Recently, I was browsing Twitch, trying to ignore my growing to-do list, when I saw something unexpected: Alexandria Occasio Cortez, U.S. Representative for New York, was livestreaming Among Us to an audience hundreds of thousand strong. Among Us, I thought, is a fairly apolitical game, so why would a congresswoman play it on stream? The answer: to encourage Americans to vote in the upcoming election. After all, a key mechanic of Among Us is voting, and, by extension, democracy. My thoughts delved further: if Among Us can be used to promote a political initiative, how many other video games contain traces of politics?
There are, of course, the obvious examples. Dystopian game franchises like Fallout and Metal Gear Solid make no attempts to hide their anti-nuclear messages. Square-Enix’s Life is Strange 2 bluntly addresses political topics ranging from immigration to gun violence. Then, there are games that exist in the same space as political topics without directly supporting a specific viewpoint. Most war games, for example, do not explicitly endorse the military, but their stories center around soldiers and, of course, warfare, placing these games in a grey-space.
“Most big, mainstream games are not intentionally [pushing a political agenda], because they don’t want to limit their audience” explained Marc Olano, associate professor of computer science and director of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Computer Science Game Development Track. “It’s really about setting up an environment where the kind of action and gameplay you want in the game could occur.” War lends itself to fast-paced, tactical conflicts, making it the perfect setting for a first- or third-person shooter game.
Still, wars and access to firearms are, undoubtedly, political issues. Certain politicians have long been trying to link violent video games to a person’s likelihood to commit mass violence or hate crimes. Last year, President Trump himself condemned video games for contributing to the “glorification of violence in our society.” Even though the games themselves refrain from commenting on politics, their proximity to hot button issues connects them to politics nonetheless.
Departing from war games, even the most innocuous of titles cannot avoid traces of politics that are so deeply ingrained in our culture. For instance, capitalism is deeply embedded in video games and the culture that surrounds them, acting both as a key mechanic in many games as well as a method of making revenue for game developers. Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the most recent release in the Animal Crossing franchise, is all about “building capital,” according to Torrence Barbour, a sophomore computer engineering major at UMBC. The game revolves around catching bugs and fish, harvesting fruits and collecting other items to sell for even better items, with which players can furnish their homes or expand their wardrobe. There is even a “stalk market,” where players can buy turnips at a low price and then try (emphasis on try — it can be very difficult) to resell them for a large profit. Sound familiar?
Animal Crossing: New Horizons never outright supports capitalism, but it is undeniably influenced by capitalist culture. And it is not alone. Countless games use capitalism as a mechanism for characters to level up their weapons, armor and abilities. Merchants in franchises like Legend of Zelda and games like Undertale have become iconic, and for good reason: these endearing characters are integral to the games they appear in, meaning that players interact with them often and grow attached. Even though Beedle constantly tries to swindle Link in Breath of the Wild, and Redd is notoriously shady in Animal Crossing, players love them because they represent fond memories of beloved games — games that would be incomplete without them.
For many players who have been gaming since childhood, these characters and mechanics have contributed a ton to their view of culture. They teach young players how to save money and how to spend it. On the flip side, not all games encourage responsible spending. There are plenty of games that ask for players’ real-life money in order to progress in-game.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (commonly known as CS:GO) has endured several scandals revolving around skin gambling, a practice in games where players spend real money on mystery items, often contained in virtual “loot boxes,” that have varying degrees of in-game value. Usually, these boxes contain nothing worthwhile, and consumers keep buying and buying and buying them, waiting to get something good.
Keonte Wilson-Robinson, a junior computer science major on the game development track at UMBC, explained why he will never implement loot boxes in his creations. “Instead of play to win, [it becomes] pay to win” and players “don’t want to spend all their money” just to have an enjoyable experience in a game, he said.
In addition to criticisms of skin gambling taking all the fun out of games, players and activists alike have condemned gaming companies that feature skin gambling for predatory practices, such as advertising gambling to minors. Skin gambling and other similar practices abuse capitalism and its flaws to collect obscene amounts of money.
Video games can tell us a lot about the relationship between entertainment and consumers. From them, we can pinpoint flaws in our governmental, legal and economic systems, and try to address them. For as much as video games are influenced by politics, politics also have the potential to be influenced by video games.