It’s not only a game

You’d be forgiven for thinking that I don’t really like games – it’s not as though I’ve had good things to say about them for the most part. The truth is that I think games are an extraordinary phenomenon, with the potential to do a lot of good for the world. Similar things were said about the television though, and I’m not sure that has quite lived up to its potential yet. That isn’t to say incredible things aren’t done with television, but it didn’t earn the name ‘idiot box‘ for nothing. The point is that although there’s a fair amount of drossy entertainment in gaming, there is also an equivalent amount of engaging, challenging and interesting stories and experiences too.

I have enjoyed gaming since I was very young; I grew up with games consoles and computers and handhelds, and have watched gaming’s development alongside my own. Mine was probably the first generation that couldn’t imagine a world without gaming in it, much like the children of today who have witnessed the incredible ascent of the internet into being a fundamental part of human existence – a human right! Gaming was as normal to me as reading, or watching TV, or listening to music, and just as important and interesting.

Despite issues with representation, and attitudes both inside and outside of gaming, games still have tremendous contributory potential. There are marvelous people doing fantastic things in the space this medium occupies. Games are capable of doing things that other mediums just can’t. As interactive media, games have a scope that hasn’t even been fully realised yet; unlike the passivity of television and literature, players actively influence their own narrative – even within the systemic confines of a game, that is an incredibly liberating power to have over a medium. Narrative becomes completely nonlinear, even in the most linear of games, because with games came the introduction of the ‘fail state‘ – Game Over – which even just by itself is a complex concept. In multiple readings of Romeo and Juliet, there aren’t occasions when Romeo is slain by Tybalt, ending the story (or continuing it, along an entirely new thread). This is just one of several extraordinary factors that makes gaming so unique.

Going a step further, games like Knights of The Old Republic and Freelancer allow you to progress through the story in a variety of ways, sometimes changing the story’s progression entirely dependent on how you play the game or through defining decisions that you make, leading to a plethora of possible outcomes. This feature is actually fairly standard in modern games, but that doesn’t stop it from being used in new and inventive ways all the time. The game just linked to – Spec Ops: The Line – is a fine example of the ‘unreliable narrator‘ taken to the next level; like any other game, it requires the player to act and make decisions based on their experiences – how trustworthy the perceived version of events are, and what that means for the actions the player takes, makes for an unparalleled denouement.

For me, the most interesting games move even further away from traditional narratives, and simply provide a world or setting in which players have the freedom to create their own stories. Two examples that spring to mind are EVE Online and Day Z. EVE is so complex it almost defies categorisation, but the most basic description would be an online multiplayer space-simulation role-playing game. Players assume the role of spaceship pilots/captains, existing within an astoundingly detailed virtual universe, complete with its own currency (ISK) and open economy, and with no real governance of player interactions. For the most part, there are very few rules or ‘laws’, and that regularly leads to interesting emergent narratives. Ponzi schemes, dodgy dealerships, corporate espionage, epic space battles – EVE has more space-intrigue than the entirety of Battlestar Galactica. Day Z, on the other hand, takes place in the fictional post-Soviet state of Chernarus, where the population has succumbed to an unknown virus that has turned them into naughty people-hating zombies. What elevates Day Z above similar games like ‘Dead Island‘ or ‘Left4Dead‘ is that there are no objectives other than to survive, which is much more challenging and interesting than I’ve made it sound. Players must keep warm, and stay well-fed and hydrated, and in order to do that they need to occasionally venture into towns – and you know what they’re going to find there. Aside from hypothermia, starvation, dehydration and zombie-hugs, players can die of diseases caught from consuming rotten food or dirty water, poisoning (don’t drink disinfectant), and are also at risk from other survivors, and this is where Day Z creates its most tense moments. Interpreting the motivations of other players is 90% of staying alive – there are no laws in this post-apocalyptic landscape, only the selective morality of its inhabitants. Just because you see one person, doesn’t mean they don’t have a friend watching over them from the nearby treeline. You might give them the benefit of the doubt, offer to team up with them, but they might stab you in the back as soon as you come across a particularly juicy-looking satsuma. The reason player interaction in Day Z is so tense is that if you die, you’re back to square one – no food, no water, no matches, no tin-opener, and without so much as a butter knife to protect yourself with. There are no save-games or checkpoints, only the blank screen of oblivion, and your fresh survivor washing up on the shores of Chernarus. This is players writing their own stories – tense and dramatic narratives emerging from player interaction. If you want to talk about Death of the Author (and I do, so please let’s), you’ve got all you need right here.

