By James Hilton
Propaganda in video games can take two basic forms — there are the games that are designed specifically to indoctrinate and proselytize, and those that inadvertently promote their own agendas through the use of generalization and stereotypes. As an episode of Penny Arcade’s Extra Creditz so astutely pointed out, the latter is a more effective means of propaganda because it isn’t designed to be propaganda.
These games speak to us on a subconscious level, slowly warping our real life opinions and viewpoints based on the content of the game. One of the worst offenders of the latter category is a deceptively simple and oft overlooked game, Angry Birds.
It seemed that I was the lone holdout against the Angry Birds phenomena for the longest time, as everyone and their cousin with an iPhone was consumed with firebombing animated pig fortresses with live birds for fun. Eventually, I did cave, partially out of boredom at work and partially to see what all the fuss was about.
When I finally delved into Angry Birds and began to pay attention to what I was doing, I noted a highly disturbing subtext.
We the player are recruited to aid the birds in their retaliatory measures against their enemy clan, the pigs. The pigs are depicted as slovenly, ignoramus types with misshapen eyes and drooling tongues. Simple animated cutscenes inform us that the pigs have pilfered several eggs from the birds’ nest; thus, our involvement in aiding the birds is justified. However, if we stop and consider this situation, we will realize that we only possess part of the story.
We are only assuming that the pigs are the enemies here; no prior information on the Bird/Pig feud is provided. How do we know that the birds aren’t subjugating the pigs under a totalitarian regime? What makes us so sure that the pigs aren’t starving because taxes in this land are so high? Perhaps their theft of the eggs is survival instinct kicking in and the birds are merely using this as an excuse to persecute them further.
We the player don’t know this because we’ve never bothered to ask, we only accept the birds’ version of the story as truth and join in on the persecution of the pigs without any prior research into the situation.
Angry birds is obviously pro-war propaganda and a thinly veiled attempt to justify further American troop involvement overseas. What are some of the colors of the birds? Red, white and blue — the American flag. Consider the black “bomb” bird — a representation of every African American demolitions expert in many American war films. Included as a purchasable extra in the game is a “boss” bird known as The Mighty Eagle — the national emblem of America itself. Angry birds is telling us that war is A- OK, and we don’t even realize it.
Now, all joking completely aside, toying with the notion of something so laughable got me thinking about actual propaganda in video games, specifically, how we can overlook underlying messages in games that aren’t directly designed to indoctrinate.
While it’s easy to read too deeply into things and spot conspiracies when one is actively looking for them (such as propaganda in something as ridiculous as Angry Birds), it is easy to overlook propaganda when it is unintentional and we aren’t expecting it.
For instance, “official” propaganda games such as America’s Army, a game aimed at high school students as an intentional recruitment tool, could be easily avoided if one does not want to be fed militaristic ideals. A message is far easier to ignore if it’s being thrown in one’s face and is easily recognizable.
However, a game like Modern Warfare 3, a game strictly intended to be entertainment, can be far more influential because it isn’t designed to be propaganda. Whereas America’s Army practically hands the player a recruitment form, MW3 merely depicts fighting for the glory of American as kick-ass. The game’s commandos are depicted as unstoppable heroes of the American military branch, and thus the player simply gets caught up in the rush of being an invincible macho-man.
When the player has Uncle Sam’s “I want YOU” image thrown in their face, they may be disgusted and off put and may not consider enlisting, but when the entertainment industry highlights the pulse pounding thrill of being an all-American hero, the player may develop a warped view of what war entails, especially when the horrors of it are downplayed, if they are mentioned at all.
The bottom line is, we can be easily fooled when we aren’t being brazenly preached at, but we can be fooled when we are only expecting to be entertained — when our defenses are down.
Of course, we may take this a step too far and begin to see propaganda everywhere, even in places as ridiculous as Angry Birds. We should be aware of what our games are telling us, whether their messages are intentionally indoctrinatory or not. The truth does set us free, so merely being alert and aware can be defense enough.