10 Biggest Video Game Controversies of 2021

2021 was a great year for games, but the year's biggest controversies reminded us of the dark side of the industry.

Video Game Controversies 2021
Photo: Rockstar Games, Xbox Game Studios, Amazon, Nintendo

While we’re looking forward to celebrating the very best games of 2021 in the near future, it’s tough to paint an accurate picture of this year without also spending a little time talking about some of 2021’s biggest controversies.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this has been an especially noteworthy year for video game controversies compared to previous years, but there is no denying that some of the year’s biggest stories were controversial in one way or another. Given the context of some of those controversies and the way they remind us that there is a lot of work left to do to make the video game industry a better place, it would be harmful to ignore some of them as we wrap up this year.

That being the case, here’s a look at some of the controversies that may not show the gaming industry or gamers at their best but are certainly necessary for better understanding the state of gaming heading into 2022.

Activision Blizzard’s History of Employee Discrimination and Abuse

While this list of controversies is in no particular order (this isn’t a prize), it’s hard to deny that the biggest video game-related controversy of 2021 was the announcement that Activision Blizzard is being sued by the state of California following the state’s extensive investigation into the company’s history of employee harassment and discrimination. 

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The numerous revelations that followed the public reveal of that investigation could easily fill the rest of this article (the “Cosby Suite,” Activision Blizzard’s anti-union efforts, every single thing about Bobby Kotick, etc.), but it’s also worth noting that this controversy extends to the ethics of buying, promoting, and playing Activision Blizzard’s games. There’s also a worthwhile debate happening at the moment about how to best talk about the history of Activision Blizzard’s games now that we know about the conditions many of them were developed under and how their success may have helped fuel the company’s culture of abuse.

While I sincerely hope that this investigation and the movements it has already inspired will help ensure that more major game studios start treating their employees like human beings, the sad fact of the matter is that the number of similar controversies we’ve seen in recent years strongly suggest that there is a long way to go before the systemic issues that plague this industry are a thing of the past. 

GTA Definitive Edition is the Year’s Laziest and Most Broken Major Release

It’s honestly still incredible to think that the GTA Definitive Edition remasters were anything less than one of 2021’s biggest surefire hits. After all, how hard can it be to update three of the best games ever made?

We may never get the full story about what went wrong with those remasters, but between their many glitches, terrible design decisions, missing features, and Rockstar’s initial decision to remove the original GTA Trilogy titles from digital marketplaces and replace them with those remasters, it’s safe to say that there is plenty of blame to go around. 

It’s nice to see that the GTA remasters are still being updated and fixed, but it’s safe to say that this was the year’s most botched major release. 

Pretty Much Everything About Amazon’s New World

Between concerns over its colonialism themes and the fact that it’s a game published and developed by Amazon, New World has been a lightning rod of controversy since..well, the moment the MMO was announced. 

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In some ways, it was inevitable that New World’s eventual release would only fuel those fires. This is just one of those games that inspires half of the people who play it to devote hundreds of hours to it and half of the people who play it to run away screaming and never look back. 

Of course, it doesn’t help that those who chose to stick with New World are now arguing about the game’s economy issues, lack of updates, and various technical problems. 

Ongoing Hardware Shortages Make the PS5 and Xbox Series X Hard to Find

While many people knew that global supply shortages and complications caused by the Covid-19 pandemic were going to make it difficult to find a PS5 or Xbox Series X/S at launch, there was some hope that those who wanted a next-gen console would be able to buy one with relative ease in 2021.

However, as manufacturers everywhere warn us that those hardware shortages will continue into 2022, we’re starting to see more and more gamers debate about whether or not enough is being done to get next-gen consoles on to shelves and ensure that those who can’t buy a next-gen console won’t be left behind by the inevitable release of more and more true next-gen exclusives. 

While many seem to acknowledge that console manufacturers can only do so much about certain supply shortages, the rise of online scalpers using bots to purchase next-gen consoles in bulk and controversial policies regarding next-gen update fees for certain games have left some arguing that there is a better way through this period that is currently not being explored.

Developers Become That Annoying Dudebro at the Party by Refusing to Stop Talking About NFTs

While many people assumed that publishers and developers would eventually find a way to explore NFTs, Cryptocurrency, Blockchains, and all the other shady financial schemes that one person at Thanksgiving wouldn’t shut up about, recent months have seen more and more studios openly embrace those concepts and gleefully talk about how they can’t wait to start incorporating them into their games. 

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In most cases, those efforts are either shameful ways to convince (or, if you prefer, “scam”) confused investors those studios are totally ready to be the leaders in whatever Joe Rogan just talked about or they’re a way to add more microtransactions to games under a different name. In short, it seems that most developers have no idea what the future of Blockchain gaming looks like, or they do have an idea of what it looks like and that idea sucks.

