Ubisoft released Tom Clancy Elite Squad on mobile devices last week to widespread condemnation. Originally, Umbra, the game’s villains, used the symbol of a black clenched fist—a popular anti-fascist symbol that has become synonymous with Black protest movements in America.
On August 29, just four days after the game's release, Ubisoft apologized and promised to remove the clenched fist from the game. But promising to make a minor aesthetic change missed the entire point of why Elite Squad upset people and proves how out of touch both Ubisoft and the Tom Clancy brand have become.
People online pointed out that co-opting the aesthetic of a protest movement that’s literally fighting for its life on America’s streets probably isn’t a great way to sell a video game. Ubisoft apologized and promised to remove the imagery when it updates the game on September 1.
“Imagery that appeared in the opening video sequence of Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad featuring a ‘raised fist’ was insensitive and harmful in both its inclusion and how it was portrayed,” Ubisoft said in a Tweet.
But it wasn’t just the clenched fist that was so upsetting. Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad begins with footage of protests and “civil unrest.” A voice tells the player that a shadowy group has risen to take advantage of the chaos to establish a “new world order.” Faceless men and women, part of an organization called Umbra, linger in the shadows, manipulate social media, and use the anti-government protests to carry out terrorist attacks.
The plot for Elite Squad sounds like many conspiracy theories that are deployed to dismiss real world protests . The conspiratorial accuse their political enemies of manipulating social media, point to the rise of a “new world order,” and believe that the protests occurring across the country are not really a true expression of the people, but instead are funded by powerful actors on the global stage, often Jewish people like George Soros. Elite Squad openly embraces this kind of worldview, and its premise is that to fight these sinister forces, the powers that be gather a group of soldiers from the world’s governments and its criminal organizations to extrajudicially murder the members of Umbra. The characters of Elite Squad repeatedly say they have to work outside of the law to put down the conspiracy.
Elite Squad could have been an innocuous mobile free-to-play tactical RPG. It’s a little mobile game about collecting a group of generic soldiers and fighting against bad guys in the street in X-Com-like combat. Add some microtransactions and battle passes and Ubisoft would have had the formula for a winning, if generic, mobile game.
Ubisoft's games often evoke current events in an attempt to seem relevant and provocative, but often pretend to do so without being political. The fact that one of the biggest game companies in the world can release a game that essentially compares the Black Lives Matter movement to a secret terrorist organization doesn't only show that it's impossible for Ubisoft to be apolitical, but that claims of being "apolitical" can be a fig-leaf for deeply reactionary, toxic politics.