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With the holiday shopping season in full swing as Christmas looms just two weeks away, this seems like a good time to reflect on consumer behavior and culture and what these things have to say about us and society. And of course, the role and context that shopping and malls in particular have within video games.
In many parts of America, once-illustrious corporate retail behemoths slouched then crumbled due to economic and cultural shifts, with one anchor store after another closing like a snake shedding its old skin. Tens of thousands of square feet lay barren with VR arcades providing a little revitalization, but the former zeniths of consumerism are being turned into everything from data centers to new high schools, and even senior housing if they’re not demolished.
To get TOTALLY meta on your ass in a piece about malls in games, this also seems like a good time to mention Bloomberg even commissioned a short game just this year about the mallpocalypse.
But in other parts of the country and world, the constant bleating from newspapers and magazines about malls coughing out their dying breaths seem ludicrous. The first suburban-style indoor mall in the Bronx only opened in 2014, and it continues to grow and get more visitors every year. It’s impossible to get an outbound bus from that side of Co-Op City that doesn’t resemble a sardine can regardless of what time of day it is. Mall of America is still the largest mall in the nation that gets 40 million visitors every year with one-third traveling over 150 miles to get there. These mammoth spaces don’t seem starved for cash or foot traffic.
How does this translate from games of olde to today?
Prominent Portrayals of Malls in Games
Given that I was raised on adventure games, the Galaxy Galleria in Space Quest IV is the most prolific memory I have of going to a mall in a game. Say what you will about how easy it was to die in the zero-gravity skating part of the game, this entire segment perfectly encapsulated the aesthetic of how we all thought the future was going to look in 1990.
Space Quest IV was a brilliant kitchen sink of sci-fi tropes and intergalactic adventures and translated these elements to a mall beautifully. The mall looked sizable but not cavernous from outer space, and the breadth of the areas you actually got to enter and interact with didn’t fill me with that “I wish I could go to this place and interact with it!” feeling I’d usually get playing other Sierra adventures. To the younger players, it also felt pretty emblematic of being dragged to real-life malls with our parents: you’re wandering around with no pants and no money. You’ve got your standard collection of stores and you can’t leave the mall or else the Sequel Police would kill you on sight, but to my eight-year-old brain this read as “Roger died because he can’t shop.” Much older me says “Woah, Roger Wilco was pretty anti-capitalist. Why wouldn’t he be after all he goes through over several games?!”
The Galaxy Galleria stands out the most to me personally, along with a lesser-known edutainment title called Math Shop where you serve customers with the power of arithmetic in a mini-mall setting. But those are far from the only games well-known and obscure that contain malls where you use them for what’s mostly their intended purpose: to shop and browse goods or in the case of Math Shop, to work at those stores.
Exploration and having a large space to work with is usually why a mall factors into a game’s design, with Vice City, Left Behind, and Dead Rising coming to mind which serve as a stark contrast to the now seemingly ironically-named Galaxy Galleria. If these game malls aren’t gaping in size, they’re these scary post-apocalyptic settings that more or less fit in with mall management companies’ constant bemoaning in business news outlets. Night in the Woods also has a short sequence with the Fort Lucenne Mall that more or less fits this modern expectation where the characters comment that it looks like a ghost town because people are mostly buying online now.
While this whole “malls as a Mad Max setting” seems to be expected nowadays while older games showed malls as lively or just serving their intended purpose, it actually runs a little deeper than that. Some games that were quite ahead of their time. Did you know that long before vaporwave memes lampooned empty consumerist platitudes of the 80s and 90s then news outlets frothed at the mouth about malls falling face-first into their own gaudy fountains, Ubisoft’s Zombi had humble beginnings as a Dawn of the Dead-inspired action adventure in this totally desolate and zombie-infested mall?
The horror aesthetics aside where some element of desolation is expected, keep in mind that this game came out when mall culture was flowing into its peak. You had to go to a mall or free-standing shop if you wanted to buy anything, mail ordering wasn’t ubiquitous like Amazon and small businesses powered by Shopify and sundry. Even if you wanted to buy games, you were feeding those arcade machines quarters at the mall or some semblance of one like a parking meter long before words like “microtransaction” and “freemium” would muddy up linguistics. Or if you weren’t picking up the latest AAA thrillers from big box stores like Walmart, you had to walk into your local Egghead, Babbage’s, CompUSA, or Electronics Boutique which relied heavily on foot traffic from malls.
It’s interesting that of all the places zombies could’ve infested, the devs chose a mall. Zombi came out in 1986 around the time Reagan passed a massive tax overhaul similarly egregious to the 2018 tax reform with respect to it being this massive giveaway to the wealthy, a year before the infamous “greed is good” mantra was taken to heart after hearing it repeated by Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. It was a fractured time when one group of people had an admirable amount of disposable income and blowing it at malls while others were turning to thrift chic because they were broke, and junk bonds were the equivalent of Bitcoin.
