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Why People Don’t Catch The Politics In Their Favorite Games

"There’s something very intentional about consuming or framing these works as entertainment rather than as art"

Arrowhead

If you’ve spent enough of your precious life on this horrible old internet, you’ve probably seen lists of so-called “non-political” games floating around that include deeply political works like Metal Gear Solid and, more recently, Helldivers 2. Maybe people even approve of specific ideals in those games but despise them when they’re expressed in the real world. What’s happening there? Where are people’s brains short circuiting? On this week’s episode of Aftermath Hours, we discuss that.

This time around we’re joined by Janus Rose, who now holds the historic distinction of being Aftermath’s first-ever freelancer. This week we published her piece about what Final Fantasy VII had to say about resistance in the face of imperialism and how that does and does not map onto real-world conflicts, like Israel’s ongoing attacks on Gaza. We begin by discussing what inspired the piece before moving on to a wider discussion of colonialism, imperialism, and protest (and occasionally Final Fantasy VII). 

Then we talk about IGN’s recent purchase of The Gamer Network and the layoffs that ensued, concluding that journalism probably needs to operate at a more sustainable scale, but execs are only interested in making the line go up. Somehow, after all that, we also find time to praise Scott Pilgrim – which remains good – and share some of our favorite recipes (one of which comes from Scott Pilgrim).  

You can find this week's episode below and on Spotify, Apple, or wherever else you prefer to listen to podcasts. If you like what you hear, make sure to leave a review so that we can finally make every game political, even BioShock.

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

Gita: It is interesting to have the use of Mako energy [in Final Fantasy VII Rebirth] be recontextualized to not just be powering weapons; it’s also the things that allow you to forget about the weapons that [the Shinra Corporation] is making.

Janus: Many such cases! It’s really crazy to me how people play this game and they don’t see these parallels. For me, it’s very in your face.

Nathan: This was something you touched on a little bit in your piece, but I think all of us have engaged at various points in our lives – as kids and adults – with pieces of media that are very opposed to the powers that be, to the status quo, that identify systems of oppression. But it seems like a lot of that is lost on people, even as adults; it makes more sense when you’re a kid because a lot of stuff goes over your head. 

But I mean, there’s that whole faction of gamers who’ll say, “Here are all of my favorite non-political games,” and one of them is Metal Gear Solid. And it’s like, you’ve identified some of the most political games! And yet somehow, you don’t see the direct parallels [to real-world events]. And so I wonder: Why are people so limited in their ability to perceive these things when they’re right there

Janus: It’s a really interesting question, something I’ve thought a lot about. I don’t think I have a really good answer for it despite considering this for such a long time. But there’s something very intentional about consuming or framing these works as entertainment rather than as art. And I think that a lot of people have a hard time when presented with something that is meant to be art in the way that I would define it in this case, which is something that shows truth of the world.

There was a really great piece by Mimi Zhu who wrote recently about, like, what is your art if it’s not engaging with the issues of the time? What is your art if you’re claiming that it’s not political? Because the point of art is to tell the truth, and you’re lying. Which I thought was a really good way of putting it. They’re really brilliant. That was what was making me think about this topic more. Because of the way a lot of these things are structured as products, that makes people see it as – like what we were talking about before, to tie it all together – with the Gamergate people, they feel that this is a product that’s being made for them. They have these expectations.

Gita: They want it to reaffirm their worldview, to congratulate them.  

Nathan: Yeah, to not challenge them. But that’s interesting to me unto itself. Because I think having something made for you can also mean having it be made specifically to challenge you. Because it’s still oriented around you and what your preconceived biases and notions are. It’s just approaching them in a different way. Rather than reaffirming them, it’s saying, “Let’s spin this a little differently. Let’s test out some ideas you maybe hadn’t considered before.” That strikes me as beneficial and good. I think people should want that, even if it’s uncomfortable. But the way we do things now in games and entertainment is this whole reaffirming approach.  

Janus: Somebody in chat is mentioning media literacy. I think that’s a good point. We don’t have media literacy – especially in America.

