The mere mention of the word “politics” in any industry can lead to an explosion before anyone even finishes a sentence. We’ve seen it recently in basketball, the film industry, and, unsurprisingly, video games.
Now Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney has uttered the p-word, and much more, in a speech that has thrown him right in the middle of a potential explosion. At a wide-ranging DICE Summit keynote speech Tuesday (as reported by numerous outlets who attended), Sweeney concluded by suggesting that while individual games can and should make political statements, game companies like Epic should remain studiously neutral on any political issues. Sweeney later provided more context for those remarks in a Twitter thread and its associated responses.
Sweeney is trying to walk a thin tightrope here, allowing for wide-ranging individual expression as a platform holder while trying to maintain political silence as a corporate entity. But those dueling principles can come into inherent conflict because producing and selling games, like producing and selling any other work of art, involves any number of inherently political choices and expressions.
A neutral platform
Despite some reporting, a close reading of Sweeney’s statements doesn’t suggest a hardline stance on the role of politics in games. His take is actually a pretty nuanced attempt to balance a lot of competing factors of individual and collective self-expression.
In Epic’s role as the company behind the Epic Games Store, for instance, he’s adamant that “we as platforms should be neutral,” as he said at DICE. “When a company operates an ecosystem where users and creators can express themselves, they should be a neutral moderator,” he added on Twitter. “Else the potential for undue influence from within or without is far too high.”
That position echoes Valve’s nearly two-year-old stance for Steam game moderation, which is “to allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal or straight-up trolling.” And while it’s a fine position in principle, in practice it involves countless arguably political decisions. That’s especially true concerning games involving adult themes, extreme violence, or real-world situations, as we’ve pointed out many times in Valve’s recent past.
But while Valve allows practically anyone to submit a game to Steam via the Steam Direct program, Epic has so far taken a more curated approach, selecting a relative handful of hand-picked games for the Epic Games Store. That allows Sweeney to say that a theoretical, politically sensitive game could be “judged purely on quality” when evaluating its potential inclusion on the Epic Games Store.
I have real trouble envisioning any sort of objective “quality” evaluation that could be deployed without consideration of a game’s potentially controversial content. Regardless, there’s at least one public exception to Epic’s “quality is all that matters” stance, and it involves sexual content.
“Decisions on which broad categories of products a store sells are not political, and the Epic Games Store decision to focus on general games and not sell porn isn’t any more political than our decision to not sell spreadsheet software,” Sweeney tweeted. “In none of our endeavors has Epic ever taken a position against one’s freedom to produce or watch porn. We just aren’t in the business of selling it.”
No one would suggest that the Epic Games Store should be forced to sell porn games or spreadsheet software. But whether we talk about the judgment of what counts as pornography, how its distribution should be enforced, or whether sexuality and nudity is being employed to make an artistic point, it’s all, by definition, in the political realm. And despite Sweeney’s description of the Epic Games Store as “an ecosystem where users and creators can express themselves,” the company has decided those users and creators can’t express themselves in this particular way, regardless of any “pure quality” evaluation. That’s not a controversial decision, but it is a political one in the broadest sense.
Again, it’s fine to draw a content-based line on these things. This particular line on pornography is one that content platforms from YouTube to Facebook have felt comfortable drawing. But the drawing of such a line suggests there are some types of expression that Epic is not comfortable with even considering as a platform. And maybe that line will move in the future, as Valve’s did in 2018.
The Mockingbird test
While Sweeney says platforms should stay neutral, he acknowledges that games themselves can and should be inherently political. What matters, he argues, is what part of the company that political expression comes from.
“If a game tackles politics, as To Kill a Mockingbird did as a novel, it should come from the heart of creatives and not from marketing departments seeking to capitalize on division,” Sweeney tweeted.
On the surface, this seems like a fine position to take—who (besides some shareholders) would want a marketing department to drive the creative direction of a game studio? But this kind of “art vs. marketing” separation might not be feasible in practice.
