November 17, 2014

Culture Storms and the Evolving Medium of Games

I’ve been wanting to write something on the culture storm within the video gaming community that’s been brewing and raging over the past many months. On one hand, I’ve stayed relatively silent on the issue because it hasn’t been clear how best I, and this blog, would make a useful contribution to what has become a total quagmire of internet vitriol. On the other hand, my own thoughts are sufficiently confused on the subject that writing about it at least forces me to articulate the thoughts I do have and try to work towards resolution in my own mind. It’s therapeutic on some level.

The culture storm I’m talking about is related to #GamerGate. If you are aware of the controversy, you probably have some of our own opinions and thoughts. If you haven’t heard of it – wikpedia’s GamerGate article appears to provide a fairly detailed account of the issues in play. I’ve taken to calling this a “storm,” as opposed to a war or conflict, because I think it’s far messier than what a war with cleanly divided sides might suggest.

Ultimately though, I don’t want to talk about #GamerGate directly. My feelings, after reading far too much (from both sides), is that trying to sort out the root causes, motivations, and rationales for pro-GG and anti-GG camps is like trying to fight your way through Minos’ Labyrinth. Except instead of facing the Minotaur you face a never-ending stream of photo collages of retrospective twitter posts, the authenticity and context of which is routinely unclear or absent. Its total confusion on both sides of the fence, with the extreme contingents on both sides screaming conspiracy, causing whatever facts or salient points might have been raised in the middle ground to be completely lost. Phew!

So, I’m not talking about #GamerGate. If you are looking for another voice, Erik Kain wrote a nice piece back in September that encapsulates my frustrations with the whole situation rather eloquently. Instead, I want to focus on the issues that have come out of the controversy that ARE important topics to discuss relative to the health and future of gaming culture and industry overall.

You are probably asking “what are these ‘issues’ that we can pull out from the fire and talk about?” I’ll frame each one below, and try my best to frame the different perspectives that come into play on each, and then include some of my own thoughts based on my own experiences and what I’d like to see happen.

Ethics in Game Journalism Part 1: Gaming Press Integrity

The call for better ethics in games journalism has been a central point in the in the conflict. Many people, rightly-so, are concerned about the close relationships between game developers and the gaming press. “Relationships” covers a lot of territory though, from individuals having close personal relationships outside of their industry involvements, to professional relationships born out of typical business networking. Obviously there is a lot of gray area here, and the call for revealing conflicts of interest is reasonable. At the very least stating relationships and potential conflicts when it could be interpreted as (or is) a source of bias is a good thing.

But at the same time, the relationships between developers and the press (and within the developer and press circles themselves), are important to have. We can’t expect them to exist in separate silos with no form of communication outside of what is posted for public consumption. If readers want to know what’s going on behind the closed doors of development studios, beyond company press releases, then there need to be journalists the developers know and trust enough to share information with. It’s not a perfect arrangement, but provided the nature of arrangements and access is disclosed appropriately, it can still be an ethical sound situation.

There are certainly valid complaints levied against the gaming press – a recent example being press members receiving a certain game early for review provided the game’s negative points were withheld from the “review” (or something to this effect). That’s an ethical trap for sure. Yet it looks like the rally cry for better ethics in game journalism has precipitated changes of policy at some media outlets (Polygon and Kotaku come to mind), which is hopefully a good step forward.

For all the discussion around ethics in journalism, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of discussion about it directly. It is complicated for sure, but doesn’t appear insurmountable.

Ethics in Game Journalism Part 2 – What is a Review?

At a finer scale, the ethics debate has sparked conversation about what should constitute a proper “review.” Reviews drive much of the buy / no-buy decisions for people, and the internet storms that have whipped up about review scores and the motivations behind them provide no shortage of fuel for the ethical flames. There is a BGG thread on this exact topic right now.

I’ve seen comments from people suggesting that a review should be nearly exactly “X, Y, Z”, or that a review should just “stick to the facts” and keep politics or other issues out of the conversation.  Paradoxically, advocates for freedom of expression in the games themselves (particularly with regard to not-censoring violence and sexism) can be quick to admonish the freedom journalists have to write however they please about the games they play, particularly when those writings cast games in light of greater political or cultural commentaries.

Some websites (for example Rock, Paper, Shotgun – a favorite of mine) simply avoid calling reviews “reviews.” and instead call them something else. Rock, Paper, Shotgun uses the “Wot I Think” tag for reviews, which emphasizes the subjective nature of game reviewing and playing a game is a personal endeavor that we all experience individually in our own unique ways.

Two things come to mind.

