Saints Row is a video game that is being released next week. It’s an open world action game where you shoot people, drive cars, and generally cause mayhem while building up a criminal empire. Despite liking prior games in the series, I thought it was kind of middling and found the dialogue strained when I played it earlier this summer, though it had some fun moments. But don’t tell that to the game’s defenders or detractors online, who have decided that Saints Row is the newest battlefield in the ongoing media culture war that reduces political values to the products that you consume.
In this analysis, Saints Row is woke or woke (derogatory), depending on political stance. Either you think that Saints Row is continuing prior games’ legacy of social justice, or you think it’s breaking with tradition to score points by catering to prevailing social norms. Neither of those narratives is really correct. The Saints Row series originated as a Grand Theft Auto clone, and it’s always shared some of the edgy sensibilities of that franchise. At the same time, there are definite moments of surprising openness and sensitivity woven in between the dick jokes and gunfights — Saints Row IV‘s casual treatment of the Boss’s possible bisexuality, for instance.
Importantly, the vast majority of people both defending and attacking Saints Row for its perceived political content haven’t even played the game. Whatever the set dressing of narrative and worldbuilding looks like, the game itself just feels kind of dated. Based on my preview, I don’t think it’s truly horrible or anything, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s learned from the last decade of open world game design. Mechanically, it feels stuck in the world of early 2010s western game development, full of quick-time events and empty spaces.
Perhaps even more importantly, though, Saints Row is just a video game. People are making it into much more than this, an indicator of the viability of certain kinds of stories and depictions of people. And as a result, the discourse online has somewhat shifted from whether Saints Row is going to be an interesting or enjoyable game to whether it will succeed or fail, thus scoring points for “our team” or “their team.”
I get that social media is a spectator sport and that politics in the US, for a lot of people, has essentially become about dunking on your enemies online. But isn’t it a little sad to tie your enjoyment of something to whether it’s making someone else upset? Doesn’t it shrink your world to be so reactive, to jump on the train of supporting a product because you’ve been convinced that there’s a whole horde of chuds or whomever out there who are frothing at the mouth at the idea of it doing well?
Who wins in this situation? The only party I can think of that profits from these kinds of public struggles is the publisher, who can lean into the controversy to create hype. It’s one way to stand out in a crowded media landscape. Now, I don’t think the people making Saints Row set out to create bait for this kind of conflict. But I do think that successful marketers and social media teams are savvy enough to recognize a good thing when they see it.
Of course, these kinds of conflicts require two parties, and there are people out there who have decided that Saints Row is going to be “woke trash.” But who cares? You can’t control what these people think, and at least they’re not purchasing a AAA video game to try and spite someone. And when your identity gets so enmeshed with the products you consume, it’s easy to start seeing any criticism as coming from the “bad people” and dismiss it. Remember Ghostbusters (2016)? Rallying around a mass market product because the wrong people hate it inevitably leads to defending shitty work. Unless they’ve changed a lot in the weeks since I’ve played the game, Saints Row has a lot of problems, and I’m not going to pretend those don’t exist for the sake of owning the chuds.
That’s what it comes down to — you aren’t owning anyone by buying a product like Saints Row. This is entertainment we’re talking about, after all. And when our horizons are set as low as having a video game do well, that isn’t a particularly enriching or enjoyable way to live. The only people who benefit from framing the success or failure of every game or movie that comes out as an indicator of Which Way Western Man, aside from PR firms and producers, are social media companies. And really, if you want to own someone, shouldn’t it be them?