Politicizing video games

23 August 2009
10:57 pm

gaymarriage Shadow Complex, a new release to the Xbox Live Arcade, has generated a bit of controversy since its debut last week. The Super Metroid-inspired sidescroller is set in the universe of Orson Scott Card's Empire series and opposition to the game has been brewing by gamers unhappy with the controversial author's political views– specifically regarding statements he's made about gay people and gay marriage. Sidestepping the political concerns for a moment, by all accounts the game itself has been phenomenally well-received, getting near unanimous positive reviews and a score of 89 on the aggregate Metacritic. According to the developers, Card's role in the development of the game was minimal, although the game itself is an intended tie-in between the first Empire novel and its sequel. Nevertheless debates have started frothing between gamers who are contemplating a boycott and those who are unconcerned with the controversy or feel the issue is irrelevant.

An argument certainly can be made for separating an artist's opinions from their art. It's even easier when dealing with a video game; these things are not created by individuals but teams and groups and companies. It's hard to pin responsibility for abhorrent political opinions (and make no mistake, Card's opinions about the LGBT community certainly are abhorrent) when it takes many individuals to create a game. Other than Card, the political opinions of those involved are unknown. All the same, he will certainly be making money from this, and it's not a leap to assume that a percentage of gamers whose first exposure to Card was through Shadow Complex would be compelled to purchase the novels the story is set in.

I tend to dislike the concept of boycotts on the whole; I think that whatever good they accomplish tends to be overshadowed by the negative opinions people have about the act (not to mention those who are then inspired to purchase or patronize whatever is being boycotted in the first place out of spite.) I do absolutely agree with education, though. Until I started seeing stuff about this flying past my RSS feeds I didn't know Card was involved in it at all. To be fair, part of that is the fact that I hadn't been all that interested in the game in the first place– even though it's gotten fantastic reviews, I'm still a console Luddite and really shy away from doing anything on them. The Xbox here is used more for playing DVDs than actual games, so it's likely that I'd just missed references to Card in my overall ennui. Even still, knowing he was a part of it doesn't diminish my interest quite as much as seeing that it's based on Empire, which in and of itself is some paranoid right-wing circlejerk against the evils of liberalism.

I would never orchestrate an organized boycott against something except in an extreme circumstance, and given that Card's role in this is a small part in the total sum of work by many other individuals whose perspectives on gay rights and gay marriage I do not know, I don't feel this is one. However, individuals are certainly allowed to make their own moral judgments on where they want their money to go and I can understand those who want no part in this because of the horrible viewpoints Card has expressed publicly, repeatedly and unrepentantly. I first read the Ender series in high school and it was one of my favorite pieces of science fiction, up there with my idolization of Isaac Asimov. I was very disappointed to later learn about Card's vehement vitriol against gay people and, as my own act of protest, packaged the whole set up with a note back to his publisher that I didn't want to keep them in my house anymore. When Advent Rising was released I debated on whether or not I should purchase it. (In a bit of schadenfreude, it was such a buggy flop that I felt a bit better afterward.)

A lot of gnashing has been made by those who disagree with the side criticism against Card because Shadow Complex is "just a game." I agree with the perspective of Christian Nutt in his article on Gamasutra; a lot of pathetic, anti-social behavior seems to get a pass because the context in which it happens is "just a game." I have complained about this frequently here, and I think it's just an inexcusable cop-out. This might be just a game, but it's also a job for those who created it, which means financial compensation. I am not privy to what Card was paid for his part in development, but given his outspoken activism against gay rights (he even sits on the board for the National Organization for Marriage, an abysmal fundamentalist-Christian front group responsible for stirring up ridiculous propaganda against gay marriage) it's not a stretch to assume that the income he receives will be used, at least in part, to further his political agendas.

By way of caveat to the above, the Empire setting was not actually created by Card, but the developers behind the game. Someone else, Peter David, actually wrote the script for the story and has expressed his dislike with Card's opinions in many places. Not knowing the intricacies in how Card was paid for writing Empire and its sequel is part of the reason that I think calls for a boycott about this might be a little misguided, but even if he doesn't make a cent from the game or its two novels (something I find unlikely), there is still a real likelihood that this game could generate attention for his other bodies of work as well. This was a fantastic post I read about the issue: "His product is not his message, but he's taking advantage of the audience it gives him to spread his message."

In the end it's a matter of personal choice; if someone's so bothered by Card's name being on this that they can't take it, I certainly think they're entitled to refuse to buy the game. Personally I like the advice I read on GayGamer about this: "Enjoy it, but offset the hate: if you buy Shadow Complex, donate $5, $10, $15 if you can spare it to a gay charity. Let them know why you're giving the money. Card won't get nearly that much per game."

But whatever your opinion about this particular issue, it's obvious that the trappings of "just a game" are falling away. As the genre itself matures, these issues are going to only be more and more commonplace. The days where video games were simply a form a mindless entertainment are behind us; increasingly they are bodies of art themselves, just as valid pieces of social commentary and story as any novel or movie. It's going to be harder to justify a disinterest in the political perspectives they might avow in the future as developers take more chances at injecting them into their stories. And it's going to be harder to consider irrelevant the off-game political perspectives of the people who create those games as well.

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