If you are an American citizen, I highly urge you to vote. While I can’t pretend to be without my bias in this particular election, I just believe it’s generally a good thing to exercise the rights you have. Don’t like McCain or Obama? There’s always Barr representing the Libertarians, McKinney for the Green party, Nader for the Independents, and a handful of others. You have options, whether or not you believe them to be plausible.
As I was walking the three minutes to my voting location (no lines!), I recalled one of my favorite turn-based strategy games of all time: Master of Orion. This game struck me not only because of the numerous archetypal races from which you could select, nor the ability to build your own ships, not even the fact that you could utilize espionage for both terrorism and technology burglary, but the fact that every twenty-five years (measured year/turn) the races would convene to have a Council Meeting. During this meeting, it was possible to win by being elected High Master of the Universe (spiffy job title that) with a two-thirds majority vote. It’s one of the few games I’ve played where I can be elected to a position of power (barring those about elections themselves).
This, in turn, made me question the role of a sovereign or president in most games. In Fallout 3, while listening to the Enclave Radio frequency, President Eden will give forth information that he was elected, though this remains a dubious statement (not far enough in the main plot to tell you any more, so no spoilers here). In many games we are faced with a few options concerning the rulers of these worlds:
- Evil Ruler: The ruler who is either in cahoots with the villain of the story, or the villain him or herself. This can take the place of a demented king or queen, an opposing kingdom, someone who wrested control from a previous sovereign forcefully, or any number of such activities. Any such situation also gives the possibility of a shadow ruler merely using the throne as a puppet for his own machinations, or the likelihood of another race (usually demonic in nature) questioning the authority of the natives of a world in governing themselves.
- Distressed Sovereign: Here we have the ruler in jeopardy. This is where princesses get captured, kingdoms have been cursed, the status quo has been disrupted by an assassination and the next in line has to be found, and other such quests. These rulers tend to provide you with a quest of some sort; when of this nature, the quests tend to be rather important to the narrative, affecting the outcome of the world, or your situation at the very least. Fantasy games tend to favor this manner of quest heavily, as it provides a simple quest giving measure.
- Sage-like: This one does not seem to occur as often, but occasionally you will find a ruler who merely wants to serve as a listening post for you, giving advice, and sending you off in the right direction. These are normally jovial, boisterous older men or mystical women (read: witch or enchantress) to whom you can return for guidance in a matter. They’ll welcome you, provide you with trinkets to aid you in your quest, a place to rest, and then send you on your way. In this situation we are most often faced with rulers of either an abstract ideal or a small band of people sequestered away in the world, rather than a larger nation or kingdom.
- Rebel (with a clause): Here we have a very common and popular role of a leader, the one leading a charge against the tyrannical or overbearing status quo. This is when you get interesting cases of kings of one nation joining the cause (Final Fantasy VI) against an empire. In fact, this is the one central theme of most of the Final Fantasy series, if I were to choose one that isn’t aesthetic (think what they do with hair): you are always in an underground or rebel faction against an evil empire, corporation, or pretender to world rulership.
Of these types, the last one really intrigues me, as it is the one in which we most often see the player participating when in RPGs. Videogames seem to be feeding a desire to rebel against the system that threatens liberty. This becomes especially intriguing when one considers the restrictions already placed on these options for the most part. More often than not, we have no option to join the opposing side, instead casting our lot with bringing about freedom, prosperity, and the future of our children!
Are we really doing anything of the sort? While we are being given more options as games progress, we rarely really cast votes on whom we wish to see in power. Instead, we seem stuck in what Foucault described in the introduction to his History of Sexuality as an insidious power that is able to exist because it allows us to feel subversive in some manner while still keeping us within the confines of acceptable behavior. Power that wishes to not be disrupted does not flaunt itself, nor does it make itself visible. In this case, we are left supporting a power structure of a linear plot whereby we have no real choice, or left with either/or options, putting ourselves in a binary situation, whereby our vote seems polarized and unlikely to actually satisfy (why hello, Republican and Democratic attention-whores).
However, this is hardly surprising. Games are still largely presenting linear plots; when they are not, they tend to be limited by constraints such as time, how far along we’ve progressed in the medium, budget, and mechanics. We are starting to see more strides being taken in emergent gameplay, where a player has a different choice. One can simply not play by the game’s rules, for instance, thereby abstaining from the vote (which may just be cast in the direction of finishing the game or dying/reloading). While I have not played a turn based strategy game in recent years beyond the Heroes of Might and Magic series, I do think I’ll have to poke about and see how many offer a system of opting out of warfare and conquering by way of diplomatic voting.
Which leads me again to reminding everyone to go cast a ballot for the candidate of your choice. There are also many other offices and measures out there on which to vote (Illinois’s being that of a Constitutional Convention), not to mention the meddling of putting in restrictive marriage amendments into some states’ constitutions.