Are Video Games an Ethical Pastime? Activision, etc.

All Activision-Blizzard leadership would have needed to do was to care, and, barring that, ask capable employees to care on their behalf.”

I feel old thinking about it. I’ve been playing video games a long time. My first game was either Pong or Space Invaders–I played both that night–in a bowling alley in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I remember my father holding me in front of the controls. Ever since that night, I’ve tried to play video games as much and as often as possible.

I’ve been reading about video games a long time. I remember buying a paperback of tips for arcade games at a school book fair. It featured Pac-Man, Galaga, and Gorf, among others. My friends and I would read the latest game magazines, and then we’d talk about them while playing more video games. Then, we’d ask our parents to buy us the games we had read about. There was one kid whose mother always said yes. We spent a lot of time at his house.

I’ve been messing around on the internet a long time, playing, reading, and chatting about video games. I recall playing a MUD on a VAX terminal in 1991. I remember thinking, back in 1995, that most people on Usenet were unpleasant. I’ve since learned that internet destinations have cultures of their own. They have their own vocabularies, values, and fields of inquiry. Like most people, I’ve managed to figure out where I like being most of the time.

This whole “a long time” bit that I’m doing isn’t meant to establish me, the author, as “wise” in some way, or to suggest that my experience grants me any kind of authority. In fact, the opposite is true. In fact, if anything I’m compromised. My whole life is tangled up in the history of consumer video gaming in America, and, even if I stopped playing games forever, that history wouldn’t change. Before the last decade or so of my life, I never even wondered whether there was an ethical dimension to consider when consuming video games, which might seem fitting to anyone familiar with my capstone research project for the philosophy half of my double major:

Does the study of ethics serve a practical purpose? Or does it exist merely to console unhappy people?”

Drew Cook (22), idiot

I blame my nihilism on a scorching case of Bipolar I and some nasty behavioral issues. But that can’t explain my pervasive indifference after medicine and years had turned me into a more serious person. It seems clear that my own entangledness was to blame. I had been having a good time with video games for a long time, after all.

Let’s go ahead and get it all on the table. I’m a straight, white, dude. Almost every game was made for me. Nearly every video game article was written for me. Ugly online behavior is seldom directed toward me. I was in gaming’s sweet spot for all of those years, and it never occurred to me to wonder what gaming might be like for people who aren’t me. I’m a well-meaning, self-absorbed guy who misses a lot of important stuff.

This isn’t a story about my big realization, either. It isn’t heroic to notice other human beings are having a hard time, it’s the barest of bare minimums. And this isn’t a story of how one special person touched my heart with their story. New and fascinating people were beginning to talk about their experiences with games, but that’s not what reinvigorated my interest in the ethics of playing video games.

You see, it’s not the crime, it’s the cover up. When one of the virtual places where I used to hang out started blowing up with posters whinging about “SJWs” and “men’s rights,” I looked into it. It turned out that people–my fellow white dudes–were upset that, among other things, writers were treating games like literature. That is, games were being examined in terms of post-colonialism, feminism, and intersectionality–worthwhile topics for any respectable art critic. Before it was the SJWs, it was political correctness. Nowadays it’s wokeness. It’s the same old boogeyman dressed in a new housecoat.

There has always been a reactionary faction who cries out that we should keep “politics” out of this or that thing. Keep it out of schools, keep it out of the library, keep it out of my video games. What they really mean is, “I am only comfortable when surrounded by things that celebrate my existence.” Therefore, “I am only comfortable when games, gaming media, and online discussion of both affirm my personhood.” The only way to live in such a fantasy is to ask the impossible: keep politics out of video games.

Politics cannot be kept out of video game hardware. Video game equipment–millions of units sold per year–are made exclusively of non-degradable material. The labor conditions under which these machines are built are, in many cases, probably worse than even our most pessimistic guesses. Their precious electronics require conflict metals. No one need “put” politics in video games because the hardware itself is an embodiment of dire political realities.

