Social media has been buzzing for the past week or so, inundated under a stream of pure bile being spilled under the GamerGate hashtag. In case you missed it, it’s the true 21st century love story of boy meets game developer girl, girl cheats on boy with games journalist, boy vents frustrations on girl extremely inappropriately and painfully publically, girl receives threats of physical and sexual violence, and we’re now in the realm of anger and frustration about the state of games journalism and the place of social justice in gaming. It’s an intense and overall frustrating battle between those interested in social justice, those interested in removing impropriety from the state of games journalism, and a third group who are more interested in trolling and vitriol than positively contributing.
The second group claims that that the third does not represent them in a meaningful way. However, the defense of “these are the actions of a few bad apples” ignores the conclusion of the phrase “spoils the bunch.”
For whatever reason, gamers are an oversensitive bunch about the wrong things. Years ago, famous film critic Roger Ebert made the blanket statement, right or wrong, that video games aren’t (and can never be) art. Despite the fact that Ebert has been dead for over a year now, this chicken is still being plucked because for whatever reason gamers seem to be somewhat desperate for validation. I understand why – I used to be a gamer in my teenaged years so I understand what it feels like to want mainstream acceptance for a hobby I loved so much. But things are different now – games are indelibly a part of the cultural zeitgeist; it is a multi billion dollar industry equally as valuable as film and television and other mediums that have reached an artistic threshold of value. Millions watch youtube videos of people playing video games. Twitch, an online streaming service catering to gamers, just got bought for over a billion dollars.
To dismiss gaming as anything but a part of our society and unworthy of critique is absurd.
However, going back to my original point about gamers being angry about the wrong things – this is exactly what they want. To be critiqued by an outside group, those who aren’t a part of these communities, the “social justice warriors”, the feminists, those on the outside looking in and exposing problematic themes and issues within the community and games as a whole, is a part of mainstream cultural acceptance as more than simply a hobby.
My educational background is in film and philosophy so I love to ponder and watch moving pictures but I especially seem to hate money. Film and gaming are honestly very similar, with the quality of the acting and writing and graphics the only major difference at times seems to be that the player gets to control the action on the screen. What is lost, however, is that video games as a serious medium is still in its infancy – if Atari was Thomas Edison and Mario and Luigi were the Lumiere brothers, then perhaps the parallel we have to make between film and games and the evolution of the medium is DW Griffith.
Born in 1875, DW Griffith was a famous film director perhaps best known for his landmark silent film Birth of a Nation. It was a groundbreaking film in the sense of it being one of the first films to actually tell a cohesive narrative in feature-length. It is a remarkable spectacle and I highly recommend tracking it down, but the movie itself was not without controversy. It was a deeply racist film, portraying African Americans as animals, unionists and anti-slavery advocates on the wrong side of history, and advocated the need for the Klu Klux Klan and overall was a pro-slavery film. In today’s society, the best way to describe Birth of a Nation is problematic. It was boycotted and highly controversial still to this day, however, it is still an important lesson in the history of film.
Birth of a Nation was the first time where outside societal critique of the medium became mainstream thereby legitimizing it as a form of expression beyond simply pure visceral excitement.
In a similar way, video games are beginning to head down that path. With GamerGate, there is, in a roundabout way, a serious sociological look into gaming beyond simply it being a game. There is a discussion, an analysis, a critique into the very nature of the medium itself and how it is reported and disseminated by the public and to be honest this is not a bad thing. If this medium wants to be taken seriously it needs to be analyzed beyond the scope of it just being a game to play.
Here-in lies the contradiction. Gamers are angry that there is an outside look into their world. That social justice and feminism have no place in gaming. How can that possibly be the case? If video games can’t stand up to the vigorous critique of those outside of the community, those looking objectively within what is quickly becoming an echo chamber of angry gamers, how can the medium possibly grow in any meaningful way?
Art evokes emotion, both strongly and negatively. Everything inherently in art has some sort of meaning or it stands for something. This is a part of storytelling; it is metaphor, saying one thing while meaning another. If games can’t do this, if they can’t be analyzed in a way that questions the very foundation of the medium, then what is the point of even trying? If gamers want critics out of gaming then the very form itself is not worth discussing or improving.
My three favorite games are Grim Fandango, Half-Life, and Grand Theft Auto Vice City. These are considered by many to be seminal works in the oeuvre of gaming. But Grim Fandango is a retelling of Casablanca in a world based on the Day of the Dead. Half-Life is a decent science fiction story but one in which the protagonist adds absolutely nothing to the story other than fixing everything for reasons. And Vice City, as the rest of the Grand Theft Auto series, is a mish mash of pop culture satire told through tales already written in Scarface and other gangland movies.
If gamers want video games to be taken seriously as an art, they have to mean something beyond gameplay and graphics. They have to contribute to society in a way other than being a game or a distraction. If you can’t critique the state of games under a microscope of differing opinions, than video games are nothing more than high tech board games. Would we consider Monopoly to be “art”? Probably not. All because something looks good doesn’t mean anything if there’s no soul behind it.
Inherently, this is the issue with GamerGate. If the medium wants to be taken seriously, those who want it to be have to understand that not everyone will agree with your personal opinions. That’s completely fine. But to threaten physical and sexual violence because there is dissention is not a way to be taken seriously. The line between hatred and trolling is tact and it’s clear that the majority of these people lack that.
If you want to prove Ebert and others wrong, act in a way that proves that gaming is a worthwhile endeavor worthy of analysis. If you can’t do that, then you have proven all those who doubt the validity of your medium absolutely correct.