Vít Šisler
Charles University in Prague
vsisler [at] gmail.com


Videogames and Politics

The paper was presented at the Entermultimediale 2 International Festival of Art and New Technologies organized by Centre for Independent Culture Palace Akropolis and CIANT – International Centre for Art and New Technologies in Prague in May 2005.
Published as: Šisler, Vít. Videogames and Politics. In EnterMultimediale 2, International Festival of Art and New Technologies, Praha: CIANT, 2005, p. 38 – 40. ISBN 80-239-4927-6. This text is an extended version with the complete notes and bibliography.


The phenomenon of persuasive and ideological videogames. Games as a means of propaganda in political campaigns (case study: U.S. presidential election). Recent historical events in videogames seen through political perspective (case study: battle over Fallujah, The Palestinian Intifada). Games entering the political real-space (case study: recruitment and self-presentation tools for the U.S. Army and Lebanese Hezbollah movement).

Vít Šisler,
Charles University in Prague

The phenomenon of persuasive videogames

Although the political aspect of videogames is still not largely recognized by the academics or by players, computer games can be, and in fact are often used as a medium for persuasive messages. Soon after the birth of the videogame industry the first advertising games appeared, with the famous Tapper (Bally Midway, 1983) as an example par excellence. In this particular game the player represents a bartender, serving guests cold Budweisers, while a large advertisement of the beer company cannot be missed, hanging on the wall in almost all stages of the game. Now companies often use computer games as an advertising medium using on-line so called "virus campaigns" or in-game product placement, which enables the company to target its audience selectively and in an effective way.[1]

Very soon after the Tapper came out the general public saw one of the first games with an ideological bent, the NATO Commander (MicroProse, 1984). It is a real-time strategy game, in which a player, after being sworn in as NATO's new commander, has to fight and defeat the Warsaw Pact forces in Europe. Both the technical details and the unit’s deployment are based on reality, giving the game a strange feeling to play, especially for kids from Eastern Europe, when their task could often be to destroy their home city.

In the 90’s, persuasive computer games were used mainly by neo-nazi and racist groups to spread their messages and to promote their ideologies. However, this use was rare and marginal.[2] Now, ten years later, professional designers and programmers are engaged in large-scale political campaigns. This shift is just illustrating the fact that, videogames are becoming a mainstream part of culture and society. In fact they are returning back to their source — videogames were actually born for non-entertaining uses, as military simulators designed for training.[3]

Games as means of propaganda

During the last U.S. presidential election, computer games were used as a political tool on both sides for the first time. Ian Bogost, a game designer and academic game researcher is the founder of Persuasive Games, a game studio that designs, builds, and distributes electronic games for persuasion, instruction, and activism.[4] Persuasive Games worked for both sides, designing The Howard Dean for Iowa Game (2003) for Democrats and Take Back Illinois Game (2004) for Republicans.

"The Howard Dean for Iowa Game was launched at Christmas 2003 to help Dean supporters understand grassroots outreach and to encourage them to participate in pre-caucus campaigning in Iowa or in their local area" states the game’s home page. Description of the game follows: "Make a virtual trip to Iowa and help campaign for a Dean win in the important Iowa Caucus. Recruit your real friends to join you in Iowa, where you'll canvas neighborhoods, pass out pamphlets, and wave Dean signs to encourage Iowans to attend the caucus and stand in support of Howard Dean."[5]

The game was successful enough to attract the interest of the Republican party, who hired Persuasive Games the next year. They accepted the challenge and designed Take Back Illinois Game (Persuasive Games, 2004)[6]. The game is more complex and deals with four issues in the form of four separated mini-games.

"Take Back Illinois challenges players to play through important Illinois issues such as Medical Malpractice Reform, Education, Citizen Participation, and Economic Reform. Eight GOP seats are all we need to take back Illinois,"[7] the webpage states.

To evaluate real impact of any form of propaganda is always difficult, but according to the attention of media which they gained, Persuasive Games established themselves. As the company says: "Our games influence players to take action through gameplay. Games communicate differently than other media; they not only deliver messages, but also simulate experiences.… Think games are just for fun? Think again."[8]

But not only paid professionals were involved in this campaign. One significant feature of the last U.S. presidential election, which could be seen in cyberspace, was the substantial increase of on-line activism. Dozens of on-line games, from simple flash shooters to complicated epic adventures, were placed on the web. One of the most interesting is The Bushgame (Starvingeyes Inc./J. Oda , 2004)[9]. It is an originally designed game which includes detailed information about Bush's policy and his faults in particular, with links to further sources of information.

