Rise of Trump, global unrest mean even video games becoming political
At risk of alienating gamers, major developers take on gaming's traditional third rail
Jeff Franklin didn't see it coming. He died quickly and violently: a shotgun blast at the hands of Christian extremists. But luckily he still had 10 minutes left on his video game demo. On his second time around, he got his revenge using a baseball bat the colour of the American flag.
"Pretty awesome," he says before putting his headphones back on and looking for more white separatists to pummel.
Franklin is among more than 68,000 who attended the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles, North America's biggest video game showcase.
One of the biggest surprises so far, he says, is the game he's playing now: Far Cry 5, developed by Ubisoft Montreal. He was taken aback by the political tone of the game, which is set in the fictional Hope County, Mont., and pits the gamer against a Christian extremist and separatist preacher.
And, he says, it's about time games took on more political themes.
"I think it's actually something that's needed," he says. "If you have games that are touching on real-life topics, it just brings it back to being relatable and it opens minds and starts conversations."
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Those conversations have been sorely lacking until now, says Game Informer associate editor and Montreal native Elise Favis.
But as she explored this year's E3 showroom, she noticed a growing number of titles are brushing against the video game industry's traditional third rail: politics.
"We're definitely seeing more of an interest from developers," she says. "Politics have been ingrained in art for a long time, and video games are no different from that. So I'm really excited to see a lot more activist and thoughtful games come out."
There's a slew of smaller, independent games that allow you to be U.S. President Donald Trump, or, if you prefer, attack him.
In Trump Simulator VR, you "help Donald get ready for his big day" by doing things like shredding tax returns and feeding his Twitter addiction. In Mr. President, you protect a president named "Ronald Rump" from assassination. The title of TrumPinata is fairly self-explanatory.
Favis says the explosion of Trump-themed games may have come about because most game developers are fairly liberal.
"Maybe the election was also a bit of a wake-up call for some," Favis says. "The result of this election was a lot of people felt like they didn't have a voice."
This year, bigger developers are also injecting more reality into their fantasy.
For instance, in Mafia 3, you can assume the identify of an African-American Vietnam veteran who's forced to confront racism in the course of his missions.
Racial divisions and a rise in hate crimes are, to some observers, symbolically reflected in Wolfenstein 2, where the gamer can stop Nazis from collaborating with the Ku Klux Klan to take over the United States. Most of these new mainstream games were in development several years before the 2016 U.S. election.
Malaise around the globe
But Far Cry 5's producer, Dan Hay of Toronto, says his game was informed by the recent malaise he was seeing across the globe.
"Watching the language change from 'us' being the global village to 'us and them,' and watching what happened with Brexit," Hay says.
Now, he has surprised himself with how much his game reflects an element of today's zeitgeist.
"That's spooky," Hay says.
"We don't have a crystal ball. We didn't know it was going to happen but it's strange sometimes to hear echoing of some of the stuff that we're talking about in the game happening in the real world."
This politically charged content means some video game reviewers like Jesse Hennessey, editor of Engaged Family Gaming, say they'll have to add a third category to their reviews: sex, violence and now politics.
"The game might be fantastic but then they're going to hate it because you put something in there about global warming or some other junk that they don't agree with," Hennessey says. "If you come across as basically preaching your political agenda, you're going to alienate everybody who doesn't agree with you."
And that's what makes politics a dangerous game: big developers have a lot to lose if enough of their audience identifies with the villains.
Nintendo, for instance, won't touch politics with a 10-foot Super Mario hammer.
"Nintendo believes in having fun," says Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime. "Making political statements are for other people to do. We want people to smile and have fun when they play our game."
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But according to William Wolfgram, a gaming enthusiast who travelled from Minnestota to attend E3, the two need not be mutually exclusive.
With technology increasingly blurring the line between the virtual and real, it's not surprising if the games themselves are creating villains and heroes that more directly reflect elements of the current political climate.
"If people want that politicization of their games, people will vote with their dollars," Wolfgram says. "If something is interesting enough, I'll give it a look."
As for Far Cry 5, he's on the fence. The world, he says, was interesting, the game-play was exciting. But as a devout Christian, he was a little offended by the religious zealotry of the game's arch villain.
"Will I buy it?" he asks. "I'll probably borrow it from a friend."