First, I do feel that consumers of games (and game reviews) need to be more informed and cognizant of the nature of what they are consuming. Reviews should never be read and taken as fact. Even which facts are or aren’t reported on in a review is subject to bias, and there is always a level of subjectivity when it comes to writing about creative works – at the very least choosing WHAT works to even talk about in the first place is a subjective decision! As readers/consumers, the critical lesson is realizing that the experience and value you get from playing a game is never going to be the same as the experience and value the reviewer had. As a reader/consumer, you need to decipher the reviewer’s preferences/biases going into their review of the game, and cross-tabulate that with your own preferences and knowledge. There are two levels of signal-to-noise to sort through, yet all too often people come to expect reviews to be fact, only to find out the experience they had didn’t match.

Second, as the gaming culture/industry evolves (more on this later), the landscape of game writing will become more diverse and nuanced. The era of reviewing games “with just the facts” and issuing a numeric score is dwindling in its relevance as games move beyond many of their traditional genres and formats; and perhaps away from the idea of being a “game” in the first place. As the nature of the industry diversifies, there can’t be just one way to talk about games or to write a review – it is far too complex for that.

As an aside, I came across a rather interesting comment (here on BGG) where someone said they came to the realization that few, if any, games are objectively good or bad – they are just good or bad depending on what you as an individual hope to get out of them. This seems obvious once you realize it, but too few people seem to share this opinion – and the result is that you can get shows of disrespect doled out to game creators and the people who DO enjoy those games. For a local example, look no further than Munchkin here on BGG.

So, my advice/wish/dream is that ever more and more voices be brought into fold of game writing. More perspectives seeking to articulate in different ways how a certain game is experienced is a good thing in my opinion. Yet at the same time, the consumers/readers need to find a way to navigate this complex milieu and connect with the reviewers and critics whose sentiments bring them valuable perspectives and insights. But it requires work to find those relevant voices for yourself. At the same time, realizing that voices that don’t match your own opinions aren’t invalid or unjustified for that other person is key to making the industry more mature. In other words, we need more empathy across the board.

Games as Media Form vs. Games as “Fun” Entertainment

I’m going to come back to this topic in a future post – but I do want to raise the point here. One of the bigger lines of debate that I feel underscores much of the gaming culture storm is about the whole notion of games as art versus games’ traditional role as something that is “supposed to be fun.”

People advocate frequently (I’ve had plenty of comments here on the blog affirming this) that games are “supposed to be fun” and why should we be seeking other purposes or meanings from games, much less write about it? Traditionally, videogames adhered strongly to a concept of “fun” as a metric for success and good design practices. An illuminating (and ridiculously long) article on Rock, Paper, Shotgun teases apart how the pursuit of “fun” in videogames has led to a preponderance of game design falling into certain modes, themes, and genres designed to appeal to a particular notion of fun for a particular audience. This situation ignores two important facets of the current gaming culture/industry.

First, is recognizing that “fun” is not a universally experienced attribute. In other words, every individual can have a different interpretation for what “fun” means to them – what’s fun for one person might come across as very much not-fun for someone else. Those advocating for “fun” tend to describe a game experience filled with a certain amount of visceral, active joy, and delight, which is a more limited definition. Instead of talking about fun, we might be better served by talking about the “value” derived from a game – what it is that the game brings to the table (or monitor) that is of value to the player. The range of possible values can go well beyond what typically looks like “fun” – it can be contemplative or instructional, bewildering or rational, depressing or elating.

Which leads us to the second point: games are a form of media. Media; like books, or video, or ancient scrolls, or newspapers, or TV broadcasts, or pamphlets, or press-releases. Just as “books” aren’t all supposed to be “fun, entertaining reads” neither must games. There are books that are written for entertainment (of all persuasions), just as there books designed to teach or instruct, or recount history, or inspire action or bring to tears. A film/video can be an instructional safety video or an inspiring work of artistic vision and narrative. Games are no different – and they certainly don’t have an obligation to be “fun” despite their historic roots. So long as a past notion of fun is used as a benchmark for conceiving of and evaluating games, the potential of the media is going to be constrained.

So in answer to the common question “are games art?” I would say this: games are a media, and like any other media CAN be art, although it isn’t always art. What it is that makes something art or not-art is a debate I suspect can’t be resolved; it’s an unending quest and ultimately up to the individual to decide for themselves what art is or isn’t. That said, a notion that has worked well “for me” is that something is art when it asks us/me to reflect on the human condition and the nature of reality. This can be at the highest level of “what does it all mean?!” down to more mundane matters “why do we clean our houses?!” But it doesn’t require “fun” or “learning” or any other potential values other than prompting me to reflect on the human-perceived reality that resides beyond the reality of the work itself.

