Stellaris, Paradox Interactive's galaxy-spanning 4X grand strategy game, got a bit too real for some fans when Game Director Martin Anward previewed some features in the upcoming 1.5 patch via his Twitter account.
Check out the trailer for this galactic strategy epic:
In #Stellaris, the player controls a spacefaring civilization that colonizes worlds and engages in war and diplomacy with other interstellar empires. Politics is a pretty dirty business, and no one says you have to play nice. Some of the more repressive activities an empire can engage in include the slavery and genocide of entire species.
Of course, some of these populations might not be too happy with being purged or enslaved, and might want to flee the scene to seek shelter in less awful civilizations. And that's when the controversy started.
Refugee Update Not So Welcome
In the above Twitter update, Martin previewed some new options for empires that would allow players to decide whether or not their civilization would accept refugees from other territories.
However, some players who had been perfectly happy with the game's potential for slavery and genocide were upset at this obvious insertion of communist propaganda. Martin Anward, not having any of this nonsense, defended his decision with aplomb. There's not a plasma cannon in the galaxy that can deliver that level of burn:
Still for some, just idea of a refugee mechanic present in the game was a little too close to reality:
A few were rather concerned with the spiritual beliefs of the in-game space refugees, for some reason:
Other hardcore space tyrants were just upset that anyone would be able to escape their persecution:
The Art Of Compromise
Responding to community feedback, Anward actually decided that there had to be some kind of middle ground between the 'closed borders' and 'refugees welcome' settings, and enabled a new option with a description that slyly mirrors contemporary rhetoric:
Basically, the new option only lets in refugees of species that already have full citizenship rights in your civilization.
At the end of the day, whatever you think about the refugee crisis in real life, it's hard to argue that Stellaris is enforcing some kind of left wing social responsibility onto players—even if you accept refugees, it's still possible to enslave them and turn them into food after they arrive. Not something that I think anyone in the real world would support, but in the game you can be more evil than Darth Hitler, or more benevolent than Jesus Gandhi (definitely more benevolent than Civ Gandhi, at least).
Escapism And Escapees
It's still interesting to see people's reactions to these kinds of scenarios in video games though. Games are a special medium because the player makes choices, and, as much as we like to play different roles, some of those choices will be influenced by our real life beliefs and preferences.
Some games are already raising questions about the typical need for violence in video game problem-solving, and about inclusiveness of different sexual identities in fictional worlds. But few put the player in a position of responsibility when it comes such a weighty political and moral issue like the integration of refugees fleeing oppression.
War is commonly found in video game stories, but civilian victims of war and their struggle for safety is a consequence that's often brushed aside or given a quick token look in. Soon, Stellaris players are actually going to be able to do something about the issue directly.
In this sense Stellaris promises a more complete experience simulating the complexities of politics, war, and human (alien) rights for its players. Like the cerebral science-fiction literature that inspires it, I hope that Stellaris can encourage some introspection and a fresh perspective towards the world we live in.
Anward is definitely having fun with the new options for his game, at least:
What do you think of managing a refugee crisis in a video game? Is it too close to reality for comfort?