Comfort Zone: The Problem with Seeking the Status Quo in Games Journalism

So as #GamerGate continues to fizzle on the internet, despite its disappearance from much of mainstream Twitter and news, it’s becoming increasingly clear that what GGers are attempting to do is not hold gaming journalism accountable for corruption or shoddy reporting, as they so often claim, but to attempt to restore a perceived status quo from the early 2000s.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on a paper considering the toxic fandom of videogames for next week’s PCAS conference (more on that after I give the paper), and looking in particular at what’s been happening with Anita Sarkeesian, #GamerGate, and online harassment, and how all that relates to the history of videogames themselves.

I’ve been following developer Zoe Quinn on Twitter, and watching her expose of 4chan forums; following Feminist Frequency (Sarkeesian); and seeing multiple journalists (Jenn Frank, Samantha Allen, Mattie Brice) disappear from my feed or cease to speak about games. I’ve also been watching other journalists, academics, and developers (Rhianna Pratchett, Leigh Alexander, Maddy Myers, Todd Harper, Zoya Street) continue to talk about harassment, speak out against it, and continue to teach and preach tolerance, diversity, and accountability.

What has struck me – in particular after discovering that my lovely TLF editor has been on the receiving end of GGer tweets on my account – most recently is that GGers aren’t actually trying to reform journalism (which I never thought they honestly were, to be frank), they’re trying to reclaim their perceived identity as gaming “experts” from the 1990s and early 2000s when women were an invisible presence in gaming. When gaming wasn’t as widespread (when 59% of Americans weren’t gamers*), when it wasn’t as diverse, it was a lot easier for the “hardcore” fans to be experts, for their opinions to be reflected broadly across little-known gaming sites and in gaming magazines.

When GGers seek to “reform” journalism, they’re demanding a return to the days when the voices in the games industry on all levels – fans, development, journalism – were homogenous, reflecting a bias created by industry marketers in the 1990s.** In the same way that people (mostly white men) talk about the “golden era” of the 1950s, GGers are looking to reclaim a period in videogame history when they were the dominant demographic in gaming, and their opinions went unquestioned and even catered to.

This is a response – cultural lag – that is ubiquitous within any rapidly changing form of popular culture (I’ve said this before here, here, and here) in which the “original” (“hardcore”) audience feels that the medium to which they have become attached changes on them, and that any change must necessarily be for the worse.

Games journalism is changing, yes. It is changing because the world around it is changing, and because games are changing to reflect and respond to that world.

This new world is a place that GGers find disconcerting and uncomfortable because it is not the familiar place to which they have become accustomed which reflects back their already-held opinions and preferences. It is a world in which people don’t all look like them, don’t all think like them, and – especially – in which people question their right to remain dominant.

This is a problem not exclusive to GGers, or to gamers, but to the whole of Western society, which just happens to have a high concentration among 30-something straight white American (and European) males with access to the internet (aka. middle and upper class). This demographic suffers from privilege – a phrase which is not intended as sarcastic, but as realistic. Those with privilege have a natural inability to see that privilege, and when it is pointed out to them, it causes “suffering”: discovering privilege is uncomfortable, disconcerting, guilt-inducing. Learning about your own privilege is a demand that you then do something about that privilege, that you cease to take for granted that your views are “normal.” To realize that the identity which you have so long identified as “default” is in fact alien to many of the people you know.

It means learning that instead of the hero you’ve long imagined yourself to be, you’re an unwitting – and perhaps unwilling – villain.

And that experience is uncomfortable, disconcerting, even painful. So yes, I understand why GGers want to demand a restoration of their comfortable dominance. But this understanding is not acceptance.

This comfort comes at the price of oppression, of subjection, of dehumanization. As has been true throughout history, privilege is bought at the cost of other voices and viewpoints silenced in the name of “purity,” “conformity,” and the status quo.

If you want to demand accountability in journalism, by all means go ahead. But when you define “accountability,” be sure to also hold yourself accountable – ask yourself, “Whose voice am I silencing? Whose opinion am I erasing? Whose life am I making more difficult? Would my life/work stand up to the demands I make of others?” And if, in the pursuit of what you believe is the truth, you are taking away someone else’s privacy, freedom, security, or speech, you aren’t seeking accountability; you’re seeking comfort, at the expense of human dignity.

