Keeping Politics Out Of Video Games Is Dumb

One thing I’ve noticed on a few occasions over the past few weeks is developers being asked to keep their personal politics and views out of video games. It gave me pause each time, because it’s one of the dumbest things I can think of asking someone to do.

It’s just such a bafflingly asinine notion, right up there with the concept of an “objective” review that reared its head a couple years ago. There simply is no such thing in the world of video games. An objective review of FIFA 18 wouldn’t tell you if it’s better than 17, it would be a list of features. An objective review of The Last of Us couldn’t tell you the emotional impact of Joel and Ellie’s journey.

I bring up The Last of Us, because Neil Druckmann’s response to such a request perhaps the most notable of those I’ve seen. He replied to a now deleted tweet that read “TLoU is my favorite game of all time. Please try to keep your personal politics out of Part 2. Thank you very much.”

Of course, you also have to look at what people mean when they say politics. Is The Last of Us: Part II going to be a game with a political agenda if Ellie has grown from a somewhat naive, rebellious teen into a strong, bitterly defiant woman fighting against whoever has done her wrong? For that matter, is Horizon: Zero Dawn a political game for having Aloy bucking the status quo of having generic macho male leads?

Those stories were absolutely influenced and defined by the personal experiences and beliefs of their creators, and there’s just no way to really get around that.

Certainly, there are games and stories that are more overtly political than others, but even then, they can often simply be placing characters into a certain setting and asking how they would react. Watch Dogs is a particular example, as Ubisoft spotted the tendrils of technology entering our lives in an ever more invasive manner. It created a backdrop for Aiden Pierce’s tale of revenge, but Ubisoft built upon that greatly for the sequel.

Simply having Marcus be a young African American allowed Ubisoft to play the race card. The game starts with him infiltrating Blume’s server farm, eventually reaching his records within the system, only to discover that he’d been wrongly targeted and tarnished with a fake criminal record. The irony is that once you take control of him, you can do much, much worse than he was ever on the hook for in a matter of seconds.

It’s certainly riding on the coat tails of the Black Lives Matter movement that brought the racial fractures within American society to the fore, but it wasn’t just a game about that. It carries some of those sentiments, but they’re there to add to the rich collage of inspirations that make up the game’s world and help to make it more believable.

If anything, I think we need more politics in video games: we need more points of view, and more characters that have vastly different backgrounds to my own. That doesn’t mean we lose those games that are defined by dumb fun, it means that developers are using the medium to its fullest. It means we get The Stanley Parable’s nonsense and we get That Dragon, Cancer’s powerful story.

At the same time, many of the biggest and most popular games out there can easily be played without paying attention to their subtexts. Remember the fuss that was made when Blizzard’s Christmas comic revealed Tracer as an LGBT character? It certainly doesn’t change how fast she is and the fun of planting her Pulse Bomb before rewinding your position, taking you well out of harm’s way.

In fact, Blizzard’s shooter has a fantastically diverse cast of characters that are simply fun to use without context, but empowering and offer points of relatability for so many different people. D.Va is another example of a seemingly innocuous trait that adds depth, with her position in the South Korean military impossible for modern day women to achieve (and yes, she’s also a ludicrously cutesy anime fan girl). It’s no surprise that the bunny symbol that adorns her mech suit appeared on banners and stickers in the Women’s Rights March in Seoul last month.

Games can and should mean something, just as much as books, films, music, and comics with Captain America punching a Nazi can.

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33 Comments

  1. The moment you stop discussing things, is the moment one side starts planning something else. History teaches us that things like this don’t end well.

    Open dialogue all of the way. :-)

    • The problem with that is that the left will not accept any viewpoint but their own. If you disagree with them you’re racist/sexist/homophobic ect.

      Debate is not encouraged in our schools. You are not required to think for yourself but to ‘think what we tell you to think’. What that means is that most young adults have been completely indoctrinated with the liberal agenda by the time they leave full time education.

