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Video games should not try to avoid politics

In a recent interview with CNBC anchor Becky Quick, Activision CEO Bobby Kotick explained that he doesn’t view the company’s role as being “the operator of the world’s town halls” and that his role as CEO “doesn’t convey to me the right to have a platform for a lot of political views.”

The response – which some have interpreted as Kotick basically saying that Activision’s games should avoid politics – is an artful dodge to a question regarding Hong Kong protests that have embroiled Activision in controversy. But it’s worth noting that Quick never used the word “politics” or whether politics had a role in games. Her question asked about the role of CEOs.

Kotick’s response – which you can read in full here – is not entirely unexpected. Gamers are a diverse group, and Activision taking clearly-defined political views on sensitive topics could jeopardize its business. That’s not to argue that Activision should, for instance, punish esports stars for protesting China’s crackdown in Hong Kong. It shouldn’t, in my view, and people are right to call Activision out for it.

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I want to pivot away from Kotick, though, since his comments are not all that revealing. The discussion of how far video games and video game companies should tread into politics is an interesting topic that is worth exploring. Kotick’s comments and the surrounding media coverage can facilitate a broader discussion, which is definitely worth having.

Some may disagree, but I firmly believe that video game developers absolutely should incorporate political themes, hot-button debates on controversial issues, and cultural tensions in their narratives. Not only does the inclusion of political controversies enrich the story, but it also forces players to critically think about their actions. When done well, it can facilitate empathy.

Furthermore, it’s preposterous to suggest that games about war or any other form of conflict should avoid politics. How is a game like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Wolfenstein supposed to do that? The story, characters, and actions in the game are inherently political in nature.

While a basic “good versus evil” storyline works fine in games like Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda, developers who try to dumb down war stories treat video game audiences as ignorant, incapable of considering multiple perspectives, weighing evidence, and drawing their own conclusions. It’s insulting to the intelligence of gamers, and it makes for a less interesting game.

Let’s go even further, though. Just think about the argument that video games should be totally devoid of politics. If we, as gamers, consider video games to be a form of art on par with cinema, plays, and literature, how could the industry avoid the sensitive cultural issues of our time? How are we supposed to find meaning, learn, and grow while burying our head in the sand? It makes no sense at all.

The position that video games should completely avoid politics basically argues that video games should be a mindless affair, an amusement tantamount to a carnival game. It does not hold the industry in high esteem as a powerful storytelling medium. It relegates gaming to a lower form of art, one with far less societal value than film and books.

Before closing, I would like to make two things abundantly clear. The first is that I am not arguing that it is necessary for all games to incorporate political themes or that games without political themes cannot be considered art. Rather, I am arguing that video game developers should not actively try to avoid politics. If necessary for the plot, developers should not be afraid to tackle hot-button issues.

Some of the most beloved video games – like Final Fantasy VII and basically the entire Metal Gear Solid franchise – are highly political in nature. Not only are their stories steeped in politics, but they touch on topics – like terrorism, privacy, and basic human rights – that are not only relevant but that will divide audiences. And that’s okay!

As with film and literature, video game developers should not shy away from politics just because it makes some people uncomfortable. When incorporated well, political themes can enrich a game’s story, teach audiences, and encourage players to see things from someone else’s perspective.

Second, I do not hold the position that video game companies or their executives should be intimately involved in the political process, especially elections. For that matter, I don’t think that corporations – more broadly speaking – should be involved in our elections at all, especially when it comes to funding favored candidates, despite the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. Treating a corporation as a person and money as speech is a perversion of our democracy.

The bottom line is this: it is one thing for video game developers and story writers to freely express themselves and explore controversial ideas. It’s another matter entirely for large corporations to push a self-serving agenda or to punish esports stars for expressing their support for democracy abroad. The former is a legitimate form of expression; the latter undermines democracy.