The DeanBeat: Why politics and games go together

Many gamers say that games and politics don’t mix well because people don’t like serious (or boring) politics woven into their entertainment. But I think that games and politics can elevate each other as they get into an inspiration cycle, where games can inspire political change and politics can inspire meaningful games.

The most benign and beneficial message that game companies can impart is to educate the public so they’re more likely to vote, and to vote intelligently. That’s what Jam City, the maker of mobile games like Cookie Jam and Disney Frozen Adventures, had in mind when it decided to make its Culver City, California headquarters into an official voting center where voters can drop their ballots.

Jam City CEO Chris DeWolfe said the team is passionate about getting people to vote and recognize the power of democracy. They started with voter registration campaigns in 2018 and got thousands of people to vote. This year, they wanted to do more to exercise their civic duty, considering the pandemic could deter people from voting, DeWolfe said. So they partnered with Los Angeles County, so people can drop off their ballots and enjoy some food, drinks, and fun — all while wearing masks.

In an interview with GamesBeat, DeWolfe said this election is more important than ever, with so many issues at stake in both local and national politics. By mixing games and the election, Jam City can raise awareness in a way that other companies cannot. And it can take away some of the stress and anxiety that people feel during election season, DeWolfe said.

Above: Jam City’s headquarters in Culver City, California, is an official voting center.

“People may be a little bit stressed out about the whole election itself,” DeWolfe said. “We wanted to create a safe yet fun and whimsical environment where they could look forward to going out and exercising their constitutional right to vote.”

DeWolfe said the company isn’t partisan, and that the effort is all about making resources and education available to people so they can make their own decisions.

“We think about how lucky we are to be able to vote for our elected officials. It’s a privilege, and it’s an important year to go out and vote,” DeWolfe said. “There’s a lot at stake for a lot of people. It feels personal from the standpoint that I think that there are a lot of emotions out there. And people need to deal with those emotions through voting. And it’s really important that you make it easy for everyone to vote.”

Jam City also uses its games to encourage people to go vote, as it has a big platform to communicate with a lot of people. Games are cool, and they can make voting seem cool too. So yes, politics and games can work together well. As a medium, games are like newspapers. And nobody ever said that politics and newspapers don’t go together.

Specific warnings for voters

DeWolfe could be more political with his message, but a whole spectrum of views has sprung up about how involved gamers and game developers should be in politics. Everybody’s got a cause, and sometimes that cause is to walk right down the middle. Companies can pursue various gradations of political involvement that game.

Outside of gaming, the same is true in tech circles. Steve Grobman, chief technology officer at McAfee, goes one step further than DeWolfe, saying that voters should be aware that in the last week before the election, people will try to mislead them. The Hunter Biden situation is a good example. Grobman said we should be wary of the “hack and leak” disinformation campaign. Some information about candidate Joe Biden’s son is legitimate. But he warns that “fabricated information can be intertwined with legitimate information that has been stolen.”

He added, “Because the legitimate information can be independently validated, it gives a false sense of authenticity to the fabricated information.”

We live in an age where it has become necessary not only to encourage people to go out and vote. It has also become necessary to warn them that they shouldn’t be victims of people who are trying to manipulate them into voting for the wrong candidate. We all know how big a problem this has become on social media. The answer is to go to reliable sources of information.

What games can teach us

Above: Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus showed a Nazified America.

Games aren’t the best source of breaking news. It takes perhaps five years for games like the seemingly political Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, to hit the market. That game depicted an alternate universe where the Nazis took over the United States and allied themselves with the Ku Klux Klan.

Who would have thought that some of this would have seemed eerily truthful? But while they’re often wrong or late when it comes to predicting the future, games can be as instructive as literature. They can speak through the ages, with ideas, visions, and messages that can inspire us to action.

As the election draws so close, it’s good to remember that games can help you form your political beliefs or understand politics better. I played The Political Machine 2020 back in March and it taught me how had it would be for a Democrat to unseat an incumbent Republican like Donald Trump. Given Trump’s superior war chest at the time, a Biden win was a long shot. This game told me we can’t be complacent.

Above: The Political Machine 2020 shows you which states you need to win to be president.

But that was before COVID-19 struck and changed the political race entirely, like a massive comet hitting the world. All of the events that unfolded during that time led to a turning of the tables, where Joseph Biden is now the favorite with the bigger war chest. I remember how Sim City taught me how taxes worked. If you raised your tax rates high, you could afford to create a lot more services for your residents. But you might also find that they would leave your city for nearby cities that didn’t have such high tax rates.