What the hell does all that have to do with using a mall in a video game? Well, it’s because mall culture and games culture have this strange duality and games totally serve as a window into that culture.
Mall Culture Then and Now
Let’s go hop into the Sequel Police’s time travel pod and go back to the 90s. Specifically, to girl games of the 90s.
Sierra games and Saturday morning cartoons were what I lived for every weekend and “girl games” were very slowly and awkwardly being introduced to computers and consoles alike at the time. While I don’t remember seeing computer games I played on TV, I do recall nonstop commercials for these board games that blatantly perpetuated gender stereotypes and encouraged materialism in young girls. I make that statement with one-third with nostalgic fondness for those saccharine neon pink game toys and game pieces, one-third with my eyebrow raised as an adult who lived through the Great Recession, and one-third fascinated as a game designer.
Buzzfeed already did a lengthy takedown of Mall Madness and other shamelessly gendered board games targeted at girls from the same era, and felt it was worth pointing out that this game likely contributed to further confusion concerning money management since you used both credit cards and cash to advance. But it’s worth pointing out this game and how it relates to these portrayals of malls in computer and video games that were still seen as a boys’ town so you had to inject a shopping mechanic to make it appeal to girls if you weren’t going to pinkwash the entire goddman thing.
Ironically enough both in real life and other media, going to the mall was seen as this very gendered thing: it was where every girl was expected to want to spend her free time. It was hurled as a pejorative frequently, like “I know Becky would rather be at the mall than studying for this test.” Simultaneously though, malls also served as a major social outlet in suburban areas that didn’t have anywhere else for young people to go. Despite the negative connotation from coding mall-going as female, mall managers and store owners saw their cash drawers steadily stuff and wanted to build on them as aspirational and social destinations. Malls became the places to be if you wanted to be seen or just drop all your money, and it’s no shock that a board game encouraging spending both dead presidents and plastic came out around this time. The economy was good (for some, at least) and it was all spend, spend, spend baby.
Contrast this to today where despite malls having booming growth in some areas like the northeast Bronx and east Asia, saying that you’re going to the mall doesn’t carry weight like it did twenty-some years ago. People of all ages are looking for different kinds of social spaces that aren’t necessarily predicated on consumerism. Bragging about expensive things you bought is done on Instagram or unboxing videos. Malls are dying in some areas but others have thrived by providing attractions and experiences that a few clicks on Amazon can’t offer. Samir Khan of SIR VR came on the Game with Your Brain podcast to discuss the success that VR developers and malls alike have had with using incredibly large spaces to create VR experiences people can’t replicate at home.
Zombi was a notable exception for showing a mall as this desolate place when spending time at the mall was seen as aspirational. A simple homage to George Romero or a bold statement on what constantly encouraging people to brainlessly spend would result in? I’ll let you decide that.
Malls as a Game Mechanic
Malls simply make sense from a game design standpoint in that you don't have to create a ton of assets to represent a large environment or the player character entering this colossal area. Having to create only one game room with a couple clickable hotspots, or maybe three or four rooms with small arrays and not having to create gigabytes of bespoke assets? Oh god, yes. You can also go the opposite direction and use a mall as this enormous open world and a way to people-watch not much unlike real life.
I was dragged to my mother’s monthly pilgrimages to Franklin Mills, now Philadelphia Mills, throughout the early and mid 90s and the leviathan space was laterally laid out opposed to the isometric view with multiple floors I’d seen in most other malls. Apparently, it was supposed to be lightning bolt shaped in honor of the infamous electricity experiment. I not only wished that the place had conveyor belt floors like in Space Quest IV, but realized that the lateral layout made it seem so much bigger than an isometric view built on height.
There were different color segments like green, red, and orange instead of floors and each one had distinctly different flooring and decor. To my overactive childhood imagination that was bored to tears on shopping trips, it felt like exploring different parts of an adventure game.
Revisiting those memories made me realize it’s not much different than applying horizontalism in a game narrative, where you’re telling essentially the same story through different characters or paths, and it adds a different type of depth than simply making it longer with more content.
Malls in games can center around exploration, a place to just buy supplies, where the characters socialize-- the sky’s the limit. They can be areas you visit just once or function as an entire map of places to go where it’s a significant backdrop to the game or merely a place to get that one item or mission.
It’s still curious to me that two of the most profound examples from malls’ heyday are this bright pink board game employing a zenith of fiscal irresponsibility to advance and this seedy, abandoned maze full of zombies. No matter your shopping preferences and economic leanings, mall culture and the way it’s seen and works around games has definitely been a fascinating observation throughout the decades.
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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.
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