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It’s Just a Game: The Ethics of Tom Clancy’s Not-So-Elite Squad

image of man in military gear firing weapon

Video game company Ubisoft has recently received a fresh wave of backlash, this time for its latest mobile game app: Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad. The mechanics of the game are nothing revolutionary – tap here to make person X shoot person Y – and has received a number of poor reviews for its heavy-handed monetization and boring gameplay. The problem is not so much the style of game, as it is the backstory. Here is how the plot is described in the game’s introduction:

“The world is in an alarming state: wars, corruption and poverty have made it more unstable than ever. As the situation keeps worsening, anger is brewing. From between the cracks, a new threat has emerged to take advantage of escalating civil unrest. They are known as UMBRA: a faceless organization that wants to build a new world order. They claim to promote an egalitarian utopia to gain popular support, while behind the scenes, UMBRA organizes deadly terrorist attacks to generate even more chaos, and weaken governments, at the cost of many innocent lives. Simultaneously, they have been hacking social media to discredit world leaders and rally people to their cause. Under immense pressure, world leaders have come together to authorize a new international cross agency unit designed to combat UMBRA. It is clear, playing by the rules will not win this fight. The leader of this unconventional squad will need to recruit elite soldiers from every corner of the world, including the criminal underworld. As commander of this unprecedented squad, we need you to put an end to UMBRA’s campaign of chaos. Welcome to Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad.”

In addition to sounding like it was written by a middle-schooler who used a thesaurus for every word except “squad”, many critics have noted that the message of the game itself is a dangerous one, in that it appears to lend credence to right-wing conspiracy theories that protesters are somehow being controlled by evil members of the deep state. Additionally, it seems to advocate for violence against those protesters – after all, “playing by the rules will not win this fight” – who are villainized for, bizarrely, wanting to create an “egalitarian utopia”.

(You control the guys shooting the people waving the flag reading “freedom”)

It gets much worse: the symbol that Ubisoft chose to represent the antagonists bears a striking resemblance to that used by the Black Lives Matter movement. So close, in fact, that Ubisoft issued an apology, and promised to remove the symbol from the next update. Of course, the plot of protesters being secret terrorists remains central to the game.

Hanlon’s razor states to “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” That being said, there might not be enough stupidity available to adequately explain Ubisoft’s choice of plot and imagery. It seems clear that not only was an apology warranted, but that significant changes to the game ought to be made. Outrage online has been widespread, and deserved.

But wait: why make such a big deal out of this? It is, after all, nothing more than a dumb mobile game from a franchise whose best days are likely long behind it. And it’s not like we haven’t had Tom Clancy’s work glorifying the military for decades already, in the forms of books, movies, and TV shows – featuring protagonists with jaw-droppingly original names like “Jack Ryan”, “John Clark”, and “Jack Ryan Jr.” – not to mention dozens of video games. These are works of fiction, though, and people are able to differentiate such works from reality. So really, we shouldn’t be bothered by the latest in a long line of predictable Tom Clancy-branded properties.

There is, I think, something to be said about the “it’s just a game” response. For instance, while research on the effects of violent video games on their players is ongoing, there is a good amount of evidence that long-term exposure to such games has no effect on levels of aggression, pro-social behavior, impulsivity, or cognition in general. So the thought that a mobile game in which one shoots protesters is going to have a direct impact on the number of people who are going out and shooting protesters – something that has become a real problem as of late – is too quick.

The relevant worry, then, is not so much that the game will be a direct cause of future violence, but rather that the fact that a company would create such a game, with such a premise, at this particular moment in time, helps to normalize a false and dangerous narrative of events that is very much taken seriously by some people.

Here, then, is a difference between Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad and the kinds of video games that have historically received moral outrage and are the subject of studies that mentioned above: those falling into the latter category do not tend to promote any kind of narrative that actively promotes a particular political agenda. Consider, for example, a violent videogame like Mortal Kombat (which was one of the games that sparked early congressional hearings into depictions of violence in video games in the early 1990s) that involves graphic acts of decapitation and pixelated blood. These acts are obviously so far removed from what are generally considered good societal values that it is easy to see how one could separate the acts promoted in the video game from those promoted in the real world. On the other hand, when a game tells you that protestors who wave a flag remarkably similar to that used by the Black Lives Matter movement are driven by ulterior motives, are “hacking social media”, and ought to be dealt with in any way possible – a message that seems to be condoned by right-wing media outlets – the lines between fantasy and reality become much less distinct.

In one sense, Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad is just a game. In another sense, it is a symbol of an uninformed and intolerant worldview that has potentially real and damaging consequences. With any luck, Ubisoft’s decisions will turn out to be the result of an enormous amount of stupidity, and not an equivalent amount of malice.

