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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis