French President Nicolas Sarkozy for going one step further and marrying singer/model Carla Bruni, even if he does have to stand on a box to appear in the same tabloid headshots as her? Just like entertainment, politics operates on the currencies of appearance and volume, the ability to be recognized and heard. Both are dirty business. Both are ripe for falling into bed with each other.

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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.

Try and name two commercial titles that deal directly and intelligently with each of the following: Hurricane Katrina, AIDS, suicide, living standards, working conditions, mental illness, physical health, corruption, education, sexual abuse, domestic abuse, digital rights management, intellectual property, date rape, fundamentalism, any pending legislation, being black, being white or cancer. If you come up with one for each I’ll buy you a beer next time you’re in New Zealand.

Where are the titles whose message, rather than content, gets attention? Why are videogames not sparking revolution, social debate or real controversy? The demographics still skew toward young people, historically the agents of new thinking and change, and some places, like Italy’s Molleindustria or small-scale webgames in odd corners, reflect this. But the squelching of Super Columbine Massacre RPG, – while the film Elephant was screened at festivals round the world – demonstrates the real feeling: Not for us, thanks. There’s an invisible target in the industry’s sights, a spot where it can hang onto its childhood innocence even as its core audience marches into their 30s and beyond. People and ideas that might interfere with the bottom line are, well, pigfuckers.


Videogames clearly are a form of escapism headed for hundreds of billions of dollars in revenues and near-ubiquity. Few people want “issues” shoved in their faces when they’re trying to relax with a controller in their hands. But escapism doesn’t have to mean irrelevance. Good science fiction has shown us that for over a century. There’s something disappointing about aiming for little effect on your audience beyond visceral amusement. This is not about left or right wings or any of the other imaginary political spectra; it’s about making the move from kids’ toys to a medium that – at least sometimes, and without abandoning fun – accepts the responsibility of having a genuine impact on the world.

As with the Obama campaign, people with money and power are now taking videogames seriously, if only as a channel to a hard-to-reach audience. Some part of me is glad it took this long, because there’s a loss of innocence coming that’ll make Gears of War 2 look like Bambi. But it’d be a real shame for videogames to skip straight from scapegoat to PR tool without making a few genuine waves along the way. Or are we all just waiting for the next downloadable album of protest songs from Rock Band?

Colin Rowsell has survived the 2008 New Zealand general election. Talk to him at [email protected].

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