Out of all the companies in the $160bn gaming industry, it was indie marketplace Itch.io, with a staff of just six employees, that took the biggest stand on Black Lives Matter. It collected more than 1,700 games in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality and sold it for just $5. The company quickly blew past its funding target of $100,000 and even its stretch goal of $5m, ultimately raising $8.1m for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Community Bail Fund.
It wasn’t alone in making a substantial contribution. Humble Bundle raised $4.3m with a similar deal, while Pokémon Go creator Niantic pledged a minimum $5m and published a thorough plan for how to combat racism in the company. Outside of these, though, the response of most games companies to the global protests has been relatively muted, ranging from vague social media posts condemning racism to delayed game releases and the hesitant inclusion of Black Lives Matter messaging into game worlds. The donations of the biggest companies were dwarfed by Itch.io’s fundraiser. It has been hard to tell whether developers actually support protesters or are simply motivated by PR concerns, saying something because it looked better than saying nothing.
Like many others, the gaming industry suffers from a lack of diversity in senior roles, a fact underlined by the limited representation within games themselves. So why didn’t companies seize this chance to demonstrate real solidarity?
The answer: “Keep your politics out of my games.” This familiar phrase is the rallying cry of the reactionaries responsible for Gamergate, a 2014 hate campaign attacking those perceived as promoting progressive values in games. When Rockstar paused internet play of Grand Theft Auto Online and Red Dead Online for two hours to “honour the legacy of George Floyd”, fans were furious. The Last of Us Part II, an unapologetically diverse blockbuster, has recently been the target of review bombing, where aggrieved gamers tip the scales of review aggregators by leaving thousands of 0/10 user ratings. The most extreme will label as “political” any game that has a woman or minorities as playable characters. They want games to remain white, straight and male, even though these descriptors are ever less representative of the global gaming population.
With all this vitriol directed towards any company decision that could be deemed “political”, it’s no wonder that the industry is nervous about speaking out. But how did politics in games become so controversial in the first place? While a novel about a political ideology is regarded as exploring, rather than condoning, that viewpoint, games are not granted the same latitude. The main argument goes: we play games to escape from the problems and drudgery of the real world, so why drag the interminable misery of politics into our sweet fantasy?
However, it’s not a case of developers suddenly opening the floodgates to allow politics into gaming. Games have been political all along.
I’m not just talking about the undergraduate-grade communist readings of Super Mario, fun as they are — plumber Mario (the proletariat) travels through green pipes (seizing the means of production) to take down King Bowser (the monarchy), in a re-enactment of the Russian Revolution made all the more striking for Mario’s Lenin-esque facial hair and cap. In fact, many games are seriously, explicitly political: they tell stories of colonising new worlds, stealing and gathering resources, rebels attacking social systems and armies defending them. Most pertinently, countless titles compel you to exact justice with violence.
Yet even when games are obviously political, developers often pretend otherwise. They release games about religious militias raging through modern America (Far Cry 5), or Washington DC carved up into a tribal war zone (Tom Clancy’s The Division 2), and claim they aren’t political. It’s a kind of marketing sleight-of-hand, an attempt to borrow the freshness of contemporary politics without taking a stance explicit enough to alienate players or damage the bottom line.
While game companies were cultivating vague responses to Black Lives Matter, gamers were organising. They took to the pixelated streets in The Sims, Splatoon, NBA 2K20 and World of Warcraft. Meanwhile, over the past week, a wave of #MeToo-style harassment allegations has been sweeping the gaming world. A social and political reckoning is in the air across the creative industries. I doubt games companies will be able to tiptoe around the edges of politics for much longer.