Chris Avellone, the highly lauded writer of video game titles such as Planescape: Torment, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, and Fallout: New Vegas, has become the target of criticism by figures across the industry due to his belief that video games can be apolitical.

In a VG24/7 piece published on May 31st titled Can stories be apolitical? We asked some video game writers and narrative designers, Deputy Editor Kirk McKeand interviewed three writers, Treachery In Beatdown City writer Shawn Alexander Allen, Mirrors Edge and Rise of the Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett, and Avellone regarding their thoughts on the potential for games to avoid being political.

Pratchett noted, “a story could be apolitical, but it wouldn’t be very interesting as a story and wouldn’t have anything to say about the world or our place in it.”

And Allen agreed, ” It’s easier to make stories that accidentally uncover our own understanding of the world and expose our personal politics than it is to not.”

Avellone offered a dissenting opinion:

“They may become political as societal norms change, but I believe it’s possible to do apolitical games. I also don’t condone developers who want to do political games or make a statement – I think a game is served better by asking a question, provide a range of perspectives on the question, but then leaving the answer to the player. I try to frame any politics in the parameters of the world, the lore, and the franchise.

The reason I take this approach is because I view games as entertainment. If you’re purposely pushing an agenda or point of view in your game – especially a real-world one that’s clearly divorced from the game world – and you’re dictating that perspective as correct vs. asking a question or examining the perspective more broadly, then it’s left the gaming realm and the ‘game’ has become a pulpit.

When I do apolitical design, I don’t view the narrative as having nothing to say: instead, the stories may have something to say in the context of the game world – the game’s commentary may be simply on the game world, gods, factions, or some other aspect of the lore or franchise itself and ideally, the player is part of the story and not simply there to passively listen to what the game is saying, but what they can bring to the story and the world through interacting with it. I think a game, especially a role-playing game, can have a considerable amount to say by examining what the player brings to the equation and players asking themselves what kind of character and what kind of player they are when confronted with a situation that’s not clearly black and white.”

Avellone believes that games should present players with multiple perspectives which lead them to question various political ideas within the context of the game world and then explore them independently in relation to the real world, rather than brow-beating the player with one specific viewpoint through ham-fisted, real world political allegories: instead of forcefully inserting jabs at real world political figures which clash with the established context of the game setting, games would benefit from presenting contextually appropriate themes which can be extrapolated to the real world, such as the exploration of American imperialism or the growing control of the populace through the control of information found in the  Metal Gear Solid series.

Avellone is not the only industry figure who holds this view towards politics in games. Earlier this year, Forbes Senior Contributor Erik Kain discussed this same question following the release of Ubisoft’s The Division 2, stating that while games are “a great way to get people thinking, asking questions, examining the world they live in and the history that came before us,” they also “cheapen themselves when all they can do is focus on the politics of the moment”:

“On the other hand, games (like any other artform) cheapen themselves when all they can do is focus on the politics of the moment. Making a game about Donald Trump or Barack Obama or the latest political squabble in D.C. would not encourage us to seek deeper truths, to think more critically about our own political notions. It would just create more . . . division. Certainly we could have a game that raises issues like immigration, racism, sexism and so forth, but stamping current political figures or trends into a game or film dates it quickly. You stamp a much earlier expiration date on this type of art.

The thing is, politics in art should be about making people think more deeply. It should be about raising questions, not more answers. It should be about making people question their own beliefs and see the world through a new lens, even if we reject that lens. Politics in art should not be about convincing other people to take a political position or vote a certain way or despise some “Other” group. That’s propaganda, the very lowest artform there is (even more debased than advertising.) At best it’s satire, though that’s another story altogether.

When we think about how politics should be infused into video games, we should use this quote as a guiding light. Political and philosophical, moral and ethical ideas should be front and center in games where those ideas make sense. Events should be backdrop only; historical events like wars, terrorist attacks and so forth. People, aka the politics of the day—the favorite president/feminist/celebrity to hate, for instance—should be used only sparingly if at all.”

However, Avellone’s statements were quickly met with harsh criticism and dismissed by numerous figures across multiple facets of the video game industry who believe that video games are, and should be, inherently political. Those who disagreed with Avellone included Scott Benson, co-creator of Night in the Woods and Creative Director at The Glory Society:

Dr. Todd Harper, a visiting lecturer in the Simulation and Game Design program at the University of Baltimore:

Silent Hills: Shattered Memories designer and Her Story creator Sam Barlow:

And former Radial Games and current Ivy Road developer and animator Aura Triolo:

Avellone would later clarify that his use of the word “condone” was a typo, and that the word he meant to use was “condemn”:

He would also respond directly to Triolo’s criticism by clarifying his personal philosophy towards politics in games:

Avellone also gave a counter-response to a fan’s assertion that Alpha Protocol, another title written by Avellone, was an “intensely political game”:

What do you make of Avellone’s statements and response to the criticism? What do you make of the criticism Avellone received? Do you think video games can be apolitical?

  • About The Author

    Spencer Baculi

    Spencer is the Editor for Bounding Into Comics. A life-long anime fan, comic book reader, and video game player, Spencer believes in supporting every claim with evidence and that Ben Reilly is the best version of Spider-Man. He can be found on Twitter @kabutoridermav.

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