In the 1990 movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the troubled young protagonist Danny falls in with the wrong crowd, a shady group of characters who we later learn are affiliated with the diabolical villain Shredder. When Danny is taken to the group’s “hideout,” we see that it’s an abandoned warehouse-turned-arcade, filled with neon lights, rollerblade ramps and videogame arcade cabinets, populated by misfits who we’re shown don’t fit within the confines of society’s norms.
Another ‘90s movie, Hackers, similarly introduces us to the eponymous cyber punks in another giant arcade where teenaged cybercriminals meet to exchange forbidden knowledge skimmed from the very corporations and governments they seek to subvert for nothing more than cheap thrills and bragging rights.
The common thread these two examples share is that videogames are often perceived as a subcultural domain of the Othered—an attitude that’s reinforced by the narrative of oppression that the “gamer” identity adopts, seen in everything from the dejected-teen-turned-world-savior plot of 90% of Japanese role-playing games to the commercials targeted to this demographic in the first place.
But despite this public portrayal of an adopted internalized narrative, games are anything but a challenge to the status quo. On the contrary, the world of videogames is one that’s wrapped up tightly in a framework of neoconservative ideals and status quo-mongering.
The most obvious representations of this mindset are thematic. One doesn’t have to look very far to find bucketfuls of games that blatantly perpetuate narratives steeped in Eurocentric xenophobia and white right-wing fundamentalism. The Call of Duty series, once a historical shooter pinned against the romantic and heroic backdrop of World War II, has since 2007 taken a shift into decidedly more real—and more alarming—thematic territory. The grizzled Western special-ops veterans players in these games portray are the not-so-subtle stand-ins not just for these soldiers, but for the ideals and systems they represent.
The Modern Warfare spinoff series is built on an unspoken attitude of escalation and fear-mongering; when a nuclear bomb explodes in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007), it’s more than a powerful narrative beat—it’s the culmination and embodiment of the “WMD mentality” that characterized the first decade of this century. Then in Modern Warfare 2 (2009), the envelope is pushed to even greater extremes, as Russian military forces invade the U.S., annexing the nation’s capital and turning the country’s suburbs into warzones—hearkening back to the Red Scare of the ‘80s present in ridiculous movies like Red Dawn. This may seem like an attempt to imbue the game’s levels and action with a sense of real-world relatability. But regardless of the developers’ or publishers’ intentions, the attitudes and ideals of a society seep into the art it produces. In this sense, Modern Warfare is every bit a product of the early 21st century, perfectly fitting in with the political unrest and social maneuvering of the time.
In the nearly 10 years since Modern Warfare’s release, the paradigm for popular games has settled into this hyper-Western aesthetic. Even games that purport to challenge these ideals, like Yager Development’s Spec Ops: The Line (2012) are deeply entrenched in Western militarism and Eurocentric interventionalism. Despite the personal-destruction narrative that follows the game’s protagonist Sgt. Walker, players still find themselves blasting through a 10-hour campaign in which they kill countless foreign insurgents on foreign soil. In other words, the subtext may be evolving, but the text itself has remained largely unchanged. Developers are trying to extrapolate increasingly charitable interpretations of what is essentially the same presentation.
Even games that aren’t explicitly jingoistic in their themes can (and often do) still reflect these values. In fact, one of the most overtly capitalist and libertarian values in today’s world is one of the primary platforms on which so many games’ design rests: the military-industrial complex. The idea that military needs are the principal force driving scientific and technological development is so common throughout so many games that we take it for granted.
A game like Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012), which at first glance, with its sci-fi setting and alien enemies, seems a far cry from the obvious sociopolitical posturing of a Modern Warfare, can still exude the same type of imperialist thinking. The game, set in the near-future, features technology and scientific research as a central component of its resource management. Players can unlock completely new and more advanced weapons, such as laser rifles and composite armors, and even genetic engineering and cyborg exoskeletons, in effect increasing humanity’s technological capacity by an order of magnitude.
