keep your politics in your games

Our story is political. – With these words, Navid Khavari, Narrative Director for “Far Cry 6”, opened a blog post on on May 31, which created some buzz in the relevant games media. A few days earlier, he had intoned the usual Ubisoft tenor in an interview: “We’re not trying to make political statements in our games.” – A credo that was repeated at Ubi in recent years with particular vehemence and mantra-like at a variety of major game releases. The claim: In an increasingly divided political atmosphere, not to alienate anyone, to cover as many potential buyer groups as possible. Comprehensible from a business point of view? Perhaps out of fear of a supposed “cancel culture. Consistently communicated? In the rarest of cases. Because the publisher’s marketing is not afraid to market the games’ basic political motifs in a big way. One example: In “The Division 2,” we try to regain control of the sealed-off political urban core around the White House and the Capitol from privately organized paramilitaries in post-pandemic Washington, D.C., as part of a government special forces unit. Shortly before the game’s release, a Donald Trump-induced “government shutdown” was taking place in the real-life U.S. at the time of The Division 2’s release, as the us federal budget for the coming year was not passed in time. In a newsletter, Ubisoft advertised a playable beta of its new shooter with the sentence “come see what a real government shutdown looks like” and was forced to row back shortly thereafter: It’s not about depicting real-world political contexts in games, they said. Ubi also produced similar controversies with the “Ghost Recon” spin-offs Wildlands and Breakpoint, as well as with “Far Cry 5”. 

In the case of “Far Cry 6”, the backpedaling now refers to the fact that the game is marketed as “Guerilla Fantasy”, but the revolutionary efforts of the guerilla fighters on the fictional island of Yara in Ubisoft’s latest blockbuster have nothing to do with the real Cuban revolution of the 1950s. However, Ubisoft said it had conversations with real Cuban revolutionary fighters from that time, among others, and was aware that a revolutionary story covering the topics of fascism, imperialism, forced labor, the need for free and fair elections, and LBGTIQ+ rights is political in nature, of course. “But if anyone is seeking a simplified, binary political statement specifically on the current political climate in Cuba, they won’t find it.” An irritating sentence that makes the initial quote practically obsolete, underlines Ubisoft’s communication dilemma once again, and once again raises the question: Why not, actually? Because they fear a boycott of the game among a significant part of the gaming community? Or because they don’t trust themselves to deal with and depict complex political contexts in an appropriately sensitive way and prefer to leave it at exploiting the basic theme and misusing it for clumsy marketing messages? 

The most recent example, EA in the case of Battlefield 2042:

Developer Bungie shows how things can be done differently. For years, they have been supporting social initiatives around “Destiny 2” and collecting donations in exchange for in-game rewards, for example for medical aid in crisis areas, children’s hospitals or for the victims of the Australian bushfires. Almost exactly a year ago, on June 9, 2020, they included an eight-minute and 46-second moment of silence addressed to the murdered George Floyd in a highly anticipated livestream announcing new Add-Ons for “Destiny 2”. In the game itself, players can equip their character’s emblem with a special “Black Lives Matter” logo, for example, and thus also take a clear stance towards fellow players. In the current season 15 of the MMO shooter, a highly interesting storyline also makes its way into Bungie’s space opera, as a group of the so-called “Eliksni”, whose representatives have practically acted as the main antagonists since the early days of the game, seek refuge in the “last city” on Earth, where they live in isolation in sparsely equipped camps. Bungie is telling a classic refugee story, which is expanded on a weekly asis, in which the players get a deep insight into the culture and religiosity of their former enemies and witness, among other things, how main characters of the game learn about each other’s atrocities and how they have to forgive each other as new “neighbors”. However, the resistance of the locals is also portrayed when formerly beloved side characters propagate potentially dangerous visions of the future and vehemently warn against the newcomers out of fear of acts of revenge. Bungie does not yet clearly position our avatar on one side of the much-invoked coin, but the developer’s socio-political history suggests that our game character will not suddenly turn out to be xenophobic in the near future.

Game developers and manufacturers should have the courage to give political topics appropriate space even in big-budget games, to dare to depict complex and sensitive social issues, and then to stand fully behind the decisions in terms of communication. To concede at the outset that the action depicted in the game is definitely political, but to add in the same statement that no political statement of one’s own can be derived from it, I no longer consider to be in keeping with the times. Of course, it is legitimate to alienate a real political scenario accordingly, but in principle, for example, a revolutionary story may also be politically classified and evaluated according to its representation in the game. Just because I don’t want to take a position on the supposedly real background doesn’t mean that the fictional version has to come across completely value-free. Especially when issues like fascism, imperialism, forced labor, the need for free and fair elections, and LBGTIQ+ rights are involved, a positioning practically follows by itself. And it should not be pushed aside out of anticipatory obedience under supposed promises of neutrality. Of course, games do not necessarily have to be political. But if they consciously set a political framework, if their story takes place in a political environment, and if the game character is guided through this very story on the basis of political actions and takes a stand in the process, then the game is clearly making a political statement.

This post is also available in: German