To take a completely theoretical example: say the Fortnite development team created a new map that included a slowly unfolding, island-wide crisis as a thinly veiled metaphor for global climate change. In a relatively clear political statement, fixing the in-game problem would require a critical mass of people deciding to stop fighting each other for their own benefit and working together to reverse the consequences of this crisis before it’s too late.
Presumably, Sweeney would have no problem with such a statement if it came from the “heart of creatives” on the Fortnite team. But such a clear in-game statement in Epic’s largest title would implicitly tie the company as a whole to a position some players may see as politically controversial. Would the marketing department, or the company as a whole, be willing to “capitalize on division” in backing such a potentially divisive mode? Would the same apply if the issue was more controversial than climate change?
There’s an inherent conflict here between what an individual developer at Epic might want to say and what Epic, as a game development studio, might want to put its corporate name behind. That’s a conflict Sweeney seems to understand on some level.
“A company is a group of people who get together to accomplish a mission that is larger than what any one person can do,” Sweeney said at DICE. “And a company’s mission is a holy thing to it, right? Epic’s mission is to build great technology and great games. And we can count on every employee at Epic—we can even demand every employee at Epic unite behind that mission. But every other matter we have to respect their personal opinions. And they may differ from management’s or each other’s or whatever.”
This makes any video game inherently different from To Kill a Mockingbird, which was the creation of a single author. In video games, as in other collaborative art forms like film and TV, the overall direction is the result of countless decisions from creative employees big and small.
In some collaborative projects, one empowered “auteur” is able to direct the actions of the collective whole toward a certain political statement—see Hideo Kojima and the obvious metaphors of Death Stranding for one recent example. In other cases, the work becomes more of a collaborative vision, with numerous departments and executives working together to create some kind of cohesive whole. The hundreds of titleless developers listed in Fortnite‘s credits suggests it’s more the latter case.
Games are not fast food
Can such a diffuse, largely flat collection of developers even agree on a coherent political statement in its game? And if it could, would Epic welcome it? Some of Sweeney’s statements suggest it might not.
“The world is really screwed up right now. Right now our political orientations determine which fast-food chicken restaurant you go to,” he said at DICE, in an obvious reference to Chik-Fil-A’s controversial corporate giving decisions. “And that’s really dumb. There’s no reason to drag divisive topics like that into gaming at all.”
It seems here that Sweeney is specifically focused on company executives using corporate donations or speech to represent the feelings of the entire workforce. “I just don’t feel it’s appropriate for one person, like a company CEO, to draw their company and its employees into their personal politics outside of the company’s mission,” he said in a tweet.
“I think a company like that shouldn’t take a position on an issue like this, because it’s out of the scope of their mission,” he said in another tweet. “If one’s mission is to make great food, and 1000’s of employees have come together to support that, why drag them into an issue many disagree on?”
Here’s the thing: video games are not fast food. They may be designed to extract maximum value out of their players, whether by munching quarters or selling microtransactions. But they’re not individual, repeated copies of a recipe. They’re works of art that by their inherent nature require making expressive decisions, big and small, as a collective. Those decisions sometimes require making a political statement through the work in a way that creating chicken sandwiches does not require.
A CEO or a marketing department probably shouldn’t be the ones driving those decisions. But a gaming company should be willing to empower its creative team to make those kinds of statements if they want to.
If the only statements you’re willing to make with a game are ones that all of your thousands of employees can get behind, that can end up being an excuse to make only the safest, least controversial art possible. Or it can lead to situations where companies disavow the obvious expressive nature of their own products, like when Ubisoft laughably suggested that The Division 2 is not making any political statement.
For years, gamers have argued that video games are an expressive medium worthy of protection by the First Amendment. If that’s the case, companies have to do more than remaining neutral when it comes to their own games’ political statements. They have to actively support their creators and whole-heartedly back their ability to express themselves through their games.
That’s especially true when those expressions are controversial. Or when they’re “political.”