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The biggest gaming controversies of 2021

The PogChamp face.
The Twitch PogChamp emote prior to January 2021, when a few things happened. (Image credit: Ryan "Gootecks" Gutierrez)

Two of the biggest videogame controversies I was aware of as a kid were A) the existence of violent games and B) whether or not it was OK for my friend to always tank rush me in Command & Conquer. Both remain unresolved to this day, but there are far bigger disputes to become entangled in now: 2021 was dotted with scandals and insults and protests, and even a congressional hearing. 

The gravity of modern gaming discourse can make the arguments of the past feel pretty quaint, but the year also contained a minor dispute over butts and a big argument about tanks, so I wouldn't say that things have gotten gloomier on the whole. There's just more of everything. 

(While we're back on the topic of tanks: One or two C&C tank rushes are fine, but it's not fun if you do it every time. The same goes for spamming fireballs at me in Street Fighter 2 when you know I don't know how to counter that, man. You know who you are.)

Here are the most controversial decisions, incidents, and tank designs of 2021:

Call of Duty insults New Zealand

call of duty: vanguard

(Image credit: Activision)

What happened?

  • There's a Call of Duty: Vanguard character inspired by New Zealand WW2 hero Charles Upham, except in the game he's Australian.
  • "It’s an insult. At best, it’s ignorance; at worst, it’s a giant middle finger to us all," said a New Zealand publication.

What were the consequences?

New Zealanders were mad, but that's about it. It's not the first time Call of Duty has angered a nation: Russian players pegged the Modern Warfare reboot as American propaganda.

When it comes to Activision, the Mr. Burns principle of immunity seems to come into play, whereby minor controversies are crowded out by bigger ones and effectively neutralized. Case in point, New Zealand being mad made me forget all about everyone being mad when Activision promoted Call of Duty: Vanguard by inviting conflict photojournalists to capture "the epic intimacy of World War 2" in the game. And Activision Blizzard's other problems, detailed in an entry below, overshadowed everything else.

Twitch, for a dozen reasons

Twitch ASMR

(Image credit: Twitch)

What happened?

What were the consequences?

The hate raids led to the #ADayOffTwitch protest, which made a sizable dent in Twitch usage for the day. Twitch has since deployed some new features to help streamers fend off hate raids, and sued two of the raiders, though the act was somewhat symbolic since Twitch doesn't actually know their identities. (It sued "CruzzControl" and "CreatineOverdose.") 

The big hack turned out to be a brief squall, at least for now. We learned that Twitch had a "do not ban" list (it's more mundane than it sounds), and got a look at how much money top streamers make from ad revenue and subscriptions. Not the most shocking stuff, and Twitch says that no passwords were exposed.

Regarding hot tubs and earlicking, Twitch will surely continue to struggle to decide what is and isn't appropriate on its platform, as every social media platform does. After hot tub streams, earlicking ASMR in yoga pants, and calling people "cracker," though, trying to guess what's next feels impossible. Some kind of viral dance, maybe?

New World and mounts

New World

(Image credit: Amazon)

What happened?

  • There aren't any mounts in Amazon MMO New World. If you're not an MMO player, trust me, they make a big deal about this kind of thing. There was a fight over it.
  • The reason there are no mounts, according to New World lore, is that it's impossible to domesticate animals on the magical island. Well, I'm convinced.

What were the consequences?

New World players have gotten by without mounts so far, and the MMO has had a pretty decent launch, when you consider how bad online game launches can go. Amazon itself once launched a game that was so poorly received it then unlaunched and canceled it.

There was the thing where people said New World was bricking RTX 3090s, but this didn't seem to be a widespread problem. Some observers also declared that New World is busted because it's "client authoritative," suggesting a foundational flaw in the code, but Amazon says that's not true

New World has been buggy, and the servers were a mess at the start, but that's pretty typical MMO stuff. Final Fantasy 14 is so popular right now that they stopped selling it. All things considered, the absence of mounts being one of the bigger controversies during an MMO launch is a sign that it's doing just fine.

NFTs

Metaflower side view

(Image credit: Republic Realm)

What happened?

  • Suddenly, people were telling us that blockchain tokens called NFTs were cool and revolutionary. They're basically unique receipts for digital stuff: images, mostly, but they could represent plots of digital land or in-game items, if it were useful for them to.
  • But are they useful? As NFTs became popular with scammers, no one could provide a satisfactory explanation for what made them so groundbreaking.
  • Yet influential people continued to say that NFTs are "the future" (EA CEO Andrew Wilson) and a "revolution" (Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot).
  • Relatedly, tech company executives all started talking about "the metaverse," a '90s sci-fi term that Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney likes to use.
  • Facebook even changed its company name to "Meta."
  • No one has been able to explain why calling VRChat "the metaverse" makes it more groundbreaking.
  • Someone bought a $650,000 NFT yacht for a game that doesn't even exist, though, so people are buying in.