Games can also challenge the very idea of narrative, and explore it in exciting new ways. The Stanley Parable is a terrific example of how players attempt to challenge and subvert narrative expectations and systems through play. A disembodied narrator guides the eponymous Stanley through the game, but the player can choose to ignore/intentionally disobey each prescribed action, which leads to a number of interesting and amusing conclusions, as the narrator-‘designer’ reacts to your choices with calm or incredulity dependent on your choices. It’s an intelligent meta-commentary on narrative systems in games, as well a hoot to play through a good few times. It’s the sort of game that challenges people’s perceptions of what a game is, and what they can do, and I’m all for that.

Going back to literary theory for a moment, let’s talk about the relationship between form and meaning. Anyone who has studied Shakespeare, and is familiar with the damnable words ‘iambic pentameter’, will know what I mean, but for those who don’t, let me clarify: the way in which something is written is as relevant to its interpretation as what has been written. It’s a fundamental aspect of literary study, and the greatest works of literature use form to great effect in supporting the meaning of the text. Enter Braid, Jonathan Blow’s mind and time-bending platform game. Without getting into spoiler territory, because I genuinely believe if everyone in the world could only play one game in their lives this should be it, the game is about regret, and the main mechanic of the game revolves around being able to slow down, stop, and even reverse time. It’s a deeply contemplative game, with layers upon layers of allusion and meaning built into both the content, and systems which operate around it. In stark contrast to the bombast and intensity of other modern games, Braid is distinct in that it resembles a painting come to life, and the music is quiet and relaxing – a welcome change when coming up against the game’s more cerebral puzzles. Aesthetic is built into every aspect of this game, and it is as close to whatever definition of art you choose to subscribe to as any game has ever come.

Games can take players beyond empathy – make them feel real guilt or sorrow for their actions. Imagine Sophie’s Choice, but YOU have to choose, and your decision is final (so very, very final). “It’s not real, though”, you may say, but I say it is as real as the feeling. What’s the point in drawing an arbitrary line between reality and virtual reality if the feeling is genuine? The capacity to experience deep personal feelings as a result of playing a game does not preclude a person’s ability to have those feelings about real experiences; in fact, I’d worry more if they didn’t have such human reactions whilst playing games. Complicity in the tragedy or joy of a game is powerful and unique, and the feeling is no less real than with any other work of fiction. Now go and watch Optimus Prime die 10 times, whilst I dry my eyes, and come back afterwards to talk about how emotionally affecting works of fiction can be.

Games can be adapted for several important purposes besides play. Games are incredible vehicles for education, capable of engaging students with a variety of useful disciplines, such as working in groups, working with computers (duh), communication, and digital citizenship. Games can be, and are, used for important assessments. Games are even used for medical research! It really is an exciting medium to be involved with.

Most of all, though, games are meant to be shared – that’s when they’re at their best. Beating that boss in World of Warcraft with your mates, swapping tales of treachery from the shores of Chernarus, or waiting for precisely the right moment to elbow your friend’s rib cage as you prepare to finish them in a particularly competitive bout of Street Fighter 4 – the greatest value of games is in sharing the experience. Gaming is an intensely social space, and if you don’t believe that then you haven’t been paying attention.

The tired media stereotype of the recluse gamer simply doesn’t apply anymore. Don’t make me start another blog to prove it.


Racism and Games: Representation

There is a lot of racism in games. Much like sexism, some of this racism is overt and intentional (although examples of unintentional overt racism also exist), but thankfully, I suppose, for the most part games developers are not racist, they just don’t fully understand racism. Sometimes it seems that very few people do.

In gaming, as well as other popular mediums, it is mainly the use of lazy racial stereotypes that most commonly contributes to the poor representation of people of colour. Racial stereotypes are almost ubiquitous in gaming history but, if you needed some proof try some of these. The explanation for their use is simple: it saves anyone writing or designing games having to think about characterisation; with a legion of two-dimensional (not talking about graphics right now) racist caricatures to call upon, most of the work is already done for them. Don’t get me wrong – flat characters are fine – it’s just that when their characteristics play on damaging racial stereotypes, those stereotypes are being reinforced. Black character? He probably lives in the ‘hood, and gets by on petty crime (*seriously*, read that background). Asian (or a panda)? Then it goes without saying that they’re a martial artist. Russian or German? The go-to villains, because they’re obviously all monsters. Far too often, developers take one stereotypical racial characteristic, and extrapolate it into an entire character. Above all, it’s just plain insulting – to the racial and ethnic groups being depicted, and to the intelligence of anyone playing these games.

