Politics in Video Games: Continue? Y/N
Updated: Dec 28, 2020
Cliff Bleszinski is perhaps one rung below what could be considered a household name in the video game industry. He was an early member of Epic Games, one of the oldest and most successful game developers in the country and the company responsible for the Fortnite-ification of an entire generation of teenagers. Bleszinski went on to lead one of the most prolific franchises in video game history, Gears of War. But it was not his work promoting impossibly large biceps that led to him being in the news this past month, but his Instagram post decrying what he considers one of his few failures. In the post, Bleszinski indicates his own personal politics contributed to the demise of Boss Key Productions, a developing company he co-founded with Epic colleague Arjan Brussee. Boss Key’s flagship game-to-be was Lawbreakers, a cooperative shooter much in the style of Overwatch and Apex Legends. Bleszinski blames a part of the game’s poor commercial success on himself, claiming his “woke bro” approach and “shoehorning diversity” were among the reasons for the game’s reception. In fairness, Bleszinski is also acutely aware of the less abstract reasons for the flop, such as the announcement of the aforementioned FPS juggernaut Overwatch. In a landscape saturated with wildly successful online FPSs, Lawbreakers appeared doomed to being little more than a flash in the pan. Boss Key has since shuttered its doors (and servers), and Bleszinski has moved on to other, non-video game things.
But Bleszinski made public what most developers would prefer remain unsaid; games can often include political elements. His own former colleague/boss, Epic Games founder and CEO Tim Sweeney, recently made comments at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas, where he appeared to criticize the inclusion of politics in video games. Sweeney later attempted to clarify his statements on Twitter, saying if a company were to include political elements in its product, “it should come from the heart of creatives and not from marketing departments seeking to capitalize on division.” This implies he means games can have controversial themes, but developers and publishers should refrain from.. advertising them? Sweeney also said companies should act as “neutral moderators”, then made a passing mention of Chik-fil-A and stated “there’s no reason to drag divisive topics like that into gaming.” So which is it, Mr. Sweeney? Unlike fried chicken restaurants, game developers traffic in narratives. When you’re in the business of telling stories, it is inevitable that your output will overlap with real life concepts. This type of backpedaling is a microcosm of the pervasive attitude in the video game industry that politics are off limits. This is almost entirely a load bearing myth, as it is obvious to many gamers that political themes are not absent from a significant number of games so as to render it anything more than a platitude. As my favorite Imperial droid would say, “I find that answer vague and unconvincing.”
This seems to be as much of a strategy as a lack of self-awareness on the part of game developers. French developer Ubisoft, for instance, is no stranger to speaking out both sides of their mouth. In 2018, Ubisoft released Far Cry 5, an FPS in which a violent religious cult occupies the fictional Hope County in the unfortunately non-fictional state of Montana. The timing and concept of the game are almost excessively political, if not outright topical. Ubisoft, however, publicly insists it doesn’t seek to make a statement, even if the people working on the project itself are aware of the inference. It flaunts a provocative topic as bait, then delivers an otherwise underwhelming experience. Some of the game’s harshest critics noted the tremendous disconnect between the bold premise and the timid execution.
Ubisoft doubled down on its denial after the 2019 release of The Division 2, a third-person shooter set in Washington DC after the collapse of the government (I mean, come on). This has become a pattern for developers seeking to include political topics in its creative process. They are every bit as aware of this country’s political dysfunction as we are, but rather than tap into it, they dangle it in front of us and then pull their punches when it comes to the delivery. In essence, they know the mere mention of politics is free marketing, as it ensures part of their target audience will have strong feelings about the material one way or the other. They are also aware that they risk alienating a contingent of the Perpetually Mad by embracing the tone. The upcoming third installment of the Watch Dogs franchise takes place in post-Brexit London, which offers Ubisoft yet another opportunity to deny the bleeding obvious. No other developer in recent memory has exploited this double dealing BS more than Infinity Ward.
In the 2019 installment of the exceedingly popular Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, IW touches upon numerous aspects of modern geopolitics, namely terrorism. While the experience itself is as raw and visceral as we’ve seen from the franchise, it lacks any significant commentary and it becomes painfully clear that the real world references are done purely for shock value. Modern Warfare goes so far as to basically retcon the Highway of Death, an explicitly American war crime, and represent it as a Russian atrocity while the US and UK forces are the unambiguous Good Guys. Such a blatant reframing of history and the subsequent utter refusal to acknowledge its implications is exactly the type of self-serving ignorance that makes the video game industry such a frustrating environment. Developers want to have their cake (which is not a lie) and eat it too, and seem either unable or unwilling to embrace the potential in telling real stories.
