Last week, Activision announced its yearly iteration of the Call of Duty franchise would be called Black Ops – Cold War. This will act as a direct sequel to the 2010 original Call Of Duty: Black Ops. As is usual for this sort of announcement, the launch trailer was an explosive and exciting watch, unusual though for its historical setting and the use of real events and historical figures. One, in particular that has been trending on Twitter following the reveal – that of 1980’s Republican President, Ronald Reagan.
Cold War politics
A game set in the 1980’s Cold War era is an interesting setting for a game but it is one that exposes a very thorny debate that many game developers, or rather publishers don’t want to be involved in. Namely… politics.
It is fair to say that politics in the tumultuous year of 2020 is a fairly divisive topic. We here at Any Button Gaming are a fairly open and diverse bunch, so fret not – we are not going to extol or preach any of our personal beliefs here. What’s interesting is that this is ALSO the line that most publishers want to take. You see, if something is divisive it can only mean one thing – a group of people might not buy your product.
Put it this way, you spend over $150 million dollars and spend three to four years on a big AAA mainstream game. However, a group with set political leanings (whatever they might be) take issue with some perceived political point/s. Those people are going to, no doubt, kick up a fuss and will more than likely not buy it. Or at the very least buy it, then spend ages persuading other people not to buy it. It generates bad press and bad press can be the difference between a game selling below shareholder expectations or them buying that new yacht.
Distancing your game from politics
This has led to many publishers distancing themselves from the concept that their games have any political message at all. Take for example Ubisoft’s The Division 2 – a game set in Washington DC, featuring remnants of an old government attempting to take down a corrupt sitting government while your character wears the flag of the Union. That games creative director flat out refused that there was any political leanings assuring ‘it’s not a political statement’ in an interview.
Essentially, if you admit to having a political message in a game, regardless of what the message is, you are going to make headlines for the wrong reason.
That said, there is a problem with that approach and it is quite apparent with the latest trailer for Call Of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War. You see, it is very hard to not make a political statement, particularly if you choose a setting entrenched in politics themselves. In choosing the early 80’s with a focus on the Cold War, you are entering a time period of political upheaval, ultimately ending in the dismantling of the Soviet Union. When you resurrect a dead President you are going to be accused of bringing politics into the game. Example – even the Washington Post has an article titled ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’ campaign drips with intrigue as it dances around a political hornets nest’.
Keep politics out of games?
A common complaint from some sectors of the gaming community is that politics should be kept out of games. It’s understandable. At the end of the day, gaming is so often a welcome distraction from the complexities and division of modern society. You need only look at any online comments section when politics are discussed.
There is just one problem with this complaint. It is very hard to make compelling stories without conflict. If you are making a game about war… well then you’ll need a war. Wars come about through a failure of politics. Would Rapture have been such a wonderful dystopia if it wasn’t for the failed Ayn Rand philosophy of Andrew Ryan? Would playing as B J Blazkowicz have been as satisfying if you werent blasting away Nazi’s?
A history of politics in COD
Call of Duty games also have a history of political statements in their games – the early success of Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2 very much reflected the geo-political war on terror that dominated the Noughties. Can anyone forget THAT airport level? This latest entry is no exception – the Cold War is ripe for some good storytelling.
The problem therefore seems to be a clash between what the developers want to make and what the publishers want to market. Make a game with a story that will trigger some people or water down the game itself to make it more marketable. When games try for both, you’ll see more articles like these and more commentaries on how politics affect games. Sometimes you can’t have your cake and eat it.
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Rudy Manchego has been gaming since the days of the BBC Micro Computer and spreads himself thin with a love of retro, indie and mainstream gaming. He’s one half of the Jambags Comedy Gaming podcast and likes nothing better than kicking back with a nice pot of lapsang souchong, a good game and a background podcast on the intricacies of Spanish cheese making.