Most popular modern games offer up extremely alienating depictions of various racial and ethnic groups. The impact of this alienation has several implications, but most significantly it imposes a sense of ‘otherness’ on non-white, non-American/English (not British – an important distinction) racial and ethnic groups, which can lead to alienated groups being devalued, or even dehumanised. At the core of alienation is the philosophical concept of ‘the Other’, which is concerned with defining the self through difference from others; distancing the different from one’s own humanity. However, it is a concept with demonstrably significant social implications; it enables the systematic stripping of humanity from those who are not ‘normal’. The effects of alienation echo through history; it has served as the internal justification for persecution, slavery, and genocide. In a global society where white, heterosexual, cissexual men are widely considered to be the dominant group, alienation distances anyone who does not belong to this dominant demographic from the ‘norm’. The effect is twofold: firstly, it reinforces entitlement in the dominant group, and secondly, it damages the subjugated group’s self-image, sometimes to the point where negative stereotypes become self-fulfilling prophecies. It’s pretty despicable, yet we see it all the time.

Another effect of racial stereotyping in games is that it pushes the notion that gaming is an exclusive medium – whites only. Protagonists are predominantly white (and male, as previously discussed), whilst the best anyone else can hope for is to be a sidekick, and a dull, caricatured one at that. In fact, many popular games that do significantly feature people of colour are actually about organised crime, so well done the games industry for going entirely the wrong way again. The craziest thing is there’s no reason for it – why couldn’t Adam Jensen, Leon Kennedy, or Nathan Drake be black or Asian? Ok, I know Drake is supposed to a descendant of Sir Francis Drake (who actually had no children, so there) but there’s plenty of room in Nathan’s fictional ancestry for him to be Spanish. But instead, white people are perpetually saving the world. What a bunch of heroes we must be.  Without racially and ethnically diverse representation, fewer people from underrepresented or misrepresented groups will engage with games, and that’s a genuine shame.

Following on from that, there is a distinct strand of ethnocentrism in popular modern games. I’m immediately reminded of the recent furor over a game in which players had the *option* to play as a member of the Taliban. The contempt for this attribute of the game seems to stem from the notion that playing a game in which killing members of the Taliban (in their own country, via sizable invasion and occupation – not that I’m saying nothing should have been done) is moral, but killing US/UK troops is absolutely immoral. Ah, but the Taliban are aligned with Al-Qaeda, and they’re terrorists! Well, I’m not really in any position to argue with that. I mean, Al-Qaeda killed thousands of US civilians, on US soil. Of course they’re terrorists. Let’s just conveniently sweep THIS under the carpet, and we can all get back to believing that the US and UK are the ‘good guys’. The point I’m making is that the game in question – Medal of Honour – is actually noteworthy for its challenge of ethnocentrism (although I think the games industry has yet to produce its first story from a bombed Afghan ghetto that didn’t star the morons who bombed it), and therefore stood out as a focal point for derision in an industry that normally supports the idea that the terrorists live in Afghanistan, and the terrorised live in America, with no other views to be entertained. There are two sides to every conflict, and everyone fighting in those conflicts is a human being, with human motivations and feelings and experiences, and just by paying your taxes you could be supporting terrorism disguised as liberation, all around the world. Put that in your game and smoke it.

I know I said in a previous post that it’s not all doom and gloom, but actually it is. Even the boldest ethnic protagonist in recent memory – Nico Bellic, of Grand Theft Auto 4 (GTA4) – is starring in a game about violent crime. In the game’s defense, at least Nico is a reluctant criminal, simply looking for a new start away from his war-torn home (mostly). GTA4 took a big risk with an illegal Eastern-European immigrant for a protagonist, given the context of its release, at a time when Eastern European immigration to the US and UK were extremely hot topics. It was a brave choice, and offered as humanising a story as could be done within the parameters of a game about organised crime. Nico was as much a victim of war as a perpetrator, and the cruel culture he encounters in America simply won’t let him put the gun down. He is distrusted, manipulated, and betrayed by almost everyone he meets. At some point we have to step back from his story, and think about the immigrant experience – legal or otherwise. That’s powerful, and, were it not for the dissonance caused by participating in a necessarily violent video game, could put GTA4 up there alongside important social commentaries like Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle‘.

