On 21 August 2020, Activision released a teaser trailer for its upcoming first-person shooter franchise Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War. It attracted social media indignation for its use of archival footage from a lecture by Soviet defector Yuri Bezmenov—not just from the woke, but also from games journalists.
An editorial of 27 August by Kotaku’s Ian Walker provides a representative example of the outrage. Walker accuses the game of propagating “far-right conspiracy theories”—despite the fact that Bezmenov’s testimony was taken seriously by the CIA and is still studied. Walker’s vitriol seems disproportionate at best. After all, other video games, such as Battlefield V, have met with critical approval despite anachronistic details—such as the inclusion of women in roles few or none of them would have held in real life.
Although the publisher quickly uploaded an edited version of the promotion, from which footage of Tiananmen Square had been removed to make it accessible to Chinese audiences, the outrage never really ended. Following the release of another trailer, which featured Ronald Reagan, Gamasutra and The Verge hastily condemned the game, while grandstanding about the presumed evils of Cold War-era America.
This is not the first time video games have been attacked for portraying history in a problematic light. But it’s the latest manifestation of a long-running trend in which commentators, activists and journalists target such works in the name of historical revisionism.
Civilization and Its Critics
Sid Meier’s Civilization has enjoyed enduring popularity among gamers. But it has also caught flak from a group of critics who have become increasingly vocal from the early 2010s onwards and have lambasted this and other games, such as the Age of Empires and Total War series, for propagating colonialism, Eurocentrism, nationalism and other views deemed politically incorrect.
Such critics include Chris “Errant Signal” Franklin, a YouTuber known for his commentary on gaming as an inherently political art form, and Kyle Kallgren, a content creator with a penchant for high-brow analysis of both arthouse and popular culture.
What exactly do they find so worrying about Civilization? Although they acknowledge that many of its elements were inspired by boardgames, they take issue with both its historical inaccuracy and how these boardgame elements are framed. For example, they take issue with the use of “barbarians”—warbands from the wilderness beyond the player faction’s borders who run amuck, unless you defeat them in combat or crush the camps that spawn them. This is perceived as problematic as it reflects a western/Eurocentric view of poor hunter-gatherer nomads as primitive brutes (according to Franklin) who are destined to lose and marginalized from being “civilized” (as highlighted by Kallgren).
They also argue that many aspects of those titles—such as the idea of conquest and victory, the technology tree and the choice of which nations, cultures or societies get to be playable—betray a murky western lens. These are interpreted as extolling the dark side of Eurocentrism, which includes nationalism, imperialism and anything deemed wrong by contemporary standards. The commentators also criticise such features for downplaying common human virtues. Kallgren questions the need for victors and losers, while Franklin accuses the games of sexism, since their leaders are mostly great men and include barely any women—even though noted female figures are a recurring presence, especially in the latest versions. Even the name Civilization is critiqued for its troublesome connotations.
To call this overreach would be an understatement, especially to anyone who has actually played any of the franchise’s titles. The notion that conquest victories are the primary aim, for instance, ignores both non-violent means of winning, such as the classic “send a ship to Alpha Centauri” science victory, as well as the undeniable reality of conflict as part of human nature. Similarly, the claim that some in-game factions don’t deserve to be called civilizations, and are only included due to white European bias is absurd. This ignores the historical significance of the Greeks and Germans, even before they were united into nation-states. It also brushes aside the variety of playable cultures, which include the Huns, Aztecs, Chinese, Sumerians and even the Congolese. The barbarians pose an interesting challenge to the players and represent the many threats that have always existed. This is a far cry from demonizing specific groups or nomadic tribes.
The more one digs through these commentaries, the more apparent it becomes that the commentators are not simply railing against the series for its lack of historical accuracy. They also lambast the titles for not being ideological theses on how humanity ought to be, rather than simply series inspired by world history. Expecting a video game to make a statement denouncing war and bigotry in favour of global unity—or be anything other than it is—doesn’t make for good criticism. In practice, such rhetoric does little more than provide an excuse for moral and ideological grandstanding. Which does neither the games, source material, developers or fans justice.
Thanks to the encroachment of the culture wars into gaming, such polemics have not died down over time. Media outlets such as Eurogamer and Polygon have continued the ignoble politicizing trend: accusing the games of warmongering and demanding that the series address contemporary political issues, such as social justice, diversity and climate change. The idea that gaming is political has become an excuse for monopolizing it in the name of specific political agendas and at the expense of entertainment.
The More Things Change
This phenomenon isn’t confined to the Anglosphere.
Take Kingdom Come Deliverance. Developed by Warhorse Studios as an independent, crowdfunded game and released on 13 February 2018, it is a role-playing game set in fifteenth-century Bohemia with a strong focus on historical authenticity. Even before it was completed, however, it drew the attention of activists and journalists alike. Among the more infamous claims, which stems from 2014, is that the title is racist for not including people of colour and that it enables white supremacy. These attacks extended to slander of creative director Daniel Vávra, who has been accused of being a sexist bigot who should have no place in the industry.
