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How useful is gaming as a medium in being political?

Gaming has long been a medium in which players can exist in a digital world, have fun with friends, or explore rich narratives. However, in some games, the player is forced to face the socio-political issues which exist outside the virtual world . Some games, like 4x strategy games, allow the player to design their civilisation around a set of unique ideological beliefs, though there is a disconnection between the player and these ideas. While others like Papers, Please centre the interactive narrative around a political idea, involving the player in this closely.

Some of the biggest strategy games allow different levels of depth to the player’s freedom to develop their civilisation’s belief system. 4x strategy is a subgenre that sees the player developing an empire, some of the most well-known of these are Civilization VI, Stellaris, Crusader Kings II, and Endless Legend. Let’s take a look at Crusader Kings II. The player can choose from a vast amount of nations to represent, and thus to develop ideologically. 

Generally, the player will begin in a feudal system and can change laws to alter systems like taxation and proselytization. The interesting thing about these types of games is that the socio-political issues inherent in a system such as feudalism are never explored, as this is not important to the strategy genre, the deaths of soldiers are statistics, and the assassinations of rivals necessary. There is a level of disconnection between the player and the game that causes the politics to change the way they play, rather than change the way they see the game and its context.

Contrasting with this are other political games like Papers, Please. In this game, you take the role of a border officer in an Eastern-bloc-type fictional country. You must look over passports and decide whether to let immigrants in. Some you can choose to let in out of empathy, as perhaps they are attempting to smuggle their medication, for example. This level of interaction with the political nature of the game makes these types of games more emotive and powerful. 

These types of games might not be played for typical recreational fun, but to evoke emotions and create a memorable experience. The narrative of Papers, Please provides more than just an insight into the lives of people under an autocratic government: it provides a close connection through the interactivity supplied by the video game medium, which results in a greater understanding of and sympathy for historical sufferings.

So, these two types of political games provide two completely different experiences. In one, the player is distanced from the sufferings caused by their own political choices, while in the other, the player is closely connected to them. Both of these experiences would be difficult to facilitate without the interactivity offered by video games.

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James Ward

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May 2022
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