Category Archives: Gaming Community

Increased Tolerance: GenCon and the State of Indiana

Last week, Indiana passed a so-called Religious Freedom Bill that permits employers and business owners to discriminate against employees and customers on the basis of their religious beliefs. In essence, what this means is that a company can refuse to employ or serve someone whose lifestyle or identity conflicts with the proprietor’s religious beliefs. Put simply, this means that businesses can refuse to serve LGBTQ persons or persons of other religions citing “religious freedom.”

Putting aside – for the sake of this post alone – the horrific implications of such a law (and its highly questionable constitutionality), this has garnered extensive resistance from a variety of places, including the entire state of Connecticut and the gaming and fan con GenCon.

When the bill was still being debated, the organizers of GenCon encouraged lawmakers to consider that they would lose GenCon’s business if the bill went forward. They passed it anyway. GenCon now says that they are seriously reconsidering ending their relationship with the state when their current contract comes up.

And that’s the key – GenCon’s contract with Indiana doesn’t expire until 2020, by which time I’m certain that the law is likely to have been overturned or repealed. I don’t say this to criticize GenCon – they made the contract long before Indiana decided to turn back the clock on tolerance and diversity. The very fact that GenCon has gone out of its way to publicly condemn the bill-turned-law suggests that they are concerned with diversity in the geek community. And the fact that they are telling attendees not to attend if the law makes them uncomfortable suggests that GenCon means what it says: “I hope that you’ll join us at Gen Con, which will be inclusive and fun. Prospective attendees, if you don’t feel comfortable attending, based upon your principals, we invite you to make the decision that feels right for you, your business, or group. We support your decision, regardless of the outcome.”

GenCon’s response gives me hope for the future of the gaming community. In a group of people who have become almost infamous for sexism and harassment in the last few years, seeing GenCon take an open stance against intolerance is a good sign, at least for the gaming community, if not for Indiana or the US as a whole.

But it’s a silver lining in a storm of intolerance and willful ignorance in which we find racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of bias and bigotry.

Feminist Illuminati: Academia, Feminism, and Gaming Mix Poorly

Today an article by Shira Chess and Adrienne Shaw – “A Conspiracy of Fishes, or How We Learned to Stop Worrying about #GamerGate and Embrace Hegemonic Masculinity,” published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 59.1 (2015) – came to my attention. Sadly, it lives behind a paywall at Taylor & Francis, so unless you’re an academic or willing to cough up some money, it will remain inaccessible. (If you do have access to an academic library, you can likely find a copy, however, and I would encourage you to do so.)

In some ways, the fact that Chess and Shaw’s article is locked within the Ivory Tower is deeply ironic, given that one of their points is that “The opacity of what we do, how we do it, and the language we use is often so far removed from the publics we are discussing that academia, itself, becomes part of the problem” (209). This is not a problem exclusive to games – any field into which academia dips its proverbial big toe encounters this barrier constructed of jargon, elitism, and paternalism which we call “academe.” Sadly, what this generally means is that normal, everyday people dismiss academics as being out of touch; we are, but not typically in the ways in which people think we are. Most academics are discussing subjects that are immediately relevant and significant to the sociopolitical world, just in terms and forms which are completely impenetrable to the uninitiated.

And this leads to an inherent distrust of the very people who are likely among the most equipped in the world to deal with the problems in those fields. It isn’t a good situation. When one combines this aversion to the academy with the typical response to “feminism,” as Chess and Shaw observe, things only get worse. And when this is compounded within game studies and, more frightening yet, games more broadly (fans and industry), it turns into the stuff of nightmares.

Some months ago, DiGRA (the Digital Games Research Association), an academic organization supporting the study of all aspects of games and gaming, became the subject of inquiry for a spin-off group of GamerGaters referring to themselves as #OperationDiggingDiGRA (more on them here and here). The Twitter hashtag, with a repeated group of individuals asking questions and making comments about the “feminist conspiracy” underpinning DiGRA, spawned, apparently, by a Fishbowl panel hosted by Chess and Shaw at DiGRA’s 2014 conference.

