Politics is a rarely tapped theme in games. That makes very little sense when you consider that, on average, games players are more politically engaged than most Americans. A 2015 survey determined that more than 80% of gamers planned on voting in 2016, compared to 75% of non-gamers.
So, why don’t we have more politically themed games? Countless movies and TV shows cover politics, from the light touch of Veep to the moody themes of House of Cards.
While games have yet to cover political subjects in as much depth as other forms of media, there are a handful of games that either explore politics directly, or add a layer of political intrigue.
Papers, Please relies on your political views to get its point across. Technically, it’s not overtly political, but it’ll get you thinking about politics. You play an immigration officer who gets to decide who is allowed into the fictional country of Arstotzka. You inspect various documents to determine if the person is permitted to enter or not. It involves a lot of scouring documents for discrepancies. It sounds utterly tedious, but it’s not.
Much of that success is down to the fact that often you’re given a moral dilemma. A woman might be desperate to be reunited with our children across the border–or is she simply lying to gain your sympathy and an all-important acceptance stamp? Then a mysterious organization called EZIC appears, requesting your help, and potentially leading to the assassination of various powerful and corrupt individuals within the country.
It’s a distinctly unsettling feeling after a time, and one that propels Papers, Please above merely being about spotting flaws in documents. You’ll soon find yourself questioning your views on so many things, not least opinions on how heavily controlled borders should be, and why.
Ever wanted to be President or Prime Minister? The Democracy series of games allows you to do exactly that. You’re required to introduce and alter policies in seven key areas–tax, the economy, welfare, foreign policy, transport, law, and public services–which means there isn’t much time to mess around and enjoy all that power. No, Democracy games are serious business, with every policy having a key effect on the happiness of your voters.
The games don’t shy away from tackling difficult subject matters, and they cover the depth of each voter fairly well. Each voter can belong to several different factions of thinking, meaning you’re doomed to never please all of the people at any one time. It’s possible to increase cynicism too, if you screw up too much.
Besides being used in an educational context to teach young people about political systems and the economy, Democracy 3 has also been used as a form of simulation to see how real life manifestos could turn out. It might not be perfect, but it’s a fascinating insight into a political system that too few of us fully understand.
The Tropico series is the antithesis of Democracy, in more ways than one. Players take the role of ‘El Presidente’, the ruler of an island in the Caribbean during the Cold War era of the 1950s and onwards. It’s a tongue-in-cheek affair, meaning the idea of electoral fraud and outright corruption is dealt with in a humorous manner, but that’s precisely what makes it so entertaining.
Coups can come about as easily as invasions by one of the Cold War superpowers, but most of the time you simply need to focus on the needs of your people, before they starve and suffer under your totalitarian military dictatorship. Liberals may feel a touch uneasy at what can unfold, no matter how lightweight the graphics may appear.
Arguably one of the finest JRPGs out there, Suikoden II’s plot is a convoluted but gripping affair. At its heart, it deals with good versus evil, but it does this through a rebel force fighting a corrupt and cruel Kingdom. There’s a lot of political backstabbing along the way, as you attempt to build your own base and establish a kinder form of power.
Think Game of Thrones and you’re not far off. It’s a messy and dark war, with even sexual abuse briefly dealt with here. Players work towards changing the course of history, while stopping the oppression of the vulnerable. It might be an old game by now, but it more than holds its own when it comes to a complex yet gripping plot line. Few titles since have attempted to cover as much ground as Suikoden II.
Saints Row IV
With its tongue so firmly planted in its cheek that it’s probably causing permanent damage, the Saints Row series is certainly a rather different take on politics. Having become the President in the previous instalment, Saints Row IV has players using their superpowers to save the world, while still being vaguely Presidential-ish.
Ok, so this is far from a clever take on the political system, but there’s some kind of perverse fun in it. It’s frequently offensive and brash, but when did that ever stop a political figure from being peculiarly popular? Exactly.
President Elect is a fascinating game that few of us will ever get to play. Originally released in 1981, the game simulated the final nine weeks of a Presidential campaign, covering the period between Labor Day and Election Night.
Any election between 1960 and 1984 could be played out, with the player taking the role of campaign manager. Candidates were created by answering 21 questions about various policies to determine just where they stood within the political system. Many different things could be tweaked such as inflation and unemployment, with a series of decisions determining who would eventually win.
It’s a curiosity more than anything now, given its rudimentary beginnings, but politics fans would be right to be chomping at the bit for something similar to be released now.