Just to bring the point home, and possibly repeat myself, games are an extremely influential social medium. Games developers have an obligation to question the values their games transmit, and to question the ways in which characters within games can challenge or support racial or ethnic stereotypes. Yes, it makes a difficult job slightly more difficult, but laziness is hardly a justification for misrepresentation.

I’ll close by ruining your childhood: Street Fighter 2 was racist. Thank you and goodnight.

Racism and Games: Gaming Culture

Marginalisation within games and gaming culture does not just extend to girls and women. In fact, despite the title of this post, it more or less extends to everyone who isn’t a young to middle-aged, straight, white, cissexual man. The reason I want to focus on racism specifically though, is because I have some thoughts on it that very rarely seem to be included in the discussion of racism in media, unless you’re prepared to get into some serious essay reading.

It is reckoned, the findings from a fairly recent study show, that African-American (although it would be sound enough to conclude that this applies to most linguistically identifiable non-white ethnic or racial minorities) gamers suffer direct racial abuse on a daily basis, when playing games online. Racially abused, on a daily basis, trying to enjoy a medium that was specifically designed for sharing. Again, you need only spend an hour playing Call of Duty to collect the necessary evidence to support this. Of course, this observation fluctuates wildly based on the specific games being played, but for it to be happening at all is incredible.

Or is it? A lot of articles centred around the report linked above have drawn attention to the ‘fact’ that the frequency and magnitude of racism in online gaming is wildly disproportionate to societal observations, i.e. it’s worse in gaming than it is in the real world. I don’t think it is though. There is, as always, a tendency to separate ‘gamers’ from the rest of society when these observations are made. I’d like to see a report that records as much information as possible (without divulging real names and addresses, of course) on perpetrators of vocal racism in online gaming, so we can tether these observations to the real world – so we can see that the racists in gaming are not just people who sit in a dark room twiddling knobs whilst bleating racial slurs, but real people with real roles in society – teachers, doctors, managers, politicians, authors, counsellors, parents, siblings, friends and colleagues, all with terrifying spheres of influence. Racism in gaming may be more overt than in wider society, but it’s the subtler kind of racism that does the most societal damage, and is just as frequent, if not more so, in its effects: inequalities in education, employment, health, religion, law – the list goes on and on, and hundreds of millions of people suffer every day as a result.

Perhaps one of the greatest tricks of societal racism, is that many racists don’t even know they’re racist. How many times have you spoken to someone, or overheard someone, who says “I’m not racist, but” followed by a racist sentiment clumsily disguised as some sort of keen societal observation? No, buddy, you ARE racist, you just lack the cognition to realise it. Accounting for the liberal company I keep most of the time, I have still heard it far too often, and I think it stems from the widely held, but incorrect, notion that racism is only ever overt. There are millions of people walking around with severe prejudices against racial and ethnic minorities who don’t consider themselves racist simply because they prefix their racism with empty disclaimers, or because they never called anyone a ‘nigger’ to their face, or curb-stomped an African-American. It’s an extraordinarily widespread case of denial.

There is an odd societal assumption that because people generally ‘know’ racism is ‘bad’ that racism is disappearing. It really isn’t. I look at all the sensationalist xenophobic media, and overhear people talking on the bus or walking down the street, and think ‘Is this what the run-up to the Nazi’s election to power in 1933 was like?’. I honestly do. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s thought it either. General attitudes towards racial and ethnic minorities are abhorrent in the UK, and I wonder how far removed the Home Office’s attitude towards immigrants is from the Fascists of 1930s Germany. I know I have digressed, but when I read reports that online gaming racism is ‘worse’ than in wider society, I think there is actually a gross underestimation of quite how worrying societal racism is. In fact, I think that even when I haven’t read reports on racism in online gaming.

All of this is not to say that overt online racism isn’t just as despicable – of course it is – I just disagree with the idea that gaming is particularly racist based on the fact that racism in gaming is easier to spot. As with sexism, the format is different but the problem is the same – societal racism bleeds into gaming, and, due to the structure of the medium, that racism is direct and overt, due in part to the fact that anonymity ensures the absence of any tangible repercussions, and because vocalisation is the most obvious way of channelling racism whilst playing online.

