Digital Heroism: Do Video Games Play a Role in Activism?

Political dissent has and always will be a fundamental part of art.

Video games are beginning to take on facets of art, namely story-telling, eliciting emotions, and pointing at the deeper truths of what it means to be human. Pretentious sounding, sure. But it is these qualities that are making video games an increasingly essential medium for activism, both passively and intentionally. They provide a way to immerse gamers in complex narratives, human dramas that force you to make choices based on how you feel about characters.

You are forced to learn a game’s rules in order to be successful, internalising a code of action. Simple, but in reality can have groundbreaking consequences for how we persuade others to accept a different point of view. And there are excellent psychological reasons to invest in video games as a form of political activism.

Empathy

Games force you to empathise with the protagonist in a very unique way. Unlike films or novels, video games allow you to inhabit the skin of another human being, making decisions not solely based on what you would want, but what would be best for your character and their motivations. The term “role playing game” (RPG) is a perfect name for the genre.

Though not obviously activism, a good example of this empathy is The Witcher 3. The Witcher 3, at a base level, tells the story of a monster hunter searching for his adopted daughter in a war-torn land. Fairly simple, fairly violent. However, the true core of this game is in the relationships. The choices you make to save or destroy the world around you fundamentally affect you, and compel you to think about the world in a meaningful way.

You assume Geralt’s (the protagonist) emotions, in particular his concern for Ciri, his adopted daughter. You worry what happened to her. You’re happy if you find her. And the way you treat her, past, present and future, affects the outcome of the game in a profound way.

This totality of point of view is a fascinating way to tell stories, and to subtly change your audiences mind. The Witcher is also set up beautifully as you, Geralt, being treated as a complete and utter outsider. A mutant with cat’s eyes, Geralt is treated with suspicion everywhere he goes, forcing you, not matter how comfortable you are in your life, to have a vague understanding of what it is like to be ‘Other’ everywhere you go.

You watch dwarves, elves, and other non-humans being racially abused, compelling you to act. The game teaches you, slowly, subtly, and viscerally, that no one’s defining feature is how they are presented, whether that be the way they dress, the colour of their skin, or the sharpness of their ears.

 

The Slacktivist and Action

Video games also circumvent slacktivism. Slacktivism can be classified as:

“…a willingness to perform a relatively costless, token display of support for a social cause, with an accompanying lack of willingness to devote significant effort to enact meaningful change by exclusively posting things online, giving the appearance of activism without truly doing anything of substance.” – The Nature of Slacktivism: Kirk Kristofferson, Katherine White, John Peloza

It is ‘token support’ rather than ‘meaningful support’. That is not to say that it is unimportant, only that the self-satisfaction slacktivism provides often stops individuals from more meaningful action. Video games are a different beast. We do not get the satisfaction of a public display of solidarity from playing video games.

As such, the urge to act in accordance with our values is not fed in the same way. Video games however tend to be a more private affair, particularly when playing single player, story driven games. Because you do not fulfill the slacktivistic urge, video games are more likely to compel someone to meaningful action if their views are sincerely changed.

Perspective Shifting

An excellent example of a video game used as a form of activism is The Cat In The Hijab. The short, point and click game, is designed to expose the player to hate speech. Real hate speech that real people experience on a daily basis. It’s free to play, on all operating systems.

Without telling a long story, you are forced to shift your perspective. It exposes us to a world that too few of us are versed in, and informs the unknowing about the daily hardships people face based on nothing more than the way they look. It is difficult to play the game and not think that hate speech is a terrifyingly pervasive problem.

The Double Edged Sword

There is a fear however that the medium will cut both ways. In 2002 the US Army commissioned a game called America’s Army, a first person shooter designed to teach players the values of the United States Army, placing honor and communication as the central tenants of the game. This level of propagandising is certainly worrying, particularly from something as clandestine and overarching as the United States military.

Whilst video games aren’t being used as a tool for social change by the ‘right’ in the same way, there does exist a worrying echo chamber in the communities of online games. It is rare to play an online video game where some kid isn’t shouting racial slurs. And people thrive on it. Pewdiepie, the youtuber, fell foul of that just the other day. This is darker side. The side that games will have to compete with.

Alt-right games, in as far as our research has taken us, are few and far between. There are a couple of clumsily-made games, but nothing with the care and attention of those on the left. One thing that may give one solace is that the truth thrives in art’s lies. That is to say, it is easier to point at existential truths in art than it is to convince someone of a falsehood.

Video games, as our most recent art form, are truly becoming an innovative form of political activism. Their ability to span both triple A titles like The Witcher to small Indie games like The Cat In The Hijab gives activism a new forum to delve in to, and one that will tap into a powerful and visceral aspect of human nature.

 

The Nature of Slacktivism: Kirk Kristofferson, Katherine White, John Peloza

Screen Saviors: Can Activism-Focused Games Change Our Behavior?

Saving Worlds with Video Game Activism