Thankfully, it seems many people are openly rebelling against those early efforts. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chernobyl developer GSC Game World recently announced that they have decided to remove NFTs from their upcoming game, and Ubisoft was forced to delist a YouTube video about Quartz (the company’s upcoming NFT system) following an almost universally negative reaction to the proposed plan.

Nintendo Switch’s Expansion Pass Disappoints Retro Gamers

I’ve previously covered this topic in greater depth elsewhere, but the gist of this story is that Nintendo’s recently released “Expansion Pass” plan for Switch Online has been criticized by many over the price of the new premium subscription tier, its limited offering of retro games, and the quality of the emulated titles included in the package.

What’s fascinating about this particular controversy are the opinions of a vocal group of hardcore Nintendo fans who have seemingly embraced a “be happy with what we get” kind of mentality. While it seems like there are relatively few people who believe that Expansion Pass is the absolute best that Nintendo can do when it comes to offering easy access to high-quality versions of their legendary library of retro games, there does seem to be this increasingly popular belief that anything that is better than nothing in that department might just have to be good enough.

It’s going to be interesting to see if Nintendo ever decides to make it a little easier (and perhaps a little cheaper) to simply buy and play the retro games we love without having to wait for a subscription service update or remaster/remake. 

Returnal Becomes This Year’s “Video Game Difficulty” Lighting Rod

I can’t remember the last year when there wasn’t at least one game that got people talking about video game difficulty and whether more modern titles should offer what is regularly referred to as an “Easy Mode.” Well, Returnal was “that game” for 2021. 

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What’s really interesting about Returnal, though, is that this particular debate was less about the game’s overall difficulty and more about whether or not the initial inability to suspend your run made the game unnecessarily difficult and frustrating. The argument was more about accessibility, but that idea kind of got swallowed by the hot button “Easy Mode” idea that such conversations are often reduced to once they go wide.

While Returnal developer Housemarquee later added a “suspend” feature to Returnal via an update, it’s probably safe to bet that there will be at least one game in 2022 that reignites the argument about the accessibility of video game difficulty. 

Halo Infinite’s Battle Pass is (Surprisingly) The Most Controversial Part of the Game

When Microsoft announced that they decided to delay Halo Infinite’s release to 2021, many fans assumed that the game’s troubled development had finally caught up with it and that it would end up being one of the biggest disappointments of whatever year it was eventually released in. Instead, the most controversial thing about Halo Infinite turned out to be its Battle Pass

The initial version of Halo Infinite’s Battle Pass only rewarded players with XP for completing a very limited selection of challenges. Many fans accused Microsoft and developer 343 Industries of intentionally making the XP system slow so that players would be more likely to spend money to unlock cosmetic items instead. While 343 has updated the game’s Battle Pass to make it a little easier to acquire XP through the normal course of play, some fans still feel that it’s not where it needs to be. The Halo Infinite subreddit was even shut down shortly after the launch of the game’s multiplayer mode due to the neverending discourse about the Battle Pass. 

We hope that 343 eventually gets the game’s Battles Pass in a better place, but at least the rest of the game turned out to be quite good. 

Nintendo Switch OLED Wasn’t the Switch Pro We Were Waiting For

It feels like people have been talking about a 4K Nintendo Switch “Pro” since the release of the Nintendo Switch, and all signs pointed to Nintendo finally revealing and releasing that hardware upgrade in 2021. Instead, we got the Nintendo Switch OLED. 

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In a way, this controversy is less about the quality of the Switch OLED and is more about Nintendo’s decision to release a pretty marginal hardware upgrade in the midst of a global supply shortage. Simply put, there’s a debate over whether or not the Switch OLED offers enough for its price as well as a debate over whether or not it’s a way for Nintendo to “trick” consumers into buying what they may think is a much more substantial hardware upgrade. 

Gien that the Switch OLED seems to have been a sales success, though, I doubt Nintendo is too worried about how this controversy will impact the Switch brand or any plans they have for future hardware upgrades. 

Numerous Games Are Delayed to 2022 and Beyond

Much like the hardware shortages we previously talked about, there’s a degree to which many gamers went into 2021 expecting some of the year’s biggest games to be delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and other factors. 

However, it sometimes felt like every 2021 game delay (and there were certainly a few) was met with a little more venom. While there are certainly many who believe it’s better to delay a game rather than force its developers to work through a crunch schedule or release that game before it’s ready, the reactions to some of the year’s biggest delays really show why more and more publishers fear upsetting fans by telling them that they’re going to have to wait longer for their most anticipated games. In some ways, you could consider the radio silence about the release date of major upcoming titles like GTA 6 and The Elder Scrolls 6 to be part of this debate.

While I know nobody wants to hear this now, this is almost certainly one of those debates that will carry on into 2022 as more major delays will likely be announced in the months to come.

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