Video Games should just stop pretending they’re not political

After finishing the campaign for Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War Super War 80s War last week it tweaked a nerve in my brain that has been getting a real workout these past months. Borne from reading the same old comments and arguments online about a lot of movies and video games that come close to dealing with real-world issues in their narratives and themes.

It’s the butting heads of irate gamers getting upset because they don’t want creators to become “political”, going up against the creators who do seem to want to say something in their work, all while their marketing team and managers frantically bow their heads and insist their games aren’t political at all.

Which is a load of crap if you ask me.

Here’s what annoys me about this whole debate in a nutshell: Everything is inherently political, the only reason people get upset about something being “political” is when it edges outside of their comfort zone, their defined world view. People don’t want to be challenged, they just want to sit in the sanctity of their echo chamber in peace.

Video Games should just stop pretending they're not political

The thing is, any story worth telling is inherently political in some way. Any compelling human story has some factor of race, gender, age, experience, class or religion ingrained within it. It all just comes down to how obvious the writer wants to be with their message and how much of it is subtext. The rule of thumb is the more subtext the message is, the broader appeal it has.

Which is why when a creator makes an attempt to be outspoken and do away with the subtext, people get upset because they suddenly think they’re being preached to. The stupid thing being that most good stories are preaching to you, they’re just doing their best to avoid you noticing it. Whether that makes them a better story or not is up to your own interpretation.

Which brings me to the case of smoke and mirrors that is Black Ops Cold War. Call of Duty is a game series that constantly exists in a space where it really should have something important to say about the state of the world’s war economy, America’s presence in foreign countries and other topics like war crimes and government corruption. And yet they never actually seem to make a stand outside of some very broad, Hollywood action strokes.

Video Games should just stop pretending they're not political

Of course, Call of Duty is just about the most mass-market video games out there. And its fanbase, on average, is just about the least receptive group to any kind of moral stand being taken their media. That being said, the number of people who spend the premium price for a Call of Duty title and then never actually touch the campaign is probably staggering.

Although maybe not as staggering as a video game about the Cold War, Vietnam and capitalism vs communism having absolutely nothing to say of importance. But maybe I’m asking a lot of a game like Call of Duty for taking some genuine stand and maybe criticising the politics of the time, or of western powers and their presence on the global scene. I think what might bug me the most about it all is the false promise of it.

Video games have become an amazing platform for people to share their personal stories and experience with others. I don’t think there’s a platform out there that allows more access to people of different backgrounds to speak their message and give a new and unique perspective. Movies and televisions certainly still have a high tendency to come from and appeal to the “straight white guy” experience.

But the more of that there is, the less chance we get to see these new and different perspectives from people whose voices aren’t being heard. Which is super important for growing as people and a diverse society, watching and learning more about Marvel’s Black Panther in the wake of Chadwick Boseman’s passing helped me see that. Video games is the platform where that story is most accessible… except when it comes to the AAA space of course.

The big video games, like Hollywood movies, are still catering for mass appeal and consequently seem to avoid making any real stances of consequence. Terrified by the audience that lashes back against a series which it feels like is becoming political. Made all the more frustrating by the publishers and developers that tease the idea that they might actually have something important to say in their games, while ultimately never saying anything at all. Which I’m sure is directly opposed to ethics of the majorly left leaning people that work in video game development.

It’s the same with all major developers, after Call of Duty I feel like Ubisoft are the most guilty of this. Ignoring the problematic stances on “female protagonists not selling video games” at this juncture, Far Cry 5 might be the most frustrating example of the false sale of goods based on a game’s tone on content compared to its original pitch.

Video Games should just stop pretending they're not political

The first announcement trailers for Far Cry 5 implied the game would be dealing with the real problems of white supremacy and cult-like religious behaviour in mid-western America. It pitched itself as this serious game about hot topic issues. Even in early interviews the team described the socio-political climate in a post-September 11th America as their inspiration. Which, in my eyes, would delve into ideas of xenophobia, mob mentalities and separatism.

Which seemed like incredibly ambitious and audacious subject matter to deal with for a mainstream video game, especially given the state of the real world at the time. Trumps’s new presidency, the increased tensions with North Korea, the #MeToo movement and multiple mass shootings going on all combined this apparent commentary on America as something with the potential to be incredibly compelling, even at the risk of ruffling some feathers. Which of course, was all gone by the time genuine gameplay for Far Cry 5 started to surface.

What could have been compelling look into the worrying ability for people to fall under the sway of a cult of personality ended up being one more flashy, irreverent jaunt around an open world full of a thousand Ubisoft trademarked busywork markers. The promise given during the game’s announcement couldn’t have fallen any flatter by the time the game came out, for better or for worse, had Ubisoft actually taken a stand and had something to say in this game, it may have been a game that was remembered either fondly or in infamy for years after.

Video Games should just stop pretending they're not political

In reality, it just ended up being super forgettable and a perfect example of why I have pretty much fall away from Ubisoft games entirely. In content, tone and its politics; it ended up being utterly interchangeable with any other given example of their output as a studio.

Which is partly why I feel like I’m falling out of love with AAA games as a rule now. I feel the need to be challenged either intellectually or politically by media. I want to grow as a person and be exposed to new ideas and concepts to increase my worldview. It seems like a lot of people in my same shoes are adamant that never be allowed to happen to them and given, which in turn makes the producers of all mainstream media adverse to having any deeper message to their work.

