The Politics of Vacuums

Recently, James O’Connor wrote about Australia, beauty, merit, and Forza Horizon 3 for VICE. The article travels at length along the beautiful, lush, luxurious pathways of Australia, noting that Forza Horizon 3 paints a beautiful picture of the Australian geography.

The game nails the version of Australia that we try to sell on our tourism posters. It’s all gorgeous rainforests, stunning beaches lit by clear skies, quirky country towns, and wide-open spaces. But Horizon 3 goes much deeper than this to feel authentically Australian. The traffic and distance signs look just like the ones on our roads. The trash cans out in the front of houses look like the trash cans we have here, with red lids for garbage and yellow for recycling.

However, O’Connor takes this majesty with a grain of salt. For as ceaselessly lush as the digital Aussie roads may be, the actual land of Australia is less picturesque. A country that currently operates offshore detention centers, is holding a public vote on whether or not same-sex marriage should be legal (despite polls suggesting it’s already been accepted publicly), and is giving power to a political figure who intends to halt the flow of immigrants.

The picture perfect Australia, one lavishly doted on by such a visually and structurally decadent game, makes for a poor reflection of the harsh and undesired reality of an Australia that exists as it is. An Australia that may very well have the kind of postcard charm within its borders, but what the inhabitants who drive the streets live with looks far less inviting.

Ian Miles Cheong, over on Heat Street, takes umbrage with the inclusion of such personal politics in a racing game’s write-up. To Cheong, the discussion of politics is a perfectly fine thing to do, but only where the politics seem to fit organically. On the topic of Forza Horizon 3, however, “I can’t think of a less apolitical game on which to base the foundations of social commentary.”

Unfortunately, everything is political. Everything. In order for something to appear visually Australian, it carries with it all the thoughts, feelings, expectations, and disappointments of Australia. Because I’ve never been to Australia, I have no particular politics to bring into Horizon 3. That does not mean, however, that politics still aren’t present.

Were I to play Horizon 3, and were I to fall in love with the vistas, the dirt pathways, the woods, and half-lit city streets, I may bring those feelings forward into the actual, physical space of Australia. Willing or unwilling, Horizon 3 has asserted a political stance on Australia. “Australia is beautiful, please come visit.”

To O’Connor, at least in as far as the article seems concerned, there is no separation between the Australia that is, and the Australia that is 1s and 0s. Both of these Australias are a part of the make-up of a mind, and both of these places have something to say on the outback.

Moving away from the high-octane, speed-fueled rubber and gravel of Forza—whether to the highly political subject matter of Papers, Please or the relatively benign bubblegum fantasy land of Peggle—the politics remain. Everything said, thought, designed, or associated with concepts carries with it a certain politicization. The fictional Eastern European nation of Arstotzka is a political place, its needs and morality is all built around a distinctly western culture. Papers, Please requires the politics of this world in order to be what it is, and what it is affects the politics of this world. So, too, with racing games, first person shooters, sports games… Everything. Everything is political.

Those who find things can be politically-neutral without a strong political stance to take, as one might find in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided or BioShock Infinite, fail to understand that there is no political vacuum. The politics they see as apolitical are just political majorities. Which is why when players are forced to play a black character in FIFA 17, suddenly the color of the protagonist’s skin is important. Having to play a male character in every game is perfectly acceptable and politically neutral, but having no control over race or gender is a different beast.

In part because in order for something to be “political,” it has to be in contrast to something. Capcom saw something of a public outcry whenever they made the decision to alter camera position on R Mika’s opening cinematic so her butt wasn’t featured prominently during her characteristic taunting. Had the camera always been higher than her posterior, it seems highly doubtful that anyone would’ve minded the camera’s position, or the lack of central focus on her backside. But because there was a change made, the relative position of the camera “became political.”

However, for anyone who explicitly saw the camera, and understood that the focus on Mika’s sexually exciting body parts was a meaningful, intentional, and political choice: the politics were already there. They were always there. Just not for the audience that didn’t see it.

The same could be said for Tracer, whose victory pose saw a switch after reconsideration by Blizzard’s art team. The switch came with no shortage of praise and disagreement, again over the seeming politicization of the viewer’s gaze. The Over the Shoulder pose wasn’t seen to have a political stance until it was changed. Politics don’t appear in a vacuum, they appear in context to something else. And Tracer’s Over the Shoulder pose appears in a world in which we have The Hawkeye Initiative.

This “censorship” is no more or less political than the original intent and design. Those images were concocted, created, and circulated in this highly political, highly considered, and highly (un)comfortable world we have. For some of us, it’s a familiar and facilitating place. For others, it’s a facade, factious and filled with friction. To suggest that any criticism that calls attention to any aspect, no matter how remote or small, to that is political is itself a political stance. The status quo is a body politic.

So until we have a world where PC Gamer repeating bathtub Geralt no longer makes men uncomfortable, then we’ll have a world where we can reasonably expect skimpily-clad women to be apolitical. But it isn’t. Everything is political. Everything.

Because were it truly apolitical—genuinely, frankly, and honestly apolitical—having O’Connors’ political views wouldn’t be considered “[p]iggybacking on the biggest entertainment industry in the world is the only way … to feel relevant, to get people to read his views.” Because politics have to exist in contrast to something, and that kind of aggressive perspective comes from a political belief, just one that believes itself apolitical.

If politics truly did not matter for driving in Forza Horizon 3‘s Australia, then race wouldn’t matter for Rust‘s and FIFA‘s player characters, or gender for Remember Me‘s protagonist. But it did, because everything is political.