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What the CEO of Epic Games gets wrong about video games and politics

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Aurich Lawson / Getty

The mere mention of the word “politics” in any industry can lead to an explosion before anyone even finishes a sentence. We’ve seen it recently in basketball, the film industry, and, unsurprisingly, video games.

Now Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney has uttered the p-word, and much more, in a speech that has thrown him right in the middle of a potential explosion. At a wide-ranging DICE Summit keynote speech Tuesday (as reported by numerous outlets who attended), Sweeney concluded by suggesting that while individual games can and should make political statements, game companies like Epic should remain studiously neutral on any political issues. Sweeney later provided more context for those remarks in a Twitter thread and its associated responses.

Sweeney is trying to walk a thin tightrope here, allowing for wide-ranging individual expression as a platform holder while trying to maintain political silence as a corporate entity. But those dueling principles can come into inherent conflict because producing and selling games, like producing and selling any other work of art, involves any number of inherently political choices and expressions.

A neutral platform

Despite some reporting, a close reading of Sweeney’s statements doesn’t suggest a hardline stance on the role of politics in games. His take is actually a pretty nuanced attempt to balance a lot of competing factors of individual and collective self-expression.

In Epic’s role as the company behind the Epic Games Store, for instance, he’s adamant that “we as platforms should be neutral,” as he said at DICE. “When a company operates an ecosystem where users and creators can express themselves, they should be a neutral moderator,” he added on Twitter. “Else the potential for undue influence from within or without is far too high.”

That position echoes Valve’s nearly two-year-old stance for Steam game moderation, which is “to allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal or straight-up trolling.” And while it’s a fine position in principle, in practice it involves countless arguably political decisions. That’s especially true concerning games involving adult themes, extreme violence, or real-world situations, as we’ve pointed out many times in Valve’s recent past.

Despite Valve's espoused "neutrality," games like <em>Taiman Asagi</em> are not allowed on Steam.
Enlarge / Despite Valve’s espoused “neutrality,” games like Taiman Asagi are not allowed on Steam.

But while Valve allows practically anyone to submit a game to Steam via the Steam Direct program, Epic has so far taken a more curated approach, selecting a relative handful of hand-picked games for the Epic Games Store. That allows Sweeney to say that a theoretical, politically sensitive game could be “judged purely on quality” when evaluating its potential inclusion on the Epic Games Store.

I have real trouble envisioning any sort of objective “quality” evaluation that could be deployed without consideration of a game’s potentially controversial content. Regardless, there’s at least one public exception to Epic’s “quality is all that matters” stance, and it involves sexual content.

“Decisions on which broad categories of products a store sells are not political, and the Epic Games Store decision to focus on general games and not sell porn isn’t any more political than our decision to not sell spreadsheet software,” Sweeney tweeted. “In none of our endeavors has Epic ever taken a position against one’s freedom to produce or watch porn. We just aren’t in the business of selling it.”

No one would suggest that the Epic Games Store should be forced to sell porn games or spreadsheet software. But whether we talk about the judgment of what counts as pornography, how its distribution should be enforced, or whether sexuality and nudity is being employed to make an artistic point, it’s all, by definition, in the political realm. And despite Sweeney’s description of the Epic Games Store as “an ecosystem where users and creators can express themselves,” the company has decided those users and creators can’t express themselves in this particular way, regardless of any “pure quality” evaluation. That’s not a controversial decision, but it is a political one in the broadest sense.

Again, it’s fine to draw a content-based line on these things. This particular line on pornography is one that content platforms from YouTube to Facebook have felt comfortable drawing. But the drawing of such a line suggests there are some types of expression that Epic is not comfortable with even considering as a platform. And maybe that line will move in the future, as Valve’s did in 2018.

The Mockingbird test

While Sweeney says platforms should stay neutral, he acknowledges that games themselves can and should be inherently political. What matters, he argues, is what part of the company that political expression comes from.

“If a game tackles politics, as To Kill a Mockingbird did as a novel, it should come from the heart of creatives and not from marketing departments seeking to capitalize on division,” Sweeney tweeted.

On the surface, this seems like a fine position to take—who (besides some shareholders) would want a marketing department to drive the creative direction of a game studio? But this kind of “art vs. marketing” separation might not be feasible in practice.

To take a completely theoretical example: say the Fortnite development team created a new map that included a slowly unfolding, island-wide crisis as a thinly veiled metaphor for global climate change. In a relatively clear political statement, fixing the in-game problem would require a critical mass of people deciding to stop fighting each other for their own benefit and working together to reverse the consequences of this crisis before it’s too late.

