Video games are often filled with satire and criticism through messaging. Unfortunately, critics and gamers sometimes miss the satire in the games they choose to play. Just take a quick glance at Twitter or follow the rantings of anti-game critics and it’s easy to see how satirical critique is often missed or misrepresented to justify the viewpoints of some groups.
On a side note, there can be a bit of a misunderstanding about what satire is. Some people cling to the idea that satire can only be funny, but it’s not limited to just humor. It can be incredibly serious. Satire in its most simplistic definition takes a worldview, political stance, moral belief, etc., and extends it to the point of absurdity. Through irony, derision, scares, absurdity, or sometimes jokes, it exists to show how different beliefs or systems can go horribly wrong.
You’ll also notice one thing with these examples. While satire doesn’t need to be political, some of the strongest pieces of satire are full of political commentary.
Fallout Universe and Liberty Prime on Red Scare Fear
The Fallout universe is full of satire regarding a Cold War turned radioactive aesthetic. It’s also a satire of the over-consumption of resources. After all, while the world of Fallout had turned to nuclear energy after the creation of atomic weaponry, that move freed up resources for the commercial products that science fiction offered. Those hidden costs of resource hoarding and consumption for commercial profit end up leading to the need for resource wars that ultimately cause nuclear war between capitalist USA, which now includes an annexed Canada, and communist China.
The game world is full of anti-Communist/anti-Socialist propaganda that borders on the sheer absurdity and fearmongering of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the McCarthy era of the second Red Scare.
One of the most beautiful and utterly absurd creations is Liberty Prime, a large robot that spouts off anti-Communist propaganda while using small yield atomic bombs as hand grenades that are thrown at people suspected of being Communist.
There are people who get it for the absurdist gallows humor that it is. The problem is, if you search Liberty Prime on Twitter, there’s a lot of material out there that doesn’t see the problems with such a creation. In fact, there are people who don’t seem to notice that the world of Fallout and the Liberty Prime robot are both criticizing their worldview. It’s not an endorsement.
Just for the sake of an example as to why something like Liberty Prime can’t work. The use of atomic bombs as hand grenades is darkly funny in a scary Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb sense. It’s also ridiculously impractical. The more extremist the creator and the coder are the fewer people who won’t be a target for it. Also, nuclear/atomic weapons are all area-of-effect weapons. So, there’s going to be a variety of collateral damage affecting even people who might completely agree with the robot’s creator and programmer.
Warhammer 40,000’s Imperium of Mankind Is a Fascist Hellscape
Warhammer 40,000 is a great absurdist satire with a worldwide following. Some people are in on the joke and realize there really isn’t a good guy or a good faction in the universe. The Imperium of Mankind itself is so fascist that it actually makes the Empire from Star Wars look like a bunch of peaceful hippies, at least until you get into the short-lived Last Order. Then you start seeing some glimmers of the Imperium of Man.
Just looking at deaths in the Imperium, this gets ridiculous. Every day, 1000 psykers are sacrificed to the God-Emperor. Those sacrifices help to maintain safe travel through the Imperium. The sacrifices also maintain the life support that keeps the maimed and partially rotten emperor in a state of living death.
Then there are the inhospitable work environments, which across millions of worlds leads to billions of deaths. The only way out of the brutally regimented caste system is to become a part of the military, which isn’t optional due to Imperial tithes. The optional part is whether you enlist, or you’re drafted. Who knows? You might be lucky enough to survive longer than 15 hours into your first deployment. Then there are the wars, for which, even if it goes well, there are millions of human deaths across the galaxy. That includes encouragement from Commissars in the form of friendly fire. Criminals can end up in penal legions that work a lot like the Suicide Squad.
The war deaths also do not include imperial deaths caused by things like crime, disease, old age, or suspicion. Even if you’re well off in a paradise world, things can still go badly for you. The technology of the Imperium has been stagnating. Paranoia brought on in part by extreme religious dogma runs rampant. High enough suspicion of treason or heresy can be grounds to condemn entire planets to death. There is no upside to being a part of the Imperium, save for the fact that the weakest weapons they have are the laspistols and lasrifles (laser guns).
The game was developed by a group of game designers who saw issues with leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. While making fun of the more extreme Cold War elements of those two world leaders, they drew from some historical examples. The Imperium includes more fascist elements of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Fascist Spain, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union to name a few key examples.
People in the know that acknowledge the absurdity of the decaying state of the Imperium know that it’s harshly making fun of authoritarian fascist governments with a religious fundamentalist backing.
Then there are the people who aren’t in on the joke. For example, people unironically photoshopped the face of Donald Trump onto the God-Emperor because they see humanity as the heroes of Warhammer 40,000 and Donald Trump as the hero of Mankind. Humanity are not the heroes of the game world. Donald Trump is not the hero of Mankind. The God-Emperor is a semi-sentient half-rotten corpse whose empire is decaying just like he is.
