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Opinion: The  Complex  Question

Opinion: The Complex Question Exclusive

August 21, 2009 | By Christian Nutt

A discussion erupted on popular gaming forum NeoGAF late yesterday morning. A user named Coins posed the simple-sounding question, "Should we boycott Shadow Complex?"

The question sounds simple, but the issues behind it are complicated. It's salient because the game is derived from the fiction of Orson Scott Card, and Orson Scott Card is a political campaigner against gay rights.

Card sits on the board of directors of the National Organization for Marriage, an organization "founded in 2007 in response to the growing need for an organized opposition to same-sex marriage in state legislatures," according to its website. When you visit the site, a pop-up ad appears which contains a video defending ex-Miss California Carrie Prejean, who lost her crown amidst controversy about her opinions on the topic.

Everybody knows that same-sex marriage is one of the most politically-charged issues of the day. Proposition 8's passage last November was a defining moment in the SSM fight; the battle has only intensified as victories for both sides of the argument continue to unfold across the country.

Before I continue with the piece, I should up-front say two things. The first is: I'm gay. The second is: the purpose of this piece is not to advance the SSM cause. While I feel passionately about the issue -- it's a matter of public record on my personal blog, Twitter, and Facebook, which are all read by members of the industry -- it has nothing to do with "The Art & Business of Making Games", which is Gamasutra's mission and motto.

What does, however, is an examination of a boycott of a game, arising because some members of the gaming community feel strongly that one of the creative talents behind it is too strongly linked to a political cause.

When Shadow Complex was announced, I personally was torn. I'd already long since made the conscious decision to not support Orson Scott Card directly with my money. I also would like nothing more than to play a new game developed in the vein of some of my personal favorites -- Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Super Metroid, the game's two biggest influences. I didn't have to hem and haw very much, however, as Chair Entertainment sent me a download code for the game.

Not everyone is so lucky, however.

GayGamer offers up an interesting suggestion toward compromise in its thoughtful analysis of the issue: buy the game, and donate to a gay-positive charity to offset any profits that might funnel to Card. While Card established the universe, along with Chair, that the game resides in, he didn't work directly on the title. Dialogue was handled by Peter David, a comic book writer who GayGamer describes as "straight but extremely gay-friendly."

Games are made by teams of individuals, and the scope of their contributions can widely vary. This is where things get murky for the politically-minded gamer. Boycotting Card's books is a simple and easy decision. But Card isn't nearly as in control of, nor benefiting as much from Shadow Complex. Further, the politics of the rest of the development team are not a matter of public record.

The issue became even more complicated for me, personally, yesterday. Prior to my discovery of the brewing controversy, I spent an hour speaking to Chair's creative director, Donald Mustard, and his wife and PR rep Laura about Shadow Complex.

Over coffee, toast, and fruit, we chatted about the couple's upcoming vacation to Paris -- which they can finally take now that Shadow Complex has shipped. I made suggestions on what to do in the city and talked about my desire to return there with someone special for a romantic getaway. I also mentioned that I'm going to see my boyfriend, who lives in Michigan, over Labor Day weekend.

The Mustards were warm and open throughout the conversation, and Donald and I bonded over our shared love of Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night, in an interview I'm extremely excited to share with Gamasutra's readership in the near future. After the interview, I walked back to the Gamasutra offices, sat down at my desk, and signed on to AIM -- only to find out that something was brewing with Shadow Complex on NeoGAF.

What Actually Bothers Me...

What's most striking to me is the naivete of the discussion on NeoGAF, at least early on. The thread was locked by moderator duckroll eight minutes after its creation, with the message, "The world was not created by Orson Scott Card, it was created by Chair Entertainment. He is simply the author they are working with to create novels set in that world. Please do better research before starting stupid threads like this in future."

Duckroll reopened the thread 11 minutes later after conferring with another mod. He later said, "I hope that what we generate here is actual discussion that is meaningful."

