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The New York Times’s acquisition of viral word game Wordle has not been without its controversies: some players are convinced that the words have become more obscure (remember CAULK? I’m still not over it), and the solutions less satisfying. I’ve felt a vague sense of dissatisfaction with it myself since late February, though I’m not sure how much of that is a natural drop-off from the times of Wordle mania, and how much has anything to do with the game itself. This week, though, there was a genuine controversy when the NYT decided to remove the word “fetus” as a solution to one of last week’s puzzles. However, the change didn’t roll out properly, so some players got it anyway.
The NYT wanted to change the solution – which would have been set way ahead of time, because Wordle’s algorithm picks from a preset list – because of the word’s sudden news relevance. We’re talking, of course, about the leaked supreme court draft that puts the US on the brink of rolling back abortion rights for millions of women. A NYT Games statement explained the technical difficulties involved in making the change, and said that the paper “[takes] our role seriously as a place to entertain and escape, and we want Wordle to remain distinct from the news.”
I think it’s difficult to argue that the word “fetus” happening to show up as a Wordle solution on the day that abortion rights were back on to the news agenda constitutes a political statement. It is a coincidence. But the NYT’s attempted removal of the word absolutely is a political statement – one that says that games should have nothing to do with real life events, even accidentally. Heaven forbid that we should be made to think about foetuses on the day that we’re all reckoning with the definition of a foetus and its impact on women’s bodily autonomy, right?
This is something that comes up over and over again: the hugely misguided idea that video games shouldn’t be political, because they’re supposed to be fun. But the fact is, as this incident proves, even when games are not intentionally political – even when they are “just” systems interacting with each other – they are always open to political interpretation. Games are products of our culture, and usually products of capitalism, and they do have meaning – even when the people making money from them would rather that they didn’t.
Ubisoft hit the headlines a few years ago for insisting that The Division 2 – a team-based military shooting game, based on Tom Clancy fiction and literally set in Washington DC during a governmental collapse – was entirely unpolitical. This is a particularly egregious example – like the Far Cry games, which usually involve one person more-or-less single-handedly saving the populations of far-flung places from fascist dictators, The Division is hardly difficult to read politically. Shooters in general, by the very nature of their systems, involve righting the wrongs of a world by exerting violence upon it. They are the product of a particular culture and worldview, and acknowledging that shouldn’t undermine anyone’s enjoyment of them.
It can be hugely interesting when games do engage with the usually unspoken politics of the medium, or even try to critique them. 2008’s Far Cry 2 – still the most subversive shooter I’ve ever played – has you engaged in a crushingly pointless and attritional war in a fictional African country, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that nobody comes out of it well (least of all the player). Not every game has to have capital-P Politics, but creators shouldn’t fear it. Fear of appearing political can hold creativity back and lead to weird decisions and prevarications that end up pleasing nobody. And as Wordle has just proven, even the most seemingly innocuous game can suddenly become a political talking point if circumstances align. Better to embrace the possibility.
What to play
I can’t talk about politics in games without talking about the hugely conflicted, endearing mess that is Watch Dogs: Legion, a game that I possibly liked more than anybody else anywhere. I’m not recommending it unreservedly – it is, as mentioned, a bit of a mess, with a cartoonishly nasty and misanthropic story that rather undermines the fun – but it’s just so interesting. You play as a team of insurgents in a fascist London, rising up against the quasi-military and technocratic institutions that rule the UK in the place of just government – and I really do mean a team, as you can recruit and play as anyone in the whole of London. It’s this feature, not the story or the missions or anything else, that makes it essentially a game about the power and the limitations of both violent resistance and collective action. A great illustration of how game systems can end up creating all kinds of interesting situations that were never intended.
Available on: PC, PlayStation, Xbox
Approximate playtime: 20+ hours
What to read
EA is back into making Lord of the Rings games, it seems, with a free-to-play mobile game called Heroes of Middle-Earth that will have players collecting and battling characters from the Tolkien’s world. It’ll be out this summer.
In 2009, as part of a marketing stunt, 2K Games made a solid gold Wii to present to the Queen. People Make Games decided to track it down for a documentary a while back – it’s a fun watch. Anyway, the Queen’s Golden Wii is now up for auction, if you fancy massively overpaying for a strange piece of gaming history.
As mentioned in a previous edition, there’s no E3 this year, but that doesn’t mean no game announcements. The Game Awards host and seasoned industry hype man Geoff Keighley is hosting a live showcase on 9 June as part of his Summer Games Fest event, and he usually has no trouble getting gaming’s big players on board. This might sate the desire for one of those bombastic EA press conferences.
For GamesIndustry.biz, veteran journalist Colin Campbell delves into the autobiography of Reggie Fils-Aime, the former president of Nintendo of America, to see what can be learned from the big man and his time at gaming’s most resilient purveyors of fun. Spoiler: it appears that Reggie is not a man who lacks self-belief.
What to click
Trolley Problem, Inc review – a thrill ride into the world of ethical dilemmas
Forty years of joystick waggling: the glory of multi-sport video games
The Guide #33: From Elden Ring to Tunic, 2022’s best games so far
After last week’s newsletter about Lara Croft, reader Jodie was reminded about how much she enjoyed watching her dad play Tomb Raider, occasionally pitching in to help with puzzles. Her question: which games do you enjoy sitting and watching someone else play?
I am a notorious backseat gamer – just ask my partner, who has suffered for 13 years. I’m drastically impatient. Watching him play almost any video game is a stressful experience for everyone involved. The exception? Point-and-click adventures, and similar games that involve a sedate pace, jokes and stories, and puzzle-solving. Because these games are slow by default, and honestly pretty much the same to watch as to play yourself, it’s impossible for him to move too slowly for me, and I don’t get too frustrated with the lack of action. If I’m sitting there reading a book or poking at my phone while he plays, I don’t miss anything crucial. I’ve watched, rather than played, all the classic LucasArts adventures, from Day of the Tentacle to all the Monkey Islands, as well as Broken Age, the Telltale Walking Dead series and plenty of others.
I’d love to hear your answers to this question – what games do you enjoy watching as much as playing, and why?