Monday 15 February 2021

The Zombies Are Too White: The Politics Of Video Games.

A debate regarding video games may not seem to be the most obvious subject to address on this blog not least that as a medium it has historically been associated with teenage boys. Given the infancy of the medium and its technological limitations a few decades ago where games were little more than Pong or Space Invaders that is perhaps understandable.

Yet teenager boys from the early days, who were distracted by the adventures of a certain Italian plumber, have become (mostly) middle aged men; many now part of a multi-billion pound global industry. This is an industry which has evolved into one by adults for adults, indeed the average computer gamer is now in their mid 30s. Crucially in parallel to a generation becoming older there has been ever significant advances in technology. Both developments have combined almost seamlessly to a point where debate increasingly becomes less about technology and more about whether video games are now an art form.

When considering the entertainment industry, attention largely considers films, television and music. And not without good reason. These entertainment mediums dominate media coverage, There is glitz and glamour in the film and music industries and nothing more epitomises this best than the substantial coverage given to award ceremonies such as the; Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes, MTV Video Music Awards, BRIT Awards and so on. Pages of newsprint are even dedicated to the best and worst of women’s outfits as they walk the red carpet.

Conversely computer game awards ceremonies such as the Golden Joystick awards or Game of the Year award passes by with little media attention aside from the specialist media. This is more than surprising given that the video game business is now larger than both the movie and music industries combined, making it one of the largest global entertainment products. Even in North America alone video games outperform both the movie industry and all North American sports put together which includes the very lucrative and popular NFL.

Global video game revenue accounted for $120 billion in 2019 and in 2020 revenue was expected to surge to over $179 billion in 2020, although with the Covid lockdown and with many at home on furlough seeking sanctuary in gaming, indications are that figure could well end up being even higher.

British developed Grand Theft Auto V is the highest-grossing entertainment product of all time, surpassing every film, book, and music album. GTA V has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide, earning its publisher more than $6 billion on a development budget of $265 million.

Yet GTA is not the highest-grossing overall video game franchise. That title belongs to Pokémon, which has brought more than $17 billion to Nintendo since its inception in 1996, almost doubling the original Star Wars trilogy which collectively grossed $9.4 billion, despite the latter’s re-releases, merchandise and special editions.

Given the enormous money video games commands in terms of revenue it’s clear that it doesn't receive anything like the media attention it should warrant. Rarely has there been a better example of a medium that flies under the radar so comprehensively regarding its cultural impact.

And unsurprisingly with so much money at stake with relatively little accountability or media “sunlight” comes dodgy practices, scandal and politics. And politics is now everywhere in video games.

For example Watch Dogs Legion – made by the French game developer Ubisoft has obvious anti-Brexit overtones dismissing a post Brexit London as xenophobic and nationalist, the themes in Far Cry 5 are regarding religious cults and has an anti Christian tone, Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 is a clear celebration of the 2nd Amendment as is the hugely popular franchise Call of Duty.

Detroit: Become Human is a very unsubtle game about black slavery. The Outer Worlds game co-director Leonard Boyasky admitted; “[The game is about] power and how power is used against people who don’t have it”. The Grand Theft Auto series has always been a satire on American culture and politics not least in GTA 5 where there is a torture mission which is the game’s statement on America’s controversial rendition policy, and the futility and unreliability of torture as an interrogation method.

Death Stranding by the legendary, albeit hugely egotistical, game developer Hideo Kojima admitted his game was anti Trump and anti Brexit:
"President Trump right now is building a wall. Then you have Brexit, where the UK is trying to leave, there are lots of walls and people thinking only about themselves in the world.

"In Death Stranding we're using bridges to represent connection - there are options to use them or break them. It's all about making people think about the meaning of connection."
The irony though was the game is overrun with lengthy self indulgent cut scenes where Kojima’s less than subtle political points about connections are from a perspective of transmit only. Nowhere does he seem to appreciate that people of other countries other than his may have a different point of view and maybe worth listening to.

And nor is politics confined to the themes of games themselves. Black Lives Matters logos were added last year to numerous computer games as part of a downloaded "update".

