Free Play: The Politics of the Video Game

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IN 1979 KIDS and their quarters descended on convenience stores and shopping malls to experience the latest in digital entertainment: breaking rocks. The video game Asteroids boasted that its "explosions, laser blasts, [and] fragmentation of space debris" were "realistic," and by the standards of the day they were.

A quarter century later, as you'd expect, game pyrotechnics are much more advanced. But so is something that was harder to predict. Arcade action is being upstaged by social simulation.

Asheron's Call 2, Microsoft's online fantasy game, boasts a new kind of realism: "an economy of, by, and for the players." And it's not alone: Many Internet-based games now facilitate market economies, political factions, and even elections. Player groups, often called clans of guilds, have emerged as popular tools for protection, cooperative adventuring, and simple bloodsport. And while game developers are now doing what they can to support those online clans, their efforts often have been a matter of catching up with what players already were arranging on their own.

Like movies, novels, and plays before them, computer games have discovered politics. Even the pure, plot-driven action that remains often comes attached to heavily politicized back-stories. Take a stroll down the game aisle:

* Despite its name and tenor, Gore was published by DreamCatcher Interactive, not the former vice president. "In the mid-21st century," DreamCatcher's Web site explains, "massive overpopulation and consumption caused irreversible resource shortages over most of the planet. All supplies of fossil fuels were completely decimated by 2031. The agro-mosaic virus outbreak of 2042 triggered the global food riots of 2043 by causing the extinction of all agricultural plant species. Five billion humans, almost hall of the Earth's population, died of starvation" Weighty stuff for an effort one reviewer characterized as a "mindless arcade shooter."

* Legacy Online (Sega), originally titled Star Peace, is a multiplayer online game in which participants can be elected to political office. It also claims to have an "extremely realistic" economy. Here is PC Gameworld's description of the setting: "Earth is dying. Greed, global warming, nuclear and chemical pollution, ethnic wars, new virulent viruses and super bacteria, overpopulation--the World's population has doubled again, in just 20 years.... "The player's most powerful tool is not the laser gun but the zoning ordinance. Once elected mayor, the designers declare, "you can really direct a town's development ... from a disorganized mess to a beautiful urban landscape." Mayors can also "set the minimum wage for [the] entire workforce, thus putting [an] end to the greedy behavior of the local tycoons."

* In the soundtrack-heavy skating and graffiti-tagging game Fet Set Radio Future (Sega), pirate radio DJ Professor K helps the "cool kids fight off the evildoers that want to take their freedom." The chief evildoer in this case is the CEO of a huge corporation that has bought the police and attempts to dominate Tokyo. In the cel-shaded world of this game, "freedom is a valuable commodity, and freedom of expression is even more so."

Political ideas are infiltrating not just the back-stories of games but their "play mechanics"--the inner workings that shape game behavior. It may be the scripted parts of the games that explicitly state political notions, but what's ultimately more significant is the way games can communicate doctrine by demonstration, the same way sports communicate physics. As Salon's Wagner James Au once put it, "Socially minded films and television programs can only dramatize their politics, but we now have a medium where you can interact with them, as an engaged participant." If cinematic spectacle grabs eyeballs, then gameplay grabs minds.

The results may not be what the gamemakers intended. Designers are responding to the demand for compelling interaction by providing more logically consistent game worlds and relaxing linear story structure to allow for more player control. …