Just reposting a recent blog in my oddly-titled series. If you're on the up-and-up regarding this topic, maybe you'll get interesting points out of it. Anyways...
[Inspired by real-world arguments made by corporate suits and click-mongering vloggers, this rebuttal was considered, written, and submitted by one guy with certain beliefs. The 'Tired of this Schmidt' series has never been anything more than words written on MS Word, with no theme or reason behind it. I must apologize if I ever gave the wrong impression before. Please be appeased.]
Ten days before the release of Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, the game’s twitter channel presented lore as an advertisement discussing Mexico’s relation with the US during this fictional crisis (1). Within it there’s incredible parallels on the US-Mexican border in real life—both in language and actions taken. Here: the script has been flipped for Mexico to pay for a wall. Weeks before this tweet, Ubisoft sent out a promotional email for The Division 2’s private beta facetiously telling players to “come see what a real government shutdown looks like” during the longest government shutdown of US history (2). And while Ubisoft made issue a swift apology for the latter action (3), this still comes to a head with a creative sleight-of-hand that’s become a nuisance in the AAA industry: the non-statement statement regarding natively political topics.
For Ubisoft in particular this is becoming a prearranged move. More recent than those Division 2 blunders is the announcement of Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, another third-person tactical shooter set to release later this year. Per Breakpoint’s Wikipedia page: “The story takes place on Auroa, an island in the South Pacific owned by billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist Jace Skell. Skell is the founder of Skell Technology, a blue chip company producing drones for commercial applications, but which has also found success as a military contractor developing cutting-edge equipment for the United States government [….] When they are implicated in an assassination, the United States government decides to investigate further only for Auroa to cut itself off from the outside world.” As shown in the reveal trailer, said bad guys are actually lead by a former Ghost.
Let’s make a condensed rundown on this info and see what socio-political implications could be considered:
-One of the richest people in the world handling both commercially-utilized drones and military contracting
-Seemingly operating said manufacturing & management outside of any government oversight
-A successful assassination against an unnamed US electoral candidate
-Former US soldiers who’ve been inspired to betray previously-held loyalties, coordinate this takeover, and now command a high-tech drone army
If you think there's a message or standpoint to be communicated by this premise…you’re new to the industry’s ‘AAApolitical’ spiel. Lead developer Sebastien Le Prestre tells that no particular point is trying to be made here (4). The cherry on top of the flimsy defense is this quote: “It's a 'What if?' scenario, it's Tom Clancy, it's purely fictional.”
Between this response and something similar stated by Yves Guillemont (Ubisoft head) last year, there’s this strange corollary here of these creators mining political scenarios and playing pretend with them; as though one of the most prolific writers in the political thriller & espionage genres just made amorphous things. I mean…you understand some of Tom Clancy’s biggest & most acclaimed work examines The Cold War and nuclear proliferation, right? He didn’t write loosy-goosy ‘What-If?’ scenarios apropos of nothing; character motivations, what they represent, the topics chosen which drive his stories, etc. etc. are all interwoven with his creativity, fascinations, and worldview.
Before reaching this point of the blog, many likely cognized my stance on this topic altogether. To note: there hasn’t been any deviation since my previous 2-part blog on games & politics anyways (5) (6). And because of this I’m tackling easier contentions propped up by YouTube sensationalists (notable ones being The Quartering and Upper Echelon Gamers) that’ve come out in defense of Ubisoft’s statements, ever so ready to grab any red meat game journalists throw their way.
1. You know everyone gets that these games are fiction, right?
The most mind-numbingly stupid retort to this whole debate that, to my utter fascination, remains in the six-shooter chamber of certain anti-politics proponents is pointing out how *x game* is fictional. Everyone knows. You don’t need to remind us in ALL CAPS about this and you don’t need to emphasize that point by making it your go-to adjective in order to drag out your point. This is already assumed when discussing most types of media. No one thinks characters who die on set have a real-life obituary written for them; no one thinks there’s a plethora of movie monsters roaming across the planet; no one thinks Hitler was shot to fleshy ribbons in a French movie theater. Further, Star Wars’ opening staple “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” doesn’t fool anyone into believing Lucas was beamed edited documentary footage to his brain after a good peyote hit. Starting to feel like I’m straining this point out and detracting from any substance by highlighting something that no one was arguing when this subject is brought up? The shoe is on the other foot now.
