Are Video Games Political?

Good question, but let’s start one floor higher. Some people claim that:

Everything is political

But here is the problem: if everything is political, then the word loses its meaning, even if we narrow it down to any human activity. Words were invented to mean specific things, that’s why potato is not an answer to every question ever.

If any activity is political, then political activity is a pleonasm, and therefore we should stop using the unnecessary extra word.

Should we?

Should we drop the word? Remove it from the dictionaries and the language?

Or should we keep using it to distinguish between things that are political and things that are not?

If it’s the latter, then the obvious consequence is that not everything we do is political. The very existence of the antonym apolitical — not interested in or connected with politics, of no political significance — suggests that this is indeed the case.

Of course, that not everything is political does not mean you cannot it make it so. Humans are wonderful this way, we have this thing called imagination. But the fact that a cigar looks like a penis to you does not mean it is a penis or that it exists to remind you of a penis or that whoever invented it unconsciously needed to hold a penis. Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. So, if against actual evidence you believe that Tetris is a Soviet propaganda, that is hilarious, but the hilarity is not enough to make it true.

This conflict between what is political and what can be made political is in a way an echo of Paracelsus’ famous words that:

All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.

It feels to me that some people only take the first part — all things are poison/political — conveniently forgetting the part where a glass of water is not poison.

To further complicate this shocking concept of not everything being political, we can have things feature elements of politics, and yet still not being political. Exactly the same way as we do not call saccharine salty even though technically there are traces of sodium in it.

Note that even the definition of apolitical sometimes describes the word’s meaning as “of no political significance”, separately to “disconnected from politics”. It means that sometimes the apolitical does feature some degree of political, just not in any meaningful way, and therefore remains apolitical.

We need these cut-off lines and caesuras, because without them the conversation would be either unbearable or meaningless. Everything a human ever created would be, for example, both art (because you never know what might evoke a sense of beauty or emotion in someone) and food (because we can process most matter into a swallowable powder, and even non-digestible things — like fiber — are good for the body) at the same time. And yet we don’t usually call a chalk stick “a piece of art” or “dinner”, even though it might be in a heavenly color and it does contain that important calcium.

So things can be cleanly apolitical, or feature some degree of political and yet remain apolitical. Just like the words of Paracelsus I mentioned before describe it: it’s the dose that makes the poison.

What is the caesura that helps us determine whether something is political or not?

As a creator I see three self-explanatory top levels of politics in any work of art: no politics, the coloring, and the message.

As an example, in the world of video games, Bejeweled offers no politics, Resident Evil uses the politics as the coloring, and Spec Ops: The Line is all about that message.

Of course, life refuses to be simple and I hear there are at least fifty shades of gray. So, for example, Uncharted is somewhere between no politics and the coloring, and Far Cry 4 is at that peculiar spot where the coloring and the message meet.

Personally, I consider everything that is the coloring and below as not being political. Simply because the coloring, by definition, has nothing important to say (if it had, it’d be the message and not the coloring) and does not make me reflect on the political layer of a thing in a meaningful way. I don’t consider Predator a political movie because that layer of a CIA task force fighting in a fictional South- or Central-American country is merely an excuse to have bad ass mercenaries fighting a bad ass alien in a jungle.

It also does not really affect me on an unconscious level, because, as I once argued:

[…] fiction is the least powerful shaper of attitudes and beliefs, far behind genes, real life experiences, and media. It has to do with the way schemata are constructed in our brain. A thousand books are less effective than genes and one real life experience. I wrote a short introduction to the subject here.

Of course, one can look at Predator from the political or societal angle and argue about its “right-wing politics and homoeroticism”, but that in itself does not make the movie political or homoerotic, just like writing a poem about a garbage can does not make it a great place for a romantic dinner.

To sum it all up, some things that humans create are political, and some are not. The line dividing the two might be blurry (but, in the immortal words of Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it”) but we’re not here to discuss the line, we’re here to discuss whether everything is political or not. Unless we want to drain words of their meaning (everything is art, everything is food, everything is political, etc.), then not everything is political.

Okay, maybe not everything, but all art is political

Some people believe so, even if no known dictionary or encyclopedic definition alludes to it in any way. Some even believe that if art is not political, that’s not art.

But how is evoking a sense of beauty or emotion political? It can be, but how is it political by default?