What happened, explain Chess and Shaw, is that their open symposium-style panel (“Fishbowl”) and its attendant public Google Document designed for the audience to take notes and make comments had somehow come to the attention of GamerGate, who began to doctor and comment upon said document:

On September 1, 2014 we began getting emails that indicated someone was commenting on our Google Doc. The one that caught our eye was a comment that read: ‘‘guys, use the comments thingy, leave the thing unedited please. It won’t look credible to anyone outside of 4chan if doctored around.’’ Reviewing the edits, it had apparently been edited and commented on since late at night on August 31. One edit simply replaced ‘‘identity and diversity in game culture’’ with the word ‘‘penis.’’ Another deleted the title entirely and replaced it with ‘‘I fuck kids- op.’’ That version also altered nearly every paraphrasing of participants’ comments to include something about ‘‘sucking cock.’’ Finally, someone reverted it back to the original added a note stating: ‘‘It’s impossible for us to mess with it too much, because it can always be restored to a later version, like what I just did.’’ Another comment encouraged everyone to make a copy of the document, just in case. Being busy and uninterested in following the sophomoric edits via the log we made a copy of the original version and deleted the shared doc. We wondered, however, how anyone came upon our notes from an academic conference in the first place—or, for that matter, why anyone would find them interesting. (211-212)

The very fact that GamerGaters felt entitled to change a document in order to present it as evidence is itself evidence of a very different kind. Obviously, many of the original “edits” were simply there as trollish pranks – one assumes no one would believe that the spontaneous appearance of the word “penis” in a document was evidence of a feminist conspiracy in the academic ranks.

Naturally, this document alone was not the basis for such a claim. Instead, the document – discussing identity politics and gender-related issues – was mixed with journalists’ reports of harassment against Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian, blogs and thinkpieces about women in gaming, and Tropes vs. Women in Video Games and presented as “undeniable” evidence of a conspiracy within feminism (as though “feminists” are all members of a unified secret cabal) to destroy videogames.

When mixed with the fact that many academics – including those in game studies – receive federal grants for their research, this supposed feminist conspiracy took on a new level of nefariousness. After all, federal money funding a secret feminist cabal has to be insidious, right?

On September 9 ‘‘Sargon of Akkad’’ posted a YouTube video titled, ‘‘A Conspiracy Within Gaming.’’ The video promises that ‘‘The smoky-room Communist meetings in gaming actually exist, they’re just done in the brightly lit halls of academia’’ (Sargon of Akkad, September 9, 2014). (213)

Sorry. Secret Communist feminist cabal. But what is interesting – both to me and to Chess and Shaw – is that somehow the status of ‘academic,’ typically conflated with “egg-head” and “tweed-wearing” and often dismissed by our students as pedantic and arrogant (at best) or out-of-touch and meaningless (at worst) became, to GamerGate, a legitimate threat:

In part, what appears threatening about academia is an assumed social standing: ‘‘It’s going to be impossible to fight against, because academics are viewed as intelligent people with  authority in their particular disciplines’’ (Sargon of Akkad, September 9, 2014). Evident in the IRC chat log, comments on the video, and numerous sites where the information was circulated, is that academia simply does not make sense from the outside. More than that it is perceived as threatening. (214)

Chess and Shaw go on to say that the opacity of academic discourse (a phrase in-and-of-itself that illustrates the academic tendency toward unnecessary obfuscation) is inhibiting legitimate conversations between fans and academics, and I can’t say that I disagree. What I do think is more wishful thinking than truth, however, is the idea that by becoming more accessible in our language and criticism that we, as academics, will be any less subject to being blamed for participating in feminist conspiracies.

GamerGate, as a whole, is not a movement built on or persuaded by logic or fact. Attempts by dozens if not hundreds of academics (some of them on the DiGRA listserv) to explain game studies to #OperationDiggingDiGRA participants came to a messy and mutually frustrated end, with neither side convinced whatsoever by the other, and those of us with English degrees tearing out our hair at the plethora of grammatical errors on one half of that conversation.

That isn’t to say that conversations can’t or shouldn’t happen across the Ivory Fence; they can and should. My point is more that academic transparency isn’t going to solve or inhibit movements like GamerGate.

In-and-of-itself, academic transparency is a good thing, something for which more disciplines ought to strive. It enables the transmission of knowledge, something sadly lacking these days, as not only GamerGate, but climate change denial and utter ignorance about basic female anatomy proliferates among the more conservative portions of the political population.

One of the conclusions at which Shaw and Chess hint – and one with which I can’t disagree – is the idea that academia is trying to change the status quo, except that it isn’t so much a conspiracy as it is overtly and directly advocating for change. But we don’t all agree on the direction that change ought to take, or even whether change is what is necessary. That said, academics, as a whole, tend to be liberal-minded advocates of advancing knowledge, in any and all possible forms that knowledge might take.

And yes, some of us are feminists. Some of us are advocating for more diversity, more tolerance, less objectification of women and less oppression of minorities. We are the proverbial and hated “social justice warriors,” but it isn’t a conspiracy in the sense of being at all hidden. We may use difficult language that the untrained find hard to penetrate, but we aren’t doing it in order to hide anything; we just speak a different language.

