Can Video Games Make Thoughtful Social Critiques?

Just to be clear, I am not a gamer. The only video game I ever successfully completed was Jill of the Jungle, which we owned on floppy disk when I was a kid.

I’m pretty sure I only liked this game because Jane was a super cool tough girl,

In fact, up until this past year I would have argued that video games don’t really have any redeeming qualities. At worst, they are a hotbed of misogyny and xenophobia, as chronicled by female gamers on websites like Not in the Kitchen Anymore and Fat, Ugly or Slutty. At best, they are like a bottomless pit where the lives of children and adults disappear, never to resurface.

Although I suppose the same could be said about pretty well anything.

This year a good friend convinced me to try a Digital Humanities class at my University. For those of you who haven’t heard of the field before (I hadn’t either), Wikipedia defines it as the “intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities”.  If you want to see some examples of the kind of research being done in the field, you could check out two of my past posts describing DH scholar Lisa Nakamura’s guest lectures at my university.

While this class has challenged the way I see technology in general, it has particularly challenged my very negative perception of video games. In fact, Ian Bogost, one of the DH scholars we studied in the course, argues that games can form powerful arguments and unique social critiques. In his book, Persuasive GamesBogost describes arguments made by a game as “procedural rhetoric“, or, more simply as “the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions, rather than the spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures”.

Below, I’ve included four examples of persuasive games my DH professor shared with the class. Each of these games make relevant and thoughtful arguments that wouldn’t have been as effective if they didn’t appear in their procedural form.

The Parable of the Polygons

Vi Hart and Nicky Case preface their simple browser game by stating that “This is a story of how harmless choices can make a harmful world.” Hart and Case explain that the triangles and squares are “slightly shapist”. This means that the shapes prefer some level of diversity around them, but will become unhappy if they feel isolated in their community. Players are then asked to drag and drop the shapes until all of the squares and triangles are happy with the community of shapes around them.

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 1.28.02 PM

Click on the image to play the game

Once the player begins moving the shapes, it becomes apparent that even a slight bias will lead to large scale segregation.

The McDonald’s Video Game

The McDonald’s Game is one of Molleindustria‘s many provocative games. The game allows the player to manage four sections of the popular fast food chain’s industry: the agricultural section, the feedlot, the restaurants themselves, and the company headquarters. Within each of those areas, players are given opportunities to use nefarious methods to make their business thrive. You can plough villages and sections of the rainforest in the agricultural section. You can add industrial waste and hormones to your cow fodder at the feedlot. You can even target children with your advertising or corrupt a politician from the company headquarters.

Click image to play the game

This game is actually quite difficult. In order to keep up with production, players must become more and more ruthless with their business practice. While the game shamelessly demonizes the corporation, it also makes an effective argument about big business: at such a large scale, is it even possible for a company to be both ethical and profitable?

Nothing To Hide

Nothing to Hide, another game by Nicky Case, applies Foucault’s discussion of the panopticon and self-policing to our contemporary hyper-public social experience. When playing the game, you are Poppy Gardner, the anxious daughter of a politician who runs away in order to avoid bringing down her father’s “Popularity Metrics”. As you navigate Poppy along a variety of eerie pathways you must keep her within sight of an eye at all times. If Poppy moves out of an eye’s line of vision she is immediately shot.

Click on the image to play the web demo

As you advance through the levels of the game, it becomes more difficult to move along the pathway without picking up eyes and placing them in the ideal spot to watch you. The art and background music heightens the player’s discomfort, while the premise draws attention to our lack of privacy in a world dominated by social media. 

Super Consent

Click on the image to play

Because Merritt Kopas directs her games towards a “non-traditional game audiences”, many of her games function in a text-based format. According to Kopas, her games are meant to invite “interaction and play with the goal of challenging players’ preconceptions and experiences more so than their reflexes or logic.”

In Super Consent, she drives home one message, regardless of the choices you make within the game:”its not enough to make no okaweve got to celebrate it”. 


I find it fascinating and exciting to see a medium that I’ve always associate with harassment and negativity used to make thoughtful social critiques. However, as mentioned above, my experienced with gaming is very limited, so I would absolutely love to hear from you, if you know of a game I ought to try.

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4 responses to “Can Video Games Make Thoughtful Social Critiques?

  1. “Spec Ops: The Line” is a pretty acclaimed game, subverting the whole Call-o’-Duty jingoism with an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. Any of the TellTale story games (Walking Dead probably bein’ the best) are also amazing, and there are plenty of games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age which force the players into challenging moral conundrums. Or heck, there’s even the Saints Row series, which is a bombastic self-parody of GTA-esque sandbox games.

    It’s a pretty long list, but those are just some of my favorites.

  2. The largest flaw in your initial dismissal of video games is that they’re criticisms of the community and not of the art form itself. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t give a critical eye towards specific forms of media and entertainment that attract a certain objectively horrible demographic, but it’s never a good idea to conflate an audience with whatever it is they are audience to.

  3. Pingback: 3 Things I Learned During My 3 Weeks of Internet Deprivation | Culture War Reporters

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