And games like Civilization can teach you what happens when you mix different political ideologies, religions, or economic policies. It’s like a petri dish for figuring out which political systems work best.

Is this adding too much politics into a game? I don’t think so, especially if the game developers have something meaningful to say. It doesn’t necessarily ruin the art, or the fun of the game. It can, in fact, turn the game into art. When Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, the play about the Salem witch hunts, he was expressing his outrage about McCarthyism.

A powerful medium

Above: Tell Me Why features the twins Tyler and Alyson. Tyler is transgender.

Games are the most powerful medium now in terms of their reach and the impact they have on people. They can be very powerful when it comes to normalizing attitudes and behaviors. If we see transgender represented as normal in games and media such as Dontnod’s Tell Me Why, then we can also envision a world where we treat them as normal.

“That’s exactly what we wanted to achieve,” said Dontnod CEO Oskar Guilbert, in an interview with GamesBeat.

Dontnod and other developers, such as Naughty Dog with The Last of Us Part II, can turn inaccurate stereotypes on their heads through this normalization of people in the characters in video games. And it can make a real difference to people, just as SimCity made an impression on me so many years ago.

I felt like the presence of Trump’s Wall in Life is Strange 2 was a profound statement by Dontnod, a French video game company. The point isn’t to be political, but to tell good stories, said Guilbert. But sometimes stories are good because they are political. The presence of the Wall in Life is Strange 2 represented a barrier to the freedom of two young boys, who were improbably seeking asylum in Mexico.

“We have our values and that’s something very important to convey,” Guilbert said.

Retreating from politics

Above: Orwell is back with a dystopian story.

Ubisoft almost instilled political messages inside games such as Far Cry 5, which depicted armed and religious militia run by white males in the state of Montana, and in The Division, where a virus causes the apocalypse in the U.S. and brings down great cities such as New York and Washington, D.C.

But when the game developers discussed those games, they ultimately retreated from taking political stances that would have hurt the market for the games. Ubisoft and Machine Games, both based overseas, didn’t want to get mixed up in U.S. politics, even though their games felt like they incorporated political thinking in their designs. I liked the games because they made me and other people think, and to relate the ideas in the fiction of the games to the ideas that we have to consider in everyday life. But they could have gone further.

By contrast, Ted Price, CEO of Insomniac Games, took a stand against Trump’s Muslim ban in 2016, going so far as making a video expressing his company’s opposition to it. That was admirable. But Marvel’s Spider-Man, the popular game made by Price’s studio, didn’t have a ton of disguised contemporary political commentary. The stand had nothing to do with the games that Insomniac makes, and I don’t think they had an effect on Insomniac’s sales at all.

Sure, game companies may lose a lot of fans when they insert politics into a game. With half the country being Democrats and half Republican, it doesn’t pay to be so partisan that you alienate half the fan base. On the other hand, if you can deliver a powerful political message and weave it into the story in a way that is authentic and not hamfisted, your political message can be powerful. And more memorable. It can help the game developer rise above the rest, the same way that George Orwell did with his novel 1984.

While Orwell didn’t write about the politics of the 1940s or side with any particular party in his book, he did convey lasting political messages about what happens to our freedoms when we embrace extreme ideas around surveillance, secret police, propaganda, and totalitarian government. This message resonated with Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, when he offered an alternative computer to the IBM PC, and unveiled the Macintosh with a memorable television commercial based on Orwell’s novel.

The genius of that commercial is recognized even today, and Epic Games paid homage to it when it used a satirical version of it as it filed an antitrust lawsuit against Apple because it wouldn’t allow Epic to sell goods directly to Fortnite fans within the app on iOS. That satire was an astute recognition that the tech platforms, walled gardens, open-vs.-closed debates, and regulatory matters are inherently political battles.

1984 also inspired the creators of a 2017 game about mass surveillance, dubbed Orwell. Worried about the trends in the U.S. and the National Security Agencies mass spying on all Americans, Osmotic Studios, a Hamburg, Germany-based independent game studio to create Orwell as a cautionary tale for an informed electorate.

I realize that some people will read 1984 and play Orwell and vote for the Democrats. And others will do the same and vote for Republicans. But at least it gets them thinking and motivates them to get out of the house and vote. And that’s what really matters. Where do I stand on politics and games myself? I want to see the whole spectrum of political involvement, from DeWolfe’s call for voting to the indies raging against surveillance in a game packed full with layers of meaning. I want politics and games to come out into the open.

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