What were the consequences?

This is still playing out, but if NFTs really are a transformative technology and not a temporarily useful way to obscure pyramid schemes, then the detractors will have no choice but to accept them when they become the model for digital ownership. In the meantime, "play-to-earn" games and promotional NFTs are being met with scorn everywhere they're announced. As a French trade union put it: "You like dividends, subprimes, financial derivatives, crises, speculation, fast trading, money laundering, etc? This is the assured and unspoken promise of NFT. We are far from the enjoyment of videogames."

Plans to auction off Stalker 2 NFTs were completely abandoned a day after they were announced. Discord also walked back NFT plans after a negative reaction. Ubisoft went ahead with its plans, however, and added NFT collectibles to Tom Clancy's Breakpoint. It's hard to imagine anyone caring about any kind of collectible in Breakpoint, but there you go: NFTs are in mainstream games.

I'm with Wes: It all sounds like a bunch of bullshit to me

Discord's mainstream march

Discord Premium Memberships

(Image credit: Discord)

What happened?

What were the consequences?

The NFT thing made a lot of eyes roll, but Discord wasn't nearly as controversial as Twitch in terms of specific 2021 incidents. What we really felt was a general unease about the company's growth and the platform's future, which Morgan summed up with the sentence: "Please enjoy Discord while it's still good." 

The Activision Blizzard lawsuit

Protest at Activision Blizzard

(Image credit: Bloomberg / Getty Images)

What happened?

  • In July, a California agency filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard that alleged years of sexual harassment and discrimination.
  • Activision Blizzard initially said that the lawsuit presented a distorted view of the company.
  • A number of employees staged a walkout in protest, demanding specific changes.
  • The company later said its response had been "tone deaf."
  • Across a few months, Activision Blizzard launched new HR investigations, expanded its ethics and compliance team, and adopted new policies, including some concessions to employee demands.

What were the consequences?

There were in-game protests, World of Warcraft subscriptions were cancelled, and hashtags trended on Twitter. The WoW and Overwatch teams removed references to employees who were implicated by the lawsuit and internal investigations. Most notably, Overwatch cowboy Jesse McCree was renamed. He's now Cole Cassidy. 

Activision Blizzard fired over 20 employees as a result of new HR investigations, and says it disciplined over 20 more. CEO Bobby Kotick took a symbolic pay cut, the head of HR was replaced, and Blizzard president J Allen Brack stepped down, replaced by Jen Oneal and Mike Ybarra. A few months lanter, however, Oneal resigned, reportedly because she felt she'd been "tokenized, marginalized, and discriminated against." 

The California lawsuit hit a snag when the agency that filed it objected to an $18 million settlement agreement between Activision Blizzard and a federal agency that had been running a similar investigation. It was similar in part because two of the same lawyers had been involved in both investigations, which could be a problem for California's case. The lawsuit is ongoing, though, and a private lawyer also recently started laying the groundwork for a class action.

Some current Activision Blizzard employees are considering unionizing with the Communications Workers of America.

Steam vs "pornography" and crypto

What happened?

A render of adult film star Riley Reid in VR

(Image credit: Holodexxx)
  • Steam rejected a VR sex game called Holodexxx on the basis that it doesn't permit "pornography." Steam absolutely does permit animated pornography, so the issue here seems to be a seemingly new rule against "sexually explicit images of real people," which it applied to Super Seducer 3 in March. 
  • Steam also announced that it won't approve games that include methods for trading cryptocurrency or NFTs.

What were the consequences?

Holodexxx is on itch.io, instead. 

Steam's "anything goes" policy is firmly an "almost anything goes" policy now. Clearly, Valve doesn't want to get into the regulated business of hosting pornographic imagery of real people, and it doesn't want crypto speculators to involve its platform in their schemes. Only Valve's schemes are allowed!

Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney said in response to Steam's cryptocurrency trading ban that the Epic Games Store will "welcome games that make use of blockchain tech," but I'm not convinced there's any real contrast between Steam and Epic on the matter. Not many "blockchain games" exist as more than ideas, and none of the games that got the boot from Steam have shown up on the Epic Games Store as far as I can tell.

Battlefield 2042

(Image credit: EA)

What happened?

  • A lot of Battlefield fans did not like Battlefield 2042 for a lot of reasons. The new specialist characters who replaced the usual classes, the bigger maps, and the lack of a singleplayer campaign were among the bigger complaints.
  • The gun tuning was pretty wonky at launch, too, which wasn't popular. And, of course, it was pretty buggy, like Battlefield games are.

What were the consequences? 

