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Video games and activism: more harm than good

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When non-game-lovers ask me why I’m drawn to writing about video games, I tell them the following:

  • I’ve loved playing video games my entire life
  • My job allows me to write to and for a community who is incredibly passionate about the medium
  • I get to study and be a part of a rapidly developing, ever-changing industry that’s unlike any other

That last point is, perhaps, my favorite perk of writing about gaming, but that’s not to say I always agree with the way the industry and its supporters see things.

Now–more than ever before, really–we’re seeing games and their creators taken out of the realm of arts and entertainment and thrown into the political arena. Since the days of Mortal Kombat, we’ve heard the pushback from concerned parents and lawmakers about the potential dangers of violence in video games, but until recently, it hadn’t exceeded the decibel level of a dull roar.


Now, it seems, everything in video games is being politicized, and it’s starting to make me a little crazy.

Granted, a lot of the points raised make sense. Should we be looking into the mental health effects of violent video games? Absolutely, what’s the harm in looking? And–to get to the catalyst of this article–should we be concerned with the role of women in video games? Heck yes, we should; we’re talking about a gender who makes up half the world, though you wouldn’t know it by picking up and playing most games.

As with everything, however, there is a point of excess that undermines the seriousness of a topic and makes us–as an industry–look like we’re just searching for something to scream about. I think we’ve reached that point.

While watching the Xbox One reveal and simultaneously scrolling through Twitter, I saw about four tweets from industry pundits regarding the fact that Microsoft–unlike Sony–included female presenters on-stage for the reveal.  My reaction to noticing that two women came on to present was as follows: Wow, the head of Xbox Entertainment Studios and 343 Industries are women? That’s really cool in an industry stereotyped by nerdy, gender-exclusive men. What these four tweeters thought, however, seemed to be: This is why Microsoft’s presentation is better. It’s better because it includes women and that makes it progressive, as opposed to Sony, the likes of whom are stuck in the 1950s.


Is that a dramatization? Yes, most likely by a wide margin. But the point stands. The issue isn’t in who Microsoft “allows” on stage, it’s in who the movers and shakers of the industry are. Should more of these industry leaders be women? If they’re the best people for the jobs, absolutely they should. But if we start demanding women be on stage and press events (or in games, as I’ll get to in a moment) simply to fulfill an Affirmative-Action-like checksheet, we’re not only patronizing women; we’re subverting attention from the real issues. The battle for equality cannot be won by obligatorily adding female characters into games. Instead, the industry needs to open its arms and leadership positions to women like Nancy Tellem (Xbox Entertainment Studios) and Bonnie Ross (343 Industries).

Later on at the Xbox One reveal, Activision unveiled a trailer for its newest Call of Duty game, Call of Duty: Ghosts. I watched the trailer, got a little bit excited, thought the emphasis on the dogs and their emotional depth was as weird as everyone else did, and then moved on. Another writer on this site noticed, however, that there were no women in the trailer, and mentioned that this would be an opportune time for Activision–a leader in the industry–to set an example and include women soldiers. This writer laid out a detailed, well-reasoned argument–showing an actual concern for the issue–but I disagree with him.

I think that we, more than any other arts/entertainment industry, have a tendency to want to control as much of the final product as possible. I’m not sure where this comes from, but we saw it most starkly with the Mass Effect 3 ending and its subsequent fan response. Players demanded that Bioware append the ending, to which I said, “if we want to say ‘video games are art’ we have to start living up to that standard by letting the creative forces make the games they want to make, for better or worse.” Activision absolutely could have included female soldiers in Ghosts, and I would venture to guess that they talked about doing so, but in the end, that’s not the game they chose to make or the story they chose to tell. I think we have to live with that fact, as they’re the ones staking their time, talents and money to create the game.


The bigger implication here–the one that scares me–is that this whole line of thinking creates a culture in which game makers are forced to appease us as an audience, afraid of stepping on toes and offending people by leaving certain elements out of their games. For example, I didn’t see any evidence that one or more of the characters in Ghosts will be gay. In a post-Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell world, shouldn’t we be representing a fuller view of America’s military? To that end, there wasn’t an Asian-American soldier to be found in the trailer. After the treatment of Chinese railworkers and the placement of Japanese-Americans in internment camps, don’t we owe it to that population to render them on the virtual battlefield? The simple truth is that every game can’t appeal to every special-interest group; it won’t work, and any attempt to do so will produce crappy games. Think about pictures in college brochures or children’s books that go out of their way to feature as much diversity in their subjects as possible. Everyone sees through that.

Marcus Beer–also known as “Annoyed Gamer”–raised a few similar points in his video last week, though his chief complaint was that writers are looking for controversy in order to raise their sites hit-counts. While he and I agree on a lot of the elements of this issue, this is where our mindsets diverge. I do think that some writers look to exploit the controversial natures of some stories. These are called bad writers and worse journalists, and they should be taken out to pasture.

The others, I believe, are simply excited to be a part of something that can be controversial, and I think we too often get swept up in the pop-culture arguments on Twitter and other social media. Whether it’s Bioshock Infinite’s handling of Elizabeth’s Chest, or Bioware’s handling of same-sex relationships in The Old Republic, we have become so vigilant in searching for potential missteps by game makers, that I fear we’re going to start missing the point of gaming in the first place. Of course these controversial topics should be addressed; games, as a whole, should represent all walks of life, and should–as trite as it sounds–try to avoid being egregiously offensive to anyone. But we have to remember that games are meant to be fun. They’re meant to challenge us, to make us feel, to make us think–but most of all, they’re meant to be fun.

Therefore–as I dismount my soapbox–if you don’t like what a game has to say about your gender, race, sexual orientation, or religion, I promise you, the most effective thing you can do is to go buy a different game and have fun with that one.

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