The video game industry has resolved to avoid political controversy at all costs. The major developers and publishers have declined to speak openly with journalists, including The Ringer, about the provocative political connotations of popular titles, including Call of Duty, Wolfenstein, Far Cry, Detroit, and The Division, for fear of irritating consumers, activists, and trolls—especially reactionary trolls associated with the undead harassment campaign, Gamergate.
Since Donald Trump’s election, three major video game titles—all developed by Western studios—have incorporated provocative political elements, including settings, characters, dialogue, and themes. There’s the latest Wolfenstein game, The New Colossus, released in October, which dramatizes an armed rebellion against a Nazi takeover of the U.S. There’s Far Cry 5, released in March, which dramatizes a federal raid on a militaristic religious cult in Montana. And there’s the forthcoming Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, due out in March 2019, which depicts an American presidential tyranny and a second civil war. The provocative elements in these games suggest explicit, deliberate commentary on post-Trump politics.
At the very least, the games invite scrutiny of their biases, however explicit or implicit they might be in a game where, say, a player is meant to identify with the federal government in an armed standoff against rural American theologians. Unfortunately, the developers have taken it upon themselves to repress and disavow any quasi-realistic insights that fans and critics might discern in their games. “We’re definitely not making any political statements,” Red Storm Entertainment creative director Terry Spier told Polygon about Division 2. Ubisoft, which publishes Tom Clancy’s The Division series, declined to comment for this story. In general, developers, publishers, and consultants have proved reticent to speak with journalists on the record, often for fear of irritating the reactionary factions that seem to have spooked the major game developers and publishers.
Even The New Colossus, which leaned hard into anti-fascist sloganeering in its trailers and on Twitter following the Charlottesville protests, managed to disavow its own popular significance. “It’s not something that has any real bearing on the game, because the game isn’t a commentary on current topics,” the creative director Jens Matthies told PC Gamer. (Bethesda Softworks, which published The New Colossus, did not respond to a request for comment.)
In March, the White House hosted a summit for President Trump to meet with North American leaders of the video game industry. Trump meant to discuss violent video games, which, many activists argue, inspire school shootings. The reasoning is specious. For two decades now, researchers have repeatedly debunked the suggestion that first-person shooters inspire school massacres. But the Trump administration seized on the popular misconception in order to distract the prevailing political discourse from a more sensible, practical argument for strict gun control laws. So the March 2018 video game summit was a hasty farce. Trump’s meeting with GOP lawmakers, conservative activists, and gaming executives produced no substantial legislation, executive action, or commercial concessions to address the summit’s titular concerns. For once, the gaming industry escaped Washington, D.C., unscathed.
But far beyond Capitol Hill and the vapid concerns of the Trump administration, the gaming industry confronts an emergent political crisis within its own ranks, and among consumers. In the wake of Gamergate—and, more recently, following Trump’s election—Western video game companies have grown fearful of political agitators and radicalized fans, who often mobilize online to harass game developers. Accordingly, the companies have publicly disavowed the political significance of their games—including narrative games with loud, clear, and prominent political connotations.
Apart from defending itself from the perennial debate over CGI violence, the video game industry is a tepid political force. Mainstream games, themselves, are rarely as avowedly provocative as popular music, literature, film, and television—even cartoons. Video games are a relatively young medium, and its social priorities are hardly as advanced as its technical means. Occasionally, there are games such as Detroit: Become Human, which present broad allegories with fairly obvious political connotations; Detroit is a game about androids, but it’s also a game about discrimination and civil rights. Despite the themes of their own games, major gaming developers avoid public engagement with contemporary politics in any prescriptive or otherwise disagreeable manner. The game designer David Cage plays coy about Detroit. “The story I’m telling is really about androids,” he told Kotaku. “If people want to see parallels with this or that, that’s fine with me. But my story’s about androids who want to be free.”
The developers have proved steadfast in their trepidation, even as consumers and critics eagerly probe their games for greater significance and realistic insight. Fearfully, the gaming industry infantilizes its consumer base and trivializes its own art form, smothering even its most obviously provocative titles in plausible deniability.
It can be tough to pinpoint the modern gaming industry’s conscience. Geographically, Western gaming companies are spread all across North America and Europe. Politically, however, the industry tends to resemble Silicon Valley—a quirky, objective hellscape that trivializes labor rights and diversity concerns. The gaming industry’s politics aren’t as strident and liberal as the Hollywood industries, film and television. Indeed, the large teams that produce modern video games are relatively unlikely to organize around common political allegiances, and official representatives often speak about games as if their political significance, outlook, and biases—their “politics,” as it were—were private, unknowable concerns. The result is a universal know-nothing policy designed to keep a disintegrating peace.
The gaming industry’s political blackout has irritated some critics and fans, but the developers have so far avoided a real post-Trump backlash to any major title with a potentially controversial significance. It hasn’t become a great concern among the Wall Street analysts who monitor investor confidence in the gaming industry. The gaming press has speculated that companies fear alienating consumers and, thus, losing sales by politicizing the promotional campaigns and polarizing the fan bases. Notably, 2017’s best-selling video games were generally uncontroversial titles such as Super Mario, Zelda, Star Wars: Battlefront, Madden, and NBA 2K. The year’s best-selling title, Call of Duty: WWII, outsold The New Colossus by nearly 5 million units in its first week. Call of Duty is the most successful Western video game franchise of all time. For 15 years, the series has avoided politics at every turn. “I don’t think that current climate has affected us or changed our strategy or our message,” the former series codeveloper, Michael Condrey, told GameSpot. Condrey’s words have become the industry line.
Quite possibly, the major video game developers aren’t scared so much as simply complacent. Regardless of any real or imagined backlash to any particular game’s political outlook, the industry seems to realize that its biggest, massively profitable titles are intellectually tepid, stunted, and repressed, much like the reactionary fandoms. And rather like the gaming industry itself.