Over at the electronic gaming website Kotaku, they ask some interesting questions about whether the current global recession will increasingly feature as a plot element in computer and video games:
Would you shoot someone responsible for America’s horrible housing market? Would you like to? What if you met his wife and kid first?
How did we get here, and where are we going? What happens when the 99% rise up, and more to the point, how happy will you be to play a video game that casts you as one of them? Or what if you’re playing as a police officer, an enforcer of the status quo?
The recent economic recession—and its fallout—looms over most everything these days, and video games are starting to reflect that. From Grand Theft Auto V to the newest Rainbow 6, it’s looking as though amid the zombies, aliens, cops and foreign soldiers we’ll be fighting, it’s the economy that will be the next big video game bad guy.
While suggesting that some game publishers might be reluctant to tread upon such political sensitive turf, they also note that others appear willing to do so:
Kaos studio’s Homefront dealt with the economy in its own twisted, interesting way. In the game’s fiction (written by Apocalypse now co-author John Milius), America has lost its world standing due to economic imbalance and a shortage of oil, and as a result has become susceptible to foreign invasion. The main character is cast as an insurgent, the very same sort of “freedom fighter” that other war games label as terrorists. The game was a bit of a flop, but it’s heartening to hear that acclaimed developer Crytek has assumed the reins of the franchise. Kaos was playing with some very compelling stuff: What makes an insurgent? What drives us to acts of terrorism? What does it mean to truly have nothing to lose? One can’t help but hope that Crytek will explore those questions further.
What will we do when pitted against an enemy with whose cause we may sympathize?
Terrorists make for effective cannon fodder in games, but as villains, they can be difficult to write. One of the easiest ways to give a character or group of characters depth is by adding backstory—you know, “why did the chicken cross the road?” But with terrorists, it’s a bit more difficult to write motivation. For various reasons, religious beliefs are generally off the table with big-budget games, so most video game terrorist groups are motivated by some sort of vague anger at America and the West for imperialistic tendencies. And most if not all modern-day military shooters are perfectly content to avoid these sorts of questions entirely, often by putting some sort of Bond-ian villain behind it all. How many games have crudely taped a megalomaniacal mastermind and an army of “Russian Ultranationalists” onto their story in an attempt to give Western gamers a more palatable enemy to kill?
Ubisoft’s just-announced Rainbow 6: Patriots also features terrorists, but with a recession-flavored twist: they’re fueled by rage at the nation’s economic elite and have risen up and begun destroying national landmarks. At the start of a new video of prototype gameplay, a man and his family are taken hostage by terrorists who tell him, “You really did cash in on everyone else getting foreclosed, didn’t you? Today you’re going to make up for that.”
In the game itself, players will be controlling law enforcers facing an armed uprising. It echoes real life in ways that may be uncomfortable to acknowledge—what will we do when pitted against an enemy with whose cause we may sympathize? As I imagine a law-enforcement or SWAT video game based on the recent Occupy Oakland protests, I have to wonder: would players be cast as beleaguered public servants trying to do their best or thejackbooted thugs who violently put down dissent?
Economic anger feels intense and relatable, and it can make games more believable, complex, and scary. It remains to be seen whether economic issues will merely be the latest window dressing for video game carnage, or whether some developers and writers will choose to go deeper.
Certainly we’ve seen this theme in a few boardgames, even before the current recession—see, for example, Joe Miranda’s Crisis 2020: America Divided (Victory Point Games) or, on a more tactical level, Brian Train’s Battle of Seattle.