Aurich Lawson / Getty
Mere mention of the word "politics" in any industry can lead to an explosion before anyone ends a sentence. We saw it recently in basketball, in the film industry and, not surprisingly, in video games.
Now Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, uttered the P-word and more in a speech that plunged him into the middle of a possible explosion. At a broad keynote speech at Tuesday's DICE summit (as reported by numerous participating outlets), Sweeney suggested that while individual games could and should make political statements, game companies like Epic should remain diligently neutral on political issues. Sweeney later provided more context for these comments in a Twitter thread and the related answers.
Sweeney tries to walk a fine line here to allow the platform owner a wide-ranging individual expression and at the same time to maintain political silence as a business unit. However, these dueling principles can come into conflict because the production and sale of games, like the production and sale of other works of art, involves a number of inherently political decisions and forms of expression.
A neutral platform
Despite some reports, reading Sweeney's statements carefully does not indicate a tough stance on the role of politics in games. His approach is actually a fairly nuanced attempt to balance a lot of competing factors of individual and collective self-expression.
In his role as a company behind the Epic Games Store, for example, he firmly believes that "we as platforms should be neutral," as he said at DICE. "If a company runs an ecosystem where users and developers can express themselves, they should be a neutral moderator," he added on Twitter. "Otherwise the potential for undue influence from inside or outside is far too high."
This position reflects Valve's nearly two-year-old stance on moderating Steam games, which is "letting everything into the Steam Store except for what we believe to be illegal or trolling." And although in principle it is a good position, in practice it contains innumerable political decisions. This is especially true for games that deal with adult issues, extreme violence or real situations, as we have pointed out several times in the recent past of Valve.
/. Despite Valve's "neutrality", games like Taiman Asagi are not allowed on Steam.
But while Valve allows virtually anyone to submit a game to Steam through the Steam Direct program, Epic has so far chosen a more curated approach and selected a relative handful of handpicked games for the Epic Games Store. This allows Sweeney to say that a theoretical, politically sensitive game "can only be judged by quality" when evaluating its potential inclusion in the Epic Games Store.
I'm really struggling to imagine an objective "quality" evaluation that could be done without considering the potentially controversial content of a game. Regardless, there is at least one public exception to Epic's belief that "quality is everything that matters" and that it includes sexual content.
"Decisions on which broad product categories a store sells are not political, and the Epic Games Store's decision to focus on general games and not sell porn is no more political than our decision not to sell spreadsheet software," Sweeney tweeted , "In none of our endeavors has Epic ever taken a stand against the freedom of individuals to produce or watch porn. We are simply not in the business of selling them."
No one would suggest that the Epic Games Store should be forced to sell porn games or spreadsheet software. Whether we are talking about the verdict on what counts as pornography, how it should be disseminated, or whether sexuality and nudity are used to represent an artistic point of view is by definition everything in the political arena. And despite Sweeney's description of the Epic Games Store as "an ecosystem in which users and developers can express themselves", the company has decided that users and developers cannot express themselves in this way regardless of "pure quality". This is not a controversial decision, but a political one in the broadest sense.
Again, it's okay to draw a content-based line on these things. This particular line of pornography is one that content platforms from YouTube to Facebook found pleasant. However, drawing such a line suggests that there are some expressions that Epic cannot even consider as a platform. And maybe this line will shift in the future, as Valve did in 2018.
The mockingbird test
While Sweeney says platforms should remain neutral, he acknowledges that games themselves can and should be political in nature. What is decisive is which part of the company the political expression comes from.
"If a game is about politics, like To Kill a Mockingbird as a novel, it should come from the heart of the creative, not from marketing departments trying to capitalize on the split," Sweeney tweeted.
At first glance, this seems like a good position – who (other than a few shareholders) wants a marketing department to push the creative direction of a game studio? But this kind of separation of "art against marketing" may not be possible in practice.
To give a completely theoretical example, the Fortnite development team has created a new map that includes a slowly unfolding island-wide crisis as a barely-disguised metaphor for global climate change. In a relatively clear political statement, fixing the in-game problem would require a critical mass of people who choose to stop fighting and working together for their own benefit to reverse the consequences of this crisis before it is too late.
Sweeney would probably have no problem with such a statement if it came from the "heart of the creative" of the Fortnite team. But such a clear statement in the game in Epic's biggest title would implicitly bind the company as a whole to a position that some players might consider politically controversial. Would the marketing department or the company as a whole be willing to "benefit from the split" to support such a potentially divisive mode? Would that be the case if the topic were more controversial than climate change?
/. Fortnite's escape fun may not be politically controversial, but does that mean it can't be?
There is an inherent conflict between what a single developer at Epic wants to say and what Epic as a game development studio wants to leave its company name behind. This is a conflict that Sweeney seems to understand at some level.
"A company is a group of people who come together to accomplish a mission that is greater than what a person can do," said Sweeney at DICE. "And a company's mission is a sacred thing, isn't it? Epic's mission is to develop great technology and great games. And we can rely on every Epic employee – we can even ask everyone at Epic to be behind them Mission unites. But everyone In other matters, we have to respect their personal opinions. And they can be different from those of management or others or whatever. "
This is what distinguishes each video game from To Kill a Mockingbird, which was created by a single author. In video games as well as in other collaborative art forms such as film and television, the overall direction is the result of countless decisions by large and small creative employees.
In some collaborative projects, an authorized "author" can direct the actions of the collective whole to a specific political message – see Hideo Kojima and the obvious metaphors of Death Stranding for a recent example. In other cases, the work becomes more of a collaborative vision, in which numerous departments and managers work together to create a kind of coherent whole. The hundreds of untitled developers listed in Fortnite's credits suggest that it's more the latter.
Games are not fast food
Can such a diffuse, largely flat collection of developers even agree on a coherent political statement in their game? And if it could, would Epic welcome it? Some of Sweeney's statements suggest that this may not be the case.
"The world is really messed up right now. Our political orientations are determining which fast food chicken restaurant you're going to," he said at DICE in an obvious reference to Chik-Fil-A & # 39; s controversial corporate decisions. "And that's really stupid. There's no reason to draw such divisive issues into the game at all."
It appears here that Sweeney specifically focuses on company executives who use company donations or speeches to express the feelings of the entire workforce. "I just don't think it's appropriate for a person like a company's CEO to include their company and their employees in their personal policies outside of the company's mission," he said in a tweet.
"I think a company like this shouldn't take a position on such an issue because it's outside the scope of its mission," he said in another tweet. "If our mission is to prepare great food and thousands of employees have come together to support it, why should they be involved in a problem that many disagree with?"
Not a video game.
Here's the thing: video games are not fast food. They can be designed to bring the greatest possible benefit to their players, be it by nibbling quarters or by selling microtransactions. However, they are not single, repeated copies of a recipe. They are works of art that, due to their nature, require expressive decisions, whether large or small, as a collective. These decisions sometimes require a political explanation by working in a way that does not require the production of chicken sandwiches.
A CEO or marketing department should probably not be the one to make these decisions. However, a gaming company should be ready to empower its creative team to make such statements if it so wishes.
If the only statements you want to make with a game are those that can leave all of your thousands of employees behind, this can be an excuse to make only the safest, least controversial art possible. Or it can lead to situations where companies reject the obvious expressiveness of their own products, for example when Ubisoft ridiculously suggested that The Division 2 make no political statement.
For years, players have argued that video games are a medium of expression that should be protected by the first change. If so, companies have to do more than remain neutral when it comes to the political statements of their own games. They must actively support their creators and wholeheartedly support their ability to express themselves through their games.
This is especially true when these terms are controversial. Or if they are "political".