I’m at the point now where I’m kind of tired of trying to be the moderate. I used to want people to live their lives how they wanted, but I’m seeing so many people getting riled up about anything that doesn’t conform to their worldview that I simply need to start speaking up about it. I mean, I’m not going to get in their face about it, I’m not that self-assured. But I hear people moaning about Elliot Paige coming out as transgender or players kneeling before a football game for Black Lives Matter, I gently remind them that pretending these problems don’t exist is not going to fix them.

Video Games should just stop pretending they're not political

Which I feel is the same for video games and other media especially. I get that sometimes we do want to switch our brains off and just enjoy some escapism in video games. The thing is, there are tons and tons of games out there that do that very thing very well, almost all of them in fact. But when you’ve got a video game that is literally about one of the most politically charged periods in western history, coming out in a time maybe even more politically charged than that, there almost needs to be an ideological statement made from the developers, making a stance on what’s happening within the game.

We need to normalise people having different political views from one another again, and need to double down on the idea of two people having opposing political views and being able to talk amicably about is and it not ruing their relationship. I’m more than capable of appreciating a piece of media, sitting back and thinking “hmm, I didn’t agree with that, but I appreciate it as a piece of art” and then carry the fuck on with my day without blowing a gasket and review bombing it online.

Video Games should just stop pretending they're not political
How are you supposed to make any genuine statement about anything when people get upset about putting women in your world war I game?

We’ve become so used to being at each other’s throats the slightest provocation these days that it feels like big developers are too afraid to make anything close to a controversial stance in their work. In case they get review bombed, in case they get a hashtag campaign levied against them or in case they upset the major cash cow that is the Chinese market these days.

But ultimately, all of these fears make our media less interesting. I’m getting tired of white bread and vanilla. I want some flavour again, can’t we go back to the 70s where auteurs were making some gnarly shit and were getting celebrated for it? Man, I could just go on and on about this.

5 thoughts on “Video Games should just stop pretending they’re not political

  1. I get what you’re saying here. All too often, when I see the statement “all art is political” somewhere like Twitter, it’s being used to attack something I like for being “problematic”, which can be annoying, especially when I feel the attack is unfair. However, I certainly don’t have a problem with games getting political — like any kind of story in any medium, you can use a game to deliver an effective political or social message. I also think AAA developers have failed for this and a variety of other reasons, which is why I fell out with them a long time ago. Ubisoft’s insistence that women in video games don’t sell is not only regressive but ridiculous, since it’s provably false; just look at the Japanese market and how many female protagonists its games offer, and how well they do even in the West.

    However, when developers try to get political and make statements, it sometimes comes off as extremely heavyhanded and preachy. This might be just a problem with bad writing or with a lack of creativity. I’ve played games that have been a lot of fun and have woven social messages in in a natural way, in a way that sneaks up on you even, and that can be really effective. But then that takes clever writing and game design to pull off, and not everyone can do it. It’s possible to mess up like this in any medium really, and every time it happens, I wonder why they bothered trying to create fiction when they should have just written a political opinion piece or something.

    One thing’s for sure: the AAA developers need to shape up and do better, though I don’t have a lot of hope of that happening anytime soon.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree that some developers do try to make a statement and then mess it up because they simply don’t have the writing chops to make the statement eloquently. But at the same time, I’d rather see them trying to say something rather than dancing around the outside and then patting themselves on the back when they poke a toe over the line.

      While I haven’t played it myself as of yet, listening to people talk about Cyberpunk really exemplifies this, as the game is literally titled after its genre and from all the talk it seems to use the lightest touch when dealing with the Punk part of Cyberpunk. All while also trying to mask it by simply being edgy for the sake of being edgy without any depth.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yeah, I don’t care for these attempts at very mild social commentary if they’re going to pretend it was actually a bold statement they were making. That’s just gutless.

        I have no plans to play Cyberpunk right now, but I’ve been hearing a lot, mostly not great. The hype was so massive that I couldn’t help thinking it would be another sort of No Man’s Sky situation. And certainly cyberpunk has a lot of social commentary attached to it, so I feel like they’re setting the player up to expect some kind of statement in the game.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t really agree that every piece of art is political (or that attempting to make an apolitical piece of art is itself a political statement), but I do think it is true that when people complain about politics in art, it’s because their own beliefs aren’t being validated. For a while, I listened to the podcasts of those who didn’t like The Last Jedi, and while they started off making great points, it eventually became evident that a major source of their frustration stemmed from the filmmakers directly challenging their backwards-looking beliefs. Indeed, if a piece of art blatantly pandered to them, I know they wouldn’t criticize it for being too political (though if they did, I would at least have to applaud their consistency).

    Still, I do get why some don’t want their art to be political is made because confirmation bias is a serious problem in mainstream film and game criticism now. Works with gigantic problems (e.g. the aforementioned The Last Jedi) get accolades because the critics have a bad habit of shutting their brains off as soon as their boxes get checked. While these causes are definitely worth fighting for and conveying to your audience through art, there is quite a significant gulf of talent between the 1970s auteurs you mentioned and the average AAA gaming writer, and the last thing I would want would be a cause I believed in associated with bad art. Admittedly, confirmation bias isn’t easy to overcome, but one absolutely needs to do so in order to establish credibility.

    As it stands, it’s clear critics don’t want to be challenged because they tend to throw a tantrum whenever audiences don’t agree with them. I can only imagine how the current wave of film critics would react if they were transported back to the 1970s with their memories removed.

    And while I do think auteurs are valuable for an artistic medium, I find that the indie gaming scene actually improved when they set aside the egotistical posturing that defined early indie darlings such as Jonathan Blow and Phil Fish. It’s not to say there aren’t auteurs anymore; they just get less attention because they’re more interested in putting their nose to the grindstone and creating good art than they are touching as many raw nerves as possible.

    Liked by 2 people

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