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The Calculated Corporate Cynicism of Shadow of War’s Charity DLC

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Note: For the purpose of this post, I have created a new category of post called “Contemporary Cynicism”. In this series, we are going to offer opinions that discuss the question of right and wrong in video games without adherence to common constraints set upon such public discourse. Since the video game companies of today often seem to be so beyond what we consider ethical behaviour, then maybe we should be, too.

Several outlets are now reporting that Monolith is releasing a charity DLC, for Middle-earth: Shadow of War, in memory of their late executive producer Michael David Forgey (1973-2016). Here is a promotional video for the “Forthog Orcslayer” DLC:

 

This stirring, even touching advertisement, which stands in direct opposition to an earlier trailer released for the game, contains music written and performed by the late Michael Forgey himself, advertises the DLC as available for pre-order now, for $4.99. The product is described as follows:

A legend among the Orcs of Mordor, Forthog Orcslayer is an unstoppable warrior who saves Mordor’s mightiest heroes at their moment of greatest need.

Mike “”Forthog”” Forgey was our Executive Producer and great friend here at Monolith. He was always ready to leap into the fray and save the game whenever and wherever he was most needed. We lost Mike to cancer during the development of Shadow of War, and we want to remember and honor him with a little bit of immortality in Mordor. The legendary Forthog Orcslayer is our way to continue having Mike leap into battle and save us when we’re down.

We hope that you will share in the experience of being saved by the legendary Forthog Orcslayer as you enter the land of shadow.

According to the announcement, “WB Games will donate $3.50 of every Forthog Orc-Slayer purchase to the Forgey family through 31st December 2019.”

Aestheticized Death

There is something to this act, of giving “eternal life,” or “immortality,” to someone through an artistic, communicative medium, that touches an elementary part in all of us.

After all, we all struggle, in some ways, with the limits and boundaries of our lives. These borders are part of what makes us human, forming a constant tension, whether in the permanent inability to move beyond the physical outer boundaries of our bodies, and our minds, or in being doomed to understand other people only indirectly, through the mediation of thought and language – not to mention the very firm constraints set upon our lives by the moments of our birth and our death.

It goes without saying that even sans this act of remembrance, Michael Forgey’s legacy goes on – he has enriched countless lives, working as producer on games as renown and popular as Gears of War. But this is exactly the kind of legacy that is harder to pin-point, harder to think of as “legacy,” if you’re not a man or woman of especially great stature, because it is all his own private making. It’s not his life’s work being remembered here; it’s an image of the man himself.

An act of remembrance seems logically active, performative, something done in the memory of another, something specifically given, dedicated, afforded.

This is perhaps why we have so many works of art dedicated to others. Being aestheticized, finalized in some way, whether in your life, or in death, is always a beautiful thing: In that act, or the end product of that act, a moment in time is at once not only frozen (perhaps captured in a photograph, which never changes, only fades), but also finalized and delineated, giving a clear beginning and end to something that cannot otherwise achieve them in life.

Simultaneously, it also actually gives us hope that such boundaries can be crossed – through art, through memory, or through a lasting deed. This act can also be a selfish act, made on behalf of those still living, coping with the enormity, the difficulty of a loved one’s passing. These two things are absolutely intertwined, as should be – life is for the living, after all. We can’t fault Monolith staff for wanting to remember their colleague, and friend.

Video Games as Memorial

The interesting point of intersection here, of course, is that life is only ever “forever” after death; if Forgey were still alive, we wouldn’t be considering WB Games’ DLC as a “tribute,” or a “memorial” at all. It would have a completely different meaning, and we may even ask whether it would exist in the first place.

Examples of living people aestheticized in video games for some purpose – players from hockey leagues, contestants from reality TV series, and so forth – of course exist, but they exist for reasons and purposes that are very different. Many of these motives share a common concern for money. It is only in his death that Michael Forgey can be transformed into an aestheticized object in a video game without us thinking of licenses, trademarks, and copyrights – and making money.

Wait, but this DLC is being sold, isn’t it?

The essential point of contention with this release is its function as a transmitter, as a reward, of charity between the target of charity and those that are paying for it. In being transformed into not only a vessel of charity, but also into memorial, the object at hand becomes nigh-impervious to criticism – even, as we all have to unfortunately admit, the DLC is in fact pay to win!

As Eurogamer notes,

Forthog will on occasion appear to one-hit kill whichever enemy the player character is up against. Think the Mysterious Stranger from the Fallout series.

There is, of course, a logical explanation for the DLC being this way. Such a memorial, for all intents and purposes, is supposed to elevate rather than desecrate the object of memorialization: What could be possibly more elevating than being immortalized as a saving angel, the deciding factor between a player’s life and death? The intention here is obvious, as are the connotations – that Forgey was a reliable, charitable person that could be trusted in times of need. I do not think this sentiment is at all lost even upon the most cynical observer!

