When Scott Udall first played Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance shortly after it came out in 2005, he was in a vulnerable spot. Udall, who grew up Mormon in Salt Lake City, Utah, was very religious, and his family were all politically active Republicans. His parents had gone through a messy divorce, and he’d lost contact with his father’s side of the family. He found solace in Path of Radiance’s world, and when the sequel, Radiant Dawn, came out two years later, he was excited to revisit the characters. He didn’t realize when he started playing that Radiant Dawn would become a catalyst that shook him from his previously held convictions.
Path of Radiance is pretty standard Japanese role-playing game fare. The world in which it takes place is on the brink of war, with the larger nation of Daein occupying the smaller nation of Crimea. With your party, you drive the Daein occupiers away from Crimea. Radiant Dawn, a direct sequel, takes place largely in Daein, where the tables have turned: Now Daien is the country being occupied. Path of Radiance is told from the point of view of the Daein rebels, who form a guerilla group to protest the way they’re being oppressed by their occupiers.
By 2007, the Iraq War was in full swing. Udall told Kotaku over the phone that as a kid, he hadn’t really considered the humanity of the Iraqi people. He was just barely out of childhood when the war started, and his entire family and community supported it. But Radiant Dawn forced him to think about what it would be like to live in an occupied country. It changed something for him.
“Ex-Mormons talk about your shelf. You put stuff on your shelf that makes you question the church, and then you can keep it up there,” Udall said. “For some people, eventually the shelf just breaks.”
Udall’s story isn’t unusual. Social scientists have been studying the influence of outside sources on people’s opinions for decades. Studies from the American Psychological Association show that outside influence is likely to reinforce people’s already existent views. Even more interesting: Due to elements like confirmation bias, the same piece of media can reinforce diametrically opposing views in different people.
“Social scientists cannot expect rationality, enlightenment, and consensus about policy to emerge from their attempts to furnish ‘objective’ data about burning social issues,” Charles G. Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark R. Lepper wrote in the conclusion of their 1985 paper “The Hostile Media Phenomenon: Biased Perception and Perceptions of Media Bias in Coverage of the Beirut Massacre.”
“If people of opposing views can each find support for those views in the same body of evidence,” they continued, “it is small wonder that social science research, dealing with complex and emotional social issues and forced to rely upon inconclusive designs, measures, and modes of analysis, will frequently fuel rather than calm the fires of debate.”
No matter the intentions of the artist, when you put art into the world, people bring their own baggage to it, whether it’s opinions about war or interpersonal alliances. Dozens of people told Kotaku about games that influenced their political opinions, from Metal Gear Solid 2 to Civilization.
Zachary wrote to Kotaku to say that he grew up in a conservative family that moved overseas while he was in high school, and the game The World Ends With You helped him open his horizons and learn more about the world around him.
“I became more mindful of the world and people around me instead of my little slice of it in Illinois,” he wrote. “Looking back then, it seemed like a pretty radical change that pushed my beliefs way farther to the left. Like, I went from someone who thought trickle-down economics was a legit economic theory to someone who couldn’t believe the U.S. had such a terrible healthcare system.”
Patrick more bluntly wrote to say that Gone Home “made [him] not hate gay people.” He said over email that he grew up in a conservative Christian environment, and had gone into the game blind after Kinda Funny’s Greg Miller, who was then at IGN, recommended doing so. Initially thinking that Gone Home was a horror game, Patrick soon found that he empathised with Sam, the main character who is discovering her burgeoning sexuality against the backdrop of her own conservative Christian family.
“When I reached one of the last audio clips, when it seems Sam locked herself in the attic, I thought for sure, like I think many players initially assume, that she had taken her own life and the game had looped back to being a horror game, ending with the player finding her body,” he said over email. “Of course, that wasn’t how the game actually ends, but the moment was still impactful for me—in this alternate ending [that I imagined], I felt somewhat responsible for her death. It was bigotry like the kind I had been holding that made people in LGBT+ communities consider suicide.”
These stories of personal growth were all varied and fascinating, but most had one thing in common: These people all said it’s likely that they were always going to end up having those beliefs. The games they played were just the thing that broke their shelf.
Josh Berkstresser, who has a master’s degree in history and works in learning and organizational development, said that the instant feedback of the Mass Effect series strenghtened his position against genocide.
He mentioned, specifically, a decision he was forced to make in Mass Effect 3. Near the end of the game, the character Tali presents Commander Shepard, the player character, with a choice. Her people, the Quarians, made artificial intelligence robots known as the Geth, who gained sentience. The Quarians attempted to exterminate the Geth, but they became too powerful, which led to a devastating war. Tali wants to upload a virus with the goal of exterminating all the Geth.