There are those players who claim that racist slurs are ‘just’ a natural extension of ‘trash-talking’ – a psychological tactic traditionally employed by sports teams to demoralise the opposition. So the assumption there is that trash-talking is fine, and so are racial slurs as an extension of it. I don’t think trash-talking is fine though, especially as a psychological tactic. If a team needs to supplement their skill with mind games in order to win, they don’t deserve to win. I guess that comes down to integrity though, and there are very few, if any, professional sports that could attest to keeping theirs intact. Taking into mind that this is essentially the same sort of thing that happens on a football or rugby pitch, let’s take a look at some gaming trash-talking (and yes, this is absolutely indicative of events of this nature) HERE. Let me just make it clear: the people in this video are professionals; these are the people who a vast number of impressionable young gamers aspire to be like. They also have the same mentality that professional athletes in other sports have – do whatever you can to win, even if it means acting like a contemptible human being. Trash-talking is not a defense or justification for racism, because trash-talking is just as pathetic.

I want to talk about racial representation in games in a later post for two reasons: firstly, because contrary to the rest of this blog, that topic isn’t ALL doom and gloom (though there is still plenty of that) and, secondly, because if I don’t stop now this is going to tumble into another 2000+ word saga. Expect more soon.

I’m going to leave you with my favourite piece of New Games Journalism, because even though it highlights quite how overt gaming racism can be, you know who the bad guy is. Racists are the bad guys. If only we could all realise and internalise that sentiment, gaming, and the world, would be in a much better place. Anyway, without further ado: BOW NIGGER.

Sexism and Games: Gaming Culture

When I say I’m a gamer, this is just shorthand for ‘I enjoy videogames’, not an insight into a fundamental aspect of my self-identification, nor a label with which to conveniently categorise me. I am also a reader, and a film and music fan, but I am far from defined by these things. First and foremost, gamers are people: human beings, subject to largely the same experience and condition as anyone else they share a socioeconomic background with. Gamers are not a breed apart, not different at a genetic level. Despite any apparent predisposition to it, no-one is *born* a gamer. I haven’t always been a gamer. No-one has *always* been a gamer. It’s important to bear that in mind.

Gaming culture is not inherently sexist; the statement is as obvious to some as it is unbelievable to others, but I must still submit it to you all as fact. Gaming is not a magnet for those with sexist attitudes, nor does it convert people to sexism. Rather, it has become an environment in which societal sexism has been able to flourish unchecked, mainly due to the apparent absence of women and girls from the industry and player base, and their representation in the medium as a result. It is, essentially, a reflection of societal sexism with the volume turned up to 11. What a terrible prospect, you may say, and I might sympathise with you if similar examples didn’t exist largely unchallenged elsewhere in society: Sport, Business, Education, any culture in which the direct community, or a presiding group of gatekeepers, is made up of a male majority. It would be remiss of me not to mention that the same sort of amplification also happens in female communities, such as the Radical Feminist communes of the 1970s, and is similarly unhelpful. Equality requires equal representation at all levels; like it or not, we all have to live on this rock together so we all need to make an effort to be inclusive.

Within gaming culture specifically, the manifestations of societal sexism have become more overt. Individual sexist attitudes are given the space to grow more malignant, partly due to the close-minded view that gaming is androcentric, and partly due to the anonymity that assuming an online persona enables. The culmination of these factors is that there is a perceived lack of direct repercussion for espousing such attitudes; worse still, the inclination of a vocal many to maintain this perceived androcentricity has resulted in attacks on women and girls wishing to engage with gaming culture, and anyone wishing to draw games into a larger critical conversation.

Examples of this are almost too abundant to list, but I want to draw attention to some characteristic facets of gaming sexism.

