Videos Games & Political Consciousness

I wrote this piece some time ago about video games for Memory Insufficient, a games history ezine. This is it.

Click this link to download the PDF.

I’ve spent the last couple of nights binge-playing through the Mass Effect trilogy, which reminds me a little bit too much of the late nights I’ve pulled work- ing on political campaigns and social causes in the past. The setup is about the same: all of the above require a single-minded approach to The Goal. Total dedication is best. Showers can be skipped. So can sustenance. The Goal can be anything: win an election, stay out of trouble, vanquish aliens or make some connections. All other objectives, like rescuing civilians or being a decent person, are often secondary. The joy you feel from completing a mission on a planet feels as real as any real life political victory you’ve ever thrown your weight behind.

One day you’re editing a speech for a politician, the next you’re fighting a fire — in the hull of the ship, or on Twitter. It’s all interconnected. I’m an avid gamer, political otaku and all around nerd, so perhaps I feel that way because my favourite games are the ones that in- clude, even combine, some elements of all of the above. Just like history, games — and their plotlines and char- acters — are written by the victors: those who control the battlefield. Some gamers like to believe that the game worlds we so love are or should be free of the in- fluence of politics and ideology; that they exist as works of art alone in a vacuum and should be appreciated as such. Others have written volumes about identity poli- tics and video games (and indeed there are many prob- lematic aspects associated with being a female, Asian and gay gamer).

Political capital is often spent by the ones who don’t know they possess it. Games are often presented as being mere works of fiction. Some of them, like Assassin’s Creed, even tell you as much, by starting off with a disclaimer calling it a work of fiction inspired by historical events. Yet being the nerdy amateur writer and political historian that I am, I’m more keen to line up the story they don’t tell you — in-between the cutscenes, behind the sto- ryboard and everywhere except onscreen. When you make a decision to assume a character or interact with one, how much of it was already made for you?

Let’s start from the beginning.