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The Responsibility of Game Companies and Their Politics

Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney gave the keynote speech at this year’s DICE conference in Las Vegas. For the first major chunk of his speech, Sweeney discusses how the “Good News” of the gaming industry is that interconnectivity has become an accepted push between the major gaming industry leaders.

He goes on, however, to discuss the negatives he sees in the industry, specifically, what he calls “customer-adversarial” business practices. Part of this includes practices such as loot boxes in games, where Sweeney rightfully calls for other companies to move away from gambling as a means of generating revenue from players. The rest of it, however, comes down to politics. Politics in games. Politics in marketing. Politics in the industry.

Sweeney wants none of it. Politics, he believes should be completely divorced from the gaming industry.

To put it bluntly, that’s an incredibly irresponsible stance from an industry-leader.

You can view IGN’s full video of the speech here:

Gaming as a Platform for Discourse

Most importantly, the whole game business is becoming the biggest creative and social marketplace in history. I think this means, as an industry, we’re going to have special responsibilities that we are going to have to consider really deeply.

-Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games

Sweeney comes so close, and then misses the point. A game company’s path, he would believe, diverges at a crucial crossroad: the decision to include politics in their games, or not.

And yet, it’s nowhere near that simple.

Every action taken, every portrayal made, is a political statement in some way, and it’s impossible to separate media from the beliefs/politics housed within.

Sweeney heaps praise on interconnectivity between gaming platforms and works to separate it from the muddy waters of politics. And yet, even then, “equal access to all customers” is politics. “Who gets to play these video games?” and “How?” are both politically fueled company concerns because they have an impact on the socioeconomic and quality of life factors of people around the globe.

When he first dives into politics, Sweeney attacks marketing departments, which is funny because literally everything about marketing is politics.

  • What race/genders are being shown? That’s politics.
  • What demographic are they playing toward? That’s politics.
  • What socioeconomic status do they seem to have, e.g. is their house unrealistically nice for their age (looking at you, millenials in car commercials)? That’s politics.
  • Where does the commercial take place? That’s politics.
  • Are boys playing female-centric games? That’s politics
  • Does anyone in the commercial disapprove? That’s politics.

The same exact questions can and should be asked about games being created–especially by major developers.

Creating the Status Quo

The rallying cry of “Leave politics out of it!” is just another way of saying, “Show me the status quo, nevermind the consequences to those affected.”

For example, going from Sweeney’s interpretation, running a commercial showing a teen boy or girl playing video games isn’t political. However, because trans rights are currently a political hotbed, showing a trans teen would be considered political, and it should be avoided. Why? They aren’t hurting anyone. The commercial isn’t overtly saying anyone is evil or bad because they don’t believe such and such. Yet, it’s not the status quo and would cause unrest–or, as Sweeney put it, it would be “customer-adversarial”– therefore it’s seen as more political than the first two examples. If it’s political, according to Sweeney, it needs to be snuffed. This becomes even more problematic when the same outlook is used to create characters and stories in games.

Representation matters because it creates the status quo, and if large companies choose to accept harmful practices because they are the status quo, they are doing their part to reinforce the ideals that certain people deserve to be devalued while the harmful opinions of others deserve to be considered the norm.

Companies, especially large, industry-defining companies, do have a responsibility when it comes to the politics in and around their games. The stories they choose to tell and the characters they choose to represent have an impact on players. A company’s decisions on how to handle real-world issues (looking at you, Blizzard, in re: Hong Kong protests) has real-world outcomes.

Politics are ever-present in the actions of large companies, despite how adamantly these companies wish they weren’t. Running from these realities and calling them “customer-adversarial policies” isn’t the answer. Trying to set the gaming industry in an ivory tower, disconnected from the problems of the world, isn’t the answer. “Making mass profit” as a guiding company value isn’t the answer.

Industry-leading companies need to acknowledge the problems that exist in the world, make an educated decision on how to portray/handle them, and take a defined stance on what they choose to do.

Written by Destry Cloud

Destry Cloud is a contributing blogger and gaming enthusiast. He writes stories and books in his spare time, and wishes to one day win a lifetime supply of free ice cream. He enjoys tabletop RPGs just as much as video games, and he will totally roll a tank if the party needs one.

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