One of the largest media industries in the world is on the verge of being weaponized for left-wing propaganda, and almost nobody is talking about it.
While politicians have recently begun to use the gaming industry as a platform, the developers of mainstream games have remained largely apolitical. However, in recent years due to pressure from gaming journalists, the industry stance on political agendas in gaming narratives is changing. Ubisoft Entertainment, one of the largest video game publishers in the world, has seemingly updated its stance on making political statements within its games.
In reference to its game “The Division 2,” published in 2019, creative director Terry Spier said:
“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.”
Gaming journalists were not having it. They wanted Ubisoft to bend the knee and market an agenda to their audience – and it would also have to be the “right” agenda.
In a review by Wired, the author suggests that Division 2 would have been better if it did make political statements. Their argument is that other games are capable of reflecting on current political climates and “engag[ing] the player in what that means.” An example they provide is an indie title called Not Tonight, which is described by the author as a post-Brexit environment “where players have to adapt to harsh, racist government policies to survive.” The Wired piece not only suggests that gaming developers engage directly with current political issues but also be responsible for defining the consequences for its audience.
Ubisoft upheld its stance upon the release of its game Ghost Recon: Breakpoint in 2019:
“We’re creating a game here, we’re not trying to make political statements in our games […] The story might make you see different situations, but we’re not trying to guide anybody or to make any sorts of statements,” said Sébastien Le Prestre, lead developer.
Ubisoft made it clear its intent was to focus on the fun experience and gameplay of Ghost Recon, rather than societal criticisms. That didn’t stop Mashable from asserting that it had a “missed opportunity to inject a little commentary about the ethics of tech companies into the game.”
Fast forward to its latest game, “Far Cry 6,” and it seems gaming journalists may have won. Narrative director Navid Khavari published a statement on the game with the first line, “Our story is political.” He continues on:
“A story about a modern revolution must be. There are hard, relevant discussions in Far Cry 6 about the conditions that lead to the rise of fascism in a nation, the costs of imperialism, forced labor, the need for free-and-fair elections, LGBTQ+ rights, and more within the context of Yara, a fictional island in the Caribbean.”
Whether you believe Ubisoft’s games had underlying political themes from the beginning, the narrative on pushing politics in gaming is changing, and they aren’t the only ones beginning to embrace the politicization of the industry.
Another gaming publisher in recent years that used current political events to market their game is Bethesda Softworks. Their game Wolfenstein 2 was not written in response to the events following the 2016 election, but its marketing tactic was reactionary. Following the events in Charlottesville, the official Wolfenstein Twitter account promotional material for the game with the caption “Make America Nazi Free Again.”
— Wolfenstein (@wolfenstein) October 5, 2017
The VP of marketing at Bethesda Softworks also addressed deliberate politicization of the game in an interview:
“…no one from MachineGames or Bethesda could have predicted Nazis marching down American streets in 2017. Even talking about it now seems ludicrous. From a marketing standpoint, we certainly saw an opportunity to take a stand against these events while also talking about the game we’re making, which is about killing Nazis and overthrowing their rule in the US…if we can reference current events as part of talking about the game, so be it.”
Even Twitch, the self-avowed “world’s leading live streaming platform for gamers” got into some controversy recently for its attempt at being progressive. In a since-deleted tweet, the platform announced its initiative for “Womxn’s History Month” that would be featuring women streamers on the front page of the site. The tweet was met with criticism for being too woke by some users, and being exclusionary of the trans community by others.
These are just the latest examples of politics getting inserted into video games. But politicians have been dabbling in getting involved for some time now.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) recognized this and centered her 2020 get-out-the-vote campaign around streaming the viral video game Among Us. Her stream had more than 400,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch, which is owned by Amazon, and has become one of the most popular streams in the platform’s history. She was joined by a few of the biggest names in Twitch streaming, as well as Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). In this stream, she promoted the DNC’s “I Will Vote” website, which helps younger voters create their voting plan.
Anyone want to play Among Us with me on Twitch to get out the vote? (I’ve never played but it looks like a lot of fun)
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) October 19, 2020
The Biden/Harris campaign also took advantage of gaming platforms during the 2020 election. Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released early in the pandemic and sold 31.8 million copies in 2020. The Biden/Harris campaign created its own island in the game for players to visit. Biden HQ island consisted of a campaign office, polling booths and an advertisement for the “I Will Vote” website. The campaign also created downloadable campaign merch for characters to wear on their own in-game islands.
This is an industry that is widely popular in younger generations, captivates developmental years, and in many cases acquires a cult-like following even without politics involved. The video game industry brings in a global revenue of $160 billion a year, surpassing cinema, newspaper and the music industry.
Left-wing politicians have begun to realize the massive potential of this market not only due to the sheer size of its consumer base (2.69 billion people annually,) but also because of its unmatched capability of capturing the hearts and minds of consumers.
On its face, this all may not seem like a big deal, but questions should be raised about the influence politics in video games can have over a younger generation.
In his book “Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Video Games,” Ian Bogost, professor of media studies at Georgia Institute of Technology, goes into detail on the psychological and ideological influence video games can have due to their interactive nature. They operate on a system of action and consequence, in which players are directly immersed into a new reality and can oftentimes project themselves into the game itself. He argues this makes video games a unique and incredibly persuasive platform for instilling lessons, narratives, and ideological points of view into the gamers subconscious. In Chapter 3 of his book he provides some warning for the potential of ideological takeover of the industry:
“Whereas particular political interests have effectively colonized some media—liberals and documentary film, conservatives and talk radio, for example—video games remain indefinite about their political bent. This situation underscores both a promise and a threat.On the one hand, the medium of the video game has not (yet) become attached to a particular worldview, thus welcoming all varieties of ideological frames. On the other hand, lessons from other media suggest that the political groups with stronger media strategies effectively lock out other voices.”
The culture war in the gaming industry is just beginning with gaming journalists pushing for more political commentary within the industry. Ubisoft appears to have been cornered into making more outward political statements about its games after a series of media backlash. The gaming industry has an unmatched capability of influencing the moral, ethical, and ideological framework of entire generations.