Presumably, Sweeney would have no problem with such a statement if it came from the “heart of creatives” on the Fortnite team. But such a clear in-game statement in Epic’s largest title would implicitly tie the company as a whole to a position some players may see as politically controversial. Would the marketing department, or the company as a whole, be willing to “capitalize on division” in backing such a potentially divisive mode? Would the same apply if the issue was more controversial than climate change?

The escapist fun of <em>Fortnite</em> might not be politically controversial, but does that mean it can't be?
Enlarge / The escapist fun of Fortnite might not be politically controversial, but does that mean it can’t be?

There’s an inherent conflict here between what an individual developer at Epic might want to say and what Epic, as a game development studio, might want to put its corporate name behind. That’s a conflict Sweeney seems to understand on some level.

“A company is a group of people who get together to accomplish a mission that is larger than what any one person can do,” Sweeney said at DICE. “And a company’s mission is a holy thing to it, right? Epic’s mission is to build great technology and great games. And we can count on every employee at Epic—we can even demand every employee at Epic unite behind that mission. But every other matter we have to respect their personal opinions. And they may differ from management’s or each other’s or whatever.”

This makes any video game inherently different from To Kill a Mockingbird, which was the creation of a single author. In video games, as in other collaborative art forms like film and TV, the overall direction is the result of countless decisions from creative employees big and small.

In some collaborative projects, one empowered “auteur” is able to direct the actions of the collective whole toward a certain political statement—see Hideo Kojima and the obvious metaphors of Death Stranding for one recent example. In other cases, the work becomes more of a collaborative vision, with numerous departments and executives working together to create some kind of cohesive whole. The hundreds of titleless developers listed in Fortnite‘s credits suggests it’s more the latter case.

Games are not fast food

Can such a diffuse, largely flat collection of developers even agree on a coherent political statement in its game? And if it could, would Epic welcome it? Some of Sweeney’s statements suggest it might not.

“The world is really screwed up right now. Right now our political orientations determine which fast-food chicken restaurant you go to,” he said at DICE, in an obvious reference to Chik-Fil-A’s controversial corporate giving decisions. “And that’s really dumb. There’s no reason to drag divisive topics like that into gaming at all.”

It seems here that Sweeney is specifically focused on company executives using corporate donations or speech to represent the feelings of the entire workforce. “I just don’t feel it’s appropriate for one person, like a company CEO, to draw their company and its employees into their personal politics outside of the company’s mission,” he said in a tweet.

“I think 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 said in another tweet. “If one’s mission is to make great food, and 1000’s of employees have come together to support that, why drag them into an issue many disagree on?”

Not a video game.

Not a video game.

Here’s the thing: video games are not fast food. They may be designed to extract maximum value out of their players, whether by munching quarters or selling microtransactions. But they’re not individual, repeated copies of a recipe. They’re works of art that by their inherent nature require making expressive decisions, big and small, as a collective. Those decisions sometimes require making a political statement through the work in a way that creating chicken sandwiches does not require.

A CEO or a marketing department probably shouldn’t be the ones driving those decisions. But a gaming company should be willing to empower its creative team to make those kinds of statements if they want to.

If the only statements you’re willing to make with a game are ones that all of your thousands of employees can get behind, that can end up being an excuse to make only the safest, least controversial art possible. Or it can lead to situations where companies disavow the obvious expressive nature of their own products, like when Ubisoft laughably suggested that The Division 2 is not making any political statement.

For years, gamers have argued that video games are an expressive medium worthy of protection by the First Amendment. If that’s the case, companies have to do more than remaining neutral when it comes to their own games’ political statements. They have to actively support their creators and whole-heartedly back their ability to express themselves through their games.

That’s especially true when those expressions are controversial. Or when they’re “political.”

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Robert Pattinson broods and batters his way through new The Batman trailer

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Robert Pattinson stars as billionaire Bruce Wayne, aka the Caped Crusader, in director Matt Reeves’ forthcoming film, The Batman.

Robert Pattinson is appropriately dark and brooding and beating up bad guys in the latest trailer for The Batman, which debuted at DC FanDome this weekend. Directed by Matt Reeves, the film’s release has been delayed multiple times, but will finally hit theaters next March.

As I’ve written previously, the original plan was to set the film within the DCEU, after the events of Justice League. But as Warner Bros. was rethinking the shared-universe model for its superhero films in favor of standalone films and franchises, Affleck announced he was stepping down as director, and the studio replaced him with Reeves. Affleck would eventually withdraw from the project altogether, following his divorce from Jennifer Garner and a stint in rehab for alcohol abuse.

Reeves brought a very different vision to The Batman, saying that he wanted it to be “an almost noir-driven, detective version of Batman,” focused on Bruce Wayne’s second year fighting crime as the Caped Crusader, rather than once again retelling the character’s origin story. 