"The use of this medium will hopefully reach many people who have not had the time or interest to read up on some of the appalling things that have taken place in our government and society over the past four years. For those of you who are paying attention, hopefully this game has helped to clarify some of the important things at stake in the upcoming elections,"[10] state the authors.

Political and ideological perspective in games

Videogames have reached the point where they are now commenting on the current events, and thus reshaping the perception and comprehension of those events. Excellent example of this phenomenon is Spring Break Fallujah (Kuma Reality Games, 2004),[11] released immediately after the battle over Fallujah in Iraq.

"Kuma Reality Games builds re-creations of real-world events using advanced gaming tools. Kuma War, the first Kuma Reality Game, is a first and third-person tactical squad-based game that provides multiple updates monthly to the consumer's computer to reflect unfolding events in the real world,"[12] said the game’s creator.

Originally, Kuma Reality Games used a whole spectrum of media coverage to provide players with all the information needed for understanding the background of a particular mission, Arab and dissenting opinions included. As the war went on, this state changed, now missions are based mainly on the U.S. media and on memories of those who returned from the war.

"At Kuma, we are very sensitive and respectful of American and coalition soldiers and the sacrifices they are making every day. We hope that by telling their stories with such a powerful medium that we enable the American public to gain a better appreciation of the conflicts and the dangers they face."[13]

"Kuma Reality Games is honored to be working with the U.S. Army," said Keith Halper, CEO Kuma Reality Games. "We are proud to be of assistance to them, and are excited to also be able to release these missions to our players to give them a real picture of what our soldiers are facing in Iraq every day."[14]

Kuma Reality Game also donates $1 of all paid online subscriptions to The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, which was created to assist the families of the nation`s fallen heroes killed on duty.[15] Collecting money for such a fund through online war game is a novelty in gaming cyberspace.

In 2003 another actor entered the arena. The company Afkar Media was established in Damascus by members of a previous electronic publishing division of Dar al-Fikr, a Syrian publishing house.[16] Their work includes the game Tahta al-Ramad (Under the Ash, 2001),[17] which deals with a fictitious story from the time of the first Palestinian Intifada. At the time of writing, they are finishing a sequel to this game, Tahta al-Hisar (Under the Siege, 2005).[18] According to materials posted on their webpage, the game will allow players to represent different characters living in Israel and occupied territories, ranging from a school boy shooting stones at Israeli tanks to an old man finding his way through daily life.[19] This could be a significant difference from the previous game, which was more just a straight first-person shooter about fighting the Israeli Army. Authors have chosen a different approach in gaining the favor of non-Arab audience, so the game will allegedly include a scene from Abraham mosque in Hebron, where an Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein killed 28 Moslems in 1994.

The authors do not hide their ideological and religious background, declaring the following aims:[20]

"Our main goal is to address people all around the world and enable them to see the peaceful truth emanating from our noble ummah[21] and our generous religion in order to stop the spreading of a negative media image [about Islam]. We are also addressing Moslems and Arabs with respect to their way of thinking and their needs in order to increase their understanding of themselves and their equivalence with other nations,"[22] said the authors.

Games entering the political real-space

In 2003 the U.S. Army launched a massive online game America’s Army.[23] This tactical first-person shooter game is a precisely designed self-presentation and recruitment tool, with a huge team of specialist and consultants involved in its creation.

"The America's Army game provides civilians with an inside perspective and a virtual role in today's premier land force: the U.S. Army. The game is designed to provide an accurate portrayal of Soldier experiences across a number of occupations. In the game, players will explore progressive individual and collective training events within the game. Once they successfully completed these events they will advance to multiplayer operations in small units."[24]

The authors are well aware that such war games have become a main leisure activity for a large group of adolescent boys; the main target group for recruitment. With detailed information about life in the army, this game also provides a political perspective of today's world.

"It is part of the Army's communications strategy designed to leverage the power of the Internet as a portal through which young adults can get a first hand look at what it is like to be a Soldier.… Today they need to know that the Army is engaged around the world to defeat terrorist forces bent on the destruction of America and our freedoms,"[25] the authors said.

The game homepage is linked with official U.S. Army pages, where visitors can find further information about the Army, its goals and how to join it: "Being a Soldier also means upholding the ideals set forth in the U.S. Constitution, and becoming a respected part of your community. You will discover a life filled with adventure and meet other smart, motivated people like you. Because the strength of the U.S. Army doesn't only lie in numbers, it lies in you, An Army of One."[26]

The game is team-based, with usually two teams of players fighting one against another in a virtual arena. Because the main goal of the game is to provide insight into the functioning of the U.S. Army, each player sees his teammates as U.S. soldiers and the opponents as terrorists – and vice versa on the other side. Accordingly, the mission objectives are described to both sides in an opposite way, i.e. if one group has to defend a convoy from terrorist attacks, the other has to regain a convoy previously captured by the terrorists. Depending on the current deployment of U.S forces in the real world, the terrorists are often depicted as Arabs or Afghanis, a fact that has been occasionally criticized.