Let’s get more analytical and serious, then. Because there’s no validity in this notion that an artistic work being fictional somehow disqualifies politics from the discussion. For example with games:
-Fiction doesn’t contain real-world politics
-Games are fictional by nature
-Therefore, games do not contain real-world politics
I may be accused of strawmanning here, but I’m honestly stumped by how nonsensical the logical through line is whenever someone stresses that *x game* is fictional. Perhaps there’s a more articulate syllogism to be made but it’s still going to be on shaky ground. Games like the Bioshock series are among the first that come to mind which directly challenge this “it’s fictional” foundation. The point being: these worlds may be fictional but the creators are not. And that’s why it shouldn’t be so hard to conceptualize why media is—often—examined in a politically-framed context.
2. The Political ‘Chicken or Egg’ Scenario
There’s at least a rudimentary principle here which can be consistently applied: whether the work itself is saying something or someone may be off-base by inferring a message that’s not stated. With games critics’ questionable history of media interpretation, I can understand an innate reaction to thinking most fall into the latter category. But is that always justified? Because games’ historical unsubtlety makes it easy to spot statements or implications; and yet, just having a publisher come out and say “nothing to see here!” satisfies generic gaming channels into echoing their excuses (7). What does “Ubisoft refuses politics” even mean? Where’s the refusal when they’re liberally utilizing the name of a politically-outspoken writer and inundating their works with the same type of political matters as his blockbusters? It’s fascinating to witness this cognitive disconnect here, especially when filmmakers and critics are already past this discussion with Clancy-branded movie adaptations.
The winding, erroneous road extends up the chain as well. Last year, Polygon interviewed The Division 2’s creative director, Terry Spier, about this topic to awkward results (8). As much as people would like to squawk about Polygon’s history, it’s not hard to see who comes out looking the more levelheaded. Having someone whittle down the very base components of the marketing and plot synopsis only to reduce it further to ‘you’re here to explore a city’ and shoot-bang-bang evil baddies is condescendingly reductive. To avoid harping on the basic elements too much, is it still hard to see the chicken/egg scenario for what it is? Game journalists aren’t making unwarranted inferences about a game where you’re a clandestine operative meting out the game’s idea of justice against armed civilians & militia. This can literally be understood from reading the game’s own plot synopsis. I mean…the apocalyptic catalyst for this series was a chemical weapon put on bank notes that were circulated en masse during Black Friday.
Ubisoft isn’t alone in this stance either. David Cage had some of the most impressive mental gymnastics about his newest game, Detroit: Become Human (9). Despite plucking real-world inspiration like Jews in Nazi Germany, Civil Rights movement in the mid-20th century, and chattel slavery, Cage had a similar reticence to expound on the themes much beyond “it’s about androids wanting to be free.” It all eventually boils down to the artistic equivalent of having your cake and eating it too. Free to flaunt yourself as an inspired artist plucking real-world events without needing to expound on what messages you may be communicating.
3. The marketing angle
So why maintain the sham? Because the AAApoltical stance is functional marketing for this consumer base, rather than any genuine self-analysis. Just as I will call out moments of ‘woke capitalism’ recently shown in that cringy Gillette ad and elsewhere, I also have no problem calling it out when the inverse applies. In both situations, these marketers know how to manipulate response culture in their favor. Whether praising or denouncing their comments or commercials, your own time dedicated to thinking about their product, at no additional cost, is the whole point. And the fact that some are swayed into a purchasing decision based on this “no-politics” position they purportedly hold shows it’s working.
I mean…consider how this would look when companies are entrenched in any other subject about gaming. Don’t expect anyone saying “EA DENIES lootboxes are gambling, gaming journalists REFUTED” in a YouTube headline anytime soon. It may be uncomfortable but it’s not unfair to push this logical equivalent when anyone utilizes corporate PR to supplement their point regarding politics. But whether it’s loot boxes, politics, or something else entirely, companies are just drifting along in this weird frenzy, denying artistic culpability in the hopes of not alienating a consumer base who’ll move on to greener pastures in six months anyways. What a time to be gaming.