      Look at the recent protests/riots at UC Berkeley for example. Supposedly ‘forward thinking’ liberal students and faculty members protesting against free speech. Ironic. Setting fire to cars, smashing windows, physically beating anyone with opposing political views. Absolutely disgraceful behaviour by all accounts. And this is not an isolated incident.

      Where was the outrage from the liberal media and the usual brigade of celebrity clowns? I can only assume that Lilly Allen was off somewhere pretending to care about immigrants. Or was she busy checking herself in for another stint at the Priory? Where was ‘nice guy’ Obama? I imagine he took one look at the incident report, saw that it wasn’t black people being beaten on the streets and decided to carry on to the next hole. Or perhaps they simply weren’t aware? As we all know, the mainstream media can be selective with their reporting if it doesn’t fit with their agenda.

      In truth, they condone this behaviour. They condone violence against those they disagree with. We saw a similar situation in the UK during the Referendum. Those who wanted to leave the EU were ridiculed by those who wanted to remain. And when the result of the vote didn’t go in their favour, those same people who like to lecture us on human decency, staged violent protests throughout the country. They preach democracy but what they really want is a liberal dictatorship.

      I’m not sure how we arrived at the distinction that left=love and right=hate because in my experience, I’ve found the opposite to be true.

      • That’s why it still needs to be “open” so both sides get a chance. However, most games want to create a fantasy world that doesn’t resonate too closely to our own… I hope!

        You make very good points, though. I’m not worried about driving a flag into either camp but I’ve seen enough videos to verify your comments. It’s infuriating stuff.

      • To be fair, Obama may have wanted nothing to do with it and felt he didn’t need to get involved.

        People can be utter arseholes when it comes to politics and the riots were idoitic.

        As for Lilly Allen,tis not something she can use to further her cause of being relevant.

        Either way, we should all head to the winchester and wait for it to blow over.

        Also, i’m very racist because I am positive towards leaving the EU and deserve to be abused, ridculed and forced to watch horrible stuff.

        sadly, I can’t really say i’m joking as people do paint anyone who dares to be positive towards the exit of the EU thus must be treated with nothing but scorn.

        Politics: It brings out the worst in people!

  2. But at the same time, people use games to escape all the everyday bullshit going on in the world.

    • You’re allowed both you know?

      Last night I was watching a serious Icelandic drama with murders, sexual abuse and a surprising amount of ridiculously casual nudity (thanks to Channel 4’s wonderful Walter Presents thing), then switched to Netflix for some zombie comedy.

      With films I’m happy to watch big dumb Marvel films, or serious things that 6 other people probably watch.

      Does anyone complain as much at politics being in films or TV programmes? Not really, so why do some people get so upset if it’s in a game? Usually the same people that complain about gaming not being taken seriously.

      And even the entertaining, escapist nonsense will be coloured by the politics of the people involved anyway. It just might not be so obvious. Which is worse? Sneaky politics you don’t notice, or more obvious things that might make you think?

      • Exactly, and we have both. To use Watch Dogs 2 as an example again, it’s using events in the real world to help create its rendition of San Fran, but then within the game, you’re hacking cars left right and centre, making manhole covers explode, calling the cops in to arrest random people… If you want to sit up and notice what it’s trying to say about the modern day world, then great, but that doesn’t stop it being dumb fun if you want to gloss over that.

  3. I kind agree that politics should be kept out of gaming to a degree. I feel that political stuff shouldn’t be something that keeps a game alive or content is pandering to X crowd instead of content being that content because the developers wanted it to be that. But at the same time, some games wield politics well. Look at Metal Gear Solid. It has political stuff in it. Some games parody the hell out of politics. GTA loves to parody stuff all the time. Without that, it wouldn’t be as good as it is with it’s paroding of real life.

