As I watched my Facebook feed explode about President Donald Trump’s racist comments this week, I couldn’t help but notice that game developers are political creatures, just like everybody else. But if you looked at their games for political messages, you would think that they’re apolitical, concerned only with near-political game environments that don’t take a stand.
This subject flared up ever since Donald Trump was elected as the U.S. president, but his presidential misadventures have not yet inspired a masterful intertwining of art and politics in a video game. Perhaps we should not expect to see that happen because the interests of commerce rule the day. I hope we can overcome those interests because I believe that putting some form of higher meaning into video games is one way to make games as universally recognized as an art as other media.
Ted Price, CEO of Insomniac Games, took a stand against Trump’s Muslim ban in 2016, going so far as making a video expressing his company’s opposition to it. That was admirable. But there wasn’t a ton of contemporary political commentary disguised in a popular game made by Price’s studio, Marvel’s Spider-man.
Spider-man probably wasn’t the right platform for political commentary. We have seen other games come close to dealing with the topics of white nationalism, yet they have fallen short. Ubisoft’s creative leaders say that games like Far Cry 5 (about a religious militia taking over Montana) and The Division 2 (about a secret military organization preventing the fall of Washington, D.C. after a plague) do not make political statements.
Machine Games, the creator of the Wolfenstein series, was surprised to stumble a political opportunity in its remake of id Software’s classic Wolfenstein games, which take place in an alternate universe where the Nazis won World War II. Much like Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle TV show, the Nazis have overrun America and the Ku Klux Klan is now allied with them to make things worse.
But did this storyline — extended with this month’s pending release of the co-op game Wolfenstein: Youngblood — have anything to do with the rise of the alt. right, Ferguson, Gamergate, Trump, Charlottesville, and this week’s events? Not really, said Jerk Gustafsson, executive producer of Wolfenstein: Youngblood at Sweden’s Machine Games, in an interview with GamesBeat.
“We started work on that story in 2014. It was quite a lot of time before the game actually came out, and a lot of things happened in those years. In that game, we wanted to tell the story of B.J. growing up, his childhood,” Gustafsson said. “It was a very dark story, with his abusive father and dark themes in general. And at the same time we wanted to tell a story about what happened if the Nazis won the war and took over the U.S. Since that happened around that time, especially with Charlottesville, it came to a point where we got a lot of, especially with interviews and talking to media — it led to a lot more discussions around the political aspect of it than we anticipated when we set out to do the game. That took us a bit by surprise.”
In other words, Wolfenstein comes close to being a social commentary on Trump’s presidency and the parallels that many liberals see to the Nazi’s in his apparent comfort with white nationalists. But that’s an accident. The prescient storyline was … accidental. Those of us who really liked the parallels were just giving the writers too much credit for boldness.
The same goes for 2016’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, which depicted a world divided between “natural” humans and “augs,” or people augmented with cybernetic technology. Square Enix said that the similarity of the game’s slogan, “Augs Lives Matters,” was simply an “unfortunate coincidence,” as The New Yorker reported.
Once in a while, we get a game that is overtly political. In 2012, Spec-Ops: The Line acknowledged the horrors of war in a way that video games rarely do. Detroit: Become Human was set in Detroit and it clearly showed how bad it would for humans to create human-like androids and enslave them, as African Americans were once enslaved.
“Am I worried about technology in general? Yes. I’m more worried about human beings than about machines, though. It’s not a coincidence that in Detroit, we made the choice that the good guys are the androids and the bad guys are human,” said David Cage, cofounder of Quantic Dream, creator of Detroit, in an interview.
Such games are often criticized as too political, and not fun. Many fans, particularly those sympathetic to Gamergate, view the critics who want these games as “social justice warriors,” a pejorative term.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare will likely be controversial for the level of realistic violence it depicts, as well as the blurring of the line between soldiers and civilians in modern war. Studio director Taylor Kurosaki declared that the game was “ripped from the headlines” and was created to show “the world we are living in today,” Kurosaki said.
And some games introduce politics accidentally.
Amazon recently showed off New World, a game about the colonization of a new continent. But instead of fighting off native Americans, the colonists — who are the good guys — fight zombie-like creatures. Some critics noted that this sanitization of colonialism’s ugly reality was racist in itself, as it dehumanized the native Americans into beings that were easy to kill.
This takes me back to my days as an English major, when my professors posed questions about whether great works of literature had multiple layers of meaning, like The Wasteland (clearly, T.S. Eliot’s famous poem had those layers). But should they have political layers? Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, about the Salem witch trials, was surely inspired by McCarthyism’s Red Scare. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was a condemnation of the capitalist overlords of the meat-packing industry.
Sometimes this added layer of meaning makes us feel like the game is worth studying, and lots of game development programs in colleges are doing just that. That’ probably why The New Yorker and The Guardian wrote about politics in games this year. But does that diminish the fun layer? Or does it hurt the commercial potential of the game?
For sure, publishers are shying away from declaring that games have no political intent because they want the game to have the widest potential audience. If only anti-Trump gamers bought Wolfenstein: Youngblood, then that would be a travesty for Bethesda’s bottom line. But this fear ignores another fact: We can outgrow the tropes of video game stories, and some of us want something like HBO. I’ll take a show like Chernobyl over a lot of feel-good television.
I acknowledge that the main object is to make games fun, and I don’t hate video games that are made just to be fun. But I put myself in the camp of social justice warriors. Let those game developers who want to do so express their political views in transparent ways, even if their bosses want to shut them up. I sincerely wish that the crazy politics of Donald Trump would inspire someone to create a beautiful metaphorical treatment that gives us all some clarity about what all of this means.
I wish we could have someone in the game industry emerge, like George Orwell with 1984, or like the antiwar songs that emerged during Vietnam, to show us the way. We have some hope, as one small indie game studio, Osmotic Studios, was inspired to create a PC game called Orwell in 2013 — in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures — about a surveillance society.
But that game hasn’t made as much impact as it might have, and it doesn’t have the kind of big-budget that the largest publishers can throw at a game. I would hate to think that indies are the only ones who can afford to take a stand. But I am grateful that they are there as a counterbalance to the deafening silence from the big game companies.
I believe that I’m raising a lot of questions without many answers here. But I hope to address them in panels that I may be moderating at Devcom in Cologne, Germany, and at Game Daily Connect in Anaheim. I hope you can help me find some answers.