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Shadow Politics

I’m a regular reader of the Joystiq video game news blog, and this week my daily scanning of its pages revealed a lot of praise for a game I hadn’t heard of previously: Shadow Complex. This Xbox Live Arcade game by Chair and Epic Games is a 2D sidescroller built on the 3D Unreal engine, combining old-fashioned, Metroid-style gameplay with modern day graphics, effects and combat. The whole thing is set in a modern-day universe similar to that of Metal Gear Solid, and finds you stepping into the role of the reluctant son of an NSA officer who stumbles upon the underground base of a terrorist army that’s just hours away from taking over the city of San Francisco.

I downloaded the free demo available from Xbox Live and had such a great time with it that I purchased the full version about 30 minutes in. (It’ll set you back 1200 Microsoft Points, or about $15.) For your money, you’ll get what I believe to be a tremendous gaming value that easily surpasses some of the $60 retail games I’ve purchased over the years, and also comes with excellent replayability since it encourages exploration, doubling back and finding hidden items you missed on your first run-through. From an entertainment perspective, I can heartily recommend Shadow Complex as one of the best titles I’ve ever downloaded from XBLA.

But today I uncovered what many believe to be the “sinister underbelly” of Shadow Complex: Its affiliation with Orson Scott Card (author of Ender’s Game), whose creative universe its story is based upon. Specifically, the game’s story is set in the same continuum as Card’s Empire novel from 2006, which tells the tale of a second American Civil War (between right- and left-wing political ideologies) instigated by a radical leftist organization called The Progressive Restoration.

Why is this a problem? It’s a problem because Orson Scott Card is a very vocal opponent of gay marriage, and in fact has made a number of very vitriolic statements in the past on any number of right-wing causes that have ruffled a lot of feathers. Card is also a member of the board of directors of the National Organization for Marriage, a group that seeks to retain the definition of marriage exclusively as “a union between a man and a woman.”

I only learned of these facts about Orson Scott Card this very afternoon, as I was posting something on Twitter about how much fun I thought Shadow Complex was. I then decided to do a search for the game, to see how many other people were tweeting about it and what the overall opinion was. My search results were immediately bombarded by links to an editorial at Gamasutra, in which author Christian Nutt takes a look at the controversy, provides a bit of background and analyzes the opinions being espoused on both sides of the matter. It’s a pretty interesting read, of the type one doesn’t often see in regards to video games.

What makes the Gamasutra article particularly fascinating is that Peter David, noted comic book author and writer of Shadow Complex’s story, shows up in the comments section to basically roast Christian Nutt for advocating a boycott of the game, which David sees as a punitive measure meant to stifle the free speech of others, not an exercise of free speech itself. I think David came on way too strong in his remarks, but naturally he does have a financial stake in the success of the game and is likely blindsided by this criticism, especially because he apparently has written a number of very gay-friendly storylines during his work for Marvel Comics. He’s probably pissed off that people can’t just see Shadow Complex as a game, and a game that has comparatively very little to do with Orson Scott Card (as Card himself, it seems, had nothing to do with the making of the game, and was perhaps paid only an upfront royalty for the license of his ideas from Empire).

First of all, I’m in full agreement with Christian Nutt that everyone has a right to decide they do not want to purchase the game because of its affiliation, however loose, with Orson Scott Card. This may not be the most effective means of encouraging support for gay rights, but it is a legitimate means of exercising one’s opinion and “voting with one’s wallet,” so to speak. And I think Orson Scott Card is way over the top in many of his political positions, even though I tend to come from a somewhat right-leaning perspective myself. For example, I don’t see the harm in allowing gay marriage, as it doesn’t in any way impugn on straight marriages as far as I can discern. The idea that it serves as a “slippery slope” gateway to allowing marriages between, for example, women and livestock is completely ludicrous to me.

However, in reading Christian’s editorial, I did find myself taking issue with the opinion that gamers who want to think of Shadow Complex as “just a game” are immature and refuse to grow up. In particular, some commentators on the piece seemed to have more to say about this aspect than the Orson Scott Card controversy itself. One reader claims it is a form of “avoidant self-defense.”

