Monday, June 1, 2009

Fires of Africa: Politics in Far Cry 2 (pt.1)

Let me begin by saying this is not a criticism, at least not yet. This is part one of a two part series about politics in Far Cry 2. Scott and I have talked about utilizing videogames as educational material in much the same way a history class might read All Quiet On The Western Front during a segment on World War I. This series toys with that idea, examining the game with a political lens. You can find part 2 here.

Be Warned: Spoilers roam these hills.

Welcome to 'Africa'

Alright, I've started Far Cry 2, picked my mercenary, and set out on the goal to kill an infamous arms dealer. This could be any number of well known stories. I'm a man with a mission and the know-how to kill anyone in my way, enough said. After all, the difference between a mercenary and a government sanctioned super-soldier so popular in first-person shooters is thinner than one might expect. What separates this tale apart from its FPS brethren is the political setting, a civil war with two competing sides vying for power. Then there is me, the protagonist, who doesn't really care who wins or loses.

So here I am, dropped in a nameless African state in the midst of internal conflict. Why not? After all, that's how most everyone sees Africa: a continent constantly at war. This perception is somewhat understandable. The number of internal conflicts and regime changes is staggering, and our understanding of why these occurs is limited at best. Even now, there are no less than twelve serious conflicts occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa, the most recent conflict of interest being Darfur.

The reality is a bit more complicated of course. When we talk about "Africa" we usually ignore the Northern most states. Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia usually don't count. What few African political science specialists there are frequently separate South Africa as well (Lesotho however, a small country within South Africa, is fair game). Ubisoft does not name their fictional country specifically to universalize the game's themes, depicting a political reality that purportedly holds true in any war zone.

Factions and Leadership

The political leaders in Far Cry 2 are as interchangeable as the country they claim to represent. Each faction shares characteristics with political movements common in political conflict. Even their names, the United Front for Liberation and Labour and the Alliance for Popular Resistance, are nice abbreviations masking the organizations' more dangerous activities. Even an abbreviation can be a propaganda tool, often recalling specific popular past movements while encompassing a new political message. Conflicting movements like the National Union for Democracy and Progress (NUDP), the Union of Cameroonian Populations (UPC) and Social Democratic Front (SDF) have occupied even relatively stable Cameroon.Ubisoft's visual portrayal of both the UFLL and the APR depict common political practices and create an uncomfortable and somewhat alien landscape for predominantly western players, a tone that fits the story of a foreigner in Africa. Both actors, but most noticeably the APR in Act 1, keep cultural artifacts in their headquarters. A lion adorns an APR poster, Zebra skins lie on the flow, and shields and spears dot the walls. These artifacts remind the player of popular cultural notions of Africa, which is the same reason such artifacts have hung on the walls of real life political headquarters.
Numerous African dictators intentionally associate themselves with African "purity;" claiming to be more "African" than their competitors is a strong political tactic. Perhaps the best example is Mobutu Sese Seko, Dictator of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) for 32 years. Mobutu tried to Africanize Zaire, demanding citizens change their Christian names to more African ones. He changed his own name (Joseph-Désiré Mobutu) to Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, meaning "The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake." He often wore a leopard skin cap as well, topping off his "Africaness."

If a dictator can associate their opposition with foreigners, lingering colonial resentment becomes a tool to rally popular support. Some UFLL graffiti, as well as quest dialogue, highlight both factions attempts to do just that. Which in turn stands in contrast to the fact both factions hire a bevy of foreign soldiers and mercenaries to do their dirty work. The irony is completely intentional. The result in Far Cry 2 is a narrative in which the protagonist, and player, are welcomed into a hostile and unwelcoming environment.
Those who bring in the mercenaries fit the mark as well. Oliver Tambossa, the leader of the APR, is adorned in medals and military attire, a constant reminder of his status and power. IdiAmin , ex-Ugandan dictator, was seldom seen without his military vestments. He maintained his Cult of Personality with this strong military imagery and frequent parades to himself. Whether Oliver Tambossa uses similar methods to maintain popularity is unknown, as most of the civilian population is strangely absent from the game.

