Ideology 101

Ideology is the underlying set of principles and beliefs of a given group of people. Ideology is the things we presume to be true without someone necessarily outright teaching us that they are. Ideology is how societies establish their particular vision of what it means to be “good.”

For example, current American ideology teaches us that hard work is noble and respectable, and if you work hard enough, it will lead to your goals. Americans see this message repeated through mass-marketing stories, advertising, and the way we shape our historical narratives. Americans are taught that we can be beautiful, physically fit, knowledgable, or successful if we just work hard enough at achieving those goals.

Ideology is often tied to power relations, and revealing biases in ideology can also often reveal who is in power within a society and who is not. Often these power relations are normalized, viewed as the progress of a society coming into its “natural” roles. Almost any time a group is subjugated, it is explained away by the people in power as being a “natural” outcome of evolution or technological progress (e.g. “Men have been the dominant sex for thousands of years because they are naturally more rational than women.”). These power structures are of course not natural, and are quite socially constructed, but the idea of “natural progress” is used to justify subjugation. There is also often a sense that now that this progress is achieved, we will never regress back to our former, backwards ways.

Studying the everyday parts of culture—ads, films, TV shows, magazines, news narratives, etc—can reveal the biases and underlying beliefs that a given society holds. This is why the messages we encode into games are of utmost importance. The ideology that we encode into games has the power to reinforce or to subvert the ideological narratives we see from society every day. We are a part of mass media.

Some questions to ask yourself when examining games or any other cultural artifact that can be useful for revealing ideology:

  •  What is shown to be natural and right?
  •  Who gets excluded from the discussion?
  •  What are the power relations?
  •  What are the binary oppositions? Are these false binaries?
  •  What cultural assumptions shape the interactions?

[Note: much of this explanation is taken from lectures by Soraya Murray at UC Santa Cruz, who is able to put these ideas much more succinctly than me. Professor Murray teaches “Video Games as Visual Culture,” a course that critically examines the role of video games in society and the subtle ideologies we see embedded in games.]