There’s an old critical adage that no aspect of art exists in a vaccuum. Whether intentional or not, every piece of work is a product of the creator’s environment, their reality, and what they perceive as reality.
With that in mind, what appears to be the leitmotif of how the GamerGate folks have answered the questions so far is “escapism”. That is to say, games aren’t real, don’t represent real life, and any attempts to apply to the real world, or contrast the real world to something in games is both unwanted, and unnecessary. Games, for these folks, are the vaccuum, and any sort of deep-dive analysis to use reality as the lens for them is not just unwanted but a detriment to how games get made.
To extent, I actually agree. I don’t think anyone started out playing and loving games because they wanted to have their political agenda fed back at them. I can almost guarantee, you ask Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Jenn Frank, et al why they started playing games, and they’ll give you some horrifyingly similar answers to their staunchest detractors. Some game caught their eye, they picked up a controller, it was fun. Games were fun. Games ARE fun. They’re a glorious way to escape. Escapism is fun.
And then we all went and made a crucial mistake. We wanted more.
The irony of it all is that what’s happening right now in games, with all this scary seriousness and pushing of agendas, is all of our faults. All of us. Why? Because we wanted BETTER games. We kept pushing for better graphics, bigger stories, adult content. Once upon a time, holding an MA-17 or M rated game in your grubby hands was a sign of pride. Here be adult themes. No one could stop us now.
Well, we’ve got it. Gamers grew up; games grew up. And now, we have two camps: Adults who can’t help but view games through their adult lens, and the people who want ZERO to do with that. Games exist in a vaccuum, and it’s very clear from the responses to the agenda question how many folks would like to keep it that way.
It is my solemn duty to inform the latter folks that the fight’s over. We’ve all already pushed ourselves into this terrifying corner where games, the hardware than runs them, and the people who make them are so damn full of potential that people have started wondering what else we can do with it. And what we can do with it is EVERYTHING.
Think back, everybody on both sides: You’ve said, at some point in your development, that you wish there was a day when games were like movies. They had real actors, real voices, soundtracks, and realistic graphics. And at whatever point we said it, we weren’t smart enough to thinking about the implications of that.
Because think about film. Film is fun too. Film is escapism. Even the most jaded grand mal assholes of the film world aren’t immune to being swept away by a flight of grand fantasy. But it is also more. It reflects ideas. It reflects its creators, It reflects the cultural climate in which it was made. Read any major critical review of The Dark Knight when it came out, even the effusive ones, and a recurring note will be about it being very much a George W. Bush-era superhero film.
But even beyond comic book movies, look at all the different films we get. We get escapism. We get autobiography. We get terrifying acts of violence, and we are meant to either condemn it, or wallow in it like bloodthirsty pigs. We get quiet acts of kindness and love. We get explorations of criminality. We get rousing pieces of inspiration. We get old people dealing with their regrets. We get young people who gleefully have none. We get addicts. We get the insane. We get saints. We get heart-pounding meditations on wanton fucking and we get equal meditations on the consequences of it. This is film. This is every pop culture medium. It is reflecting life as it is, was, will be, can be, and won’t ever be, and even with all that going on, we still get “life as we wish it was”. Yes, people, you still get to keep escapism.
We pushed games into a very adult spotlight, in the name of “mature content”. All that other stuff is what comes with it. And with that, it must be expected that adults are going to have very adult opinions about it. Which means, you’re going to have critics. Critics, I have to alliterate, are critical. And criticism is not strictly an evaluation of how well a piece of art allows its audience to escape reality and never will be. Maybe once, back when that’s all games were capable of, that was the case. Once folks started coming out of the woodwork and saying they cried at Aeris’ murder, it was all over. Games as a medium stopped keeping it in their pants when it came to flirting with bold, artistic sentiment a long time ago, and it hasn’t stopped trying (and often hilariously failing) to get to the promised land ever since.
