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Frame and Metaphor in Political Games

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Author: Bogost, Ian
This paper offers an approach to analyzing political rhetoric in videogames, and on designing videogames intended to carry ideological bias, based cognitive linguist George Lakoff’s notion of metaphor and frame in political discourse. I argue for two important ways games function in relation to ideological frames, reinforcement and exposition, through examples of art games, political games, and commercial games. Finally, I argue that an explicit design of ideological frames in games is crucial to the next generation of political games. The 2004 US Presidential election renewed world citizens’ recognition of a deep divide in US politics (Schifferes 2004a). In the aftermath of their loss, Democrats are now scrambling to develop new strategies. Ideas are plentiful: avoid candidates from the northeast (Wallsten & Anderson 2004); focus more strongly on domestic issues (Schifferes 2004b); seek better management (Marinucci 2004). But some researchers have suggested that political success draws less from reality than from representation. Cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson suggested metaphor is central to human understanding (Lakoff & Johnson 1980, Lakoff 1990). Lakoff and Johnson argue that our conceptual systems are fundamentally shaped by cultural constructions; metaphor is not for them a fanciful language reserved for poets, but an active, conceptual framework that is central to how we understand the world. Lakoff argues that the most important consideration in political discourse is not how politicians respond to the "facts" of the external world, but how they conceptualize, or "frame" that world in their discourse about it. Lakoff argues that political frames in the US reflect metaphors of family management — conservatives frame political issues as "strict fathers" while liberals frame them as "nurturant parents" (Lakoff 1996). In addition to becoming the year of an American political divide, 2004 was also the year of political videogames. While there are precedents for games with political messages (Crawford 1985, Crawford 1990, Barbu 1991, On 2001, Frasca 2003), 2004 was the first year that candidates and party groups created officially endorsed games to bolster their campaigns (Bogost & Frasca 2003, Republican National Committee 2004, Bogost 2004a, Bogost 2004b, Frasca 2004). As the worlds of political message strategy and political videogames gain momentum, an opportunity arises for each to inform the other. Some games simply recreate verbal rhetoric. The GOP’s Tax Invaders is a replica of the classic arcade game Space Invaders (Taito 1978) in which players fire projectiles at John Kerry tax plans. The game itself is crude, but text within it expertly reflects a conservative frame: tax increases are harmful enemies and must be stopped. The game’s opening screen announces, "only you can stop the tax invader" and invites the player to "Save the USA form John Kerry’s Tax Ideas." Lakoff would argue that such language reflects a fundamental logic in conservative politics, that the people know what’s best for themselves and that success shouldn’t be punished. These points are made clear in the language used to frame the game experience. However, Lakoff’s arguments focus on spoken or written political rhetoric. Games are fundamentally procedural systems rather than narratives. To understand the function of frame and metaphor in communicating ideological bias in videogames, we must look at how the interactions of rules create similar frames for political expression. Even a game as simple as Tax Invaders frames the metaphors of its rhetoric; Bush fires projectiles at the tax cuts, representing the metaphor of tax hikes as a violence that one has to defend against. Thus while Tax Invaders does little to represent actual tax policy, it frames tax policy in a metaphor that reinforces a conservative position. I submit that Tax Invaders is an example of a game reinforcing an existing ideological frame. Other political games do use rules as the basis for their bias. For example, in Vigilance 1.0 (Le Chevallier 2000), players seek out deviants on surveillance screen sections of an urban environment. The more that pass by unnoticed, the more depraved the society becomes. Of course, if the player is truly successful, the game challenges him to efface himself, an example of the perversion of total control and surveillance. By forcing the player to see the consequences of the metaphor of vigilance, the game exposes the ideological frame of "panoptical vigilance as perversion." It is this exposition of the frame that forms the game’s political commentary — and makes its rhetoric more powerful. In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar Games 2004), players enact the life of an early 90’s LA gangbanger. Unlike previous iterations of the GTA series, GTA:SA takes on a cultural moment steeped in racial and economic politics. In the game, rule interactions underscore opportunity biases. For example, your character must eat to maintain his stamina and strength, but the only food available is fast food, which makes you fat. More meaningfully, the game’s renowned open-ended space also frames a discourse about crime and criminals. GTA:SA intricately recreates three huge cities and spaces in-between, but the game’s NPC’s respond identically to your semiautomatic-toting, face-rag wearing black gangsta character in every part of town. While major technology challenges underlie the development of credible large-scale character interactions (see Mateas & Stern 2002), the game makes no effort to alter the interactions of characters based on racial response. Even if the designers did not intend it, this decision creates a frame in which the player’s sociopathic behavior is not mediated by any economic, racial, or social disadvantage. Despite its famous open-endedness and free agency, GTA:SA privileges a classic conservative position: that there is no social foundation for crime, but only a character-based foundation. GTA:SA can be said to expose an ideological frame, perhaps without intention. Designers and critics must consider the ways ideology gets framed in a new generation of games. For those explicitly designed to carry political bias, exposition of ideological frames better advances a game’s arguments. For those that inevitably carry ideological bias, like commercial games, it is crucial to understand a game’s ideological frames for the purposes of criticism and public reception. References Barbu, L. 1991. Crisis in the Kremlin. Spectrum Holobyte. Bogost, I. 2004a. Take Back Illinois. Illinois House Republicans. ———. 2004b. 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Contact: Ian Bogost, Georgia Institute of Technology, School of Literature Commun,
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