Language is incredibly important within any culture; it shapes so much of our reality, and yet we mostly take it for granted. Individual words carry a whole host of connotations, broad histories of meaning that branch out into layer upon layer of associations. Words are more powerful than the average twat with a joypad could ever imagine. Let’s take a look at that sentence, though: ‘average’ is judgmental in and of itself, being the absence of anything extraordinary, and here I am associating being average with using a joypad. Within a basic understanding of gaming, we know that joypads are *typically* associated with consoles (used primarily for games, plugs into your TV), as opposed to the mouse and keyboard associated with gaming on a PC or Mac, so the inference here could easily be that PC gaming is superior to console gaming. Furthermore, the word ‘twat‘, despite its referent, is most commonly levelled at men, most likely used to emasculate considering its associations. Therefore, without conscious consideration, we conjure an image of an unexceptional man playing on a console, even though that isn’t what I have explicitly described. Of course, if that’s not what you envisioned, well done you; you get a real gold star, not a sarcastic one. The point is, though, that these structures exist in language, and these webs of meaning have considerable power over our perceptions of the world.

You only need to spend an hour playing one of the many incredibly popular ‘Call of Duty’ iterations to experience some of the most profane and derogatory language you’re ever likely to hear vomited out of a human mouth. The language itself is largely trained on emasculation – referring to opponent players as ‘bitches’ or those who abuse a game’s mechanics as ‘whores’, e.g. ‘killwhores’, who concern themselves with racking up as many kills as possible, despite the presence of a more important objective. Perhaps most abhorrent, though, is the use of ‘rape’ as a synonym for defeating someone or something. This word is one of the most weighted in the English language, representing an extensive history of sexual violence, normalisation of misogynistic practices, and objectification, amongst several other things. Within gaming culture, though, the concept has become so trivialised that the word is now in extremely common usage. When observed in other cultures, such trivialisation correlates to instances of victim blaming and sexual objectification, so I hope I don’t need to go into anymore detail about how the trivialisation of a concept like rape can only be a bad thing. I hope.

The reason that emasculation is such a widely adopted attack is that gaming culture, as paradoxically as it may sound to most people reading this, is a hyper-masculine space. If the principal view is that gaming culture is predominantly for men, then everyone is out to be the alpha. If gaming culture had a flavour it would be testosterone, and you could make little testosterone floats with scoops of sexual objectification, because the two complement each other perfectly. In a cultural space that ostensibly features male-only interactions, women are not only further prone to sexual objectification but that objectification is exacerbated to the extent that hyper-sexualised female characters are the norm, and ‘booth babes‘ are the staple of any good marketing strategy.

Woe-betide any woman or girl who actually tries to engage with this sacred space too. Before any female candidate can be considered for acceptance into gaming culture, one, or sometimes two, of two things has to be established: either her physical attractiveness must be proven, or her credentials as a ‘true gamer‘ must be proven. Particularly obnoxious male chauvinists within gaming culture (a group which is probably slightly more vocal than its larger societal counterpart, due to all those things I mentioned before) take it upon themselves to act as gatekeepers for the gaming community, barring ‘admission’ to women and girls as often, and with as much mockery, as possible. It sounds incredible, but really we see this kind of infantile exclusivity every day: girls don’t know how to play with Scalextric, girls can’t play football, women don’t know how to run a business, women can’t be mechanics. Oh, you’re hot? Well, perhaps we can make an exception, but don’t think for a moment that it’s because we consider you an equal. It’s pathetic, and stems entirely from men striving to maintain their dominance when women ‘threaten’ their powers of authority. Also, before anyone takes exception, I am not saying that women who do manage to progress in arduously sexist circumstances do so solely on the merit of their looks; what I am saying is they do so in spite of a culture of male exclusivity. More unsarcastic gold stars for them.

However, the most vitriolic and disgusting reactions of the gaming community are reserved for female game-writers, developers and journalists. Sweet mercy, being a professional woman in this industry is all the kinds of terrifying I can’t even begin to imagine. Perhaps one of the most prominent examples of the gaming community’s despicable capabilities is Jennifer Hepler’s treatment following her work on the popular Dragon Age series of games. Dragon Age 2, whilst released to reasonably good reviews, was not so readily embraced by long-standing fans of the franchise, and so a minor witch-hunt began. The result of this was the unearthing of a 6 year old interview with Hepler, which contained some fairly radical (or progressive, depending on how you look at it) opinions on game design. Taken as evidence that Hepler was the sole agent in the ruin of their wondrous gaming franchise, the community backlash was overwhelming. Jennifer Helper was subjected to a torrent of abuse you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemies. Unsurprisingly, comments turned very quickly from criticism of her work, to criticism of her gender and appearance because, of course, this is the most effective type of criticism to those who believe that the measure of a woman’s value is how physically attractive she is. As though that wasn’t bad enough, it extended to threats to her safety, and to her family’s safety; it was, without a doubt, one of gaming culture’s lowest points.

