When Ubisoft's pirate-themed Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag was unveiled this week, we learned that whaling would be part of the game. The animal-rights group PETA was quick to condemn Ubisoft, saying its inclusion glorifies hurting and killing animals.
Polygon spoke to Matt Bruce of PETA's International Grassroots Campaigns to clarify the animal-rights group's stance.
"There are so many creative minds at Ubisoft that are involved with the Assassin's Creed series that we find it really disappointing that they feel the need to glorify whaling," Bruce said. "PETA encourages video game companies to create games that celebrate animals, not games that promote hurting and killing them."
PETA's objection to whaling in the game centers on the depiction of what it sees as real-world suffering. The organization characterizes whaling — which is now prohibited in much of the world — as a barbaric practice. Its presence in the game, PETA says, trivializes what whales endure.
"Joe Shmoe who plays this game in his mother's basement in the safety and comfort of his home will feel a sense of accomplishment by killing this whale."
"This would be a different story if the game portrayed the cruelty and horror experienced when a whale is literally fleeing for her life and then shot with a harpoon — or even several harpoons — and forced to struggle for hours or be hacked apart while still alive aboard a ship," he said.
"In Assassin's Creed 4, you get ahead by killing. Joe Shmoe who plays this game in his mother's basement in the safety and comfort of his home will feel a sense of accomplishment by killing this whale."
In 1986, the International Whaling Commission established a zero-catch limit on commercial whaling. The moratorium remains in effect today. The IWC exists "to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry." The organization and its 89 member countries regularly review the moratorium, and also work to promote the return of depleted whale populations.
However, whaling was a common practice during the time period in which Assassin's Creed 4 takes place, when the animals were hunted both for their meat and their oil. That historical context doesn't change the organization's underlying objection, Bruce said, comparing it to human slavery.
"If there was a game that took place in pre-Civil War America where your character had to enslave people, people would definitely have a problem with that because they would feel like it was glorifying the enslavement of people," he said.
Ubisoft's senior PR manager, Stone Chin, addressed the game's historical context directly in an email to Polygon.
"History is our playground in Assassin's Creed," Chin said. "Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag is a work of fiction that depicts the real events during the golden era of pirates. We do not condone illegal whaling, just as we don't condone a pirate lifestyle of poor hygiene, plundering, hijacking ships and over-the-legal-limit drunken debauchery."
Although many would draw a distinction between the digitized depiction of whaling and a human being's enslavement, Bruce says that PETA's conception of animal suffering renders the distinction effectively meaningless.
"That's where the challenge comes in," he said. "People and animals will feel pain and experience terror the same way. To the victim, it's the same. Being hunted down, being beaten, eventually having to suffer an agonizing death, whether it's a person or an animal, is the same."
"We do not condone illegal whaling, just as we don't condone a pirate lifestyle of poor hygiene, plundering, hijacking ships, and over-the-legal-limit drunken debauchery."
We asked Bruce about a number of recent games that feature hunting, like Far Cry 3, Assassin's Creed 3 and the just-released Tomb Raider, and he reiterated PETA's stance that there are better ways to depict animals in video games.
"We would obviously rather not see people promoting the hurting and killing of any animals," he said.
PETA doesn't object to video games in general, and has lauded games that more closely resemble its ethical stance. In 2008, the organization gave an award to Fable 2, which it called "a vegetarian's dream come true" because it rewarded players for choosing a meat-free lifestyle.
PETA's recommendation is for Ubisoft to simply remove whaling from the game, a decision it claims wouldn't harm the experience.
"It doesn't take anything away from having [whaling] not be a part of the game, but they insisted on putting it in," he said. "Unfortunately, it's glorifying something that's still happening today and is as cruel and bloody as it was 300 years ago."