“Gaming has a very comfortable relationship with fascists,” Tali Faulkner, developer of photography sim Umurangi Generation tells me. “If you are a full bona fide fascist, you’ll get no pushback. I mean, you will have your whinge about the Black woman in Battlefield or whatever, but in terms of having a pretty awesome space where your ideas are accepted, gaming is the best thing ever.”
Faulkner pulls no punches when it comes to the politics of gaming, which is reflected in Umurangi Generation. Originally released last year, it comes to Nintendo Switch today, complete with gyro controls that will transform the photographyscape. Umurangi deals with the rise of fascism, the threat of climate change, the disaffected and abandoned youth, and in a DLC released after a summer of uprisings, the realities of police brutality and the ethics of photography at a protest.
It was never designed to be something fiercely political, however. Faulkner tells me that the concept came about after his nieces wanted to learn photography, and he found that teaching was as much fun as learning – and so the concept of Umurangi Generation, a game that steadily teaches you how to become a photographer, was born.
However, after Faulkner’s family home was damaged in the Australian forest fires of early 2020, Faulkner changed course. “When I first started making the game, it was just a chill photography thing, right?” he says. “And then these bushfires came into Australia and completely decimated the place. My mom’s house got trashed. I had such a burning like, ‘Fuck, man, this is fucked’. I had to start writing about it and I realised there’s gonna be right-wing fuckheads out there. There’s gonna be that guy who’s gonna be all ‘climate change isn’t real’. This is just SJW blah-blah-blah. So I thought if I’m going to go into this, why the fuck should I go in with one hand behind my back and try and do the whole stupid fucking balancing act?”
Umurangi Generation’s political influences don’t all stem from recent history either; some have been building for generations. As someone who has seen the effects of colonization in Australia and New Zealand, Faulkner feels gaming’s obsession with the concept is a huge issue the industry has yet to even confront, let alone overcome. “If you love colonization, you can play any game and just do it,” Faulkner says. “The word doesn’t even have a dirty tone in it. So many games are like, ‘Yes, colonise a planet.’ Go to an empty planet. And then defend yourself from the aliens on that planet. It’s like, ‘Oh, okay. Was it really empty?’”
To name but a few, Sid Meier’s Colonization, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Journey To The Savage Planet, and Amazon’s upcoming MMO New World all use colonization as a central narrative beat, with almost zero inspection about what colonization means in reality, or how it has affected millions of people – most frequently people of color – throughout history.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is especially interesting to examine, as many would probably argue it is a ‘left-wing’ game. It features queer relationships heavily, has people of colour in prominent roles, and ultimately has a message of working together to triumph over adversity. However, if it is indeed left-wing, it’s a very American left-wing, which is to say it’s left of the right, but not necessarily left of the center. Mass Effect is Pax Humanica in place of Pax Americana, seeing humans as ‘equal but superior’ to the other species, and frequently relying on the joys of the military-industrial complex in order for Shepard or Ryder to carry out their work. In Andromeda, you go to a new galaxy and just decide to take whatever planets you find, shooting any inhabitants of said planets on sight. There is a convenient story reason as to why this turns out to be a good thing, actually, and it was initially written as a peaceful encounter, but it says a lot about gaming’s political compass that a game which endorses the military-industrial complex, a similar ideology to America First, and colonialism is almost universally viewed as being on ‘the left’.
While Umurangi Generation is looking to write the sort of story we don’t usually see in gaming, it relies on images to tell its narrative, including the heavy use of posters to illustrate the world’s reality. One of Faulkner’s favorites features Doom Guy – in Faulkner’s words, “Not the Doom Guy, but not not the Doom Guy” – with a white nationalist haircut flashing the white power sign and the words ‘Finally, a game without politics!’ as the tagline. When discussing the reasons for the design, Faulkner again did not mince his words. “The Doom Guy is one ‘OK’ hand sign away from being the fascist gaming guy,” Faulkner says. “If you make all of the comfort for [fascism] to exist, don’t be fucking surprised when it pops up.”
The poster was not just a specific shot aimed at Doom, however. It was instead a commentary on the ways the politics of gaming are addressed by major studios; or more accurately, aren’t addressed, as Faulkner noticed with Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.
“It’s literally just lying by omission,” Faulkner says of Reagan’s depiction in the game. “Does leaving politics out of the game mean leaving the truth out of it? We’re not going to talk about how Reagan was kind of clueless, or about all the stuff that was going on then. He’s just going to be like ‘Okay, gentlemen, we need to save the world’.”
By positioning Reagan as a heroic figure, Activision is taking a clear stance on Reagan’s legacy. This is not a nuanced, warts and all exploration of the Gipper. While the voice actor for Reagan nails it, Reagan’s wider mannerisms feel deliberately absent. It is not the jovial Reagan of his early years in office, nor is there any trace of the widely rumored dementia that dogged the final years of his administration.
Faulkner fears that if the game industry continues in this direction, we could see a similar rewriting of Trump through video games in the future. “When America eventually gets out of the Trump era, they’re gonna look back and go ‘What the fuck? Why were we always calling the cops on people?’,” Faulkner says. “And they’ll realize they had a guy who just didn’t give a fuck what they thought. 20 years from now we’re gonna have Trump in a video game. And he’s gonna not be the babbling lunatic, he’s gonna be the fucking MAGA meme version of Trump. The one where he’s super buff, and he’s got a billion dollars? We’re going to get that one.”
Umurangi Generation launches today for Nintendo Switch.
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