It’s Time For Games To Own Their Politics

Art is always going to express a certain point of view because ultimately, whatever form it comes in, art is made by human beings. It’s a responsibility that can sometimes feel weird in big-budget games that don’t double down on the questions they present and treat real life-inspired issues like theme park attractions.

One of The Division 2‘s creative directors recently told Kotaku that there wasn’t any intentional political commentary to be read into when playing as a government agent in an under-siege Washington DC.

And Ubisoft’s Yves Guillemot told The Guardian: “Our goal is to give all the tools to the player in order for them to think about the subjects, to be able to see things from far enough away.”

But one player’s “far away” is another player’s home, or even their heritage.

I sat down with Kotaku‘s Heather Alexandra and Cecilia D’Anastasio to talk about why, despite certain developers’ attempts at getting things factually accurate or presenting interesting questions, sometimes it feels as though they might not be exploring their amazing worlds to their full potentials.

Check out the video above or read an excerpt here:

Heather: I don’t need games to adhere to my politics. I don’t want that. I want games that challenge me and I want games that I disagree with. I want games that have messages that I don’t necessarily agree with in my day-to-day.

But what I do want is for creators to acknowledge that their game exist in political times, that their games have political content.

So when someone working on The Division says, “Hey our game’s set in Washington DC where you’re playing as somebody who works for the government who has extra judicial power to shoot whoever in order to preserve the continuity of government and revive all of these old structures”…

It doesn’t mean you have to be like, “Here’s our 90-page thesis on government,” but I do want creators that say, “Yeah, there’s politics in our game. You don’t have to agree with it or not.”

Cecilia: … to me it’s sort of like a bait and switch. It’s almost like they’re skinning their games with topics that have real life effects on people – that people vote on, that people are truly impacted by – and draining it of any meaning or relevance to those same people.

Heather: We’re gonna talk about information states if it’s Watchdogs or whatever. We’re just going to use Ubisoft examples constantly.

Paul: I mean they do it all the time though. Like one of the main reasons why I didn’t – or I tried to – play Ghost Recon: Wildlands is because even if I don’t necessarily see it firsthand, I myself am a living representation of the CIA going into South America and tinkering with the way that continent has been fucked with for 500 years.

So when, like you said, you use it as a skin or a theme and it’s done, in my opinion, in a little bit of a… in a lotta bit of a disrespectful way, it turns me off of the game completely.

Watch the full episode to hear more.


  • Yeah… The moment they start ‘owning’ their politics they’ll get plastered all over places like Kotaku as if they’re the devil when one of the sites authors disagrees with said politics.

      • Except it won’t be discourse on the product, but on the producers and gaming websites already like to jerk it off as the arbiters of some social purity test. People see what they want to see, regardless of whether there was political intention or not.

        Proof of this can be found in this very article where a setup universe and playing the overly used distopian America card means something now because people want it too.

        It is literally people just projecting 90% of the time while a company attempts to keep things comfortably the same (gameplay cycle) while changing the environment after the complaints of previous titles (Div 1 all blurs together after a while and DC has a wide range of scenery).

          • All the more reason for devs to disown politics in their games. With the huge polarisation taking place why would anyone want to split their market along political lines.

      • OK, that gave me a laugh, and not in the way you intended. I know you actually meant civil discourse and naively assumed the civility, but that’s exactly the problem, and exactly why your sarcastic comment is actually the very real thought.

        It’s not, “Oh no, not civil discourse!” It’s, “Oh no, not having our developers abused on social media, boycotts of our product, a fractured market making our literal years of effort worth less, and hiring two hundred new forum moderators in various spaces to prevent ACTUAL discourse or unrelated questions from being utterly drowned in the collateral damage of the politics.”

        We don’t GET civil discourse when someone ‘picks a side’ and stands their ground. We get navel-gazing in echo chambers, we get flame wars, we get brigading and calls for boycotts and attempts at shaming those who’ve challenged our beliefs.

      • (That said, I think it’s still probably worth doing, from the consumer perspective. When a developer stops tap-dancing around what they’re portraying and actually owns it, they’re free to do more with it, stop self-censoring out of fear of who they’ll put off-side, and tell the story that they want to tell, or just the one they know how to. I just acknowledge that the gaming market makes it very unrewarding for a developer to do this.)

        • I think the impact of twitter users and sites like Kotaku outraging developers into doing things is grossly overstated.

