Faulty pixels: When developers go bad, is it game over?
John Tabbernor // Community Relations Manager
Released in 2011, Minecraft is the second-best selling video game of all time, second only to 1984’s Tetris. Much like the colourful block-laying gameplay of Tetris, Minecraft’s simple and creative gameplay appeals to all ages. It’s no wonder that it has captivated the hearts of millions of fans over the past seven years. Minecraft is an amazing game. It’s creator, Markus “Notch” Persson, however, is a dick.
Calling for everyone that has ever played Minecraft to throw their copy onto a burning pyre because Persson wrote homophobic tweets, isn’t going to undo that harm. The mental gymnastics of separating a creator from their work can quickly become exhausting. With the increasing pressure of movements such as #MeToo, the accountability of creators and organizations has never been more front of mind. We can still enjoy video games as the interactive and performative medium that we all love, but choosing to ignore the conditions surrounding their development is doing the artform a disservice.
In the past months, controversies have mired the work of popular video game developers as news broke about everything from toxic studio environments to employees being charged with felonies.
David Cage’s studio, Quantic Dream, was reported to actively condone a poisonous workplace which included racist and sexist jokes and what Eurogamer called a “schoolboy culture.” Sound designer Simon Chylinski was fired from Unknown Worlds over insensitive remarks made on Twitter. His crass tweets on race, immigration and gender diversity cast a shadow over the long-awaited release of Subnautica. Worse yet, long-time Valve employee and co-creator of Counter-Strike, Jess Cliffe, was charged with commercial sexual abuse of a minor after paying a 16-year old girl for sex on multiple occasions.
A studio’s culture and its employees will define a game’s soul. Their values, beliefs and politics are inherently baked into the DNA of their creation. It falls to each individual consumer and player to decide whether the factors around a game’s development warrant critique, outcry or boycott. The argument can be made that a director has more bearing on a game’s creation than a sound designer. Crucifying one to spite the other might not be the best solution.
When discussing a game led by an auteur such as Cage, it becomes easier to hold them accountable. In the case of Cliffe, however, his creation has far outgrown him. Though Counter-Strike began as a popular mod for Half-Life in 1999, after being acquired by Valve, the game has evolved into one of the biggest e-sports on the planet. With Cliffe’s recent dismissal from Valve and his pending trial, it is highly unlikely that he will continue to profit off of his work.
Just as Counter-Strike outgrew Cliffe, so too did Minecraft outgrow Persson. Though that game made him a fortune, he’s no longer profiting off its continued success. Some might argue then that Minecraft as a work, should stand apart from its toxic father. He can tweet his regressive beliefs and we can choose to ignore them. But when that rhetoric crosses a line into abuse and hate speech, the decision to accept a game for what it is becomes a harder pill to swallow. Publicly trampling on the rights of a minority group and then asking them to “separate art from artist” is a fool’s errand.
Our lived experiences will always inform our interpretation of games, their worlds, and the stories they tell. Intent has no bearing on impact. If what we know of a studio or developer colours our interpretation of their work, there’s no way around that. We are not empty canvases. We come to every experience with the messy palette of our lives.