    LBGT stuff should no longer be a major thing as it should start becoming the normal thing that some games have. E.g. same sex love interests are pretty much normal with Bioware. To boycott a game because *gasp* Two males are in love is a stupid reason. It’s literally a small part of the game and optional. Mass Effect got a lot of hatred because *gasp* Shepard could romance another dude. Oh no! Optional gay romance content! In an RPG! Action-RPG if i’m to be techincal but still.

    Stuff like that is stupid(in regards to people boycotting, throwing a massive hissy fit about it, not the actual stuff).

    More points of view leads to more variety in gaming and some genres are in need of variety. Look at Pre-PS4 FPSes. It was literally “IwannabeCOD!” or “IwannabeBattlefield!” games with the rare “Yeah, feck that. This is what I am.” game. Different views leads to different characters. Different things lead to more content. E.g. Bioware is superb at doing same sex romances as sexuality is barely involved. It’s just the PC’s feelings that are the main focus.

    I however, do not wish to see content that is blanantly shoved in to shut up a crowd. E.g. female characters that are just there because the publisher wanted more instead of female characters being there because they want them to be there, they are heavily developed and actually come off as a character.

    Shit, probably gonna to get some flack for that if it’s misunderstood/misread. :(

    I just mean no token stuff. The outrage to Watch Dogs 2’s main PC being *gasp* Black was bloody stupid. I mean, really?

    I would love to see main protagnists be open about their sexuality in narrative heavy games in the future as it would be nice to see that become the norm as long as there is a narrative reason for doing so. Heck, David Cage should be doing it with his “Teh Emtionzzzzz!” games(Heavy Rain type stuff) and would be interesting to see.

    • Bloody hell, didn’t expect it to be that big! Hazelam better not try to outdo me in Wall of Text or MrYdd. The size counts, folks! It’s a YUUUUGE comment! Everyone says it’s so! :P

      • I’m not going to try and outdo you since you put that extra D in MrYd. Grrr.

      • It’s the Welsh spelling. :)

      • That’s because you earnt that extra D for having yuuuugeeee comments. Pray I don’t take it away.

  4. I actually don’t care about gender or race in videogames. It would never stop me from playing anything. If you want to make a game with a male/female/black/white/lgbcdefg protagonist, fine. If it’s good I’ll play it.

    Stop MAKING it political. We’re all supposed to be equal remember.

    • A game doesn’t have to be political but as the industry matures, it might want to tackle such issues head-on. Hell, some of the most wonderful games (going forward) might be a game that’s rife with political intrigue, espionage, backstabbing and so much more.

      It’s up to the industry to cherry-pick the things that work for any given title. Never rule anything out – assuming it doesn’t break god knows how many laws, etc.

  5. I don’t mind some stories being inspired by politics but lately it just seems that every celebrity in the entertainment industry is constantly virtue signalling and spouting the same opinion as each other. They seem out of touch with most people.

    • As someone noted, if we people didn’t want to hear the political opinions of celebrities then they shouldn’t have voted the bloke who hosts The Apprentice as President.

      :)

      • I’ve heard that one before as well. I’m not against celebrities having a political opinion, I believe in freedom of speech, everyone is entitled to an opinion. I’m just bored of the virtue signalling, the faux hysteria and the “Trump is literally Hitler” narrative they keep pushing. It’s mental.

  6. Wow, heavy stuff Tef! I’m not sure I agree with your conclusions on some of the themes in games, e.g. your certainty about the link between Black Lives Matter and the character in Watchdogs 2. Personally I think we can go too far in our analysis and end up putting words in other people’s mouths, but I also think your sentiment that there’s an honourable motivation behind stuff is a nice one. I think political themes can date a story, perhaps making it unfashionable in the near future but down the line they could become an important record of that eras social problems. Politics, opinions and mistakes are all important really, it would be boring and a bit complaisant to omit them from a good story.

    • Might have been a bit clumsy there. I don’t think Ubisoft were really pushing Black Lives Matter themselves, but rather painting a picture of the modern US and where it could be heading. Certainly some of the things at the heart of that movement are echoed in the very first things we see and learn about Marcus.