“I essentially took the position of ‘I’m not going to support explicit genocide,’” Berkstresser said. “When we studied genocide, intention of acts is what constitutes something that’s genocide versus, let’s say, mass murder. So in this instance, her intention was to eradicate a race entirely and have them just not exist. Whereas on the other side, the intention of the Geth was just to survive, to exist, despite the fact that leading up to that, the Geth had probably wiped out 90 percent of the Quarians in an act of survival. So I took that route actually believing that it wasn’t going to result in Tali dying.”
Unfortunately for Berkstresser, making that choice does result in Tali dying, almost immediately. “I was like, ‘Holy shit!’” he said. But he didn’t regret it.
“It’s very rare to be awarded the opportunity where not only do you get to make a decision that has immediate consequences, but the feedback is also immediate and visceral, explicit, you know: music, emotion, voice,” Berktresser said. “So you see the results of your decision right away.”
“Whereas in the real world, that’s impossible, right? Even if you vote for a president or vote for a law the results aren’t immediate,” Berkstresser continued. “In a video game like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, you see it immediately because you have more agency. Through the narrative structure, your characters are like God. Like Shepard has an outsize level of impact on the world.”
Not supporting genocide is a pretty easy choice to make in the abstract. In a game like Mass Effect, you see it on a more intimate level: Your own personal choice decides if people live or die. In the real world, personal choice often feels pretty futile. As good as it is to reduce, reuse, and recycle, climate change isn’t going to end or slow down if we all start using water bottles and metal straws—there are too many other factors in play to be solved by that alone. The ramifications of a personal choice are so complex as to be incomprehensible until years after the fact, when one can take a bird’s-eye view on historical events. In games, that feedback happens almost as soon as you make the choice, and it was that immediacy that led to him taking a hardline ethical stance on genocide.
For Dwayne Herman, Bioshock: Infinite influenced his political beliefs by alienating him. He had been looking forward to the game a lot when it came out in 2013, when he was still in college. When he played it, he was more than disappointed; he was frustrated by the imagery that the game was trading on to make its point.
In particular, in the first half hour of the game, the player stumbles upon a raffle and takes a ticket. They end up winning, and the prize is the first throw of a baseball at a festival where the inhabitants of the floating island nation of Columbia, which is basically American Exceptionalism on steroids, are going to stone a mixed-race couple to death. Another person, who was white, reached out to Kotaku to say that this scene and this game really opened their eyes to their own bigoted beliefs. Others cited different moments that helped them understand the realities of racism. What Herman saw was a game that was made with what felt to him like very little input from people of color.
This was further compounded by Daisy Fitzroy, a black woman who was portrayed as a champion of the largely black working class of Columbia. By the midpoint of the game, the player is transported to a world where Daisy defeats her oppressors with deadly force and quickly becomes a villain, murdering a child in front of your eyes. For Dwayne, it felt like any issues of race were being shoved aside for an oft rehashed point about the nature of power, and before long, the game gives up that ghost in favor of a message about multiverses.
At the very least, players like Herman—and myself—initially saw Daisy as a heroic character, so the child murder kinda came out of left field. Given that she is the only character of color that plays a major role in the game, that’s a bummer. Herman had hoped that a character like Daisy would signal some greater understanding of race in the world of Columbia, but it ended up not really mattering. If you’re going to invoke revolutionary imagery, especially for a cause as worthy as ending de jure racism, one would hope you’d either have other characters of color to act as a foil or a counterbalance, or at the very least not have the major moment of your lone character of color be slitting a child’s throat.
“A lot of my close friends were white in college and the weekend after it came out we talked about it and they all loved it and I’m like, ‘How could you love this? What about this, this, and this?’” Herman continued. “And they’re like, ‘What are you talking about? That’s not how we view it at all.’ It was very weird to have that moment of dissonance between how I viewed the game and how they viewed the game.” The discrepancy between his and his friends’ reactions to Bioshock: Infinite pushed Herman to change his major to media studies.
Likewise, Udall eventually left the Mormon church, and he said that Radiant Dawn helped him down that path. In a lot of Japanese role-playing games, you end up fighting God, or several gods. Radiant Dawn was no different, but it flipped the script on which god was good and evil from the previous game in the series. The idea that a god could be wrong was something that Udall had never considered. Though he said that he probably would have left the church anyway, he also can’t deny that Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn is a strong point on the timeline of him turning from a devout Mormon to a non-believer.
“In the same way I didn’t even consider that humanity of like, anyone who lives in the Middle East or especially Iraq, I hadn’t even considered the idea that, oh, like God might not exist, the church might not be true,” Udall said. “The turning point of my entire life was Nintendo games.”