Games

AAA Games Weren't Afraid of Getting Political in 2016

Several games this year turned the heads of Waypoint High's most avid political activists.

by Danielle Riendeau
Dec 30 2016, 5:00pm

Header illustration by Sunless Design

Welcome to the Waypoint High School Class of 2016 Yearbook. We're giving out senior superlatives  to our favorite games, digging into the year's biggest stories via extracurriculars , and following our favorite characters through their adventures together in fanfic.  See you in 2017! 

Nothing in the human world is apolitical. The very insistence that games "apolitical" attitude is in itself political, favoring the status quo, or avoiding the necessary conflicts and conversations that lead to growth and progress.

For a long, long time, many folks on my side of the political spectrum bemoaned the AAA game space's failure to really connect with larger social movements. In the last few years, we've had crucial, painful conversations about race and police brutality (and the rising militarization of American police), all while so many "big" games still set players in the roles of hyper-powered soldiers, vigilantes, or even, occasionally, cops.

It was an uncomfortable situation, to say the least.

While most AAA games still aren't focussed on the lives of the underrepresented, the disenfranchised, and those who are fight tooth and nail for better in our society, an encouraging trend ran through several titles this year. A desire, on some level, to talk about things that really, really matter: race, class, and organizing power. (And it's worth saying that independent and alternative games have been tackling these issues for years now.)

Watch Dogs 2 screen courtesy of Ubisoft

Watch Dogs 2 tackled race in a way that Waypoint EIC Austin found refreshing and honest (at least, in the first two acts), premised on a young hacker who is deemed a criminal just by a surveillance-state algorithm—because of his race and background.

"During the early portions of the game, Watch Dogs 2 communicates that it is—for better or worse—going to try to engage with questions of identity and marginalization. The catalyst for Marcus joining the do-gooder hacktivist collective called DedSec is that the crime-stopping (and privacy invading) CTOS software suite determined that he was a criminal because he fit a profile: Young, black, and in the wrong places at the wrong times."

It featured more than one (!) well-written character of color (again, until the game drops the ball on one of them, discussed in that piece), and offers criticism on the rapid gentrification of the San Francisco Bay Area. Further, it gives some weight to the motivations of its characters, members of a hacker collective that genuinely want to make their world a better place, using the same tools (and tech) that has transformed their city into a playground for rich technocrats and an impossibly expensive place for everyone else.

Mafia 3 screen courtesy of 2K

Also offering an unflinching depiction of systemic racism—and its nastiest personal and institutional effects—was Mafia 3. Waypoint EIC Austin Walker had an in-depth chat with the game's writer, Charles Webb, on the game's approach to race as a lens for players to view this character and this (admittedly pulpy, crime-thriller) world through:

"I wouldn't say that we're deconstructing the Mafia, but we're using Lincoln as a perspective to look at them from the outside, to look at them through the issues you described, like systemic racism. What happens when the devaluation of black lives—the devaluation of an entire people—intersects with crime?"

Interestingly, and effectively, the game actually makes systemic racism an actual mechanic in the world—one that directly impacts the gameplay. When protagonist Lincoln Clay (a black dude in the 1967 southern city of New Orleans New Bordeaux) is in a rich, white neighborhood, the police are more likely to be watching him. They look for him longer, and generally act more vigilant, reinforcing the idea that those cops don't think he belongs in those areas.


Related, on Waypoint: Why our vote for "Cutest Couple" matters beyond the "aw" factor.


The explicit story content of the game belies a care and desire to engage with these characters—and their deeply racist, sexist, homophobic world—but this one mechanic spoke volumes without having to say a word.

Even the Ocean screen courtesy of Analgesic Productions

It's not a AAA game, but Even The Ocean, a platformer centered on the idea of balancing energy, touched on environmental policy, corrupt politicians, the power of a working class that organizes for better treatment, and even the difficulties of being a "model minority." It does so within the context of a colorful, even fanciful world, but its messages were clear and effective.

There are things worth fighting for, people worth saving. There are causes worth getting your hands dirty for, and putting yourself out there to further. Even the Ocean proves that you can be a protest game without losing the color and playfulness of a pretty 16-bit fantasy. And that is a very beautiful thing.