I would love to report that this was an isolated incident, but that is far from the case. Any attempts to address the representation of women by journalists, or even developers themselves, are met with a level of repugnance that often develops into threats of violence, sexual and otherwise. A recent example of this has been found in reviews of the popular Grand Theft Auto series, the latest iteration of which has been found wanting in terms of its representation of women. Gamespot reviewer Carolyn Petit addressed this in her largely favourable review of the game (she gave it nine out of ten, overall), yet despite the good things she had to say, commenters took issue with her observation that women are not only underrepresented (of the three protagonists, none are women) but also misrepresented (relegated to being prostitutes, nagging wives, promiscuous daughters, and just about every other negative female stereotype you could imagine). The full comment thread is still there, and I would invite you to take a look at just how foul some reactions were to this well-reasoned review; at 22,500 comments I wouldn’t advise you try to read them all though, if only to save yourself from the onset of full-blown misanthropy. Anita Sarkeesian, creator of Feminist Frequency, has similarly come under fire for her ‘Tropes Vs. Women‘ web-series, which specifically addresses the issue of women’s representation across gaming history. These conversations absolutely need to happen and, fortunately, critics like Petit and Sarkeesian have the conviction to keep pushing for critical dialogue, even in the face of personal threats.

However, due to high-profile instances such as those mentioned above, and an ongoing push to take the issue seriously by a handful of developers and journalists, some interesting and noteworthy counter-attacks have begun to emerge, such as the #1reasonwhy Twitter hashtag, with which developers and journalists – mainly women, but men also – have tagged personal anecdotes detailing the sexism they have faced in their roles. More aptly put, it’s a ‘devastating account of the crap women in the games business have to deal with‘, and it paints a rather sorry picture.

The greatest irony at the centre of all of this is that the gaming community wants society to take games seriously as a medium. I know I certainly do. Gaming culture has a gigantic inferiority complex, because despite being the fastest growing market in the universe, or being worth a squillion billion dollars more than film and literature put together, it simply doesn’t have the social legitimacy that those other mediums do. Part of that has to come down to the fact that efforts to draw gaming into a wider critical conversation are met with the violent throwing of toys from prams, and tired sexist rhetoric. It’s ironic, because those elements who try to hamper the conversation are the ones holding gaming back from taking its first bold steps into a larger cultural world – precisely the kind of progress that would lend gaming culture the legitimacy it desperately seeks.

Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding though, is the notion that because critics identify that certain games are problematic, that those games are bad by extension. This is far from the case. No-one is telling you that you’re bad for playing Grand Theft Auto (except, perhaps, right-wing scaremongers). The point of the conversation is not to say that you’re bad for enjoying these things, it’s to acknowledge that the media we consume is problematic, and only by identifying the problematic elements can we make it better and more inclusive – pretty much exactly the same critical process film and literature must endure; games are not a special case. That doesn’t mean no more fun, it means the same fun with more people. Problematic media is fine, so long as we acknowledge how it is problematic, and admit that it contains values that we perhaps should not absorb into our own personal value systems. That’s all. It’s really that simple.

Sexism and Games: Representation

Sexism is everywhere; it informs almost every aspect of Western culture: language, media, industry, politics, religion – the list goes on and on.

The games industry has done an astounding job of flying its unique brand of sexism™ under the radar for years. This has largely been enabled by the overwhelming belief that games are solely the domain of boys; a mode of thinking which dictated that audience considerations need only extend as far as the male experience. Indeed at one point a fair case may have been made for this approach, with the educational and financial requirements for participation in early forms of video-games being severely limiting factors in terms of accessibility, but with the advent of affordable console gaming in the mid 1980s, these limitations were essentially removed.

Modern market research into gaming demographics shows that the gender divide in gaming is not nearly as large as most people – inside and outside of the games industry and gaming culture – might reckon. Both my sisters enjoyed Super Mario 3 as much as the next guy, so why are modern games companies primarily making games for me and not them? I mean, when white, middle-class, heterosexual men are starting to realise that something is truly amiss then the gig is probably up, right?

