Epic Games is no stranger to controversy, but the statements of one man read like some of the dumbest screeds I have ever read. During his keynote talk at the annual DICE Summit, Epic Games founder and CEO Tim Sweeney says that gaming must be “neutral ground” on all fronts so that developers can make games and those games can be sold without any political influence. Problem is, this is literally not how consumer psychology works.
The ultra-wealthy CEO in a capitalist wet dream continued, saying that there needs to be a “separation of church and state” model between politics and gaming. And he also wants to change the entire model of marketing and politics and says that games “should get the marketing departments out of politics.” And surprising no one, Sweeney’s statements align with other members of the ultra-wealthy CEO clique.
Continuing into the depths of his obsession with a false sense of neutrality, Sweeney said, “The world is really screwed up right now. Right now our political orientations determine which fast-food chicken restaurant you go to [alluding to Chik Fil-A’s political affiliations and the cultural response to it]? And that’s really dumb,” said Sweeney. “There’s no reason to drag divisive topics like that into gaming at all.”
This in particular reads really poorly, it’s as if Sweeney believes that the only thing driving game design and development is the will to make money. No one ever made a game to make a political point. Metal Gear Solid doesn’t exist. And gamers never play games to enjoy alternate takes on history and to further examine complex issues, no way, it’s all escapism.
Not every game needs to be political, but there’s always a balance that has existed between those that are and those that aren’t. Annihilating that balance risks alienating a core segment of the gaming audience. By Sweeney’s argument, the success of a game cannot truly be measured by its non-monetary impact, and must never be political to achieve that impact. It’s just nonsense.
Sweeney also argued that a company or business should be “operating as neutral venues for entertainment and employees, customers — everybody else can hold their own views and not be judged by us for that.”
The core problem with this argument is that artistic expression requires an investment of the self. And to make something expressive you have to pour some element of yourself into it. And all game companies are comprised of people, all of whom pour their hearts and souls into the games they make. According to Sweeney’s argument, games cannot be artistic or successful by this measure; video games must only ever be measured by some incredibly vague sense of consumer enjoyment. Even this point can’t remain untainted by politics. We live in a hyper-consumerist civilization, and the impact of that lifestyle is the basis for much of modern politics. It is literally impossible to divorce our consumption and our politics. But I’ll be damned if that’s not what he’s arguing here.
“A company is a group of people who get together to accomplish a mission that is larger than what any one person can do. 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.”
That’s so laughably transparent that I just can’t help but dig into it. A company is not a holy entity that exists in a vacuum. And the organization is always motivated by profit-motive and consumer will. There’s a reason why massive crunch is a problem in the games industry. There’s also a reason why companies fire employees who speak out, even when those employees make valid points about toxicity in gaming. A primary reason that many gamers choose to support a developer or not is often based on the political character of that company.
Sweeney at least admitted that he’s wrong about his core point, saying that there is no one answer to how people, customers, or developers should engage with politics in games. But if Epic wants to make their games neutral political ground, start by giving everyone fair wages and ending crunch. If you’re going to treat people with a politically neutral tone, it must, therefore, be fair to all. Although I don’t think Epic will be ending crunch or other forms of labor exploitation anytime soon.
The Epic Games exec then threw some pandering to controversy in there by referencing ongoing issues with censorship. He referenced the extremely controversial banning of Hearthstone player Blitzchung by Blizzard over statements in support of Hong Kong protestors. Blizzard received a torrent of backlash and abuse over this, and at the same time China as a nation was subject to interference and ridicule from the west, even as western powers funneled money into the HK protest movements, and their character was undeniably sectarian and hostile.
So can Epic make gaming companies neutral without destroying much of the character of the industry? Probably not. Can they end labor exploitation in the video game industry by setting a strong example? Sure, but that would cost money.
What would be better than trying in vain to divorce politics from something, consider the actual political character of your statements and creations, and removing the toxic influences.