Politics cannot be kept out of the games, either. Every piece of media–every movie, every text, every song, every video game–is political. It arises out of a political context. Politics have shaped the lives of its creators. It is received in a political context. Politics have shaped the lives of its consumers. “Keep politics out of my video games” is itself a political statement, albeit a disingenuous one.

Video game publishers are not apolitical. They decide which content to publish. Since all media is political, there is an inevitably a political dimension to their choices. The chosen protagonists of these games have political implications, as do their settings, victory conditions, and challenges.

Gold Machine, obviously, is very concerned with the political: the colonial heart of Zork, 80s conservatism in Deadline, anthropocentrism in Starcross.

The political sphere often collides or overlaps with that of the ethical. Without getting overly technical, the first is concerned with groups of people (or perhaps with power), while the other is primarily felt as the burden of freedom. Neither is separate from the other. And yet, sometimes one has to differentiate between the two. Usually, whenever a conversation about the ethics of purchasing problematic goods (a video game console or an iffy film from an iffy director), some Very Online and Intelligent Internet Person will post:

There is no ethical consumption under capitalism.

Which is usually just nihilism, a sort of talisman bearing the inscription: “keep ethical discussion out of my video games.” It would be more correct to say that, so far as an individual goes, “there is no politically impactful consumption under capitalism.” That is, a well-meaning person could swear off video games altogether, and yet the conflict metals industry would roll on unabated. There is no politically impactful purchasing decision to be made on the personal level, and, yes, that is a consequence of capitalism. Political efficacy requires organization, coordination, and communication.

This is not so in the ethical sphere. The ethical act is the act of disclosing who one is, sometimes to oneself, sometimes to others. “I do not care if it matters or not, I will not buy this game console.” That is an ethical decision. Likewise, buying that game console is an ethical decision. Personal choices are ethical choices. An ethical decision is the moment in which a person decides how to use whatever freedom they might have.

I continue to buy home electronics. That is a decision I’ve made. It’s based on a number of factors that basically boil down to “they make life more enjoyable/bearable to me.” I could have opted out of some seriously harm-causing processes occurring globally, but I did not. And we’re almost certainly alike in that, pecking away on our screens and keyboards, our words carried over cables and fired across towers and bouncing off of who knows what, a mesh of wire and glass that is not much older than this century.

I should hope that doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to have standards. We can still hope that people who own phones will behave decently.

I have come a long way to tell you that I am disgusted with all the news we’ve heard of Activision-Blizzard over the past several months. That company is an absolute snake pit of harassment and marginalization targeting not only women but sexual and gender minorities. Their CEO, who in better years makes more in a DAY than the average American makes in a DECADE, is unable to wrap his mind around problems that middle managers regularly face.

No. I must correct myself. I distort. Competence is not at issue, here. Bobby Kotick, the CEO of Activision-Blizzard, has sufficient resources to pay several dozen brilliant people to think his every thought for him and any of them, if asked, could have told him what sorts of things a large company might do about sexual harassment. These people could have put together a plan, paid other people to complete it, and paid other people to enforce it. All Activision-Blizzard leadership would have needed to do was care, and, barring that, ask capable employees to care on their behalf.

This is all water under the bridge, though. We are talking about a CEO who, despite making an incredible amount of money yearly, is so morally lost that he believed that pretending to be a truly repugnant human being (who just happens to be a woman) was his best shot at seizing the high ground. If you haven’t found a good summary of the current state of things, Activision and otherwise, then I strongly recommend Stacey Henley’s “The Games Industry is Truly Repellant.”

The board of Activision-Blizzard, too busy wallowing in Call of Duty money to care, is complicit, too.

Past incidents are instructive. So far as I know, the trash fires still burn at Ubisoft, a year after executives promised to change, well, practically everything. These issues, when they arise, are indicative of problems deeply rooted in corporate culture: for years, indifferent (or worse) managers, hired by indifferent (or worse) executives, themselves have hired indifferent (or worse) administrative personnel. The rot starts at the top, but it never ends there. Often, victims have nowhere to go because policy making and enforcement is hopelessly compromised.

