For quite some time, I’ve felt a deep unease playing shooting games set in the modern world. While I’m always delighted to have 11-year-olds pulverize me in Fortnite, or to drop into a zombie-infested city for make-believe fun, when it comes to more realistic shooters I get hung up on the details. For games in the Call of Duty or Tom Clancy franchises, these details usually entail an express ride through a soul-crushing wheel of stereotypes and a kaleidoscope of ahistorical musings extracted from a fictional mashup of the Cold War and the war on drugs. Likewise, as a historian of Latin America and someone who grew up in a Mexican-American community on the US–Mexico border, the genre’s ongoing obsession with depicting everything south of my hometown as simultaneously exotic, corrupt, and tyrannical is tedious at best and enraging at worst.
So when the reviews for Far Cry 6 started trickling into cyberspace, I wasn’t surprised to read that the it rehashed all of the worst stereotypes we’ve come to expect from video games set in Latin America. Aside from the common complaint that Far Cry 6’s gameplay is barely distinguishable from its predecessors, I felt a sort of deja vu as I read through accounts of the game’s haphazard handling of Cuban history and its decision to fill all the dialog with a bizarre blend of accented English intermingled with Intermediate 1 Spanish. The trouble isn’t just that Far Cry 6 plays too much like the games before it, but that the game is stuck in a caricature of itself. Yet of all the stereotypes dumped into Ubisoft’s latest effort at telling stories about Latin America, I’m most startled by its ongoing infatuation with inviting gamers (mostly from the Global North) to topple the regimes of Latin American states.
Of course, politics has never been Ubisoft’s strong point, whether it’s regarding continued allegations of workplace harassment or the content of its video games. Early on, the company assured everyone that their video game about overthrowing the government in an imaginary version of Cuba was entirely apolitical. Later, they walked that statement back, assuring us that Far Cry 6 did indeed have something to say about politics and revolution; just not in any way we might recognize.
While I don’t expect much from an Ubisoft manifesto, its statements do little to explore the political implications of creating yet another video game about overthrowing a government in Latin America. And more important, these nebulous allusions to revolutionary histories fail to address how games about toppling tropical dictators, with English-language dialog and faint (or explicit) references to the United States’ geopolitical presence, interact with the actual history of Latin America. To make sense of Latin America’s prominent position as a central backdrop for video games’ most explosive coups d’état, I took a deep dive into the region’s depiction in games and its intersection with an already complicated history of foreign intervention.
Video games have staged their stories in Latin America since the 1980s, and while military intervention has been a prevalent element in their stories, it hasn’t always been the primary trope.
“I think that the theme of US intervention in Latin America, whether in the form of political intervention to overthrow a dictator or covert drug intervention, is one of the most typical ways that Latin America is represented. But it’s not the only theme,” says Phillip Penix-Tadsen, a professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of Delaware, whose exceptional book Cultural Code: Video Games and Latin America offers an incisive study of video games’ engagement with Latin America.
“We have to remember,” Penix-Tadsen says, “that another element that might be prevalent are older references to Incan or Mayan temples, which were popular in the 1980s video games and earlier interest in Indiana Jones.”
Indeed, the exotica of Latin American backdrops offered a far more alluring temptation for early video game developers in the 1980s. Games like the text-adventure The Mask of the Sun (1982), the side-scrolling Aztec (1982), or the action-adventure Quest for Quintana Roo (1984) drew primarily from Latin America’s pre-Colombian past and invited players to become neocolonial archeologists of sorts—running through ruins, pillaging tombs, and killing wildlife. These games persisted into the 1990s, with titles such as Inca (1992), Amazon: Guardians of Eden (1992), The Amazon Trail (a 1993 copycat of The Oregon Trail), and of course, Lara Croft’s debut in Tomb Raider, where she gets a contract to steal artifacts in Peru (1996).
The 1980s, however, were also a critical decade in the history of US political and economic intervention in Latin America, and these transformations made their way into the central narratives of countless games. In 1982, President Reagan publicly announced the beginning of the war on drugs as well as his administration’s commitment to combating left-wing revolutionary movements in Central America. This decision was formally implemented by his signing of the now declassified NSDD-17, which promised millions of dollars of funding to far-right paramilitary groups that terrorized Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua into the early 1990s.
