Most video games don’t make a secret of their politics. America’s Army is the most obvious–if not overly clever–example of this. Your average martial-themed strategy game post-9/11 has some sort of terrorist cell, usually Middle Easternish. (Poor Edward Said is probably spinning in his grave.)

Other games have a more hidden political agenda. For instance, a friend quipped that Dark Age of Camelot’s latest expansion, “Darkness Rising,” should’ve been called “Jihad Rising.” (One is called upon by the king of one’s realm to defend against an uprising from a demonic cult.) While I seriously doubt Mythic was thinking about 9/11, the Zeitgeist is there, and it’s one which is in the forefront of people’s minds. I think video games provide some sort of power over a situation we might not have a lot of control over. As such, they’re a way to constructively work out one’s feelings and frustrations. In DAoC, I’m sure it’s no accident that a truly benevolent king is asking heroes to defend against a present and visible threat; however, the WMD’s clearly exist in DAoC in the form of very ugly demons in the Circle of Five dungeons.

I promised myself that I’d purchase the expansion to City of Heroes once my exams were over. I never got around to it, so a friend graciously sent a gift certificate to Amazon for it. So I’ve been playing City of Villains lately. I must admit. It’s fun to be a bad guy. The game is structured almost identically to City of Heroes, except for newspaper missions (a welcome addition.) At first, I didn’t know how I would feel playing a villain. City of Heroes fits in with my ethics, and I thought that City of Villains would give people an excuse to run around and be assholes. It turns out I find myself questioning my actions in City of Heroes way more than I do in City of Villains.

First, the setting: Paragon City, Rhode Island. This is the area where the heroes play. It’s mostly new, clean (except for the “working class” areas, but they look old, not necessarily skeevy). Part of the newness has to do with the fact that the city was invaded and almost destroyed by a race of aliens called the Rikti. (This happened towards the end of the open beta, I’m told.) The game’s “present” takes place after the reconstruction of Paragon City.

And then we have the Rogue Islands. They are older than Paragon City, appear to be untouched by the Rikti wars (there are cobblestone streets and true gothic buildings, unlike neo-gothic skyscrapers in Paragon City). Streets wind, and there’s obvious blight and disrepair. Most of the areas I’ve seen so far are areas with “character,” as a Craigslist landlord would put it.

So when I began playing CoV, my character was rescued by a crime syndicate in the Rogue Islands, Arachnos. A comment made by an NPC put an inkling in the back of my head that things might not be as they seem in Paragon City. She said that in the Rogue Islands, one has complete freedom.

Of course, it’s complete chaos as far as social order goes. Your missions are assassinations, heists, and the like. (I’m surprised anyone wealthy goes to Larry’s Tiki Lounge anymore, with as many heists as I pulled there on Mercy Island while levelling.) There is nothing opaque about one’s motivations as a villain: your bottom line and infamy.

So tonight as my chill time, I was playing in Paragon City for a change of pace. My hero entered the server, and I became sick to my stomach. My first sight was a large billboard, proclaiming that Earth was for humans. Another billboard says that “they” are still among us, and to report any strange activity. I’ve seen these billboards hundreds of times since I started playing the game last summer, but the context had radically shifted.

In CoV, there is no discrimination as to who might be an antagonist. In CoH, the antagonists are those who are different, changed, and not part of mainstream society. One gang, “The Lost,” is comprised of homeless people being changed into Rikti. Another gang, “The Trolls,” are a Superdyne addicts (the drug of choice in Paragon city) physically altered into a subhuman race. The Tsoo are a vaguely Asian gang. (There goes poor Said again.) In short, anyone “different” is a potential antagonist. That the antagonists’ powers resemble the heroes’ powers is no accident.

There’s something eerily Orwellian and totalitarian about Paragon City, with it’s manicured lawns and grid-construction streets. Heroes are kept in check by their service to the State. Sure, the Arachnos billboards in the Rogue Islands provide propaganda, but their messages are couched in potentiality: one has the ability to better one’s situation through the organization. Granted, my ninja mastermind is only level 10. But it’ll be interesting to see if there are any other context shifts, the further I get.

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~ by Jen on April 21, 2006.

 
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