However, despite the evidence to support a broader definition of audience, gaming developers and publishers stubbornly refuse to move away from the incredibly sexist dogma that permeates the industry. It’s important to clarify at this point that I don’t believe that the majority of game developers are consciously and unashamedly sexist (though some absolutely are) but that their attention to gender issues is lacking, which unintentionally leads to some atrocious instances of misrepresentation and, predominantly, objectification. The reason for this is fairly obvious: the educational requirements of a career in games development, coupled with the general perception of games as a medium targeted only at men, does not lend itself to an influx of female developers. Poor representation in the industry leads to poor representation in the culture.

You really don’t have to go far to find examples. The ‘Damsel in Distress’ is a staple trope of video-gaming; the conventionally attractive, meek, defenseless female abductee, unable by any means to liberate herself, must wait for the powerful male protagonist to save her. This trope has been lazily trotted out time after time throughout gaming history, and has become a defining characteristic of the medium. In fact, several publishers have such an aversion to female protagonists that if developers feature them in their games the chances of those games being published falls dramatically. There have been several instances in which publishers have demanded protagonists be changed to male from female, or even that the role of damsel and protagonist be switched. So why is it that publishers are so fearful of strong, independent female characters? Because they challenge the values of a society built on gender inequality, and challenging society tends to reduce sales. So instead they go the other way; they rely on damaging stereotypes, further reinforcing the already rampant sexism that exists in Western culture. Bravo, guys.

Perhaps the most vexing of characteristics in modern games is the objectification of women. Of course, similar to the ‘Damsel in Distress’ trope, this issue isn’t limited to games; it has a long-standing history, most prominently in TV, cinema and advertising. The issue here probably can’t be simplified, but that won’t stop me from doing a horrible job of trying. The objectification of women has two main facets: firstly, it negates the value of personality, turning them into mere ‘objects’ of only superficial worth; a dehumanising process. Secondly, specifically with regards to women, this process strips the worth of their emotional and intellectual capabilities, reducing them to an object of desire: a sex object. As a result, their entire value is judged on the basis of attractiveness. Objectification is the reason why Wimbledon champions are criticised for… winning at Wimbledon. In games, due to decades of unabashed objectification, this has manifested in some pretty despicable ways, not the least of which is the hyper-[un]realistic breast physics of the popular ‘Dead or Alive’ series of fighting games.

By releasing games with such glaring gender inequality issues, publishers and developers are negatively contributing to a society already fraught with widespread institutional sexism and sexual objectification. They have ample opportunity to help, but choose to mess it up some more instead, because money. Excellent work. Gold star.

Games are a Form of Discourse

There are a lot of people who either fail to grasp this concept, or vehemently deny it despite possessing a brain: games are a dominant modern entertainment medium and, as such, hold tremendous cultural significance.

It’s really not a tough concept to get your head around. Much like comparably popular mediums, such as literature, film and music, games are a part of cultural discourse; they are informed by modern culture and, in turn, inform modern culture – in fact, given to the interactive and non-linear aspects of several modern games, and the medium’s capability for passively recording ‘feedback’ in the form of statistics and in-game decisions from players, gaming’s cultural discourse is far more intimate than almost any other medium. But I digress.

Modern games are cultural artifacts, representative of the culture in which they are produced. There is probably no better testimony to their status as artifacts than the collection taking place at the New York Museum of Modern Art, which aims to preserve notable instances of game design. This is one of several examples from around the world, acknowledging games as a unique, prominent, and influential cultural medium.

Perhaps more importantly, as a form of cultural discourse games are a vehicle for the transmission of social values; modern games have the cultural clout to both reinforce and challenge social norms and perceptions. However, with great power comes great responsibility. Having transcended the bounds of niche pastime into becoming a ubiquitous medium, games have also entered into a much needed wider critical conversation; a conversation which analyses the inherent values present in games and gaming culture.

In this new age, the interrogation of games’ critical worth is more important than ever. Despite being a rapidly progressing medium, games still struggle embarrassingly with the representation of gender, race and sexuality, and this ongoing critical conversation is utterly necessary to, first of all, demonstrate that games affect, and are reflective of, social attitudes and, secondly, to hold developers accountable for issues with the content they provide. Games developers have the same obligations that directors and authors do in this respect: to question the values inherent in their ‘art’, and to consider the effects such values will have on the audience, reader or player.

Failing that, they’d all better get used to having the misogynistic, racist, homophobic fruits of their labour torn to shreds by critics, because it’s 2013 and we shouldn’t have to put up with it anymore.