The problem, if there is one, exists in the execution, the form of the reward object: An AAA video game makes for an uncertain, suspect memorial. Shadow of War was not built as a tribute to Forgey from the ground up. The idea of permanent multimedia, the idea of immortalizing something in this increasingly, rapidly uncontrollable digital age is a question worth posing. I can’t be the only one to think that while the is earnest, claiming that “Forthog Orcslayer Forever / Nothing Will Be Forgotten” rings a little bit hollow given that on the other side of the fence, Ubisoft is taking away paid-for maps from Rainbow 6: Siege.

This realization brings out the cynics, even as we have to absolutely concede that normally, we aren’t in the least bit picky about the archival quality of, say, a painting done in the memory of a deceased person. Permanence or archival quality are not the problem here. In the case of the painting, after all, we never have to worry about WB Games – or Steam, for that matter – shutting the servers or patching (or god forbid, nerfing) Forthog out.

The Parameters of the Charitable Act

The fact that the vessel of this charitable act comes in the form of a P2W microtransaction does make painfully visible to us the parameters of the charitable act. I am fairly certain this DLC is responsible for several world-firsts.

Of course, the vessel does not automatically make the act of charity suspect, but its features bring with it so many implications – ethical, social, corporate – that it does by my estimation cast the act itself under scrutiny. In the vessel becoming so visible, and by attracting questions of context, the vessel by extension starts to erode the act itself. It is not simply the questionable features of the charitable act, laid out later, that allow in criticism.

I think it is worthwhile to remember – and this DLC is a great reminder – that the act of remembrance is always a slippery slope (as we noted above, it is for the living, not for the dead), as is charity – in equal measures. We might perhaps remind ourselves of the historical effigies being torn down in the United States right now.

One stance to take, of course, is that no act of charity can be by default under suspicion. It is a commonly shared conception not to doubt the motives of charity, for this can dissuade those acting charitably for reasons that can be uncovered as dubious. In other words, charity is seen as a value in itself, no matter the intention or the motive. For the sake of this article, we cannot possibly hold this point of view. We also cannot hold the view that asking questions of legitimacy casts those asking questions illegitimate in itself. These views would simply render this discussion impossible.

Neither is the point of this article to ask, say: what kind of matching contribution, or percentage, should Monolith move to make? What is the suitable range of percentage, or a dollar projection, that we should demand from WB Games? What makes for a suitable charity, or a good cause?

If we were to reach this point of discussion – trying to define a “right” against a perceived “wrong,” or vice versa, or to “better” a cause that is already good (in this case, the specification of a “proper” type of charity, or memorial, or remembrance) there are always going to be ways in that will mark certain checkboxes, and fail to satisfy each and every party involved. Deliberate misunderstandings and strawmen begin to enter the fray.

In pursuing that discussion, there exists a much more, dangerous slippery slope of questions still: Who, or what position, is worthy of such a public remembrance? An animator? An intern? Or only leaders and rulers? What if Forgey were still but a tester, like he originally was during the years 2003-2007?

Are you allowed to profit off of a good gesture, or is true good only allowed to be non-profit? These questions are almost impossible to answer. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be asking them; legitimate inquiry that produces legitimate results sometimes relies on an uncertain, i.e. illegitimate basis.

The Dimensions of Charity

In addition to the vessel of charity itself, the second most obvious suspicion to talk about are the spatiotemporal extensions of the act of charity. Shadow of War unlocks on the 10th of October 2017, leaving a period of just 82 days for players to make their mark – should they not pre-order the game, that is.

Furthermore, given the obvious legal ramifications of charity in today’s bureaucratic world, one can laud Monolith merely for making this charity happen, end results notwithstanding. But to say that these ramifications do not diminish from the effectiveness of the campaign would be foolish; after all, according to the smallest print on the video,

“Donations will be made on purchases from any 1 of the 50 U.S. or D.C. (but excluding purchases made from AL, HI, IL, MA, MS and SC). Void where prohibited by law. Your purchase is not tax deductible.”

This means – as confirmed on Twitter by Monolith – that only United States citizens of 50 specified states can take part.

We must also look at the target of charity: In this case, the proceeds go to the “Forgey family” – the family of just one developer, giving the whole ordeal a classic GoFundMe vibe. It would be one thing to trust WB Games to kick forward a certain percentage to a cancer charity, or a non-profit, which assures and has safekeeping mechanisms and is beholden to certain failsafes. If you can’t trust a video game company to pay their taxes, how can we possibly trust them to be charitable?

In this iteration of charity, we are once again reminded, above all, of the imperfect state of the US healthcare system, which can put enormous weight on families should their primary breadwinner happen to pass away.

