Retired Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North was a Marine platoon commander in Vietnam, a U.S. Senate candidate, and eventually, a National Rifle Association president. At the National Security Council under Ronald Reagan, he helped manage a number of violent imperial operations, including the U.S. invasion of Grenada. Due to televised hearings in the Summer of 1987 where he gave horrifying testimony about the things that he and the United States government had allegedly done, he is probably best known for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Alternatively, you might instead recognize North as a minor character from Call of Duty: Black Ops II. In the game, he makes an appearance, service ribbons and all, to talk a retired Alex Mason — the game’s protagonist — into joining a covert mission in Angola. The cameo was accompanied by North’s role as an advisor and pitchman for the 2012 title. It was very bizarre, and, according to the developers, not at all political.
In an interview with Treyarch head Mark Lamia, Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo asked if the studio had expected the controversy around using North as a consultant. “We're not trying to make a political statement with our game,” Lamia responded. “We're trying to make a piece of art and entertainment.” This answer would be farcical under any circumstances, but to be clear, Black Ops II was already a jingoistic first-person shooter in a series full of dubious storylines and straight-up propaganda. Its writer and director, Dave Anthony, would later go on to a fellowship at D.C.’s Atlantic Council, advising on “The Future of Unknown Conflict.” Regardless, Lamia felt comfortable insisting on record that there was nothing political about getting the Iran-Contra fall guy to shill for its game.
In the time since, this brazen corporate line has become the standard for blockbuster games, including the upcoming Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. “Are games political?” continues to be exhaustingly rehashed, because game companies continue to sell an apolitical delusion. Historian Patrick Wyman describes it as the logical, if absurd, extension of Michael Jordan’s apocryphal “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” With $137.9 billion in 2018 sales per Newzoo, the world’s largest entertainment industry has been happy to rake in money while pretending to be blissfully disconnected from reality.
This trend has not gone unnoticed, and sharp critics have called out the attempts to disassociate commercial entertainment from politics as the naked opportunism that they are. However, in labeling the tactic as cynical neutrality, even when correctly identifying it as toothless cowardice or gross duplicity, there’s a danger in glossing over the fact that it isn’t neutral at all: It’s an inherently conservative worldview. And while our culture is full of this faux-impartial, mass-market messaging, there are specific, reactionary conditions in the games industry abetting this behavior. The recent incidents feel especially craven, and as business continues to grow, they are escalating.
Here is a selection of comments in just the last few years from spokespeople for AAA productions assuring consumers that their games don’t stand for anything:
Blizzard’s Jeff Kaplan on Overwatch, at the D.I.C.E summit: “In no way do we aspire to be a political game. We have no political motivations whatsoever...”
Detroit: Become Human director David Cage, to Waypoint: “I didn't want to deliver a message to mankind with this game. I just want to ask questions.”
Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 creative director Terry Spier, to Kotaku: “So, the goal isn’t to make a political statement. It’s not to reflect on any of the things that are happening in the current world, in the live world.” And to a bemused Charlie Hall at Polygon: “We’re definitely not making any political statements.”
EA e-mailed a baffling statement to VICE: “In Battlefield V, we’re not making any political statements in relation to the real life events of WW2 and there are no swastikas in the game.”
Outer Worlds co-director Leonard Boyasky, walking a tightrope in an interview with VGC: “ [It’s about] power and how power is used against people who don’t have it,” but then also, “I don’t want people to think this is a really hard, politically-charged game...”
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint lead developer Sébastien Le Prestre, talking to GameSpot: “We're not trying to make political statements in our games,” and “It's Tom Clancy, it's purely fictional.”
Declaring the products of an enormous capitalist machine somehow free of politics is insidious; trying to strip the influence from topics like these is at best a defense of the status quo, and at worst malignant reactionism. “The process of deciding what is and is not politics is an act of power and an act of politics in its own right,” Wyman, a USC Ph.D. and the creator of the Tides of History podcast, told me. No matter how the themes are handled, these are games about a multinational peacekeeping force (Overwatch), an android uprising in a real city with a real history of racism (Detroit: Become Human), and an actual World War (Battlefield V). Outer Worlds is centered around narrative-controlling megacorporations taking over the galaxy. The Division 2 and Ghost Recon Breakpoint involve speculative warfare in the Tom Clancy extended universe — the conservative version of The West Wing, as Wyman joked — including the sequel to a game that caused the Bolivian government to file a formal complaint with the French embassy. They are, obviously, political.
Last year, Polygon’s Colin Campbell highlighted the shameless PR tactics at play in an expansive piece. Where it felt short, as much of the discussion of the phenomenon does, was its deeper analysis of the landscape. “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,” Campbell wrote. “They fear, above all, finding themselves at the center of a Gamergate-like publicity inferno.”
But there’s no evidence that the AAA games space — where this marketing is most prevalent — trends towards progressivism at all. Its biggest products include military shooters with names like Infinite Warfare, the edgelord nihilism of Grand Theft Auto, zero-sum battles for resources like Fortnite, and glorified advertisements for men’s sports cartels that enrich oligarch owners and shoe company CEOs. Beyond that, the industry spent decades actively creating the environment for those reactionary positions to thrive. The mistake is viewing this as an unseemly aberration, rather than a fundamental aspect of the business.