      Maybe I’m wrong, but whether or not Ubisoft meant it, I guess what’s more important is that it got me thinking about it. Games can be escapist fun, but they can also make you think.

  7. I agree with the broad strokes of this article, but I also think sometimes devs go too far in pushing their opinions, leading to bad characters, bad dialogue, or just stuff that doesn’t make sense. Like in uncharted 4 how Nadine, a fairly slim built woman beats the crap out of Nate repeatedly, once even in a 2-on-1 situation with Sam also getting battered. It just makes no sense and Neil Druckman said in an interview that they actually kicked out a focus tester who had a problem with that scene.
    It’s one thing to draw on your own views and experiences, but it’s another to shoehorn them into a character whose actions don’t make sense.

    I’m all for devs being able to create whatever characters and worlds they want, but they should at least be able to gracefully accept criticisms when the stuff they create has inconsistencies or nonsensical moments.

    • It actually sounded more like the focus tester was being a bit of an arse and that’s why he was asked to leave. And it wasn’t the Nadine stuff that was the problem, it was the epilogue that set him off…

      “In his core, it just affected him. He was cursing, “Not you, too, Naughty Dog! Goddammit. I guess I’m done with Uncharted, if you guys ever make another one, with his daughter. This fucking bullshit.” And I was like, Wow, why does that matter?”

      …which isn’t quite what you were implying. The Nadine stuff hardly makes “no sense”, at least not compared to the rest of the game. And a daughter? Oh no! How could they? How ridiculously unlikely is it for him to have a daughter and not a son??

      Actually, it’s not unlikely at all, is it? And as Druckmann said, why does it matter? And that’s frequently the problem. A character isn’t a straight, white man, so people go straight for the “it’s political, forcing something different into the game” option. When it’s far, far more likely to be just “none of that matters, so this one can be white, this one black, chuck some men and women in, have a gay one”. Just like real people. Then someone points it out, and it’s suddenly a thing.

      There may be a case where it’s a problem, but I can’t think of one. More likely the problem is with whoever thinks there’s an issue.

      • Here is a quote from the interview: “You have some sexist focus testers who were really upset by Nadine beating up Nate”
        Nate beats up huge muscle men twice as big as him and then suddenly this petite woman easily stomps on him. It’s not only bad from a writing standpoint, those gameplay sections are glorified cutscenes and even if you don’t hit the button prompts the scene continues almost the same. It’s bad writing stacked on top of bad gameplay, if you can even call it gameplay at all.
        Those scenes make no sense in the game, they smack of being forced in to push the writer’s agenda, and they certainly serve no other purpose to the story.

        Again, I have no problem with Nate’s daughter or women characters as a whole, they should just be believable and make actual sense. Nadine does not make sense. It looks like they just set out to make a strong female character disregarding that she needs believable actions. She’s a Mary Sue, a boring character who only appears to beat the crap out of Nate and then f*ck off before the ending in the biggest anti-climax of the series.

        She is a bad boring character, regardless of her sex.

      • Yes, that was the first part of what Druckmann said before the bit I quoted. Sounds to me like it was his stupid comments about the daughter that caused a sweary outburst and being asked to leave and that they were happy with the criticism over Nadine.

        As for this “Mary Sue” nonsense, doesn’t that just mean “a character who does as many completely implausible things as any other character, but we’re going to object because it’s a woman”? Nadine is just another supporting character, not particularly well written or acted compared to the main characters, but there’s nothing especially unbelievable about her. Certainly nothing that would be fixed by having a male character instead.

        And there are certainly a lot worse problems in that game too. The boring first half, the crappy shooting, the “now move right to get onto the next ledge” climbing bits.

      • A Mary Sue doesn’t have to be female.
        It’s a character who undergoes no development and always just happens to have the exact skills they need to overcome any obstacle, even gaining character breaking abilities like Nadine suddenly being able to batter two men twice her size in a fist fight.

