Games for the political enthusiast inside all of us.
There is a heated argument about whether games can be considered art or not which is still being debated to this day. However one often overlooked piece of evidence which suggests they are is the plethora of games out there which hold socio-political themes, teach politics and political history or act as political satire; just like any good film or book might do. Being both an avid gamer and student of political science, I feel I’m in the sweet spot of being able to identify and list the top 10 political video games of all time.
10. Papers, Please
This game takes place in an all too real scenario of a border checkpoint station and explores the themes of corruption and maladministration in the state bureaucracy. That sentence alone should make clear as to why this is a great political video game.
9. Assassin’s Creed III
This installment in the long running franchise taught me more about the fight over the New World between the colonial powers and the War for Independence than any history book ever has and ever will. It proves that education is most effective when it is taught through the medium of entertainment.
8. Metro Last Light
Admittedly, this game is based on a book and so arguably the political essence originated in the source material. Regardless of this, the game effectively portrays an alternative universe of the dystopian and the supernatural but with the all too relatable conflicts between the ideological regimes of Nazism, Fascism and Communism.
7. Killzone: Shadow Fall
Akin to an inter-galactic “Animal Farm”, the narrative of Killzone Shadow Fall is a fictional allegory for a real political event; but unlike Orwell’s Novel, that aforementioned political event in Killzone is the Cold War. Instead of the Berlin Wall separating the East from the West, an even bigger and more futuristic wall is dividing the humans from the Helghast refugees who’ve had to make earth their new home following the destruction of Helghan. The game goes further than a fictional retelling though, it makes an interesting point about the nature of war; most notably that it’s not black or white. There is no “good” and “bad” side, both powers have their sympathetic qualities (The Helghast are suffering with the loss of their homeland) and their darker agendas (The humans deliberately leave the Helghast refugees in poor living conditions whilst they abide in luxury). It leads to a game which is more than skin deep from a political standpoint, which is impressive considering it’s a triple A first person shooter.
6. Mass Effect 3
Speaking of War, the finale of the Mass Effect trilogy also provides an interesting representation of war and diplomacy. The number of difficult decisions you have to make when trying to form an alliance against the reapers in the game highlights the point that there a variety of vested interests in war that must be satisfied in order to form a unified coalition. Just like each of the allied powers all had separate agendas when attempting to unite against the aggressors in World War 2, races like the Krogans and the Turians are all preoccupied with their own problems that Shepard must deal with before he can get them on board. More infamously, Mass Effect 3 points to the moral element of war; and highlights the ethical dilemmas that leaders like Shepherd must face when making military decisions.
5. Democracy 3
This game absolutely nails it in stressing the difficulties of the day to day life of an elected politician. So many interests to satisfy! So many consequences in one decision! So many appearances to keep up! The only reason this game isn’t any higher on the list is because it’s more of a political simulation than an actual game.
Of course BioShock has to be on this list; it is infamous in gaming history as “the philosophical shooter” and those claims aren’t wrong. Influenced by Ayn Rand’s libertarian novel “Atlas Shrugged”, the game focuses on the same concept (the wealthy elites removing themselves from society to live in their own utopia) but with a different perspective; the utopia has gone horribly wrong. The game explores a wealth of political themes such as class conflict, ideological manipulation and the potentially catastrophic side effects of a stateless society. Other than this, of course, the game looks stunning and plays brilliantly.
3. Grand Theft Auto V
Grand Theft Auto V is political for two reasons. The first and most obvious being is that it spawned (as all Grand Theft Auto games do) a media frenzy upon its release for being so “politically incorrect”. But the game itself is also a great piece of political satire of post-recession America. The denizens of Los Santos have more money than purpose and are desperately trying to pursue happiness through purely materialistic means. There are even jabs at globalization; where the leaders of multinational corporations like “LifeInvader” (i.e. Facebook) are treated like celebrities and wield huge amounts of influence. The city thus acts as a fantastically over-exaggerated (but all too accurate) microcosm of the contemporary American lifestyle.
In a similar fashion to Democracy, SimCity takes a realistic look at the day to day operations of the city-state. I say city-state because, if you’re a good enough politician, you can allow you’re city to have its own international airport, space station or even arcology system. The games gives you the freedom to choose different ideological agendas; you could become a socialist and tax the wealthy in order to provide more public services or follow the doctrine of the “New Right” and favour business over industry. I know a lot of people are pretty alienated with the game for its launch issues, but regardless of this, it can’t be denied as an entertaining political simulation.
1. Civilisation V
First and foremost, the reason this game is at the top of this list is because it’s predominantly just a ridiculously addictive and fantastic game on its own merit. But it is also as politically intriguing as it is entertaining. It boasts a deep understanding of the nature of international relations; so much so that my international development lecturer once used it as a model for explaining a certain theory! Whether you’re using your skills of diplomacy, making important decisions about the distribution of resources or choosing your social policies, Civilization V always involves the players in matters of politics.