Ubisoft, let’s stop pretending your games aren’t political

Posted on October 5, 2020

Ubisoft, can we just pause for a moment and take stock? 2020 has not been kind, has it? Coronavirus, bushfires, it’s really been a mess for the greater populace, hasn’t it? You haven’t gotten off fully scot-free either. I mean there was that little PR blunder when it was revealed that you turned a blind eye to high-ranking workers being predators. Shame that we had to expose the systemic issues that led to that horrifying little showcase of some of the worst things the industry has on offer. I know you tried to say sorry about all this, but we really need to discuss some of the ridiculous things you’ve been up to recently. Today though, let’s focus on your other little racket, and take a look at the political elements in your video games.

Here’s the story: Ubisoft is once again claiming something inherently political holds no such politics. It isn’t a new story, that much will be certain by the end of the article. What is new is that they’re truly reaching new depths of depravity. In their mobile game “Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad”, the enemy is a terrorist organisation. In order to enact their acts of terrorism, they hide behind a façade of liberal protesters. Unfortunately, Ubisoft had made the decision to use a clenched fist as a symbol of the terrorist organisation. Whilst this could technically follow any liberal movement, the obvious comparison drawn is to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Thankfully they have since revoked the iconography, but the damage was already done. BLM has recently seen a resurgence following the deaths of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, and sadly so many more people of colour. To use this symbol to represent a terrorist organisation (as seen in the video above) seems incredibly offensive.

Let’s discard the obvious counterargument that this is some weird coincidence. Sure, the BLM movement only flared up comparatively recently on a game development timeline scale. But this is merely a resurgence of liberal protests, that have been bubbling away for years. Furthermore, there’s been a right-wing narrative that has followed the BLM protests for just as long. Such a narrative is present all the time. News broadcasts follow and focus on the looters and the property damage and such. This is partially just a facet of trying to make the coverage exciting. However, it does give ammo to critics who can trot out “the ends don’t justify the means” and “I’m not supporting criminals” rebuttals. For the truly zealous right-wingers and the conspirators, there’s the narrative of the liberal terrorists. The belief that protests are meant to mask attempts to allow some non-specific anarchy to rule and destroy modern society. To make a game that tries to further this narrative is abhorrent. With that said, I continue to be insulted by Ubisoft’s lame attempt to distance itself from politics.

“Ubisoft, in the grand scheme of things, often makes the most political games of any of the big companies… To me, it seems like the company wants all the benefits with none of the drawbacks. It wants to stir the pot, so to speak.”

Ubisoft has made a pitiful attempt to claim that they made a simple mistake in the use of the raised fist and that their games aren’t meant to be taken politically. This line of denying politics is something Ubisoft has used time and time again. Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad is a game where you play as a secret militia intent on bringing down terrorists posing as disgruntled citizens freely exercising their right to protest racial discrimination in law enforcement. This is the game in which Ubisoft is claiming there are no political elements.

I try and maintain a modicum of even-handedness when doing features. I think it’s important to work on facts and present history as it is. I can’t do that. This is truly the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen. The only way this game could be more political is if it gained sentience and ran for president. The fact that Ubisoft insists on this rhetoric is beyond my comprehension. There are only two viable choices: ignorance, or some greater manipulative strategy.

I’ve had the sinking feeling whilst writing this that I am playing directly into someone’s hand. Whilst “any publicity is good publicity” is a mindset, it’s a misguided one. But it’s hard to look at Ubisoft’s trajectory and not be a bit thrown. Ubisoft, in the grand scheme of things, often makes the most political games of any of the big companies. Far Cry 5 was set in the middle of the USA, had guns, and focussed on religious zealotry. Far Cry 6’s trailer indicates a populace at war with a dictatorship with an abusive president. Ubisoft is constantly wringing out Tom Clancy’s bibliography for more political shooters. Watch Dogs, a game series that was political from trailer one, is setting Legion in police brutality loving, terrorism-soaked, post-Brexit Britain. It’s hard to believe a company could this routinely lean into politics, revolutions, and such, and still maintain a façade of disinterest in politics.

To me, it seems like the company wants all the benefits with none of the drawbacks. It wants to stir the pot, so to speak. After all, people being angry about a game is still a conversation that leads to awareness about a product. Let’s also not ignore the loud contingent of gamers that have no interest in the intersection of games and politics. So many consumers will play games, often ignoring the industry issues that permeate its creation. For better or worse, Ubisoft is leading the discourse regarding politics in video games.

It’s odd in a way. I’m very much on the “games can have politics” side of things. If all other mediums can be art and can be critical of society, to deny games that privilege is rather juvenile. If games are art, then why put arbitrary lines through creative decisions. To me, the crowd of people wanting games to be art but without politics probably don’t understand what they’re asking for. You can’t open the door halfway here. To want art without any social context is ridiculous. Art is birthed from people, people exist in social, cultural, and ultimately political landscapes. That’s perhaps what makes Ubisoft’s mindset so frustrating.

The assertion that a developer can claim a fact about how a game should be perceived is foolish. Although Ubisoft goes beyond that. They are defying the reality of the games being produced. It gives a blanket statement on how little these companies think of their players. Yes, it’s hilarious to dunk on gamers. Gaming like any fandom can be ridiculous. Gaming doesn’t have to be this big intellectual thing, it’s a fun hobby. But so many of us believe in the power of video games. It’s sad that Ubisoft doesn’t seem to care about any of this.

I’m troubled by all of this. I’m not a very conspiratorial person, but it’s hard to not feel a little crazy. AAA game companies are treating fanbases like cattle. Using language as a battering ram to put across their agenda, regardless of its inaccuracies. It’s ironic, isn’t it? In claiming “no politics”, Ubisoft is actually doing something quintessentially political. Especially in this day and age.