Can video games be political?

More video games are aiming to start discussions about controversial political subjects, but developers have discovered the debate can spiral far beyond what they intended or continue long after the gamer has turned off the power switch.

Debate can spiral far beyond what developers intended

The setting of the video game Bioshock Infinite features stark racial tensions among its inhabitants. In one scene, people fist-fight after they lose a lottery for a job at a rich business owner's factory. (Irrational Games/2K Games)

Alex Jansen, who runs the Toronto-based multimedia production company Pop Sandbox, wanted to develop a video game to start a dialogue about gas pipelines. Judging by the political firestorm that followed the launch of his game, Pipe Trouble, he succeeded far better than he had hoped.

But it wasn't the conversation he originally had in mind.

Created as an online companion to a documentary on TVO, Ontario's public broadcaster, about opposition to gas pipelines in northeastern British Columbia, Pipe Trouble tasks players with building a pipeline that will satisfy both their cost-concerned boss as well as farmers and environmentalists.

But after the public saw a 40-second trailer for Pipe Trouble, in which protesters appeared to be blowing up a pipeline, discussion quickly turned from the game’s objective of balancing competing interests to whether it promoted extremism.

The trailer provoked the ire of countless media commentators and no less than three provincial premiers, and finally prompted TVO to remove the game from its website.

Pipe Trouble is one of a growing number of video games, which also includes the recently released BioShock Infinite, that aim to start discussion about a controversial political subject and continue the debate long after you've turned off the power switch.

Ian Bogost, a game designer and professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says that because of their interactivity, video games allow people to explore the intricacies of political issues in a more hands-on way than a book or film.

"You might say the structure of a good game matches the structure of a complex sociopolitical issue," says Bogost. "They’re particularly well-suited to one another."

The political dimension

Politics in video games aren't entirely new. Titles like Contra (1987) and Bad Dudes (1988) used fictional, Cold War-influenced settings as an easy-to-understand scenario for gameplay that involved good guys shooting bad guys. Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf (1992) put you in control of a U.S. Apache helicopter in the middle of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Balance of Power (1985) assumed a broader perspective, inviting the player to build a worldwide empire from either the American or the Soviet point of view.

One of the more successful environmentally minded games in recent years is Anno 2070. Published by Ubisoft in 2011, the game explores the implications of climate change. In it, the player must build a near-future civilization while choosing to either side with the Ecos, who use wind farms and alternate sources of energy, or Global Trust, a multinational corporation that relies on fossil fuels and coal.

Neither side is portrayed as morally superior to the other (although the Ecos representatives seem more cheerful than the buttoned-down CEO of Global Trust). Both organizations take pot shots at each other, but there are no particular benefits or drawbacks to either side — joining Global Trust, for example, doesn't make you the villain.

Explosive controversy

The hubbub over Pipe Trouble highlights one of the pitfalls of creating a provocative game: miscommunication.

Pipe Trouble doesn't actually encourage players to bomb pipelines; in the game, pipelines only explode when the player has failed to balance the needs of big business and the environment.

In response to public criticism from Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Alberta Premier Alison Redford, B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Federal Heritage Minister James Moore, Pop Sandbox put out a media release saying Pipe Trouble was "the victim of rampant misinformation," and clarified that "at no point does a player assume the role of an 'eco-terrorist' or engage in any act of vandalism or bombing as has been reported."

The debate over Pipe Trouble is a textbook example of Bogost's warning to game developers about not letting the subject matter overtake the gameplay.

"The media, when we talk about specific games, tend not to be familiar with them or not to have played them. One of the biggest patterns is that it doesn't matter what the game actually is, does or is saying — once you get to the point where you're talking about the idea of a game that is about X, then it's almost as though it's another object," he says.

Large publishers tend to favour playability and popularity over the need to tackle hot-button issues.

In 2010, Electronic Arts announced details about its first-person shooter Medal of Honor, which was set in Afghanistan. EA suggested that in addition to U.S and other allied forces, gamers would have the option of playing Taliban fighters.

Military officials said their inclusion offended the families of soldiers who were killed in recent conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East. EA eventually relented and the word "Taliban" was replaced with the phrase "opposing force" in the multiplayer mode.

Gameplay is No. 1

EA's change to Medal of Honor caused headlines when it happened, but players didn’t seem to notice — the name of your character in the game has no impact on how the game plays, so the story quickly blew over.

"I guess the fundamental point of any game is that it's supposed to be fun. You can have a heavy-handed political game, but if it's not fun, then who's going to play it?" says Toronto-based games and technology writer Peter Nowak.

"That's not to mean that a fun game can’t have something to say," says Nowak, comparing it to films such as Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, which used political events — such as the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis and the killing of Osama bin Laden, respectively — as launching points for entertainment that can also inform.

One of the gaming industry’s biggest releases, Bioshock Infinite, is set in a fictionalized 1912. At its core, it's a first-person shooter set in a flying city called Columbia.

But despite the fantastical setting and bright, sunlit landscapes, its imagery invokes some of the darkest chapters of American history.

References include the 1893 Chicago World's Fair to the 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee. Rich white business owners dominate Black, Irish and Asian inhabitants in a satirical take on slavery and racial segregation. A rebel faction called the Vox Populi has been compared to the recent Occupy movement.

Director Ken Levine’s provocative take on turn-of-the-century American exceptionalism runs in stark contrast to the relatively jingoistic storylines of shooters like Call of Duty.

Despite Bioshock Infinite's unusual setting and political nature, the title nonetheless topped the U.K. sales charts a week after its release and it currently enjoys a 95 average on Metacritic, the online review aggregator, making it the top-rated game of 2013 so far.

While the initial confusion surrounding the smaller-scale Pipe Trouble caused headaches for its designer, the flurry of reaction proves that, at the very least, people are paying attention to this evolving medium.

Bogost says that the general public will eventually become as accustomed to engaging in political dimensions and sometimes difficult discussions through video games as they are through film, books or television.

"The more variety and the greater in number they are, then the less frightening and the less unfamiliar they will become."