Hedging our Bets: Kotaku on Sarkeesian

So yesterday Stephen Totilo of Kotaku did a write-up of a talk given at NYU by Anita Sarkeesian. Twitter and the internet in general naturally have things to say about this, some good, some bad. But what drew my attention was specifically a tweet from Emily Nussbaum:

So I went and took a closer look, and she’s right. There is something wistful about the piece, something hesitant, which seems to be keeping Totilo from actually taking the plunge and saying what he really thinks.

I don’t know Totilo. I have no idea if he’s a fan of Sarkeesian, a skeptic, or if he wishes she would disappear into the earth. But his piece reads like something struggling desperately not to alienate two disparate and at-war audiences: those who all-but-canonize Sarkeesian, and those who’d rather see her burned at the proverbial stake.

And I don’t really blame him. Totilo took a lot of heat at the beginning of the debacle that is GamerGate, particularly concerning pieces published by Kotaku which were written by “feminist sympathizers.” People demanded that he fire some of his writers and/or that he himself be fired. He’s had first-hand experience of the horrors of getting involved in the gender-and-videogames discussion.

So the fact that he was willing to jump back into the shark-infested waters to begin with shows some courage (or stupidity, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt here, since he seems to be an intelligent man). Whether he likes what Sarkeesian has to say or not, he has to come at it with a very large dose of skepticism or risk alienating his readership. (Some people are okay taking that risk, but I get why he might not be.)

That said – and I do not blame him for hedging his bets – Totilo is somewhat dismissive of the fact that most of Sarkeesian’s points are art-based: “Sarkeesian’s emphasis on the critique of what players see, more than what they do.” He points out that because she doesn’t often talk mechanics or interactions, her “criticisms of gaming occupy a different spot than other people’s criticisms about, say, free-to-play game design, game length, or downloadable content. Those latter arguments clearly and directly pertain to whether a game would be more or less fun or engaging for any player, which for many gamers is the paramount gaming concern.” To me, this feels very much like a claim that “real critics talk about design and gameplay,” although that’s not explicitly what Totilo says.

By beginning with a discussion of how Sarkeesian doesn’t really identify as a gamer (sort of) how she plays mostly Nintendo games of her own volition, and how she enjoys casual games (like Angry Birds) most, Totilo has set her up as a non-gamer (or at least, not as a hardcore gamer) whose criticisms are about the “fluff” of games, rather than the core component – “the paramount gaming concern.”

Furthermore, he concludes with the following statement:

As easy as she had suggested some of the changes in gaming could be, so much of this is likely to be controversial—and not just because someone might be sexist. How do you balance creators’ freedom with the need or desire to open a game up to a broader audience? How do you assess which portrayals of women in games attract or repel male or female gamers? How do we truly determine the impact of the characters we see or control on how we relate to those characters or view the world?

The implication, of course, is that what Sarkeesian suggests is restrictive to developers’ freedoms, that female characters are somehow repellent to gamers, and that it shouldn’t matter what our gaming avatars look like because in the end ‘it’s just a game’ (my words, not his).

And that’s where he lost me for good. I get wanting to make the article as palatable to his readers (many of whom are hardcore gamers) as possible, but to dismiss Sarkeesian’s criticisms as functionally fluff that ultimately doesn’t matter is to take a political side. Sarkeesian’s requests are not about restricting the freedom of developers any more than a critique of a film is designed to restrict the freedom of its director or actors. It’s about making the medium better for everyone – about opening up options, not closing them off.

Furthermore, even bringing up the idea that adding gender balance and reducing sexism (and racism) in games might be infringing on someone’s “freedom” is to borrow a tired trope from the privileged class: someone else pointing out oppression is not censorship. Bigotry, racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. are not freedoms; they are themselves restrictive and oppressive, and exercising them is not a right. No one has the “right” to harass others, objectify others, or oppress others. Asking someone to stop even unintentional oppression is not stifling creativity – it’s allowing for more voices to contribute, more perspectives to be considered, more to be created.

So, in the end, while I understand Totilo’s hesitancy to really take a stance – and he tries very hard not to – he ends up falling back into the same hedge-maze of games criticism and journalism, walking in circles rather than finding the way out.

