Best of ND 2013: Red Faction: Gaming On the Left

Robin explores the representation of the Left in video games.

By Robin Wilde. Posted 12/23/2013 15:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

This story was selected as one of our best from 2013. It was originally published on February 4, during Issue 139: Crossfire.

A lot of games find themselves, unfairly or not, accused of being quite right-wing. Whether it’s Call of Duty for its perceived nationalism and jingoistic attitude to the military, Gears of War for glamorising the Spartan Way, or, arguably, Bioshock’s somewhat nuanced portrayal of Objectivism, the extreme right is brought up frequently, usually as a reason for criticism.

However, it’s very rare that one finds any games that could be labelled left-wing in nature. This seems odd, since there are thousands of games out there and one would expect there to be at least some that swing left. Perhaps game critics are simply slightly to the left on average by virtue of being mostly a) quite young and b) relatively poorly paid. Still, having asked around and found some examples, this seems like a prime opportunity to discuss which games might have you singing The Red Flag by the time they’re over.

Don’t take offence at anything written here. The terms right-wing and left-wing are incredibly broad, ranging on one hand from fascists to conservatives and libertarians and on the other from Marxist-Leninists to social democrats and anarchists. However, they often share at least some values in common and as such the terms are fairly appropriate in order not to have to use about fifteen different political labels.

Irrational’s BioShock Infinite looks set to feature some more left-wing politics than previous BioShock games.

First, there are the games that conjure up what might be considered the stereotypical image of the left in its more extreme forms– the masses rising up to overthrow an oppressive or autocratic regime. This is the case in PS360 title Red Faction Guerilla, and takes the form of a drawn-out war between Martian colonists and their Terran overlords. The clue, really, is in the name. However, there doesn’t seem to be much indication of what the colonists will actually do once the occupying Earth Defence Forces leave. It seems likely, given the outcome of recent revolutions in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, that they would simply form a rather unstable government of convenience until such time as elections can be held, at which point some centrist or centre-right party might well win. Left-wing in name, yes, but less overtly so in content.

There are genuine hardline left-wingers in some other games, though, most notably in GameCube’s Pokémon Colosseum, wherein an enormous corporate entity known as Cipher sets about kidnapping Pokémon from their rightful owners and turning them into corrupt slaves. The player character, a former criminal who violently turned against his former employers, travels through the desert in an attempt to ultimately confront and bring to justice this evil company. It’s certainly anti-capitalist in nature and has a touch of Ché about it, not least thanks to the character’s cool motorbike.

The motor of our collective dreams…

Of course, the left is not just composed of revolutionaries, like the communist organisation Vox Populi of BioShock Infinite or the Lost Souls Alliance of underworld-based epic Grim Fandango. In Mother 3 for instance, an anarchist society is already in place at the beginning of the game, and its slow dismantling in favour of consumerism and selfishness forms the core of the game’s emotional hook. The citizens of the Nowhere Islands live in harmony with nature, living simple farming lives in wooden houses. There is no system of money, all goods are simply shared out according to who needs them and how much.

However, this way of life seems to leave the villagers emotionally stunted. They react with childlike denial and fear when disaster strikes during the first chapter, and go on to indulge their base desires by moving to a huge, filthy city full of garish lights and distraction. While technology grows from Chapter Three onwards, the people become more insular, mean and money-driven. As left-wing metaphors go, it’s a powerful one. We later find out, by the way, precisely why the villagers have this reaction. It’s not something that should be spoiled here, but since Mother 3 is a brilliant game, it should probably be played to be understood.

Forget 4, we'll settle for 3

Of course, there are games with other, less overt themes of battling repression and tyranny. The ideas behind Mirror’s Edge— that order and prosperity are worthless if they only conceal other, less pleasant realities – were fairly anti-establishment, for instance. However, they’re still comparatively small in number– it’s important to think about why this is. The most obvious reason seems to be that gamers like to shoot their enemies, which, frankly, doesn’t fit very well with pacifist thinking that many on the left hold. This is related to the reasoning behind many games having you side with the US military– the only realistic context a character would have access to the most high-end weaponry and vehicles would be while serving with them.

It’s not necessarily the only reason, though. It seems to run right through to the idea of games primarily being a competition– a struggle to win against some sort of adversary, whether it’s another player, an AI enemy or a puzzle. This emphasis on tests of skill and strength is necessarily at odds with the left wing view that humans should not be considered inherently better than others. Co-operation might work in a few games, like in Peter Molyneux’s Curiosity, but even then it’s still primarily a race to the middle of the enormous cube rather than sharing whatever’s inside.

It remains to be seen whether left-wing games could ever become the norm– the popularity of high-octane action games seems to say otherwise, but there’s no reason one of those games couldn’t share a viewpoint with the more radical ends of the left spectrum. Moreover, it’s been proven that games with socialist ideals work, since Pokémon Colosseum and Mother 3 were both excellent games and there will certainly be more in the future.

Forward, Comrades!

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