Video games have highly evolved since their inception. The evolution isn’t just in the production values where beeps and static upgraded to film-quality soundtracks and those plasticene 3D character models that flopped around like rag dolls became more expressive and life-like. It’s also been in games’ stories and messages they may send.
There’s game stories that are inherently political like Papers, Please while others are simply more political in nature than the average game; even if they don’t necessarily make the game world’s political environment front and center, but just throw more shade than Chrissy Teigen.
Then you have The Politically Incorrect Adventures of Gewt Ningrich.
I stumbled across this game that lives up to its namesake when I was browsing Classic Reload one night. Much to my delight, this site is full of old Mac shareware and I was actually looking for an old Mac game about Bill Clinton to show a Twitter friend. The Monica Lewinsky story was constantly being retold on social and traditional media in the face of the Kavanaugh hearings, and it made me recall an old shareware title I forgot the name of that heavily snarked on Clinton’s reputation as a womanizer. And this game was one of many that came out around the same time when I was in eighth grade, and they were still far from the first instances of politics in games or games serving as political commentary.
But political commentary in games didn’t start with issues like climate change and civil rights movements being tacitly (or even overtly) injected into labyrinthine AAA narratives by the mid-aughts. Politics have been present in games a lot longer than you think.
Yesteryear’s games have historical value because they serve as a lens into then-contemporary politics and culture, as well as the state of game design and any role games played in political commentary.
I didn’t discover The Politically Incorrect Adventures of Gewt Ningrich until recently but recalled the numerous humor games about Bill Clinton that came out for Macs around the same time this game was made. Often, they were Whack-a-Mole or Space Invaders clones that used pictures of people from the Clinton administration. But in the numerous shareware discs that littered my middle school desk, sometimes there’d be games with little stories or missions relating to Clinton’s numerous sex scandals as well as political issues of the time like the formation of NAFTA and Clinton’s role in trying to attain peace between Palestine and Israel.
One of the most prominent political games in my memory was the seemingly Monopoly-inspired game Pork Barrel by Gypsy King Software where the premise is that you’re the president who has to keep various campaign promises while going on luck-based, dice-driven quests and maintaining your approval rating. Game mechanics wise, it was full of intense decision-making where there was a strong chance that all of your available choices would piss off one group or another.
Of course, politics were present in games in some way before this. There was a little-known first-person adventurish type of game taking place in an alternate history where JFK survives the assassination attempt and I’m sure if you keep browsing Classic Reload or GOG you’ll find tons more games about Reagan and the Iran Contra Affair, the FDR administration during WWII, or strategy games with smaller leadership roles like governor or mayor.
But you don’t want to keep hearing about the indie games of yore, even though I could rant about them all day. What if I blew your mind and told you that Oregon Trail was a political indictment and you had NO fucking idea?
Politics, history, culture, and economics are all inexorably linked. The media we consume often serves as commentary on these things whether we realize it or not. Not just in what they say like numerous games about political figures or the slightly more in-your-face commentary on the consequences of rampant capitalism that you can see in more recent adventure games like Shardlight and Lamplight City, but also in what they don’t say.
There is so much nuanced discussion I could have about the Oregon Trail franchise, but many academics and game historians already heavily scrutinized this beloved childhood favorite where we shoot buffalo and die of dysentery en route to the wild west. The politics in this game aren’t as baldly apparent as the other games discussed so far but rather, the political undertones lay in what’s not shown. If you played any version of this game in your youth, do you remember having a context for it?
Oregon Trail was a trailblazer (pun unintended) that played a major role in how games are used in children’s education at home and school. Even though games have evolved so much since the first versions of MECC’s landmark titles, designing edutainment for kids is always a delicate balancing act. For many people in the generations that grew up playing Oregon Trail, we just didn’t have context for why we were filling up wagons and traveling to the Willamette Valley risking dysentery, drowning, cholera, and loads of other gruesome ways to die. I was left to my own devices with the Apple II version at school and the deluxe version shown in the screenshot above at home, followed by the intense overhaul that is Oregon Trail II. Oregon Trail II was an incredible feat of mid-90s game development but despite having the assistance of a PhD in American history, its political statement lies in the lack of context: that you’re going out west because of Manifest Destiny, a concept that was initially uttered by a newspaper editor but was later embraced by political figures favoring continentalism. Figures like former president Andrew Jackson, who pushed “American exceptionalism” with the Trail of Tears among other atrocities.
So yes, there’s only so much a game meant to be educational and aimed at children can tell you about the violence that settlers committed against indigenous people who were being driven out of their ancestral homes. Save for a few stray trading posts, there wasn’t even any mention that the Oregon Trail itself was initially a trade route until the Peoria Party blazed it with the intent to colonize Oregon.
