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Players have agency, and they're not afraid to use it

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The rise of far-right tendencies in gaming is a problem, but the will of the player holds the power, not the games themselves

This week, a piece written by Alfie Bown, author of The PlayStation Dreamworld, was published in The Guardian. The core argument of the piece was that video games inherently, and particularly recently, project far-right tendencies onto players. Through playing the games, players are effectively given an interactive experience of right-wing ideologies, which acts to indoctrinate them and is feeding the swing towards a lack of compassion in the politics of young people nowadays. I'd advise you to read it in full, because while it is a bold argument that I don't really agree with, it makes for interesting reading.

So, as I've just said, the argument didn't quite gel with me. I have to start by saying that I absolutely believe there is a problem with right-wing, xenophobic, and misogynist tendencies in video games, as there is in many parts of society. Many people are living in a state of fear because the world as it stands is quite a hostile place, which only encourages "every man for himself" thoughts and a disgust for anything labelled as "other." Some people don't even need that existential fear to feel hatred for others. The thing is, I don't feel like it is video games stoking the fires of hostile politics. If anything, I feel like people with those politics project their feelings onto games.

The topic is way too large to cover in a single weekend editorial, but I want to give a few responses to specific points made in Bown's article. Some parts of it seemed to jump the gun a little or be too selective in its examples. The points that stuck out for me as not quite right were the following:

  • "Games are ideological constructions which push a set of values on the user."
  • "Right-wing ideologies have been overrepresented and dominant throughout the history of video games."
  • "Video games put the user to work on an instinctual level, making the gamer feel impulsive agreement with these ideologies."
  • "The rationale of gaming is to unite pleasurable impulse with political ideology, a process which renders gamers susceptible to discourses that urge people to follow their instincts while also prescribing what those instincts ought to be."
  • "...games can have a concrete ideological effect on us – and make us desire politically charged things on a personal level."

Right – let's get started on unpacking this.

"Games are ideological constructions which push a set of values on the user."


Games are indeed ideological in nature – not in the sense that games always portray a utopia (in fact, this is rare, or there would be no push for the protagonist to do anything), but in that they portray a certain view of the world that is to some extent or another detached from reality. Aside from documentary work and non-fiction, every form of media is portraying a version of the world that is different from the one we see surrounding us every morning when we wake up.

The idea that doesn't quite work is that games, by their very definition, push their values on the user. Some people might say a game is just a game, and only in very rare cases does it have anything coming close to values. I don't agree – I think every game has some sort of value structure in it, or the ideological world it has built up would collapse. Taking a game as simple as Angry Birds, the values here are "birds are good, pigs are bad, destroy their houses." The value structure gives the player a guideline as to what they are supposed to do and what they are not supposed to do: how to win the game, or how to be kicked to the Game Over screen after a few seconds, because they've disobeyed the game's very particular set of laws.

But do all games inherently push these values on the player? I don't think so. Increasingly as of late, games give players incentives to "break" them – to be anarchic and ignore the game's very own set of laws. This might be in pursuit of trophies or to create glitches, or just for the hell of it. An example of this is the genocide run in Undertale: if you go down that horrible path, NPCs will avoid you or implore you to stop what you're doing, but the player is allowed to continue down that murderous path if they wish. Sandbox games such as the Grand Theft Auto series leave the player entirely to their own devices, while incentivising them to behave a certain way only if they want to get to the end of the Story mode – which many people don't really care about as much as exploring the world they're in.

Even in traditional games, where the only way to get any enjoyment out of it is to obey its set of values to the letter, is it really "pushing" them onto the player? The player has a choice to set the controller down and not play the game. The player can follow the values, nod along, and declare to themselves at the end that the entire experience was bullshit. Most importantly to me, the player can see a set of values they disagree with, follow them for the sake of getting to the end, and then see it as an experiment in how they might not behave like themselves in a simulation, when under certain sources of pressure. There is actually real value in exploring different perspectives this way, and it is where games have the power to enrich people's levels of experience, not convert them to fascism.

"Right-wing ideologies have been overrepresented and dominant throughout the history of video games."


These ideologies have definitely been an unwelcome presence throughout games, but have they dominated? I'm not too sure.

