These days, politics is unavoidable.
Take Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. Folks, if you thought the latest entry in a Nazi-battling action series would be uncontroversial, then congratulations: you have dodged the news since 2016.
Because unlike the previous games’ mix of World War II espionage and supernatural scares (think Where Eagles Dare meets Raiders of the Lost Ark), this rebooted Wolfenstein imagines an alternate 1960s in which the Nazis conquered America.
You might see where this is going.
In a GameIndustry.biz article, Pete Hines, Bethesda’s Vice President for PR and Marketing, addressed the controversy head-on:
Wolfenstein has been a decidedly anti-Nazi series since the first release more than 20 years ago. We aren’t going to shy away from what the game is about. We don’t feel it’s a reach for us to say Nazis are bad and un-American, and we’re not worried about being on the right side of history here…
[In the game] freeing America is the first step to freeing the world,” says Hines. “So the idea of #NoMoreNazis in America is, in fact, what the entire game (and franchise) is about. Our campaign leans into that sentiment, and it unfortunately happens to highlight current events in the real world.
Like I said: politics is unavoidable.
Wolfenstein II also upset an element of gamers who did not appreciate its diverse protagonists. It’s the same element that fired the Gamergate controversy, and the viewpoint that gaming has been invaded by what some denigrate as liberal “social justice warriors”.
Closely tied to that is the cry: get your politics out of my video games! Games, in this view, are an apolitical space, limited to shooting things and solving puzzles.
But it’s an odd thing to claim, when you consider:
The granddaddy of Nazi-bashing video games, the Wolfenstein series has featured (variously) Nazis, zombie Nazis, undead Saxon knights – and final boss Adolf Hitler, equipped with a robot suit and chain guns.
In questionable taste? Of course, but there’s no denying that Wolfenstein has always been about tackling totalitarianism.
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992)
Dr. Jones said it best:
There have been more than a few Indy video games, with this original graphic adventure by LucasArts an all-time classic. In keeping with the spirit of the movies, Indy has to beat the Nazis to the secret of Atlantis.
And in the underrated Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine you take on the Soviets in a race to unlock the Tower of Babel in 1947. Indiana Jones: fights Nazis and Commies alike using nothing but a gun and a whip.
Half-Life 2 (2004)
Or, “1984: The Video Game”. Wake up and smell the ashes of City 17, and as Gordon Freeman – “the One Free Man” – fight the forces of the Combine and Administrator Breen, the man who led humanity to a Vichy-like capitulation against alien invaders. Overseen by Big Brother-like monitors and drones that photograph your every move, City 17 is an Orwellian police state.
Half-Life 2 is political, philosophical in big ways – hear Breen’s arguments that your actions as freedom fighter are purely destructive. But the action itself tells a story. The human government’s collusion with the Combine can be seen when they attack using very literal biological weapons: headcrabs stuffed inside mortar shells.
Assassin’s Creed (2007-present)
Assassin’s Creed isn’t all free running while wearing hoodies, you know: this series features a decidedly progressive, postcolonial look at historical societies.
It all started in 2007 with the original game, in which you play Altair Ibn-La’Ahad, member of an order of assassins (based on the Hashshashin sect) as you defend the Holy Land against the Knights Templar during the Third Crusade. (This came after Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia reboot, featuring a sympathetic Middle Eastern hero).
I’ve written at length about the politics of Assassin’s Creed III, which views the American Revolution from a Native American perspective. That Assassin’s Creed’s progressive stance has flown under the radar is genuinely surprising.
Metal Gear Solid (1987-present)
I’ll admit that I haven’t played more than 10 minutes of any Metal Gear. But this series is jam-packed with themes of genetic engineering, identity, censorship, and war and peace.
Designer Hideo Kojima has been open about his political views – see here for a recent interview:
Hollywood continues to present the US army as being the good guys, always defeating the aliens or foreigners. I am trying to shift that focus. These movies might not be the only way to view current affairs. I am trying to present an alternate view in these games.
I mean, one of the games is about a terrorist group called the “Sons of Liberty”!
Mercenary III: The Dion Crisis (1992)
The Mercenary games were way ahead of their time – first-person, open world explore-’em-ups, completely nonlinear, offering multiple solutions. They also featured cheeky references to Britain’s Conservative government of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Mercenary III was the most obviously political entry: as the nameless mercenary, you are hired to prevent a corrupt businessman from getting elected planetary president.
How to accomplish this is up to you: run for election yourself, dig up dirt on your opponent, bankrupt his businesses – or just plant a bomb in his office. Rock, Paper, Shotgun has an excellent retrospective on Mercenary III, a game that takes the player down into political dirty tricks.
Nintendo is a non-political company, and its flagship franchises like Metroid tell stories in minimalist ways.
But it’s impossible to miss the cultural importance of Metroid’s strong woman protagonist. Metroid shows the influence of the Alien movies throughout: there’s the facehugging baddies, the isolation and cosmic horror, and iconic heroes: Samus Aran is video gaming’s Ellen Ripley.
Deus Ex (2000-present)
Where to start with this one? Set in a Blade Runner-like dystopian future of global conspiracies, political corruption, and societal breakdown, Deus Ex casts you as JC Denton, an agent with the UN Anti-Terrorist Coalition.
Denton’s task force is headquartered on Liberty Island, which provides the chilling image of a decapitated Statue of Liberty, mutilated in an terrorist attack.
I haven’t played its sequel, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but from reviews it seems the series continues to do what all good sci-fi does: uses analogy to consider issues of society, class, and justice.
Build nations, negotiate treaties, declare war, and develop technology, culture, and religion.
Not so much political video games as video games about politics, either way the Civilization games are a short history of humankind.
The SimCity games are about building cities, which is to say they’re about finding what’s “just right”: the right balance of land use, energy supply, transport links, and taxation. Heart pounding stuff!
Political gurus got their start by playing strategy games like these. SimCity is a proving ground for left-versus-right theories on tax levels; but wherever you fall on the political spectrum, be prepared for your plans to crumble in the face of overpopulation, pollution, and dwindling resources. Almost like real life!
BioShock is the most overtly political game I’ve played. Take a look at the intro:
BioShock’s underwater city of Rapture was built as a monument to the free market: an ideologically pure capitalist paradise. In theory, anyway.
In 2K Games’ vision, Rapture has degenerated into a claustrophobic nightmare: a literally lawless, broken down society in which unregulated genetic engineering has mutated or killed most of the population.
You can agree or disagree with BioShock’s stance on the dangers of an unrestrained free market – but this is as political as it gets.
The Medium is the Message
There’s what it’s about, and what it’s really about. Any great movie or novel has a message, and video games are no different. Anything that has a point of view is political. And political views have been part of gaming for a long time.
I suspect that what some gamers object to is not that politics have crept into their video games, but that the messages are not ones they want to hear.
What do you think? What political themes have you seen in games?