“If you’re not taking part in any backbreaking labor activities, grab a swimsuit and come to the beach!”
-- DJ Juanito
A year and a half ago, amidst the media fiesta surrounding the release of Resident Evil 5, N’gai Croal issued what I (at the time) considered to be an inflammatory, somewhat excessive denunciation of the game’s imagery. I wrote off the controversy as a hypersensitive tempest in a teacup.
I didn’t have any particular objection to what N’gai said. While I could see a certain misstep in the general plot -- alpha-male Chris Redfield traversing the Dark Continent, slaughtering savages and establishing a bulwark of civilization -- at the end of the day I felt this was a bit reductionist and probably well beyond the scope of the game’s design. The Las Plagas Spaniards were, after all, just as feral. It appeared to me that Croal had read too much into this one title, because, after all, “it’s just a game.” A game that happened to feature African zombies, but a game first and foremost.
It was very easy to dismiss talk of controversy for this very reason.
There is, of course, a problem with that line of thinking. I like to talk about the possibilities of games, to conjecture about the growth seen in narratives, story-telling mechanics, characterization. But at the same time, my conception of “controversy” seems to begin and end with the machinations of the industry. I rally to the side of writers suddenly displaced by changing tides. I decry the bottom-line mentality of studios farming intellectual properties until they’re depleted husks. But when it comes to games, I jump to defensive stances. Mostly because they’re games, not social treatises. How can we possibly object to entertainment?
Lately, N’gai Croal’s words – their insistence that there are greater cultural issues behind the games we play – have been spinning through my head. Not because of any current events. Not because I’ve been playing through RE5. Not even because I thought to review the words thrown about on either side of that particular argument.
It’s because I’ve played through the Tropico 3 demo, and I find that I’m not entirely comfortable with the world it depicts.
On History and Worldbuilding
Perhaps it is because I feel that I haven’t been “Latin enough.” Or maybe it’s the Latin American literature classes I took four years ago whispering sweet liberal-progressive epithets into ego. Whatever the root cause, there is a growing sense of unease as I navigate the hills and shanty towns of Tropico island.
Behind every choice, the implications of my actions affect the state of life on Tropico. Citizens, foreign nations, and disgruntled nationalists take note of every failed policy, every fiscal misstep, and every blunder. Occasionally, Tropico’s only employed radio personality, DJ Juanito, will issue a tongue-in-cheek report on the health of the nation. While the mechanic should make for endless chuckles and laughs, I found myself growing increasingly unhinged by the DJ’s observations. (It's something like hearing a morning zoo crew make humorous comments about the state of relief efforts in Haiti). Hearing wise-cracks about the dismal state of the economy, living conditions, or food supply does nothing but bring to mind the hardships and historical problems commonly associated with Latin American nations. Hardships, one should note, that are not necessarily confined to the dusty tomes of history books. Problems, one should realize, that continue to shape policy and life to this day.
Tropico 3 attempts to draw comedy from issues such as corruption, effusive propaganda machines and impoverished-but-hardworking citizens because these are well-documented abuses of power common to Latin America. It no secret that Cold War tensions ran high in the Caribbean and Central/South America as U.S. and Soviet interests attempted to influence national politics. Often, government coups caused economic and social instability as these power plays restructured national policies. Caught in the crosshairs were the working class, the intellectuals, the impoverished, who had to adjust to a destabilized national image. With limited recourse, they took up arms, fled, and attempted to fight against changes they thought harmed themselves and their home. Tropico 3 includes these people only as annoyances, barriers to achieving your own grand plan.
And since I’m the knucklehead in charge, I know that the people’s suffering rests squarely on my shoulders, that it is a direct result of my actions. In Tropico, I’m lucky enough to have a smartass radio personality lampoon El Presidente’s handling of the state. In the real world, such a figure would quickly find himself on the wrong side of a firing squad. Or worse. The incongruity between the two realities often serves to keep me from indulging in the game’s humor.
