Towards a dissent in gaming
by Martin Hare Michno
Image courtesy of Fireaxis
For a long time now, the definition and function of a videogame have been fossilised as a pure and apolitical entertainment. It is an art form which has been crystallized – frozen. It struggles to shatter its mould and unbound itself from its present form. But what makes videogames exciting is the potential which boils beneath it, which slowly but surely melts the solid and hardened function of gaming. For a richer form of art, we must delve deep into the dark, untrodden cavern of videogames and find at its depths the source of its liberation. And just as it is with most things, the most enlightening way to explore is to be driven by curiosity and to give voice to questions hitherto only thought. Needless to say, there is a question which never ceases to bubble up to the surface: the question of the political videogame.
Whether we like it or not, videogames are inherently political; there is really no escape from ideology. Like any other product, videogames cannot be produced in an ideological vacuum. Instead, they are formed by the society and time they exist in and in turn influence and help form society itself. Until we explore this political dimension of videogames, the gaming form will remain fossilised, and its revolutionary potential as a digital art will forever slumber.
To awaken the revolutionary monster which lurks in the depths, which sleeps in the boiling waters, we must dissect the ideology of videogames, its meaning, and its function. Ideology in this sense refers to systems of beliefs, myths and ideas created and maintained by larger social forces which aim to legitimise and naturalise a state of reality. When an ideology becomes part of our social world, it becomes invisible – although ever-present. That is to say, ideology is seamlessly integrated into our reality and seemingly becomes completely natural. The invisibility of ideology creates in people a “false consciousness”, which is their inability to recognise the ills of the society they live in. The popular view that videogames are (or should be) apolitical is one that is blind to this exact subtle nature of ideology and its necessity to disguise itself as normal, natural and “matter-of-fact”.
In general, any advocacy for a-political and non-ideological videogames is a victim of this aforementioned “false consciousness”. Hidden within the pixels of any videogame there is a constellation of ideologies which take material form in many aspects of the game, from the narrative to the mechanics. Many videogame tropes – Boss Battles, amnesiac protagonists, evil forces, introductory green-valley levels, endangered villages, collectables, etc. – can be effectively deconstructed to reveal ideologies present in our society (unfortunately, the time and effort to actually deconstruct each of these tropes would require another few articles). It is not that ideology is implemented into the game, but rather that the game is formed by ideology. The hero, the Other, the narrative, its approach to the material world, the language, the imagery, etc., all of the components are in very subtle ways influenced and formed by a certain ideology. Every game is worth considering from an ideological framework, as many will offer valuable information about the way we shape and construct narratives to maintain and reinforce a system of beliefs.
Anyone aware of ideology within videogames will not be surprised by the stale state of its industry and content. Neoliberalism, the dominant ideology in Western society, has shaped what videogames are and what videogames will become. Needless to say, it is neoliberalism which has commodified digital art. It is precisely neoliberal ideology which is to blame for the staleness of gaming, its fossilisation as entertainment, its existence as a thing for profit rather than art or social change. Perhaps, to take a recent example, this is best manifested in the rise of loot-boxes, which have normalised gambling for children, as they could only exist in a society which produces for profit.
Videogames cannot escape ideology. They must either reinforce it or subvert it, but can never exist beyond it. After all, neoliberal ideology is not simply at the root of every game, but it is the very soil on which the industry grows. A worthy innovation in the digital arts is one which succeeds to subvert or challenge the dominant ideology. One which, if possible, alters the soil which nurtures it. Until then – until the industry actively confronts ideology and dissents from it – videogames will remain frozen in their mould, consisting of overused tropes and stale ideas, and with the sole aim of turning a profit. So, let us seek its liberation. Let us shine our torch onto the ideology which so firmly holds the digital arts within its confines, and let us strike it with great force. Only then can it awaken and rise from the boiling sludge.
And just like magma, it will erupt.