Activision Blizzard made headlines this week when it appointed Frances F. Townsend as its new Head of Compliance. Townsend is a particularly odd choice due to her previous role as the former top White House adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security in the Bush Administration. She was one of the biggest defenders of raising the terrorist threat level in 2004 and the administration’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or what we now know as torture used by the CIA. In 2009, she gave an interview in the wake of the Obama Administration declassifying a variety of memos on the CIA’s use of torture saying, “Regardless of what you think on the issue of whether or not waterboarding is torture, there were legal documents created and relied upon by career intelligence officials who then implemented the program…There were very strict controls on the program. These people relied on them and, now, to release them and to subject these people, these career professionals to a sort of public humiliation and opprobrium and then the potential of a congressional investigation really will make our intelligence community risk-averse.”
For a company that has found itself in political hot water on several occasions in the last few years, Activision doesn’t seem to have taken any pause when considering the optics of hiring Townsend. This move by one of the gaming industry’s largest and most successful companies echoes the already established revolving door that exists between high-profile government workers and the lobbying industry. These types of jobs are designed for candidates with relationships and access. The logic that undergirds that revolving door is likely at play here too. I bet it certainly helps to have someone in the position of Head of Compliance who has experience working with both foreign and domestic governments on a wide range of issues, is surely still connected to a variety of important power brokers, and is willing to aggressively defend any policy, no matter how problematic.
There is some irony that one of Townsend’s main focuses in the job will be ensuring Activision’s wildly successful FPS war series, Call of Duty complies with the web of regulations that exist from country to country across the globe. While we’re all glad Townsend is no longer defending torture, it is worrisome to see her welcomed with open arms at the highest echelons of gaming. It’s another step in a broader narrative, perpetuated by the gaming industry in no small part, that what companies like Activision and EA and Microsoft and all the others do and all the excitement and fandom that surround them, exists in a bubble, untouched by the real world. Townsend is is just another blip aimed at reinforcing that fiction.
Political agnosticism is rampant in the gaming industry and has been for decades now, but that is slowly changing. These companies will shrug and say this is what gamers want. Sooner or later, though, they will learn that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Games have always been political. The people who make games have always been political, and the people who manage games have always been political. Gaming is due for a reckoning, and it’s coming soon. Even five years ago, this story wouldn’t have made headlines. Now, when a big gaming company hires a torture apologist to lead its compliance department, it’s a big deal.