It’s no big secret that gaming is a ways off of being considered a mature, artistic medium, both among the mainstream public and plenty of gaming critics. We have a lot of problems, like how poorly so many titles deal with politics. For example, Battlefield: Hardline might be one of the most offensive games I’ve ever seen, simply through the greater cultural context that the game simply can’t escape, no matter how hard it tries. It was gaining more attention right around the time the Ferguson protests started, and it hasn’t been able to escape the stigma of those protests.

It’s a game that lets you be a police officer armed to the teeth, right at a time where more and more people are becoming critical of real world police tactics. EA picked a very bad time to give this a release. However, that’s not the greatest sin of Hardline. No, that would be making a game that is inherently political, and then trying to completely ignore all of the politics that the concept brings up.

That’s just not my opinion. A writer for the game, Rob Auten, recently revealed that he had been instructed to cut dialog that humanized the criminal characters, because a team member pointed out: “this is someone you’re supposed to shoot in the head, not deliver flowers to.” In other words, a writer was instructed to subtract depth from characters in the game so you wouldn’t feel conflicted about shooting them.

This is a game where you play as police officer. The game is designed so you don’t feel bad for murdering suspects of crimes in cold blood.

Just about all art is political in some way. There’s always some point to be made, even if the creators of the art don’t realize that they’ve delivered some sort of message. That’s perfectly fine. The creator is not the absolute authority on the meaning of a work, that is for the audience to decide. You know, the death of the author line of thought. It’s the idea where the audience interpretation is the more true one compared with the artist or author, who simply creates the work for the audience. Perspective results in the true meaning, not intent.

But what we have here is just one of many examples of gaming outright trying to bury any and all political thought in a work, and somehow sending horrific messages by trying to avoid any sort of artistic intent. It’s a sign of incredible immaturity. I understand that a company is aiming to make a profit by targeting a specific demographic, but trying to purposefully ignore what that final product might represent for the sake of that supposed demographic (straight, young males) will only come off as insulting to everyone else, and even some in that demographic. If something like Hardline were made by a studio or publisher with smaller size and less marketing power, you can bet that people wouldn’t be so positive towards it.

I don’t know of a medium that still does this nearly as often as gaming does. Not even Hollywood blockbusters are like this. Michael Bay, a man known for making stupid and explosive mass entertainment, still purposefully has political statements in his work, like Pain & Gain and its disgust with modern American culture, or the Transformers films love for the military and cynicism for the federal government. Despite his reputation, Michael Bay isn’t trying to just make stupid films, he wants to make films he wants to make (helped by his box office power giving him sway with studios.)

Yet here we are with EA trying to make sure that their game is lacking as much depth as possible. The end result is a game that seems to be glorifying police violence, creating a completely unexpected political statement to fit an established formula for their FPS games. How ironic.

Indie gaming is much better when it comes to dealing with politics. For example, Vagabond Dog’s Always Sometimes Monsters is inherently political by concept. It’s a sort of adventure/RPG about a bum trying to reach his or her ex across the country in thirty days, and it forces you to make difficult decisions. The cast is very representative, and the world you’re in is very realistic. You worry about rent, budget yourself in order to eat, and meet various interesting people with wildly different viewpoints and no real clear cut morality, even among the most criminal of them.

Homosexuality, transgender struggles, racism, economics, political corruption, sex working, parenting, homelessness, and much more all pops up as part of the story as you go, and the game embraces each topic without fear. The end result is a game that tells you more about yourself then you may have ever realized, forcing you to deal with these issues in your own way. It’s the complete opposite of Hardline in nearly every way. It may not have engaging mechanics, but it uses gameplay to tell a truly human story. Hardline is commercial art, while ASM is ‘high’ art. It’s a game with ambition and sincerity, and I had more enjoyment from it than any major shooter release from the past several years.

The AAA scene still doesn’t understand that they’re going to have a cultural impact, whether they want to or not. Indie gaming gets this and puts intellectually challenging titles next to games designed for enjoyment first. They’ve also learned to let those two designs mix in brilliant ways, like the ultra-violent and cynical Hotline Miami series, commenting on the violence it has you commit. Until the AAA world realizes that politics can’t simply be buried, the medium won’t be able to grow into it’s full potential.

  • Are you reading the same article I am? Perhaps it’s been edited? What do you think?

    Anyway, there isn’t anything controversial in this piece. It’s summed up in the first sentence pretty much, and the rest, well just puts some weight behind that sentence. It’s an awful situation that video games are still a second rate art form, but it mainly has to do with it always having been a very technically complicated thing to do, make a video game. It still is. And so games have always only been commercial really, except they were very niche commercial in the early days, so it created the illusion of games inhabiting a non-commercial space that never really existed.

    And it has other problems that other mediums don’t, namely that it’s a lot like pornography, in that it is often given a story for presentation purposes, even though that’s not its intended purpose.

    Personally I feel like games are always going to be either “pornographic”, dual nature with story as window dressing, or gradually split off into a branch that looks like traditional media, where there is this story, and what the game component brings is there to serve the story, and the only way I can personally see the game component doing that is to make the story more visceral and all encompassing by offering a greater sense of being there. Ironically the end result of that has to be a de-gamified video game, since gamifying things is inherently not conducive to powerful story telling.

    Most people seem to still want a bit a “pornography” in their game no matter what, so the puzzles and double-jumps and so on are almost like the obligatory R-rated sex scenes that would drive audiences to theaters in the olden days (before the Internet made real pornography ubiquitous.)

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