If we agree to govern our communication by the established rules and definitions of the written language, it’s not.

As I mentioned before, the human brain is an amazing assembly of atoms, and it can “prove” that black is white. But while it might be a fun brain exercise, it’s neither truly productive nor it means that black is white.

Think of it this way: people in favor of art being political claim it’s because politics that surround your life shape you as a person, and thus consciously or unconsciously your creations are political. But religion also shapes our lives, whether you believe in gods or not. Is everything we create religious — relating to, or devoted to religious beliefs or observances — then?

Or is the dose?

Others claim that even being neutral is being political, because the act of not acting is acting and neutrality means supporting the status quo which makes it a political statement. This, to me, is a form of kafka-trapping, in which a denial is considered a confirmation. The act of not acting can indeed be political, it’s just that it is not political by default.

But there’s a better way than semantics and logic to explain why not all art is or should be political, and for that let me use the words of another game developer, Jonas Kyratzes (The Talos Principle). He wrote an article that I partially disagree with for quite a few reasons (for one, no, the current “crises of capitalism” not “a destruction on an unprecedented scale”), and I find his distinction between actually political and politically themed a bit shady. But ignoring how he got to these words, they do ring true:

Reducing art to a political tool robs it of its potential for transcendence. Art is significant precisely because it has no purpose; it exists because we want it to, humanity reaching for something beyond the basic functions of biology; it doesn’t matter whether you call it grace, or the divine, or a manifestation of the human capacity to imagine, what matters is that art at its best transcends the world we live in (even if it always begins there) and moves us in ways we cannot easily explain. If that is lost, then what we are producing is not art; it’s advertising. Turning art into a political tool — even for “political self-expression” — denies artists precisely that most important ability of reaching beyond, including beyond themselves.

To be clear, Kyratzes does not say that art is not political, and he is not particularly tight in his reasoning: here he is asking us not to reduce art to a political tool and claims that art serves no purpose, but later he says we should not use the gift of transcendence “to escape our responsibility as citizens and as human beings.” But the words of the unknown journey and art transcending the need to serve a political agenda did resonate with me.

And they are is all I care about, actually. People disagree on the subject for ages, and for every “To labor in the arts for any reason other than love is prostitution” (Pressfield) you get a book titled “All Art is Propaganda” (Orwell). But if you agree that an artist’s creation does not need to serve an agenda, that it can be free of your ideas of it, that it can provide pure escapism or directly clash with your values, then, at the end of the day, I don’t care all too deeply if you call all art political or whatever else is the flavor of the day.

Speaking of artistic freedom, let’s now hear the ultras of other side…

Politics have no place in video games!

Here is a Top Five of games you wish had never been made, then:

- Metal Gear Solid
- Bioshock
- Deus Ex
- Metro 2033

All of these, in their own way (through parody, grotesque, cyberpunk staffage, etc.) tackle political and social issues on a level that easily allows them to be called political.

And here’s one that the mention of which will give some people a stroke. Bloodborne is political. Nope, I don’t mean its coloring layer. I mean its core message level that reveals the game as a carefully crafted story about the need for humanity to ascend from the shackles of religion. As Yharnam, Phtumerian Queen is my witness, I will prove it soon in a separate piece.

What you’re really saying, what really gets your blood boiling, is that you don’t want the issues of the modern world be present in your games. You’re not avoiding all political matters, necessarily, you just want them not to be directly copied from the current headlines.

Even then you have no right to dictate the creators what is it they can and cannot make, though. And, by the way, in an ironic and cruel twist, you just became the censor you accuse the other side to be.

This is a really simple deal.

But games have to be fun!

Some people were stimulated emotionally and intellectually by Gone Home (yes, it’s a game) or Her Story (yes, it’s a game), some enjoy spending thousands of hours shooting other people in Overwatch or Destiny (also games). Some like solving a puzzle or managing resources, some find it tiring and prefer to play football or drive a race car.

In other words, your idea of fun is not necessarily someone else’s idea of fun.

There’s a reason why porn sites have categories, you know?

Final word?

I don’t really have one. To be honest, writing this piece was a pretty depressing experience. Instead of working on a game, I just wasted a day arguing that not everything is political, but sometimes things can be, and if you don’t like something then you don’t have to buy it, and that different people enjoy different things.

See you next time, when I’ll explain how humans like to laugh sometimes and that clean air is better than polluted air.