01.11.13

Are games merely fuel for the political "discourse machine"?

Ian Bogost has the best piece I've read on video games and violence in the weeks since the Newtown shootings. Writing about the current controversy over the game industry's involvement in Joe Biden's gun-violence task force, Bogost makes the arugment that politicians have no interest in discussing games qua games, only as grist for what he evocatively refers to as the "discourse machine":

Whether for good or for ill, games become instruments in public debate rather than as mechanisms through which players can participate in a variety of activities—including reflecting on the very debates they now serve as puppets.

I'd take Bogost's arugment a step further, and say that games - because they are so poorly understood - serve as a kind of mirror for the American cultural anxieties that Bogost identifies in his piece. So they're either a symbol of social rot (violence) or a potential source of economic salvation (teaching STEM skills), depending on which discussion we're having. It's a depressing thought, that games are merely a prop in a drama over which gamers have no control, and I think it's this fatalism that leads Bogost to his conclusion:

If the White House is really interested in games, they could start using them as sophisticated communication tools to help break out of politics as usual, instead of using games as convenient rhetorical levers when the need arises.

I admire the idea behind that suggestion, but it seems incredibly far-fetched to me. New forms of expression have served as scapegoats during moral panics for a long, long time. Novels, with their versimilar descriptions of life, were once thought to be a moral hazard. Two short decades ago, rap music (and before that, heavy metal) was the focus of similar political exercises. These forms didn't gain cultural acceptance because the government recorded rap songs or wrote novels. People just plain got used to them. That's what is going to happen with games, it's just going to be a long and uncomfortable process.