Is it an accident, then, that the game’s portrayal of furious human progress manifests in the form of weapons and defense research? The game’s setting and central conflict dictate that, given the circumstances of its narrative, military applications would take a front seat to more humanitarian ones. But Enemy Unknown is just one of dozens of games that follow the same thematic, narrative and mechanical structure.
If fiction in general and science-fiction in particular is an extrapolation of our current societal values projected onto the future to allow for additional perspective, then what does it say about the principles underpinning the dozens, if not hundreds, of games that espouse the message that military need is the spearhead of our science and technology development?
It’s not the violence that points toward this conservative leaning, but rather the values that such actions inherently support. These values and ideals can be expressed through other themes and mechanics. The Civilization series of games are a perfect example of this. The games are billed as “civilization building” simulator, but the methods through which this happens are rooted in very Western and conservative ideals.
Conceptually, players in Civilization try to stimulate growth of their borders and advance their societies. Mechanically, this process is largely a military endeavor. “Power” in Civilization is often synonymous with “military might.” Players either build military units directly, such as warriors and siege units, or construct buildings, wonders and improvements that make it easier for them to build military units later, such as workshops, barracks and foundries.
The win states in Civilization games are all variations on a theme—namely, colonialism. Even some of the non-military victory conditions exhibit this. Cultural victories, for example, are really just a form of soft imperialism; the idea is still to gain power (and ultimately victory) by acquiring more and more land. Whether that goal is accomplished on the tip of a spear or through the slow creep of a civilization’s cultural boundaries is irrelevant.
There are three main “things” that a player does in a Civilization game: building, warring and waiting. Of these three, the games’ combat is by far the most dynamic element of design. In some iterations of the game, things like trade and cultural exchange happen automatically, under the hood where the player can’t even engage with them directly anyway.
The fact that “victory” according to these games—not just Civilization but nearly every empire-building game—coincides with domination is an incredibly Western ideal. After all, a desire—some may even call it a duty—to preserve American ideals like capitalism and democracy has been guiding much of U.S. foreign policy for the past 150 years, as evidenced by military conflicts from Vietnam to Iraq.
It’s a simple narrative that demonstrates a very particular ideal: Western cultural values are inherently correct. Moreover, they’re correct to the exclusion of all others. Opposing ideologies, political leanings and economic systems aren’t just “not-right,” they’re actively shunned as dangerous, corrupting and Anti-American.
One of the most telling indicators of this is the fact that these games don’t take into account non-absolute victory. There’s no incentive to simply thrive. Success and survival depend on continued growth, lest your nation get snapped up by a larger military or cultural power. To put it another way, it’s a throwback all the way to the antiregulation of the Old West—this town is definitely not big enough for the both of us.
What’s fascinating about games is their ability to indirectly reflect the cultures they come out of, often without the intention of the developers. It’s clear that the game industry is dominated by Western Eurocentric conservative ideals. Our society’s obsession with exceptionalism and “great-man” interpretations of history bleed through into our games, painting them with thematic and design-focused brushes that express a worryingly narrow range of perspectives.
Of course it’s easy to argue that the purpose of playing a game is to win. That games have win and lose states, and that those states so often correspond to reaching some sort of performance apex (or, conversely, obliterating your opponent) isn’t inherently wrong. However neither is it a property intrinsic to game design. Games are cultural artifacts, and like all artifacts they reflect our social norms and ideals. If anything, the dearth of design paradigms points to an alarming lack of perspective among developers.
Games are meant to entertain and challenge. That also means that we can use them to challenge our own conventions and cultural dogma. The extrapolative ability of games is unmatched by any other medium, which is why it’s so important to ensure that our social and political representation stays on the right side of the bell curve of progress. It’s the job of the developer to keep us entertained, perhaps, but it’s the job of the critic and the player to keep them honest.
Patrick Lindsey is a Boston-based game critic and occasional developer. He writes his bios in the third person because that’s what everyone else does. He reluctantly claims responsibility for what you will find on Twitter @HanFreakinSolo.