As said, I want to come back to this topic in more detail in a future post (with examples!) – but for now I want to assert that this divide between “games are supposed to be fun” and “games can be works of art with greater meaning” is at the core of the culture storm in video gaming right now. The established “core gamer” audience (of which I consider myself a member) is witnessing the media growing beyond the domain of fun and into other avenues, some of which may be art. As the industry grows, more and more players and developers are looking for game experiences outside of the core gamers “fun” bucket – and as a consequence, developer focus and effort, and press and media coverage is diversifying in reaction to this growth.

Which brings us to the next point…

The Gamer Identity and Game Culture Diversity

The game industry is growing by leaps and bounds, and total revenues exceeded the film industry a while ago (for a benchmark point). Much of this growth is in “core gamer games” becoming increasingly mainstream house-hold names. AAA game titles that are cross-platform (PC, console, mobile, etc.) can be very pervasive across wide demographic ranges. Coming from the other side, ever increasing numbers of “casual gamers” are coming into gaming by way of social media games or mobile games. And in many cases these two worlds are colliding and intermixing. And lastly, you have a growing interest, particularly among indie developers, to utilize games as media for purposes beyond “fun” entertainment. Each of these areas, as they grow, brings in a greater diversity of game players, each advocating through their purchasing behavior or direct communications what kinds of game experiences they are looking for.

A series of articles written throughout the culture storm has raised the notion that “gamers are dead”, as in the label of “gamer” has lost its meaning. While the tone and intent of these articles have varied tremendously, the point stands that the contingent of people self-identifying as a “gamer” is changing – largely as a consequence of many more people not-previously considered gamers now identifying themselves as gamers. At the furthest end, some contend that “we are all gamers!” and hence can cast-off the mantle of gamer as a point of our identity.

On one hand, there are people celebrating this state of affairs, acknowledging that gaming has achieved mainstream acceptance and may usher in an era of de-stigmatizing “gamers.” This mainstream acceptance can perhaps open the door to further expansion of the gaming industry and the diversity of games that are produced. More people, more games, more diversity – all good things right?

On the other hand are people, mostly in the traditional “core gamer” demographic that took legitimate offense to the “gamers are dead” notion – taking it as an attack on their validity and identity, a brushing under the rug. This was made more bitter by the feeling that “core gamers” are what made the industry grow to such a point in the first place, and they are now being cast aside. These are legitimate feelings of course. The potential impact of their worries is that as the industry diversifies, development energy for making “fun games” for the core gamers will give way to other types of games appealing to other audiences.

Change is hard, and it’s happened before, and sadly some things are lost while others are gained. The greatest gaming change I’ve had to come to terms with is the “console-ification” of traditionally hardcore PC games. We each have our own opinions of course, but the Elder Scrolls games are my go-to example for games being routinely watered-down and streamlined to appeal to a more causal, console-centric gaming audience. Oblivion/Skyrim will never live up to Morrowind in my mind for this reason.

But the silver lining is that the industry is growing – and the numbers of developers in the industry are growing. If something is lost in one instance, two somethings will fill its place in another. Time will tell if this bears out – but rather than rally against the change, we can re-assert what types of games we do want to play and find a mechanism for getting them made. Space games, both 4X strategy games and space flight simulators are going through a renaissance after decades of big publisher disinterest once crowd-funding opened the doors of opportunities and exposed the latent demand for such titles. As indie developers become more sophisticated and experienced and move up the rungs of the industry, I suspect we will see even greater diversity of high quality games be released. Surely this is a bright spot amidst the gray fogs of change.

Sexism, Violence, and Freedom of Expression

The last topic on want to raise is sexism (and violence) in video games – as it is the eye of the proverbial hurricane of the videogame culture storm; it’s the issue everything else seems to be swirling around and manifesting though. So it is worth addressing for that reason alone, but also because it is important more globally.

Let me attempt to describe some of the contrasting perspective and opinions.

Some contend that a great many games are sexist in nature due to their depictions of women, the roles they assign them, and the agency they are afforded in games; as visual props, or defenseless damsels to be rescued, or eye-candy, or marketing material, etc.. I’ve been playing video games for a long time, and while I can’t make any claims on the relative or absolute share of games that could be interpreted as sexist, I feel comfortable saying that a lot of them are. Look no further than the countless not-safe-for-work ads that pop-up on video games sites. Sex sells, as it always has.

