Golden Joystick Award logo and The Game Awards statue render above images from Call of Duty Modern Warfare and Counter Strike: Global Offensive.

Game Dev Succinctly Answers What the Games Industry Owes Palestinians

Younès Rabii and dozens of The Game Awards’ Future Class signed an open letter that, among other things, asked TGA to call for a long-term ceasefire in Gaza. In solidarity, AI researcher and game designer Mike Cook explained what’s wrong with the assertion that spaces like TGA should stay out of it and just “stick with games.”

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While the idea of “getting political” at an awards show is a divisive topic, it’s not new to TGA. Just last year, TGA tweeted (some now deleted) acknowledgements on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and supported fundraising efforts. Gaming companies took symbolic stands, too, like EA removing Russian cosmetics from FIFA.

In 2021, amid back-to-back mass sexual harassment and labor abuse suits from companies like Activision Blizzard, TGA founder/host/producer Geoff Keighley (with support of Activision) pulled them from everything but nominations and offered a statement we’d later come to realize was probably an empty platitude.

So, in late November, members of TGA’s Future Class—a group of gaming industry professionals TGA highlights every year to “represent the bright, bold and inclusive future of video games”—published an open letter asking for three key things from the ceremony: investments against the dehumanization of South-West Asian and North African people in the gaming space, expression of support of Palestinian life, and a call for a long-term ceasefire in Gaza.

Open letter to The Game Awards

Despite the past statements from TGA, Geoff Keighley and others stayed silent this year. I don’t mean that figuratively, like how he ignored the industry labor protest outside the theater. Leaked images show that when Keighley was directly confronted with his failure to respond in the Future Class Discord, he literally replied with a silent two-second voice reply before he deleted it.

While 83 past and current members of the Future Class signed this letter, others didn’t. Among many things, developer Amiad Fredman criticized the letter’s lack of Hamas condemnation. Also, despite widespread acknowledgement from scholars of genocide in and outside of Israel, he questioned the use of the word “genocide.” According to Axios, Rabii said in response, “There was a strong idea that advocating for Palestinian human rights immediately meant supporting the taking of hostages in Israel, the civilian lives being lost in Israel. That’s not the case, of course.”

Growing frustrated by the people pushing back against a call for action from the TGA, Cook took to their blog. Three days before the awards began, Cook published Mostly Harmless to address the sentiments of people sympathetic enough to see the genocide but who feel it needs to stay separate from gaming.

Answering: Why would the games industry need to say anything about Palestine?

Cook begins by pointing to the relationship between the gaming and weapons manufacturing industries. They cite an in-depth look from a 2012 Eurogamer piece to show how far back this criticism stretches. That article mentions how, during the Sandy Hook school shooting trial, documents revealed Remington paid Call of Duty to include their gun models in the game for brand recognition.

Then, Cook moved to a much more widespread and pervasive issue. The gaming industry maintains close ties with many of the militaries involved in the murder and suffering of Palestinians. For Palestinians living as second-class citizens in Israel, Microsoft provides apartheid-maintaining surveillance tech to Israel. Jewish and Arab tech workers have been ousted for speaking up against this. Additionally, the U.S. Army advertises on Twitch (directly and with influencers) and sponsors eSports activities.

The US military uses games as a recruitment tool in just about every conceivable way, no matter how bizarre, but it also uses it as a propaganda tool.


Reaching a 10-player killstreak in COD: Modern Warfare (2019) earns players a white phosphorus perk. The chemical weapon’s use in conflict is a war crime. Despite this, Israel reportedly released American-made white phosphorus onto Gaza and Lebanon. In COD: MW II (2022) you have to point your gun at someone to complete the objective of “de-escalat[ing] civilians.”

I’m not trying to pick on COD, because it’s not just them. Other FPS games, thrive on modes where players confront terrorists, free hostages, and defuse bombs. (Often, these terrorist have vaguely Latin American, African, Arab, or Eastern European accents.) COD just includes the most egregious examples of propaganda.

In the second half, Cook stresses that games aid in the dehumanization of Black and brown people by entertainment. They don’t even get into the Islamophobic voice chats rampant in games. Cook zeroes in on narrative gaming where “accented” brown people rarely appear as anything other than villains’ or “one of the good ones” aiding the protagonist.

Pulling from POC criticism for years, Cook points to entertainment showing Muslims as “villainous, barbaric, backwards or helpless” for decades. Kotaku Senior Editor Alyssa Mercante discussed this in a recent interview with Rabii, Rami Ismail, Tamoor Hussain, and Nadia Shammas.

Meanwhile, games with bigotry allegories common to racialized people are a dime a dozen. This colors games like Cyberpunk 2077 and Detroit: Become Human. Even TGA Game of the Year Baldur’s Gate 3 is backdropped against a Tiefling refugee crisis. One of the biggest games in years, The Last of Us (series), took heavy inspiration from the conflict Israel and Palestine. Creator Neil Druckmann spent his early childhood on an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank (Palestine), and his centrist approach reflects in the work—a work that was present at the awards as Druckmann took to the TGA stage to accept the statue for Best Adapted Work.

Another failure of The Game Awards

Cook ends with this thesis: The cultural capital of the gaming industry has real influence on the world. While Cook’s blog is about Palestine, this could easily be extended to other regions facing equally dire conditions—places like the Congo, where the mineral used to power our phones and electronics, cobalt, is fought for.

As of writing, the letter has over 3,071 total signatures and now includes mine. The signatories range from storyboarding artists and game testers to game design professors and journalists. Peaking at 3.6 million current viewers, TGA had an incredible opportunity to exert that influence in a positive way. This isn’t projecting American values, either, because most countries represented at the awards are also voting for a ceasefire.

With the current state of the game industry, silence is a message.

Silence is tacit support.

Silence is dehumanization of Palestinian lives. 

Open letter to The Game Awards

Thirsty Suitors‘ designer Meghna Jayanth tried to use this for good at the Golden Joysticks Awards before they ultimately canceled her appearance. This censoring is, in part, what moved Rabii and most of the other members of a class—part of TGA’s diversity and inclusion efforts—to ask better of TGA, so that TGA could be the voice of gaming worldwide, rather than just of America and American companies. After all, the hesitation or condemnation of calling for a ceasefire is almost entirely an American/British affair.

(featured image: Golden Joystick Awards, The Game Awards, Activision/Blizzard, and Valve)

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Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.