Keep in mind, I’m not telling people who want to skip Shadow Complex to chill out by saying “it’s just a game.” Seriously, if they’re very put-off by Orson Scott Card and want to avoid buying the game for that reason alone (even though they’re probably not punishing Card at all and are instead just hurting lots of artists, programmers and testers who developed the game themselves), that’s fine by me. However, the implication of the anti-“it’s just a game” crowd seems to be that I’m an ignorant, mindless sheep if I’m not actively researching the political and ethical connections behind every purchasing decision I make.

Here’s the part of Peter David’s commentary that I agree with: It’s a more valuable use of your time and money to actively support the causes that you do believe in, either by spreading the word, making financial donations or debating with those who disagree to see if both sides can come to a form of mutual enlightenment. I think that this is a much better use of energy than to actively work to suppress the opinions of those whom you do not agree with, which is one way to construe the idea of a boycott. I’m not saying boycotts are wrong, I’m saying that using your own voice to support your own causes is a better, truer form of free speech.

And I personally don’t subscribe to the theory that I’m a mindless consumer sheep because I don’t investigate, nor particularly care, about the political affiliations of the people who contributed time, money or ideas to a video game, a film or some other product I use. I do care about those connections, but not as they relate to every single blessed choice available to me — I choose my battles, in other words. It’s said that Henry Ford, after all, was a Nazi sympathizer. I guess I’d better make sure to tell all of my relatives not to buy a Ford, because Ford’s products are an extension of a Nazi sympathizer’s original idea. Likewise, I’d better tell everyone not to buy a Japanese car because Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. If you carry this back far enough, you realize what an absurd waste of time it is.

Now that I’ve learned about the political standing of Orson Scott Card, buying a product with which he was directly involved — such as a book he’s written — may give me pause. But even if I had not yet purchased Shadow Complex when I discovered its affiliation with Card, having read the inside story, I’ve decided that it would not have stopped me. I believe Card is simply too far removed from the project, and there are far too many other good people involved (some of whose own stances on the issue, like Peter David’s, actually have a canceling-out effect, in my opinion). Additionally, I have observed absolutely no palpable political agenda whatsoever in the game itself, and although I am only 10% of the way through, others who have finished the game say that it is decidedly non-partisan and makes no commentary at all on the gay rights situation. Thus, in this case, I believe the game really is “just a game.”

So while I think the specific case of Shadow Complex is a non-issue as far as controversy is concerned, I do find fascinating the overall dialogue that it has raised. Particularly in regards to video games, which are a traditionally neutral and apolitical medium. As gaming technology evolves, I think games will become more akin to film in more than one way: Some of them may start to carry the political overtones as well.

And that’s fine, as long as it doesn’t lead to the Second American Civil War.

2 thoughts to “Shadow Politics”

  1. Interesting read.

    Of course, the first thing that came to mind when I saw “National Organization for Marriage” is “NOM NOM NOM.”

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go marry a box turtle now.

  2. Hahahahaha…”NOM NOM NOM.” That has such a great way of taking the wind out of the sails of weighty topics.

    Was playing the game last night and found a very, very subtle hint of what side of the political spectrum this story comes from. The Progressive Restoration is, in the game, revealed to be just that — progressive — or from the liberal side of the spectrum, in other words. I eavesdropped on some soldiers in the cafeteria and heard them talking about how New York and San Francisco were appropriate takeover targets because their governments were already sympathetic to their cause. SFO in particular is an extremely liberal city and I suppose NYC is as well, although I think to a less rampant degree.

    But if this is the extent of the specificity of the game’s political affiliations, my earlier opinion remains completely unchanged. A story isn’t automatically a commentary on the beliefs of the authors.

    And all this talk reminds me of our naiive teenaged selves asking Doug what a liberal was (since he was always bitching about them) and Doug saying something like: “A liberal is someone who comes into your house and tells you what to do!” Hee hee… “So, like the people who keep kicking me out of my room when they come to visit, then?” I remember thinking. Talk about dumbing it down.

    Also, congratulations to you and the box turtle.

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