Game publishers are lathering their productions with the stark imagery of modern political divisions, while at the same time denying any topical intent.
Their strategy, according to industry sources ranging from developers to publicists, is to profit from emotive societal divisions, while ducking difficult conversations about what their works might signify. Their games garner publicity and a sense of cultural relevance, but the companies avoid the challenge and expense of controversy.
In the words of one senior game industry publicist I spoke to, under conditions of anonymity: “It’s bullshit. They want to have their cake and eat it too.”
In the past few years, we’ve seen repeated examples of the quasi-political AAA game.
- Deus Ex: Mankind Divided posited a world of cybernetic enhancements, divided by “mechanical apartheid,” but publisher Square Enix repeatedly denied that its imagery of societal separation and prison camps had anything to do with the real world of racial divisions.
- Far Cry 5 portrayed a rural, anti-government American cult in which bastardized crosses were wielded by fanatics, but publisher Ubisoft refused to be drawn on obvious comparisons with currently resurgent white supremacist groups.
- Sony’s Detroit: Become Human flirts with issues like social justice and domestic abuse, but its creator David Cage says it’s “really about androids,” further claiming that the clear real world parallels in his work are merely in the eyes of players.
- At E3 last week, Ubisoft heavily publicized The Division 2. Set in Washington, D.C. in the near future, the game asks players to fight back against a corrupt government and help save the United States from tyrants. Despite obvious parallels with the current political landscape in the United States, Ubisoft continues to deny any real world inference, even in the face of incredulity.
In the aftermath of Polygon’s E3 interview with The Division 2’s creative director Terry Spier, Ubisoft was widely mocked for its determination to avoid taking sides in the midst of a raging culture war. Consumers are starting to take note of the discrepancy between the games they play, and the messages they hear coming out of media events like E3.
Soraya Murray, associate professor of the Film and Digital Media Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said: “Being topical in content is key to being relevant. While these companies may or may not want their games to be thought of as political, they probably do want them to be meaningful.
“Ultimately, companies create games and then release them into a world that shapes a larger context. These games may have intended meanings in their design, but this changes throughout their conception, development, production, circulation and reception. Context shapes them across time. In other words, a game company’s intent does not solely drive meaning.”
Another publicity source, who has worked for multiple large publishers, explained the thinking behind this strategy. “It’s about money,” they said. “Games with a sense of relevance feel fresh and artistic. But talking about the politics risks blowback. Blowback is expensive.”
But toeing the line between relevance and controversy is likely to end badly, sooner or later, according to Erik Bernstein, an expert in managing publicity crises.
“The way they handle things is inviting a crisis. It doesn’t matter how schooled you are in delivering the message if you don’t have the right message to start with,” Bernstein said. “Perhaps the most common causes of crises is the conflict between expectation and reality or a conflict between two different messages from the same source. The game is a piece of messaging in itself. They need to think about the message that the entire game is sending and their in-person communications needs to be on the same page.”
While games tend to take a broadly progressive view of the world, game company marketing departments understand that explicitly stating hostility toward reactionary positions risks the enmity of right wing media, streamers and online communities. They fear, above all, finding themselves at the center of a Gamergate-like publicity inferno.
Game developers and publishers that are seen to be “pandering” to liberal values, have often been targeted by online mobs. Examples demonstrate the obnoxious nature of a section of the gaming audience, which is convinced that games are being highjacked by a cabal of “social justice warriors” as a platform for progressive values.
Nintendo’s decision to localize Xenoblade Chronicles X, taking out a customization slider that altered female breast size, sparked harassment and doxxing against a Nintendo employee. Battlefield 5’s use of a woman character in a World War II setting has caused untold controversy among reactionaries.
So even when game companies make relatively straightforward decisions to reflect broad societal norms, they can expect trouble. It says something that a company like Bethesda has to deal with controversy for portraying fictional American Nazis as bad guys, while adding the spineless caveat that, “Bethesda doesn’t develop games to make specific statements or incite political discussions.”
