Art as Political Platform: Protesting With Games

Jordan Magnuson's picture

Visit a contemporary art museum exhibit and you’ll find that any work which isn’t purely philosophical in nature is probably political. This is especially true of a lot of recent feminist artwork, such as Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, which is meant to comment on the role of women in society and the art world. Can video games play along? Holmes thinks they can:

Art game play sometimes requires a tolerance for critical theory mixed with intelligent humor—it is this combination of heavy content with clever punning that makes the game format an excellent structure to critique power relationships between technology and society and between men and women (51).

The Intruder, which has been exhibited in museum environments, is a work by Natalie Bookchin (art faculty at the California Institute of the Arts) that merges video games, literature, and political activism. Players listen to a reading of a tragic love story by Jorge Luis Borges while playing a series of ten different arcade-like games that seek to metaphorically mirror the themes of the story.

Natalie Bookchin connects her extensive knowledge of photographic art to the more experimental genre of Net art to create works that speak of the technology culture. Bookchin’s works allow for active participation in the viewing and creating of new temporal art. Bookchin uses the game interface as a medium to share ideas about sexism, Net activism, and biotechnology (Frontiers online).

Another political theme heavily explored by video game developers is war. Under Ash, a game published by Dar al-Fikr challenges the stereotypical portrayal of Arabs in video games by having the player take on the role of Ahmed, a Palestinian who fights against the Israeli occupation of his homeland. The game is in many ways a direct challenge to the U.S. Government funded America’s Army, which seeks to glorify the American war machine and entice players into recruitment.

Two more politically charged games dealing with war and its effects are September 12, by Gonzalo Frasca and Escape From Woomera, sponsored by the Australian Council for the Arts. September 12 has players drop bombs on terrorists who always disappear and are replaced with innocent civilians before impact. Nearby civilians who are not killed but who witness the event then become terrorists, and the cycle repeats.

Wondering what Escape From Woomera is about? Just take a look at the game’s website: “If you thought escaping from Castle Wolfenstein was hard, try Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre…” Yes, the Australian government is furious. What do the developers have to say when asked if they’re trivializing a serious issue?

We’re attempting to create a play–space in which people can have access to and engage with this issue in an unprecedented and unique way. We’re serious about the issue and as game developers we’re serious about games and game culture. We’re confident that there is a community of gamers out there who are passionate about their medium, and who are looking for an innovation in the nature of game content. Unlike the makers of, say, Grand Theft Auto III (who deserve enormous respect for their achievements in gameplay terms) we seek to engage player’s minds – emotionally, ethically, intellectually – not just their trigger fingers. When non–gamers think about videogames they often confuse content with form (EscapeFromWoomera.org/faq.htm).

Escape From Woomera screenshot
Escape From Woomera exists to make a political point

While I’ve focused once again on games which are not mainstream, commercial video games should by no means be left out of the political discussion. Lui in his article “Are Videogames Art?” mentions one commercial offering in particular:

The ultra popular Metal Gear videogame series is not only remarkable for its intense stealth action gameplay, but also because it creator, Hideo Kojima, has used the games to raise issues relevant to our society. In Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty for the PlayStation 2, the storyline meditates on how the digital age could jeopardize our personal freedoms and the importance of fighting for our identity and history in a global community filled with those who wish to deprive us of it. In the climax of the game, set in New York City’s financial district, Kojima redefines our understanding of the statue of Washington that stands on Wall Street. By associating the monument with the plight of his characters, he gives the statue a new historical context and turns it into an icon for overcoming the dangers of tomorrow. The messages in Sons Of Liberty, which predated the 9/11 terrorist attacks, are ironically and frighteningly prophetic in the aftermath of the attacks and with the current conflict against Iraq. Picasso and Kojima used their respective creative mediums to voice their views on war and contemporary issues in hopes of changing people’s outlook on the subject. The difference is that one used a canvas and the other used a PlayStation.

As of this writing, WaterCoolerGames.com has a list of over 150 politically-charged video games dealing with everything from sex to war to the U.N. to environmentalism to Islam to the U.S. government to yes, repression against miners.

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