While some lawmakers cite excessive violence as an excuse to ban video games, others exploit gaming in a far more cunning manner.
Authorities are getting increasingly involved in the video games industry, having found it a lucrative niche within the entertainment market. But it’s hard to believe that state-sponsored actors have a purely commercial motivation.
“Governments use video games for a variety of reasons, the most common of which is to exert control over their populations. Gamification, or the use of video games to motivate people to do something, is an increasingly popular way for governments to push an agenda,” Ranjeet Gomez explains.
Gamification – the concept related to replicating real-life activities or systems in video-game format to improve engagement – is gaining traction, and political actors are eager to jump on the bandwagon.
The most commonly cited example of this is the Hillary 2016 app, which allowed supporters to compete against each other by virtually campaigning for former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton to win rewards. The app aimed to attract voters to participate in elections and engage with a more diverse audience.
“The government has tried to attract more and more voters to be a part of the decision-making process of their leaders. The Hillary 2016 app did the same by engaging interested voters in politics and information through a series of quizzes,” says Andre Flynn, founder of gadget review website Gadnets.
Former US president Donald Trump also attempted to start a career in social media by launching the Truth Social app, which was swiftly banned on Google Play. The app, advertised as a “free speech” platform, encountered many problems along the way, primarily related to hate speech and calls for violence.
But it’s not just individual politicians looking to get any support they can from a skeptical electorate. Entire branches of nation-states are creating games to appeal to their citizens.
As such, a widely-used, state-developed release known as America’s Army – a series of first-person shooter video games from the US Army – was designed to educate and recruit potential soldiers. During its 20 years of operation, it was so successful that some argue it saved the military hundreds of millions in marketing and recruiting, with some 20 million people joining the virtual combat at some point.
However, Associate Professor of Media Studies at the University of Toronto David Nieborg has criticized it as “a propaganda tool within the vast US military complex.” He explained that the game justified the use of violence by the US military as a necessary defense of freedom and legitimized US foreign policy through the army’s “core values,” such as honor, duty, and personal courage.
"From a propaganda perspective, though, the Army has seemingly hit the jackpot. And the Army readily admits the games are a propaganda device.”
Although sort of a revolutionary development, America’s Army inspired governments all over the world to follow in its footsteps by releasing their own titles, such as China’s Glorious Mission developed by the People's Liberation Army, Lebanon’s Special Force created by the Lebanese political group Hezbollah, and Russia’s new patriotic games about the Second World War produced by the state-funded Russian Military History Society.
“By prompting players to make sacrifices for their country or by requiring them to engage in patriotic activities, the game environment can help citizens to develop positive attitudes toward their country,” says David Batchelor, Founder at Helpfull, a survey research platform.
Totalitarian dictatorships also opt for video games to communicate their version of reality, which might occasionally go to absurd lengths. North Korea’s government, for example, used footage from a shooter game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 to show the destruction of New York, with a tragic caption: "It seems that the nest of wickedness is ablaze with the fire started by itself."
And if that isn’t enough, a web portal Uriminzokkiri – a North Korean state-controlled news website – features a variety of flash games, which allow players to ‘physically’ abuse Japanese, South Korean, and American politicians.
“By presenting distorted or biased depictions of world events or famous people, the game environment can help citizens to develop biased beliefs about the world around them and their nation,” Batchelor explains.
He also thinks back to the ‘old’ days, when games were made in honor of significant political figures or current events.
“Some of these games were great fun to play,” he says, “but others were really just thinly-veiled propaganda pieces – and as a kid who didn't really understand the history or complexity of what was going on, it was really hard to tell which was which.”
Shooting games cause teens to shoot up schools – or at least, some governments want you to think that
Now of course, governments’ long reach is not limited to gamification and propaganda game development. The authorities are also directly involved in the distribution of new releases through law enforcement.
Gomez points out that nation-states may limit access to certain games to protect the population from violent content – but even that has its caveat. The power play is often aimed at controlling local narratives and ultimately dictating the agenda by choosing which games people are allowed to play.
