Should games and politics ever mix?

Ellie Gibson on Juice Jam and fascism.

By Ellie Gibson. Published 26 November 2016

"What are you playing at the moment?" I dread being asked this question. I always feel like I should reply, "Oh, just this really cool hand-drawn physics-based puzzler inspired by the plot of The Cherry Orchard. It's being developed by an indie studio called Robot Avocado. They're based in Dalston and it's basically this guy Jude and his Jack Russell, Amis. You won't have heard of it."

The real answer is more likely to be whichever platformer my five-year-old is currently into. Or sometimes, nothing. I'm always promising myself that tonight is the night I'll get properly stuck into The Witcher 3. But by the time I've done tea, bath and bedtime, I don't have the energy to fight a basilisk. All I really want to do is pass out in front of that programme where Gregg Wallace and a greengrocer tell people not to buy branded Monster Munch.

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'That's right, substituting the supermarket brand for Kia-Ora could save you £40,000 a year.'

The games I do play are often shamefully uncool. At the moment, for example, I'm obsessed with a free-to-play puzzle game called Juice Jam. The idea is to match three or more fruits of the same colour so they disappear. Basically, it's Candy Crush with bananas.

I know this game is a waste of my time, that I've played it a thousand times before, that it's carefully designed to fire little neurotransmitter pellets around my brain until I give in and spend 79p on a Rainbow Magnet. But it's all I can cope with at the moment.

As with so many things, I'm blaming Brexit. And Trump, and Syria, and all the other terrible things that have happened this year, from the implosion of the Labour party to the death of great artists like David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Denise off This Morning.

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Now, I know a lot of readers don't like it when politics and games collide. For evidence of this you need only read the comments on that column I wrote about Trump, back when the idea of this gigantically offensive buffoon becoming president seemed impossibly ludicrous. Ha ha.

That's DJ Mango on the right. LOOK AT HIS LITTLE FACE.

"The internet is already filled with the US election BS," ran one typical comment. "I'd rather not have it here too." (My favourite complaint was from the guy who claimed that "this disastrous article jeopardises the enjoyment of our whole bank holiday weekend." All I can do is apologise, sir, and suggest you stop reading now unless you want Christmas ruined.)

The thing is, I can understand the point. Juice Jam is a distraction for me, in the same way Facebook once was, before it became full of angry arguments and horrifying headlines.

I can't take it any more. I don't want to watch any more videos of people doing Nazi salutes. I want to live in a world where the biggest problem is whether the baby penguins have enough ice lollies. Where the places have names like Papaya Plains and Fruitapest. Where the bombs are made of jelly, and the rabbits wear carrot hats. Where the main protagonist is not a homophobic, misogynistic racist who has big fans in the Ku Klux Klan, but a dog called DJ Mango.

I'm sure there's something to do with the gameplay going on, too. Like all match-three games, Juice Jam is about rules and order and tidying. It makes me feel like I'm Sorting Things Out. It's a comforting contrast to how I often feel in the real world - incredulous at what's going on, frightened for the future, and clueless about what to do.

So I have empathy for anyone seeking escapism through the medium of video games. They are great at providing it. But at the same time, I don't think we can always separate them from politics, or that we should. It's dangerous to bury our heads entirely in virtual worlds; it won't stop terrible things happening in the real one. Whether or not you think games are art (oh God please let's not), they are expressions and reflections of our reality, and many of the best ones have something to say about it.

Yes, we need video games that let us forget our troubles and just have fun - perhaps now more than ever. But there's room for all kinds of games, and we shouldn't underestimate their power. I hope that right now, there's a bunch of developers (and novelists, and musicians, and filmmakers) who are producing work that confronts the reality of this new world we are entering. I hope they are making games that will make us think, and teach us how to fight.

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And obviously, I hope someone's doing a Juice Jam 2.

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