You Can’t Separate Politics from Video Games

Last week’s discussions surrounding NFL players kneeling during the national anthem has many people saying the same thing: keep politics out of football. Some articles have risen stating that football has always been involved with politics. In fact, this is true of all arts and entertainment, and video games are no exception.

Video games often comes under fire because of their graphic violence and unique modes of interactivity that differ from other mediums. This article was written before the tragic shooting in Las Vegas this past weekend. However, we believe that by looking at two case studies specific to video games, we will be better equipped for this conversation later on down the road.

For today, we’re going to take a look at two recent developments that demonstrate how keeping politics separated from video games is impossible.

Voice Actors Have Been on Strike for the Past Year

On October 21, 2016, the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) went on strike against the video game industry. The main issues the actors had were with:

  1. working conditions, such as vocal stress for difficult voice work;
  2. acknowledgement and transparency (this Wall Street Journal article demonstrates how many actors were in games they didn’t realize they had acted in);
  3. and residuals. As it stands, actors make no residuals from video game sales.

Recently, the voice actors and the game studios have reached an agreement, which should settle the striking. However, it’s important to remind everyone that actors—even in video games—are unionized. They have the collective bargaining power to make this sort of move specifically because of labor practices that were, at one time, a hot-button issue. Unfortunately, they still are.

Why Does This Matter?

Even though a recent poll shows that 60% of Americans approve of labor unions, there’s still a chilling reminder from 2014 that Americans support anti-union—aka “Right to Work”— laws. In fact, my home state of Kentucky passed such a law in January 2017 that says employers can’t require employees to pay union dues. Granted, plenty of people argue that workers shouldn’t be forced to pay union dues, that it’s an unfair burden. Others see this is a targeted assault on unions by limiting their ability to make revenue. Union dues help fund the union’s activities. Critics, again, argue that the money is often wasted. However, the money is used to pay employees when they need to strike.

Coming from Kentucky, this is an especially sensitive issue when looking at our historic relationship with coal mines. The 1973 documentary Harlan County, USA illustrated the miners union’s fight against Duke Power Company (now Duke Energy). When the workers striked, the coal mines brought in non-union workers. As the union workers attempted to block entrances to the coal mine, the anti-strikers brought pistols to intimidate them. The battle ended with bloodshed as one of the mine’s anti-union supervisors, Billy C. Bruner, shot and killed union worker Lawrence D. Jones.

States like Kentucky—which are traditionally working class—passing anti-union laws demonstrates the effect of big business on legislation. In the world of video games, this relationship is practically the norm, not the exception.

The ESA Supports Big Business

The Entertainment Software Association is the largest trade association for the video games industry. They are the organizers of E3, the largest trade show dedicated specifically to the medium. They recently applauded the Trump administration’s new STEM initiative. This isn’t a new development. As Waypoints Patrick Klepek points out, the ESA made a similar comment towards Obama’s STEM initiative. The difference is that Trump has called for cuts in STEM education, so it’s strange to see them congratulating him in spite of his track record.

Historically, the ESA has done plenty of good for video game fans. The organization formed in 1994 shortly after Democratic Senators wanted a government-run oversight committee that would monitor violence and sexual content in video games. Films, music, and comic books all had non-government entities to monitor and “rate” their content, so game companies pushed to create their own non-government entity. The Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) and the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) were born. The IDSA would officially become the ESA in 2003.

In 2011, the ESA spent $1.1 million to lobby congress. Instead of issues regarding free speech and artistic expression, most of their recent efforts have been concerned with stricter copyright laws. They supported the controversial SOPA and PIPA laws in early 2012, even though they eventually withdrew their support (along with everyone else).

Why Does This Matter?

Over the past 10 years, video game communities have organized around the creators of streaming video content. Giant Bomb started their “Quick Looks” in 2008, which is the idea of a 15+ minutes video of someone playing a game. Popular YouTubers have built entire careers on playing a video game, often with a live audience. The service Twitch.tv (purchased by Amazon in 2014) is solely dedicated to live streams of video games from players around the world. It has even spawned multi-million dollar eSports tournaments for games like Dota 2 or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

I recently wrote a three-part series on “hate speech” that mentioned recent news about popular streamer Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg using the “n-word”. Another facet of this story is that indie game studio Campo Santo issued a DMCA take-down notice to YouTube regarding Kjellberg playing their game Firewatch. This has caused a huge controversy over the “slippery slope” this could lead to regarding game developers and their ability to take down any content involving their games for any reason.

For some background, streaming video game footage is a copyright “gray area”. Because the most distinctive quality of a video game is its interactivity, a static video of a game is not technically “copying” the game. However, many games feature lengthy non-interactive “cut scenes” that are practically film-quality videos and the developers argue that people might not buy the game if they can watch the content on YouTube. Developer Atlus released a warning to streamers earlier this year that streaming past a certain point in the game would warrant a DMCA take-down notice. YouTube responds to these notices in a “guilty until proven innocent” manner, which has led to criticism about supporting copyright trolls.

Since the ESA has been largely lobbying congress towards pro-copyright laws, and because the ESA is largely funded by the most profitable game studios, this means that they are actively working on legislation that would benefit big corporations at the expense of video game communities. The ESA does not care about Giant Bomb or Twitch.tv. They should, seeing as how streaming video gives them plenty of free coverage. And the studios willingness to support video game “influencers” demonstrates that they condone this system as long as it helps them make money. But what happens when a streamer says something that doesn’t support their message?

More than that, the ESA also have a history of supporting legislation that would prevent studies on the link between video games and violent behavior. The entire video game industry is afraid of legislation, similar to the proposed 1994 legislation that would put video games under government control. It’s one thing to worry about legislation, but it’s another to prevent scientific research from happening. With the events in Las Vegas, it seems like everyone would want more research in this area.

You Can’t Avoid Politics

Politics aren’t just a Red versus Blue shouting match; they are about policy, which are the rules governing everyone. Because humans are inseparable from policy, human creations are also inseparable from the policies that govern our lives. Saying art and entertainment should be separated from politics demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the human condition.

Video games are no different. And anyone telling you to “keep politics out of  video games” isn’t actually concerned about politics in games; in fact, they have probably benefited from the relationship between video games and politics. If anything, they’re concerned about certain policies that threaten their status quo.

featured image by Al Seib from The Los Angeles Times article “As SAG-AFTRA strikes, video game companies hit back” and is believed to be used in accordance with Fair Use

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