Should politics be in games?
This odd but recurring controversy was covered extensively by Errant Signal, Cool Ghosts, Kotaku and others, usually following the line of thought that everything has political undertones - from Civilization's winning conditions to Sonic's eco-friendly tone - so there will always be implicit politics in games.
But I'm here to defend the inclusion of explicit politics, of actively debating issues that we face daily in our democratic coexistence. Especially in RPGs, where having an interesting setting that enables thoughtful choices is highly desirable.
And let me tell you, after playing +200 RPGs for my CRPG Book Project - most of which I simply BATTLE EVIL! or make color-coded binary choices - I am desperate for games with a better (or SOME!) sense of economics & politics.
Sadly, when people think about "Politics in Gaming", what comes into mind aren't open debates, but rather political messages ill-disguised as choices... which leads to this poorly articulated controversy.
Because propaganda usually sucks.
Fable III does politics in the dumbest, most binary way.
By the end-game your kingdom will soon be attacked by Ancient Evil™, so you must raise money and build defenses. As King, you pick policies which result in more or less money and in literal Good & Evil points.
Here's one: Should children work at factories or go to school?
Wow, such nuances...
They even have a ridiculously evil-looking rich man going against a strong black woman, as to leave you no doubt to what they think is the right answer. Choosing otherwise means you're an asshole.
Furthermore, every single EVIL choice wields you money, while all the GOOD choices reduces your money. It doesn't matter that there's Ancient Evil™ coming to kill & destroy everything in a few months, Lionhead has decided that dead children inside a school are better than living ones working.
This isn't a moral choice, it's propaganda. And a very stupid propaganda, because it has no real-world value. What moral lessons should I learn here? Schools > Child Labor? MONEY = EVIL?
Fable III is a PEGI-16 / ESRB-M title, yet a 5-year-old child would feel patronized... let's see if we can find something better.
In Ultima V, Lord Blackthorn takes over Britannia and transforms the pseudo-religious Virtues into strict, draconian laws - such as "Thou shalt donate half thy income to charity, or thou shalt have no income" or "Thou shalt enforce the laws of virtue, or thou shalt die as a heretic."
Yet, Ultima V wasn't a game about marching to the castle and deposing the villain (which would be a guerrilla coup d'
Most importantly, a lot of people support that. Obviously. We see this everyday, from "a good criminal is a dead criminal" to "ban this ethnic group/religion/sexuality/speech!", there are many "good people" who wish for harsher punishment for "bad people" - often via a more acting, controlling government.
During the last year here in Brazil, for example, amidst a massive political and economical crisis there were those who thought the best course of action was a military intervention (aka coup) - like the one we had in 1964 and resulted in a military dictatorship which lasted 21 years:
You may think these people are stupid, but these are *real* people, who are out there living in the same world as we are. They aren't demons, mindless husks, zombies, terrorists, Nazis or whatever other tag magically transforms them into evil-people-you-can-shoot.
It's 2016, and Donald Trump is raising millions of votes, with his nomination for the general elections all but guaranteed. And on the other side, Hillary & Sanders are no less of an odd pair, representing very different world views. This is an unpredictable political & cultural event that eludes the world. If games want to be socially relevant, it's a great time to examine this, to question our morality and beliefs.
Sadly, Ultima V has a disappointing outcome - it reveals that Blackthorn and the rest of the world are under the influence of the Shadowlords - three Ancient Evil™ figures who stole the land's Love, Truth and Courage. Destroy them, and Blackthorn and the others will see the error of their ways.
This is a lazy, cheap cop-out. Any moral debate the game had became this:
There's no Ancient Evil™ behind any US candidate, neither of them will be defeated by the power of Love, and any shallow "Good vs. Evil" dichotomy will only serve to burry debate under a shallow, useless bickery.
Yet, Ultima V remains one of the most interesting "political" RPGs ever made. Not only it shows how good "virtues" can turn bad, but because - even if for a moment - it showed players "hey, some 'good' people approve this 'EVIL' government".
A novel idea in 1988, that now only showcases how politically stale RPGs have been in the past 28 years.
So, for a change, let's take a look at a game which does handle this masterfully:
Dragon Commander is a unique RTS / Board Game / Political Simulator hybrid where you are a half-dragon emperor who leads armies into the field against Ancient Evil™ and also rules the kingdom.
While the RTS part is rather unfinished (sorry Larian), the game is incredibly interesting for its political debate. Your kingdom contains five races: Undead, Elves, Imps, Dwarf and Lizards. They assemble at a council, and regularly present policies for you to enforce or discard.
Far from the stupidity of Fable III, here each of the 60 policies presented are representative of real-world issues - Public Health Care, Gun Ownership, Piracy, Torture, Deporting Criminals, Press Freedom, Same-Sex Marriage and even Breastfeeding in Public:
These policies are argued for or against by the five council members. While each is rather archetypal, they aren't GOOD nor EVIL, just different; making points you often hear in real-world's debates.
I.e., should there be Government Healthcare?
What do YOU think?
There's no GOOD OR EVIL choice here, no moral judgment from the developers. The consequences of your choice are nothing but logical - some factions will like you more, other dislike you more. Approving Public Healthcare makes the population happier, but also increases your expenses.
This isn't propaganda, there's no agenda being pushed here - it only presents a very real issue, show some contrasting views and ask you to reflect on that. Then deal with the consequences of your choice.
Here's an amusing video showcasing some of those choices and how players voted:
More than that, Larian actually released the Excel file on player votes!
This is the boiling pot of politics & ideas that developers should explore. These are questions that have no clear answer, that lead to interesting debates. That we have such a diverse audience yet still choose to address politics by color-coded GOOD & EVIL choices is nothing but shameful.