Some of the examples Bown gives of this dominance are actually quite baffling, if I'm honest. He lists expelling "aliens" (in the sense that US folk use that word to refer to illegal immigrants) as a right-wing tendency in Space Invaders and XCOM. There are certainly parallels between fear that another species could destroy yours, and fear of the differences between yourself and someone of another ethnicity, but that doesn't mean that a game about the former is automatically making a comment on the latter. The two fears are prompted by a common source, which is the drive to self-preserve and the fear of death. Games about impurities in a species, such as The Last of Us, have this same core. One of the most powerful player instincts that games tap into is the wish not to die, whether there is a rational threat or not.

But again, it sticks in my craw to talk about these ideologies being "overrepresented." I don't know if I would say the ideologies being overrepresented is dangerous – instead, it is an oversimplified endorsement of these ideologies that is the real danger.

Take Resident Evil. It addresses humanity's downfall due to impurities and mutations in the human species, which could be said to lean too heavily on eugenics.

This only really becomes a problem when the player is jingoistically encouraged to flamethrower the living heck out of absolutely everything without a pause for breath. Instead, we see comrades die after making it through a tough spell in a previous game. We see people driven by greed finally get their comeuppance. We see people banding together to escape a decaying city. There are so many instances in the Resident Evil series where the people who are infected are humanised, and players are encouraged to empathise with the fallen (Lisa Trevor being the best example of all). Instead of pushing the ideology of "kill the impure" on the player, the games give the player room to explore their own feelings about humanity's downfall. If anything, wanting to avenge individuals such as Lisa Trevor because they identify with their struggles gives the player even more motivation to take down Umbrella.

"Video games put the user to work on an instinctual level, making the gamer feel impulsive agreement with these ideologies."


What Bown is talking about here, when he talks about acting off instinct, is how the player naturally goes about making their decisions in the game. This texture looks a bit odd? Bash it with a hammer, then. This baddie looks like he could cause us a few problems down the line? Shoot him. Shoot him now. By blending this thought process with unsavoury political principles, Bown says that it encourages players to automatically grasp for the right-wing way of thinking, which will then bleed into their everyday life.

Except, I think the ideologies that are portrayed very often don't travel outside of their own specific contexts. To discuss this, I'm going to choose a game that I've been fascinated with recently, which is Haunting Ground, where you play as a college student trapped inside her ancestral home. She has to escape from two bosses who are in rather bad taste during the game: one is a man with a learning disability who will hug her to death if he catches up with her, while the other is a "shrill harpy"-type character who is driven insane by her own infertility and cuts out the student's reproductive organs if she catches up with her. 

In the game, you have no choice but to run away from these characters. If you don't, it's Game Over, so you flee over and over again. Even though this is buying into the misconception that those with learning disabilities are likely to accidentally hurt you, or that women of a certain age who can't bear/haven't borne children are bound to have a screw loose, because of course they're lacking something that is integral to womanhood. But the vast majority of players will restrict that feeling to this very specific instance of having to run away from these characters or they will die. They will see it as a depiction of an extreme scenario on a screen, and it won't affect their views of childless/childfree women or those with learning disabilities, because the game backed them into a corner.

I think this is where it's clear that players have more influence over their experience of games than the game itself. If you are impressionable enough to draw the conclusion that the characters in Haunting Ground are bad, therefore people with similar characteristics must be bad, then you're placing dots on a page that were never supposed to be there and then joining them up. Frankly, I have more faith in the average gamer that they can isolate experiences to where they experienced them and not let it infect their daily life, and that their agency and the interactivity is precisely what gets them to stop and think about their own reactions to the game and about their subsequent behaviour.

"The rationale of gaming is to unite pleasurable impulse with political ideology, a process which renders gamers susceptible to discourses that urge people to follow their instincts while also prescribing what those instincts ought to be."


I don't think this is the rationale of gaming at all. The rationale of gaming is to create the pleasurable impulse, full-stop, unless we're talking about games that are legitimate propaganda. Depending on the game in question, political ideology is secondary but still important, or just window-dressing.