Others don’t perceive these sorts of depictions as sexist, or dismiss them as part of a broader cultural issue to address. For how many centuries have we been writing stories about damsels in distress that need rescuing? Sexist criticisms are often flipped around, asserting that men have an equal right to complain (but generally don’t) on sexist grounds because, for example, in shooter games it is mostly nameless men being gun-downed, equally without agency, as depicted as nothing more than meat shields. Or that the Conan barbarian visage is just as sex-driven of an image as ladies in chainmail bikinis.

But these counter-arguments fail in two ways.

First is that they fail to acknowledge how individual perspectives (mainly women’s perspectives in this case) and the broader context around the issue shapes the criticisms. Most of the games criticized for sexist depictions are games designed for male audiences, which has been the main demographic group for core gamers. Both men and women can be sexualized in this context, but the nature of it and the resulting reaction is quite different. Men are often sexualized in ways where the presumably male audience can see themselves “being” the male character (I wouldn’t mind being Conan for a day!). In the case of female characters, its more about their potential sexual “appeal” – or the eye-candy factor or whatever you want to call it. I can play Conan because I want to be strong and smash stuff in my loin cloth. I play Tomb Raider (circa 1998 or whenever) because I get eye-candy while I play.

Feminists are (I believe) arguing that the reserve interpretations don’t hold up for women. Women don’t want to “be” the overly sexualized chainmail bikini character (for example), nor do they really want to be (or derive the same sexual appeal from) the male character. In other words, though the depictions are equally sexist from a sort of genderless perspective, the resulting interpretation by men versus women are much different. This difference of perspective is further reinforced by layering in historic discrimination and objectification of women. Men aren't outraged because men aren't the demographic feeling objectified by in-game depictions while simultaneously living their daily life in the real-world that also objectifies them.

Second, dismissing the sexist criticisms, even if acknowledging them as reasonable, as part of a broader cultural issue doesn’t recognize that games ARE a part of our broader culture and both reflect and shape that culture in return. I am not an advocate for censorship, and believe that creativity and freedom of expression are a vital part of society. So on this basis, I don’t think that trying to eliminate all possible sexist depictions from games is a worthwhile (let alone feasible) endeavor. However, I do feel that as designers (and consumers), using these tropes and devices turns-off a potentially huge market segment while at the same playing into formulaic expectations (it’s lazy design?). Maybe its “fun” but it doesn’t advance or innovate the gaming offerings (although it shouldn’t have to). I haven’t touch on violence much (I will for a future post) – but it is also a trope that pigeonholes games around certain themes and motifs that appeal to certain audiences.

Under the banner of freedom of expression, games with sexist depictions do have just as much right to exist as do the criticisms against them (and the criticisms against the criticisms … and so on). As long as there are people wanting to buy games of a particular sort, there will be people making, playing, and reviewing them. Largely, it is up to the developers to decide how to respond these criticisms and who they want their games to appeal to. My hope is that by striving to be more inclusive for all audiences, the industry will encourage more participation and involvement by a greater diversity of people and yield a greater diversity of games in return.

And this is why I think addressing sexism is important. Gamer culture has a sitmga of sexism surrounding it, whether true or not (lots of debate on both sides) – and the current culture storm has likely magnified that impression. Yet I know from experience that many games have sexist content, and I also know from experience that having sexist remarks thrown your way from gamers themselves (in online games especially) is rarely more than a stone throw away. The two aren’t explicitly related, but from an outsiders perspective they can look like they are, which turns people away from gaming and marginalizes the whole industry. We can take baby steps to move past this.


The issues raised in this post are all part of the culture storm and are certainly interrelated. We need more transparency and ethics in journalism so consumers know what they are reading and how to interpret it. But we also need more voices and perspectives in the industry talking about and responding to the new and different games that are emerging. We need better means of connecting gamers to the voices that matter to them. We need to respect one another’s perspectives and sense of identity at the same that new ones are brought into the conversation.

I love games. I love writing about them, playing them, and designing them. I think the whole gaming culture and industry is at a watershed moment, perhaps even brought to light because of this culture storm. This moment is about recognizing that games can exist “for fun” but that they can also exist for other reasons that are equally valid for different people. I would like to see greater innovation and artistic expression in games, but the whole culture needs to be more inclusive and accepting to get us there. Yet, no one needs to be dismissed or rejected from the milieu of gaming either.

Ultimately, I think this is all about empathy. We all, whether a player of games, a gamer, a developer, a blogger, a reviewer, or someone on the outside, should endeavor to be empathic towards our fellow humans. If not able to fully understand or comprehend one another, at least strive to be respectful. To be an #EmpatheticGamer

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