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Playing at Politics

Video games can and should be full of interesting politics. So why aren't they?

Red Dead Redemption 2. Rockstar Games

The last days of October saw one of the biggest video game releases in recent history. Red Dead Redemption 2’s opening weekend set a $725 million record, second only to Grand Theft Auto 5’s $1 billion launch. Twelve days later, it had already far outpaced sales for the original Red Dead Redemption.

Yet the excitement was marred by director Dan Houser’s proud boast to the New York Magazine of working “100-hour weeks” to get the game out the door. His comments, as Kotaku writer Jason Schreier wrote, drew attention to a “culture of crunch” at Houser’s Rockstar Games, in which employees are routinely pressured into weeks of backbreaking overtime. According to Guardian critic Keza MacDonald, such conditions are epidemic to a game industry which “prioritise[s] long hours over employee’s welfare.”

This growing recognition of the game industry’s brutal worker exploitation has grown parallel to another frustration: the politics embedded in video games’ stories. Also writing in the Guardian, critic Alfie Brown laments the mediocre politics we find in most video games. The gaming site Kotaku struck a similar chord, criticizing the confused, tepid politics players are forced to endure in most big-budget games. Even when game politics aren’t outright reactionary, they’re just not that interesting.

Yet writers have so far failed to see the connection between these two growing critiques. Game politics range from the anodyne to the reactionary in large part because of the conditions under which workers make and sell them. Big-budget video games are often fun to play, but suffer a stunted, narrow political imagination. Designed and marketed to resonate with modern hopes and anxieties, these games are produced in a labor market characterized by intense working conditions, race and gender oppression, and the centralization of wealth and power in the hands of a few major media conglomerates.

Lackluster game politics are a natural outcome of these realities. The revolution in game politics that Alfie Brown proposes is unlikely to materialize unless we tackle exploitation with it.

Profit and Punishment

The 2008 financial crisis was a watershed moment for global politics, and many art forms have spoken compellingly to our new, more turbulent reality. This is less true with video games, though many have tried. Detroit: Become Human drew inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement, and promised players the fantasy of leading a successful civil rights campaign. Far Cry 5 and Wolfenstein II let players safely act out revenge fantasies on Nazis and reactionary militia cultists.

Other games dramatize and justify the violence of the US government. Ghost Recon Wildlands, in which the player is a US agent tasked with destroying a South American drug ring, casts these interventions as necessary military action to solve the world’s problems. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 has players gunning down the riff-raff trying to survive after an apocalypse in order to restore order. Even our friendly neighborhood Spider Man has been drafted to this project, helping out the NYPD in violently cracking down on criminals.

Even as games try to grapple with the anxieties of the moment, the conditions of their production limit their political imagination. Underwriting many big-budget games is a handful of well-capitalized publishing and investment companies. Across countless industries, wealth and power has been consolidated into fewer hands, and the same is true of gaming.

Most gamers will know names like Activision or Electronic Arts, both of which have gained a bad reputation for gobbling up smaller developers. Media conglomerates like Vivendi and Disney are trying to break into the $100 billion industry. The industry’s biggest player is Chinese behemoth Tencent, one of the largest investment corporations in the world and owner of pieces of industry giants like Blizzard and Ubisoft.

Above all else, these firms are interested in a steady stream of profit. And they’re getting it: Activision Blizzard reported over $7 billion in profits in 2017, Electronic Arts reported over $5 billion. The status quo is working for these companies, so they’re unlikely to tell any political stories that will derail the gravy train. While we analyze big-budget games in this article, different but related pressures and dynamics characterize the market for independent games.

This pressure is compounded by the fact that games are expensive and time-consuming to make. A major release will take years, and can cost anywhere from $10 million to over $100 million to design, build, and market. Major franchise games like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto have budgets reportedly exceeding $200 million, rivaling any blockbuster Hollywood film. This means a misstep on a major title can be exceptionally punishing, even for a large publisher.

We therefore see bizarre PR moves, like Bethesda claiming that their game about overthrowing a Nazi regime — marketed with the tagline “Make America Nazi-Free Again” — has nothing to say about our current political moment. Or Quantic Dream chief David Cage insisting his game Detroit is simply about androids demanding civil rights, not politics. The more vague the politics, the less likely anyone will be dissuaded from buying a new game.