People play games to tick off things on a checklist, whether it is a checklist constructed from the game's own list of values, or the player's self-imposed list of values. Whether it's getting a higher score in Puyo Puyo Tetris, getting through Silent Hill 4 as fast as possible, or building a phallus-shaped rollercoaster in RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, we have something that motivates us to sit there and play a game – at least the vast majority of people do, since people tend to lean towards having reasons for doing something. The core ingredient of every game is the rewarding of effort.

More impressionable people will accept any kind of reward, but a lot of people want to feel they've done something really worthy and got a huge amount of recognition in return. This is where political ideology comes in. If the player finds the ideology of the game disgusting, they might not want to be rewarded by it, if they are in any way, shape, or form discerning about what they play.

What political ideology does is that it provides reasons for the impulse or prescribes it a level of urgency, and the players, in exercising their agency, might find that the political ideology makes them not want to seek a reward from it anymore. It's a bit like getting a birthday cake from your enemy – you might be tempted to eat a great big slice if it looks delicious, but it's in the back of your mind that the enemy may have poisoned it.

So, combined with what I said above, the game itself doesn't necessarily prescribe the instincts, and the level of susceptibility to following game-prescribed instincts depends on each individual person. In the vast majority of cases, we have to give the player more credit and trust they won't swallow down every reward dangled before them.

"...games can have a concrete ideological effect on us – and make us desire politically charged things on a personal level."


What I want to talk about here is the "on a personal level" part. Do we always play as ourselves when we play a game? Or do we instead step into the shoes of the protagonist, trying to understand their specific motivations and personality traits? I think it's more often the latter than some people think.

A good example for this is James Sunderland in Silent Hill 2. Sure, we might project onto James our own feelings about what we'd do if our spouse went missing in a twisted version of where we once went on holiday together. But mainly, we'd try to understand what James is going through and make James behave consistently with what we're being told about his own personal journey...or not, if we don't trust that the game developers have given us James' real story, instead going for a wander around the town to see what extra goodies we can find.

In a way, Bown seems to argue that playing as other characters with their own ideologies is what indoctrinates us into unhealthy ways of thinking. James' own ideas about what a real woman is are certainly not very flattering. But if we are playing as James, and not a version of ourselves that is called James and looks like James, then the player has to do some extra mental graft to transfer their experiences as James into their real life. By playing as the character on screen and not as a version of themselves, it opens the door for a level of detachment. Certainly as the game progresses and we see some truly dark sides to James, the player's gut instinct is likely to be, "That's not me. This is the worst of humanity. I am not the worst of humanity."

People generally like to think of themselves as a force for good, unless they have a poor self-image, perhaps for mental health reasons or because of incidents in their past. So seeing a character do bad things on screen probably doesn't encourage most people to think that's a good idea in their real life, but instead to isolate those experiences to being about "other people." This in itself is dangerous, because restricting evil acts to "evil people" doesn't really get to the heart of why people are motivated to do ill. Just look at the Stanford prison experiment or Marina Abranović's "Rhythm 0" to see how average members of the general public can turn on each other given the right conditions. But it does throw a spanner in the works when it comes to Bown's argument that people make things that happen in games about them. It really, really depends both on the game itself and on the individual playing it.

***

In conclusion, Bown's article is a great jumping-off point to talk about the relationship between right-wing ideologies and games. Really, the topic needs a lot more space than either I or Bown can give to it in a small editorial, but the interactions between people and games are much more complex than a process of simple indoctrination.

My conclusion is that players have agency, and use it constantly when they play a game. Their will determines whether they continue with it or put it down, how they play the game, and how they are influenced it. It can even reach beyond that and make people twist an innocuous game into something evil – I'm looking at you, RollerCoaster Tycoon hedge-maze person. Games are a literal playground, and give people the room to try different things out without influence on the outside world. In most cases, it's people who have control over games, not the other way around.


What is your reaction to Alfie Bown's article? What do you think about the co-existence of far-right tendencies and video games/other media? Let me know in the comments down below!


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Charlotte Cutts
Charlotte CuttsContributor   gamer profile

I punched a bloke in the face once for saying Hawk the Slayer was rubbish. I was defending the fantasy genre with terminal intensity, when what I should have said is "Dad, you're right, but let's... more + disclosures


 



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