What The F*** is Going on with Video Games?

I haven't been someone who would consider himself a gamer by any stretch of the imagination for many years now. The last two consoles I owned were the Nintendo Gamecube and the Sony PSP, so that should give you an indication as to how out of touch with the industry I am. That being said, I do have regular conversations on the topic of video games with my friends who do play far more regularly than me and are far more invested in the genre than I am.

Which leads me to the burning question, what the f*** is going on with video games? Over the last 24 hours, all I could see on my Twitter timeline was tweets regarding Anita Sarkeesian's YouTube videos on women in video games, and the whole thing is rather insane. 

This multi-part video series by Sarkeesian, a prominent media critic, gathered particular attention on Monday when she posted a video about women being used as background decoration, usually in violent or overly-sexualized ways. The response from many writers in the industry, and many developers as well, was largely positive, while the response from a portion of the male gaming population was horrifyingly negative. The level of cognitive dissonance displayed by the critics of Sarkeesian is ridiculous. They hate feminists and attack people for being 'fake feminists,' which they are oddly offended by. They threaten people on the internet, and then say the people are attention seeking when they complain about being threatened.

To me, this seems to largely be about a lack of wanting any change in the video game industry, and following this, two groups seem to have emerged. One side has staunchly folded its arms and harrumphed in the most child like manner, as they view themselves to be the old guard to this hallowed institution, while the other has openly and lovingly embraced this change, as they realize that they are no longer alone.

What Sarkeesian is attempting to do, I think, is deconstruct what so many people use as a form of escapism and rebuild it into a bigger and better version of itself. And for whatever reason, so many are taking this incredibly personally, understandably so, as I can see them feeling like they're being attacked for what they like. The thing is that this isn't something to be taken so personally. Look at it this way; when a sports fan has a conversation and it turns to how players are payed more than they really deserve for tossing a puck or ball around, you don't see that fan then bypass the argument altogether and issue a death-threat, just because they don't like what they're hearing. It's not so much an issue about the money in the case of sports, but rather, an issue of how to move forward together and improve together as well.

Sarkeesian is not saying that you as a person should feel bad for playing games that are violent or use women as particular storytelling tropes. That's not the case. She's making the case that not all video games are like this. Take Monument Valley, or Journey for instance. They're beautiful, emotional, and evokative games that did incredibly well because they told a compelling story in a new and different manner. They didn't rely on the same old tired story telling found in most major blockbusters.

The particular trope of women being used as background textures, as Sarkeesian points out, is one that is fetishized in the weirdest possible way. 

 It is the collusion of violence done to women’s bodies and the fact that it is often sexualized. The idea being that a dead woman is still inherently beautiful, even if her body has been maimed, her life stolen from her, something arousing still remains available for male consumption...Developers regularly utilize the brutalization of women’s bodies, and especially the bodies of female prostitutes, as an indicator of just how harsh, cruel and unforgiving their game worlds are. In some of the most pernicious examples, dead or mutilated female bodies are used to decorate virtual game environments as a way to invoke a sexually charged creepy mood or edgy atmosphere.

When a film wants to get a rise out of the viewer, or to illicit anger in the character, they might kill or seriously injure the family, or adopted, pet, such as a dog. But in a fully immersive world, that sometimes might not cut it, so developers often turn to women to get that similar sense of anger to justify the sense of righteousness later down the road. All Sarkeesian is asking, in her videos, is why does it have to be a man saving a woman? Why not allow for a role reversal? For instance, look at Tomb Raider. It's a series with a strong female lead loved by both men and women. Why do we have to limit ourselves in a world where there are no limits?

It goes even deeper than though. Often an argument is made that, "but men are also idealized and made to seem more than what we actually are!" It's not necssarily a bad thing or wrong to sexualize and idolize the human body, but the issue here is that it's the men doing the idealizing of both men and women in gaming, and that's a serious problem.  

I think the answer to all of this comes down to demographics, and subsequently, money. As my best friend said,

It's also a for-profit world. Even if we could imagine ourselves being 22 in 1989, how many black female gamers could we have counted compared to white male gamers? It may have shifted in the years since, but for big companies more about money than games they will create the digital world that will net the biggest profit. Game devs don't take risks like they used to. The midtier games have completely fallen out, there is only Indie with a cutesy making-of backstory or AAA don't-fix-what-ain't-broke sequel, everything else is doomed to fail. Couple that with a previous console generation that lasted 7 years, and is still going, and companies going out of business after one bad game, despite a prior fantastic track record you have to appeal to the largest common denominator. That is, the white male gamer. They'll incorporate other demographics, but only if resources/motivation permits.

While I tend to agree with his point of view in regards to the video game industry, I saw a few flaws in his argument. No one is saying make a game that would outright exclude men, or outright exclude women. That wouldn't work, and like he said, would spell certain financial disaster for said company. But it's not 1989 anymore, and there are huge pockets in the community are seriously underrepresented, or not even represented at all. No one is saying that a change has to be made overnight, but a change does have to be made eventually.

Perhaps it also has to do with the most people who play video games, or table-top games, or games in general, feeling like they HAVE to be defined by this one particular hobby of theirs. It's understandable, given the particular history behind video games. In the past, it was gamers versus jocks, in which gamers had to band together to feel united by what they loved. This entrenchment mentality has only grown, so now it's gamers versus women. So much of the nonsense revolving around Sarkeesian in particular has to do with gamers needing to feel like a put-up minority in the grand world of entertainment to justify their identity. They feel like their identity cannot exist unless they are in some form of perpetual crisis, being threatened by an external force.