That didn't happen quickly.

What bothers me is not that so many users are going to purchase Shadow Complex. What bothers me most is not, as you might assume, that some gamers who understand the issue will decide to buy the game to show support for Card, either as an artist whose work they enjoy or even as a political figure whose views they respect. To argue against that would be childish; that's their right.

No, what bothers me is people who suggest that it's a non-issue because the topic of discussion is a game. "Holy crap, it's just a game," says user intheinbetween. "Don't judge a picture by its painter," suggests Lagunamov. "Remember back when we were kids and we just enjoyed games?" asks Wizman23.

Yes, I do. But we are not kids anymore. I'm of the NES generation. Born in 1977, the same year as the Atari 2600, I was 10 for the release of Metroid, 16 for the release of Super Metroid, and 20 for the release of Symphony of the Night, the touchstone games that inspired Shadow Complex. I was 32 on the day it became available for download on Xbox Live Arcade, and my life, it's safe to say, has changed drastically. I can't approach things the way I did as a child. That's not me being self-righteous; I mean that I literally cannot do this.

Again, the crux of what I'm getting at is not that Shadow Complex should be boycotted. I leave that for you to determine. What I am attempting to examine is that there is a fundamental distinction between those who hold views and those who are board members of organizations that operate political action committees with specific agendas; authors who write essays espousing political viewpoints. That may be the relevant distinction.

Card has made waves with quotes like, "Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down." That is the kind of writing that can push a lot of people's buttons for more than one reason.

And what I am wondering is -- as we age, as an audience, and as creators, and as we begin to understand the world more fully and hold views which have deep seated meaning to us, does that fundamentally affect our relationship to the medium? This is almost entirely new territory for games.

The Case Against Sugiyama

But it's not entirely new. Though it's so far very rare, there's another, similar controversy. Koichi Sugiyama, the composer of the music in all nine of the primary installments of the Dragon Quest series, has his own political agenda. That this series is generally regarded as the most popular franchise in the Japanese market -- the latest title, Dragon Quest IX, has sold 3.64 million copies in four weeks makes it even more interesting.

Sugiyama is a right wing Japanese nationalist who denies the Rape of Nanking. He's not shy about it, either; he was a signatory to an ad run in the Washington Post called "The Facts," which publicly denies the generally accepted historical record. "Where the Nanking 'Massacre' and the comfort women are concerned, the facts are on our side," says the advert.

Obviously, Sugiyama's position isn't doing a hell of a lot to hurt the sales of Dragon Quest in the game's home territory. Most gamers are likely unaware or unconcerned that the series' composer holds these views; the games themselves, in fact, have extremely lighthearted and humanistic tales in which cities are much more likely to be bespelled by mysterious magic than sacked by desperate soldiers.

At least one user on NeoGAF has made the Dragon Quest connection and made a decision based on it. Josh7289 says, "I personally boycott the Dragon Quest series because the composer, Koichi Sugiyama, denies the Japanese Empire's guilt in the Nanking Massacre, and he publicly advertises/advocates his position."

The Whole Foods Controversy

The situation with Shadow Complex mirrors another, much larger controversy taking place right now. John Mackey, the CEO of the supermarket chain Whole Foods recently penned an op-ed for the Washington Post coming out against Obamacare.

Until that moment, I think most people had an unconsidered assumption that Whole Foods was a liberal organization -- because it sells bulk grain, tofu burgers, and organic spinach. This is, in a word, naive. Business is done by businessmen; Whole Foods is successful because it caters to a lucrative market niche, not because it espouses an ideology. While the company does carry different products than many more typical supermarket chains, presuming a politically liberal ideology on the part of the company on an unrelated issue was, obviously, a mistake -- but it's one many made.

On political blog, The Daily Dish, a reader nails it on the head: "Are Mac users afficianadoes [sic] solely because of the software platform? Do Whole Foods shoppers patronize the chain solely because they like organic fruits? They're lifestyle brands; they connote status and priorities."

