Why Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney’s plea to keep politics out of gaming is dangerous

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Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney believes that game companies should avoid politics, saying that they should be “neutral platforms” and that marketing departments shouldn’t “drag divisive topics” into gaming.

Sweeney noted that while employees and customers should be free to express themselves, companies should not enter into the political debate.

“We should get the marketing departments out of politics,” Sweeney said during the DICE Summit keynote (via Hollywood Reporter). “We live in a world where your political affiliation determines what chicken restaurant you go to. There’s no reason to drag divisive topics like that into gaming.”

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Sweeney’s comments are seemingly in reference to the controversy surrounding the fast-food restaurant Chick-fil-A, which was criticized after it’s COO Dan T. Cathy made a number of comments opposing same-sex marriage. Additionally, the Cathy family’s tax records revealed how they had donated $1.9 million to anti-gay groups in 2010, including a group that promotes conversion therapy (via Vox).

The implication here is that a “political affiliation” would cause people to choose not to eat at Chick-fil-a, when the reality is that it lines the pockets of a man who actively donated to draconian and dangerous anti-gay groups. Sweeney’s comment immediately muddies the water between politics and human rights, directly equating the decision to vote Democrat or Republican with advocating the rights of LGBTQ individuals.

tim sweeney epic games ceo politics

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Many companies are hesitant about wading into politics so heavily (at least in broad daylight). By doing so, there’s the potential of greatly dividing your potential base of customers. If you’re just out to make money, which almost every company is, then it’s an understandable concern. But to say there should be an outright separation between politics and game companies across the board? Now we’re swimming into the deep end.

“We need to create a very clear separation between church and state … employees, customers and everyone else should be able to express themselves,” Sweeney concluded. “We as companies need to divorce ourselves from politics … platforms should be neutral.”

While Sweeney may assert that employees should be free to express themselves, it’s questionable how this would be achieved in Sweeney’s vision of a company that’s a neutral platform. If he believes that there’s no reason to “drag divisive topics” into gaming, then what about games that tackle political and social issues? How would a marketing team stay “out of politics” then? At what point does an individual’s or team’s political views become reflective of the company? When does Sweeney believe that a line has been crossed and that his “neutral platform” has been compromised?

The reality is that an incredibly small amount of games openly tackle political issues as it is, to the point where when a game does dare to make some form of statement it’s placed under a burning spotlight. We all remember the reaction to Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, which pivoted its marketing against the increase of white supremacist beliefs in America, and wound up widely vilified as a result. The reaction to The New Colossus was so hyperbolic (it was a game about killing Nazis — of course it’s going to have strong opinions about Nazis) that even now, it’s used as a de facto example of “get woke, go broke.”

It’s okay if Tim Sweeney wants to place Epic Games firmly on the fence. But to say that “we as companies need to divorce ourselves from politics” is suggesting that this should be a logical industry standard, and that all game companies should be fearful of speaking to their audience in the way they want to. The outright avoidance of politics is how we’re going to wind up with a homogenous industry of Battle Pass-carrying loot shooters with absolutely nothing to say. Just like films, music, books, and TV, there should be more big video games that dare to address political and social issues, and that want to say something other than “pre-order now for an exclusive skin.” You can’t get those games if companies follow Tim Sweeney’s advice.

Update (02/13/20): Tim Sweeney addressed his controversial comments on Twitter. “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,” he said. “And when a company operates an ecosystem where users and creators can express themselves, they should be a neutral moderator. Else the potential for undue influence from within or without is far too high.”

These comments add additional context to the previous statement at the DICE Summit, though if this is Sweeney’s actual stance on the matter, there’s arguably little evidence of game companies using political division in their marketing in any meaningful way. Outside of a small selection of examples such as the aforementioned Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, the number of game marketing teams using politics to draw in customers is nowhere near as widespread as Sweeney’s comments would suggest. If this really is just about marketing teams and not about game companies as a whole, then surely more substantial evidence of this actually taking place would be required for Sweeney to comment on it?