Video games can be critiqued on a variety of levels. We critique games based on the quality of their visuals, art style, and technical performance. The quality of the game’s audio and sound design can also be assessed. A game’s storyline, character performances, and mechanics are all important things to be evaluated. Recently, however, a new manner of critiquing games has been developing in social media and games journalism. Games (and by extension, game developers) are now judged based on their inclusivity and how people feel about them on a sociopolitical level. This is a troubling trend because it seeks to undermine the creative freedom that video game developers should enjoy.
Call of Duty Killstreak Goes on the “Offensive”
It is no secret that we live in a divisive, hostile sociopolitical climate. Political tensions are high. As a result, some gamers are looking for their games to deliver a sociopolitical commentary even where it isn’t warranted. A great example of this is from 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. It was revealed that the game’s multiplayer mode would contain white phosphorus as a killstreak. Functionally, this killstreak is a modern depiction of the napalm strike from Black Ops. This created a problem for some gamers since the use of white phosphorus munitions in real life is considered a war crime in some instances.
The white phosphorus killstreak was problematic for developer Infinity Ward. The developer received bad press and attacks from gamers as a result of this choice. Gamers argued that the white phosphorus killstreak should be presented differently, or that Infinity Ward should remove it altogether. One author from a major games website even published a lengthy article bemoaning its use in the video game’s multiplayer mode. Call of Duty is a casual shooter whose multiplayer modes have never exactly been realistic. With that being said, it seems as though the commentary surrounding white phosphorus in Modern Warfare multiplayer is unwarranted, as are the angst-filled articles and hateful tweets directed to the development team at Infinity Ward.
Does a sociopolitical statement need to be made in every aspect of life, including a video game’s multiplayer mode? Shouldn’t game developers have the freedom to make the game that they want to make?
Inclusivity in Gaming
In addition to situations like the above, we also see issues from time to time regarding developers’ presentation of inclusivity in video games.
Inclusivity in gaming can be important for two major reasons. From the player’s perspective, it can increase their level of immersion in the experience. It can be great fun to run around in a game using an avatar that somewhat looks like an exaggerated version of yourself. For developers and publishers, designing games for inclusivity targets players looking for this type of experience, which increases their sales and engagement figures.
One company that took advantage of leveraging inclusivity was EA/DICE with 2018’s Battlefield V. In particular, that game’s multiplayer modes offered plentiful customization options for the player character. In addition to distinct uniforms and weapon skins, BFV allows the player to select among various people of color as well as gender choices. In this case, inclusivity was the goal of the developers. This isn’t inherently a bad thing. EA/DICE sought to create a multiplayer sandbox where everyone can jump in and have fun. If someone chooses to make a character that looks like them, they have the freedom to do so, even if it doesn’t make historical sense.
EA/DICE received significant pushback from the gaming community regarding this issue. However, as a more casual-oriented multiplayer FPS, the lack of historical accuracy isn’t important here. Additionally, the game does provide options for players to create a historically accurate company with their squad if they choose to do so. If a developer wants to target inclusivity, that is their decision, and in this case, it is one that does not detract from the overall experience of the game’s multiplayer mode.
Recently, developer Battlestate Games is receiving similar vitriol from the gaming community regarding their FPS/MMO Escape from Tarkov. The game does not feature women as playable characters. Predictably, gamers have lambasted the developer relentlessly on social media for this design choice. However, the game features a Russian military group, in which there are few women in real life. Battlestate Games chose to pursue realism in this aspect of the game. Furthermore, Battlestate is a small studio and does not have the resources to create multiple detailed player models. Are attacks aimed at the developer warranted in this instance? I think not.
The Price of Diminished Creative Freedom
Game developers are notoriously overworked and underpaid. They work tirelessly and sacrifice time with their friends and families to make entertainment products for us to enjoy. They do not need to be subjected to hateful tweets and angry articles simply because a design choice may not align with your own personal views.
Developers have a choice as to whether or not they want to make a sociopolitical statement in their game, as well as its inclusivity. If someone does not agree with those choices, that person also can also make the choice to simply not play the game as opposed to attacking the development team.
These attacks by gamers and reporters seek to undermine the creative freedom of developers. Game design will stagnate if developers start catering to the whims of every social justice warrior or every member of the alt-right. Developers will be less willing to take risks and exercise their creative freedoms so as to avoid harassment and potential bad press created by these groups. This lack of freedom will diminish creativity and result in less diverse experiences and less player choice regarding what type of game someone would like to play.
Gamers have thousands of choices to make when determining what game they want to play. As such, it is important that we respect choices made by our developers as well.
Do you agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments below.