I fell in love with video games in the early ’80s, in spite of my parents’ dismay and sensible, draconian time limit. Even on a speed run, I could never finish “Sonic the Hedgehog” in time, and didn’t get to see how it ended until college.
Early on, the stories were pretty innocuous: collect coins, beat the monster, or defend earth from aliens. Some critics, like the strident Anita Sarkeesian (and Sarkeesian is a great name for a final boss) try to read too much into classics like “Super Mario Brothers,” claiming they enforce unhealthy sexist stereotypes.
However, not until recent years have video games been able to offer a narrative quality and character development similar in experience to movies. I still remember the awkward moment in playing co-op “Gear of War 2” with my buddy and getting mutually choked up when Dom finally finds his wife. Of course, as video games grew in storytelling, they also developed the capacity to represent complex perspectives and philosophies. Whereas video games previously tested your reflexes, now they can test your ideas and make you think.
Don’t Forget the Subtext
In a recent Federalist article, Brandon Morse points out that video games now have the same capacity as books to instruct and inspire feelings. Interestingly, he asserts that “video games have paved the way for a wider acceptance of a good number of American conservative ideals.” I am an avid reader of Morse’s articles and share his side on many issues; however, I’m compelled to disagree with him on this.
While the examples he cites are well-argued, Morse falls into the trap of taking video games at face value and not reading the subtext. As with many forms of entertainment, the enjoyment of the experience can often blind the user to the underlying message. These undertones are often thinly veiled; but you’re having so much fun that you’re completely willing to overlook the moral or political implications.
While I grant some games like the “Call of Duty” or “Sim City” franchises endorse conservative principles, the vast majority of modern video games promote ideas that are foundational to progressive ideologies. These games are not overt with their message. Frequently, they restrict the player to embodying a character who does things you wouldn’t normally agree with, or present the illusion of “choices” that advance a narrative the designers intend.
Judge What Characters Do, Not What They Say
Games like “Bioshock,” Morse’s first example, immerse players in a world that strongly reflects Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy. The antagonist, Andrew Ryan, voices strong perspectives that affirm free will and unbridled free enterprise. Yet when you first enter the underwater world of Rapture, something’s off.
As you progress in the story, it becomes clear (if you’re paying attention) that this game is not affirming free will but warning of its dangers if left unregulated. What seem like reasonable ideals result in a hideously twisted dystopia. “Bioshock,” in effect, becomes an “Atlas Shrugged” simulation, in which rational self-interest is, in the words of the game’s creator, a “really interesting idea screwed up by the fact that we’re people.”
Morse likewise observes that first-person shooters, one of the most popular genres, allow players to “experience a fraction of the emotions [soldiers] suffer.” Whether shooting grunts in “Halo” touches even a fraction of what soldiers experience in combat is something I cannot speak to (although I’m highly doubtful). But claiming that first-person shooters are pro-military because they give you the “thrill ride” of killing people in combat is a huge stretch.
Rather than being pro-military, “Halo” features a protagonist who is the subject of a military program that seizes children from their families and forces them to undergo surgical alterations that turn them into war machines. Known only by the impersonal designation “John 117,” the Master Chief is the point of the spear for a military dictatorship known as United Nations Space Command, which justifies its unethical projects in the name of the greater good. Their enemy, the Covenant, is represented as religious zealots, whose blind ambition to live out their faith threatens to destroy all living things in the universe. But who cares, it’s a blast!
Watch Out for Revisionist History and Moral Relativism
At revisionist history, a favorite activity among progressives, “Assassin’s Creed” is by far the worst offender. The Assassin’s Creed franchise retools major characters and events in history as part of a vast conspiracy theory involving a war between the Assassins and Templars. The games portray Templars, the nefarious enemy in the franchise, as both organized religion and a corporation, letting Ubisoft kill two birds with one analogous stone.
The games rewrite various people in history as either being affiliated with the virtuous Assassins (Machiavelli, DaVinci) or evil Templars (Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, J.P. Morgan, the pope). Reciting the mantra “May the Father of understanding guide us,” Templars are frequently represented as authority figures within the military or Christian clergy. You even assassinate a priest in the middle of a sermon (and it’s really fun).
In contrast, Assassins are represented as freedom-loving prostitutes, thieves, scientists, and mercenaries, who fight on behalf of the repressed and underrepresented minorities. Even Adam and Eve were actually the first Assassins, who escaped from alien captors. On the surface, their fight for freedom seems aligned with conservative ideals; that is, until you hear the creed of the Assassins: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” At its roots, this philosophy is founded not on supposedly subjective ideals of morality or faith, but rather on the absurdly objective principle that everything is relative. As one of the main protagonists proclaims, the theory behind the Assassin’s Creed is that “one can only know that one knows nothing.”
This moral relativism is at the heart of many popular video games and echoes the deconstructionist theories behind the progressive movement. A far cry from demonstrating right-wing agendas, many video games endeavor to depict conservative and libertarian ideas as dystopian worlds, repressive regimes, or religious nuttery. This means that, while most parents are busy decrying the violence in their children’s video games, they are oblivious to their inculcation of left-leaning agendas.
An intelligent gamer shouldn’t be fooled by either the illusion of free choice in an open-world game or an entertaining experience masking a problematic narrative. Sure, video games are tons of fun. But games today have more to say than the barrel-jumping days of “Donkey Kong.” While the violence may sometimes be explicit, the underlying message is often less so. Remember to occasionally hit to pause button and critically examine what you’re enjoying.