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Video games and riots

By on August 25, 2011

This opinion piece is part of a regular series of posts I am writing for Gamasutra. Here I examine the role that video games play in society, and look at how “games as propaganda machines” played into last week’s riots in London.

A week ago last Monday, I, like many Londoners, was glued to my computer screen. We watched as, through a sultry summer night, the social order broke down and young people spent an evening, and subsequent nights, existing within an entirely different set of social norms from usual. The overwhelming evidence for people on the streets that night was that breaking stuff, stealing it or setting fire to it was what people like them (i.e. young Londoners) did.

This week, at GDC Europe, Richard Garriott gave a lecture on the three ages of gaming, arguing that we are finally — now that we have left the constraints of single player and MMO gaming behind us — entering an era when games can reach a global, mass market audience. In the questions at the end, a gentleman (his accent sounded Russian) said (I may be paraphrasing a little) “Your games are propaganda machine. Do you accept this fact, and how do you respond to it?”

Chinese propaganda in 1975 showed games 'training the body for revolution'. Over forty years later, have video games trained British youth for revolt, or for conformity?

Garriott agreed with his questioner’s assertion — that games are a part of society, and a key influence in society — and in these times of austerity and economic uncertainty, the role that games play in society merits a proper debate.

Video games and riots

I’m not saying that video games caused the riots, although many people have been saying just that. One of my Facebook friends (a young, female student) said, “This is what happens when you let the ‘youths’ stay in all day and play COD, they get too good at it so have to bring it out to the real life streets. Again FUCK OFF AND GO HOME.” The idea that games were somehow involved in inciting the riots has come from sources both predictable (the London Evening Standard said looters were “inspired by video game Grand Theft Auto”) and unpredictable (ex-Oasis man Noel Gallagher blamed “brutal TV and video games“).

The causes of the riots are complex: A sense that the rioters were disconnected from their local society. Short-term poverty and long-term despair are breaking out. A culture of consumerism and entitlement. The possible causes are legion, and will doubtless be debated for years.My degree is in medieval history, and my favorite comment on the riots came in a letter from Professor David Parker, Emeritus Professor, University of Leeds to the left-leaning UK broadsheet, The Guardian.

“For many years I taught a final-year undergraduate course on the uprisings of the peasants and artisans that swept across large parts of 17th-century France. Buildings were attacked, their contents pillaged, crops destroyed and occasionally a perceived oppressor was killed. Had my students explained it all by simply invoking feral criminality they would have failed.”

Games as propaganda

What do opportunistic riots in London and games as propaganda machines have in common? They concern an issue that governments have faced since the days of the Romans. How to keep the population entertained and disinclined to rebel, riot or otherwise stir up trouble.

Noam Chomsky has long argued that organized sports fulfills this role: it exists as an adjunct to the state, to distract, entertain and otherwise occupy an electorate who might otherwise become activists, or spend the hours they spend discussing or reading about sports on politics instead. In fact, he says the purpose of those sports are to “dull people’s brains.” (He also argues that school and college sports encourage us to respect authority, to do what we’re told, and to accept the status quo, all of which have enormous advantages for a state.)

Over the past few years, in the UK at least, the political authorities have become more supportive of games. Partially due to the sterling efforts of industry bodies like TIGA and UKIE and partly because politicians are waking up to the fact that the majority of the electorate now play games, they no longer view our industry as a whipping boy that makes an easy target whenever a violent tragedy engulfs the media schedules.

Could there be another reason? Could it be that as the economic downturn continues to bite, politicians are looking for anything that will distract the population from its economic woes, and from turning on the politicians for causing or failing to end these financial difficulties? In the UK, for example, we’re already getting Olympics overload, even though we’re more than a year away from the event itself.

Are politicians cottoning onto the idea that people who play Call of Duty are at home, playing games, not rioting with their friends? That people playing CityVille or Tiny Tower are getting a sense of satisfaction from being in control of their virtual cities or skyscrapers, a control that is sadly missing from their daily lives?

In short, is the propaganda machine becoming useful to those in authority? And if so what can we, as developers, use this propaganda machine to do?

I hope that you choose to make games that make people think. To question authority and their role in the world.

Or you can just make mindless entertainment, like the Roman gladiatorial combats of old.

Which are you going to choose?

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: