clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The biggest gaming controversies of 2023

Bad decisions, failed plans, and fierce debates

Graphic: Matt Patches/Polygon; Source images: Highwire Games/Victura; Fntastic; Avalanche Software/Warner Bros. Games

Video games run the gamut from silly toys for babies to life-altering works of art, all of which make up an industry that rakes in billions of dollars a year. Of course, the endlessly consumptive nature of the business can’t help but produce controversy, and 2023 had its share of milestones.

Let’s look back at some of the most drama-filled video game controversies of the last year.

HOGWARTS LEGACY’S LEGACY PROBLEM

a Hogwarts student brandishes his wand as a troll advances toward him in Hogwarts Legacy Image: Avalanche Software/Warner Bros. Games

Hogwarts Legacy was, on paper, a dream come true for gamers of a certain age. But thanks to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling continually courting ire for her views on trans politics, the open-world adventure was controversial as soon as it was revealed. As such, the discontent over Rowling’s connection to Hogwarts Legacy simmered under the surface for years until becoming a rolling boil when the game finally arrived in February 2023.

The ensuing debate was ugly and chaotic, consuming social media for months despite the game having, by most accounts, little to offer anyone not all-in on Harry Potter nostalgia. Despite Hogwarts Legacy being one of the year’s major blockbusters, after release, the controversy just sort of… faded away. The game received zero nominations at The Game Awards and, for the most part, everyone’s moved on to other, more engagement-lucrative skirmishes in the internet’s seemingly infinite culture war battlegrounds. Let’s all hope publisher Warner Bros. has decided to wash its hands of the whole thing rather than ring the bell for round two.

UNRECORD DRAWS UNCOMFORTABLE COMPARISONS TO REAL-LIFE POLICE BODYCAM FOOTAGE

French developer DRAMA lived up to its name when co-founder Alexandre Spindler set social media ablaze with just a little over two minutes of gameplay from the previously unknown studio’s upcoming first-person shooter Unrecord in April 2023. The video was (and frankly still is) an impressive demonstration of the power of Unreal Engine 5, which the Unrecord team used to create evocative, hyper-realistic graphics inspired by police bodycam footage. The visual quality was so far beyond what folks expected from a small developer, in fact, that some version of “this is fake” was a common response.

The controversy here isn’t that the video was a hoax, believe it or not, but how Unrecord’s lifelike visuals made people feel. With similar-looking footage of cops and mass shooters gunning down innocent people becoming so prevalent over the last few years, many viewers were uncomfortable with the idea of an interactive video game emulating the aesthetic of that footage. DRAMA eventually released a statement explaining that Unrecord “does not engage in any foreign policy and is not inspired by any real-life events,” but it remains a hard sell for Americans threatened by their country’s law enforcement every day.

SIX DAYS IN FALLUJAH REVIVED

a screenshot from Six Days in Fallujah: An armed man runs through the streets of virtual Fallujah. In the foreground, a Marine takes aim. In the background, the minarets of a beautiful mosque. Image: Highwire Games/Victura

A video game based on the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies already felt like a bad idea when Konami first announced Six Days in Fallujah in 2009, so it was surprising to see someone revive the ill-advised project after 14 more years of reckoning with the abject failure and untold tragedy of the so-called War on Terror.

“There’s absolutely entertainment to be made from contemporary scenarios,” Dutch-Egyptian developer Rami Ismail told Polygon earlier this year, “but the country that waged an illegal war making a game about that illegal war in collaboration with people who profited from that illegal war while erasing the humanity and environment of the people who died and [suffered] in that illegal war while fully committing to erasing actual history down to the store page description, that’s just not the same thing. That’s not entertainment, that’s propaganda you have to pay for.”

NEW UNITY FEES STAIN ITS REPUTATION

In this photo illustration the Unity Technologies logo is seen on a laptop keyboard Photo: Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Unity, one of the most prolific video game engines in the world, made waves in Sep. 2023 when it announced a reworked pricing model that would, among other things, charge developers every time a user downloaded and installed a game. The decision was immediately criticized by small studios and solo creators who would have no way of keeping up with these extra fees. Some developers even threatened to boycott the product altogether. It was a complete disaster for everyone involved.

While Unity tried to walk back some of the changes and, eventually, replaced controversial CEO John Riccitiello, the company has yet to fully recover from the swift and tumultuous hit to its reputation. I guess now we have a better idea of why Grasshopper Manufacture included a villain that many believe is a reference to Riccitiello in Travis Strikes Again and subsequently let players beat him up at the end of No More Heroes 3.

THE GAME AWARDS PROVOKES DEVELOPERS, ITS OWN FUTURE CLASS

The Game Awards host Geoff Keighley stands next to Gonzo from the Muppets, both wearing similar suits. Image: The Game Awards

Gaming’s “biggest night” always seems to raise critics’ hackles, and The Game Awards 2023 was no different.

But this year’s broadcast prompted even more response from the developers it was supposed to be celebrating. In addition to the usual super-fast rattling off of multiple awards with zero fanfare in between lavish advertisements, the few recipients who were provided time to address the audience were rushed by an off-camera monitor asking them to “wrap it up” after only 30 seconds. This felt particularly insensitive towards winners giving heartfelt speeches about LGBTQ+ inclusion and deceased colleagues.

The Game Awards also came under fire by its own Future Class, a group of “inspiring individuals who represent the bright, bold, and inclusive future of video games,” for not addressing pre-show calls for a live condemnation of Israel’s ongoing war on Palestine. Geoff Keighley and Future Class members are apparently still hashing out the issue, but initial silence raised questions in the industry about what the group’s objective is besides a surface-level attempt to make The Game Awards seem more progressive.

THE DAY BEFORE DISAPPOINTS, DEVELOPER DISAPPEARS

Artwork of The Day Before, showing a Black man in survival gear wearing winter clothing Image: Fntastic/Mytona

After becoming one of the most wishlisted games on Steam following a promising reveal trailer released two years ago, The Day Before dropped in early Dec. 2023 with a sickening thud worthy of its clichéd zombie premise. An avalanche of negative user reviews pilloried the open-world MMO as a bug-filled, crash-prone mess with almost none of the promise or polish that originally had garnered so much attention for the project. And somehow, it only got worse from there.

Less than a week later, The Day Before developer Fntastic announced its closure, citing financial failure and apologizing to everyone who bought the game. The same day, Valve pulled The Day Before from Steam as it worked with publisher Mytona to refund tens of thousands of purchases. The game’s servers will be switched off on January 22, 2024, shutting down the gray market that’s sprung up around unsold and unused keys for the game and resigning The Day Before to the annals (or perhaps anals) of history.

THE RISE OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

2023 saw tech-worshipping entrepreneurs flee en masse from the crumbling city-states of cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens to cling to a new flashy thing: AI. Despite reasoned individuals arguing well that there’s little intelligence in the current slate of so-called artificial intelligence projects, it didn’t take long for AI emissaries to convince themselves that artists were a thing of the past. This didn’t go well in an industry like video games where accusations of hostility toward workers are an everyday occurrence.

Despite the criticism of the technology, companies like Ubisoft haven’t shied away from developing AI tools that have the potential to take human beings out of the process of making games altogether. A program known as Ghostwriter, the studio announced in Mar. 2023, will eventually assist Ubisoft devs in writing “barks,” or all those little pieces of dialogue characters shout out during action sequences and the like.

“I have no doubt that the writers currently working with the tool and tuning it to their needs enjoy using it or find it helpful,” video game writer Janine Hawkins said about Ghostwriter in an interview with The Verge earlier this year. “But all it takes is an executive saying ‘Our writers can do twice as many barks now, so why do we need the same number of writers?’ for it to threaten scarce writing jobs.”

A GAMING INDUSTRY BOOM FIZZLES OUT WITH LAYOFFS

An illustration of a pixel video game health bar with a heart followed by pixel people. Illustration by William Joel/Polygon | Images: Shutterstock

2023 may have been considered one of the greatest years in gaming by regular people who buy and play video games, but it was also a year that saw corporations reel from big investments and risky bets made during the COVID-19 pandemic. And when businesses lose money (or in some cases, simply aren’t profitable enough), workers take a hit.

Embracer Group, a Swedish conglomerate that for a time seemed to gobble up every mid-level developer and publisher it could get its hands on, got hit the hardest, but it was far from the only casualty. Microsoft, Bethesda, 343 Industries, Bungie, Sega, Ubisoft, Epic Games, BioWare, CD Projekt, Electronic Arts, Unity, Amazon, and more contributed to an estimated 10,000 layoffs.

A push for unions in the industry is driven by the hope that these situations could go easier for the workers involved, but they’re still restrained by having to operate within the economic drives of conglomerates. Ultimately, how some change happens may be in the hands of the workers involved.