Sadly, when not awkwardly asking for "politics to be removed", gaming audiences (and many journalists) still praise "moral choices" like "PUNCH REPORTER - Y/N", "NUKE TOWN - Y/N" or "SAVE DROWNING KID - Y/N". Those aren't interesting choices - they aren't even interesting as evil choices, but rather "LOL, I'M AN ASSHOLE!" moments.
Finally, let's take a look into a game that not only presents interesting politics, but also combines them with economy in its world-building & questing - leading to one of the most interesting settings in RPGs:
Arcanum's world was a cookie-cutter Tolkien-ish realm. Elves in forests, Dwarfs in mines, Orcs in the wild, humans lock in power struggles, mages casting fireballs, knights in armor, etc...
Yet, instead of an Ancient Evil™, it got a steam engine.
Its creator, Gilbert Bates, didn't use it to create an army of steam-punk robots to take over the world or anything - he started an industrial revolution. And the developers went crazy figuring out how one of the biggest events in human history would change a fantasy world.
Plagued by roaming tribes of barbarian, Orcs and Lizards, Arcanum is a dangerous and large land, so mercenaries escorted trade caravans while mages offered safe teleportation at a high cost. The technological progress and creation of railroads have since put mercenaries out of work and undermined the Mage's influence - after all, who will study Fireball when any idiot can throw a grenade?
The revolution began in Tarant and was embraced by its King. But the rising bourgeoisie soon overthrew him and turned Tarant into a democracy, capital of the newly formed Unified Kingdom; The King of Cumbria rejected technology as blasphemy and saw his kingdom crumble economically, while the Kingdom of Arland embraced it and it's now petitioning to be a part of the UK - all these events are explored in interesting side-quests.
Racial relations also changed - Gnomes, the weakest race around, began investing in this new technology and found themselves enriching and rising in power... which upset other races and lead to one of the best side-quest in RPG history (and believe me, I've played A LOT of them) - the Gnome Conspiracy.
I won't spoil it here, just tease it a bit:
This is the kind of well-thought world-building you rarely see in RPGs. It's part of why so many games devolve into lazy "collect 10/10 fangs" or "kill 5/5 Orcs" bullshit - their settings are too shallow and stale.
Arcanum's setting has enough depth and verisimilitude to form what we call in
R'lyehian marketing-speech "Macro Environment" - major external and uncontrollable factors that influence organizations:
This is vital for a living, interconnected world - otherwise quests, characters, factions, events and choices exist in a vacuum. Sadly, the only major external force in 95% of RPGs is the Ancient Evil™ du jour.
Dragon Age: Origins, for example, is full of lore and conflicts... but they are mostly stagnant and isolated. The Dwarven xenophobia, the Mages vs Templars, the City Elves's ostracization and even the goddamn Elves vs Werewolves drama have all been going for literal CENTURIES! (Yup, check the wiki)
And it's not even the Blight which change things, but rather THE PLAYER, this messianic figure that solves centuries-old conflicts by making color-coded choices and killing stuff. Compared to Arcanum, Dragon Age's folk have no agency - they are idiots standing around waiting for change to come.
(BTW, RPGs rely so much on their lore & Ancient Evil™ to produce quests and conflicts precisely because lore is way easier to create than a living, breathing world with believable power relations - vide Skyrim.)
But more than "just" an active, changing world, Arcanum's depth leads to unique moral dilemmas.
In our own Industrial Revolution we had people being employed under cruel work conditions, sleeping piled-up in factories, child labor and all that. In a Tolkien-ish world, we have labor cheaper & more efficient than human children: Orcs, as Saruman and Sauron can attest.
So here we have Bates' factories employing Orcs - taken from the wilds and offered a chance to join civilization. Yet, secluded in slums and overworked, they don't seem so happy with how that played out:
The screenshots don't give the full nuance of this conflict - Orcs are a savage race, which were raiding towns before being integrated into society. And all of Arcanum's enjoying the benefits of an Industrial era, but someone needs to work - cheaply - at the factories for that to happen...
(Compare this to how DA:O's city elves live in slums simply because RACISM!, which is EVIL!!!!11)
Oh, but you know which fantasy workforce is cheaper than Orcs? Zombies! Lo and behold, Arcanum has a family of necromancers whom "employs" undead dwarfs:
In an 1988 interview, author Isaac Asimov had this to say about the role of Science Fiction in the world:
"It [Science Fiction] works up an artificial society, one which doesn’t exist, or one that may possibly exist in the future, but not necessarily. And it portrays events against the background of this society in the hope that you will be able to see yourself in relation to the present society… That’s why I write science fiction — because it’s a way of writing fiction in a style that enables me to make points I can’t make otherwise."
Well, here's Arcanum doing just that, but with an artificial past & magical society that can't possibly exist - what some would call "Science Fantasy". And it ask questions that our society never had to answer, but say a lot about ourselves regardless. For example:
You may look at these and think the "right" answers are obvious. If so, STOP.
This is the mindset that leads to people ignorantly asking devs to "remove politics from gaming" - because you're not adding politics, you're adding propaganda - a false Good and Evil dichotomy.
There's no "right" answer, that's the point - it's an exercise, a debate players should have with their own morality & beliefs. And (if your game is good), live with the consequences of their choices.
To illustrate, I'll leave you with one final statistic from Dragon Commander:
"For my friends, everything. For my enemies, nothing. For all others, the law".
PS:There's nothing wrong in and of itself with propagandising or pushing forward a message - you do you.
Just don't be suprised when people push back.