Reeves said that the plot would follow a series of murders, revealing the history of corruption in Gotham and how Bruce’s family is linked to that corruption. The classic bad guys—the Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman—are also in the early stages of their development into full-fledged villains. Reeves has cited Alfred Hitchcock films as a major influence on the overall look and feel of his film, as well as Chinatown, The French Connection, and Taxi Driver.

Filming was paused in March 2020 due to COVID-19—dialect coach Andrew Jack died from the disease shortly thereafter—after a quarter or so of the film had been shot. And three days after filming resumed in September 2020, Pattinson tested positive for COVID-19, briefly shutting down production again. Filming didn’t wrap completely until March of this year, and the studio pushed the film’s release to 2022 as a result.

In addition to Pattinson, the cast includes Jeffrey Wright (Westworld) as Commissioner Jim Gordon; Colin Farrell (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) as Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin; Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) as Bruce Wayne’s butler and mentor, Alfred Pennyworth; John Turturro (Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski) as crime boss Carmine Falcone; Paul Dano (Okja, 12 Years a Slave) as Edward Nashton/The Riddler; and Zoë Kravitz (X-Men: First Class) as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. (Kravitz voiced the character in The Lego Batman Movie.)

Enlarge / Zoë Kravitz plays Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman

YouTube/Warner Bros

The first teaser dropped during last year’s DC FanDome, and the Warner Bros. CinemaCon panel this past August featured a brief sizzle reel of new footage. This latest trailer opens with the arrest of Dano’s Riddler in a coffee shop, although we don’t see his face—just the question mark pattern in the foam of his cappuccino. We get a bit more footage of Batman beating up street goons, some serious sparkage with Selina/Catwoman, and a fiery confrontation with Oswald Cobblepot. But it’s the Riddler who seems to dominate the proceedings, with an ominous voiceover: “What’s black and blue and red all over? You.”

In other Batman news, Warner Bros. dropped a short sneak peek of footage for The Flash film that’s been in development for a good 17 years. It’s loosely based on the 2011 comic crossover story Flashpoint, in which Barry travels back in time to prevent the death of his mother, and accidentally unravels space and time as a result. This new footage confirms that. Ben Affleck is rumored to reprise his Batman, along with Michael Keaton, who last played the Caped Crusader in 1992’s Batman Returns. Yep, we might be getting a mutliverse version of the DCEU.

We don’t see the face of either Affleck or Keaton in this footage, but we do see Barry approach Batman from behind and ask, “Are you in?” And that does sound like Keaton in the voiceover. The studio doesn’t seem to have released the footage on their own YouTube channel, but a version is embedded below. You can watch the full streamed DC FanDome event here.

The Batman is slated for release on March 4, 2022. The Flash is scheduled to hit theaters on November 4, 2022.

Batman returns in teaser trailer for the forthcoming film The Flash.

Listing image by Warner Bros.

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John Cena shows off comedic chops in extended teaser for Peacemaker series

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John Cena reprises his role as Peacemaker for the forthcoming HBO Max spinoff series Peacemaker.

John Cena’s Peacemaker was among the standout characters in The Suicide Squad‘s star-studded ensemble cast, so we were intrigued by the news that a spinoff series was in the works. We knew that Peacemaker was being written and directed by James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), and that the series will explore will explore the origins of the character and his subsequent missions. And now we have our first look, thanks to HBO Max, which released an extended teaser trailer for the series during the DC FanDome event.

(A couple of spoilers for The Suicide Squad below.)

Gunn wrote the series last summer during the COVID-19 lockdown, just for fun, but then DC Films approached him about a possible spinoff series for one of the characters in The Suicide Squad. I’m not sure Peacemaker would have been my first choice—Cena’s performance was terrific, but I haven’t quite forgiven the character for the Very Bad Thing he did in that film—but Gunn’s instincts are pretty impeccable, and he clearly felt there was more story to tell.

“He’s not an evil person, he’s just a bad guy,” Gunn told Variety in August. “He seems sort of irredeemable in the film. But I think that there’s more to him. We didn’t get a chance to know him [in The Suicide Squad] in the way we get to know some of the other characters. And so that’s what the whole show is about.” HBO Max was sufficiently impressed with his take that it ordered Peacemaker straight to series.

The eight-episode series is set after the events of The Suicide Squad, specifically after the post-credits scene, in which we learned that Peacemaker had survived what had appeared to be a fatal shooting. That scene hinted that the US government still had some use for him. The teaser makes that hint explicit, as Peacemaker (aka Christopher Smith) is recruited by Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji) for another mission in order to avoid going back to prison.

