In February, the French video-game publisher Ubisoft sent an e-mail to its company mailing list with the subject “Come see what a real government shutdown looks like in the Private Beta.” The message came just after President Trump’s thirty-five-day closure of the U.S. government and was intended to promote The Division 2, the latest video game to emerge from the Tom Clancy-industrial complex. In it, players join a peacekeeping force that’s sent to Washington, D.C., after a terrorist attack incites anarchy and closes the government.
Four hours after the initial e-mail, Ubisoft sent a second message apologizing for the first. “We recognize the very real impact of the United States government shut down on thousands of people and did not intend to make light of the situation,” it read. This was the company’s latest attempt to claim that the game has no political stance, despite its premise, and that any likeness to current events is purely cosmetic. “We’re definitely not making any political statements,” Terry Spier, the game’s creative director, told a reporter last summer.
According to Ubisoft, The Division 2 is about political dissension in much the same way that the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, at Disneyland, is about robbery on the high seas. When one plays the game, which is out on Friday, this claim can seem to break down. The Division 2 opens with a sprint across the South Lawn past insurgent fighters and toward a White House that features charred walls and pocked pillars. You are free to wander inside the Presidential residence, which has been turned into a military base. Then you head out into the surrounding shantytowns, where you find debris, dogs, and homemade banners that read “Where is the aid?” and “Fuck the government.” An assortment of virtual weaponry offers the only conduit through which peace may be restored.
Games have long reflected the political realities in which they are made. Usually, the reflections are straightforward: in the 1980 arcade game Missile Command, which arrived in the midst of the Cold War, you must save six American cities from nuclear attack by shooting down missiles before they strike. Sometimes, though, a game serves as bald propaganda. Suffragetto was an early-twentieth-century board game that framed the emancipation of women as a street fight between police constables and suffragettes on the steps of London’s Albert Hall. In the 1936 anti-Semitic board game Juden Raus!, or Jews Out!, players take turns moving pointed-hat-wearing tokens toward collection points. The first player to deport six of these tokens is declared the winner.
In recent years, video-game developers have continued to borrow politically charged settings while arguing that, unlike Suffragetto or Juden Raus!, their games remain, as Ubisoft’s C.E.O. put it, politically impartial. Partly, this is a result of backlash from players. “Publishers are aware that there is a militant fringe of gamers that don’t want to see any politics, or, at least, progressive politics, in their hobby,” Paolo Pedercini, an Italian game designer who teaches experimental-game design at the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University, said. “They may not represent a majority, but they are vocal and eager to start another battle in the ongoing culture war.”
The most prominent of these wars was Gamergate, which erupted in 2014. The Gamergate hashtag, popularized by the actor Adam Baldwin, was used more than a million times on Twitter, often to coördinate e-mail and phone campaigns aimed at companies whose games the movement’s proponents disagreed with or at individuals—women or minorities, in particular—who were considered to have a progressive political agenda. In the years since, even seemingly benign game features have met lingering resistance. In 2018, when the developers of the Second World War-set game Battlefield V announced that the game would include female soldiers, critics claimed that the decision was a symptom of political correctness; they created the hashtag #NotMyBattlefield and set up online petitions demanding a reversal. The message was clear: if a video-game publisher made a political commentary, or seemed to be making one, it risked damaging its bottom line.
Some publishers have refused to budge. (“Either accept it or don’t buy the game,” Electronic Arts’ chief creative officer, Patrick Söderlund, said in response to the Battlefield controversy.) But others have adopted a cautious, almost self-censoring approach. Walt Williams, the writer of Spec Ops: The Line, a blockbuster that provided an unusually forthright exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder in the military, was asked by the game’s publisher, 2K Games, to avoid all references to the Middle East. While working on Neverwinter Nights 2, the writer Chris Avellone was asked by the game’s license-holder, Wizards of the Coast, not to make a character bisexual. (“Wizards’ approach has changed in subsequent years,” Avellone told me). The 2016 game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was set in an apartheid society in which “Augs”—people with mechanical enhancements, such as bionic limbs or brain interfaces—were pit against those who remained “natural.” The game also included slogans such as “Augs Lives Matters.” But André Vu, a spokesman for the game’s publisher, Square-Enix, described the similarity to Black Lives Matter as merely an “unfortunate coincidence.”
