written by Alastrom
It’s no simple question to ascertain if video games are “art.” Certainly, they fall into the category of an artistic medium with a plethora of titles capable of standing as the example. But to truly answer that question we’d have to first determine what art is and that has yet to be achieved even in the art world. It would seem the best metric we have is to compare video games to similar comparable media but alas, no such media exists. We could venture to the realm of television and film but there are no natural comparisons to be made between the two that wouldn’t also fit for books or theater. This leaves us with a significant problem. How can we discuss games as art if we can’t decide what art is? I believe we need to accept that some games can be art and through that, argue for their specific characteristics. But I’m not interested in discussing any specific artistic game in question. In fact, I’m not looking to discuss games as art as a general principle. I would instead prefer to focus on games as propaganda, because we’ve clearly entered the realm where that is an undeniable reality.
Where do we draw the line between art and propaganda? It would seem that the propaganda of a thousand years ago is collected at great expense as the art of today. In the same way, the art of years past often resurfaces as modern propaganda. In a simple explanation, the goal of art is to cause an emotional reflection in the self. Summed in fewer words, it causes us to think. Propaganda, you may argue, has a similar mindset but the ultimate goal is to cause us to act. So much of art is about exploring the process of creation and I would argue an artist shouldn’t know exactly what it is they are making until the final brush stroke has been applied or the chisel has struck one last time. It’s that exploration that gives us deeper meaning into the piece itself and let’s us ponder its mysteries while reveling in its form. Given that the goal of propaganda is to bring about action, one might summarize it as calculated advertising. Both terms, advertising and propaganda, have negative connotations in Western culture but both have immense value in establishing the world as we know it. For that reason, I don’t disavow the value of propaganda but I believe we should be aware when such forces are in action.
I believe that video games have proven they have an artistic conceptualization. There are numerous processes that come together from animation to design to even music but in each of these the artists must explore what it is they’re trying to create. However, we have seen real life examples of ideology interfering with that process. To be fair, I think it’s both good and natural that art is influenced by our beliefs. However, there’s a clear difference in being influenced and being controlled. It’s not my goal to get caught up in the ideologies of any main political forces, though much of the current propaganda in gaming seems to come from a liberal base right now. This seems to manifest in what most are categorizing as the “SJW” effect in gaming. It’s difficult not to mention Bioware’s Mass Effect: Andromeda and the “Ugly Female Controversy.”
The pandering of propaganda mediums in games also disrupts any valuable attempt at story teling and instead forces the player to become aware of a political message being pushed upon them. Consider, the original Wolfenstein games. No one had a problem with the idea of a character going forth to slay legions of Nazis, regardless of the reason. Suddenly, Nazi becomes a modern pejorative for people you disagree with ideologically and further Wolfenstein games can’t help but become tainted by that notion. In this situation, Bethesda is no longer making a fun experience set in an alternative Nazi driven world, now it’s trying to use that world to encourage you, the player, to draw a very real comparison to our current political setting. To be clear, this author believes the Nazis were defeated during the Second World War. The term has since become slang and to suggest that this video game has some real world tie in to our modern political setting is not an expression of art or satire, it’s an expression of calculated advertising. Whatever story Bethesda wanted to tell must die at the hands of their political pandering.
Furthermore, a game like Democracy 3 banishes all illusions and panders directly the the audience. In this title, the player is tasked with running for election and dictating the policies that govern the state of which they find themselves in charge. The game provides a very clear bias in that running a left wing government results in winning re-election time after time with little to no effort. When attempting right leaning policies however, the bias becomes even more apparent when the player is assassinated unless they also institute a horrendous police state and assume the title of Darth President. With all illusion of this being a title that encourages player choice or experimentation disappearing around the player, the experience quickly feels cheapened and suffers on the whole.
The problem in these propaganda driven games isn’t always the message. I think of it as value to the consumer. It’s no far stretch to say that propaganda is basically advertising and if that’s the case, propaganda games are basically paid advertising that the customer picks up the tab for. Now, you might say that’s not a problem if your ideologies match those being offered through the game. I would argue against that saying just because you agree with the propaganda doesn’t make it any less so. It certainly does nothing to encourage thought or reflection because you’re consuming media that you already agree with. In so many words, it’s not a problem if a game is propaganda, it’s a problem when you try to deny it. For the rest of us that just want to experience a story driven game free of a political message, we’re left with pretty big problem. Do we shovel past the ideological defecation and try to enjoy the experience, or do we simply vote with our wallets and ignore the game entirely? For my money, I’ve certainly picked the latter option more than the former.
Video games are becoming a powerful media influence in our culture. They’ve moved well out of the basement and are quickly entering into the same level of consumption of film. It was only a matter of time until they were abducted to push a political ideology. The question now is whether or not we’re OK with that. One may argue that it’s impossible to avoid, though I would say it’s impossible to be uninformed in this day and age. Propaganda rarely offers truth or wisdom in the moment and it’s only after many years of reflection that we can understand the drastic effect it has on us. To allow propaganda driven games to freely saturate the market seems like a mistake to me. The problem is currently contained to a small selection of titles but what happens when opposing political parties decide to stage their next advertising campaign in the world of gaming? We’ll no doubt be inundated with a constant barrage of low effort titles that look to hide their message in every dark corner. In that world, art is truly dead and replaced by a mimic of its former self.