Does Anita Sarkeesian have the answers to the problems of sexism and racism in games? Probably not – or at least, not exclusively or perfectly. Are her eight points really as “easy” as she thinks? Almost certainly not, nor are they going to “fix” things the way she seems to imply. But considering them – and the intentions behind them – would probably make games better, not because they would restrict the “freedoms” of developers, but because they would cause those developers to think about and then intentionally choose specific characters, motions, and mechanics instead of defaulting to the same old, tired sexist tropes without any consideration given to why they’re being employed.

A Tiger Can’t Change

So today it was brought to my attention that there is a fan mod for Dragon Age Inquisition that allows players to modify the sexual preferences of the companion characters in the game. Some people are thrilled by this. Some people are really angry about this.

Let’s look at why.

Only two of the companions are bisexual (Bull and Josephine), and several of them have species preferences (Solas can only be romanced by a female elf, Cullen by a female elf or human). This means that some of the most popular characters are not available for romance with all Inquisitors (Cassandra and Dorian are only available to male Inquisitors; Sera and Blackwall to female Inquisitors; Cole, Vivienne, and Varric to no one).

Those who are thrilled are those who wanted to romance a particular character in the game, but whose Inquisitor was not oriented in that direction.There are accounts online from multiple fans about how they attempted to romance a companion only to be heartbroken because Cassandra or Dorian wouldn’t date their female Inquisitor, or Cullen or Sera wouldn’t date their male Inquisitor. This fan mod gives them the opportunity to experience that.

Then there’s the other side. This side falls into two camps. First, the camp that’s already horrified that some characters are homosexual or bisexual. They think it’s disgusting that Cassandra could now be a lesbian, or that Cullen might be gay. I’m essentially going to dismiss that opinion as bigoted.

Then there’s my viewpoint, which is that this mod goes against one of the major points being made by the game: people are what they are. They can’t, and shouldn’t, be forced to change. In the game, Dorian talks specifically about how his father betrayed him by using blood magic to try to make him straight. That is – in essence – what this mod does. It changes the politics (yes, I know, “politics” is a dirty word in games right now) and the purpose of part of the game, and I don’t approve in general of things that change the developers’ intentions (fixing failures is fine – changing intentions bothers me). It also implies that we can change people to be what we want because it suits us, something that is both false and harmful.

Do I think the person who created the mod should be shamed and harassed? Of course not. But I think it’s important to remember that even if you can now romance Cassandra or Dorian as a woman, that it goes against one of the most powerful points in the game – we are what we are, we love who we love, and that can’t be changed.

SVU Does GG

So this week one of the many things flying about on the feminist internet is the fact that Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has more or less decided to feature internet harassment against Anita Sarkeesian (with a little Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu thrown in) as the subject of its Feb. 11th episode, entitled “The Intimidation Game” (clever, SVU, I see what you did there). (Video link – SVU: The Intimidation Game)

The Washington Post did a write-up of some of the similarities and differences, conflating Sarkeesian’s experience over the last few years (yes, we’re at “years” now) with GamerGate, and suggesting that L&O is offering “the final word on GamerGate.”

My thought on that sentiment is “If only.” If only this were the last we would hear about GamerGate or harassment of women online. If only women in the games industry would now be able to blithely go about their lives and businesses without fear of repercussions in the form of threats, harassment, doxxing, and even violence. Because while none of the real women involved in GamerGate have been abducted or physically assaulted, that is the fear that has been created – intentionally – by those engaging in online threats and harassment.

Sure enough (and in its defense, the WP piece does talk about the “thoughtful” nature of the comments which appeared immediately after the episode aired), the episode is far from the “final word” on the subject, as Quinn’s twitter today contained the following:

And Sarkeesian had this to say:

So no, it wasn’t the “last word” on GamerGate, not by a long shot.

Ars Technica, on the other hand, characterized the episode with the phrase “everyone loses.” From where I’m sitting, that seems more accurate.

I watched it. And it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten this angry at a television show. And I mean legitimately angry, not “How could they do that to X character?!” but “That was irresponsible, disrespectful, and undermines progress” kind of angry.

That episode just eroded years of work being done by the games industry to see its products recognized as valuable contributions to culture that influence the way people think, it undermines the work being done by women and other minority voices for recognition and respect in the industry, and it completely negates the difficulty of the struggle many feminists and other activists face every day by turning it into nothing more than a headline. It trivializes the difficulty of daily harassment by transforming institutionalized misogyny and exclusivity into a fringe spectacle that impacts only the important or infamous.

It’s disgusting and depressing to sit at this keyboard and watch years of effort at recognition be disintegrated in forty-two minutes and change. Thanks for that, NBC. That’s the last Law & Order I will ever watch.

(Edit: See my TLF post for more details.)

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.”