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Politics in Gaming: should developers always be neutral?

Patrick Walker explores, through the case of Ubisoft and Tom Clancy, political ideology in gaming

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Image: Ubisoft

Calling the politics of Tom Clancy 'contentious' would be like calling the sinking of the Titanic a 'disappointing evening'. He believed the NSA's surveillance powers should have been respected, contributed about a quarter million dollars to the American Republican party, and even appeared on Fox News a week after 9/11 to blame the whole thing on left-wing politicians for their 'gutting' of security services. It's easy to see why Ubisoft might not want to talk about him, but I think their games are improved when developers stop running from Clancy's problematic ideas and engage with them properly.

Ubisoft employee and Division 2 creative director Terry Spiers recently dodged a reporter's question on whether Ubisoft games are political by talking about the climate. He 'loved the coldness of the first game', and now wants players to 'feel the heat' of Washington DC, in which the second edition of Ubisoft's series is set. Great job Terry, but we're no closer to working out the extent to which Ubisoft games, and Tom Clancy titles in particular, should engage with their political undertones.

It's obvious why Ubisoft doesn't want to answer the question: over his lifetime, Clancy's books were infused by his political beliefs: the triumph of 'normal' people over a political class, a belief in the primacy of the US, and the infallibility of their armed forces. These themes are present, in a weak form, in the writing of Ubisoft games, but they're ignored in interviews because they conflict with those of Ubisoft's main audience. Gamers are typically liberal, and for a triple-A studio like Ubisoft, ensuring that your games have as universal appeal as possible is extremely important to allow you to sell copies of your game.

Enter Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot, who tried to clear up Spiers' ambiguity in a subsequent interview. The 'goal', he said, was to 'make people think'. He also believes that games can be simultaneously political and impartial. He wants to make the player more 'aware', but doesn't want his games to convey a particular charged message. In fact, Guillemot argues, because the player is the actor, video games shouldn't force the player to adhere to a particular ideology at all. That viewpoint is unhelpful: mainly because it's impractical. The more choice you give the player, the longer the development process, the longer the development process, the less profitable the game.

It's also problematic because the words of the Ubisoft CEO have almost no bearing on the gameplay features of its titles. Ubisoft's Tom Clancy games don't, generally, have many meaningful choices, and the first Division was no different. Players are forced down a tube of choices in a semi-open world, doing mission after mission in the lazy, cookie-cutter recipes we've come to expect from Ubisoft. The ideology of The Division I, like the Clancy titles that preceded it, is oppressive. The player is cast as an authoritarian enforcer, given absolute power in the face of a national pandemic: your shotgunning everyman spirit against the world.

Even the art design is politically activist. Ubisoft environmental team never fails to impress, and their 1:1 depiction of a broken Manhattan is no different. The city is covered in burns, scrapes, graffiti, and a never-ending wave of rubbish that piles up in streets and cascades out of alleyways. Ubisoft has created a deeply politically charged statement on the fragility of modern society, and it's disappointing that Guillemot is too scared of his shareholders to admit that.

Look, no one is arguing that the assertions made in Clancy games are correct, or even helpful to the political discourse. You're incentivised to make decisions that would make a real human pretty appalled: Killing looters with an automatic rifle, for example. That said, I don't think ignoring these statements in titles is helpful either. Forcing your ideology on your player is more productive, I would argue, than attempting to walk a tightrope between left and right wing. Giving your game a strong political conviction will make players 'think' more than giving it none at all: remaining politically neutral isn't celebrating the control inherent in video games, it's crushing their potential. Giving the player a greater element of choice will be useful over time, to explore the extent to which we are in control of our fate, but meaningful choice is difficult and expensive to develop in games. Let's not pretend that Tom Clancy titles give the player a huge range of ideological choices, but hiding that from your player base isn't productive either.


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