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So last week I had examined the role of politics in video games. Politics – or culture/morality/society if you prefer a broader array of concepts – is a major force in our lives, and plays a role in art and entertainment. We can certainly choose to ignore that role, but to criticize that role mistakes what art and entertainment are and how they work, not to mention often resorting to bad faith attacks on the politics we don’t like while allowing and normalizing the politics we do like.
For this essay I wanted to engage in a case study to help examine the role of politics and the responsibility of anyone working in video games to take care about how politics is playing a role in video games. I plan on using this case study as a way of showing that even if someone isn’t trying to make a game political, the game still ends up being political in a way that is at the very least open to criticism. At worst, it can also be damaging in its effects.
Before leaping into the study itself, I wanted to do a brief recap of the three ways that a game could be considered “political,” to help orient us. If you didn’t read last week’s essay, this will provide some terms to understand what’s going on.
So in summary of the previous material, games can be political in three ways. They can be consciously political. This means that the game is exploring political themes or engaging in a direct or indirect praise or criticism of political systems. Games can also be unconsciously political. This means that the game uses political themes more as a springboard for some other purpose, but in doing so still says or implies some kind of political message. Finally, games can be interpreted as political. This means that a game that is “not political” is still examined through the lens of things like politics, culture, morality, and society to see how the game handles those themes well or poorly.
Now the focus of this case study will be on the controversy from a couple of years ago surrounding Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, a military shooter. In all honesty, I could have chosen just about any military shooter for this purpose. But The Division 2 gives the best foundation for looking at this topic.
The Division 2 stepped into controversy by using politics as setup for its narrative and setting. The game used the idea of the collapse of society and an impending civil war to set up the game’s heroes – the titular “Division” – and the player’s motivation. The themes of impending collapse, the fact that people who had been prepared for this collapse and had weapons to defend themselves were better able to survive, and the concept of civil war were all live topics going into the development process and afterwards. And so when the game was marketed and released with these themes, it was criticized for at best being thoughtless, and at worst tipping its hat toward a particular political viewpoint.
The premise I want to explore here is about the response from the development team in claiming that the game wasn’t meant to be “political.” This response is ultimately weak: the idea that the game wasn’t supposed to or meant to be political doesn’t serve as a valid excuse for this kind of material. And explaining why that’s the case is important. It goes back to the idea of attempting to downplay the role of politics in games and building a wall between them.
The Division 2’s premise is that a virus has hit the United States, causing the collapse of the US government and splitting people into small groups all vying for control. This leads to conflict among and against these groups as the government force – the Division – attempts to maintain control and protect civilians.
The controversy came from two major factors. Firstly, the marketing and setup for the game placed emphasis on how people who had guns were able to defend themselves in the chaos of the situation. This setup sent an implicit message that owning guns is an important protective measure: if things go bad, you want to have a gun to keep yourself safe. Secondly, some of the game’s factions and villains lean into the concept of government tyranny and secret organizations pulling the strings behind the scenes, setting up the idea that the heroes of the story are fighting against a corrupt system to restore life back to “normal.”
Those in the United States will be aware of the gun debate. The degree to which gun control regulations are constitutional, or whether we should allow everyone practically unfettered access to guns as they see fit, and how many people should own guns – all of these are part of a long-existing discussion in American politics (and not simply American politics). Moreover, American politics has long had a strain of thought that people need to own weapons in order to keep themselves safe, whether the thing they are keeping themselves safe from is criminals or a tyrannical government. And finally, the idea of the United States falling into a civil war as a result of collapse has been in the cultural milieu – even if on the outskirts of the discussion – for quite a while.
So the idea that people should own guns to protect themselves from in the event of a catastrophe, and that those who chose to buy guns kept themselves safe or were better able to stay safe, and that the country would effectively collapse and lead to conflict among a variety of groups vying for power, and that there is a secret organization controlling the conflict for their own purposes is all feeding into this pre-existing context. It’s all making a statement: you ought to get a gun just in case society collapses, or else you won’t be able to protect yourself; you ought to beware, because the government is corrupt.
This may seem like making a mountain out of a molehill: why does it really matter? Who cares if the game is making a statement about the ownership of weapons and tyranny? It’s just a story in a video game, after all, and it’s not like anyone is going to pay attention to it.
But this response goes back to the way we try to build a wall between “politics” and “art” or “entertainment.” Part of the wall implies that the two should never coexist, but it also implies they can’t affect each other. If a book or movie or video game makes a statement, it doesn’t mean anything: it’s just a statement that’s out there.
But the wall doesn’t exist. Politics and art are tied together, and they both affect each other.
In this case, when a piece of art makes a political statement, it stands out as a point of support for a political position. That statement can accomplish a whole host of goals. It can make certain ideas that are extreme seem normal. It can provide a justification for behavior that might otherwise seem odd. It can make a controversial idea seem perfectly legitimate. These statements don’t get thrown into a controlled vacuum. They have effects. And the more pieces of art and entertainment build on this idea, the greater the effect.
