Gamer is quickly becoming a poisonous term. The level of discourse surrounding gamers is positively toxic. Misogynistic attacks on women and their supporters in the industry have come in such a density and intensity that the entire community looks like a pit full of oozes and slimes belching and vomiting all over each other. As games move into the mainstream, and come under types of scrutiny that they’ve rarely been subjected to before, the hardcore who feel that games belong to them exclusively have been noisier and noisier. The gamer used to be able to look around at other people playing games and recognize himself. He was safe and secure and the ooze was warm.
Within this festering pile of shit-throwing are a whole bunch of people who really care about games. Some people think they can be better and for others games are the only thing they really care about. The former would like to see games elevated to the level of real art, and the latter would likely be inclined to claim that games have already made it. They’re fucking wrong.
The sort of misogynistic attack we see happening right now comes from a culture that is unused to and rejects serious criticism. It has never had to deal with criticism from within its own ranks. It has never dealt with criticism from people who actually care about video games.
Until recently most games criticism has been in the the form of subjective reviews by people with very few objective standards. Most of the coverage of the industry is rehashed PR material and advice on whether or not to buy games, DLC or consoles. They’ll review dozens of games without ever giving a score below 6.5 and rarely say much beyond whether or not they liked the game.
In all of the furor, one vomits in one’s mouth a little bit to call it debate, I‘ve heard nobody say that these are the growing pains of a medium wishing to be art. Sure, it’s easy for decent people to say that you shouldn’t threaten to kill or rape someone, but there’s more than gender politics going on. Gaming is striving to be taken seriously as an artistic endeavor, similar to movies or literature. The thing is that, in order to for games to stand on that same level, they are going to need to accept some actual criticism. They are going to have to start building games as if they are going to be criticized.
But when games are submitted to real criticism or asked to be more inclusive and tell stories besides the most rudimentary soiciopathic, anti-hero violence fests they react violently or with shrugged shoulders. Even the people not throwing threats frequently don’t understand why anything should substantially change. Every form of art needs to go through periods of scrutiny. It needs to be subjected to serious criticism from all quarters and it needs to respond to criticism with something besides death/rape threats, silence and reaction to those death/rape threats. When all that’s going is threats and reactions to those threats than nothing at all is progressing.
Anita Sarkeesian has been the center of a lot of noise. Let’s take a look at basically anything in Sarkeesian’s oeuvre. Take away the gendered content and the needless level of ire that that apparently brings up in the reptilian brain and what you have is somebody criticizing games for consistently telling the same kinds of stories about the same kinds of characters. She is pointing out that other stories can be told and other characters can be the center of them. She is pointing out that certain groups of characters are frequently treated as even less human than the other background characters.
A lot of the problem is not that certain things happen, but that they happen all of the time. Endangering or killing people in order to motivate a hero is a perfectly valid motivation, and to have those people come from a class of people we generally consider weaker and in need of protection, like women and children, adds extra emotional weight. When the trope becomes the standard, and when it’s handled in particularly perfunctory manner, it starts to twist and become victimization. Women especially are portrayed as the perpetual victims who exist only to motivate the hero with their death.
This an artistic calling out. This isn’t a review. This is what actual criticism looks like. Sarkeesian and other commentators care about games and hear the standards by which video games want to be judged and ask them to live up to those standards. She and others like her are only engaging video games on the level that video games want to be engaged on. Video games will not be considered an artistic medium until the industry can start celebrating games that elevate themselves above the level of summer blockbusters. Traditionally these injections of creativity have come from outside of the established, hallowed halls of the dominant power structure, and those voices are being silenced in the most violent way possible.
I’m guessing that most of the people who care enough about video games to issue death and rape threats in order to keep them the way that they like them are also the kind of people who would champion video games as art. They would likely say that there is nothing inherently lacking in video games to classify them as not art.
It’s true that there are no longer any real technological restraints on the types of stories that can be told in a video game. We are no longer restricted to games about hungry, anthropomorphized basic shapes and scrolling text. Games are no longer restricted to the “it gets more difficult until you die” progression. Actors from the movies and television are drawn in to carry video games. Video games are slowly launching into the next generation of consoles. Movies followed a similar progression from novelty to sophistication.
Technical progression is no longer the stumbling block to video games making a true claim at being “art.” The culture that holds a disproportionate number of video games’ audience and developers is too immature to elevate the medium to real art. It is so violently protective of the status quo that it refuses to advance in anything but baby steps. This keeps video games from being art.
Video game critics of all stripes, feminist, queer and others, have the same goal as their accusers and attackers. They want to make video games better. The kind of people who offer threats to critics are lacking a key frame of reference for improving the medium. They have no real standards for what makes a game good. They have even less understanding of what makes a good story. They hew to games and the status quo as a source of power. They are not intellectually equipped to discuss games in any kind of objective way. They are incapable of judging games against any kind of standard. They cannot ask questions beyond, “Do I like this?”
They cannot ask themselves, “What is the role of the average female character in a video game and is that good for women?” All they can do is caveman out, “I like this game. Bring this game again only a little better a year from now.” They can’t even really grasp the conversation that’s going on around them. It’s like trying to discuss politics with a bunch of half-drunk seventeen year olds in the room shouting half-formed thoughts at you. They can grasp keywords, but not arguments. They can deploy rhetoric, but not understand ideas.
Everybody wants the same thing, but one group is formulating ideas about what better video games look like and the other group is interested only in making video games better for them. Sarkeesian and critics like her want to expand and diversify the gaming landscape. Unfortunately they are forced to try to hold hands with some of the most ignorant, self-righteous, possessive cretins on the planet. They make it nearly impossible to converse because one must constantly stop and address threats of violence rather than ideas. We are forced to affirm time and time again that we don’t like that kind of behavior. We can’t just call those people not gamers, or stop calling ourselves gamers though.
Like it or not anyone who cares about games being better is a gamer. You can’t simply retire the term because “everybody plays games now.” This is the conversation that we are stuck with. There are no moral checks to playing video games, or even making them. Gamers the terrible are included in gamers the many. They are reacting to an industry that is striving towards art. We are gamers when we care about the state of games, and in the end we’ll get the video games we deserve, but it’s going to take a lot longer with gurgling neandertals for partners.