          • Maybe. Personally, I think you’d be surprised how small a world game development is, and how closely tied it is to games media. The only people who say things like, ‘ignore what customers complain about, pay attention to what they buy,’ are CEOs and executives. The people who can afford that degree of cynicism, for whom games dev is only a business, a money-making exercise, ROI and triggers for manipulation, all views are lenses for PR and marketing and nothing esle. But games media, the voice of the community that plays, is where developers and creatives live. They take it on, while they create, and they take some of it personally. They don’t just produce a product; they also play, consume, critique… and feedback, the culture, it feeds into what they do and why they do it.

  • Every time I watch one of these I’m reminded that American’s like to say shit for the sake of being heard.
    No matter how dumb or uninformed you are, you can still be loud about it and commit your shit show arguments to video, which somehow gives it a nice veneer of relevance, leading other Americans to jump onboard your abortion and ride it into the ground along side you.
    These opinion pieces are like watching a Kanye rant fuck a Trump Tweet.

  • People want games to be considered art.

    Every art form from music to architecture expresses the author’s politics.

    Gamers can’t deal. Games remain a child’s product.

    • But it’s up to the art consumer to draw their own conclusions. The best art is subtle and almost ambiguous. “Doubling down” on the message, as the article suggests, is just ramming it down someones throat. Messages sink in when people have to think about them. It’s the whole “show don’t tell” thing.

      • You realise you can draw your own conclusions while analysis and interviews exist. How soft does your brain need to be that you can’t think about media without it being in a vacuum.

        • Quick, look above you and you might just catch my point going past.

          Analysis and discourse are fantastic. That’s not what the article is about.

    • The article is about how games intrinsically have politics in them and that the developers just don’t acknowledge this.
      Gamers can deal with politics in games, otherwise there wouldn’t be a game they could play.

      • You had nice parents, mine would say the former right before putting on his steel caps or pulling out his belt.

        • If by nice parents you mean drug addicts & violent to the point most nights I was afraid to go to sleep, then yeah I guess I did have nice parents.

  • Interesting discussion point, considering that the premise of The Div.1 was to play as an authoritarian government agency murdering people just trying to survive, then looting their corpses.

    • Errr what? You kill a group of lunatics trying to burn and gas the civs and a bunch of gangs that are hustling the civs (and you). The bad guys are pretty clear throughout the game. You don’t get incentives for killing the dicks fighting for pills in the street, but you do for the organised gangs and terrorists.

      • Killing looters, then looting yourself doesn’t make you the good guy. The point being that the game’s premise was twisted logic, which the marketing reinforced…which was a very good commentary on the western geopolitical agenda of the last few decades.

        • Killing looters? You mean the ganfs that literally took hostages and killed people or the municipal staff that went off the edge and literally start eradicating everyone that isn’t them. Have you even played the game? There are a lot of npcs just looting and you get nothing for killing them.

        • Ugh, it is just a game and for the majority of people who played it no one associated it with a real political movement or believed it represented any political voice and opinion of developers.

  • I think the reason that they wont come out and admit that there are political perspectives in what they are making is the same reason you don’t see it from any other entertainment medium. Don’t piss off the fans.
    The world is polarised, there is a risk at halving your market, maybe don’t take a side or even imply you do.

    Critics came out against Far Cry 5, they came out against Kingdom Come: Deliverance. They can get their political toys once they’ve shown they can be mature.

  • A developer is irresponsible for including a scenario where a protagonist is running through the ‘projects’ and Wu Tang is playing? Wow, what an angle.

  • Mmmm, owning politics doesn’t necessarily mean expanding on the political messages that could be read from a set or themes or narrative styles.

    There’s so much space between “our game has no politics”, “our game has no intended political message” and “our game does have politics, every game does”. The last one qualifies for owning politics and shouldn’t really be a huge issue.

    At the upper establishment area of the games industry, players are nothing but consumers who exchange money for a product explicitly created as a mechanism for the accrual of money. Our existence in and with relation to this industry is inextricably political, and yet people have concerns about acknowledging openly acknowledging it.

    That’s unpleasantly weird, and becomes more so when you consider how many of that population want videogames to be considered as art, or even just something more than a child’s endeavour.

    There’s a whole bunch of unpacking to do around the concept of videogames; openly recognising the inherent politics of any product within this system needn’t be so difficult.

    • Good point (especially the first line – there’s a big difference between using a game to expand on and explore politics vs simply acknowledging that they are there, informing the world of the game; seems like criticism of Far Cry 5 in particular came down to wanting the former and getting the latter), but it always comes down to stepping back and asking, “Why?”
      Why own it? (Why not?) Why engage? Why call for it?

      In this case, the call really does seem to be a case of, “I want you to go fetch me the stick I’m going to beat you with.”

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