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If video games want to be a force for good, they need to learn from sports

Professional sports have charted a path for the video game industry to grow into something better

A customization screen in Madden NFL 21 shows a player with a tinted visor that says END RACISM.
In Madden NFL 21’s new mode, “The Yard,” players get all sorts of customization options for their on-field looks. Some of them join in the larger campaign for justice and equal treatment of persons of color.
Image: EA Tiburon/EA Sports via Polygon

I have a controversial stand on sports. Sports, my friends, are good.

Despite sports being very good, a chunk of the games community dislikes like sports. Like, they really hate ‘em. Sports make their skin crawl. The word alone conjures the specter of nose-breathing, knuckle-dragging jock culture.

Maybe I’m describing you. That would be a-okay! As someone who dreaded elementary school gym class and attended a liberal arts college, I get it. Even today I find the culture of the NFL deplorable, while also being a diehard fan of the Kansas City Chiefs. I’m keenly aware of the ugliness of pro sports and the complicity of its fanbase, myself included.

But the more I’ve spent engaging with the sports, the more I’ve recognized that — like all big, popular things — sports aren’t monolithic, nor are they purely evil. In fact, they’re more often than anything else silly.

I give you Exhibit A.

As a devotee to multiple fantasy football leagues, I can attest that sports aren’t some ‘roided rival of nerd culture. The opposite is true. Sports culture and video game culture have a lot in common.

Both have spent decades catering to a toxic, masculine fanbase. Both have prioritized the financial growth of their industries above the well-being of their workforce. And in recent years, both have seen the gradual expansion of small, but growing, progressive movements.

In the world of sports, players and fans have gone further than their video game counterparts. Each league has its own players’ unions, which have gradually gained increased public support. Credit social media platforms, that have helped to humanize players, particularly in the NBA, where players are approaching power parity with owners and league managers.

As a result, players have drawn tremendous attention to social causes, albeit at a personal sacrifice, whether that’s losing endorsements or, in the case of Colin Kaepernick, their career. Wednesday, on the fourth anniversary of Kaepernick’s first time taking a knee during the national anthem to call attention to racial inequality and police brutality, the Milwaukee Bucks performed a wildcat strike, refusing to play in Game 5 of the first round of the NBA playoffs. Their action protested the police shooting of Jacob Blake, demanding accountability.

Players across the NBA and WNBA followed suit and leagues postponed all games. Alongside basketball, teams across professional baseball and soccer also refused to take the field. Tennis even said enough, with Naomi Osaka leading a walkout of a WTA event that eventually postponed the men’s tournament, too.

The familiar band of conservative pundits reacted predictably. Jared Kushner passive-aggressively criticized millionaires for “taking a night off.” Twitter bots filled the spammed participating teams’ social media managers, threatening to cancel their season tickets. Cynical “fans” mocked players for striking without a clear end goal, seemingly demanding a simple, immediate solution for a complex problem that spans centuries.

Thank God for Chris Webber, who explained why this action won’t and can’t produce simple, immediate solutions and why there’s nobility in doing something, even if change feels forever out of reach:

The power of this action is inaction. Vinson Cunningham makes that purpose clear at The New Yorker:

“The dark side of leisure is mollifying entertainment; the message often slips from ‘comfort is good’ into ‘everything is fine. […] On Wednesday, [the players] seemed to recognize that the most powerful thing they could do was not to work—and that the most astounding use of their platform was to step off it. The best use of the normalcy that their great gifts help the rest of us enjoy was, for a moment, to take it away.”

And yet, by the week’s end, the NBA players’ action had produced concrete changes too. A joint announcement between the NBA and the NBA Players Association explained the two groups would collaborate on the establishment of a social justice coalition, advertisements “dedicated to promoting greater civic engagement in national and local elections and raising awareness around voter access and opportunity,” and most importantly, many arena owners working with local election officials to convert the facilities into “a safe in-person voting option for communities vulnerable to COVID.”

Can you imagine such a thing happening in the games industry?

Video games have never been more popular, the industry booming because everybody is stuck inside and because we crave the escape. Now imagine, the people who create our games, the people who play them to entertain us, taking a day to simply stop and force us to take a break from our leisure and feel the discomfort of the world. To demand that we sit with that discomfort.

We’ve seen some examples, like a group of streamers that participated in one-day blackout on Twitch, calling attention to accusations of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and gender discrimination within the community. Many brave sources have come forward to speak against similar accusations within video game publishers, most recently with reports on the inner-workings of video game publisher Ubisoft. And we’re even seeing some efforts towards social progress inside games themselves, particularly sports games. In Madden NFL 21, players can customize their visors and compression sleeves with messages like “End Racism,” while F1 2020 has embraced the sport’s #WeRaceAsOne campaign. These are small steps, though they do matter.

But it’s hard to conceptualize a grand, ground-shaking action on par with what’s happening in professional sports, not simply because game creators and streamers refuse to take action, but because so much of the games community lack the power and financial stability of their counterparts in the world of sports.

Big-name game creators are largely anonymous in the mainstream sense of the word. They don’t appear on TV each week. They don’t have sponsorship contracts or shoe lines. Hell, many creators barely do interviews at all, their publicists favoring community managers and marketing leads who will stick to the company line. Giant franchises like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed are created by many studios across the world, each game with a handful of creative leads, preventing any identifiable “ownership” of their creations. As a result, video games magically materialize, rather than arrive after years of hard work and, quite often, intense crunch.

Just as game creators lack a voice outside their office, they lack one inside it, too. The game industry has no major unions within its largest publishers. While unionization has been rumbling for years, we’ve only seen a handful of serious actions. Unions are big and complex and can be imperfect. But they also have the capacity to consolidate shared power. It’s that consolidation that separates a small action by a handful of people from a large action that demands attention.

This isn’t to remove all blame from game creators and players: There’s a question of the video game industry’s cozy relationship with racism and sexism; the industry’s predominantly white, male creative class; the often conservative politics underpinning some of its most successful games. The press must similarly interrogate itself.

For all these reasons, the game industry has yet to evolve in a way that allows its creators to leverage the industry’s power to produce social change — or really any change. Instead, the industry waits for battles between billion-dollar and trillion-dollar tech companies.

As members of the video game industry consider the power of solidarity, as video game streamers question the sustainability of their labor and the parasocial demands of their audience, as the industry-at-large considers its responsibility to the greater culture, I believe sports could and should serve as a compass.

Professional sports provide clear, attainable steps. Game makers may become public figures. Developers may choose to unionize. Teams across the world may find ways to to come together, creating and maintaining solidarity, despite their geographical distance. And creators and players must champion, foster, and support change, even if it means they don’t get their new games as fast as they’re used to, even if they find the messages challenging. Because change is uncomfortable.

So like I said, I get that sports can be awful and annoying and toxic. But at the same time, it’s a shame that sports should be ruined for people who love games. Sports are the biggest games on the planet. They’re so big, so culturally significant, so accepted, that they’ve been separated from the rest of game culture. And they’re forging a trail which the games industry would be wise to follow.

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