“Governments have been famously hostile to video games in the past, particularly in the United States, where the late ‘90s and early Noughties were characterized by what can only be described as a crusade against ‘violent’ video games like Doom and the Grand Theft Auto series,” explains Aimee White, computer analyst and co-owner of Keyboard Kings. “These were held to be responsible for wider societal problems, like mass shootings, but I’m not sure you’ll find any evidence to support a correlation.”
Indeed, a correlation between the so-called “shooting games” and real-life violence is often assumed. Almost every year, a new suggestion to ban “destructive” video games gets brought up in the Russian State Duma amid incidents of teen crime. Connecticut State Representative DebraLee Hovey also proposed a 10% sin tax on video games with “mature” ratings, in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting of 2012, saying that “we do not need to be glorifying violence.” Finally, China is planning to crack down on violent video games to improve the mental health of its children through a series of heavy restrictions.
Yet, White is right in the sense that research fails to back up such concerns. A study by researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute involving 1,004 British adolescents did not find any relationship between violent gaming and aggressive behavior. Another study led by Aaron Drummond of New Zealand’s Massey University was based on data from over 21,000 youths globally and also came to the conclusion that exposure to video games does not result in aggravated hostility. According to the results, “long-term impacts of violent games on youth aggression are near zero.”
If that is the case, then why are certain governments so preoccupied with prosecuting video games? Theresia Le Battistini, the CEO and founder of Fashion League, thinks that the reason lies in politics more than anything else.
“Take America's horrific record on shooting homicides. Rather than confront and reckon with the data that proves that more guns mean more gun deaths, they conveniently have plenty of violent games at their disposal to scapegoat. Regulating games bends to the false narrative that games have toxic consequences on society so that the status quo can continue to benefit politicians.”
Additionally, the agenda can be regulated through a careful representation of governments and even entire countries in video games. For example, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2, which allows players to fight guerillas in Mexico City streets, got banned in Mexico for “portraying its capital as unsafe.” The city of Chihuahua's governor José Reyes also argued that the game generally presents Mexico and its citizens in a bad light.
Similarly, Command & Conquer Generals: Zero Hour Expansion was banned in China for "smearing the image of China and the Chinese army.” In the game, a fictional terrorist army hits the country with a nuclear strike, leaving the surviving Chinese and American forces to fight together.
To regulate or not to regulate? Experts are divided
As governments get more involved in the production and distribution of video games, many become increasingly concerned about the new power dynamics at play.
When a Just Russia Party legislator Oleg Mikheev proposed banning video games that “promote fascism” and negatively depict Russia, it became clear how governments might extend censorship to the gaming industry. Games named and shamed by Mikheev included Maidan: Revolution – which depicts the chronology of Ukraine’s EuroMaidan events and, allegedly, discredits Russian forces.
However, not all states regulate the market to censor opinions – and while some countries are stricter in their regulations, others are far more lenient.
“The US and UK, for example, have strict video game ratings and censorship policies. But also in these countries, even questionable or violent games can get controversial ratings and sometimes get censored as well. On the other hand, some other countries and regions are much more lenient when it comes to regulating video games. In these places, even gory games can get rated PG-13 or R, which means they're appropriate for all ages,” Batchelor elaborates.
In the US, it’s the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) that assigns ratings – from “Early Childhood” to “Adult” – to video games. But interestingly enough, raters don’t play the games they rate – rather, they base their scores on a detailed review of the most extreme content in the game provided by the publisher. The reviewers, however, often play-test games after release.
“The rating system has been criticized for lacking transparency and being too lenient,” Batchelor comments.
Although a number of surveys illustrate that Americans generally want more regulation surrounding the sale of mature video games – especially to children – the US Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that video games should be classified as protected speech under the First Amendment. States are still free to prevent obscene material being accessed by minors, but, according to the court’s ruling, speech about violence cannot be considered as such.
“The best thing the government can do is to provide a stable regulatory environment that promotes the development of video games. The reason behind this is that not all video games are created equal,” Batchelor concludes.
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