Kim Wong refuses to buy the new Xbox 360 game Shadow Complex. Revolted by the political views of a novelist associated with the game, the 27-year-old gamer's conscience holds him back. But there's another side to the story.
For the past week or so, some gamers and game reporters online have begun discussing the newly-released Xbox Live Arcade side-scrolling adventure game Shadow Complex in ways not intended by its creators. Stepping away from a discussion about how the game is one of the biggest downloadable titles ever made, a collaboration between a leading studio and some bright young talents, a love letter to the classic, but neglected, designs of Nintendo's early Metroid adventures, some gamers have instead debated whether buying Shadow Complex is an intolerable act of support for someone they view as an opponent of gay rights: novelist Orson Scott Card.
The debate around the game has provoked a rare discussion about whether the political, moral or religious views of people involved with making or promoting a video game—views so rarely discussed publicly by video game creators—should or would affect whether a person buys a particular title. Fun factor's got nothing to do with it. Or does it?
Kim Wong has discovered that moral views of creators do matter to him. He cannot countenance the involvement with Shadow Complex of Card. The acclaimed science-fiction author has written that practising homosexuals should not be treated as equal citizens and has described gay rights as a "collective delusion". He has supported legal movements to block laws that would allow gay people to marry.
In a phone interview this week, Wong told me: "I decided I could not in good conscience support a product of a person whose views I find abhorrent and knowingly give him money. In my everyday life I probably give enough money unknowingly to bigots or at least people whose personal and political views I find distasteful."
Card was not the main creator of Shadow Complex. He did not conceive it nor code it. His name has been used in the game's promotion by its developers and publisher, Microsoft, to trade both on the renown for his classic novel, Ender's Game, as well his 2006 book, Empire, which was based on the same fiction as Shadow Complex: a right-wing vs. left-wing future American civil war crafted by members of the new game's development studio, Chair Entertainment.
Card, who has expressed his views about homosexuality in more detail than can be summarised in a sound bite, has for years bristled at accusations that he is a homophobe, establishing his views about homosexuality in the context of his faith as member of the Church of Latter-day Saints, a faith, like those of Catholics, that deems homosexuality as a sin. (Card did not return Kotaku's requests to comment for this article.)
While Card's writings and efforts to ban gay marriage have sparked outcry from Wong and other gamers who say they won't buy Shadow Complex, those involved in the creation of the game had not commented publicly about this debate until now.
The Creators Speak
"Card's political beliefs sure didn't come up during the game's development," Mark Rein, vice president of Gears of War development studio Epic Games, which owns Chair Entertainment, told Kotaku. "Even if they had, we don't discriminate when hiring or choosing partners based on people's personal beliefs. Heck, Gears of War was made by Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and even a few Canadians like me. It takes all kinds to make great creative games."
Game developers don't often flash their party affiliation or state their positions on ethical debates. Reporters like me rarely ask. We wind up knowing more about the moral beliefs of Hollywood stars and politicians than we do whether the person who created the year's biggest game thinks abortion should be illegal, or that the Israelis or Palestinians are right or wrong. Will Wright's contributions to the Republican Party and Alex Rigopulos' to the Democrats become public in legally required campaign filings but neither the promotion of Spore nor Rock Band involves the discussion of America's Right and Left. If there is a block of Conservatives who are planning on not buying Beatles: Rock Band, I am unaware of them.
Even marginally more public statements about social issues don't seem to stir much gamer reaction. Two weeks ago at QuakeCon, programming legend John Carmack described the green movement as a "sham", to little reaction and certainly no major debate about whether the next Doom he creates should be bought by those who consider themselves eco-conscious.
Yet the opinions of Card, expressed so vividly and available so readily online have generated the kind of debate that appears to be costing the developers of Shadow Complex at least a few consumers.
Card has likened homosexuality to other predispositions to sin, like those of a hormonally active teenage boy. He told Salon.com in 2000 that he found charges that he was homophobic to be "ugly". But his critics have had an easy time making that charge, given the frankness of Card's writings.
"The Church has plenty of room for individuals who are struggling to overcome their temptation toward homosexual behaviour," he wrote in a 1990 essay called The Hypocrites of Homosexuality that argued that practising gay people should not have equal rights. "But for the protection of the Saints and the good of the persons themselves, the Church has no room for those who, instead of repenting of homosexuality, wish it to become an acceptable behaviour in the society of the Saints. They are wolves in sheep's clothing, preaching meekness while attempting to devour the flock."
No one from the Shadow Complex development team has said whether they agree with Card. A few years ago, the author was referred to me by Chair's co-founder Donald Mustard as a friend. But there is an argument to be made that it is irrelevant whether Chair's team agrees or disagrees with Card or is friends with him or not. That argument was made by Peter David, the comic book writer and novelist hired by Chair to script Shadow Complex, and a man who may not have much more patience for Orson Scott Card than Kim Wong.
"My disagreements with Orson's politics are hardly limited to his views on gay marriage," David told Kotaku in an e-mailed statement. "We are at opposite ends of the political spectrum on pretty much everything. Why, then, did I agree to work on the game? Because among my most cherished beliefs is that, while I disagree with everything you have to say, I will defend to the death your right to say it. [Comic book creator]John Byrne has said no end of vicious things directed at me personally; I still buy his comic books because I like his work. I never, EVER, allow someone's stated opinions to impact on whether I support his work so long as those opinions don't transform the work itself into something that I have no desire to support.
"Shadow Complex wasn't a huge paying gig for me but I took it because I thought the developers were a nice couple of kids, and I found the story of a reluctant warrior being forced to find something worth fighting for to be a compelling narrative. By the same token, all the money in the world could not have gotten me to be involved if the story was something I personally found repellent."
To Boycott Or Not?
There is no sign that the debate about Card is significantly hurting Shadow Complex's sales even if the game and its developers' reputation are taking some abuse on gaming internet forums. Shadow Complex has scored high marks from reviewers.
"It's up to the individual to make their own purchasing decisions," Wong told me, saying he does not advocate a boycott of the game. He said it's been easy to resist buying Shadow Complex, both because of the many other games available for purchase and because of how provocative he finds Card's views. "With good conscience I can't support that, and I would like other gamers to think about this issue as well."
I asked Wong if he had ever taken a similar stance. He said he has urged friends to avoid supporting advertisers who buy time on the shows of other public figures he disagrees with, like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. But he admits that it would be impossible to avoid supporting every product that was partially made by or connected to people whose views he dislikes. That's no reason to not take a stand here, he said: "With the limited voice that I have in the public discourse, I am choosing to voice my disapproval by not purchasing the game, as are the other friends of mine who have made the same decision."
The debate here echoes so many debates about supporting the work of socially controversial filmmakers and authors. It's doubtful whether there will be agreement about whether such debates are a sign of the gaming industry maturing or taking a sour turn. Will an expression of political views become a prerequisite for game developers in the future? Will gamers desire an explanation as to where the creators stand? Developers, writers and anyone else associated with a game might find themselves losing a possible fan—and maybe gaining another—based on the social views they express. It happens in most other forms of entertainment, whether relevant or not.
Aside from all of those options, there is another way this could be handled. Shadow Complex writer Peter David offered it: "If anyone wants to boycott the game and thus damage me or Chair while doing nothing to change Orson's opinions, that's naturally their right. Or...They can display the sort of tolerance for someone who is different from them that they feel is lacking in Orson and thus prove they're better. Your choice."
[Orscon Scott Card photo via Wired.com]