It’s time to get out of the comfort zone.

*ESA 2014 demographic report
**Tracy Lien, “No Girls Allowed,” Polygon

AIP/TLF Shut Your Claptrap (Borderlands 2)

The first post in a new As-I-Play series has gone live over on TLF: this time, I’m playing through Borderlands 2!

This is one of those games that I kept considering every time I thought about getting a new game. I played and enjoyed Borderlands, in spite of the huge disappointment that was the Vault ending. But I liked most of the gameplay, I liked the world, and I enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek atmosphere of Pandora, which reminds me quite a bit of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

But I didn’t like it enough to actually go out and buy the second game. There was always a hesitation, something that said “meh” every time I seriously considered it. In part, it was because of the fairly anticlimactic ending. In part, it was because I wanted to play it co-op, and my cohorts slowly abandoned me. And in part, it was because I got very good at wandering into places where the enemies were leveled so far above me that I kept getting annihilated.

But the husband bought it for me, so I no longer have to justify spending the money to myself. I can just sit back and play. :) And then babble about it at you.

Define Your Terms: “Criticism,” “Review,” and “Academia”

So today a friend tweeted about a piece in the New Statesman on gaming criticism… sort of. The piece, entitled “Criticism vs. Reviews: Sometimes it’s OK to Care Only About How a Game Plays” by Phil Hartup, makes certain highly problematic claims about the differences between reviews, criticism, and “academic criticism” that sent both the friend and I into fits.

First of all, Hartup conflates “mechanics” and graphics with reviews and “narrative” with “academic criticism,” which makes no sense at all. Certainly, there is plenty to be done with game narrative by academic criticism, but academic criticism also talks mechanics, the impact of graphics, and the demographics and reactions of players… and so on. Narrative is but one component of a game, and is thus only one component of academic criticism, reviews, AND “general” criticism. To assume that an analysis of the “fun” of a game would only appear in a “review” is to fail to understand the scope of criticism (both general and academic).

Hartup also claims that

there’s a problem with this academic criticism, and it’s that modern big budget games – the AAA titles as they are called – often don’t stand up to criticism very well. When you bring that extra level of scrutiny to bear on a Thief, GTA V or Watch_Dogs, they fall apart. Daft plots full of holes, stupid or unappealing main characters, absurd mechanics – AAA games are heaving with them.

This kind of evaluation of academia and the games industry is endemic to developers’ and fans’ frequent dismissal of academics in the field; they somehow assume that if things fall apart when an academic lens is applied to them, that the fault is with the academic lens. I’m sorry, but no. If a game can’t hold together under scrutiny, then the fault lies with the game, not the eyes looking at it. Perhaps instead of saying that the problem is with academia for exposing these holes, that the problem is instead with theholes themselves. We don’t blame Ebert when a movie is bad and gets a bad review – nor do we blame Laura Mulvey when we see an instance of objectification in film. The same principle applies here: if academics expose flaws in a game, the fault is with the game.

And here’s my other issue with Hartup’s assumption – he seems to think that we cannot enjoy a game that has problems, which is equally silly to his assumption that the lens is at greater fault than the game. No one would venture to suggest that Die Hard is a great piece of cinematic art. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun movie (or that I haven’t seen it well over a dozen times in spite of the fact that I know it’s not a great work of art). Watch Dogs or Call of Duty don’t have to be hole-free in order to be enjoyable or to contribute something to games.

Hartup’s final assessment is that we can’t have reviews that engage with all three genres – review, “general” criticism, and academic criticism. Certainly, his point that the time-commitment for games is considerably greater than film or theater is a valid one; as an academic who writes on both plays and games, the time I spend prepping for a games piece is significantly higher than I do for one on Shakespeare (I can read a Shakespeare play in 3 hours or less – playing through Dragon Age II takes a lot longer than that, to say nothing of having to replay it to make different choices, or the final exhausted turn to the Wiki to cover the myriad of choices that I can’t possibly make).

It explains why a review might be cursory or why an academic article can’t contain all components of a game, but ultimately Hartup fails to actually explain why a piece couldn’t still engage on a complex level with the content (gameplay, narrative, graphics, “fun”) of a game in terms that fit all three ostensible “styles.”