That mission is even less noble than the one he was assigned by Amanda Waller: he’s basically an assassin, but hey, at least he’s only killing bad people. He gets assistance from John Economos (Steve Agee)—warden of the Belle Reve penitentiary—NSA agent and former Waller aide Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland), and new team member Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks). The cast also includes Robert Patrick as Peacemaker’s crusty father, Auggie Smith (who thinks his son is a “nancy-boy”); Freddie Stroma as Adrian Chase, aka Vigilante, a district attorney who fights crime and has rapid healing abilities; and Nhut Le as Judomaster.

The teaser is heavy on the cheesy, off-color bro-humor, including shots of Peacemaker bending over to to shoot at a target during practice, as well as having Vigilante fire at a bottle held at groin level. Then there’s the whole bizarre conversation about “butt babies.” But in Gunn’s capable hands, the irreverent, over-the-top tone is note-perfect—very much in line with the character and with the tone of The Suicide Squad (which I loved)—and we already know Cena has a remarkable gift for physical comedy, shown to good advantage here. Honestly, we’ll be tuning in to just watch him dance in his apartment in his underwear, and bond with a bald eagle. (“Oh my god. He’s hugging me.”)

Peacemaker debuts on January 13, 2022, on HBO Max.

Enlarge / John Cena’s Peacemaker gets his own spinoff series on HBO Max and a brand new team—including a bald eagle because why not?

YouTube/HBO Max

Listing image by YouTube/HBO Max

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Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds exhibit comes to LA’s Skirball Center

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Back in 2016, the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) in Seattle unveiled an immersive new exhibit, Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds, in its Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame–a tribute to the hugely influential long-running franchise. The exhibit embarked on a national tour two years later and has been traveling around the country ever since. And now it’s come to the final stop on its journey: the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, California, where Gene Roddenberry first created his visionary series, Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS).

“Star Trek’s vision resonates deeply with the Skirball’s commitment to using the power of arts and storytelling to help build a society in which everyone belongs,” museum director Sheri Bernstein said during the press preview last month.

Among the highlights of the exhibit are Captain Kirk’s command chair, and the wooden helm and navigation console from TOS, fully restored. There are plenty of props: different designs of tricorders, communicators, phasers, and P.A.D.Ds; a model of a Borg cube; and lots of weaponry, including a Klingon disruptor pistol.  

And of course, there are many, many models of the various spacecraft featured in the franchise over the decades, including filming models for the Enterprise, the USS Excelsior, and the Deep Space Nine space station. “I love spaceship models,” MoPOP’s Brooks Peck, curator of the exhibit, admitted. “Now it’s all digital, but back then it was all about plastic and wood models, so there’s a wonderful craft to those pieces.”

Peck is also proud of the fact that the exhibit showcases the captain’s uniforms from all the major Star Trek TV shows. His personal favorite? Kathryn Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager. “Best Star Trek captain ever,” Peck joked. “I will fight you over that.” There are also many original costumes worn by cast members of the various series, from TOS —including the tunic worn by evil Captain Kirk in the episode “Mirror, Mirror”—all the way through to Star Trek: Discovery.

On the interactive side of things, visitors can crawl through a Jeffries tube, or be “assimilated” by the Borg. A transporter simulation lets people create short films of themselves beaming down to to the surface of an alien planet. There’s a station where one can listen to people reminisce about their favorite Star Trek films and shows, and what the franchise has meant to them. And of course, there are tons of tribbles lurking throughout, for eagle-eyed visitors who want to try and spot them.

In his press preview remarks, Peck emphasized that the characters and themes of TOS were quite radical when it first aired in 1966. This was a time when the Cold War was in full swing, and there was a great deal of racial tension in the US, despite passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year. This was the broad cultural backdrop against which Captain Kirk and the crew of the USS Enterprise had their adventures, all infused with Roddenberry’s optimism for the future.

“Roddenberry believed not that we would get past our differences, but that we would, in fact, embrace our differences, in the sense of diversity,” said Peck. “Sadly, this is a rough time in this nation. We’re seeing a lot of division again. So I’m pleased that we can take some time to look at Star Trek, and its idea of inclusion and working together to build a better and just society, and to hold that up in a fun, artistic form. What Star Trek brings is this optimistic vision of the future that is really inspiring to people.”

Laura Mart, managing curator for the exhibition, also expressed her hope that the exhibit would channel the original Star Trek ethos, ending her remarks with an especially apt quote from Roddenberry:

I believe in humanity. We are an incredible species. We’re still just a child creature, we’re still being nasty to each other, and all children go through those phases. We’re still growing up. We’re moving into adolescence now. When we grow up, man, we’re going to be something.

Listing image by Skirball Center/MoPOP

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