The problem with this approach, and with the culture of gaming in general, is that again, like most other forms of media, it's entire basis is built upon crass consumerism. Sure, there are pockets that go to conventions and dress up as their favourite characters, and contribute fan art to various forums, and feel a distinct sense of community "culture", but it's a system meant for consuming. When a "culture" is built around this premise, there are no walls for entry. Anyone can join and participate, but the "true believers," or the hardcore, most dedicated of fans, often feel the need to gin up reasons to feel attacked. "I was here first!" or, "You only like Iron Man because Robert Downey Jr. is handsome," or, "You can't be a true fan because you don't know this piece of obscure trivia that really has no relevance to the overall plot or universe, nor has any relevance to being a fan or not!" Those are often the most common attacks on new entrants into any particular fandom, and more notably, gaming.

This all stems from gamers still thinking that gaming is still largely a subculture, when in fact it's no more a subculture than movies are today. What was once a subculture has turned into a multi-billion dollar corporate industry. Everything, from the games and consoles themselves, to the ancillary products like DLC and merchandise - it's hyper-consumerism at it's finest.

Being a hardcore, or casual gamer, has nothing to do with the overall genre of game you play, but rather how you approach games as a whole. There are hardcore players of Candy Crush Saga, who pour hours into the game and spend hundreds of real world dollars through microtransactions, and there are casual players of games like Demon Souls or Call of Duty, who play it to kill of some steam, and not because they're invested in the game. And the problem with consumer culture is that it makes people feel a sense of ownership, or even a sense of dominance, over something to ubiquitous. In the case of Sarkeesian, it's as if an army of tiny Archie Bunkers is fighting back against the non-existent threat of women in gaming. It also doesn't help when you have sites made by gamers that focus on how gamers are attacked and victimized, yet completely skip over the fact that gaming is still an overtly sexist, often racist, sect of the entertainment spectrum. However, after reading Devin Faraci's excellent blog post, I can see how it's so easy to be drawn into the dark side of Gamer Gate, especially if you're an ignorant fifteen year old (and almost all of them are).

"A lot of these kids - and they are, without a doubt, largely kids - are simply ignorant. They don’t understand the world, and that includes everything from how gaming websites work to how people interact as adult, sexual humans. Their confusion about this stuff leaves them susceptible to conspiracy theories trotted out by the truly evil members of the #GamerGate posse..." - Devin Faraci

Video games by their very nature are a form of escapism. They may hold some truths, but are inherently acts of fiction. By not allowing video games to grow and mature beyond graphics and racier content, anti-Sarkeesians are doing more damage to an industry that they claim to love than what Anita could ever even hope to do herself.

The biggest question that comes to my mind is, why? Why are we so stuck and dead set on playing the same games over and over again, in slightly varying settings? Who would want that? It would be so damn boring. Change is hard, yes, but it does bring forth amazing new things. For example, look at Octodad. It's a completely random game that came out of the far left field, and it looks phenomenal.

It's new, fresh ideas that bring people together (and drive them apart apparently as seen by the conversation on Twitter this week). It's new ideas that allow you explore brand new, previously untouched worlds, and that is what gets people so excited. Case in point, the Moto 360. It's so simple. We already wear round watches, and square smart watches look ugly, so let's make a round smart watch. And it's all anyone can talk about, BECAUSE it's so different in such a familiar way.

Think about how excited you got buying a new game because you got to explore something brand new to you. How often can you say you've had that experience in the last five years? Personally, I can't, (because again, I don't play all that much), but it's an experience I remember quite fondly.

Look at how much fun this seems. Sure, it's an ad for a console that mainly sold first person shooters like Call of Duty and Halo, but it still managed to instil that child-like sense of wonder and happiness inside of me. It made me want to do something similar in real life. And that's the whole point about this - games are meant to be fun. They're meant to bring people together to launch shells, nukes, and punches at each other and rage quit when we lose. They're meant to cause meaningful discussion, but not divide people. They're not meant to anger people to level of actually issuing death threats. The video game industry, something in its relative teenage years, still has a lot of growing and maturing to do. It may not happen in sync with how we as people grow and develop, but given enough time, hopefully it will.

Perhaps in order to achieve the level of nuance we need in this discussion, we should look elsewhere, to books and to movies, and see how they overcame this very same issue of using women as background textures and items for men to use to propel themselves throughout the story. What I do know, and fully understand, however, is that most games follow a typical line, use lazy writing and misogynist stereotypes in order to appeal to the base line of supporters.

If I've learned anything in my 22 years of life, it's that if we want to move forward with anything, we need open discussions & open minds. However, I do think that another big crash similar to that of 1983 is imminent, and hopefully that allow both video games and developers alike to hit the reset button and start fresh. 

It's okay to disagree with Anita Sarkeesian, and it's even okay not to agree with her points and arguments (particuarly when she makes an argument comparing games from the 1980s to games of today, as both are a product of their respective generations). However, it's not okay to threaten anyone, online or not, with rape, mental or emotional assault, or even death. All of this has taught me that we need more people like her questioning why things are the way they are, and challenging us to be better versions of ourselves.