Video games are not all about Billy-no-mates living out pixilated fantasies in a virtual world. There are now a multitude of games, some subversive, and some extremely jingoistic, that engage with political realities. Shamil Khan presents a guide to what’s what in the world of political video gaming and literally cost the earth as well as your pocket
Commercial product placements in video games are now big business. But some developers are hitting back with ‘anti-advergames’. In Disaffected! (www.persuasivegames.com), you play a casualised worker in a Fedex Kinko photocopy store, while in the McDonald’s Video Game (www.mcvideogame.com) you must exploit underdeveloped countries and low-wage workers, and feed growth hormones to cattle. The McDonald’s game is one of a series by the Italian collective, Molleindustria (www.molleindustria.org), who make ‘political videogames against the dictatorship of entertainment’.
If you want to buy a game that takes on big business, try Red Faction (www.redfaction.com). You work on Mars in the mines of a multinational slave labour corporation called Ultor. A deadly plague as a result of a nano-technology experiment that went wrong sweeps through the workers colony, forcing you to rise up against Ultor and solve the mystery of the disease.
An older inter-galactic take on earthly politics, but still available second hand, is Abe’s Exoddus (www.oddworld.com). It is the story of an alien worker who discovers the corporation he works for actually sells his people as pies. So he sets about escaping and eventually finding out who ate all the pies.
The ultimate eco-friendly game is Ecco the Dolphin – a guilt free game for those of us who get a twinge every time we eat tuna. It’s a basic platform puzzle-solving adventure involving a very clever dolphin who’s never in any danger of getting caught up in a fisherman’s net. He utilises his sonar as well as the dolphin equivalent of sixth sense to solve a myriad of complicated problems, all the while educating us about the beauty of the unspoiled oceans and coral reefs.
The US has seen a proliferation of video games that seek either to gain revenge for 9/11 by hunting Arabs or to get back at those nasty gooks for Vietnam.
In Delta Force (www.novalogic.com), you are a gung-ho US special forces soldier shooting Somalis, Ay-rabs, Eye-ranians and Chechens from your Apache helicopter. Quest for Al-Qa’eda — The Hunt for Bin Laden (www.dosgamesarchive.com/download/game/164) does pretty much what it says, with the addition that you have to overcome Pakistani double agents at every turn.
Full Spectrum Warrior (www.fullspectrumwarrior.com) is actually based on US army training simulations. Set in the Middle East, you can blast away to your heart’s content without any chance of picking up Gulf War syndrome or other nasties from the depleted uranium. This realistic game was used as evidence in the court case about Abu Ghraib and has led to massive debates about video gaming and violence.
Then, finally, there’s America’s Army (www.americasarmy.com), an online game that is used as a recruitment tool by the US military. It has also given rise to anti-war protest, when visual artist Joseph DeLappe (www.delappe.net) entered the game using an avatar named ‘dead in iraq’ and began listing the names and dates of death of all US military personnel killed in Iraq on the game’s server.
The perfect antidote to all this militaristic gaming is September 12th (www.newsgaming.com). In this simulation, you have to bomb a city to kill terrorists. But ‘collateral damage’ is inevitable, with every bomb killing more civilians and creating more terrorists
Political gaming isn’t only a battle between the left and the neo-cons. For example, white supremacists in the US created a game called Ethnic Cleansing (www.resistance.com/ethniccleansing), in which the player shoots blacks, Jews and various ‘mud races’, who make monkey noises as they die.
There is rumoured to be a game called Global Jihad in the pipeline, featuring battles in Chechnya, Iraq, Kashmir and Palestine with an eventual battle with a demonic Uncle Sam. The first-person shooter actually halts during prayer times.
Lastly, Special Force (www.specialforce.net) is a video game based on actual battles by Hezbollah with the Israeli army, which has sold over 100,000 copies in the Middle East. In the practice area you shoot large images of Ariel Sharon, while in the main game players are especially encouraged to shoot settlers. Mahmoud Rayya, a Hezbollah official, claims: ‘This game is resisting the Israeli occupation through the media. In a way, Special Force offers a mental and personal training for those who play it, allowing them to feel that they are in the shoes of the resistance fighters.’