Even if we set aside the implications of forcing woke politics on Czech developers, who may not share those views, these critiques cannot be considered good faith. For all the talk of representation and diversity, such rhetoric fails to account for the actual history of the region and its inhabitants, from German settlers and nobles to Cuman and Hungarian mercenaries. Throwing in Africans and random “diverse” ethnicities would make little sense, given that medieval Bohemia (like the modern Czech Republic) didn’t contain the sizable numbers of non-Europeans that modern America does. Neither would it be appropriate to shoehorn in faux-Amazons, who would not only be hopelessly anachronistic, but would also detract from the authentic, strong-willed women who show up in-game.
Then there’s Ghosts of Tsushima, an open world action game released on 17 July 2020. Created by US-based Sucker Punch Productions, but based on Kublai Khan’s thirteenth-century invasion of Japan, it draws on both medieval history and Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films. Since its launch, it’s received almost universal acclaim, including glowing endorsements from creators like Yakuza series director Toshihiro Nagoshi. This hasn’t stopped some ideologues from claiming that it is offensive to Mongolians and is merely an “empty representation,” while Kazuma Hashimoto has spent more time excoriating Japanese culture than discussing the work itself.
Such polemics fail to acknowledge that the studio has been up-front about their cinematic focus, and that, as Japanese consumers have attested, the game’s over-the-top zaniness is respectful of its audience. The deliberate emphasis on style over accuracy, either for entertainment value or to convey the spirit of the era, shows a close understanding of the culture, while still being accessible to anyone anywhere in the world—not unlike The Last Samurai. The critiques echo those voiced by both sides of what I have called the endless culture war in the Pacific, although they come from western sources and display an Anglo-American bias. Hashimoto tries to use his identity as half-Japanese as a convenient shield, to deflect attention from his track record of unduly shaming his erstwhile compatriots.
Here again, we see the same kind of narrative angle adopted by critics like Franklin and Kallgren, and which characterized the reaction to Black Ops: Cold War—right down to the gaming-as-political framework. If anything, these critics have become even more brazen—to the point of threatening the careers and reputations of the developers themselves. This betrays a sense of entitlement that, ironically, they tend to project onto gamers in general.
Beyond the harm this does to consumers and creators, this also sets a dangerous precedent—whether it is motivated by a desire to help the medium mature, childish spite at the existence of anything outside the critics’ ideological lens, or just plain nepotism.
Reclaiming the Past
Since at least the 1980s, games that take history as their inspiration or subject matter have been a popular staple within nerddom. The mainstream successes of both Kingdom Come Deliverance and Ghosts of Tsushima are testament to that. The popularity Black Ops: Cold War garnered through its trailers—despite the negative coverage—is likewise indicative of how resistant gamers and those in the industry are to culture war antics. Vávra’s own defiance in the face of journalistic pressure has been vindicated. Nonetheless, it would be foolish to simply handwave away this revisionist onslaught as mere bullying or hubris.
These critiques may deter people from making or publishing certain works. If Sid Meier’s Colonization, a spinoff of Civilization based on the European settlement of the Americas up until the eighteenth century, were to be released now, it would face more than just market competition. It would also be subjected to critical scorn and the ensuing cacophony of social justice leftist commentators who probably wouldn’t even have touched the title in the first place—no matter how it was designed. At worst, creators could face harassment and pressure to comply with the critics’ requests or be cancelled. In such an environment, some would be forced to turn their work into glorified propaganda, regardless of what their target demographics want, or might not bother creating games at all.
Another equally important danger is that past voices might be silenced for being out of line with what is now deemed progressive. The “War Stories” of Battlefield V show that this can go far beyond the inclusion of anachronistic female cyborg memes. When we replace the exploits of Norwegian resistance fighters with a girl-power fantasy, or reinterpret the sacrifices of French colonial troops through the lens of twenty-first century American racial politics at the expense of what actually happened, the memory of those we should honour will be side-lined or buried. That outlets like Vice have tried to dismiss such concerns by stating that the Battlefield entries were never meant to be accurate, and that Franklin has downplayed these issues in his recent praise of the game, only serves to highlight these inconsistencies. Indeed, in such a landscape, a production like The New Order: Last Days of Europe, a well-received mod for Hearts of Iron 4, which deconstructs the Nazi victory cliche of alternate history, would be nearly impossible to green-light—simply because it depicts fascism and totalitarianism.
The end result of this wouldn’t just be the destruction of whole sections of the video game industry, or the transformation of what historically-based works remain into ideological megaphones. It would foster amnesia about or falsify the past. This would turn an otherwise vibrant vehicle of creativity and escapism into yet another burned-out husk of its former self, while those responsible would soon find another target and begin the same process all over again.
This is not inevitable, however. The critics and activists are not as powerful or untouchable as they appear. Yet, although there’s cause for optimism, we should remember that, as Orwell recognised, “who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.” We should thwart these attempts rather than risk forgetting history.