There’s no such thing as an apolitical game

By Holly Nielsen. Posted

The Division 2 takes place in Washington D.C. in the aftermath of a smallpox pandemic, and has you liberating the city from a corrupt government. The game’s tone-deaf marketing used real-world political tensions, such as sending out a joke email referencing the US government shutdown and a spoof letter declaring Mexico ‘approved funding for building a wall along the United States border’.

Despite all this, creative director Terry Spier recently told Polygon, “We’re definitely not making any political statements… This is still a work of fiction.”

It’s a denial that attempts to curb any critique of the game’s themes. It’s also a ham-fisted attempt to curtail the internet’s toxic hate mobs that loudly demand we ‘keep politics out of games’. By ‘politics’, said mobs mostly seem to mean anything they see as pushing a progressive agenda: the inclusion of female soldiers in Battlefield V, say.

The Division 2: still political, even if its makers don't think it is.

When developers and publishers say their games aren’t political comments, they ignore the simple fact that these themes can’t be separated from their real-world contexts. Claiming to be apolitical is itself a political statement: an act of appeasement to a toxic community; a disownment of responsibility. The people who decry the presence of ‘politics’ in games wilfully ignore that games have always been political. Video games are part of a much longer history of play. While the examples often cited – the board games made by the suffragettes, for example – are rooted in clearly defined political messaging, nearly every game is a product of its society and the politics of its time.

In late 18th- and 19th-century Britain, there was a surge in the publication of educational board games aimed at teaching children geography. Unsurprisingly, a recurring theme was empire. The way in which empire was both depicted and discussed in these games tells us about their political contexts. Some of the games’ portrayals seem to critique militarism or mercantilism, but celebrate the actions of missionaries, such as The Noble Game of Elephant and Castle (1822), while others unabashedly celebrate empire in all its forms, like ‘Tar of All Weathers, or the Game of British Colonies’ (c.1857).

They’re statements, whether the designer perceived them as such or not. If I came across a source stating that one of the publishers of these games denied its game was a comment on empire, then my reaction wouldn’t be ‘Well, I guess I can’t analyse it because it’s not a statement after all’. If anything, it would pique my interest, because the idea that structured games are purely escapist fun is a fairly modern concept.

For over two centuries, board games were largely seen as a medium meant to teach and ‘improve’ their players. While I’ve found examples in historical documents showing opposition to the political sentiments within a game, I’ve yet to find any responses that state that games themselves shouldn’t be a political medium.

This denial of responsibility for used themes is pervasive in modern games. As a journalist, I’ve sat in two separate preview events, both for very different games, but both with themes of imperialist or colonialist expansion at their core.

Yet at these events, we were told these games were in no way a comment on imperialism or colonialism. If you have to say that your game isn’t making a statement, then that ship has sailed. You can’t separate subject matter from its context; just like those geography board games, a ‘comment’ has already been made by its mere existence. You don’t get to separate yourself from these themes because you say so, or hide behind the idea that the agency that games give players shields you from criticism.

All games are political in some sense because, like every piece of art or media, they’re created within a social and cultural context. The Division 2 will most likely be used by historians and researchers one day as a product of its time, just as the geographical games of the 19th century are studied now. Instead of trying to state the impossible by attempting to remove themselves from this reality, developers should examine and take responsibility for the narratives and themes they use in their games.

More articles from Wireframe magazine