We are closer to 2042 than you think.
We are closer to 2042 than we are to the beginning of the superhero movie boom, beginning with Blade in 1998 that began the long journey to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and franchise-driven popular culture. Big, explosive movies and their sequels existed before, but it wasn’t until Hollywood got into superheroes that all of entertainment transformed. Video games included.
While pop culture shifted toward committee-driven intellectual property, a few strived for meaningful stories that explicitly or implicitly embodied political tensions — like The Dark Knight’s evocation of the Patriot Act and Iron Man 3’s critique of Orientalist fear-mongering. But hey, superhero movies aren’t political. Neither are video game franchises like Call of Duty, Battlefield, Far Cry, BioShock, Fallout, Age of Empires, or America’s Army (a series developed by the U.S. Army and playable at recruiting stations). Nothing is political. Right?
But in 2021, everything is political. With a rapidly warming environment, billionaires’ hoarding wealth, and the very recent trauma of airborne diseases capable of changing the world on a dime, it’s not hard to imagine a dark future ahead. Sort of like the one illustrated in the new shooter game Battlefield 2042.
Set for release in October, the newest game in the 19-year-old Battlefield series by EA DICE was first promoted with a five-minute trailer, one that highlights adrenaline over abject horror. It zig zags around a bleak future of climate-induced chaos where soldiers fight on a melting arctic and escape freak tornadoes that form out of nowhere.
It’s an ecological apocalypse, and war is fought by refugees recruited into one of two remaining superpowers: the United States and Russia. (Who else, really?) An interactive timeline on the game’s website plots key events in its speculative future, like the “Second Great Depression” on January 11, 2034 and the disbanding of the European Union on August 8, 2035. The aforementioned 1.2 billion refugees have their own in-universe name: “No-Pats,” for “Non-Patriated.”
But if you ask design director Daniel Berlin, Battlefield 2042 isn’t a political game. In a recent interview, Berlin deflected an inquiry when IGN asked: “Is there any social commentary anywhere with what you’re trying to do?” Berin responded: “It is definitely purely a multiplayer game for us.”
“The reason we decided to go down this route is so we could create a narrative with this world that we could create through the eyes of the No-Pats. We wanted to get more spectacle in there, and more massive events happening. The setting fits that perfectly. It fits that scale, and it gives us reasons to go all over the world… It’s for gameplay reasons across the board.”
Berlin’s response is woefully predictable. Triple-A games, especially those of the shooter genre like Battlefield 2042, habitually evoke politics inoffensively, and what is and isn’t “offensive” are for the creators to decide.
Franchises like Far Cry, where players control (mostly) white men in exotic settings and rack up a body count of brown locals; and Call of Duty, where period conflicts become set dressing for G.I. Joe fanfiction, are guilty of channeling real geopolitical scenarios and traumas for thematic motifs.
That’s not reading too much into these games. The developers have admitted to referencing the Syrian Civil War and the Maoist Insurgency in Nepal to craft their immersive narratives. 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare has a story that begins with bombings in London. In a later chapter, players control a guerilla leader 20 years in the past as a young girl. She wakes up beneath concrete rubble after an airstrike. You have to press “X” to get out.
It’s not that shooter games can’t be smart or fun. Sometimes they are. I personally spent the year in quarantine dropping into Call of Duty: Warzone, which depicts a war crime — toxic gas — as a clever battle royale mechanic. Instead, it’s the dismissal by Berlin that Battlefield 2042 isn’t political, despite its intent to show a future that could happen via complex speculation in the geopolitical arena. To Berlin, Battlefield 2042 is just a themed sandbox for players to run around and blow shit up.
That may be what the game is all about in the end, but to casually ignore the obvious political sci-fi that informs its setting is irresponsible, if not callous.
This is a problem in gaming but not exclusive to it. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, which canonically began with 2008’s Iron Man, a franchise whose lead character heads a company with a logo that mimics Lockheed Martin, recently streamed the spin-off series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Its backstory hinges on the Marvel Universe’s history of subjecting Black men to experimentation. The show took inspiration from a comic that allegorized the real life Tuskegee Experiment, in which generations of Black men were injected with syphilis unbeknownst to them.
Such a premise ought to have flung The Falcon and the Winter Soldier into the stratosphere with its thematic courage. Especially in the overwhelmingly commercial and inoffensive superhero marketplace, especially in light of Black Lives Matter.
But the show’s clumsy storytelling and pulled punches kept it from soaring. Once Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) shows up as Captain America and saves politicians from terrorists, he offers only half-baked wisdom and incoherent rambling, amounting only to: “You’ve gotta do better.”
Just because shooter games don’t have links to register to vote doesn’t mean they aren’t political. If they weren’t, the people making them wouldn't go to exhausting lengths like studying Ronald Reagan speeches or, in the case of the revived Six Days in Fallujah, boast about its “authenticity and respect” about depicting stories from the War on Terror.
There are compelling reasons to not be “political” when millions of dollars are on the line. No one wants to offend people, which is cowardly but unfortunately a little fair. To paraphrase Michael Jordan, even offended people buy video games, and it’s in the interests of those making movies and games to make them appeal to as many people as possible. But people will find a way to be offended anyway. The aforementioned Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was barred from selling in Russia over the game’s villainous depiction of Russian occupation in the Middle East.
So if being political is unavoidable, why not be as “political” as possible?
Consumers shouldn’t celebrate a video game avoiding its own real and imaginary politics. A more memorable and enriching experience comes from a game challenging the player to think about the world around them in new ways.
Even a purely multiplayer game like Battlefield 2042 might have something meaningful to say. But first, it’s gotta do better.