There are two things I frequently see in arguments against diversity in games (and other media, but especially in games) which are worth noting because of the spectacular way in which they completely miss the ideological boat about which the argument for diversity is being made.
The first is “if you don’t like it, then don’t play it.” The second is “if you don’t like it, then make your own.” Each of these relies on a core presumption that the person doing the disliking is part of a niche market and whose input into the content of mainstream games is largely irrelevant to begin with, which is dismissive in the worst possible way. However, that isn’t really what bothers me about these two arguments.
Adrienne Shaw sums up the essential problem with the first argument in her 2014 book Gaming at the Edge:
This assumption that it is audiences’ responsibility to avoid offensive content builds on neoliberal logics and niche-marketing norms. It seems inconceivable to those who make these arguments that there is a social responsibility to think through who is always being excluded from particular genres and media. More than that, it refuses to acknowledge that critiques are not about personal consumption. They are about a world in which certain types of bodies are relegated to specific roles. (158-159)
What this means is that the neoliberal framework which structures much of our society—the idea that each individual is particularly and specifically responsible for their condition in life irrespective of racial, social, economic, or political influences—causes the onus for offensive material to be placed on the individual members of the audience rather than on content creators. From this perspective, content creators have exactly zero responsibility to their audience—which any serious content creator (in any medium) will tell you is the perfect recipe for “starving artist.”
To break things down a bit. The neoliberal mindset is a central pillar of modern American culture. It tells us that we are each special snowflakes whose uniqueness is the product of individual development which is uninhibited by any external influences, including things like systemic racism, institutionalized sexism, media bias, or economic hardship. All of the things we experience—both good and bad—are the direct result of our own individual effort and ability.
There is so very much wrong with that standpoint that it’s hard for me to know where to begin. To be blunt, there is, in actuality, very little that each of us can do to overcome the systemic and institutional forces which act upon us. I am one of the very fortunate who happened to be born in the U.S. to a middle-class white family who could afford a quality education, food on the table, and entertainment which kept me out of trouble. I always had people—usually my parents—to take care of me as a child, and while I worked in high school and college, it was out of a desire for extra spending money (and my parents’ desire to instill fiscal responsibility in me) rather than dire necessity. I am also a woman, however, and one who does not always conform to the gendered expectations which accompany that identity in American society, and those markers occasionally put me at a disadvantage (albeit a much smaller one than those faced by millions of other people every day).
These factors mean that most of my life has been one of privilege rather than hardship, and that the biggest struggles I face are ideological ones largely of my own choosing (the notable exception being my gender). For a transwoman born into an economically disadvantaged black family in the slums of Atlanta, my career trajectory would be all but unreachable, no matter the personal motivation that individual might have. And that is why neoliberalism is bulls***; because that transwoman has to work easily ten (if not a hundred) times as hard as I have in order to reach a level of social parity with me. Neoliberalism is a lie the privileged like to tell—and sell—in order to justify their privilege.
When it comes to the paradigm of “if you don’t like it, don’t play it,” neoliberalism presumes that each individual is responsible for gatekeeping the content which enters their sphere of influence. In some cases, this is not unreasonable. I do not like chess, for example. I therefore don’t play chess. So why isn’t this an acceptable answer? Because the point is not simply that I don’t like the thing I am criticizing in some cases.
In some cases—let’s say the original 1996 Tomb Raider—I actually do like the game. I like the mechanics, I like the core concept. What I don’t like is the horrifying depiction of sexism and stereotypes in the game. Not playing Tomb Raider isn’t the solution because there simply isn’t a game which contains Tomb Raider’s mechanics and concept but doesn’t contain Lara Croft or Larson Conway or that poor stereotyped Peruvian in the opening scene who was eaten by wolves.
Which leads us to the point that “critiques are not about personal consumption,” they are, in fact, about the social responsibility which content creators have to their audiences on an ideological level. This is not to say that content creators should be censored or legally prohibited from creating stereotyped Peruvians, but, rather, that they ought to have the social responsibility not to make their Peruvian characters without giving them Mexican accents, ponchos, and sombreros. And to put pants on Lara Croft when she’s in the snowy Andes.
Content creators—whatever the myth of the inspired creative artiste might be—are creating their content for audiences and therefore ought to keep those audiences in mind when they create that content. This means not just considering what an audience will buy, but what ought to be included in the content from a sociopolitical as well as creative perspective.
Which leads us to the second terrible argument: “If you don’t like it, then make your own.” The sheer idiocy of this statement continues to baffle me every time I encounter it. This is only a viable solution if the person in question happens to possess the skills, equipment, and desire to make a game. Those are not things to be undertaken casually. Game-creation equipment—even for mobile or flash games—is expensive and inaccessible for most people below a certain economic level. But even presuming one can purchase the necessary equipment (which if one wants to make a 3D shooter is going to be far and away more expensive than a simple flash or text-based game), one must also have the capital necessary to not work a full-time job in order to put in the time needed to create a game (which, for a AAA title, typically takes 40-1000 people up to five years to make). Finally, they have to know how. Most people are not programmers, artists, writers, sound technicians, animators, and designers.
That is, by the way, why those people are buying games in the first place. In fact, it is highly likely that people who critique a game do so because they aren’t capable of making a better one and because they actually like games, which is why they want games to be better, mechanically, narratively, and politically. So I suppose the fundamental problem with both these arguments isn’t the second half—it’s the presumption that games are being critiqued because of dislike. I don’t critique games because I don’t like them—I critique games because I love them. I just want to be able to love them more.