The Orcish Parade

This DLC is jumping on so many bandwagons at the same time, that it creates a full parade of its own. Here are a few of them:

  • P2W
  • microtransactions
  • pre-ordering
  • rewards for charity
  • regional restrictions

The first three trends are familiar to us all; the fourth is similarly so, but perhaps registers less often. The mention of tax deductibles above allows us to permeate that point of note. We have become increasingly accustomed to being rewarded somehow for our charity.

In this case, the DLC is not only the vessel of charity, but also its reward. You’re essentially paying for a product, and the charity aspect is a plus. The most obvious, and perhaps the biggest reason for this trend, is the great prominence of Humble Bundle. Their way of doing business has in very certain terms twisted our conception of charity and patronage. Some of us have become accustomed to receiving something in exchange for their charity.

I do not believe this to be charity in the ordinary sense, for as soon as charity is traded for a reward, we begin to ask for our rights in regards to the reward being received. I do not believe this to be a mistaken demand.

Worth and Worthlessness

In fact, let’s ask a question that is even more to the point: Did Forgey’s illness put so much pressure on his family, that even as an executive producer, he was put in a financially compromised position?

Are the profits from this charity in addition to the percentage paid as license fees for allowing the use of his likeness, or is such a percentage – such a right – forfeited on the premise of the word “charity”? Or did Forgey simply sign off his looks to WB Games for perpetuity, allowing Monolith to use his face for profit as long as they wish?

If I were to guess, Mikey and Monolith don’t see things this way. If we were to ask them, I wager the response would probably be incredulous; we would probably get answers ranging from, “Mikey wanted this,” “We didn’t talk about money.” You didn’t, but we do.

Perhaps the most damaging point of all is the implication of this DLC that Mikey is not already immortalized by his above contributions to video games, that it it is the act of others that legitimises his legacy? What do we make of the moment, then, when players are no longer “saved by the legendary Forthog Orcslayer”? When Shadow of War is finally longer available for purchase, when we no longer have a computer to play it on? Or when no-one simply plays the game? Is this when the legend of Forthog also ends?

To add insult to injury, WB Games has chosen not to proactively ensure the success of this charity, i.e., by redirecting a percentage of their profits. Instead, the company leaves the act of charity completely up to the potential customer.

Business Ethics and PR

All of the above functions, for me, to underline the broad, Mordor-wide gulf between business ethics and actual good. The release of this DLC is palatable to WB Games only because it has no active effect on the company’s bottom line. If it did, it would be at once at odds with stakeholders, stockholders, owners, etc. Against this backdrop, a charitable DLC (that would not have existed in the first place, if not for the death of a real person) begins more and more to look like cynical opportunism aimed at generating a diversion and a modicum of goodwill.

When this fact is positioned against the marketing reality of this game, things begin to unravel. Shadow of War has been on the receiving end of a prolonged whipping in the media. Would this DLC have existed, if not for the negative press? Would Forgoth exist without autocratic pedophile moderators; microtransactions for a single-player game that transform into p2w online; ridiculously cynical corporate marketing tie-ins?

It seems to me the first task of today’s PR (as we have increasingly witnessed in the political discourse of today) is not to repent, or repair, but to redirect. This encapsulates the way business, as ethics-free zone as there exists in our society, operates only and purely on the basis of the limits and the extents of bureaucracy and common law, and only when compelled to adhere to them from the outside. In such an environment, PR works to make the sociopathological behaviour of the company simply seem as palatable as possible to the customer.

As palatable as possible. Which is not very tasty, in this case. Believing that this DLC is not an attempt at redefining and reframing the discussion surrounding Shadow of War’s public perception seems altogether futile. It is not “just” a memorial, or “just” a charitable act. It is so, so much more. And even if it was “just” that, we’d still need to look at what good it does, for whom, for what reason, and in what way. We cannot be embedded only in one part of the discussion, leaving other crucial ethical elements out of the equation.

The Legacy DLC

I do have, fortunately, a positive note to leave on: One person wins no matter what. That person is Michael Forgey. We now all share in the knowledge of a person who was helpful, artistic, and creative, a man that played in a band that opened for Testament and Death Angel. In that respect, despite all its flaws, Monolith’s move has served its purpose, and introduced the man to potentially millions of people. Those responsible for this had an incredibly powerful platform to dedicate to Mr. Forgey; not nearly all remembrances are this powerful, and with such potent outreach.

The intention of this article has not been to vilify that aspect of this particular act, which was almost certainly done out of good will, but terrifically hampered by the constraints set by the lack of corporate ethics, and the game’s woeful position in the marketplaces of ideas and games.

Instead, this article sought to underline how all acts, both of remembrance, and of charity, are by default suspicious, because they are acts done by someone in the name of someone. In this case, there are more than enough variables to make sure that the “Middle-earth: Shadow of War – Forthog Orcslayer” DLC is going to have a long-lasting legacy as the world’s first pre-order charity microtransaction memorial released as a calculated – though failed – attempt at trying to redirect bad PR.

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