In fact, what it comes down to is that Hartup seems to want to justify laziness rather than make a cogent argument for why games criticism should have genres. Now, as an academic, I actually think that his conclusion isn’t wrong: it’s important for us to have reviews that answer the “should I buy it” question; it’s good to have casual criticism written by fans; it’s also important to have academic criticism of a burgeoning art form. It is also true that not every piece will (or should) combine all three components, but it should not be the case that anyone should have to restrict themselves to only one of these. In many cases, a piece of general criticism will contain elements of review-style evaluation, and an academic piece might in fact do the same.

What bothers me about Hartup’s argument isn’t his ultimate conclusion, then, but the way he gets there. He suggests that because it’s hard, it shouldn’t be done. He suggests that because AAA games have significant flaws, that we should only focus on the “fun” (which is how games got into the current mess about misogyny and non-representation in the first place), and not consider them from a critical/academic standpoint. In short, he suggests a division between popular culture and academia that displays lamentable ignorance about how powerful popular culture is.

Games, whether they have plot holes or not, are one component of a popular culture that both reflects and shapes the way human beings interact with one another and the world. To presume that “fun” things (like Call of Duty) do not engage in this discussion is to ignore their power. To do so is dangerous. It has the potential to silence many voices, to enable propaganda, and to ignore the influence of media on our lives. To engage in criticism is to recognize the power of the milieu and to interact with it, to accept or deny or seek to change those components that have the potential to influence the world at large.

I’m Still a Gamer

Amid the toxic fallout from August in the gaming world is an idea that’s being championed by several feminist critics, including Leigh Alexander at Gamasutra, that the term “gamer” ought to be disposed with.

On the one hand, I completely sympathize with the sentiment that’s behind the argument. “Gamers,” by which she means the trollish minority of anti-feminist vocal MRA-supporting feminist-conspiracy-theory-touting subset of gamers, have of late been behaving like spoiled toddlers who have been told that they can’t eat their entire birthday cake because other people should also get a slice.

But on the other, I think the knee-jerk impulse to excise the term from our vocabulary runs the risk of erasing a lot of what is good about being a gamer. Identifying with the rest of gamer culture – sharing common fandoms and conversations; enjoying the thrill of victory, whether in solo, co-op, or competitive play; experiencing the excitement of new game mechanics or technologies… all those things are also a part of being a gamer. I’ve found more friends by identifying as a gamer (both board games and videogames) than I have by identifying as anything else. I’d hate to lose that.

I understand, too, the argument that games are becoming an increasingly ubiquitous part of our culture. They are. More people play games – especially casual mobile games – than ever before… or do they? Solitaire has been a staple of people’s lives since they could make cards. Dice (or knuckle-bones) can be solitaire, co-op, and competitive, too. In short, whether playing a sport, a board/card game, or a videogame, human beings have been gamers of varying degrees for all eternity. Just because more people play Candy Crush and Flappy Bird than used to play Minesweeper doesn’t mean that there isn’t a distinction between those folks who are gamers, and Gamers.

Certainly, there isn’t a level of monetary commitment one can give to become a Gamer (per a current argument), nor dedicated hours to gaming, nor ownership of a particular set of machinery. Being a Gamer is about attitude and ownership of the identity (not the paraphernalia). It’s about putting games before a lot of other things, and wanting to put games before other things because of the positives that gaming represents.

Being a Gamer, to me, means being willing to take risks. It also means wanting to never let go of the impulse to play. Playfulness, and the embrasure of the fantastic that comes with it, is something our society as a whole is sorely lacking. Playfulness can manifest in many ways, not just through gaming, but gaming is, to me at least, one of the most concrete ways that adults have the opportunity to remain playful in a world that is otherwise harsh, unfair, and stressful.

Play is important – physical play, cosplay, identity play, virtual play… all kinds of play that help us to define and redefine ourselves and our beliefs, to experiment with new patterns of thought and ways of engaging with the world, to work out our frustrations in a safe way. And Gamers are (some of the) people who value play more than most.

And that’s why I want to not just hold on to the Gamer identity, but to reclaim it and encourage people to embrace it.

Growing Pains

I just read the best summary of this week in gaming that I’ve seen thus far by Chris Plante on Polygon:

Two groups are at opposite ends of this moment:

One side has folded its arms, slumped its shoulders while pouting like an obstinate child that has learned they are getting a little brother or sister but wants to remain the singular focus of his parents affection.

