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What the CEO of Epic Games gets wrong about video games and politics

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The mere mention of the word "politics" in any industry can lead to an explosion before anyone even finishes a sentence. Weve 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.

Despite Valve's espoused "neutrality," games like <em>Taiman Asagi</em> are not allowed on Steam.
Enlarge / Despite Valve's espoused "neutrality," games like Taiman Asagi are not allowed on Steam.

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 isnt 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 ones freedom to produce or watch porn. We just arent 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, its 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?

The escapist fun of <em>Fortnite</em> might not be politically controversial, but does that mean it can't be?
Enlarge / The escapist fun of Fortnite might not be politically controversial, but does that mean it can't be?

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 companys mission is a holy thing to it, right? Epics 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 managements or each others or whatever."

This makes any video game inherently different from To Kill a Mockingbird, which was the creation ofRead More – Source

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