This sort of strategy—an eagerness to borrow the aesthetics and frisson of a political theme without addressing that theme explicitly—faces its own criticism, both from players and from those who work in the industry. Far Cry 5, a recent game from Ubisoft, was set in rural Montana, and saw you play as a local cop facing civil disobedience from a fanatical militia group. The substance of the game was similar to previous entries in the Far Cry series, which were set in places such as Africa, the Himalayas, and Micronesia, but in relocating to Trump-era America—a more proximate locale for much of the game’s audience—the game appeared to reflect current affairs. This, in turn, created an expectation that the game’s developers would supply a commentary that they did not, in fact, provide. For critics, exploiting only the superficial aspects of the setting was both opportunistic and a waste of a valuable platform.
These tensions are not unique to video games. In 2016, one of the writers of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” tweeted that the Galactic Empire represented “a white supremacist (human) organization.” After alt-right protesters called for a boycott of the film, Bob Iger, the chief executive of Disney, pushed back, saying that “Rogue One” was not, “in any way, a political film.” Still, something inherent to video games makes it easier for their creators to claim political neutrality. “Games are designed so that they elevate the expression of players above that of the developer,” Williams said. “You have to find the right balance between artistic intention and player agency. Publishers don’t want to admit that a game might have a political stance or message, because to do so creates player-character dissonance before the game has even been released. They think, How can this character be me, if their actions support a political stance that I do not?”
The notion of player agency, arguably the medium’s only unique ingredient, gives video-game directors license to be politically ambiguous. Ken Levine, the director of the Bioshock series, which examines failed utopias, has claimed that his games function as political Rorschach tests. “Bioshock Infinite was interpreted by some as a criticism of the Tea Party and by others of Occupy Wall Street,” Pedercini said. “It’s a way to infuse a dumb shooting game with a sense of importance, a way to give the idea of dealing with serious and complex issues while withdrawing from any controversial position or judgment.”
In this way, the video game could be seen as akin to the novel, a form that, more than it suggests or imposes a world view, invites the consumer to consider a theme or inhabit an issue. But, for some, this view ignores the reality of the genre. Tom Bissell, a writer for several blockbuster video games and a contributor to this magazine, believes that it’s impossible for video-game publishers to distance themselves from politics, especially if a game revolves around guns. “All shooting games are inherently political, because they all put forth a vision of violent force being an acceptable catalyst for change,” he said. “You can contextualize, rationalize, or ignore that subtext as much as you want, but it’s there, inescapably, in every shooter.” For Bissell, if a game’s mechanics show that life is cheap and force is effective, then this is the message that players will receive, regardless of the words that writers place in the characters’ mouths.
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. Robert Yang, a professor at New York University’s Game Center, is a one-man designer of political games. (A recent example, Hurt Me Plenty, is a provocative gay-spanking simulator, designed to explore sexuality and consent.) When a game is the product of an individual or small team’s vision, Yang said, it’s easy to promote a coherent message. On larger games, however, a studio must often divide different character arcs among a team of writers. “This industrial approach treats writing as an asset they plug into the game, instead of a holistic-design ethos to the entire project,” Yang said. “The more ambitious political open-world games require a lot of coördination and strong authorial voice and risks.”
Taking those risks requires supporting structures that, in Pedercini’s view, the industry lacks. “The parallel with the film industry is useful,” he said. “A politically uncompromising film like ‘Sorry to Bother You’ became a blockbuster, but its production would not have been possible without Sundance and a whole supportive ecosystem.” Video games have no such ecosystem; as Yang put it, the medium is in the process of reverse-engineering an art form from an entertainment business. “We have to build the arts-and-culture platforms and the festival circuits,” Yang said. “We have to convince funding bodies and governments that games are worth more than their sales numbers.”
In the meantime, there is the steady drip of change. “The industry is slowly starting to embrace more diverse storytelling and characterization,” Rhianna Pratchett, a former lead writer on the Tomb Raider series, said. She was referring to a recent trailer for the blockbuster game The Last of Us 2, which features a scripted lesbian kiss between two teen-age girls. (Tellingly, the first gay kiss in video games, in The Sims, was an accident). “But it’s baby steps,” Pratchett continued. “We are still learning how to talk about these things. We are still working out how to be brave.”