Category Archives: Games

Get Rid of the Black Marker: A Post Against Censorship

A recent conversation has reiterated one of the components of recent internet discussions of games – particularly those containing overt misogyny – that bothers me more than most of the others. It’s the conflation amongst many online of “criticism” with “censorship.” A few weeks ago, I made this post on the Australian censorship of Hotline Miami 2, which contains a passage I feel bears repeating (even though I feel a little odd about quoting myself):

Censorship of any kind is a detriment to culture. It stifles voices that can contribute to a discussion, and it also exposes places where a society needs work. This is one of the latter cases. If our art – and yes, videogames are art – contains the glorification of sexual violence, then we need to consider why, just as we need to consider why our art contains the glorification of racism, sexism, homophobia, and genocide.

Criticism is – or should be – the thoughtful consideration of and discussion about why our cultural artifacts (including videogames) contain things like racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and the other -isms of society. Criticism is not censorship.

Let me just repeat that one: Criticism is not censorship.

Yes, there are people on the internet who claim that certain games – probably including Hotline Miami 2 – should not have been made and certainly should not be sold. I am not among them. I will never buy it, never play it, and am, quite honestly, disgusted by it, but I will not say that it should not exist. I will say that it is harmful to women because it perpetuates a culture of misogyny and sexual violence that daily endangers real women in the real world, but I do not dispute its right to exist.

Let me also be very clear that I do not think that someone can become a misogynist by playing Hotline Miami 2. I do not think that any single piece of culture can change a person’s nature or predispositions. I do think that, en masse, popular culture devoted predominantly to particular ideological paradigms does inculcate its audience into those paradigms. In non-academic-ese, what we see all day, every day, does impact how we think about the world. It might not cause us to take action on those thoughts, not directly, but it does cause us to become accepting or permissive of certain behaviors we might not otherwise choose to permit.

It can also cause us to reject certain behaviors. Publish enough tracts and novels about the abolition of slavery – like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was progressive for its time – and society might just decide that slavery isn’t acceptable. Publish enough tracts and hold enough speeches on how women should vote, and you get women’s suffrage. Make enough television, movies, and videogames about how African Americans are all violent gangsters, and you get unarmed black teenagers being shot because white people feel genuine (albeit unjustified) fear of them.

That is the power of media, videogames included, and that is precisely why criticism (not censorship) is vitally important. Because if we kowtow to the sanctity of creators and the entertainment media, we stop questioning why we believe the things we believe. Censorship is just another form of refusing criticism, and it is through criticism – genuine, respectful dialogue – that culture moves forward.

Does Gender Matter Behind the Pen?

So yesterday my attention was drawn to this opinion piece on Polygon about whether or not we can rely on men to write good female characters. I assume, by extension, that women must therefore be unreliable as authors of male characters, African Americas of Asian characters, Jewish persons of Christian characters, and so on.

Which should tell you just how idiotic I find that question to be.

Of course men can write good female characters. Women can write good male characters. Cispersons can write good transpersons. Transpersons can write good cispersons. White people can write good people of color. People of color can write good white people or people of another color. Members of one religion can write good members of other religions.

The whole point of being a writer – says someone who does in fact write for a living, although not primarily creatively – is to adopt a specific persona for a specific audience. I do not write the same here as I do as an formal academic as I do as a friend or a daughter or a wife. When I do write creatively, I often take a male perspective, and I’d like to think that I don’t do it too badly (although I’d have to actually put it out for publication to get a true barometer of that, which I haven’t done).

Does a woman have more of a sense of what it is like to experience life as a woman? Of course she does. The same goes for any gender, orientation, belief, or color. But that does not preclude a good writer from doing research and attempting to represent the experience of another in a way that is meaningful, respectful, and “good.”

It’s the “doing research” part that’s important, here. Colin Campbell – author of the above-linked piece – suggests that “The skill required to convincingly write across genders is pretty high, and not commonly found.” I would beg to differ. While it may be true that writing across any lines does take skill, professional writers of all stripes have that skill. What most of them lack is the wherewithal and/or the time (in the games industry time is a very valuable commodity that its workers often do not have nearly enough of) to put in the necessary research to do so.

Research is a vital component of any writing, or at least it should be. As an academic, I could blather on incessantly about what I think about Hamlet, but unless I do the research to have a clear understanding of its context, otherwise known as where its author is coming from, I can’t possibly hope to write about Hamlet well. And it’s that qualifier that’s important, here. I might have impeccable syntax, but if I don’t do the research, what I have to say is irrelevant.