This reticence to take a political stand has allowed some of the most reactionary elements in the gaming world to flourish. Game publishers have been careful not to do anything that might offend that demographic. When a female employee of developer ArenaNet clapped back at a fan giving unsolicited feedback on her work, the company promptly fired her and a co-worker who came to her defense. The employee, Jessica Price, was reacting to a pervasive culture of mansplaining and sexism directed at female developers. But rather than offer support, her boss caved in to misogynist player pressure.

Caving to Reaction

The ArenaNet debacle points to another crucial problem in the world of game development. Workers in the industry are subject to dehumanizing and humiliating working conditions. Exceptionally long hours are considered normal, female employees are disrespected and subject to harassment, and racist jokes and provocations are not uncommon.

Little surprise then that the gender politics in many games leave much to be desired. In Detroit, for example, the female protagonist is repeatedly subject to physical abuse and treated more as a rhetorical tool than a human character. As journalist Anita Sarkeesian has pointed out in her outstanding series on women in video games, this sort of dehumanizing writing is common in the medium.

As Sarkeesian demonstrates, crummy gender politics and a pathological focus on violence have been a hallmark of game design for many years. In the early days of video game design companies like Atari designed war games for the US government. Shooting things on a screen has been a successful formula that has sold countless video games over the years.

With Grand Theft Auto, a game in which the player could attack sex workers with little repercussion, Rockstar Games became notorious for this casual misogyny. Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar’s most recent game, thankfully moves away from that level of excess. It has proven to be a watershed game, setting a new standard in how rich and realistic a video game world can be. At the same time, the game has forced a reckoning within the industry, with critical reaction evenly split between praise for the game’s artistic mastery, and criticism of the exploitative working conditions that created that mastery.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a beautiful, detailed depiction of late nineteenth-century America. It is a critique of power fantasies, taking human failure and frailty as its central themes. But at many points the game is not politically serious. For example, it plays the Ku Klux Klan for cheap laughs, failing to confront the white nationalist hate-group’s history of terror and political violence.

This does not mean that the industry will never produce a game with interesting politics. After all, Hollywood, where many of these same working conditions are present, gave us Black Panther and Moonlight. In games, Wolfenstein II, for all its raucous shoot-em-up action, presents a compelling picture of what a homegrown American resistance to a nightmarish alt history would look like. Indeed, its multiracial coalition of socialists, anarchists, Jewish survivors, Black civil rights activists, and all-American ex-military types is not conjured from pure fantasy, but actually existed at high points of social unrest and class struggle.

On the whole, however, the realities of the labor and consumer market for games makes this type of game less likely. The market is dominated by massive publishers that benefit from exploitative labor practices. The result is twofold: Game companies hesitate to explore politics, especially left politics, with any seriousness, and employees at these companies take a great risk if they push back on a game’s content or their working conditions. As long as this situation prevails, we can expect superficial and narrow politics in games.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

Game publishers are afraid of how a section of their audience will respond to the smallest whiff of left-leaning or progressive politics. They are willing to flirt with politics in their games and promotional materials in hopes of resonating with the current moment just enough to pique interest. But rarely are these politics and stories explored meaningfully in the final product.

Game developers, journalists, and many gamers themselves are starting to chafe at this reality. They argue games can be better; that their artistry is undermined by the conservatism and fear that dominate today’s industry. It’s hard to identify another cultural industry that treats its audience with as much condescension and pandering as game publishers do. Imagine how ideas could flourish if we could get away from the stifling structures we have now.

Players deserve, and the medium can deliver, more compelling politics. But we are unlikely to get them without changing the material world in which games are created. Unions for game developers would be a good first step. Already an organization, Game Workers Unite, is pushing for more worker organization in the industry. Organized workers are more likely to influence how games work and the stories they tell.

All this fits into the larger context where tech workers have started organizing. They have flexed their muscle at Microsoft and Amazon, demanding that those companies stop supporting ICE’s family separation policy. Google employees staged a worldwide walkout earlier this month in reaction to the tech giant’s mishandling of sexual harassment claims. What would a similar show of strength mean for game design and development?

Good journalism, like Kotaku’s coverage of Riot Games, is another step. By uncovering pervasive sexist practices at the $2-billion-a-year company, Kotaku seems to have forced a crisis in their leadership, hopefully opening the door to improved working conditions. The reporting on Rockstar Games’ culture of overwork has provoked a broader conversation about how both workers and gamers should expect better labor practices from game studios.

Video games can never be pure, apolitical escape. Like all culture, they bear the mark of the world we live in. For them to say something meaningful about that world, the circumstances of their production must change dramatically.