There’s that word: hopeless. I’ve been in so many stupid conversations about the futility of choosing not to buy games made by corporate bad actors. Here are only a few of the bad faith, garbage arguments that ultimately boil down to, “I don’t give a shit, I’m going to buy that game.” Which, if only these people had the courage to say so, would be better than the nonsense they put forward:

  • “If you don’t buy that Harry Potter game, you’re just punishing the developers.” Oh yeah? Then you should feel awful for punishing the developers of Balan Wonderworld. Think of the children of those poor souls!
  • “And yet you own a phone.” Believe it or not, I haven’t robbed a bank yet, even though I’ve owned cell phones for more than a decade. Phone ownership does not forever bar a person from making ethical decisions.
  • “It won’t make a difference whether you buy that game or not.” It will make a difference to me.

Listen, I was looking forward to the remake of Diablo 2. I would have bought it on release day, in fact. I didn’t, because I just don’t want to have anything to do with those people. That’s all. I don’t expect my every choice to change the world. In fact, I never expect to change the world, as much as I would like to. I don’t need to justify my purchasing decisions quantitatively. And really, I don’t owe anyone a justification, period.

If I can’t change the video game industry, what would I like to change? I’d really like to see the discourse surrounding companies like Activision-Blizzard change. As Kaile Hultner observes, some media outlets, authors, and discussion forums/discords are doing the right thing, calling these companies out and keeping the stories alive. I’m tired, though, of people talking out of both sides of their mouths, going after abusers one day and hyping their products the next. I want them to stop letting these companies misdirect their readers by publishing their jaw-dropping screenshots and videos. If your site is anti-harassment, walk the walk and don’t give these jackals free advertising. When the next Big Game drops, I would hope to see some self-reflection at the big outlets.

Not buying Diablo 2 was the easy part. There are too many games to play anyway, and I’m in the middle of a year-long project to play old text adventures. Still, I want to go further: if a site hypes games publiashed by abusers, I’m not looking at it. If someone tweets screenshots from their games, I’m dropping them. If a message board can’t stop hosting threads full of uncritical hype, I’m logging out. I may not be able to change you, but I’m sure as hell not inviting you into my home.

Video games media has grown increasingly thoughtful over the years. When I think back to the golden age of video game magazines, I recall that they were almost entirely made up of advertising, previews (advertising disguised as journalism), and product reviews. I loved those magazines, but players are growing more sophisticated, and the media is, too. Content creators need to decide whether or not they are unpaid promoters of video game content or something more, whether they want to move forward.

As awful as Bobby Kotick is, he’s no bogeyman. There’s plenty of blame to go around. I haven’t even mentioned Riot. Sony has a new gender discrimination lawsuit on its hands and there has been silence on that front (the last meaningful update was a week ago as far as I know). It is not yet clear how that will play out, but I find the initial newsbreak disgusting. I think, given the evolution of the gaming press over the past decade, we will continue to see incidents–that would have once been ignored–like this. It’s progress, but it’s not enough.

We have a choice as to what content we consume or create. Our decisions, impactful or not, are a way for us to decide what kind of creators and consumers we are. Even in the smallest things, only we can define ourselves.

Stop the hype train. I’m getting off.

Thanks to Critical Distance, which provided me with helpful resources for this essay.

4 thoughts on “Are Video Games an Ethical Pastime? Activision, etc.

  1. Very well put. Kudos on using “nihilism” correctly, and also on identifying competence as beside the point. That’s exactly the thing that chills me about Bobby Kotick: He is (or was) extremely competent at business. He spent about a decade digging Activision out of bankruptcy, mainly by recycling old copyrights like Zork, miraculously parlaying it into one of The Big Publishers. And in our capitalist, corporate society, business competence is a skill rewarded more highly than anything else. It’s all that really matters and it trumps all other concerns and it actively disincentivizes moral pro-social behavior, and so, the corporations that more or less own the world are run by a thousand Bobby Koticks.

    1. Exactly. I often hear others say (or catch myself saying) that these people are stupid, and they aren’t. They wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous if they were stupid. They’re just kind of… reptilian.

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