Screen, Video Games

Games need to be political, and we need to be cool with that

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A little game called Liyla and the Shadows of War became unexpectedly controversial thanks   to Apple deciding to block it from release on the Apple App store.

The game isn’t sexist or overly violent. It’s not pornographic. It’s not promoting racism or other social nasties. The game’s great crime was that it was developed by a young Palestinian, and the game itself is based on real events and experiences; in other words it’s a game about what the Palestinians experience at the hands of the Israeli armed forces.

Apple’s reason for blocking the release of the game, cited by the developer, is that the game is not actually a game at all. Apple’s argument was that game should have been submitted to another category (though it has since reneged and released the game unaltered, following complaints to the company). Yet Liyla is assuredly a textbook example of a platform/ puzzle game that we’ve seen many times before, including on the Apple App store. There is no credible way to deny this.

This is not the first time that Apple has put a stop on games it considers to be politically sensitive. Last year, as debate in America over the Confederate flag raged on, Apple briefly pulled every game that had an instance of the flag in it from the App store, again until there was a community outcry against the move. This included strategy games about the American Civil War that, in the name of authenticity, had the flag represent the units of the South. The games that were pulled were done so for being historically accurate.

Sadly, that Apple has done its best to silence games that address topics of political sensitivity is not unexpected. It’s a cry that we hear quite often; whenever a game critic dares to analyse a game by looking through a feminist, socialist or similar lens, that critic is inevitably going to experience a wave of complaints that games should not be political – typically made by people who fail to register that the absence of politics is in itself a political statement. Where the politics of a game matches their personal ideology, however, people no longer care (or even notice) that the game is political.

Games are political. More importantly. games should be political. It’s a natural consequence to games being considered works of art; something the community loves insisting as true, only to protest the subsequent ramifications of that truth whenever critics and the industry starts treating them as such.

Art is inherently political. A number of Shakespeare’s plays acted as propaganda for the royalty of the time. Citizen Kane, the arguable foundation block of “artistic” cinema, was itself was a broad criticism of a media mogul. Whether people care to notice or not, The Hunger Games, The Avengers, House of Cards, and any other bit of pop culture you can think of has a political element to it. Hell, Survivor and such utter drivel as Seven Year Switch bill themselves as social experiments – so even reality TV is political.

So why is there the expectation that games, alone among all forms of media and entertainment, can’t be political? From the consumer end, it’s relatively easy to chalk the resistance to and hostility for political ideology in games to a lack of understanding about the purpose of art. As games have matured they have developed narratives and meaning, and become a creative, artistic medium. The medium is now much more complex than lining blocks up to score big points in Tetris.

That Apple also has a resistance to the idea of “political” games is far more concerning. It misunderstands the value of games as art and it is inconsistent in applying its “no politics” rule. When a game is political, but not critical of western interests – (for example, This War of Mine is an anti-war game but culturally neutral, and Papers, Please is critical of totalitarian regimes)  – Apple has no issue with them on the App store. It’s only when a game might challenge the social convention, (Palestinians as humans trapped in a horrific warzone), that Apple pulls out its sledgehammer.

Despite Apple’s best efforts, however, the protest happened, the game was allowed and there’s every chance that some people out there will play Liyla and the Shadows of War and have their perceptions on the conflict in Israel and Palestine changed.

And that’s why games need to be political. They need to challenge and provoke. They need to offend. It’s perfectly okay to disagree with the message that a game is sending out, but to suggest that it shouldn’t exist, because it doesn’t marry up the “correct” ideology, is a dangerous path to follow.


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