I’d like to start off this article by having you, the reader, look at the following image:
On the surface, this tired old argument is every bit as ignorant as it is, but what it is is part of a falsehood that game companies have cultivated, going back all the way to the days of the NES when it came out in the 80s.
What do I mean in this context?
Well, if we look at how Nintendo became as successful as it has, we see the seeds of how gamers fight to keep politics out of games while not seeing it in their own even then.
The Gaming Historian has a great video about ROB the Robot that describes the brief history of video games in the wake of the crash of Atari and how Nintendo worked to make the NES a success.
(I recommend watching the whole video, and just his channel in general as it’s really good.)
Essentially, Nintendo worked to make the NES a family friendly gaming computer in their marketing instead of a video game console, and as such didn’t court anything too controversial. Much like Disney, in making it family friendly, there’s not much overtly political about the games of that era.
Mind you, I said overtly. After all, the Metal Gear series started out on the NES, and there are politics in everything.
Once the 90s came around, games became more mature, especially once the Playstation came out, and by mature I mean they featured more scantily clad women and more gruesome acts of violence. Of course, most people who are as old as I am (41 years old) automatically think of Mortal Kombat once I mentioned the gruesome acts of violence. In fact, I’d argue that Mortal Kombat was the first game to truly make us think about the kinds of works that video games could bring us. Former US Senator Mr Lieberman certainly thought as much, even if he went about it in a grandiose, moralizing way that made video games the defacto punching bag and reason for why there were so many mass shootings in the US for years after.
But what Mortal Kombat, along with Doom and Night Trap, did was show there was a market for mature buyers, and it was one that video game companies aggressively went after for years and years afterwards.
Dead Or Alive, one of many longstanding fighter games, promoted bouncing boob physics and Kasumi’s… ninja outfit
Dead Or Alive Volleyball actually poked fun at those interested in pix-elated boobs.
Doom made its career on being all about tearing out the blood and guts of demons and zombies, and EA has long since made its mainstay all about first person shooters in various war periods from World War 2 to the Middle East today.
Tomb Raider devs made the lead, Lara Croft, a woman because, according to urban myth, developers didn’t want to look at a man’s butt all day.
Essentially, a large portion of video game developers during the 90s went after the young, white male demographic hard, and with large success. It’s not to say that all games were made to cater to them, but a large number were.
I write this all out to paint the picture of how many gamers are straight, white, cisgender and able-bodied, and how such an audience has all the privileges therein, myself included (white, cisgender, able bodied). What such a group with all the privileges therein tend to think is that anything political is anything that has someone other than a straight, white, cisgender able bodied male on the cover.
Going back up to the start of this article, it’s no coincidence that the gamer believes that the games with no politics (and thus are the good ones) has white male characters centered in the game and on the cover, for the most part. If you’ve been catered to for so long, and over a wide variety of media and not just video games, than any attention not given your way is seen as bad.
Or as someone once said, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality seems like oppression. A search of the Internet provided no concrete answer as to who first coined the term, but it’s apt here, and elsewhere.
Gamers still don’t like it when a game comes out that’s not exclusively modeled to them, and they will loudly, and proudly, decry it as making things political or even, in the case of the inclusion of black soldiers in Battlefield 1, ‘black-washing history.’
Additional proof can be seen not just in gamers, but in developers themselves, such as when Escape from Tarkov developers claimed that women weren’t in the game because women aren’t psychologically equipped to handle the stress. Ubisoft was rightly taken to task for saying women were too hard to animate as the reason why there weren’t any playable female assassins in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.
What these examples indicate is how game companies can reflect the toxic, ignorant views of their fans because they, like their fans, were raised in this society we live in that promotes straight, white, male and cisgender as the default. And when you’re surrounded by that messaging, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you absorb the messages whether they’re overt or covert. It’s why even a kid friendly game like Super Mario Bros has politics in it, because in the end, Princess Peach isn’t a character unto herself, but a goal, a prize, for Mario to win.
This was an attitude that video game companies honestly did little to dissuade, more than likely out of fear of alienating many of their buyers without thinking about the ones who Gamers worked to gatekeep out of their hobby/identity. It certainly didn’t help that during the rise of the hate group, Gamergate, video game companies did nothing about it.
In fact,Blizzard mourned the death of once prominent Gamergate cheerleader Total Biscuit, without regard for how he helped to keep the harassment movement popular by promoting their lies of ‘ethics of video game journalism.’
Of course, there’s also the horrible bro culture of Riot Games and how women, and some men, therein were treated, with often disregard for their input, emotional manipulation of their passion for video games, and listening again to the toxic fans who hate women.
Again, this is all painting the context of how gamers, and some video game companies, have come to embrace the falsehood that politics should be kept out of video games. For the most part that is.
Another popular adaptation of this by those on the alt-right is ‘get woke go broke’ which, like keeping politics out of games, is a falsehood that’s been proven false time and time again. You’ve more than likely seen it with regards to Birds of Prey not making Avengers Endgame movie as proof that not catering to straight white cis men is a path to failure.
It’s false, and those of us who know this is false often don’t bother trying to explain this to such staunch defenders because they’re more interested in promoting the falsehood and making it reality. It’s a sign of our society about how white male privilege is viewed, which is becoming not just more critical, but more widely seen via the various social media feeds that are out there.
Combined with how simply being a straight white man no longer all but guarantees you a good life*, we have people holding onto the idea of keeping politics out of games that much more. I can only theorize here but to me gamers are adamant about this because it’s one of the few avenues of escape they have left. If you want to find a game that reduces women to nothing but sexual objects, you can still easily find them.
Most likely on Steam, as their vetting process leaves a lot to be desired.
So any changes made to make a young female teenager seem less like a sexual object (Tokyo Mirrage Sessions), any inclusion of black people or women in a war game (Battlefield 1 & 2), and having a gay lead be on the cover of your game (Overwatch & Last of Us 2), then these are signs that those people are intruding where they don’t belong, and by god, you have to fight to keep them out and your identity pure.
If you think that’s an extreme idea, then it’s more than likely that you don’t live your life as someone on the margins of society, or who is lower in privileged standing than a straight, white, cis man.
It is changing for the better, piece by piece, and that many people don’t hold this opinion, both those of us who play games and those that make them. Ubisoft apologized for their comments about women as playable characters and subsequently made 3 more Assassin’s Creed games that featured women and black men in leading roles as playable characters.
Bethesda Software leaned heavily into ‘pushing their politics’, taking an antagonizing approach to their ad campaign of recent Wolfenstein games, and Naughty Dog refused to take Ellie off the cover of the Last of Us.
There’s still a long ways to go, but we’re moving forward, and in spite of the best efforts of such Gamers who wish, ney, demand politics be kept out of games.
*That’s not to say that because you are a straight white cis man, you don’t have problems, don’t deal with thoughts of depression and suicide and other issues. What it does mean is that the issues that marginalized people deal with are ones you don’t have to deal with, like systemic racism, the policing of your body and hair, trying to use the bathroom as a transgender person.