Luckily, not all developers shy away from speaking their mind. Bioshock is largely considered one of the best games ever made, and creator Ken Levine freely cites Ayn Rand (lol), George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley as inspirations, as well as the moral difficulties surrounding issues like stem cell research. The utopian city of Rapture and its inhabitants serve as an exercise in objectivism, succinctly examined in this 2016 article. Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear series is an ever-constant critique of nuclear proliferation and perpetual war. Kojima’s most recent creation Death Stranding was heavily influenced by Brexit and the isolationist rhetoric and policies of Donald Trump. Despite his heavy-handed embrace of political influence in his games, Kojima remains one of the most lauded game creators of our generation. The Fallout series also remains relevant, despite suffering a decline in popularity in recent years. Much like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, it doesn’t so much send a message as much as it satirizes many aspects of American culture, often taking unambiguous stances depending on the context.
In terms of rustling the jimmies of the most insufferable people in the world, few have the track record that developer Bioware does. In fact, they are one of the few developers that has actually made national news for getting on the nerves of the smooth brained. In 2008, outrage factory Fox News aired a segment on the sex scenes in Mass Effect, in which a “game expert” had to go on national television and explain that the nudity in the game was limited to “the side of an alien boob.” A grown man had to say those words. Here is the video in case you want to give your “ok boomer” muscles a little workout.
Bioware has since made three additional Mass Effect games, each one showing plenty of the nasty and people doing it. Although the Mass Effect games tackle a multitude of sociopolitical issues, they have arguably spearheaded the advancement of identity in video games, featuring some of the most diverse casts to date. They once again drew the ire of the conservative morality brigade by introducing gay subplots in the conclusion of the trilogy, as well as a transgender character in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Bioware’s insistence on treating minorities like people, as well as the creation of one of the premier feminist icons in gaming, has earned them a reputation as one of the more SJW-friendly developers. Meant as a pejorative by their critics, it’s actually a badge of honor.
Perhaps I’m being too cynical in my assessment that AAA developers mining current events for material and refusing to admit it as anything more than aesthetic choice is a transparent pantomime. Perhaps they are secretly afraid of invoking the wrath of the Gamergate people, in which case I would completely understand. Then I would question why the industry allows itself to be held hostage by these babies. They even threw a fit when CD Projekt Red, the studio behind The Witcher trilogy, announced that the character creator for their upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 would be so focused on player choice that they removed the male/female selector. The complaints were, as you can certainly imagine, painfully predictable. Gamers do not object to the presence of politics, they are reacting to them. Excluding certain groups for the benefit of one demographic IS a political act. On the heels of Parasite and Jojo Rabbit both winning Oscars either in spite of or because of their unambiguous messaging, there is clearly a market, or at least a tolerance of loaded entertainment. Politics and identity permeates nearly every aspect of society for many people. Companies treating the straight white male perspective as the default ensures that inclusion and diversity will continue to be seen as aberrant rather than typical. We would love for diversity in video games to be normal and boring. Until it is, the most thin-skinned among us will decry it as “virtue signaling” when it signals virtues we don’t like.
There are those who are sincere in their desire to be insulated from political content in what many consider an escapist hobby. I myself am often fatigued by the soul-sucking helIscape that is the culture war and I empathize with the sentiment that video games are meant as an escape from real life. Good news, there are plenty of games that serve that purpose. A good game must be, first and foremost, entertaining. The appetite for thought-provoking undertones doesn’t mean every game has to champion a cause. No one is under the impression that Mario Kart is a subversive Marxist critique of postmodernism or that Untitled Goose Game is actually an allegory for self-defense rights. Some games are just games, and that’s fine. It will always be fine. The cool thing about art is that it doesn’t have to be anything. Some of it is something, and other things are something else. It will have been news to many readers that games like Bioshock and Metal Gear Solid are political. For those of you to whom this applies, you have done a fine job of either ignoring the creator’s intent, or you have simply not allowed it to sour your enjoyment. In either case, the mere existence of political themes is clearly not a negative. So why insist on their absence? If nothing else, we should respect the desires of the creator. Politics do not make or break a game, it must otherwise stand on its own merit. If it does, the presence of contentious subjects does not in itself make it better or worse.
Underneath the consumers’ supposed aversion to political undertones is the reality that gamers (or fans of any kind, really) are compelled to be unpaid critics. The narcissistic impulse to have a say in the creative process is like heroin. They cannot imagine a world in which people make things without them in mind. Imagine, if you will, being one of the people that complained about the original design of the Sonic the Hedgehog movie. What’s it like? We’re not talking about The Silmarillion here. It’s a blue rat that runs fast, why are you like this?
There is a reason the term “target audience” exists. If everyone liked everything, we would all just be “the audience.” Games should be what the developers want them to be, and we as gamers should encourage them to pursue projects they are passionate about, for whatever reason fuels that passion. Our willingness to be challenged should be seen as an opportunity, and a return on that investment would come in the form of a superior product and a company that stands by it. We’re not asking for a West Wing MMORPG or anything, just admit your game is about Trump, you cowards.
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