First it was porn. Now it’s politics.
When the epic life-simulation game “Spore” first made its way onto home computers this year, players promptly got busy using the game’s Creature Creator to design a startling variety of anatomically explicit beings from another world.
But play the game these days, and you’re more likely to bump into Sarah Palin or Barack Obama than a giant dancing penis.
OK, sure, Electronic Arts put the kibosh on the so-called “Sporn” in its game, but still, it’s easy to see what’s on game players’ minds (besides sex) when you peruse the world of “Spore.”
The game encourages players to create beings, buildings, vehicles and spacecraft of their own design and to then share them with other players via the Sporepedia – an online encyclopedia of sorts. Search this Sporepedia for the name Sarah Palin, for example, and you’ll find more than 1,800 entries.
One such Palin creature comes with bulging, lash-lined eyes, a pink pig’s snout and hair made of feathers. Her creator – a player by the name of BleauBoy – describes his creature thusly: “The right wing pig in lipstick. Really likes to kill other animals with her bare hands. Uses her snout to hunt for potential oil wells.”
And this Palin creature is just one of many thousands of politically inspired creations within “Spore.” Here you’ll find Barack Obama- and John McCain-looking creatures – some of them flattering, some of them not so flattering, and many of them just plain ol’ amusing. (My personal favorite: The giant Obama-shaped space ship.)
But as the presidential election draws near, “Spore” isn’t the only game giving a voice to game players’ political opinions, concerns, jabs and jokes.
From political rallies organized in “Second Life” to candidate caricatures made using the Wii’s Mii avatar tool, to home-brew flash games with a political ax to grind, video game fans are leveraging that thing they love the most as a way to let the world know what they think about perhaps the most important presidential election in their lifetimes.
“Our generation grew up with video games as a constantly evolving artistic medium, so while some people might view gaming as a mindless orgy of beeps and pixels, we see it as an evocative platform for progress, storytelling, and potential satire,” says Brian Altano, one of the “jaded, politically informed gamers” behind gaming humor site The Minus World.
His crew has been putting its own spin on the presidential election with “Thwomp the Vote ‘08” – an election satire that envisions a race between Nintendo characters Mario (a mustachioed McCain) and his brother Luigi (Obama done up Italian-plumber style).
According to the site: “Warp Pipe reform, gold coin taxes, the threat of Koopa extremists, and bringing the Toad troops home” are the issues that matter most in this election.
“We're hoping it brings gamers closer to the political world out there while giving the people who are actively following the election a new and entertaining spin on things,” Altano says.
Gaming the election
Dennis McCauley, editor and founder of GamePolitics.com, launched his Web site documenting the convergence of video games and politics in 2005.
“When I first started people said, ‘Games and politics? What’s the connection?'” But these days, he says, the two intersect so frequently there isn’t enough time in the day to write about it all.
McCauley says he's been especially pleased to see the abundant and enthusiastic use of gaming content as a means of jumping into the election conversation.
“Some of it is really really, good,” he says. “It’s heartening to see them getting involved at this level.”
But why now? Why this particular election?
For starters, McCauley says, “the technology is so much more accessible than it was even four years ago.”
Indeed, today just about anyone with a computer and some free time can make a flash game or a bit of machinima (“machine cinema” created using computer-generated graphics, often from video games). And so over at Machinima.com, you’ll find “Broken Obama” a short film that lampoons Obama’s use of teleprompters created using graphics from the online world “Second Life.”
Meanwhile, you can’t surf the Web these days without tripping over an election-themed mini-game. “Commander n’ Chief,” for example, asks players to vote on a candidate by selecting which one they want to take into armed combat against gun-wielding bad-guys. (Obama, with more than 7 million “votes,” is winning 63 percent to McCain’s 37 percent.) And then there's “Rock the Quote,” a game that puts players’ knowledge of the candidates to the test by asking them to correctly identify which would-be world leaders said certain phrases.
McCauley also believes that the fascinating figures cut by both Obama and Palin have helped fuel this onslaught of gaming commentary. After all, this duo seems to have energized the youthful electorate (those typically more savvy with games and technology ) in a way rarely seen before.
No escape for escapists
“We haven't really had a reason to get too excited for an election until now,” Altano says. “You probably noticed, but the last two of them were pretty abysmal. Everything just feels more exciting and charged right now and the Internet is really at the cusp of it.”
McCauley agrees. “I think this is a perfect storm of candidate appeal and emerging technology and the increasingly important place of games in popular culture.”
The candidates themselves don’t seem particularly savvy to the world of video games. (Obama told Entertainment Weekly that he loved “Pong” and admitted that it was the last game he played.) But clearly, members of the campaign staff in both camps are hip to the fact that video games speak to an important demographic.
McCain’s campaign got down with the hot new gaming thang – social network games – when it launched “Pork Invaders.” In this “Space Invaders” riff played on Facebook, you shoot down pigs “to help John McCain in his tireless fight against wasteful spending.”
And earlier this month, the Obama campaign made headlines when he became the first presidential candidate to run advertisements in video games (the billboard-style ads ran in Xbox 360 games “Burnout Paradise” and “Guitar Hero III,” among others).
“I think it’s a real validation of gaming,” McCauley says of the in-game adverts. “It sort of legitimizes gaming as a mainstream entertainment.”
But not all game fans are so pleased to see video games getting chummy with politics.
“Why can't we just play games to play games anymore? It's bad enough to constantly hear politics on the news, but now advertising in video games?” complained Smartgurl, in a post at gaming web site Kotaku.com.
The writers at Kotaku have another take on it all. In a recent article titled “What Can Games Teach Us About the Election?” they suggest that both the candidates and gamers have much political wisdom to gain from video games themselves.
“By playing games across a wide spectrum of genres, a gamer can experience firsthand the tough decisions and burning questions that will test the leader of the free world,” wrote associate editor Stuart Houghton.
For example, he says “Missile Command” and “Civilization” make good primers for those needing to brush up on foreign policy.
“A Civ player quickly learns the importance of a stable economy to a war effort,” Houghton points out. “It's no good throwing phalanx after phalanx at a conquered land if your advisors are telling you to build more granaries, after all. Better to focus on diplomacy, and maybe build a colossus or two to keep the plebes happy back home.”
We can only hope the candidates are heeding this sage advice.