Video Games as a Forum for Democratic Discourse
By Kelly Patterson
Theorist Hannah Arendt says a democratic system must include access to both a private sphere, where basic human needs can be tended to, and a public sphere, where citizens can be seen and heard by others and thus have a public life. Mass communication master's graduate Jessi Hafer sees the potential for both spheres in one place: online video games.
Hafer says the games are a valuable democratic forum for citizens of all backgrounds because the games provide both a private sphere (people playing games while physically solitary) and a public sphere (interacting with other players online).
"Unlike political Web sites, which may reach out to like-minded segments of the population, online video games are bringing together people of different ages and backgrounds," Hafer says. "I think theory and the reality of political themes on the part of video-game designers and players indicate that video games can be and sometimes are already empowering in a democratic sense."
Hafer identifies some examples of political-themed video games, such as The Republic and Balance of Power, games designed by the U.S. Army and Navy. Players invoke a revolution in playing The Republic. In Balance of Power, which was released in the 1980s, players representing either the United States or the Soviet Union try to maintain world peace through interactions with other countries. Balance of Power was programmed including real-world data about the countries. The video game September 12th carries a humanistic message by emphasizing the consequences of actions and an understanding of why people may engage in violence.
"Some video games, particularly online games, are political in the ways in which people play them and express themselves in them," Hafer says. "Author Tony Walsh suggested that players protest McDonald's in 'The Sims Online,' by moving their characters in front of McDonald's [restaurants] in the game and talk about how and why they don't like McDonald's. People held virtual candle light vigils in video games after 9/11."
Hafer points out that democracy requires participation and association - not just in "political" settings.
"Video games and other aspects of the Internet allow for people to talk and act together and practice associations even if the things they're talking about aren't always 'political.'"
While video games are often thought of solely as entertainment, the games provide democratic associations when players "chat" with each other during games or work together in game play to achieve a common goal. In these associations, video games bring together players diverse in ages, occupations and geographic locations.
"Video games bring together a diversity of players that aren't always seen in other media, or in the physical realm, for that matter," Hafer says. "Video games are a democratic forum in that they allow people [who normally wouldn't interact with each other] to interact and associate in democratic ways. They might meet in an online card game and end up chatting with each other about current events. They might meet up in an adventure game, where they chat and work together making decisions that will allow them all to reach the goals of the game."
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