Micro-essay: Ideology and gaming

By Olivier Sylvestre

Opening scene of Gods Will Be Watching.
Opening scene of Gods Will Be Watching.
In The Ideology of Interactivity, Matt Garite exposes how video games, by hailing the player in acting in certain ways, push players into the ideology of the 21st century by coercing them, hailing them, up to the point where they will “autosurveil” themselves. In effect, through a system of reward and punishments, he says: “video game penetrates and regulates the body of its player.”1

But what is ideology? The ideologies we will be examining here are not the big three ones of the 20th century, i.e. capitalism, fascism, and communism, but instead today’s ideology of everyday life: the assumptions you make each time one interacts with someone else.

There is a reason why someone will say please when they ask something. There is a reason why one will instinctively call someone Sir or Madam. Through a system of rewards and punishments from society, we get to act in the way we do. Refuse to say please, i.e. placing yourself in a position of submission to the one who owns, and maybe you will not get what you need or want.

Video games, according to Garite, through “the means of binary logic: right or wrong, success of failure, punishment or reward,”2 indoctrinate in us these kinds of behaviour, making us regulate ourselves “properly”: shoot the bad guy in the head, jump over to this flagpole, place this brick here.

Screenshot by Claudia Lo
Screenshot by Claudia Lo
However, there are other ways in which ideology can appear in videogames: assumptions are likewise made when we think of how people interact. Some of these assumptions, that we will also call ideology, even appear in video games. A great controversy about one game, Rimworld, showed how these assumptions about people are made. Video game critic Claudia Lo exposed, through an interpretation of the game’s code, how it made the “life” of its lesbian “pawns” a hellish nightmare, as they were hit by male “pawns” who attracted to her and are rejected.

Now, the assumptions on gender roles and sexuality the developer, Tynan Sylvester, made were certainly accidental, even innocent, but there they were in the game. He says he backed his coding decisions on Reddit with statistics and common sense. He even says that “People tend to think of game characters as people, but they’re not. They don’t have internal experiences. They only have outward behaviors, and they are totally defined by those behaviors, because that’s all the player can see, and the player’s POV is the only one that matters.” In a way, he is saying that how the “pawns” feel is unimportant. However, the situations the player experiences while playing games are subjective, and they do matter.

The hostage situation in Gods Will Be Watching.
The hostage situation in Gods Will Be Watching.
Another and final way of seeing ideology in video games takes us back to those great ideologies of the 20th century we talked about earlier: the kind of codified ideologies where everyone knows why and what they need to struggle against. For example, during the first chapter of Gods Will Be Watching, you play a band of revolutionaries holding hostages at gun point while you try to hack into the systems of an oppressive regime. A wrong move on your part forces you into shooting your rebelling hostages. Here you have two ideologies: the one of the “terrorists” or “rebels”, and the one pressed on you as the player: in matters of seconds, you need to choose to either shoot, kick or shout at your hostages. The first one is part of the narrative, but the second is much more pervasive; it is a form of social control.

Garite, Matt. “The Ideology of Interactivity (or Video Games and Taylorization of Leisure).” Level Up Conference Proceedings, Utrecht: University of Utrecht, November, 2003.

Lo, Claudia. “How RimWorld’s Code Defines Strict Gender Roles.” Rock Paper Shotgun. November 2nd, 2016.

Sylvester, Tynan. “Some notes on recent controversies.” Reddit. November 3rd, 2016.

Gods Will Be Watching. (Deconstructeam, 2014)

  1. Garite, page 10.
  2. Garite, page 11.
Micro-essay: Ideology and gaming

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