But while I can both recognize that and still call Whole Foods boycotters naive for assuming the company was any more liberal than Wal-Mart -- which incidentally pulled its ads from Glenn Beck's program on Fox News this week, making it look more liberal than Whole Foods, when you take the narrow view -- there's a relevant distinction here.

Whole Foods sells organic vegetables. Whole Foods arguably sells a lifestyle to Prius-owning suburbanites. Whole Foods has, however, a limited capacity for advancing an ideology directly to its customers -- it's limited to marketing materials and product selection.

A game, however, absolutely has that capacity.

Shadow Complex, by all accounts, has a rich narrative. That story is based on the work of Orson Scott Card, who set out the foundations of the universe in his 2006 novel Empire. According to Wikipedia, Empire's plot is set in motion when "A radical leftist army calling itself the Progressive Restoration takes over New York City and declares itself the rightful government of the United States."

I'll let you read the "Literary significance and reception" section of the Wikipedia article if you like. The short version is that it makes the book sound pretty right-wing. That's the funny thing about narrative art; it can and does easily espouse ideologies.

When it comes to Shadow Complex itself, NeoGAF poster Stumpokapow says, "if your objection is going to be based on in-game content, you're in the clear." Though I've not gotten far enough in the game yet to have my own take on its narrative ideology, signs from those who have point to Peter David and/or Chair showing restraint on the political overtones. One friend told me "it subverts the Empire universe severely," which is a funny twist on the whole controversy, if true.

I feel strongly about this medium, no matter how boneheaded the content can be -- and games like Killzone 2 can be pretty dopey, at least as far as I played it. Not everybody in the audience cares about this; hell, not everybody making games cares about this. Whether you do or not, games are maturing and changing in meaningful ways.

I remember that Ulf Andersson, on his press tour for Wanted: Weapons of Fate, honestly described the film the game was based on as "cool." I would describe it as vapid. But the medium of film is not devalued by Wanted. The medium of games is intrinsically capable of the heights of meaning and emotion that film is; our discourse must rise to that level as well.

And that's why it's acceptable to talk about this. That's why it's okay to skip buying Dragon Quest IX or Shadow Complex. If we can have meaningful political discussion in other media, we can have it in games. And even if Shadow Complex itself doesn't espouse views about same-sex marriage, in some way the product funds Orson Scott Card. He may be best-known and loved as the author behind Ender's Game, but he's also a political activist. He has become fair game.


I don't know what Donald Mustard or any of the people at Chair who worked hard on Shadow Complex think about same sex marriage. And even beyond that, I don't know what ballot measures they support or reject.

I do know that when I was done talking to Mustard this morning, over an hour after I had initially mentioned it, he wished me well in my long distance relationship with my boyfriend in Michigan. "It worked for us," he said, referring to himself and his wife Laura. For the first two years of their relationship, she lived in New York and he in Utah, he explained to me. As I shook Mustard's hand, wished him well, and thought about how much I wanted to get home and play Shadow Complex, no political thoughts were in my mind. That human connection -- that warmth -- means more to me than any political position.

Or I like to think it does. As with anyone else, my desire to make a life for myself in this world absolutely irretrievably informs my political positions. Same-sex marriage, then, is a crucial part of my own personal viewpoint. And that's the distinction that we're now facing. Are we "just gamers", or are we adults? The NES generation has grown up. Games have come a long way. We can now tell stories; we can now make statements. And it's not just the developers who have that power.

Note: Chair Entertainment, Epic Games, and Microsoft representatives were all contacted for comment prior to publishing this story but none had responded by press time.

Image of destroyed copy of Gears of War 2 comes from NeoGAF user NinjaFusion, who says, "Sorry epic, but i cannot buy your products while you make this man rich... after this i will not send these game out to create potentially a new fan that he could profit from."

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