The other side has opened its arms, unable to contain its love and compassion, because they understand they are no longer alone.

This week, the obstinate child threw a temper tantrum, and the industry was stuck in the metaphorical grocery store as everyone was forced to suffer through it together. But unlike a child, the people behind these temper tantrums are hurting others. It’s time to grow up. Let’s not wait until next week to start.

It’s a fantastic summary of what’s happening between the so-called “hardcore” gaming fans (a group into which I’m pretty sure I fit by any definition other than one that involves gender- or physical hygiene- or dwelling-place-stereotypes) and gaming’s diversity critics (those talking about race and sexuality as well as gender). The final paragraph in particular sums up the horrible feeling of embarrassment that I have as a gamer and a critic over being forced not only to watch, but to take part (partially against my will), like the parent or babysitter or older sibling.

What can we, as the responsible party in this tantrum, do? As with small children, we can’t abandon them, we can’t smack them, and we don’t want to be seen with them, but they are our responsibility and even our family. They, like us, are a part of this community, even sometimes against both our wishes. So we have to do what good parents do: don’t encourage, don’t take the bait, and wait – patiently or impatiently, as the case may be – for the child to wear itself out and grow up.

AIG/TLF: Hold Your Fire (XCOM)

In a (hopefully) much less controversial post – my latest As-I-Play post on XCOM: Enemy Unknown is up over at TLF.

In a side note, I’d originally titled the post “Stop, Don’t Shoot” when I started writing it the day before the Ferguson protests started. When I went back to keep updating the post I decided that would be a bit tasteless, so you get the title noted above instead.

TLF: Out of the Background: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, Women as Background II

Yesterday, Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency released a new Tropes vs. Women in Video Games video – part two of “Women as Background Decoration.” As per usual, people seem to either love it or hate it (and I’m pretty sure most of them have come to their respective conclusions before ever clicking on the link or pushing play.

I did a write-up response over on TLF, also as per usual.

On a related but not-repeated-in-my-TLF-post note, I’m starting to become irritated by the people I think of as Sarkeesian cheerleaders (none of whom I know personally, by the way). Not anywhere near to the level with which I am disgusted by the trolls who attack her, mind you, but, I think, in large part because of them.

These are the people to whom Sarkessian can do or say no wrong. Every word, every clip, every tweet are sacrosanct nuggets of gold in the feminist fight against the ravening trollish hordes.

And, to be honest, I can sympathize with the impulse because she is fighting the proverbial good fight. She’s doing good work, or at least work for good (although arguably a little of each). I don’t want her to stop making her video series, nor do I want her to be subject to the harassment that characterizes (and escalates with) every release of another episode.

But I also think that to hold Sarkeesian up as the pillar of feminist criticism of videogames is problematic and does a disservice to criticism itself on a couple levels.

First – and most importantly as far as I’m concerned – it suggests that to engage with criticism (metacriticism, if you will) is to devalue it and render it meaningless. If that were the case, no academic ever would have a job. The purpose of criticism is to have a critical conversation, which includes discussion and dissent, that engages with both the primary material (here, videogames) and the other critics (Sarkeesian).

Second, the valorization of Sarkeesian as a paragon of feminist criticism creates a black-and-white template in which videogames are seen as either feminist or misogynist, with no room in the middle.

Finally, it polarizes the people surrounding the discussions. If I’m not with Sarkeesian 100%, then I must support the trolls. This is a false dichotomy that hurts feminists and intelligent criticism far more than it hurts the trolls.

Nuance is important. Critical conversations are important. If I take issue with Sarkeesian’s depiction of one game among many – Dishonored, for instance – then there should be no problem with me pointing that out. I’m not saying that her work is bad. I’m not saying that there is nothing of value in the episode. I am saying that I disagree with this one point – to criticize a single point is to engage her work in conversation, which, so long as it is done respectfully, ought to be the objective of any critic’s work.

So don’t wave your finger in my direction and say “But you only don’t like this one example” as a reason why my entire criticism is invalid. No, I don’t like that example, and that’s okay. As Sarkeesian herself says at the start of every episode, it is possible – even positive – for us to criticize the things we like. So instead of name-calling and accusations (from anyone), let’s have a conversation.

What did you like in this episode? What didn’t you like? Was there a game you thought was missing? A game you thought was misrepresented?