Games that Say Something Meaningful About America and its Culture
Today is America’s Independence Day. Back in 1776 we told the English to pack their bags and go home. This was our country and no one was going to tell us how we should run it. On this day, we celebrate our hard won independence by shooting fireworks, consuming vast quantities of food and alcohol and honoring those who continue to fight for our freedom.
While this country provides many with opportunities that other countries don’t, it isn’t a perfect place. It wasn’t when it was founded and it’s certainly not now. For this day I figured that an editorial centered around video games which have something meaningful to say about America would be perfect.
These games shine a light one some of the best and worst aspects of American culture. They hold a mirror to this country’s face and say “this is you.” While there are other games that also have meaningful things to say about this country of ours, these are the ones that stick out to me the most.
Grand Theft Auto series
I can think of no better place to start than with the Grand Theft Auto Series. This franchise more than any other bleeds American pop culture and casts a light on a lot of the ugliness and stupidity within our society.
Despite the fact that the game stars criminals, they are in their own way striving to achieve the American dream of making it big. The most poignant entry in the series is Grand Theft Auto IV which stars Niko Bellic who is from somewhere in Eastern Europe. Nico and his cousin Roman attempt to make good on the American dream but their status as immigrants keeps them low on the societal rung and forces them to commit crimes in order to make ends meet. Niko quickly becomes disillusioned but his cousin holds on to his dream of what America is — even when it ends up costing him everything.
The radio actually provides the best commentary on American society within the games. The various commercials and radio talk shows spoof our consumerist and pop culture obsessed society. While the main stories are about trying to make in in this land, the radio is a window into what this country is actually about only done in a humorous way.
Metal Gear Solid series
While the more over the top aspects of this series are what a lot of people focus on, there really is a deep underlying message about America’s military in these games. In particular, the running theme is about America’s military industrial complex and how that helps it maintain power throughout the world.
Like the Grand Theft Auto series, MGS is developed by non-Americans and I think this helps with showing us how the world views this country. In the games, America is the undisputed global superpower and other countries have no choice but to submit to its will. The fact that the global secret society which actually runs everything was originally founded by Americans (the Patriots) help keep America at the top.
The latest games in the series take place in the 60s, 70s and 80s; the height of the Cold War. While the stories are fictional, they do a good job of capturing the terror and anxiety that people who believed they could be eradicated by nuclear bombs must have felt. They also capture the tension that the countries involved felt and how neither side wanted to be responsible for the extinction of life on Earth.
The war economy is something that MGS4 put right up front and center. While this economy is something that all of the nations of the world benefited from in the game, it was a clear allegory to America’s own war economy but taken to its extreme conclusion.
Americans obviously idolize the founding fathers but what if this adoration was twisted and became corrupted? This is something that BioShock Infinite showed us. The game takes place in a fictional early 1900s but it says a lot about our modern day society.
The skycity of Columbia has a ruling class that more or less deifies America’s founders and takes their writings as gospel. They took the “America first” stand to heart and actually broke away from the country so that it could freely exercise its interpretation of what America is supposed to be. There are many in this country, on both sides of the political aisle, who would also like to defect from the main states and form their own nation.
The rulers of Columbia are like an extreme version of the Tea Party. If something isn’t American then it is heretical. There is no separation of church and state in Columbia. Both are one and the same. A person is both unpatriotic and unfaithful if they don’t conform to the laws of the city. This is how some Americans see those who don’t believe in this country’s “traditions.”
The topic of societal classes was also brought up with the way African Americans and the Irish are treated in the game. In fact, they are treated no differently in Infinite than they were in real life over a hundred years ago. While not technically slaves, they had next to no freedoms since they were part of the lowest class of society.
Privacy is something that we are losing everyday either without our consent or, in most cases, willingly. People’s need for heightened security is shown in its most extreme form in this game.
The entire city of Watch Dogs’ Chicago is basically “smart.” Every facet of it is interconnected thanks to an operating system (ctOS) which governs all of its various parts. All of the citizens are constantly tracked and monitored twenty four hours a day. This happens without much uproar since people are willing to exchange their freedom in order to feel safe. Some may even cry out against such a system but their constant use of social media shows that they are willing to submit to it as well.
This is something that we’ve seen happen after the 9/11 attacks. Like the citizens of Watch Dogs’ Chicago, real life Americans give up more and more of their freedoms for the promise of safety. In the game, the city was able to be hacked and controlled by a single man. This is something that is possible in our world if everything is controlled from a central location.
Assassin’s Creed III
This game takes place shortly before, during and after the American revolution. Unlike typical media which focuses on the American and British sides of the conflict, this game took an outsider’s point of view.
Connor, the game’s protagonist, is half Native American and half British. He belongs to two worlds yet belongs to neither. This allows him to see the war objectively (for the most part). He is also witness to what both the British and Americans did to his people and how they exploited them for their own gain.
The founding fathers are featured prominently and we get to see them as real human beings. They aren’t made to be angels or devils, they were just men who fought for something they believed in.
One thing that this game did (which all Assassin’s Creed games do well) is to give players a wealth of historical data about this time in history. Many of this country’s famous landmarks, people and battles from that time can be looked up and read in the the in-game codex. It also shows us what everyday life was like for the average American living during this tumultuous period in history.
A lot of the games in this editorial are pretty serious and heavy. I want to end things off with something a bit more light-hearted… sort of.
The Fallout series take place in the future after a devastating nuclear war has all but wiped out humanity. What’s interesting about this franchise is that, even though it’s in the future, its culture is almost identical to that of 1950s America.
The various mutants, monsters and robots that you have to fight are all influenced by science fiction of the 1950s. 50s pop culture is also heavily prevalent and you can hear it in the music and see it in the various signs that litter the world. Even the way people dress and talk is straight out of the 50s. The technology also has a retro-futuristic slant to it as well.
1950s propaganda is also featured in this series. There is still talk about “the Commies” and other enemies of America. Although the Cold War is long over, many of the signs around the world still warn of nuclear radiation and what people should do in case of a nuclear war. Some of these signs still hold relevance considering how toxic many places in the world still are.
It is interesting that the racism of the 1950s isn’t really featured… at least not toward normal humans. Blacks, Latinos and Asians aren’t discriminated upon like they were in the real world but mutated people certainly are. The way they are treated is an allegory to how minorities were treated at the time.
That’s it for this list of games that say something about America. Like I said, there are sure to be others that I may not have played so if you have any that you think are good examples feel free to talk about them in the comments.
From everyone here at DualShockers, we want wish our American readers a happy and safe Independence Day!