The Castle Doctrine is a morally bankrupt game, so why do I want to keep playing?

The game's message might be repellent, but we should be wary of drawing a line too soon. Today's independent games are a rebellious force against fiercely Republican AAA games, and we should encourage that.

The Castle Doctrine is an ugly videogame. I'm not talking about graphics, I mean morally: It emblazons the isolationist mentality that got Trayvon Martin killed.

Here's the set-up. You, a married white guy with a couple of grand in the bank must construct barriers and traps to prevent other players from entering your house and stealing from your safe. You also have a wife and two kids to defend.

If somebody breaks in while you're logged out of the game, your wife will grab half the money and make for the exit, leaving intruders with the option of either letting her go and taking what's left in the safe, or killing her and claiming the loot in full. You can also invade other player's homes.

It's easy to see what's wrong with this picture. Firstly, your wife is a passive object, to be protected in the same way as your money and your vault. Her value is only monetary. If she dies holding 2,000 of your dollars, it's a setback because you've lost cash, not because a woman has died.

Secondly, the politics are indefensibly straightforward. The Castle Doctrine assumes that everyone who violates private property means to cause harm, and that stopping them by force is always acceptable. It fails to discuss mitigating factors such as geography, circumstance or the personal prejudices of the home-owner. It uniformly approves of the US legal principle from which it gets its name. It says anything is permissible in the name of self-defence.

The Castle Doctrine is morally bankrupt. But I want to keep playing it. I want to write about it, to think about it – I disagree with Cameron Kunzelman, who says we should “be so highly critical of The Castle Doctrine that we pretend like it doesn’t exist.”

Independent games are burgeoning. If they're going to develop, every creative voice, no matter how repugnant we may find it personally, has to be encouraged to speak.

If not, independent games could slide into the same political homogeny as the mainstream.

AAA games are fiercely Republican. They espouse the military. They fetishise guns. They mistreat women. And as a result, as well as offensive, they're often boring.

Over time, independent games risk slipping into the same groove. They appeal right now to people bored of the mass-market, people looking for something which challenges the assumed standards of what games should be. Today's independent games are a rebellious force. Their stories are about love, pacifism and self-affirmation. In response to the mainstream right, they're firmly on the left.

And if games like The Castle Doctrine are continually shouted down - if we demonise political views that aren't necessarily our own - that is how independent games will remain. They won't ever deviate. They'll became as politically monotone as AAA shooters.

And how dull will that be? I recently saw Santiago Serra's 160cm Line Tattooed Across Four People, a work of video art for which Serra paid four prostitutes a syringe of heroin each to allow him to tattoo an adjoining line across their bodies. It was exploitable. It was ugly. It was everything I hate. But if the whole exhibition had just been Jackson Pollocks', I wouldn't have gone. I want to be outraged by art. I want to know what's out there.

This isn't a defence of The Castle Doctrine. That game's message, that white men can righteously empower themselves with guns, is prevalent across the industry and doesn't need my support to withstand invective.

Instead, I'm cautious about drawing a line this early on. I don't want to set a precedent where only independent games that suit our politics will be able to find a market in the future. I don't want to be sat round a table where everyone agrees with me. I think art's ability to enrage is equally as valuable as its power to satisfy. So long as it's articulated, I want to know what people think.

A still from "The Castle Doctrine".

Edward Smith is a writer based in Liverpool. Follow him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.