Gaming the Nation

In 2011, when Barack Obama made a diplomatic visit to the nation of Poland, he was presented with an unusual gift: a video game.

It wasn’t just any video game. Poland’s prime minister gifted Obama with The Witcher, which is an internationally bestselling adventure role-playing game. The original PC game sold over 800,000 copies within the first ten months after its release, and it has since been followed with two sequels, the latest of which is also available for PS4, Xbox, and OS X.

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The Witcher (CD Projekt RED)

Furthermore, despite its global popularity, The Witcher is a profoundly Polish game. Based on a series of Polish novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, both the books and the games draw heavily from Slavic mythology and Polish Romanticism. The game is so important to the Polish sense of national identity that the state postal administration even released a stamp emblazoned with The Witcher’s main character Geralt.

Earlier this semester, my colleague Ashley wrote about #takeaknee and the role that sports plays in U.S. national identity. Though not every U.S. citizen would see themselves as a sports fan, most would likely agree that regardless of their personal affinities, sports plays a pivotal role in marking what it means to be American. There are other cultural activities and items, like the novel and cinema, which we also associate with the construction of national identity. They are spaces that allow citizens to perform certain ideas of shared identity, of togetherness, with other citizens across a geographic expanse. They are also all spaces that allow individuals to represent their national identity to others. Eating hotdogs at a ballgame, reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and watching It’s A Wonderful Life, for example, are all expressions of being American.

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The Witcher  stamp

Video games, however, are not usually included on the list of cultural items influencing national identity. Rather, video games tend to be associated with subcultures—niche demographics of the populace that certainly do not represent the national whole. And yet, The Witcher seems to indicate otherwise. Here is a game that allows Polish gamers to perform a certain sense of Polish-ness while playing it, but it also extends outside of gameplay to allow the average citizen a sense of pride and ownership of the idea of the game as a cultural artifact. Furthermore, it enables Poles, gamers and non-gamers alike, to represent their culture to the world.

Most importantly, underlying the game’s cultural value is its economic significance for the nation. Obama recognized this and said of The Witcher:

“I confess, I’m not very good at video games, but I’ve been told that it is a great example of Poland’s place in the new global economy. And it’s a tribute to the talents and work ethic of the Polish people as well as the wise stewardship of Polish leaders like prime minister Tusk.”

This economic factor is also a helpful reminder that though video games might seem niche, the global video game industry consistently outperforms all other entertainment industries, like cinema and television, in terms of annual revenue.

The Witcher offers one example of how a game might inspire national unity, but if we turn to France, we find a game that has sparked dissent over French identity. France is home to Ubisoft, developers of the popular video game series Assassin’s Creed. Each Assassin’s Creed game takes place in a different geographic location at a different historical moment, ranging from Ptolemaic Egypt to the Russian Revolution. While most of the games are not particular to French culture, one iteration of the series, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, is set during the French Revolution.

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The game has received extensive criticism from the French Left Party, who believes that it manipulates and undermines the truth of French history. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Leader of the Left Party (PG), decried the game, saying:

“The denigration of the great Revolution is a dirty job to instill more disgust of self and decline to the French. If we continue like this, there will no longer be any common identity possible to the French other than religion and skin color.”

According to The New York Times, Mélenchon thought that, “the video game reflected a current strain of self-hatred in France” and “was perilous for national identity”. In this scenario, the game is clearly seen as a significant factor in the construction of national identity—one so significant that politicians in leadership positions took the time to address the nation in response.

Both Assassin’s Creed: Unity and The Witcher are examples of games with clear connections to a national and cultural identity, but I would argue that non-historical or non-mythological games can also contribute to a national identity in perhaps more subtle ways. For instance, during last year’s Pokemon Go fad, it was difficult to not be aware of the game and its basic premise while going about one’s daily life. Businesses put up signs advertising their proximity to Pokestops, and Yelp added a Pokestop option to its filter.

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Photo by Rob Westwood-Payne. Reposted through CC 2.0 license.

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Photo by Fred looking for friends. Reposted through CC 2.0 license.

Almost everywhere you looked, there were individuals of all ages with phones out swiping to catch Pokemon. Though the game does not offer a space to perform specific American-ness (indeed it is a Japanese game and international sensation), it did become part of the U.S. collective memory and cultural language. At this point, it is hard to tell how little or how much that might impact greater U.S. national identity, but what is important is to recognize how the game necessarily had an impact on more than merely the players.

If video games were ever a niche facet of society, they are no more. Just as we have come to recognize cultural products like movies and television as more than mere entertainment, so video games must be recognized as a powerful cultural force. They are an integral part of the economy, and their narratives inform how we view the world and ourselves. They even inspire other more traditional cultural products: the latest adaptation of Tomb Raider, starring Alicia Vikander, is set for release in March of 2018, and Netflix has promised us a TV show based on The Witcher. These iterations of the original games are a further means by which a larger population will encounter the games without ever playing them.

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Those who play video games are likely aware of their extensive reach within society. For those who don’t, you probably have not thought much about the prevalence and significance of video games for society, beyond the arguments over the effects of violent video games. But video games are part of the national conversation, and they have the capacity to play a much more prominent role in shaping national identity.

The question will be who frames the conversation? Video game developers? Players? Politicians? Here it is imperative that non-players recognize that the conversation necessarily involves them too.

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