Civilians and Motivation

This is perhaps the biggest flaw in the depiction of factions in Far Cry 2. Without a civilian population, motivation and political strategies are unclear. How has the APR recruited troops? Do civilians buy into their rhetoric? If so, why? It makes sense both factions want to maintain power for wealth, or even their own protection. Some have posited political leaders so frequently root out opposition because they know the fate of those who are overthrown. Of the 180 African regime changes between 1960 and 1999, an estimated 101 were the result of a coup, war or invasion (Arthur Goldsmith, Leadership Transitions). Of these, "roughly two-thirds were killed, imprisoned or banished to a foreign country."
Yet neither party holds a majority of power, and according to the Jackal, neither side wants to. Without depictions of a civilian population, motivations are less clear and political strategies taken by the factions less apparent. Duncan Fyfe of Hit-Self-Destruct discusses this phenomenon in his post War Crimes, stating "these games are a military wet dream: there's never a civilian in that truck. Everyone has left and the country is made freely available for gung-ho wannabes to run around playing paintball."

I agree with Fyfe in saying "the fiction supports the mechanics," and vice-versa. Having a country immersed in bad guys is important to the story. However, I think the themes could have maintained with civilian elements. The lack of civilians makes the conflict less nihilistic, not more.

In some ways, the political realities during intrastate conflict can be more unsettling than the depictions in Far Cry 2. On the other hand, the game's spartan approach to African politics, its lack of alternative approach to the conflict at hand, depicts an African state irreparably diseased. Like cultural depictions of a savage Africa, this is not new nor is it free from political implications. But that is the topic for next week.


  1. You sure they don't borrow from North Africa at all? Idi Amin was a bit of a porker (and yes, I've seen real pictures of him besides the Forest Whittaker depiction). Tambossa, perhaps because of that kaffiyah on his neck, reminds me of a darker-skinned Qadaffi to me (find a picture of him young and with a beret). Algeria and Libya have both had their own fair share of internal strife and Western intervention to be a possible reference point.

  2. Blargh, typo. Ignore that "to me" in the second sentence.

  3. @ Simon

    I can definitely see Qadaffi, but really any old military dictator will do. If the game were set in Asia we could have chosen Gen. Than Shwe as an example. I wouldn't be the list bit surprised if Ubisoft looked to Algeria or Libya for inspiration, but political scientists tend to set them aside. Sadly, its all to easy to find inspiration for military led dictatorships.

  4. Intriguing! Got to play this one.

    So to give it more context: how do you think this games fares when compared to Resident Evil 5. You mentioned some insightful and clever details. On the other hand, there seems to be some dangerous over-generalization going on which was a big flaw of Resident Evil's image of "Africa".

    Also, the fact that there are no civilians is similar to your critique of Gears of War 2. Do you think the game are comparable in this regard or is the effect different?

    Finally, that image of the House with graffiti looks oddly fake. Is that concept art for the game?

  5. @ Krystian

    Good questions. Resident Evil 5 is problematic for plenty of reasons. Interestingly enough, it presents a slightly different take on foreign involvement in war. All of the conflict is caused and contained by foreigners. The locals are theoretically victims, but painted as hostiles the entire way through, for much the same purpose. Both games want you (a foreigner) to feel surrounded by hostile forces (mostly locals). RE5 just accomplishes this with a little less tact.

    I hadn't thought about Gears in relation to Far Cry 2, but I think you're right. Without civilians, there is very little indicators to explain why we would save Far Cry 2's fictional country. Which is kind of the point. It's not worth saving, which is what we come to for next week.

    As for the image, that absolutely fake. The image was created by Ubisoft for Reuben Oluwagembi's blog ( He is the game's fictional journalist.

  6. I think that putting civilians in a game, especially when set in somewhere like Africa, makes the game too real. Too often in the strife of Africa, we see too much of the civilian factor, partially because these places and moreover, the combatants themselves are often civilian based.

    However, speaking as a gamer, I think I would prefer an environment largely devoid of civilians. Mercenaries 2 tried to instill this consciousness in gamers by penalizing the player X dollars for every civilian casualty, but all that really told me (and a lot of others imho) is that what you really needed was not more situational sensitivity, but more money so you didn't have to care about squishing some(often a painfully dumb) civilian.

    I also think it is an attempt to sanitize the game's setting to the point it can be safely interacted with as a game. I would be very averse to playing a game that felt like I was in a contemporary (and fully realistic) Africa, namely a white character essentially doing what he pleases as a mercenary. The subtext of colonialism speaks volumes.