By Brendan Caldwell on April 19th, 2012 at 3:45 pm.
Politics is boring. It’s not politics’ fault that he’s boring, that’s just the way he is. If variety is the spice rack of life, politics is nutmeg. Completely unremarkable and dull to your average teenager, until you mention the fact that it caused a few wars. In large enough doses, nutmeg can also give you palpitations and make you see things that aren’t really there. Like I said, boring, right? No wait, that’s the opposite of boring. That’s interesting.
But if politics are interesting, how come games so rarely stick their noses into it? With a few notable exceptions, both indie and mainstream games prefer to stick with that handsome, introspective cousin of politics called ethics. Ethics is easy-going and squishy and composed of scenarios that may or may not actually exist. Whereas politics is more rooted in the real world and can make lots of people really angry. For instance, Mass Effect mostly asks you ethical questions like “is an artificial intelligence a form of ‘life’?” and then suffixes consequences to your answer. It’s all speculative. By contrast, BioShock mixes up the letters in Ayn Rand’s name and tricks you into learning political philosophy by making you shoot people while listening to a hyper-stylised university lecture. It’s a much more obvious reflection of reality. Er, a bit.
Here’s the thing: the punk rock movement loved getting stuck into politics and commenting on current affairs. Mostly in the form of the disillusioned leftyness of The Clash, The Jam and Everyone Else Ever but arguably some right-wingery in the form of Oi! as well. However, the punk games movement doesn’t seem to have nearly half the appetite for it. Not that punky games aren’t tackling contemporary political problems – there’s Richard Hofmeier’s deeply demoralising Cart Life, Anna Anthropy’s contribution to the Occupy crowd and the visually gorgeous Cat and the Coup, which follows the orchestrated downfall of Iran’s Prime Minister in the 1950s. These are all games which are either politically motivated or simply thematically political but they’re the exception, a rarity in punk games.
This is probably because punk games really don’t like to take themselves too seriously. You can’t doubt the seriousness of tone with which UK Subs sang Warhead but few gamemaker’s seem to be keen to imitate that. Likewise, only the relentless and intentional tedium of Cart Life’s ‘minigames’, in which you have to type out the same phrases day-in, day-out in an effort to make a little more money, matches the disenchanting tone of That’s Entertainment. The truth is that there’s something at stake when you take on that seriousness. And that something is a mechanical something.
Games have to be fun – that’s the first law etched onto the stone tablets of gaming. It’s not necessarily true, of course, but that doesn’t stop it from being a widely followed first law. It’s not beyond possibility that a weird game might show up with an extremely novel and giddily brilliant central mechanic but still retain an austere theme. But if you’re a punk in a hurry, looking to entertain your royal audience, it seems far easier and more enjoyable to create a wild jester of a game than a pensive political advisor. (It’s certainly safer. Nobody’s going to send you hatemail if you tell a few jokes. Assassins don’t poison the jester). Thus game’s like RunMan and Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf. In punk, ‘fun’ takes precedence over any kind of political rambling that threatens to alienate huge portions of your audience.
Maybe it should be that way and maybe it shouldn’t. Who knows? Not me, but maybe this guy. Mark Richards made something called Prime Minister’s Questions: The Game, which sees the player take on the role of David Cameron in a PMQ session in parliament. The aim is to shrug off hard questions and deflect attention from your own party to the other. It’s not so much a criticism of the ruling party as it is a mockery of the constant pointless political theatre enacted by MPs. It’s indiscriminate in that it smears both parties with the same purple flour of contempt. You control Davey Cameron but it could just as easily be any Prime Minister of the past forty years, or any future Prime Minister (not Nick Clegg then). So, I chatted briefly to its creator about nutmeg. I mean politics.
RPS: Hullo Mark Richards! Politics, eh? What’s all that about then?
Mark: Right now? Rich white men pretending trying and failing to act like normal folk. And it’s all our fault. The normal folk, that is.
RPS: I’ve been trying to call this coming together of non-coders making games a ‘punk’ movement this whole time. But punk was more than happy to get stuck into political affairs. I get the feeling that amateur gamemakers aren’t as keen to do that. Sometimes – but not as much. Why do you think that is?
Mark: I think people in general aren’t inspired creatively by politics at the moment. Even from the perspective of writing satire, politics has become so much its own self-parody it’s not worth bothering.
RPS: Prime Ministers Questions: the Game was a notable exception. The party politics of reality doesn’t often get a mention in games. Do you think more games should try and angrily tackle ‘real world’ politics? Or is it safer for homemade games to stick to generalised ethical dilemmas?
Mark: Games, just like books and film, have the power to tackle anything the author is annoyed by, or inspired positively by. Real life party politics is ripe for humour because it is just so silly! Far more so than serious, boring ethics. I’m surprised more people haven’t made games about it.
RPS: Do you think making a game about party politics might alienate some people if it wasn’t even-handed?
Mark: It might be a problem, though not one I found. Everyone is aware of prime minister’s questions, there is a silly clip of it on the news every Wednesday. I do confess though: I come out with these scathing criticisms of politics but I made PMQs because I love politics. I’m obsessed by it. By the issues as well as the theatre and the silliness. We don’t need people to be engaged by politics to play politics games but we do if we want more people to develop them.
RPS: Pasties are a very important part of politics, we hear, along with something called ‘a budget’. Games like Democracy have investigated these subjects but only ever with the simulation genre. Do you think there’s room for pasties in other genres?
Mark: I do love a pasty. I think the last one I bought – yes, that’s right, the last one I bought – was from the North West English Quality Pasty store at Sheffield Train Station. It was a large one.
RPS: Personally, I find it baffling nobody has made a ‘The Thick of It’ style game. We’ve seen that punks have no problem being funny – so why does the satire only extend so far?
Mark: I agree. Give me a few quid, two weeks off work and the DVD box set and I’m sure I could knock something up.
RPS: Finally, is politics simply too BORING?
RPS: Thanks for your time.