        It means any sense of jeopardy that character might undergo is completely unbelievable to the audience, because they’re as strong as an overpowered T9000 in disguise.
        Not only that but because the character is constantly beating everything they never get knocked down and the audience doesn’t see them develop, it seems like they already have all of the skills they need to overcome the biggest challenge they will face.

        It’s terrible writing and nothing else.

    • Yeah, I guess because I already see women as equals, I feel offended on their behalf. Of course men and woman are equal but they’re still very, very different. We should embrace and celebrate those differences, not strip them away. In some games/movies it’s like they just transferred Arnold Schwarsawhatever’s conscience into a female body.

      With Nadine, we get it, she’s just as tough as any man – even tougher! – no need to turn her into the T-1000 (extra deadly edition). Another example of the top of my head was when that chick in the last Star Wars movie became a Jedi Master within the space of a few hours.

      • Yeah, a lot of writers seem to think “writing a strong female character” means an infallible Mary Sue with no faults or weakness, capable of beating the crap out of people twice their size.
        It’s terrible writing and makes for horribly boring characters with no development.

      • Sadly, that is starting to become more common. I don’t care if the main PC is a woman or man. Give me a superb character! With Uncharted, it kinda already has Terminator type villians. Big Baldy the Russian was a Terminator. But I do get your point and whilst Rey seems to be a mary sue, I think that had nothing to do with them wanting to have a female as the lead but wanting to make it closer to the originals then the prequels.

        Alice from Resident Evil is a massive mary sue though.

        I do hate it when things are toted as “All female cast!” as to me, that screams “It’s females people! We don’t have a proper reason for doing it!” to me. I rather have something that happens to have an all female cast then it being a selling point. Look at Alien, Alien, it never felt the need to use “Look! Our main lead is a female!” as it’s selling point and Ripley is an iconic character that many people remember fondly.

        Alien Reseruction or whatever it called, can go hang it’s head in shame as it shouldn’t really exist and kinda has big plot holes due to how Alien 3 and their shoddy excuse is not good enough. Alien 3 also has a plothole regarding it being a thing.

  8. The problem is there is a fine line between politics and propaganda. The problem with having politics in games, is not the existence of politics, which is fine, it adds nuance and depth to characters and stories, but who gets to decide what is the ‘correct’ politics and therefore it is allowed, and the ‘other’ politics that isn’t, which ultimately leads to the characters and stories playing out the same and ultimately turning political views themselves into tropes.

    And if there’s anything I’ve realised over the last 5 years or so is that the sphere of ‘allowed’ politics is getting ever smaller and that the first casualties of this have been the near decimation in capacity of the left to debate openly, and the left’s thought leaders exhibiting ever less integrative complexity in the name of pursuing ideology.

  9. I think developers have to be careful in not promoting any views too strongly, for fear of alienating potential buyers. People love a boycott or petition over things they disagree with.

    Something like watch dogs, nobody will get upset over it highlighting how much we depend on technology that is vulnerable in many ways, however if the next call of duty saw you killing the families of terrorists, as advocated by trump, that probably wouldn’t go down so well with everyone.

    • On the other hand, GTA5 has that stupid torture scene (the sort of crap Trump would love, I presume) with that terrible “Torture’s bad, m’kay?” bit afterwards.

      And some people objected, before the game went on to sell around 400 billion copies.

      • That’s not the same though. It was a minor part of the game and they aren’t saying torture is the nice, moral thing to do, it was clear Trevor was a 100% psycho. If it was the other way round, you’d have a point.

  10. Yes, it is dumb.

    They told Zeus the same thing when he started the Olympics. Everyone was naked in those days though.

    They told Andrew Loyd Webber “keep your politics out of it” when he invented the Eurovisions and then started getting Jesus involved.

    What if they’d left the politics out of the Sim City games? What then? Chaos. That’s what. And those games would not have been good.

    For this reason alone I think they should keep politics. And why shouldn’t they run naked?

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