Grand Theft Auto Is a Perversion of the American Dream
Grand Theft Auto has always been one thing above anything else. It is a tribute to crime movies. It’s even more of a tribute after it started getting a more cinematic flair in the PS2 era. What’s a common thing with crime movies and novels? Rugged individualists out to get theirs by any means necessary. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino, The French Connection, or any version of Scarface. It is a perversion of the American dream and the American ethic.
There are some obvious satiric call-outs to the real world. But there are other more subtle nods to other real-world things. For example, instances of random and unjustified police violence against people of color can procedurally happen. Then again, random police violence can happen against any character, including your own. GTA V itself has a variety of different subtle and not-so-subtle statements on mental health and trauma. Its predecessor, GTA IV, is all about the immigrant experience. GTA: San Andreas follows CJ’s return to Los Santos and crime. His return to crime is forced by corrupt police officers.
Anti-game critics, like former lawyer Jack Thompson, usually miss out on the satire though. They focus on things like violence or sexuality which shifts the argument in two ways. Is there any redeeming value in the game anywhere? The question also shifts to the game’s marketing. Is it targeting kids? The issue is that the shift in the argument is a bad faith argument. The GTA games are all M-rated for a reason. Focusing on the wrong aspects helps anti-game critics completely miss the satire.
Super Columbine Massacre Rpg!
Talk about controversy. In 2005, Danny Ledonne released this little gem on the sixth anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. Bad timing, absolutely. In bad taste, maybe if you look at the surface. But it served a purpose. In the game, you take the role of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, planning out the school shooting. You complete the school shooting, die, and go to hell, where you have to explore Hell and kill Doom-inspired demons.
This is another instance where satire doesn’t have to be anywhere close to funny. Provocative, yes. Uncomfortable, absolutely. However, there were a lot of people who went against this game in big ways. Survivors of the actual shooting had a pretty understandable negative reaction, partially due to the medium. However, anti-games critics in the mainstream media and even some critics within the gaming media also hammered pretty heavily on this freeware game. There were those who also claimed that shooters for future school shootings had trained on this game.
The levels of critical satire here are numerous though. There’s criticism of school security and school counseling. There are criticisms of game design tropes and traditions. And one of the biggest points of satire, the media critics were actively perpetuating. Instead of looking at a full picture of the shooter, they looked at the media they enjoyed. They looked for the easiest and most obvious answers to a complex problem. Does entertainment media cause violence? Not really. At most, in the hands of someone with a will to harm, violent media can be a contributing factor. However, if you take away the violent media, the same underlying issues still exist.
There is another thing to note with this case. After the Virginia Tech shooting, Ryan Lambourn created a flash game, titled V-Tech Rampage. While it shared similar ties to real-world tragedy, the design conceit and motivation itself were completely different. Where Ledonne set out to create something at least partially introspective, well-researched, and thought-provoking, Lambourn created something that existed just to offend people. Where Ledonne tried to remain anonymous and wasn’t making any money for his game, Lambourn steered into the controversy and even demanded money for him to take the game down and apologize for what he had created.
The Metal Gear Saga Isn’t Anti-communist
The Metal Gear saga has a lot of political commentary within it. There’s also a lot of armchair conservative critics who don’t seem to get it. They look at games like Snake Eater and the Afghanistan portions of Phantom Pain and then try to argue that the franchise is anti-Communist. You could make that case if the series was just Snake Eater and the Afghanistan portions of Phantom Pain. After all, you’re sneaking around and killing Soviet soldiers. If you’re really reading into events through the series, it’s more anti-nuke, anti-war, anti-privatization of war, and anti-Imperialism (regardless of who is behind it). In that regard, it’s at least a left-leaning franchise, which happens to use soldiers as the vehicle for its storytelling.
During Peace Walker, you fight the CIA in Costa Rica, and your employers are communists. In Ground Zeroes, you’re infiltrating and fighting the US military in essentially Guantanamo Bay. In Phantom Pain, you’re fighting XOF, which was the backup support unit for you in Snake Eater. For Portable Ops, you’re fighting your own unit after they’ve framed you and went rogue hunting for the Philosopher’s Legacy. In Snake Eater, while you’re pitted against Soviets, and the big bad is your US special forces mentor. Her final mission, approved by the US government, is to play the traitor.
In both Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2, you’re fighting your own boss, while you’re a member of the US special forces. In Metal Gear Solid, this enemy is your old unit who became terrorists. The US President orchestrated their betrayal. For Metal Gear Solid 2, the enemy is the former US President and the terrorist group he created.
In Metal Gear Solid 4, you’re fighting the whole war economy as well as quadruple agent Revolver Ocelot. Then with Metal Gear Solid: Revengence, you’re fighting rival private militaries bent on destabilizing the world to the benefit of the United States.
In comparison to the time that you spend fighting communists, you’re also spending significantly more time fighting Americans and American interests. Yes, you do occasionally fight Communists, but much less often than you’d think. There is a lot of different things getting heavy criticism. The satire is there, especially for people who are willing to see it.