With hundreds of video games released every year, developers in the industry seem to shy away from aligning with the political and social stances present within their products. Games that often include political images and set pieces have become distanced by their own developers in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience, according to a report by Polygon.
Major video game companies frequently release blockbuster titles created with massive budgets and development teams known as AAA titles. Large AAA releases have recently found themselves in an interesting spot regarding political messaging. Games like Call of Duty, Battlefield and The Division 2 are known for including commentary on U.S. involvement in other countries during war times, political turmoil and domestic terrorism but have recently stressed the “apolitical” nature they want to follow.
Infinity Ward, famous for its development of the Call for Duty: Modern Warfare series, has dismissed the notion that its games are taking political stances. In an interview with GameInformer, Joel Emslie, the lead director behind 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, conveyed the game’s so-called, “apolitical stance.”
“Is this game political?” interviewer Ben Hanson asked. “No,” Emslie said. “We’re just making a game. It seems insane to get political to me.”
Seconds prior, Emslie said the story is about “a very relevant, contemporary war story.”
Emslie’s statement about relevancy isn’t far from the truth. Once the game is loaded up, the player is met with scenes including terrorism, torture, banned weapons of war, civilian casualties, weapons of mass destruction and drone strikes. These instances are all used as devices to push forward a story reminiscent of current conflicts today. The game is called Modern Warfare, after all. Does it really seem that the game takes no political stance?
With titles like Call of Duty becoming more mainstream than ever with their incorporation into the esports scene, more people are increasingly exposed to these politically evasive tactics from AAA developers. JMU has recently announced its arrival into the world of collegiate level esports, and although Call of Duty isn’t yet included in its roster of games, it very well could be due to Activision’s development and push for the Call of Duty League, an esports league centered solely on the game. An increase in audience range gives more incentive for developers to pursue ambiguity in the stances they take with their games’ themes, so they don’t scare off any potential customers.
Although these games are designed to appeal to a mass audience, why go through the trouble of touching on themes that are associated with current political issues if the impact on the art form will be denied?
JMU graduate student Julie Short has experience playing games related to social and political issues: most notably, Red Dead Redemption 2, a game that challenges the social and political norms of the early 20th century American West. She commented on what might be causing these developers to remove themselves from their games’ political aspects.
“I wonder why they might not be willing to say, ‘We’re open to taking a stance’,’” Short said. “Maybe they can just say that to avoid the trolls, but it’s actually presented [to players], so they’re forced to think about the issues. If they come out and say these are games with social and political issues in mind, then it might turn away the extremist reactionaries … who might not have another chance to think about those important issues,” Short said.
Ultimately, these developers and studios want to profit and sell massive numbers of copies, so they probably don’t want to exclude anyone from enjoying their creations. Short is right, although — it’s a balancing act. Players should be presented with tough, realistic themes about the world we live in. Now, some games have made strides toward open communication and transparency with their consumers.
A recent release has turned the notion of AAA games being apolitical on its head. Cyberpunk 2077 takes aim at a future overburdened by megacorporations and the crushing weight it disproportionately superposes on its citizens. Its developers don’t hesitate to claim the game takes a political stance.
In an interview with PC Gamer Magazine, creator Mike Pondsmith discusses the inherently political nature of the world he and his team built for the game. He notes that the story wouldn’t be the same if he didn’t consider it political and that it ultimately shapes the experience.
“Basically, it’s all political, but a big part of what Cyberpunk talks about is the disparities of power and how technology readdresses that,” Pondsmith said. “A lot of [Cyberpunk 2077] is about that push between people who want to gain power from the corporations and their groups and the people who have had a taste of their own freedom and are not going to go along with this.”
This openness toward the themes and political messaging by the developers isn’t common among most AAA companies.
Indie game developers have often adopted more political themes and are more willing to accept the themes they present in their games due to the small scope of teams and audiences. They aren’t games that are intended for all audiences, but that doesn’t mean developers wouldn’t want their messages to communicate to the broader population.
Firewatch, a game about watching fires, follows a heavy narrative approach to tackling certain social and political issues present in today’s world. Creator Sean Vanaman told Newsweek that his game “has political perspective. It balances off of ideas about sexism. It balances off of ideas about the federal government.” Taking place in a national park, the game spends the latter portion of its narrative commenting on the ways society and our political institutions easily forget about those who have gone missing from the bounds of society.
In the same interview, Robin Hunicke, co-developer behind Journey, offers insight as to why independent games can be more political and geared toward changing the world through their explicit acceptance of their themes.
“Hunicke believes this gives the independent gaming scene more freedom for projects that, while not overtly political, introduce a sense of empathy responsible for making better people and, ideally, a better world,” Newsweek reported.
Video games released by big-budget companies should take inspiration from games like Cyberpunk 2077 and other successful indie releases that confidently state the intentions of their games. The beauty of art makes it so that if you don’t like the piece, then you don’t have to support it. Not all games have to be political, but hopefully AAA video games can be more impactful if the true intent behind their messages are accepted and embraced by their own developers.
Luke Pineda is a junior political science major. Contact Luke at [email protected] For more editorials regarding the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the opinion desk on Instagram and Twitter @Breeze_Opinion.