While the US has a long history of intervention in Latin America, Reagan’s war on drugs and socialism pushed US intervention to new heights and, as historian Greg Grandin has argued, transformed Central America into a bloody laboratory for regime change and political destabilization. As millions of dollars of aid poured into the coffers of right-wing death squads and the US Drug Enforcement Administration stretched its networks across South America, video games in the late 1980s and early 1990s began introducing air strikes, guerrillas, drug busts, and gun-slinging intelligence officers into Latin American backgrounds.
At first, many of these games took loose, and even nuanced, approaches to their treatment of recent events in Latin America. In the Japanese arcade game Guevara! (1987), players fight as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in their revolution against Fulgencio Batista—something that was later edited out of the game for its US rerelease as Guerrilla War, in fear of anti-communist backlash. Likewise, the computer strategy game Hidden Agenda (1988) invited players to assume the role of victorious revolutionaries in Central America, giving them the option to pursue a wide spectrum of economic policies. Even the classic shooter Contra (1986), while presumably set in a distant future with ambiguous sci-fi enemies, leaned into a South American jungle aesthetic as well as a uniform and title eerily reminiscent of right-wing paramilitaries in Central America.
But by the 1990s, games took a turn toward more overt references to US policy in the region. In games like Code Name: Viper (1990) players inhabit a Special Forces agent seeking to derail a South American cartel, while in Jungle Strike (1993) players pilot a helicopter against a jungle fortress defended by a cartel and an allied dictator from the Persian Gulf. The acclaimed flight simulation game A-10 Cuba! (1996) also asked players to pilot US planes to defend the US neocolonial outpost at Guantanamo Bay from guerrillas in Cuba.
It was the beginning of George W. Bush’s global war on terror, however, that led to a new boom in games centered on regime change in Latin America. The deployment of US troops to Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s gave new life to glorified and high-resolution depictions of US imperialism. These games centered on highly trained soldiers that could be deployed anywhere in the world to combat the menagerie of drug lords and dictators that constituted the new “axis of evil.”
Over the next decade, video game franchises would draw simultaneously from the Cold War, the war on drugs, and the new war on terror to frame their narratives. Alongside East Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, Latin America seemed to provide one of the best backdrops for explosive interventions.
While many games have engaged in these tropes over the past two decades, a few stand out as worthy of some serious eye rolls. Take the ongoing Just Cause series (2006–2018), a game in which you play the role of Rico Rodriguez, a former CIA agent and recruit of the shadowy organization called The Agency. In a game explicitly about regime change, Rodriguez bounces around toppling dictators in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, Southeast Asia, the Mediterranean, and finally a South American country called Solis, which also happens to be my last name (sort of like naming a country Ramirez, Smith, or Nguyen).
Then there is, of course, Electronic Arts’ Mercenaries 2 (2008), the sequel to the equally cringey Mercenaries (2005), in which players fulfill John Bolton’s jingoist fantasies by invading North Korea. In Mercenaries 2, players wage a bloody coup and scorched-earth campaign of terror against a fictional Venezuelan president; a plot that unleashed shockwaves in real-life Venezuela, where then-president Hugo Chavez remained in open diplomatic conflict with the US.
It’s Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon franchise, however, that has been behind some of the most grossly offensive, over-the-top video games set in Latin America and the US–Mexico border. In Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Island Thunder (2002), you land as an American soldier in Cuba to defend supposedly free elections from armed Cuban leftists and FARC recruits from Colombia. Or perhaps we might recall Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 (2007), where you are deployed to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, to stop a revolution on the Mexican side.
Given that I’m from that binational area, Advanced Warfighter 2’s narrative hit a bit close to home by asking players to battle their way through Juárez’ poorest working-class neighborhoods, or colonias. Staging a game’s fiercest combat scenes in Juárez’ colonias not only rehearses senseless violence upon an already marginalized community, but it also offers an eerie mirror to the very real, ongoing border militarization that has terrorized our community and transformed border cities into theaters of extreme anti-migrant violence. Ubisoft later doubled down on these border motifs with Call of Juárez: The Cartel, a game that decided to explore—to the most sensational and insensitive degree imaginable—the drug war at the border: a devastatingly futile conflict, unleashed by former Mexican president Felipe Calderón with US backing, that left thousands dead and many more reeling from the war’s trauma for years.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands (2017) is certainly the eeriest game on the list, for the degree to which it presaged an actual US–backed coup d’état in Bolivia. Twisting the real-life history of DEA agent Kiki Camarena with the recent political history of Bolivia, in Wildlands you join a covert group of US operators to topple the Santa Blanca Cartel, a Mexican gang that has invaded Bolivia and transformed it into their private narco-state. In what plays like a clone of a newer Assassin’s Creed title, players navigate an open-world map of Bolivia, liberating zones from cartel control, as you listen to your enemies recounting cartoonish acts of violence in a Mexican-American Spanglish on your car radio.