Ironically, in the same year, the Central Internet Bureau of Lebanese Hezbollah movement released a similar game called Al-Quwwa al-Khasa (Special Forces, Solution, 2003).[27] In comparison with its US equivalent this game has poor graphics and design, but the authors are well aware of the struggle that is going on in cyberspace and thus realized how important it was to release such a game.

The authors say: "The problem behind electronic games, especially those designed for computers, is that most of them are foreign ma[d]e, especially American. Therefore, they bear enormous false understandings and habituate teenagers to violence, hatred and grudges. In addition, some enfolds humiliation to many of our Islamic and Arab countries, where battles are running in these Arab countries, the dead are Arab soldiers, whereas the hero who kills them is – the player himself – an American.… This trend was coursed by the Central Internet Bureau of Hezbollah via designing a plan that depends on issuing a number of electronic games that can fill the gap existing within our Arab arena and the perseverance of the basic consistencies that preserve the principles of the nation and its struggling decision to fight the usurping Zionists."[28]

In the beginning of the game, a player has to undergo training, which includes shooting the portraits of Israeli officials. The walls of the virtual training facility are covered with Hezbollah’s flags and real photos from the war. When waiting for the next level to load, the countdown timer is replaced by burning Israeli flags.

The game’s webpage states: "The game Special Force is based on reality, meaning that the game is based on events that took place in a land called Lebanon. Lebanon was invaded by 'Israel' in 1978 & 1982 and [Israel] was forced to withdraw in the year 2000. After that we decided to produce a game that will be educational for our future generations and for all freedom lovers of this world of ours.… In the game you will also find pictures of all the martyrs that died during their struggle to liberate their land so that our children may live in freedom."[29]

The use of political videogames is not limited only to the Middle-Eastern conflict. In 2004 the Russian government announced its plan to instill "a sense of patriotism in the country’s youth through an ongoing series of sports events, rallies, clubs, military training games, and even patriotic video games. […] The developers of the $23 million program — which will be called Ready for Work and Defense of the Motherland — have joined forces with the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education […]." [30]

The world’s fastest growing power, China, soon followed. "The State Press and Publication Administration (SPPA) has recently launched the China National Online Game Publication Project, a five-year plan to publish 100 titles of independently-developed, large-scale home-grown online games from 2004 to 2008. According to SPPA, the content of the first batch of games selected for inclusion in the project covers Chinese history, literary classics, legends and educational games." [31]

Our culture needs to learn how to deal with simulation

The title of this chapter is a quotation of Gonzalo Frasca, game researcher and designer.[32] Today it is clear that we will be confronted with politics and ideology in videogames more and more often, whether in a covert or overt manner. Videogames have became a political tool and the borders of their use have not yet been established.

"Political campaigns will continue to experiment with video games. They represent a new tool of communication that can reach a younger audience in a language that can clearly speak to them. It will not replace other forms of political propaganda, but it will integrate itself on to the media ecology of political campaigns," said G. Frasca.[33]

This shift of political struggle from mass media to computer games, which are still largely considered as a playground reserved for children or teenagers, is something that worries many. In 2002, Slovakian artistic group Kunst-fu released a picture showing a baby peacefully sleeping in a bed with a Hitler-like doll. The title of the art was "wwwiete s cim sa hraju vase deti?" a pun hard to translate; it connects the question "Do you know what your children are playing with?" with a name of a webpage.[34] This reflects quite well the fear within the society of uncontrolled content of webpages and online games.

However, according to G. Frasca this shift reflects merely the fact, that games are no longer just a toys for kids: "Children learn a lot about the world through play. There is no reason why we adults should stop doing it as we grow up." [35] The impact and influence of videogames on the public has not been fully evaluated and requires a further research. However, the fact, that governments and political parties are increasingly using them in their campaigns, could at least indicate their awareness of a power hidden in the medium.


BATTAH, H. Syrian-developed PC game portrays Palestinian anguish. The Daily Star, 21st October, 2004. http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=1&categ_id=3&article_id=9455 (Accessed 31st March 2005)

Belo, R. Online games play with politics. BBC News. Dec 2004. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4086299.stm (Accessed 31st March 2005)

Frasca, G. Ideological Videogames: Press left button to dissent. Nov 2003. http://www.igda.org/columns/ivorytower/ivory_Nov03.php (Accessed 31st March 2005)

Frasca, G. Playing for the White House: Videogames in the current presidential campaign. Interact Magazine. http://www.interact.com.pt/11/Interact11_sub34.html (Accessed 31st March 2005)

GHATTAS, K. Syria launches Arab war game. BBC News, 31st May 2002. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/2019677.stm (Accessed 31st March 2005)

Russia to Instill Youth With Patriotism Through War, Video Games. MosNews, 2nd November 2004. http://www.mosnews.com/news/2004/11/02/patriot.shtml (Accessed 31st March 2005)

Šisler, Vít. Ideologie a extremismus ve hrách. Level, 2004, No. 113, p. 25 – 33. ISSN 1211-6777.


[1] In-game product placement was recently used by Electronic Arts in The Sims online (http://thesims.ea.com/us/), in cooperation with Intel and McDonald`s. Another example of targeted product placement was True Crime: The Streets of LA (Activision, http://www.activision.com/microsite/truecrime) in which new collection of PUMA street wear was displayed.
[2] Sisler, V. Ideologie a extremismus v pocitacovych hrach. Level 113. May 2004.
[3] Frasca, G. Ideological Videogames: Press left button to dissent. Nov 2003. http://www.igda.org/columns/ivorytower/ivory_Nov03.php (31.3.2005)
[4] http://persuasivegames.com/AboutUs.html (30.3.2005)
[5] http://www.deanforamericagame.com/ (31.3.2005)
[6] http://takebackillinoisgame.com (30.3.2005)
[7] http://takebackillinoisgame.com (30.3.2005)
[8] http://persuasivegames.com (30.3.2005). For further information see Frasca, G. Playing for the White House: Videogames in the current presidential campaign. Interact Magazine. http://www.interact.com.pt/11/Interact11_sub34.html (31.3.2005)
[9] http://www.emogame.com/bushgame.html (30.3.2005)
[10] http://www.bushgame.com/about.html (30.3.2005)
[11] http://kumawar.com (30.3.2005)
[12] http://kumawar.com/about.php?PHPSESSID=2e964fdd2bc0accfc5dcfb9111dddecd (30.3.2005)
[13] http://kumawar.com/about.php?PHPSESSID=2e964fdd2bc0accfc5dcfb9111dddecd (30.3.2005)
[14] http://kumawar.com/PressReleases/01-10-2005.php (30.3.2005)
[15] http://kumawar.com/about.php?PHPSESSID=2e964fdd2bc0accfc5dcfb9111dddecd (31.3.2005)
[16] http://afkarmedia.com/ (31.3.2005) The home page is only in Arabic in the time of writing.
[17] http://www.underash.net/underash.htm (31.3.2005)
[18] http://underash.net/ (30.3.2005) The home page is only in Arabic in the time of writing.
[19] http://underash.net/n_truestory.htm (30.3.2005)
[20] http://www.afkarmedia.com/profile_ar.htm (30.3.2005)
[21] An ummah is a community or a people. It is used in reference to the community of Believers or Muslims. Islamic Glossary. http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/reference/glossary/term.UMMAH.html (31.3.2005)
[22] http://www.afkarmedia.com/profile_ar.htm (30.3.2005). The statement was in Arabic only. The translation was made by the author of this paper and he is solely responsible for any false interpretations.
[23] http://americasarmy.com/ (30.3.2005)
[24] http://www.americasarmy.com/support/faq_win.php#faq0 (30.3.2005)
[25] http://www.americasarmy.com/support/faq_win.php#faq0 (30.3.2005)
[26] http://www.americasarmy.com/army/ (30.3.2005)
[27] http://www.specialforce.net (30.3.2005)
[28] http://www.specialforce.net/english/indexeng.htm (30.3.2005). The text was taken from the English version of the site and was left mostly uncorrected in order to avoid false interpretations.
[29] http://www.specialforce.net/english/indexeng.htm (30.3.2005)
[30] http://www.mosnews.com/news/2004/11/02/patriot.shtml (30.3.2005)
[31] http://www.tdctrade.com/alert/cba-e0501c-2.htm (30.3.2005)
[32] Belo, R. Online games play with politics. BBC news. Dec 2004. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4086299.stm (31.3.2005)
[33] Belo, R. Online games play with politics. BBC news. Dec 2004. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4086299.stm (31.3.2005)
[34] http://www.afad.sk/kat.php?dep=01-02 (31.3.2005)
[35] Belo, R. Online games play with politics. BBC news. Dec 2004. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4086299.stm (31.3.2005)

Vit Sisler, 2007