Ubisoft’s games, including its best selling franchise Assassin’s Creed, begin with a start up screen with the following words:
"Inspired by historical events and characters, this work of fiction was designed, developed and produced by a multicultural team of various beliefs, sexual orientations and gender identities."
On older games the message used to conclude with the words; “… by a multicultural team of various religious faiths and beliefs.” Naturally as trends have moved on regarding the concept of discrimination the words were amended to include “sexual orientation and gender identities”.

Ubisoft has long gone out of its way to pantomime its ‘wokeness’. It probably won't come as a surprise to even those unfamiliar with video games that Ubisoft as a company hasn’t exactly practised what it’s preached. It’s been exposed as a toxic workplace where sexual harassment, abuse, racism, and homophobia were allowed to flourish. Ubisoft stands out amongst other major game publishers where abuse is rampant, this in an industry where loose morals like exploiting developers by what is euphemistically known as ‘crunch’ is common place. The relative silence from the specialist media has always been revealing.

Another company which is less than candid with its principles is Blizzard Entertainment creator of the hugely influential World of Warcraft genre. It became embroiled in the Blitzchung controversy, where Blizzard banned a professional Hearthstone player for simply supporting Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.

After much internet outrage what followed was one of the best examples of a craven non apology ever made by a company CEO (J. Allen Brack) imaginable - so much so that not even the sycophantic audience could manage to applaud in the right place and had to be prompted. That Tencent, a Chinese entertainment giant, owns a 5 percent stake in Blizzard's parent company, Activision Blizzard is obviously a coincidence.

That it was a non apology was not how it was reported in the games media. Right across the media the term ‘apology’ was used for an apology that clearly did not exist. This being a reflection of the progress of the media which has moved on from historic video game moral panics into a compromised shill for the video games industry.

Previously the long term narrative determined that lots of teenage boys playing video games meant a substantial number of them would turn into serial killers. For a long time it was a typical simplistic media moral panic that retained a similar mindset that always emerges when confronted with any forms of new technology; such as the early days of films, music and the home video scares of the early 1980’s. 

Now due to the importance and size of the industry increasingly the media are more concerned with access to early review copies or developers for that all important exclusive. 

Early review copies before release are used by big game studios to enforce a more positive review with the obvious threat of a future review copy withdrawal. A relationship is on the line. Thus with a reluctance to call into question the more dubious aspects of the gaming industry such as microtransactions, loot boxes and crunch the media becomes one of group think. Nowhere is this now more apparent than its endorsement and obsession with identity politics and agenda driven personal outrage - seven long paragraphs of Polygon's Cyberpunk 2077 review was about transgender issues. 

Long gone are the days when you simply wanted to know whether a game was any good or not – increasingly every review is couched in a political framework. Alanah Pearce formerly of IGN admitted that reviews are written for their peers not their readers.

The Sony PlayStation 4 exclusive game Days Gone was a good but not a particularly original game about surviving a zombie apocalypse. Yet the games media such as IGN and Gamespot reserved much of its criticism for the game being too white. Not only that it had a white gruff biker protagonist but also its zombies were too white. Apparently zombies in the game were in need of more diversity - despite that the game’s lore makes clear that virus mutation means many of them became albino.

Ghost of Tsushima on the PlayStation 4 was given relatively underwhelming "official" scores with more than a hint of media criticism of “cultural appropriation” - a game about a Samurai by an American company. Yet when Japanese gamers bought the game in serious numbers to the extent Sony had to order another production run to cope with demand, the Western media went away, had a think, and then decided as it was so popular in Japan it must be a celebration of far-right Japanese nationalism. Yet Ghost of Tsushima has became one of 2020's most successful underrated games, which has seen very high user scores. 

And it's here we come to what could be described as the “Last Jedi" problem. The Star Wars film Last Jedi was widely praised by the legacy media but when it came to the general public it came under fierce criticism for tokenism and running a coach and horses through established Star Wars lore. The contrast between established critics high scores and low user scores on Metacritic is striking. And increasingly this disconnect is becoming more common as the pusillanimous media write for their peers and not their own readers who they view with ill-disguised contempt.

Regarding computer games nothing epitomises a more compromised media, overt politics, and ill-disguised contempt in recent times then 2020’s release of The Last of Us Part 2. This deeply flawed game and the political media fallout is one we will explore further in part 2 of this piece.