Angry Reddit posts, a "mostly negative" Steam user review average, lots of YouTube videos, and some spicy letters about my positive review. (It's fun!) 

DICE responded with some big patches—big enough that you suspect they were preparing them before launch—and said that it'll consider bringing back some of the elements fans are missing, like the original-style scoreboard. People briefly got mad about some Santa skins for some reason, but otherwise, the hate train seems to be slowing down for now. When the next one comes out, I fully expect people to say that it sucks because it's not enough like Battlefield 2042—it's just tradition.

Doors

Dark Souls door

(Image credit: From Software)

What happened?

  • The concept of doors exists, and game developers feel obligated to put them into videogames. However, they hate doors

What were the consequences?

For doors, none.  They continue to torment game developers completely unchecked. 

Halo Infinite's battle pass

halo infinite battle pass tiers 51-75

(Image credit: 343 Industries)

What happened?

  • Halo Infinite's free-to-play multiplayer was well liked, but the slow pace and mundane unlocks in its battle pass were not.

What were the consequences?

343 Industries has acknowledged that the battle pass is flawed, and has been tweaking it since launch. It remains a contentious topic—I've seen some frame it as an argument between young and old players, the latter of whom supposedly care less about cosmetics—but Halo Infinite has gotten by fine due to the fact that people enjoy playing Halo Infinite. And these $10 cat ear outfits seem to have briefly distracted everyone.

Mass Effect butts

Miranda Lawson

(Image credit: BioWare)

What happened?

  • For Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, BioWare chose to replace some of the more gratuitous butt shots with less cheeky camerawork. 

What were the consequences?

I've included this mostly because it feels significant that it wasn't much of a controversy. Five or six years ago, any similar butt-related decision would've resulted in 2,000 YouTube videos titled "SJWs CENSOR Mass Effect," or something to that effect. I could only find, like, five videos with titles like that. Mass Effect: Legendary Edition launched to "mixed" user reviews on Steam, but butts had little to nothing to do with it. 

I guess most people agreed that, yeah, aiming the camera at Miranda's butt while she was having a heart-to-heart with Shepard was a bit much, at least if you're playing Mass Effect for more than butts. Still, a modder who once removed butt shots from the original version of Mass Effect 2 returned them to the Legendary Edition version. Someone had to.

GameStop short squeeze

Gamestop

(Image credit: Mike Mozart (via Flickr))

What happened?

  • Even the guy who started it isn't sure what happened (and he said that to Congress).
  • But essentially, an individual investor recommended GameStop on the r/wallstreetbets subreddit, and the idea of buying shares in the US games retailer took off.
  • Meanwhile, Wall Street fund managers had shorted the stock, meaning they had borrowed shares and sold them on the belief that they could rebuy them at a lower price in the future.
  • Because of Reddit, the price didn't go lower as expected. It skyrocketed from $4 in July 2020 to $325 at the end of January 2021. When it came time for the hedge funds to return the shares they'd borrowed and sold, they were forced to buy them back at the ultra-inflated price. That's the "short squeeze."
  • At one point during the incident, popular trading app Robinhood temporarily paused purchases of GameStop stock because it didn't have enough capital on hand.
  • Discord also temporarily banned the WallStreetBets server over hate speech.

What were the consequences?

At the time, many framed the incident as little guys banding together to take on financial institutions, fueled, perhaps, by resentment over the subprime mortgage crisis and general inequality. However, it wasn't just individual investors from Reddit behind the "short squeeze" that caused billions in losses for certain Wall Street hedge funds—other big funds were able to profit off the unexpected market behavior.

Robinhood's pause on GameStop purchases got scrutiny during a congressional hearing, and a class action lawsuit was filed. The SEC released some guidance about disclosures, but no new regulation has been created.

Multiple films about the incident are in the works. At the time of writing, GameStop shares are trading at $150. The company's executives have made a lot of money by selling off shares. The company is currently working on some kind of NFT thing.

A tank

(Image credit: Gaijin Entertainment)

What happened?

  •  Some players think the Challenger 2 tank in War Thunder is slightly inaccurate. 

What were the consequences?

To prove that War Thunder's version of the tank is inaccurate, a player posted an image of a classified UK military document on the War Thunder forum. The image was removed, and the poster was warned that the offense can carry "up to a 14-year prison sentence."

In October, the exact same thing happened again.

If we're judging the significance of a controversy by how far a person will go to prove themselves right, violating the UK's Official Secrets Act certainly puts War Thunder tank accuracy among 2021's most controversial videogame things.

Other controversies

Tyler has spent over 1,200 hours playing Rocket League, and slightly fewer nitpicking the PC Gamer style guide. His primary news beat is game stores: Steam, Epic, and whatever launcher squeezes into our taskbars next.