The Culture of Crunch: The Video Game Industry and Overwork

Banner for the game "Red Dead Redemption 2"

This month sees the release of one of the most highly anticipated video games of the year, Red Dead Redemption 2. The game is created by video game supergiant Rockstar Games, known best for their Grand Theft Auto series of games. However, the co-founder of Rockstar Games, Dan Houser, has recently been the target of controversy for expressing in a tweet, as well as in an interview with Vulture that employees at Rockstar had, in weeks leading up to the game’s release, been working “100-hour weeks.” While later clarifying that Houser did not mean to imply that all employees were working such hours, or that it was mandatory that any employee do so, the statement nevertheless reignited discussion about the seemingly ubiquitous occurrence of “crunch” in the video game industry.

“Crunch” is generally defined as a period in which employees put in work weeks much longer than 40 hours, often unpaid, in the weeks or months leading up to the completion of a project. Take This, a non-profit that describes itself as “serving the game community/industry that provides resources, guidelines and training about mental health issues in the game community” describes in a whitepaper that crunch is often the product of setting of unrealistic deadlines, and that employers feel that it is required for “creativity and esprit de corps”. Take This describes typical crunch times as involving 60 to 80-hour work weeks, although some in the industry have reported even more significant demands on their time. For example, one of the early catalysts for more public discussion of crunch came in 2004 in a blog post by spouses of employees of Electronic Arts, who describe periods in which employees worked up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

Take This also describes the toll that crunch takes on the mental and physical health of employees: “Long work hours might mean giving up sleep, eating poorly, overindulging in caffeinated drinks, and otherwise abandoning healthy habits”, with “major risk factors for health problems that include insomnia, depression, heart disease, stroke, and on-the-job injuries”. Studies reported in the whitepaper also strongly support the idea that crunch is actually detrimental to the quality of the finished product, as well as the company itself: excessive crunch time tends to result in more numerous software defects and lower critic ratings, and more significant costs to the company in terms of dealing with employee turnover.

It seems clear that there are a number of ethical problems surrounding crunch in the video game industry. First and foremost, even if crunch does end up producing a higher quality video game (although we have seen reason to think that it doesn’t), it seems that detriments to the mental and physical well-being of employees are costs that outweigh any potential benefits. It would then seem to be a generally unethical practice to make significant crunch mandatory.

However, while companies like Rockstar have clarified that there is no explicit expectation of crunch from its employees, there may be more subtle factors that result in employees feeling as though engaging in crunch is expected of them. For instance, Matt Webster at gamesindustry.biz describes a number of practices that can create the appearance of implicit requirements for crunch from employees, and that companies have an obligation to try to avoid. Webster suggests a number of best practices, including setting realistic expectations for completion, regularly seeking feedback from employees measuring their health, and curbing rewards for bad behaviors; for example, Webster notes how encouraging someone for working excessive hours with praise like “She’s just passionate” reinforces detrimental behavior.

Webster’s observations speak to a second ethical concern surrounding the crunch phenomenon, namely concerning the obligations that companies have towards their employees to try to try to mitigate the effects of crunch. Eliminating the effects of crunch will take more than just explicitly decrying the practice: one may also be required to try to establish a workplace culture in which employees do not feel implicitly obligated to engage in crunch. In addition to the above best practices, Webster suggests that those in leadership positions ought to modify their own behavior to set the right kind of precedent for their employees. “Like the behaviors you want to see”, Webster recommends, adding “if you believe everyone should leave at six o’clock…then leave at six.”

We have seen that given the detrimental effects on employees, employers have moral reasons not to require crunch. However, since crunch can be a product not only of explicit policy but of implicit behavior, the actions of those like Hauser, someone who does not require crunch but still engages in it, may still be morally problematic. After all, if all of your bosses are working 100 hours weeks, you will no doubt feel pressure to start putting in a lot of overtime yourself.

One final worry has to do with how we as consumers of games that are partly the result of crunch ought to behave. Jessica Conditt at Engadget, for example, reports mixed feelings when appreciating the artistic qualities of Red Dead Redemption 2 while knowing that many of those qualities were the product of significant crunch at Rockstar:

“While I admire these in-game moments, they’re also the ones that shake me out of Red Dead Redemption 2‘s spell the most abruptly. The more beautiful the scene, the more obvious how much talent and work has gone into it, the more I think about the people behind it and how many 80-hour weeks they might have endured; how their emotional and physical health must have fared; how many family milestones they may have missed. The more I think about crunch.”

Conditt suggests that, as a minimum, both those in the video game industry and consumers of games ought to engage in an open discussion about consequences of crunch. Given that according to some estimates Red Dead Redemption 2 is expected to sell 25 million copies in the first six months after its release, we can hopefully expect a lot of conversations in the near future.