Gita: We dismantled all the systems that allowed people to understand works of art. There was this whole push for STEM students in college. Now there’s way too many programmers in the job market and not enough people who understand that depicting something is not the same as endorsing it.

Nathan: That part’s wild to me, when people are like “This villain in your story seems to have said and done bad things? So that means you agree with them, yes?” No! Of course not! It’s the literal villain in the story, man! 

Janus: Yeah, media literacy is a real problem, and I think if I had to answer that question that you posed earlier, I think media literacy would be one of the answers for why people feel this way. But I also think that it’s about consumerism and specifically this idea I was touching on earlier about how people are paying money for a product. And I think that anytime you are doing that transactional relationship, you are expecting to get X, Y, Z from having spent your hard-earned money on a product, right? And there are a lot of times where that’s a perfectly reasonable assumption. If I buy toothpaste and it doesn’t clean my teeth, I’m gonna be upset.    

But there is no utilitarian point of art. It exists to express ideas and to tell truth. I think maybe a lot of people get upset because from their point of view, they are paying money, and they have this relationship where it’s like “If it’s not giving me what I wanted out of this transaction, then it’s bad.” 

Gita: Today on Twitter I just wrote a little thread about criticism. I was reading some tweets that pissed me off, and I decided to obliquely refer to them by talking about the topic that was pissing me off. And it was about criticism and the function of criticism. People assume that criticism is about recommending things for you to buy, and that’s not why I write criticism. I write criticism because I observe art and I look at the world and I have ideas. I synthesize something new out of these other things, and that to me – the writing itself – is the point.

This really ties everything that we were talking about this episode together: We’re no longer in a society that encourages and provides space for people to be able to look at and interpret the world around them in an effort to help other people understand the world too. It’s interesting in the world of video games because in Kieron Gillen’s New Games Journalism [manifesto] way back in the day, before I started writing about games, he said something like the UK model of games journalism was modeled after music criticism, which is about expression and trying to understand artistic expression. Engaging with the ideas. And then the American version of video game journalism was more like car journalism. And having worked with people at Jalopnik, there are interesting ways to do car journalism. But it is more material. It’s about facts and figures and numbers and things that can be assessed.  

You still see – in Rock Paper Shotgun, especially, a site Kieron Gillen founded – that attempt toward a music journalism-esque version of games journalism. But more often than not, the car journalism version wins out. That’s just where we are. 

Janus: Another thing to mention here is, the way in which games are produced – a lot of these larger games – they are putting all this money into this thing to produce essentially a product. It is a cultural product, but it’s still a product. And so the other side to this is that it is meant to be consumed as a product. Then people have that expectation that it has to fulfill a certain je ne sais quoi for them. Otherwise, it’s not worth your money or time. We all have limited time and money on this earth. That is a fact. 

But that was interesting what you said about the UK model. It’s so different because they engage with art and music in a fundamentally different way. With American media, it’s always so consumer based. But I think that the best criticism is the kind that doesn’t assign specific numeric values to things. I don’t really read video game reviews anymore unless they don’t use a score system. I’m not interested in the numeric value of “Will I enjoy this game or not?” Because honestly, I’ve played a lot of games that have been very critically acclaimed, and I wound up being like “This is not for me.” 

Nathan: Best games are 7/10s. 

Janus: Right. And inversely, a lot of the games that are my favorites of all time are critically not liked. 

Gita: Remember the critical reaction to Deadly Premonition, which is now considered a cult classic? It is a weird-as-fuck game, and it is broken. It is a totally broken game in a lot of ways. But it’s got something. It’s got the juice. 

Janus: That is always the kind of art I like engaging with, no matter what it is: the kind that makes me feel something I wasn’t expecting to.   

Gita: Yes. My line is always, show me something that I’ve never seen before. That can be something big or something small. But I want to see something I’ve never seen before anytime I go to a movie or a live concert or play a video game. Just something. You know, there’s the thesis and the antithesis. I need the synthesis. Please give it to me.   

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