But whether you like it or not, playing as a settler/colonist totally represents politics in a game.
Political figures, elections, and ideologies don’t need to be at the forefront in order for a game to be political.
All art is political. The “are games art” debate has been raging for a little under a decade now, but messages that games can absolutely have a political subtext. Many often do whether the audience realizes it or not: game developers get castigated on social media for discussing laws and policies that affect their lives and ability to make games for a living. Yet many of the same people will turn around and play Call of Duty later without realizing the political context there is in lionizing the military as much as America does.
A game doesn’t need to have a super complex narrative or politics being a major backdrop in the story in order to provide commentary on historical or contemporary public policy, or the role of politics in one’s life.
Oregon Trail was just one example with what went unsaid, Call of Duty for what it represents. Now think about how prominently medieval settings with feudalistic societies are represented in all genres of games. Stories about royal families, kingdoms, and subsequent conflicts have been at the forefront for decades. They might seem like apolitical fantasy at first glance, but let’s get real: this type of setting isn’t just about the aesthetics. For some developers, it’s a matter of their subconsciouses depicting that the country they live in certainly feels like feudal society but at least here’s a prettier and simpler portrayal of it. For others, it’s a matter of wondering if other forms of society would be better than the one they live in. Having kings and queens who are born or marry into rulership can just plain seem easier than worrying about campaign promises and fair elections.
You’d be surprised at how much political subtext lurks in many seemingly-innocuous games.
Video games themselves have been a political scapegoat.
Back in the 90s, Mortal Kombat became a political hot potato overnight. Even if the game never entered your household, it was discussed at every dinner table and boardroom from Spokane to Miami. Other games with gory and/or sexual content were thrown onto the table and dissected by academics, media watchdogs, parents, faith leaders, and lawmakers. Video games were still such an unexplored yonder that these groups completely lost their shit at the realization that the major game publishers of the era predominantly marketed to children, so sensitive content could end up in the wrong hands. There was worry that video games with disturbing content were the culprit for increases in violent crimes.
Game historian Kevin Impellizeri deep-dove into the violent crimes and activism that led to Senator Joseph Lieberman holding up Night Trap and Mortal Kombat as games that were encouraging violent crimes among young people, and wanted to hold game publishers responsible for irresponsibly marketing to minors. Lieberman introduced the Video Game Rating Act of 1994 which died in the committee once the Entertainment Software Association was born. With that came the ESRB so that content warnings would be put on games with violence and/or a passable amount of sex to be rated M for mature or T for teen, while more minor-friendly titles got E for everyone or K-A for kids to adults. You otherwise got the retail suicide rating of AO, adults only.
We’re coming up on the 25th anniversary of the ESRB’s inception and at the time of writing, 297 mass shootings have occurred in America in 2018 alone. Games are still being blamed for the pandemic of gun violence even though a majority of the same games that get scapegoated are available in other countries. Despite how much more ubiquitous games have become in society and the numerous applications they’re used in, with 67% of all Americans playing video games to some extent? Everyone from lawmakers to think tanks to the neighborhood busybody is still placing the blame on video games not just for escalating gun violence, but for antisocial behaviors and becoming more withdrawn and isolated from the world.
It’s a little ironic that games are still blamed for this when it’s politics that creates the conditions in which we live in that isolates people by design.
Not only have games of all types have brought people together-- couples, friends, entire communities-- but in addition to developers using games to make both intentional and covert political statements, people have turned to games of all types as a form of comfort through incredibly rough political climates. Fulfillment can be found in a game that’s silly and light-hearted with zero political messaging whatsoever, and it can also be found in a long and twisty narrative-driven game that feels like a punch to the gut.
But you can’t say that politics have to stay out of games when game developers’ very ability to make a living depends on public policy, such as the ability to get healthcare without being moored to a job and get our work funded. Did you know that game developers don’t even have an industry classification code from the government? That indie developer making games out of their apartment has to use the same code as Microsoft, which has a ripple effect on policies concerning both the arts and business of games.
It’s also impossible for politics to be independent of games when lawmakers and pundits alike clearly did not learn anything from the hearings and have instead put more onus on game publishers as well as the victims of both gun violence and a society that is increasingly fractured by precarity, inequality, bigotry, and overall feelings of hopelessness.
And whether it’s a game about cute animals that helps you forget about that searing dumpster fire of hopelessness or a story about immigration policy told through pixels, games will continue to be political so long as the medium exists.