Late last month, OnlySP’s parent company Enthusiast Gaming, in collaboration with Russ Pitts, announced the purchase and revival of The Escapist—a formerly well-regarded gaming site that, in later days, has been seen as a hotbed of political engagement. In the post announcing the news, Pitts said that one of his goals as Editor-in-Chief of the website would be to “leave politics at the door,” and that claim sparked a debate about the value and relevance of social topics within video games. Sources commenting on the reopening confused Pitts’s statement with a claim for apoliticism, which was never written in the original post, and the two ideas should be be conflated. Choosing not to discuss politics is not the same as not having an opinion, and, indeed, for any media outlet to claim the latter would be ignoble.
Following the explosion of the Gamergate movement in 2014, the debate about the role that politics has in video games is firmly established. Ostensibly a push to ensure impartiality within the media, Gamergate is better remembered as an outpouring of hostility against marginalised voices and outlets that support progressive viewpoints. A negative impression of that time period is justified, but it was valuable in the way it forced an industry-wide rethink of what games are and can be. Beyond simple entertainment, games—as with any artform—are capable of carrying and conveying messages about the wider world, as well as engaging with subjects of grave import to contemporary society. However, politics exists on both macro and micro scales, with the qualifying factor being, in the words of Inthorn, Street, and Scott, “issue[s] of public concern”1 (2012, p. 340). Sexism, racism, and environmentalism are topics worthy of concern, but even something as inconsequential as OnlySP’s valorisation of single-player games makes a political statement. Furthermore, games, as expressions of either individuals or collectives will invariably—consciously or not—reflect the opinions and biases of their creators.
The political ambitions of numerous video games are self-evident. Furthermore, the nature of the statements they aim to make reflect the claim of artist Jeff Lieberman that “different bans and taboos will affect people’s ability to manifest specific art forms, and will likely influence their imaginations as well—imagine being behind the great firewall of China, or living in North Korea, for example. The whole worldview is altered, constrained”2 (Davis, 2017, p. 9). Titles such as 1979 Revolution: Black Friday and Papers, Please wear their critical engagement with totalitarian societies as badges of honour. The likes of Depression Quest and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice aim to contribute to discussions around mental illness. Meanwhile, That Dragon, Cancer’s emotive portrayal of an attempt to come to grips with family tragedy bears some similarity to the Morcombes’ attempts to raise awareness following the kidnap and murder of their son, Daniel, in 2003. Other games touch on more specific and overtly political concerns, such as Mulaka’s attempt to portray the indigenous culture and mythology of the Tarahumara or MISSING’s engagement with India’s sex trafficking cartels. Subsets of the gaming community attempt to downplay the significance of such titles, arguing that their lionisation of social concerns robs them of the pleasure of play, but denying that such projects have value within the wider gaming landscape is to deny the medium maturity.
Even when key social concerns are not foremost in the creators’ minds, games can reflect situations within the real world. For example, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim exemplifies games’ potential to be “installers and instillers of ideologies”3 (Frelik, 2015, p. 15). Bethesda’s fantasy opus reinforces dominant contemporary socioeconomic norms by featuring a simplified capitalist-model system, with no mods available (more than 30,000 in number at the time of Frelik’s article and more than 70,000 now) to “imagine an economic system other than capitalist or pre-capitalist”4 (Frelik, 2015, p. 24). Other games are capable of forcing users to examine ideas of morality. Inthorn, Street, and Scott found that The Sims—and particularly the pleasure derived from killing Sims—is capable of making gamers think critically about the “distinction between the ‘real’, where social norms apply, and the ‘unreal’ or imaginary, where they do not. In making this distinction, […] respondents maintain that[,] in the ‘real world’, there should be certain principles that govern people’s behaviour towards others”5 (2012, p. 345). Furthermore, Castaño Díaz and Tungtjitcharoen also conclude that “it is possible to say that there exists a link between social representations [the transmission of feelings and meanings] and video games”6 (2015, p. 28). Thus, even without the intention of didacticism, games are capable of conveying ideas fundamental to the politics governing social interaction, and the media should not ignore that trait.
Neither video games nor the media is capable of standing apart from issues of social significance, but the latter must aim to uphold a duty of care in the way it influences public opinion: journalism is not activism. As gatekeepers of information, journalists decide on matters of public importance, influencing discourse through selection and sampling, yet also maintain the need to accept the viability of opposing viewpoints. This latter trait is too often overlooked in the goal of pushing an agenda, regardless of whether that be left-wing ‘progressiveness’ or ‘alt-right nationalism’. The gaming media is as guilty of cleaving to hardline political stances as the wider field of journalism, with the likes of Kotaku and Polygon, in particular, often attracting criticism for their left-leaning tendencies. In this fraught environment, Pitts’s address seemed confrontational: a call to arms to reject what has, for some outlets, become a norm. However, Pitts later clarified his statement, saying that the outlet will engage with politicised topics, but will “not do so in a way that intentionally exacerbates a culture war.”
Escapist Magazine will certainly address topics that have a political connection. We will definitely not do so in a way that intentionally exacerbates a culture war. And yes, that's going to be a fine needle to thread.
— Control the guns. (@russpitts) July 26, 2018
While the exact structure that goal will take remains unclear to anyone outside Enthusiast Gaming and The Escapist’s editorial teams (and perhaps even within it), it shows a way forward for gaming journalism as a whole. Reportage on other forms of artistic mass media—painting, film, literature, et cetera—more often than not eschews sensationalism and echo chamber discussion in favour of mature insights into the content and contexts of the products. The idea of competition (be that between franchises, companies, or consoles) so prevalent within the gaming media is not reflected elsewhere. Perhaps the reason for this gulf is solely down to gaming’s status as a burgeoning form, still subject to being pegged as a folk devil inciting moral panic and blamed for everything from violent outbursts to addiction. Whatever the cause, the position to be taken by The Escapist is noteworthy. The promise of being able to openly discuss such themes as The Last of Us Part II’s representation of LGBTIQ people or the depiction of racism in Mafia III in a balanced way while allowing readers to draw their own conclusions is a heady one.
Having made this statement, Pitts and The Escapist team have a difficult road ahead of them. Based on a misinterpretation of the intended messaging, the outlet has attracted a considerable amount of attention, and living up to the expectations of both old fans and the wider media will no doubt be a herculean task. Whether The Escapist succeeds or fails in its goal will be determined across the coming months and years, but it has already made a positive start. In kickstarting a new conversation about the role of political values in gaming discourse, The Escapist has pledged to reject the established norms and commit to a new paradigm.
OnlySP’s Ben Newman has taken the opportunity to discuss the topic of the politicisation of the gaming media with Russ Pitts in greater detail, and that interview should be available in coming weeks.