According to PR sources, the hard costs of media controversy can run into seven figures, as crisis management companies are called in, expensive monitoring software is deployed, and staff are required to respond to social media messages and online message boards.
But there are other costs. Investors dislike controversy and are prone to flee. CEOs of game companies that are owned by massive non-gaming corporations are rarely keen to explain negative headlines to their bosses. Staff morale can take a massive hit from waves of internet fury.
“Why deal with it?” said a game industry source. “It’s easier just to take the line that the work is open to many interpretations, and that it isn’t taking sides, even when it has something to say.”
Individual game companies have their own structures and ways of funneling decisions between management, development, marketing and PR departments. But they all have CEOs who drive strategy. Decisions to embrace political themes are taken at the top.
“If the CEO and the board don’t know this is happening, they aren’t doing their jobs,” said one PR source. In some companies, the decision to exploit and conceal political intent in PR campaigns is taken at the top level. But more usually, it comes out of discussions with marketing teams.
“There are debates going on internally,” added one source. “Some voices are stating that they should honestly embrace the themes that the games explore. I know a lot of people really don’t like coming out with these phony, inauthentic messages. They want to say, ‘yes, this is an important issue, and here’s our take on it.’ But they’re shouted down by the status quo. It’s seen as too risky.”
Another source said, “Publishers like to think of themselves as big entertainment companies, like movie studios, but they behave like old-school games companies. They are comfortable communicating with an audience that sees their products as just fun. But it’s not sustainable. The next generation of leaders will understand this, and things will change.”
For the moment, games that take an openly political stance tend to be independent, rather than big budget productions.
Christian Miller is a Hawaii-based developer, who released Neofeud, which melds politics and social ideas in a cyberpunk world. He says the way big companies address divisive issues is “a little a silly. It’s like they don’t want to have any opinions about anything, ever. They want to say, ‘we’re just making fun entertainment.’ It’s disingenuous.”
“I know that they need to reach a very wide demographic they need to get the lowest common denominator,” Miller added. “But even big movies are able to tackle these issues. The games companies need to move on.”
Big budget movies like Black Panther embrace difficult messages in content and in external messaging. If its director Ryan Coogler or publisher Walt Disney Studios had tried to pretend it was just a story about an African king, rather than a reflection of societal and historical wrongs, he would rightly have been mocked.
Yet, this is precisely the tack taken by video game publishers, supported by a vocal minority of consumers and even critics who want games to remain as meaningless, mechanical pastimes. They say that too much is being read into these games.
“No one would even ask those kinds of questions about other media forms, or suggest that deep readings are illegitimate pursuits,” said UC Santa Cruz’s Soraya Murray, who is the author of a book titled On Video Games: The Visual Politics of Race, Gender and Space. “While video games are distinct from cinema, television, music and theater, they are still media forms. Being newer, games lack a fully formed critical apparatus. But games are not only entertainment products, they are also culture. It is only recently that we are beginning to have a language for talking about games as culture.”
It’s a language that game companies are yet to fully embrace. Unlike in other entertainment media, games do not have to answer to powerful critics with wide readership in high value media outlets. This is changing, as gaming’s critics expand their horizons beyond value-for-money or absurd “playability” metrics. Games publishers are facing new ways of the public discussing their products.
Polygon contacted Ubisoft, Square Enix and Sony for comment on this story, but did not receive a reply.
In the meantime, spare a thought for the people who are actually tasked with delivering the publisher-mandated pablum that smothers serious discussion about games.
“From experience, I can tell you that the people on the ground, the developers and publicists, usually hate this stuff,” one of our sources said. “They’re not stupid. They know what the games are about. They don’t want to repeat these prepared lines over and over again. But they also don’t want to get a reputation for being difficult. They want to keep their jobs.”
Note: If you work for a games company and have a story to tell, contact Colin Campbell in full confidence.