And so, you have the examples from the Pushing Agendas article, seen as “bad journalism”. You have folks who want to push the medium forward, but that involves an expansion in thought of what games are capable of. Escapism is horribly limiting for the people that do want to do more with all the tools that are at their disposal. More than that, it’s limiting to the people who play it as well, and it’s not an agenda to want to see more, better, different. More, better, and different means different things to different people. To folks who have been critical of how women have been portrayed in games, that means evaluating why so many portrayals of women don’t let them be heroes, or if they are heroes, why their tits have to be out, or if their tits are out, why do they have to flop around like wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube men.
That’s not pushing an agenda. That’s not an attempt to ruin games. That’s not saying that no game should ever exist that suggests the hint of objectification of men or women. What it is, is pushing for MORE. It’s pushing for better. It’s pushing for better games, a wide, gluttonous variety of games, just like everybody who’s held a controller ever does. That involves pushing for quality, not quantity. If a woman is sexualized in a game, awesome, women are beautiful. But this cannot be all or even most of what we see. I don’t want every movie I see to be Beyond The Valley of the Dolls, especially not at the expense of creators getting yelled at if they try to make Blue Is The Warmest Color once in a while, and especially not for trying to make a movie where sex and titillation isn’t even on the table, or where the sex isn’t portrayed just “because sex is fun”. Games aren’t *just* fun anymore. And, apologies GamerGate, but we cannot evaluate them like they all have to be. This goes for sex, politics, religion, any of the taboos that a lot of people don’t want to address in games. Games are not, by and large, completely mechanical constructs anymore, and really haven’t been the second actual human beings and not blocky spaceships started being the heroes. Once your game tries to create “a character”, that character will be judged by the same standards as someone creating a character on the page, on the stage, on the screen. Welcome to adulthood, video games.
So, when you see journalists championing a game like Gone Home, it’s because the awesome folks at Fullbright put every player, man, woman, child, into the mind of a girl, which may or may not be their experience to begin with, but also a girl who gets to see her family not just as authority, or as siblings, but as developing, complex human beings. This is not something escapism gets to do. It inspire empathy, sympathy. It rouses emotions that games normally don’t. Parts of the brain are being teased and taunted that no FPS could. And when you start wanting and expecting more out of games than just an escape, that’s really, REALLY fucking exciting. And it makes critics want to shout about it from every street corner. It means video games can and ARE ALREADY more than what they were when they started. And with that comes the expectation that they be taken just as seriously. Yes, even when they ARE, in fact, escapism. Hell, moreso when it’s escapism. The question so many folks in the industry have been asking the last few weeks is what it says about a lot of people when your escape from the real world involves a place where half of the human family is so very often treated like disposable prostitutes?
Not what you want out of games? That’s fine. It’s limited, and I can guarantee games will get mighty dull without folks pushing forward, but it’s fine. I know folks who only see 2 or 3 movies a year, and they all have the Marvel logo before it. It’s not an invalid way to enjoy your medium. But as has been touted by so many the last few weeks, games are for EVERYONE. And games like Gone Home or Dear Esther or Depression Quest are little more than the tiny arthouse fare existing right alongside the Man of Steels and Transformers of the gaming world. These things can co-exist, as can the people writing about them, and the people willing to read about it can vote with their eyes, ears, and wallets. One side doesn’t have to bow and swear fealty to the other.
But there’s going to be discussion when it comes to gaming press, because games, in their current state, invited that discussion, when they decided to tell stories, to create digital people, to apply the tools of art. It’s going to be personal, opinionated, and biased because that’s what life experience brings when you’re analyzing an artform in any sort of meaningful terms, and the only thing anyone can do to combat adults discussing what is attempting to be an adult medium is to stop wanting better games, pull out an Atari, and return to Pong and Space Invaders. There’s no characters there. There’s no story. There’s just mechanics. Mechanics you can assign a level of fun numbered 1-10 to a lot easier than you can judge what Ellie’s “Okay” at the end of The Last of Us meant. This is what comes part and parcel with any cultural medium for ideas growing up. There’s no separating that. “The only winning move is not to play.” That’s god damned right, and that movie was about games made back in 1983. They hadn’t seen anything yet. Neither have we. That’s why we write the way we do.