How Not To Politicise A Video Game

Myron Winter-Brownhill

Myron examines how games publishers exploit political iconography for profit.

On August 30th Ubisoft released a trailer for their new mobile game, Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad. Setting out the game’s story, the trailer describes a shadowy cabal named UMBRA that aims to build a new world order while claiming to ‘promote an egalitarian utopia’. 

Its symbol? A raised fist. An icon irrevocably – especially after this summer – connected to the global Black Lives Matter movement. After an internet backlash, Ubisoft released a statement vowing to pull the imagery from the game, saying they ‘listened’ to players.

Unfortunately this incident, which skates dangerously close to far-right conspiracy theories such as Q Anon, is part of a trend when it comes to Ubisoft’s publishing output. For years, Ubisoft has injected political aesthetics into its games without committing to anything beyond just that: their aesthetics.

In 2017, the Bolivian government made a formal complaint to the French Embassy (Ubisoft is a French publisher) over the portrayal of their country in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands. The game turned Bolivia into a narco-state which the player, as part of a fictional American ‘Ghost Recon’ fireteam, must work to dismantle. Ubisoft insisted that Bolivia was only chosen as a setting due to its ‘landscapes and rich culture’. 

Ubisoft has a history of using political context as set-dressing to sell a multi-million dollar mainstream video game, without meaningfully engaging with that material

On October 29th Ubisoft will release Watch Dogs: Legion, the third game in the Watch Dogs series. The game is set in a post-Brexit London of the near-future, heavily surveyed and brutally policed by private security firm, Albion. The player must dismantle this regime as part of hacker group DedSec, who have been framed for a terrorist attack on Parliament.

It remains to be seen how Watch Dogs: Legion will deal with the political landscape it’s planted itself in, but Ubisoft’s record doesn’t give much hope. As seen above, Ubisoft has a history of using political context as set-dressing to sell a multi-million dollar mainstream video game, without meaningfully engaging with that material.

This is especially worrying when it comes to Legion, whose promotional material co-opts counter-culture aesthetics. There’s a sad irony in the anti-corporate messaging that this corporation is using (see also: Watch Dogs 2, literally set in Silicon Valley) to sell its product. The sanitised aesthetic essentially neutralises any real significance that might be found within its iconography, reducing it to a marketable and accessible commodity.

All of this isn’t to say that Ubisoft games are apolitical, however. As I mentioned earlier, the BLM symbolism in Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad provoked outrage from many, but for some, this antagonistic context just accommodated their negative view of the symbol.

Beyond Elite Squad, Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy-licensed games often fall into a difficult grey area, given Clancy’s own conservative politics. His broadly pro-military views aren’t questioned in the products that bear his name. Instead, they’re blindly marketed as cool new games for young people spend £49.99 on (the US military itself is infiltrating the gaming market too, with disastrous results). Shadowy organisations, rogue governments, the prevalence of guns and military tactics, all slip by untested.

Corporations want to sell their product, not make radical political statements

Ubisoft isn’t alone in its half-hearted relationship with politics- Activision marketed Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019) on its controversial campaign. First and foremost these corporations want to sell their product, not make radical political statements. So can triple-A video games ever truly tackle anti-establishment politics, as Watch Dogs: Legion claims to?

Not while its CEOs are among the most overpaid in the US, or while its studios bend under the weight of years of abuse allegations sitting undealt with.

Perhaps, then, the answer lies with indie games like Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please, or Not Tonight, a ‘dark political comedy RPG set in dystopian post-Brexit Britain’, or ZA/UM’s critically acclaimed Disco Elysium. These games are much less afraid to make statements, and tie those statements into gameplay – such as the tense drudgery of Papers, Please, or the constant microaggressions in Not Tonight.

There’s always hope for the future. Video games have the potential to promote positive political messages, rather than co-opt them simply to appeal to consumers. Until then, the reality is that video games are big business, and most gamers will only play the biggest of them.

From Watch Dogs: Legion to the upcoming Far Cry 6, which tackles dictatorship and civil unrest; as long as products that look politically charged on the surface – but no deeper – continue to make millions, huge publishers like Ubisoft have no reason to change their tune.

Myron Winter-Brownhill

Featured image courtesy James Claffey via UnsplashImage use licence here. No changes made to this image.

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