And those are the kinds of outcomes from something like The Division 2’s narrative. It takes an existing thought process – that we need to be owning guns to protect ourselves from all manner of threats and that the system is corrupted and needs to be removed and restored to its “true” purpose – and gives it a greater sense of legitimacy. In particular, that legitimacy essentially triumphs over the competing thought process – that we don’t need to be owning guns because we don’t require that degree of protection; that when the mask is finally pulled off there really is a secret organization pulling the strings. It becomes a political statement that doesn’t just step into an existing political debate, but comes down pretty clearly on one side of it.
In the wake of these controversies, developers tried to distance themselves from the ramifications of these political messages. This distancing mostly boiled down to constantly repeating “this isn’t a political statement.”
But that phrase doesn’t really mean anything. All it suggests, at best, is that the game isn’t consciously political. That the game isn’t attempting to specifically stake out a position on the various debates and offer praise or criticism of some specific political position. The game isn’t specifically telling people to buy guns to protect themselves, nor specifically encouraging the overthrow of the government. So obviously, it’s not making any political statement.
We can, of course, exercise some doubt that these choices were not made for the sake of sending a message. Insofar as writing teams are composed of many people – each of which with their own agendas – the idea that this premise was not proposed or written with the purpose of promoting a particular agenda is definitely hard to swallow. The fact that not everyone on the development or writing team subscribed to that agenda doesn’t remove the conscious messaging. It does make the messaging harder to track down, but it’s still there.
But let’s grant the premise that the story was written entirely without these messages in mind. That the political themes here are all mere setup, and literally nothing more. In that case, we’d say that this game is unconsciously political. But that doesn’t actually save it from the criticism being offered. In other words, it doesn’t really matter.
Why? Because the game is still ultimately sending those messages, whatever the intention of the team. We might say this is a case of the game’s themes getting out of the hands of the writing team. But to say it got out of hand presumes that that the team originally had control over the game’s message. If the message ultimately got out of hand, the responsibility falls upon them for not having a tighter grip upon the process.
When we step into political discussions, we take on an ethical responsibility. It becomes our duty to make sure that we are careful with what we say, and that means understanding how what we say will be perceived and interpreted by others. We aren’t required to account for everything and everyone – that would be impossible. But there are most certainly interpretations that we can expect, and we are responsible for those, even if we don’t endorse those interpretations. Because the message is ultimately being broadcast no matter our intention. And in the case of The Division 2, the message is being blared out loudly and clearly: the marketing, the setup, the narrative all amplify this message.
So when the development team argues that it is not trying to make a statement, it’s not necessarily a lie. It could be, of course. It could be the case that everyone is aware of the message and distancing themselves from it publicly. But it’s not really true, either. The team may not be making a statement, but a statement is still being sent out. It ultimately doesn’t matter at that point what the team intended.
Is there a case where we’d be able to say it’s worth taking the team’s intentions into account? Sure. If the statement were incredibly subtle, if we had to essentially do a lot of work to effectively create that statement, then we’d at least need to be careful about how we go about criticizing the development team. Because at that point, the team would have taken care to not make a statement in the first place.
But that’s not what’s going on with The Division 2. The statement is so incredibly clear that we need not do any additional work to find it. At that point, the team is subject to criticism. If they didn’t want to be attached to the statement, then it is ultimately their responsibility to prevent the statement from getting out. To ignore that responsibility – to pretend that we can’t be criticized for political statements that are clear but that we didn’t “make” – is to invite criticism for our own laziness.
So what’s the response after the fact? How should a team handle criticism like this? Saying “we are not making a political statement” is ultimately unhelpful. It provides no information, and doesn’t acknowledge the problem. The response is to trace out the process: how did the messaging get in? how did it get out of hand? how could it have been reined in? These are, essentially, errors in the process. Errors are ultimately forgivable. But that forgiveness first requires an acknowledgement of the error. When we mess up, we accept that we’ve messed up and figure out how to do better. To say “I am not making a political statement” is simply to say “I did not mess up.”
I’ve used this case study to help expand on the ways in which video games and politics ultimately relate to one another. We often think of games making “political statements” in terms of whether the developer meant to make some kind of claim that the player would understand.
But that’s not quite how it works. These kinds of conscious statements are, of course, part of what constitutes a “political statement.” But games can make political statements outside of that context. They can make political statements on their own. More accurately, the content of the game – what the story and setting promote or highlight or ignore – is all part of a political statement that the player is ultimately going to take away from the experience, consciously or unconsciously. And those kinds of political statements are still the responsibility of the developers.
So we often think about video games in politics in terms of a simple binary: did the developer intend to make a political statement? If yes, then the statement can be analyzed and criticized. If no, then even if the game itself is making a statement, the developer can’t be criticized for it. But that binary doesn’t work. We are still responsible, at least to some degree, for what we say. That is true even when what we say does not fully match up with what we intend. If we do not take care with our words, then we are responsible for the outcome.