April 4, 2008 4:00 PM | Simon Carless
[In this impassioned opinion piece, IGF finalist (Euclidean Crisis) and writer Douglas Wilson discusses why developer and gamers alike should step away from a militant defense of the artform, and move to a more inclusive view of politics, media, and the world.]
I can’t stand gamers.
No, that’s not quite true. I can’t stand the concept of gamers.
And no, I’m not some anti-gaming nutcase. Far from it, games have always been an important part of my life. As a child of the 80s, I grew up with the Nintendo Entertainment System. I watched my older brother play Sierra adventure game classics like Quest For Glory and King’s Quest.
When the Internet finally found its way to our house, I immersed myself in text MUDs and played real-time strategy games with my friends over TCP/IP. I’ve finished a hefty number of RPGs, including Final Fantasies I, IV, VI, VII, and IX (I gave up on V because, well, Squaresoft mailed it in on the storyline).In my heyday I could complete Paranoia Survivor Max on the highest difficulty. I was there at the first PAX, and I’ve attended E3 twice and GDC three times. Hell, I like videogames so much that I’m doing a friggin’ PhD in game studies.
The problem is, the “gaming community” has become a kind of cult. Organized around worship sites like Kotaku, 1UP, and Penny Arcade, the Church of Gamers congregates in Internet forums and online games, rallying against the Great Satan of Jack Thompson. Smitten with near-religious fervor over their hobby, these so-called gamers increasingly treat digital games as a devotional object, a thing morally good in itself.
It’s great to be a passionate about one’s hobbies. But when fans lose touch with reality, they also lose perspective on the more important parts of life. And in doing so, gamers ironically stifle innovation in the medium they so love.
Game Fandom And Perspective
I have a number of apolitical gamer friends who loathe Hillary Clinton, but who focus only on her harsh words against violent video games. For them, media policy seems to be a top political priority. And this isn’t just about Hillary.
Earlier this year, Barack Obama made a somewhat controversial comment about media consumption: “We're going to have to parent better, and turn off the television set, and put the video games away, and instill a sense of excellence in our children, and that's going to take some time.”
This sound-bite certainly seems questionable, although not entirely unreasonable. Nevertheless, my friend, a game researcher who I otherwise respect enormously, disgustedly declared, “Obama just lost my support.”
As a European citizen, my friend was half-joking, given that he can’t actually vote in the election. What alarms me is that he was also half-serious – that a candidate’s views on video games could alone determine one’s political support.
There are many good reasons to both laud and criticize Senators Clinton and Obama. But their views on videogames strike me as irrelevant. In 2008 we face a number of complex problems, including faltering economies, large-scale environmental change, viral epidemics, healthcare policy, genocides, terrorism, war, and souring foreign relations. No matter how you spin it, millions of human lives are at stake.
And yet, some gamers remain acutely concerned with what kind of regulations will be levied on future Grand Theft Auto sequels. This is not just outrageous, it’s altogether absurd.
I don’t mean to suggest that we should all give up games and go join the Peace Corps. After all, I’m not exactly a saint myself. Nor am I saying that we should altogether ignore issues of media policy. A candidate’s view on media usage could be indicative of their more general views on free speech. But I do know that it’s essential that we always keep the larger picture in mind and not fall victim to our overly narrow interests.
The Mass Effect Backlash
The recent controversy over Mass Effect demonstrates why the gamer mentality is so juvenile. In January 2008, self-help author Cooper Lawrence appeared on Fox News to deride the game’s now infamous sex scene. During this televised “debate,” Lawrence admitted that she had never even played the game.
The poorly masked smear on videogames was certainly reprehensible, but the real story was the way in which the gaming community chose to respond. Spurred on by the great echo chamber of the blogosphere, hundreds of gamers spammed Amazon with negative reviews and tags of Lawrence’s books.
In fact, the response was so strong that even The New York Times took notice, bemusedly remarking, “The Internet hath no fury like a gamer scorned.” The gamers’ intended effect was clearly irony (“I know all about this book but have never fully read it”), but the end result was a sad kind of hypocrisy. The gaming community had allowed itself to stoop to the angry, mud-slinging hijinx of its opponents.
This story is doubly sad because Cooper Lawrence is only a symptom and not a cause. Like Jack Thompson and even Kevin McCullough, Lawrence is clearly a fool, a nobody. The more that gamers flame her, the more undue attention she receives. The real culprit, of course, is Fox News.
The Mass Effect debacle is not just the story of how the mainstream media views video games. Rather, it is a more general cautionary tale against bad journalism and biased media coverage. Instead of using the controversy to channel their collective power against the deeply manipulative Fox News organization, gamers largely stuck to the limited domain of the relationship between video games and society.
Unable or unwilling to connect the dots to the bigger issues, the gaming community successfully pigeonholed itself, effectively muzzling its own resistance in the process.
Inside The Church Of Gamers
The Church of Gamers is not only morally problematic; it also ends up working against innovation in the medium. Imagine, for example, how ridiculous it would be if all television watchers identified as their own “Tubers” subculture. It’s a humorous hypothetical precisely because a vast majority of first-world citizens watch television, from the romantics who tune in for soap operas and sports fans who catch game highlights over breakfast, to the sci-fi fans addicted to the latest Joss Whedon serial and insomniacs who watch old gameshow reruns.
The very notion of the “gamer” implies that games are a niche hobby, only for the sufficiently devoted. This exclusivity is exactly what impedes games from attracting a more diverse player base beyond the white adolescent male stereotype.
Given that more and more people are beginning to embrace games, it’s finally time to dump the anachronistic “gamer” label. We longtime players of games need not feel sad about this change. Opening games to, well, everybody can only result in a wider selection of genres and ideas.
I think many gamers do have their hearts in the right place. Wil Wheaton’s heartfelt keynote at PAX 2007, for instance, touts the importance of sharing the gaming experience with others. The problem is that the gaming community pines for two fundamentally opposing realities – one in which they maintain their sense of community and another in which they spread games to the mainstream.
I therefore cringed when Wheaton made declarations like “Jack Thompson can suck my balls” and “all that matters is that we are gamers.” The rhetoric is certainly catchy, but it is still too divisive. That kind of talk sets up a dangerous dichotomy of “us” versus “them.” As the Jack Thompson skirmishes have shown, such a division only serves to further radicalize each side. Our operating concept must instead be “everybody.”
Conclusion: A Call To Non-Arms
Of course, my depiction of the militant gamer is itself a stereotype. For every crazed devotee to the Church of Gamers, there are videogame players who do community service, get involved with their church, or volunteer for their political party. But unfortunately, as the Mass Effect controversy demonstrates, the rabidly protectionist gamer is the public face that gaming community increasingly presents to the larger world.
Thus, this article is a plea to the gaming community - both developers and gamers - to stop talking about Jack Thompson; to hold itself to higher ethical standards than its critics; to stop falling into the victim complex; to resist exclusivity, and embrace players from all walks of life; to demand that gaming blogs stop the hysterical muckraking and misogyny; and most of all, to get more political, and not just about issues of games and media policy.
Initiatives like Child’s Play are wonderful first steps. But as enlightened citizens of the 21st century, it is our responsibility to push ourselves even further and locate our own personal interests within the larger constellation of global issues and challenges.
We avid players of digital games, there’s still hope for us. Just stop calling us “gamers.”