The principle, while slightly different in methodology, is applicable to creative endeavors, as well. If I wish to write from the perspective of a 15th century Frenchman, I’d better go find out what it is that 15th century Frenchmen do. If I want to write as a woman of color, I need to read a lot about what women of color experience on a daily basis, talk to women of color about their experiences and fears, and then try to be as respectful of that as I possibly can. Is it easier (for me) to write as a white woman from the twenty-first century? Of course it is – because I’ve already done that research simply by living. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t do another perspective well – it just means I have to work harder at it.

And, here’s my real point, the experience of doing that work is ultimately invaluable in so many ways. It introduces empathy where empathy may not have existed. It broadens the horizons of both artists and consumers by exposing them to the lived experiences of those who are unlike them in some way. It enables artists and consumers to break down the harmful social barriers that exist in any culture by virtue of their ability to identify with someone Other than themselves. It creates change. It enables justice.

So while I absolutely think that the cultural industries of gaming and mass media do need to include more women, queer persons, transpersons, and people of color, I also think that there is a lot to be gained from having everyone do the work and take the risk of adopting voices that are different from their own.

Not the Problem You Are Looking For: “Nerds” are Not Game Culture’s Problem

Gaming culture – particularly in its pseudo-journalistic internet form – has problems. A lot of them. Some of them are problems it shares with every other culture on the planet and are a simple byproduct of being human. Some of them are particular to the First World comprised mostly of North America and Europe with a dose of East Asia. Some of them are the project of a previously homogenous straight white male demographic derived from the US military industrial complex of privilege. And some of them are the result of a demographic that is, by and large, educated and wealthy and interested in esoteric subjects, technologies, and fantasies – otherwise known as “nerds.”

But “nerds” are not the biggest problem in gaming culture, contrary to an opinion piece published by Destructoid which claims that “nerds” are the problem with gaming journalism. The piece suggests that

1) nerds care about shit that is completely unimportant to everyone else, and 2) nerds want other people to see how important this unimportant shit actually is. A nerd is a guy who can’t help spend hours trying to convince his loathing in-laws that The Game Grumps are way funnier than Mel Brooks. A nerd is a girl who sits you down in the middle of a hurricane and babbles about how the latest Legend of Zelda game completely sucks compared to the prior, nearly identical Legend of Zelda game. A nerd is in their own world. A nerd wants you to be in that world with them.

Although I suppose this is the point where a responsible blogger admits to being a nerd  (and I am), I take exception with the suggestion that nerds only care about “unimportant shit.” Sure, relative to starvation or global war or sex trafficking, games may be “unimportant shit,” but within the confines of a First World audience who does not face those problems on a daily basis, games are not “unimportant shit.” Games are very important shit.

Here’s why.

Games, and videogames in particular, are a rising form of consumer media that comprises one of the fundamental cornerstones of twenty-first century popular culture. More people in North America, Japan, and South Korea own or have regular access to videogame systems (PCs, consoles, handheld devices) than don’t. Videogames (esports, in specific) are rapidly becoming professionalized, and have international competitions from which players earn a living. Colleges are giving scholarships to esports players. There are classes taught on games, people earn a livelihood making games, and the games industry has a higher gross budget than Hollywood.

Do not tell me that’s “unimportant shit.”

Now this doesn’t invalidate the other main point of the article, which is that journalists are swayed by a kind of rabid fan-boy- and fan-girl-ism which enables AAA developers to manipulate (some of) them into giving rave reviews on games that don’t fully deserve them, while causing indie games to be criticized viciously because they don’t conform to the so-called industry standards. Developers with reputations become demigods who cannot be criticized (Peter Molyneux or Ken Levine, for example), even when they deserve it.

Yes, there are industry parties designed to cater to reviewers in an effort to garner positive reviews in exchange for swag. Yes, there are “journalists” who actually work for publishers and developers (and some companies release their own “magazines,” whose articles are obviously going to be biased if one thinks about it for five seconds). There are blogs that are little more than shill-sites for companies which tout the latest “great” games, all of which just happen to be made by the same people.

But “nerd-dom” is not the cause of these problems. Nor are they as wide-spread as the author seems to think. There are a LOT of journalists – many of whom have, admittedly, been attacked for their opinions in recent months – and critics whose work attempts to maintain that mysterious thing called “integrity” or “critical distance.” A lot of people working within the industry, within journalism, and within academia who believe in doing a service to their readers and to the industry by criticizing it for the things which deserve criticism.

And those people don’t do what they do because games are “unimportant shit.” They do what they do because games and the gaming industry are very important shit, and because that shit reflects and informs our broader cultural milieu. Because our culture is our past, present, and future, and it’s very important that we engage with it in a thoughtful and critical way.

[Redacted] – Games, Censorship, and Sexual Violence

One of the big news stories in gaming at the moment is about Australia’s refusal to issue classification to Devolver’s Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number due to sexual violence (link to Kotaku Australia). In Australia, media that “depict, express or otherwise deal with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults” may be denied classification, and would therefore be made unavailable to consumers.

