Why Oculus's Palmer Luckey Is Getting So Much Shit For Supporting Trump

This is about the intersection of money and power, and it cuts deep in a world where billionaire Peter Thiel secretly bankrolled lawsuits to bankrupt Gawker Media.

Sep 23 2016, 11:00pm

Palmer Luckey. Image courtesy of GDC

Update: Palmer Luckey has issued a public statement about this week's reports, saying he is "deeply sorry that my actions are negatively impacting the perception of Oculus and its partners" and that "recent news stories about me do not accurately represent my views.."

Is ignorance bliss? That's a question some virtual reality enthusiasts face today, as they ponder reports that Oculus founder Palmer Luckey—who became a mega-millionaire after Facebook acquired the company in 2014—has been quietly funding and supporting a pro-Donald Trump Internet group that uses memes to "shitpost" and deride Hillary Clinton. The personal politics of public figures in the gaming world are often kept in the dark, and Luckey's case helps show why that is.

Try to think of your favorite developer. Then, try to imagine who they might vote for. Video games are inherently embedded with personal views and they often (whether intentionally or not) reflect the politics of the people who crafted them. But it's relatively uncommon for video-game creators to speak openly about politics. And even if it's not hard to find such views on Twitter accounts, even then, you're more likely to discover these sentiments among indie developers, rather than the people crafting games with budgets in the tens of millions. Those folks are more likely to stay quiet.

Luckey kept quiet, too, at least until the Daily Beast revealed what he'd been up to.

That players in the video game world might lend their checkbooks to a particular party or candidate isn't exactly a novel concept, and journalists have been following the trail for years. Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, for example, gave $2,300 to Mitt Romney in 2008. (John McCain would win the nomination that year, with Romney taking it in 2012.) That same cycle, PopCap founder John Vechey donated $2,800 to Barack Obama, and SimCity designer Will Wright contributed $3,500 to Rudy Giuliani.

By comparison, so far this year, Kotick has donated $100,000 to a Super PAC supporting Chris Christie, and Vechey sent Bernie Sanders $2,700. I couldn't find contributions by Wright this election cycle.

In an ordinary election, with a generic Democrat pitted against a generic Republican, a major figure in the virtual reality scene having a preference might not have gained much traction. But Donald Trump, whose aggressively divisive and racist rhetoric has been a lightning rod since he kicked his campaign off by saying Mexico was purposely sending rapists across the border, is not a generic Republican.

"Who cares," one Twitter user chortled, when I put out a blast asking how people felt about the news. Based on the response to my tweet, lots of people care. Trump makes them care.

Our sister site, Motherboard, has a report on developers pulling Oculus support. Polytron and Kokoromi's SuperHyperCube appears to be the most high-profile game to ditch Oculus. "In a political climate as fragile and horrifying as this one," the companies said in a statement, "we cannot tacitly endorse these actions by supporting Luckey or his platform." Other developers have taken to raising money for Clinton.

Image courtesy of Polytron

Not everyone views it that way, of course.

"Should be completely irrelevant," responded another Twitter denizen. "Who cares what his political views are? Why do games media & devs have to freak out?"

What defines "freak out" is subjective, but some reaction is understandable, even expected. There are political views and there is political action—the difference is crucial. Some developers I've spoken to could have gotten over Luckey supporting Trump, a move that isn't unique among America's wealthiest donors. What hangs them up is how he manifested that support for Trump.

This is about the intersection of money and power, and it cuts deep in a world where billionaire Peter Thiel secretly bankrolled lawsuits to bankrupt Gawker Media, where the rich use dark money to fuel non-profits, all while hiding in the dark. Luckey hid in the dark too. He didn't send money to Trump—instead, he financially backed and participated in an online group that aligned with other "shitposting" organizations sharing white supremacist and anti-Semitic memes.

"I've got plenty of money," Luckey told The Daily Beast, when asked his actions. "Money is not my issue. I thought it sounded like a real jolly good time."

But money really does seem to be the issue.

For many people, myself included, acting inappropriately in dank corners of the Internet was part of growing up. It was "a real jolly good time." But Luckey is not a 17-year-old looking to gleefully piss people off—he's an enormously wealthy tech leader whose Oculus Rift has convinced thousands of developers and players that VR has arrived. He's helped make dreams come true, prompting people to openly weep and be thankful they live in the age of VR.

"As a player, I can say it absolutely affects my purchase decision," another user told me. "If I can choose between lining his [Luckey's] pockets or giving money to Valve or Sony, the choice is clear."

In 2009, some puzzled over whether it was a problem to play and enjoy Shadow Complex because the game's world was created in collaboration with writer Orson Scott Card, who has an extensive history of anti-gay views. (Card once argued the "dark secret of homosexuality" was that "many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse, and how many of them yearn to get out of the homosexual community and live normally.")

Image courtesy of Epic Games

Two things were true: Shadow Complex was excellent, one of the best Metroid-style games in a long time, and Card held monstrously regressive views about homosexuality. For some, the two were so intertwined as to be positively inseparable. For others, it was a distraction.

There was a similar situation in 2013, when Earthworm Jim and Neverhood co-creator Doug TenNapel was raising funds for a project on Kickstarter. Like Card, TenNapel had expressed anti-gay views, and argued those who criticized him were engaging in "cultural witch hunts."

"I want Doug TenNapel to be able to voice his beliefs publicly, even if they conflict with my own," wrote critic Bob Mackey for The Gameological. "But the idea of donating to a person who views a significant chunk of the population as subhuman? That makes me take pause."

If the tone of this piece hasn't yet made it painfully apparent, let me be clear: I'm scared shitless of a race-baiting, xenophobia-pandering President Trump. This is how I'm going to introduce my daughter, who turned one month old a few days ago, into the world? A man who openly demeans and sexualizes women? Who wants to ban an entire people based on religion? Who benefits from the support of white nationalists? That's why people are up in arms about what Luckey did. That's why developers are dropping support for Oculus Rift over his actions. And that's why I won't be surprised if Luckey is in the spotlight for a long time.

The man has mostly been quiet since this broke, apparently preferring to quietly clean up his shameful Twitter likes and other sketchy actions. One might say Luckey has returned to his preferred position: hiding in the dark.

Follow Patrick Klepek on Twitter, and if you have a news tip you'd like to share, drop him an email.

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