Monday, November 5, 2012

Political Games: A Gift and a Curse

The gaming world has often tried to keep its wires from getting tangled up in politics, but since 2004, political video games have begun to surface. According the Entertainment Software Association, the amount of political games has tripled since then. Some liberal, other conservative, political video games aim to entertain and educate at the same time.

Strategery 2012 is one such game, where you can play as Romney's election team during the primaries and then as Obama's team during the general election. It follows the format of Nintendo's popular military turn-based strategy games, the Advance Wars series. As the player, you go up against several opponents as volunteers, press secretaries, and fundraisers, each with a minimum "credibility" score. It's a funny, quirky game that gets across the amount of thought, dedication, and work that can go into an election.

While many are slightly biased and contain the opinions of their developers, as well as cracking jokes about candidates, some of these games try to teach political fundamentals. Gerrymandering is a huge issue in the United States, mostly because no one knows about it. But the good folks at the USC Game Innovation lab created The Redistricting Game, focusing on teaching players the basics of redistricting. Even though it didn't catch the media's eye, it's one of the best examples of gaming that promotes civic action.

Yes, it is.

Besides actually making these types of games, some companies are promoting the current election. Even though most politicians aren't much into the world of button mashing, Obama included, Microsoft got in the game. During the Presidential Debates, Xbox promoted "Election 2012" on Xbox Live, offering, for those who watch three of the four debates, free Halo gold! During the debates themselves, Microsoft also polled viewers, and, no surprise, lots of democratic and male voters.

Gamers also find themselves rooted in politics, especially those who are already involved in it. The U.S. Libyan diplomat, Sean Smith, who recently died during an attack on the American Embassy in Libya, was a huge member of the Eve Online community, a sci-fi based MMORPG. In fact, after his death, tributes were made in his name, "Vile Rat," as players, friend and enemy alike, renamed their space stations in his honor.  In game, he was as hard a diplomat as he was in real life. One of his friends online, Alex Gianturco, who he also met in real life, said "If you play this stupid game, you may not realize it, but you play in a galaxy created in large part by Vile Rat's talent as a diplomat. No one focused as relentlessly on using diplomacy as a strategic tool as VR."

Lachowicz's WoW
Character, Santiaga
But not all politically oriented people are praised for their hard work in the gaming community. One World of Warcraft player was "deemed unfit for office" based on her involvement with the popular MMORPG. Colleen Lachowicz, democrat and level 85 Orc rogue, was the subject of a smear campaign by the Republican Party of Maine, who claim she's unfit for office due to her "double life" and violent comments online. Lachowicz hit back:

I think it's weird that I'm being targeted for playing online games. Apparently I'm in good company since there are 183 million other Americans who also enjoy online games. What's next? Will I be ostracized for playing Angry Birds or Words with Friends? If so, guilty as charged!
What's really weird is that the Republicans are going after my hobbies instead of talking about their record while they've been running Augusta for the last two years. Instead of talking about what they're doing for Maine people, they're making fun of me for playing video games. Did you know that more people over the age of 50 play video games than under the age of 18? As a gamer, I'm in good company with folks like Jodie Foster, Vin Diesel, Mike Myers, and Robin Williams. Maybe it's the Republican Party that is out of touch.


Politics and video games may not always get along, but the truth sits in an industry with unlimited potential for educating and informing the public. Last year, the gaming market was worth $56 billion dollars, "more than twice of the recorded-music industry, nearly a quarter more than the magazine business and about three-fifths the size of the film industry." And it's only expected to rise from there. Australia and the UK have seen the potential and already offered tax incentives for video games. It shouldn't be long before the U.S. is on board. Video games are the future of civic engagement, and though some may disagree with much of the medium, it's long-reaching, powerful, and most importantly, fun. 


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