I played Assassin’s Creed II at a friends house not long after it came out and I loved it. I bought it, played it to death and subsequently played every AC game up until Origins which was when I jumped ship on the franchise. The reason for that being, since the needless ‘Reboot’ in Origins, they are no longer related to the original games in terms of purpose, gameplay or style. But the turning of a fun, exciting, interesting game series in to a pedestrian RPG number generator isn’t what I wanted to talk about, we’re here to talk about a totally not contentious issue that has never caused a cross word on the internet.
I don’t know when it started but it was probably around the time of Gamer Gate which was when a bunch of whiney babies didn’t like anyone who wasn’t white or male commenting on video games and would not allow much actual criticism of the medium at all really. These people still say it was about “ethics in games journalism” or some bullshit but these are the same people who threatened to rape and kill women along with being racist and just generally bullish and nasty to people online so we can ultimately ignore these pond scum. BUT the arguments about pay-for-review, the nakedly mercenary and rapacious business practices of big studios, systemic production crunch within the industry and lots of other issues within the video game industry did surface as a result (not because the GGers I would add but because discussion was forced out by their grossness and what caused it/led to it). Consequently many video game companies saw this outcry from the fan base that invests the most money in the genre and didn’t want to upset them but equally didn’t want to be associated with such horrible ideologies as these man-children espoused. What this meant in practice was that a lot of video game companies pushed for a token amount of representation in their games and in their developers but equally refused to take definite stances on any of the politics that involved these decisions. The problem with walking such a fine line is that you can’t keep it up. It’s like walking in a straight line with your eyes closed. You invariably wander off without realising. What this meant was, by taking political stances in the games they made, no matter how oblique, but not really outside, everyone got pissed off. Soon a cry emerged (from the same quarters as GamuhGate) that demanded companies “Keep politics out of gaming”. Now to anyone with a basic grasp of how art and culture works this is about the stupidest statement that can be made but just to spell it out: No creative work is made in a vacuum, it will always be effected by the conditions that surround its creation. But what was funny was, video games companies, in an effort to keep the average 30 something white male gamer happy (of which demographic I am part of), they insisted that they weren’t political. This was most explicitly stated by the directors of Ubisoft’s The Division who, in an interview with magazine Polygon, explicitly stated their game — about a post-apocalyptic war zone after a new American Civil War, inhabited solely by survivalists because they adhered to the 2nd amendment, set in the seat of government itself — “has no political statements” in it. Ubisoft also make the Assassin’s Creed franchise…
The first Assassin’s Creed game is set in the Holy Land during the Crusades as you fight Templars knights and their associates, many of whom are English invaders. Assassin’s Creed II is set in Italy, mainly Venice, during the Renaissance and is about the centralising of power around the Vatican during the Borgia’s rise to power as Pope. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is about much the same thing. AC: Revelations is set in Constantinople during the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the same Ottoman Empire that World War I was fought over. Then AC: IV was set during the American Revolution, V was set during the French Revolution… do you see how untenable the defence of these games lacking any ‘political statements’ is? While characters may have political beliefs and the plots be deeply rooted in politics the games take no sides so the studio can plausibly deny political statements being made. Meanwhile each game has a statement on the loading screen that proudly declares the games were made by “a multicultural team of various beliefs, sexual orientations and gender identities”, itself a definitive political statement. Then there’s the accusations of abuse by many employees at the company that undermine that same statement somewhat. That’s hardly Apolitical now is it? And so on and so on and so on.
It seems redundant to say but given that the demand has not gone away it needs reiterating: Video games and their prominence in culture are inherently political. Sorry. But what is fascinating is that the games themselves are conscious of this, it just seems the large corporate owners demand they not be. This weird dissonance is most in evidence in the final Assassin’s Creed game before the series went down the drain.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is set in Victorian London and is about the British Empire and its Colonialist oppression that reaches all over the world but is centralised in the Capital. A Capital that is a contrast of slums and opulence, of abject poverty and indescribable wealth. A game where factory owners, that hire child labour and abuse workers, are the villains that you must dispatch. A game where money corrupts and corruption runs deep in the corridors of power at Westminster and the Palace. A game in which Karl fucking Marx shows up and is an active quest giver, who is chased by mill owner’s thugs and the police for his disruptive rhetoric and who you assist in informing members of The Party where and when meetings are held. And it was here that the Gamerzzz had a melt down. In the run up to Syndicate’s release, a campaign began to boycott the game due to Marx’s presence in the story, given that he is the founder of Communism and therefore good, upright, straight, god-fearing, Capitalist men should oppose such a thing. But the thing is: they were right to. Syndicate is an explicitly anti-capitalist game. It shows the rapacious greed, the strip mining and utilitarian approach to the world as a resource that is still at the heart of wealth and power, but not in an abstract way, in a literal and a (broadly) historically accurate way. Whether it is embodied in those mill owners or financiers who “own the means of production” or gang leaders that exploit the poor for even grimier reasons Capitalism is the problem and Karl Marx’s presence offers a rebuttal, intentionally or not. You can even meet sainted battlefield nurse Florence Nightingale, noted anti-capitalist author Charles Dickens and inventor Alexander Graham Bell whose greatest invention is still mired in contention due to the profit driven construct of patents and licensing. If you ARE a red blooded freedom lover, then you probably SHOULD boycott this multi-million dollar video game made under strenuous, exploitative and abusive conditions that totally unironically rails against the same thing. The argument should not be, however, to “keep politics out of gaming” as not only is that impossible, but those same people would probably not like the games that were entirely absent of all politics anyway. It would be endless abstract games like Tetris, except oops! That was made in the USSR so can’t play that one either.
I love the first eight Assassin’s Creed games (especially Black Flag). I don’t always agree with their politics and the gameplay frequently veers into pointless busy work but I always had a good time with them and actually learned a lot of history from them. The world building and environmental storytelling is always immersive and enjoyable and I used to be excited about whatever period the next game would be set in. Since Syndicate though the multitude of revelations (pun intended) about the company, its own beliefs, lies and abuse have made me want to boycott the company itself because, despite the hysterical fanboy’s fears, Ubisoft is much more of a devoutly capitalist, and consequently shady, organisation that uses its games to promote far right propaganda more readily than any Marxist ideologies. And no matter how far in the past you set the subsequent sequels Ubisoft, they still come from an unpleasant company, replete with thuggish demands for more money from the consumer to get “the full experience”.
If you are demanding Politics be kept out of gaming, too late. They have always been a part of gaming, except, in the past they might have just shared your politics. I hope in the future those politics change, not just in the games but in the ideals of those who make them too.