The report from Australian Classification includes a description of the scene which caused the game to fail classification (**trigger warning for sexual violence** – highlight below to read scene description):

In the sequence of game play footage titled Midnight Animal, the protagonist character bursts into what appears to be a movie set and explicitly kills 4 people, who collapse to the floor in a pool of copious blood, often accompanied by blood splatter. After stomping on the head of a fifth male character, he strikes a female character wearing red underwear. She is knocked to the floor and is viewed lying face down in a pool of copious blood. The male character is viewed with his pants halfway down, partially exposing his buttocks. He is viewed pinning the female down by the arms and lying on top of her thrusting, implicitly raping her (either rear entry or anally) while her legs are viewed kicking as she struggles beneath him. This visual depiction of implied sexual violence is emphasised by it being mid-screen, with a red backdrop pulsating and the remainder of the screen being surrounded by black.

I don’t think I need to explain how the above scene might “offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults,” emphasis here on “reasonable.” I don’t think that there’s any question that this scene is distasteful, violent, misogynistic, and disturbing, made all the more so because this is the protagonist engaging in this behavior, rather than a villain or other NPC.

Response to the Australian Classification decision has been mingled approval and outrage, with responses that include “It’s a video game” (the implication being that it’s therefore somehow acceptable or “not real” violence); “there are movies that have rape scenes in them and they are given R18+ or AV15+”; “I’m 100% anti censorship, If any line is crossed the statement should be made with our wallets, Not by the fun police”; and this example of eloquence:

Then don’t buy the damn game. I am fed up with all you Fucktards who just beg for the opportunity to be offended. It is simple. You don’t like it then stay away from it. Jeez who are we now just a bunch of whiny fucking pricks who are not happy unless we are stating our useless fucking opinions. Pretty much just pissing on anyone who has the drive or guts to do something like make art be it games or film or whatever. SHUT YOUR STUPID FUCKING MOUTHS AND LET PEOPLE GET ON WITH THERE PASSIONS.

Grammatical and lexical issues aside, this final commenter strikes at the heart of much of the present discussions about gender and gaming. Said commenter clearly does not understand the implicit cultural valuation present in the creation and dissemination of cultural artifacts – the idea that what is contained within a work of culture (popular or otherwise) somehow impacts or reflects some aspect of that culture.

I do not think that Hotline Miami 2 has the same kind of cultural cache as Selma or The Imitation Game, or even Dragon Age: Inquisition orGTAV, so my guess is that there are far more people who haven’t heard of the game than have, thus minimizing the actual impact of its censorship. But at the same time, denial of classification to the game is censorship – plain and simple.

As horrified as I am by the content of the above quoted scene, I can’t support banning it.

Here’s why.

Censorship of any kind is a detriment to culture. It stifles voices that can contribute to a discussion, and it also exposes places where a society needs work. This is one of the latter cases. If our art – and yes, videogames are art – contains the glorification of sexual violence, then we need to consider why, just as we need to consider why our art contains the glorification of racism, sexism, homophobia, and genocide.

Would I prefer that this game did not exist? Absolutely. But since it does, it has every right to continue to do so, and to be available with clear warnings to the general (adult) public. And that’s one of the primary distinctions between my viewpoint – and that, I think, of many feminists speaking out in gaming – and that which is attempting to silence mine. While I might think that GGers shouldn’t hold the opinions they do, I believe they have the right to hold them. I believe they have the right to speak up about them, so long as that does not infringe upon the rights of others.

And that last point is the key to all of this, for me. Anything has the right to exist – any art, any speech, any opinion – so long as it does not bring harm to others. That might mean restricting the age of those eligible to purchase an item. It might mean putting warning labels on it. It might mean putting it in a special section of a store. But it does not mean refusing its right to exist.

Much of what has happened re: GG in recent months does bring harm to others. It has not only further marginalized the already outcast, but it has brought active harm to people for having opinions about games. People have lost homes, income, and health as a consequence of the actions of a few whose impetus for protesting is that they disagree with an opinion. That is not free speech – that is censorship of the worst kind.

So while I do not like Hotline Miami 2 and will never play it, while I will criticize its developer’s decision to include interactive rape and say that such a thing should not exist, I will never say that it must be silenced, eliminated, or censored. It should be treated carefully, but respectfully, as should any work of art or culture.

What I – and, I think, other so-called “social justice warriors” hope for is not the censorship of offensive and harmful material, but the decision to not make material that has little value other than offense and harm. We hope for a society that considers its impact and takes action to make sure that what it has to say is said to contribute to the world rather than to detract from it. We hope for artists and creators and, yes, fans and critics who consider a variety of viewpoints and take the initiative to “first, do no harm.”