Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney gave the keynote speech at this week’s DICE conference in Las Vegas. The talk touched on many topics, including data privacy, loot boxes, and the problems with a lack of cross-platform games. It also seemed to call for keeping politics out of games, or at least out of marketing, or something.
What tied the various threads of Sweeney’s speech in front of a conference full of gaming executives and top creative people together was a request for companies and developers to end “customer-adversarial” practices that keep players apart in a time when, in Sweeney’s view, games function more as social spaces than entertainment products. Sweeney sees a need for these spaces to be politically neutral, but if you’re going to bring people together, you’re going to have to deal with politics.
Quotes from Sweeney’s speech have circulated since he spoke at DICE on Wednesday, with many people on social media seizing on his remarks about “gamer rights and freedoms” and his saying that there’s no need to “drag divisive topics” like politics into gaming. “We as companies need to divorce ourselves from politics and say that that is for individuals to engage in and we as platforms should be neutral,” Sweeney said in his talk, later taking to Twitter to clarify some of his points.
IGN made a video of Sweeney’s DICE keynote available last night.
Sweeney seemed to think it was okay for players to express their politics: “When a streamer jumps in and shares a political message in the context of an esport or just a streamer or commentator on Reddit expresses their opinion, we’re seeing gaming becoming more like a social network, and whether we like it or not we’re going to have to accept that gaming is now a platform for world discourse.”
Later, confusingly, he turned to whether marketing teams should add politics to games: “We need to separate the creatives’ commentary… from the marketing departments. We should get the marketing departments out of politics. The world is really screwed up right now: right now your political orientation determines which fast food chicken restaurant you go to, and that’s really dumb. There’s no reason to drag divisive topics like that into gaming at all.”
The comment about fast food appears to be a reference to chicken chain Chick-fil-A, which has been criticized for donating to anti-gay organizations. On Twitter, Sweeney clarified that he meant “a company like that shouldn’t take a position on an issue like this, because it’s out of the scope of their mission.” He also clarified his comments on marketing departments by explaining that, when games address politics, those politics “should come from the heart of creatives and not from marketing departments seeking to capitalize on division.” These clarifications seem like good ideas in a vacuum, but we’re not in a vacuum. In his DICE speech, Sweeney said, “We need to create a very clear separation between church and state where our businesses are operating as neutral venues for entertainment and employees, customers, everybody else can hold their own views and not be judged by us for that.”
A platform, however, can’t be neutral, as convenient for its stakeholders as that would be. Politics are about the power structures that impact people’s daily lives. People’s access to platforms is political—being able to play Fortnite on a console you can afford and fit in your house is political, as is only being able to play on your mom’s phone while riding the bus. Having a credit card to be able to buy a battle pass is political. Where Fortnite gets its dances is political; what franchises and musicians it partners with is political. Which games Epic lets on its store is political, even if Sweeney seems to think it’s not. Sweeney’s comments cast politics as something people can enter in and out of at will, as opposed to being the material conditions of our lives and how we relate to one another. No one—even a billionaire—can be politically neutral. The closest they can get is just not to talk about it.
Sweeney’s call for political neutrality feels like an extension of the belief he professed in his talk that removing some of the barriers that give companies artificial edges will make everything work out. “It’s a mind virus, the idea that publishers should own the customer or have a monopoly on the customer relationship through some form of login and ecommerce, and that’s just a bad idea,” Sweeney argued as he talked about expanding cross-platform play and storefronts. “It’s the opposite of the principles Epic has built Fortnite on.” Fortnite is, notably, cross-platform, which means players can log into the game and access most purchases they’ve made on one platform on others. This is certainly part of Fortnite’s success: “The numbers prove that this is the future of gaming,” Sweeney said. “Just in Fortnite and our more recent efforts with the Epic Games Store, we’ve accrued 300 million users across all seven platforms, and they’ve built more than 1.6 billion social connections among friends, as you have on a traditional social network.”
Nevertheless, no matter how open the platform, what to include in it surely seems to carry some political message. In his talk, Sweeney mentioned the need for clearly-established rules about content moderation, suggesting his vision wouldn’t be a free-for-all.
In October, in response to the reaction to Blizzard’s stance on Hearthstone player Blitzchung’s comments about Hong Kong, Sweeney wrote on Twitter, “Epic supports the rights of Fortnite players and creators to speak about politics and human rights.” A platform moderating content or letting people talk about politics isn’t politically neutral. The platform can avoid taking an official stance, maybe, but that can end it up in the morass of harassment and hate that competitor Valve has found itself in. It seems like Sweeney just kind of wishes politics weren’t a problem to be dealt with, that we could technology ourselves out of being human.
I’m with Sweeney on the stupidity of the Chick-fil-A sandwich controversy. As a queer person, I’ve given too many moments of my one and only life to thinking about a pretty middling sandwich. But that’s not because I’m bringing up politics when my family pulls into Chick-fil-A on a road trip. It’s because the decision about where to stop for lunch has implications we can’t avoid. It’s because my family choosing to eat Chick-fil-A is making a statement, even if they don’t mean it to, about their values. It means I don’t get lunch and that we’re all a little miffed at each other when we get back in the car. It’s a stupid battleground about a stupid sandwich, but just wishing companies didn’t take political positions doesn’t make the issues go away, or mean that their employees and customers can just leave their lives at the door. Even if Chick-fil-A didn’t, say, fund anti-LGBT groups, it would still have to grapple with the politics of meat-eating, and wage equality, and food access. Politics don’t just play out on the platform: they play out between people. And that’s going to happen on the Epic Games Store, and in Fortnite, and in all other games, whether Tim Sweeney likes it or not.