“All Gamergate did was put a name to something that was always there.”
The ESA reports that 65 percent of American adults play video games. The market is now more or less everyone, but the perception of what a gamer is and what they want to play is still tied to a very specific demographic: young, cis, straight, white, males, who own consoles and expensive PCs, and crave reassuring norms and escapist violence. These companies are actively responsible for shaping and catering to that belief, and for the last five years, the unavoidable reference point for that hardline, conservative population has been Gamergate. As formative as it was, discussing the problem of gaming’s toxic right wing primarily in terms of a 2014 harassment campaign has become an easy scapegoat for trends that began far earlier, and have not only continued but seeped into everything else.
This climate has been building since at least the mid-1980s, when women were squeezed out of computer science roles, and in the wake of a crash that nearly collapsed the industry, video games rebranded themselves as toys sold almost exclusively to boys. As those boys grew up in a hobby that was still niche but blossoming, they were hawked regressive teen fantasies by companies that became largely homogenous themselves. As Tracey Lien described in Polygon, this created a “chicken and egg” feedback loop that continues today.
It also nurtured a hostile environment for everyone outside that narrow focus, despite the realities of who plays games. “All Gamergate did was put a name to something that was always there,” Lana Polansky, an art critic who specializes in the obscure fringes of gaming, told me. “But if you look at a lot of the central figures of that whole thing, they were the same people that harassed Kathy Sierra, and Jennifer Halper, and Jade Raymond, and all the other women before us that got horribly treated by the industry and by their fans.” The end result is a development force that is disproportionately male and where non-white workers, particularly black and Latinx ones, are heavily underrepresented. Their highest profile games feature characters that are skewed just as badly (and more imbalanced in terms of sexuality) in combat-heavy adventures full of gendered cliches, built for a figment of ad campaigns willed into existence.
As Polansky laid out in Rhizome, rather than addressing the problem and risking the ire of some of their most dedicated customers, companies have learned to weaponize those reactionary mobs against their workers and critics, especially the already-marginalized. The expectations that “real gamers” be constantly pandered to, and the history of lashing out leading to appeasement, have fermented a culture with surreal levels of toxicity. Perceived slights, from the appearance of support for social justice to news as mundane as which distribution platform a game will initially be released on, are met with abuse and threats of violence. Though there is some optimism for the movement, as of yet there is little labor organization to help support those in the crosshairs.
These games are declaring that the status quo is not politics, and that anything challenging it is a frivolous coincidence for entertainment purposes only.
As the industry has ballooned exponentially, shifts in the structure of the business have only made companies more circumspect and these problems more intractable. Video games’ popularity grew hand in hand with improvements in resolution, computing power, and other former technical bottlenecks that would allow for grandiose, sprawling productions. Big-name, AAA games bloated into enormous IPs, built by armies of exploited labor and mountains of capital. The number of studios capable of supporting these projects and their overall output has dwindled, while the size of the teams needed to build them has inflated into the hundreds. By 2012, Assassin's Creed 3 creative director Alex Hutchinson was already calling the growth “cancerous” and fearing a future where every game would either be algorithmically tailored to make money or a “massive arms race” for even bigger experiences with even better graphics. Hutchinson, clearly, was right. It may not be sustainable, either in our actual ecosystem or one where C-level executives continue making eight figures a year, uninterrupted.
At this scale, games have become both tremendously risk-averse and brutally neoliberal. They require a vast, heterogeneous player base to pay off their massive investment but are more intent than ever on accommodating their zealous orthodox wing. They attempt to be everything to everyone, while still maintaining their necessarily conservative core. Designed as accessory slot machines, neverending serials, and forever games-as-a-service, they’re meant to generate revenue indefinitely. Some of them are meticulously crafted, incredible experiences — this is the industry that still made The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — but even so, their visions are filtered through scores of people, layers of market considerations, and always those persistent assumptions about what gamers are and what they want out of games.
In a largely excellent article on the severing of games and politics for The New Yorker, Simon Parkin wrote, “The inability of blockbuster video games to present a coherent political message is, to some degree, a result of the way in which they are constructed.” This is not wrong exactly, nor are the ideas he cites from game developers Robert Yang and Paolo Pedercini about huge productions watering down ambitious concepts and the lack of support structures for more unconventional games. These are points which Polansky agrees with, too. What it misses, though, is that even in denying their connection to politics or arriving at muddled artistic visions, the message that the majority of them are delivering is crystal clear.
These games are declaring that the status quo is not politics, and that anything challenging it is a frivolous coincidence for entertainment purposes only. These companies are announcing loudly, in spite of any user statistics, that their games are for True Gamers. They will keep playing all angles and claiming they’re nonpartisan for as long as the market allows. “It's like watching any network television show where it's insanely reactionary, presented as liberal,” said Polansky. “There's character sliders so you can modify your character to look however you want, and that's cool and all. But at the end of the day, you're still murdering brown people overseas and that's the game.” What could possibly be political about that?