In an online walkthrough, Timo Thomas (Kalypso Media employee and product manager for Tropico 3) describes the essence of the game as “basically a Dictator simulator.” It would be one thing to say that a fictional island in a fictional Caribbean archipelago had to contend with fictional despots in a way that conveniently mirrored reality. Somehow, including historic figures as actual game characters (such as Castro, Guevarra and Pinochet) dilutes my ability to accept this all as lighthearted parody or smart-tongued satire. It would be the equivalent of having one of the September 11th hijackers as a radio traffic controller in the next edition of Pilotwings.
Part of this discomfort comes from the game’s success at compartmentalizing history into equal parts popular culture and apocryphal experience. In the intro screen, I am treated to a time-lapsed survey of life in Tropico. From the impending nuclear holocaust of 60s-era cold war tensions, through revolutionary warfare and socialist growing pains, to a hedonistic 80s tourism haven, the life of Latin America is quickly and conveniently retold. I see camouflage-clad rebels fight with military forces as heads-of-state are greeted by an entourage of military commandos. This is all very romantic, but ultimately sterile. Like some abstracted idea of Latin America’s greatest history hits, a military-garbed “Presidente” issues charismatic edicts as tin-eared music rife with maracas and exuberant, brassy horns syncopates in the background. I understand that there is a certain quaintness to the idea that this all happened at some distant point in time – the same kind of lightness with which people regard The Communists or The Clinton Administration. The universal joke is that this was the result of a less-developed time, the inevitable outcome of a people who were too simple to understand the global effects of their actions. The sticking point is that it is very easy to present these situations as humorous or hyperbolically Machiavellian, but when it comes to addressing the underlying truth behind the setpieces … well, that can get complicated.
Solitude Speaks Out
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez weaves together memory and fantasy to create the fictional Latin American village of Macondo. Partially modeled after his own childhood home, Marquez infuses Macondo with the stuff of legends: roving gypsy tribes, a citizenry populated with similarly-named ancestors, pig-tailed infants, ephemeral townships and apocalyptic prophecies. In doing so, Marquez subtly comments against the tendency to ascribe supernatural, mystic qualities to the region, comments against the tendency to accept the marvelous in place of the historic. Amidst the fantastic, Marquez writes of a fruit company massacre that is instrumental in driving the small pueblo to ruin. In the midst of a strike, hundreds of workers are gunned down by soldiers, their bodies secretly thrown into the ocean. As a result, the town experiences over four years of rain, loses most of its crops, and slides into decay as the multinational banana company leaves the region.
Sandwiched between resurrections, executions and cataclysmic winds, the massacre hardly seems like an event of great importance. Paradoxically, it is the one of the few events drawn straight from life. This juxtaposition between Latin America as a source of continual wonder and Latin America as a historic entity, fuels Marquez’ novel. Marquez’ novel juxtaposes Latin America as a historic entity and Latin America as a source of continual wonder, and the novel is fueled by the tension between the two. The Banana Massacre transcends historic tragedy and fictionalized account. Its importance is more than a footnote in the town charter, more than just a series of red marks in a company ledger. It becomes a portal through which the reader can understand how the fractionated views of Latin America and its history become mythicized.
Even more dangerously, Marquez warns that these illusory views can come to supplant the truth. When Macondo experiences a plague of insomnia, the citizenry simply adapts to their new lifestyle. Along the way, they begin losing memories, names of things and people, even a sense of their history. They continue in this fugue “until they sank into a kind of idiocy that had no past.” This is the critique that rings throughout 100 Years directly into the hearts of Latin American nations: Losing the ability to remember history results in a history that is skewed, falsified, or utterly lost.
Unlike Marquez' story, the core realities that inform Tropico 3's scenarios aren't really used to promote a greater message. The famines caused by Castro and Guevarra, the banishment or execution of political dissenters, the jack-booted thugs that consume cities and rural villages, they're all present on Tropico island. But there's a thin layer of disassociation that prevents, to some extent, the horrors of reality from crashing against the world-building aspects of the game.