Along the way, you ally yourself with a group of leftist rebels, all of whom fight under the Wiphala flag—an official flag of Bolivia that is a symbol of Andean indigenous peoples and is often associated with Evo Morales’ pan-indigenous and socialist administration. What is ironic is that just two years after the game’s release, the US openly applauded a right-wing coup d’état against Morales’ government, which saw a significant spike in anti-indigenous violence and a rise in far-right political mobilization. While that right-wing regime has since fallen from power following elections in 2020, the game offers a hauntingly inverted view of the US’ actual position on regime change in the region.
While these games have offered some startling examples of egregious tropes, it would be silly to assume that video games are the only medium promoting these characterizations.
“I think we need to avoid video game exceptionalism, as if video games are exceptionally pernicious,” Penix-Tadsen says. “These games are part of a media landscape and an ecosystem of narratives that also promote similar stereotypes. You have Scarface in the 1980s, all the Tom Clancy novels and movies, Traffic in the early 2000s, and these days Narcos and Breaking Bad. All of them reinforce those narratives.
“The trouble, though, is that players might get a false sense of having experienced or knowing about the history of Latin America when what they are getting is a highly abstracted and very heavily biased perspective on the history of interventionism, which privileges the US point of view. The overarching thrust is support of US ideology.”
Penix-Tadsen’s comments touch upon my biggest gripe with these titles. It isn’t that these games are the only media marching out old tropes, but that they can skew people’s understanding of the region’s real history. While I don’t think that everyone playing a Ghost Recon game or spending hours on the “cocaine farm” maps of Call of Duty multiplayer is a card-carrying Cold Warrior, I do think these games are failing to provide insight into the region’s actual history. This kind of fictional misinformation becomes more serious in a period when far-right, anti-immigrant politics and white supremacist terrorism remain serious threats to Latine communities. Understanding the actual history of Latin America, and the US’ often unwelcome interventions there, is an important step to combating those politics and associated acts of hate.
Yet finally, much like the ongoing engagement with the legacy of misogyny in games like Grand Theft Auto, the old Latin American tropes are, frankly, just boring. The best antidote for players interested in different approaches to the region is to look at the games being developed by Latin Americans themselves.
A good recent example of this is Cris Tales, a colorful tribute to JRPGs, whose Colombian developers drew as much inspiration from the history of turn-based games as they did from Colombia’s landmarks and folklore. There is also El Chavo Kart, a kart-racing game that is based on the characters of the hemispherically acclaimed El Chavo del Ocho, and the subsequent animated series El Chavo Animado. For those interested in a more regionally situated game, you might also check out Mulaka, a game designed by the Chihuahua, Mexico-based game studio Lienzo, which consulted with Raramuri indigenous communities to create a game that explores Northern Mexico’s indigenous past and folklore. Finally, the emotionally charged Papa y Yo (2013) offers a powerful narrative of childhood abuse, based largely on the developer’s own childhood in Colombia.
There are also a few classic games that explore geopolitical questions, albeit from a perspective rarely encountered in Call of Duty or Ghost Recon. The classic game in this vein is Uruguayan critic and developer Gonzalo Frasca’s September 12th: A Toy World (2003), which offers a powerful critique of US intervention following the beginning of the war on terror. For those with a Cuban VPN, you might also be able to search for Gesta Final (2013), a game developed by a youth computing club in Cuba, which reconstructs the 1959 Cuban Revolution as a Call of Duty-esque first-person shooter. And if you’re lucky you might even be able to track down a copy of Malvinas 2032 (1999), a game where you play as Argentinians reclaiming the Falkland Islands from the British.
The long list of Latin American–produced video games, as well as games set in Latin America that avoid the regime change drum beat, demonstrate that we can make games that explore the continent’s history and culture without celebrating the CIA or another right-wing putsch.
For those of us who are tired of seeing our communities or families’ countries portrayed as the perpetually corrupt, backward failed states in desperate need of liberation from kind and supposedly diverse gunslinging covert operatives from the US, this turn toward new stories and new engagements with Latin American history is desperately needed. Until then, I’ll keep my eyes out for games that offer different narratives—like Cris Tales, Papa y Yo, or even the new Forza 5 game (hey, at least they’re just driving through Mexico and not blowing it up)—and maybe skip the next big English-language coup d’état video game.
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