If you are someone who is concerned for representation of oppressed people then you’ll be familiar with the argument that you’re politicising something that is apolitical. You will also recognise this as a flawed argument that is, at best, spoken by those who do not wish to critically examine the world around them, and at worst, is often used a silencing tactic to deny the experience of others.
However, if that above paragraph makes little sense to you, then this post is also for you. Here I want to outline how and why games are political, even if they claimed not to be, because everything is political. My academic background is in Literature and History, so I’d like to particularly focus on historical games here. Especially in light of some comments I saw surrounding WWI epic, Battlefield 1.
Before looking specifically at discussion around historical games like Battlefield, I’d like to mention Louis Althusser’s theories of ideology. Althusser asserts that ideologies are everywhere, and that everyone holds them – whether they think they do or not. Current prevailing ideologies are so accepted and normalised within their society that they are not often recognised as such – instead they are viewed as ‘natural’, ‘right’ or ‘innate’. Society’s politics are viewed as so right, that they are not ideologies, other ideas are different and they are the ideologies.
For an example, take the role of dogs as loved pets in our society which, despite being one in which many are omnivores, is disgusted by the practise of eating dog meat in Asian countries. Our society happily eats animals others consider sacred or against religious practise, and see no animal cruelty there. But we cannot imagine dogs being a meal. Ideologies about animals are at work here.
Althusser discusses how a society has ways to enforce its ideologies. The most relevant to the arts (and history and games) is called Ideological State Apparatus. These ISAs include media, advertising and education. In these branches citizens are taught ideologies, and taught that they are natural and right. This may sound extreme – but really consider this. How many classes did you have in primary and secondary education which taught you, for example, the political system of your country is severely flawed and serves the ruling class, versus the number of lessons you have that it is generally good and right?
You don’t have to agree fully with Althuser’s ideas, although I would suggest further reading as it is fascinating. However I want you to keep in mind the idea of invisible ideologies. Politics is the foundation of everything in our lives, those you deny it are those who have never noticed as they agree with the status quo.
Next I want to talk about history. History is not objective. If you asked 100 different people from 100 different backgrounds about the state of the world today, you’d get 100 different answers. A view of the present is not universally agreed on, so why would the past be any different? There is a mainstream view of history, but once you begin to study analysis of any event you’ll discover that historians disagree over basically everything.
This mainstream historical narrative is influenced by invisible ideologies. Women’s history only really became a legitimate subject of serious study in the last few decades. And it’s the same for black or BME history in white, western history. Still today, these are often specialised subjects separate from the mainstream. The reason people think being gay or trans is a modern idea; or that women didn’t do anything noteworthy prior the women’s rights movement; or that black people didn’t appear in Europe until recently is all due to this historical narrative and its ideologies.
And that brings us back to Battlefield 1. There has been so much arguing over how women or black people on the battlefield is unrealistic. All kinds of people were active in the first world war, not just a certain kind of white man. We see this narrative over and over due to uncomfortable ideas about women, non-white people, queer people, disabled people…
There are other arguments on why games like Assassins Creed or Battlefield 1 could easily include a wider array of characters, for example, they are fictional games which deviate from history. But I want this post to make you think about why using ‘historical accuracy’ argument is not a solid one, and why all games and entertainment are political and deserve to be interrogated as such.