Shoot first, ask questions later
Steven Poole considers two dinner party no-gos: politics and violence
They do elections better in France. Quite apart from the eminently sensible rule that no campaigning or publishing of opinion polls are allowed within 24 hours of the polls opening, French politicians also make better campaign videogames. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the firebrand anti-corporate lefty, surged from nowhere in a few months to be a real contender in the French presidential election. In the event he came a close fourth, but one of the things his campaign will likely be remembered for is what is probably the best example yet seen of a videogame as naked propaganda.
Fiscal Kombat, as Mélenchon’s game is called, was developed by an anonymous collective of French gamers who call themselves Discord Les Insoumis. It’s a 16bit-styled side-scrolling brawler in the tradition of Streets Of Rage, and the hero is a pixellated Mélenchon, with steel-grey pompadour hairstyle, who strides down the streets picking up wealthy pinstriped men before they can punch him, and shaking stolen money from their pockets before hurling them to the left or right. “You should be happy to pay taxes,” digi-Mélenchon chides a banker. “Don’t fool yourself: you have millions, but there are millions of us.” At the end of your game, your score in euros is added to the public coffers along with that of everyone else who has played, thus imbuing a serene sense of having laboured well for the public good.
Back in the ’90s, the far-right Front National made a version of Pac-Man in which Jean-Marie Le Pen raced around the maze collecting French tricolore flags. In the US in 2003, there was a Howard Dean for Iowa canvassing game (made by Persuasive Games) to help the Democratic primary candidate. And campaigning games may be common in the future, as candidates hope to reach the kinds of voters who either don’t engage in political discussion at all, or who distrust anything they see in the mainstream media but are pathetically credulous of any maverick claiming to bust through the conspiracy with alternative facts.
None of the main parties in Britain has yet released a general-election videogame, but one can fondly imagine a realistic stealth-ninja affair in which a sword-wielding Theresa May stabs and slashes a swathe through the saboteurs in her own parliament, while Labour may well release an educational romp in which your Corbynite avatar spends all his time beating up enemies within his own party while, on a far-distant misty mountaintop, the entire British electorate soberly gathers to vote for someone else.
The general and little-questioned assumption on this topic, though, is that political games can play a useful part in winning voters during an election campaign. At the same time, we are loath to grant videogames a comparable persuasive potency when it comes to actions we consider harmful. For very good reasons, for example, we tend to be sceptical of any research claiming that violent media make people more violent. Already in 2017, two academic studies that claimed such a link, and garnered much publicity at the time, have been retracted. So I for one can rest easily and continue to enjoy murdering Nazis from a safe distance in the brilliant Sniper Elite 4.
But this question isn’t going to go away; it’s going to get more urgent and confounding. Your cartoonish and kinetically satisfying standard console murder sim is one thing, but what about motion-controlled killing in VR? The psychic effects of a VR game in which you stab someone in the neck by physically emulating the precise action of stabbing are going to be, at best, unpredictable. For this reason the writer Angela Buckingham recently argued in Aeon magazine that VR murder should be illegal. You may not want to go that far, but it’s going to be something to address seriously.
At the very least, when it comes to the question of whether videogames influence thinking and behaviour, we cannot have our cake and eat it too. If digital ultraviolence has zero effect, then presumably political campaign games are also a waste of time and money. But if political games can make a difference – and I for one have long argued that the embedded politics of even ordinary, commercial games, such as the nationalsecurity ideology that normalises brutality and torture, are a powerful form of stealth propaganda – then the question of what violent games do to us must logically remain one to be struggled with too.
If digital ultraviolence has zero effect, then presumably political campaign games are also a waste of time