I wish that Tropico 3 could approach such a deft handling of history and narrative. (Perhaps it does. Admittedly, I’ve only played the demo). But while it models people and events roughly after history, that’s it. No greater comment on the reasons why it sucks to live in Tropico. No real acceptance or rejection of Soviet or American propaganda or the nations’ long-term effects on Latin America. It seems merely to be a sandbox with broad goals, but no real message as to its influences. Even worse, it perpetuates the legend-building that Marquez works against. Players walk away with a false sense that they've experienced history, that they have learned something about the state of Banana Republics in the 20th century. In reality, they've experienced a cliff-notes version, one that, once again, rewrites political and historical reality.
Facing off with the Game
From a gameplay perspective, Tropico 3 does a good job of reflecting what a fledgling communo-socialist dictator would have to deal with in the 1960s. I can be the second coming of Emiliano Zapata, or just another Soviet/Yankee puppet looking to line his Swiss bank account (players are rewarded for funneling state money into an offshore fund). I can try to improve the lot of the people on my island, build schools, healthcare facilities, universities, or I can turn the place into a nation-wide sweatshop. I can give my citizens substandard housing, but issue proclamations guaranteeing social security and ample food supplies. No matter what is done, I, as a player, can’t help but feel a personal failing when I see plank-board houses pop up, or see citizens expire because of poor healthcare. That I actually care about digital peons is surprising. That I never stopped to think about them before is a little worrying.
This is a concern that far eclipses Tropico or Resident Evil, one that might even go back to the halcyon days of Custer’s Revenge. As an aficionado of this particular entertainment form, I routinely enjoy, perhaps even benefit from, the situational blinders that can be employed to guarantee my enjoyment of a particular game or scenario.
“Those aren’t Iraqi/Afghani rebels, they’re generic Middle-Eastern soldiers.”
“Yeah, they’re Nazis … but they’re fictional Nazis. Amoral, non-real Nazis.”
“They’re just zombies. Doesn’t matter what color they are, they’re a commentary on our own inhumanity. Plus they’re full of squishy bits.”
“They’re oppressed workers in a tropical climate. Could be anyone, any country. Doesn’t mean they’re historic.”
I’m not saying these defense mechanisms are inherently flawed, not advocating for greater cultural sensitivity amongst gamers, not pointing fingers and urging people to educate themselves. What I am saying is that Croal’s comments (especially “If it's just a game, then why do we care about how culturally relevant they are?”) point towards a truth that I, as a consumer of games entertainment, have been wary of addressing:
I might be uncomfortable with something in a game.
This is uncharted territory for someone used to running over pedestrians, used to consuming the genomes of faceless soldiers to be used as health, used to plowing cars straight through high-rise buildings with nary an ethical qualm. I realize that just because something is designed as entertainment, it doesn’t get carte blanche to tread through moral gray zones. I am no less disgusted by Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom because it is a film. Though its imagery is unsettling, I would be equally repulsed were it a graphic novel, script, or audiobook. I am no more moved by The Diary of Anne Frank if I encounter it in written, staged play, or documentary form. But to be moved on a base level, not by fear, joy or squeamishness, because of the images and concepts portrayed in a game? That was unthinkable to me until Tropico 3 opened the door.
I realize that if I am to accept games as cultural art forms, I also have to be comfortable enough with the medium to apply the same aesthetic and cultural judgments I apply to other media – films, books, television, theatre. In most cases, that will find me praising a work. In certain cases, it’ll challenge me to find exactly why I am uncomfortable with something.
And here is where I come to my one grand proclamation:
If we want our games to grow, to mature, we must also grow as consumers. We can continue to laud productions for their fantastic visuals, to heap praise over immaculate voice acting. We can bandy about progression in game design and writing as evidence that the medium is coming into its own. We can commend scripting and cutscenes for capturing a certain cinematic flair. We can keep praising the cogs and circuits for their glittering intricacy, but without a greater message, we are relegating ourselves to critiquing well-executed action movies. We must allow for the possibility that our games will work against something deep within us – spirituality, literary theory, racial depictions, political reality – which we ourselves may be uncomfortable addressing. We must work against the idea that our idle playthings can both move us, but are inconsequential enough to brush aside when they present upsetting imagery.
That means we must afford our games the chance to be more than playthings.