This is… not one of my stronger episodes. The original was less about condemning gamer culture and more about making the argument that any and all actions have some modicum of political value. I started with specific titles like Bioshock Infinite and GTA, then moved to more general games that didn’t necessarily intend to be political, and both of those are still in the video. But then I started referencing McLuhan’s whole The Medium Is The Message thing, arguing that making a game has its own intrinsic values vs. other mediums and means of self-expression. Then I tried to step back even further and look how one’s job, car, hobbies, clothing, eating habits, etc, all have political connotations and that escaping the political is all but impossible.
This quickly became a vague exercise in pointless philosophizing more than a diatribe about how people reacted to things like Carolyn Petit and Jim Sterling’s GTAV reviews or Feminist Frequency’s efforts. But I had 2.5 pages I really liked, and a page and a half that was kinda lame. So I surgeried the script to target gamers and gamer culture – and while I stand by what I said I can certainly see how the framing comes off as a bit strawman-y. Ah well.
(Also, Sorry about the video quality on this one. I screwed up creating the project in Premiere, finished editing it, realized that this version of Premiere has no way to correct the configuration error. A stupid mistake, but not one I seem to be able to meaningfully correct without re-editing the video which would take several days. Next video should, in theory, not look this horrible in motion.)
Script below the break.
It should come as no surprise that as games have grown in cultural influence they’ve also attracted a growing number of cultural and social critics. And as critics are wont to do, they… (well, okay, we) bring up issues with the game’s handling of women, of race relations, of the portrayal of LBGTQ characters and topics, of classism, and of culture at large.
And the responses from traditional quote-unquote “gamers” (which is a word I hate to use, but that’s another episode) are always the same: “Keep your politics out of my video games!” or “Oh Boy, another reviewer with an agenda!” And you see this a lot with the gamer community. They’ll bumrush Ebert or any other respected figure and insist they take games seriously as art. But as soon as anyone does try to take a game’s claims of artistic intent seriously by looking at the game’s content and meaning then suddenly the line becomes “Oh, they’re just games! Stop being so serious. They’re just for fun!”
Gamers want playing a video game to be a respected way to spend their time, they want to appear cultured for having completed highly praised titles; they want everyone else who ignores games to see how amazing and enrapturing and evocative a game can be. And there’s a naive optimism in that I can respect. I mean, I certainly see beauty and expressive potential in systems, if I didn’t I wouldn’t do this show. But that naive optimism is overshadowed by the tantrums thrown when gamers see the reality of games being taken seriously. They want to proclaim their hobby to be art with no strings attached. They want their games to be adulated without also being criticized. They want their games to be hard to play but not challenging to consume. They want they want games to have tremendous power, but without any responsibility. (Why does that sound familiar?)
And really this mentality is an extension of the games-as-boxed-product worldview that’s been adopted by… well, pretty much everyone when it comes to AAA titles. It’s what makes people outraged when a game like Grand Theft Auto V is given a 9 instead of a 10 because it “does everything right.” It’s also what makes people ask for so-called “objective reviews” that only look at feature sets and technical competence. It’s a consumer-goods perspective that suggests game writers should cover games the same way one would discuss toothpaste or socks. And game publishers are as complicit in promoting this view as much as anyone – between the yearly releases, the focus on features they can put on the back of the box, and the slick commercials aimed at specific demographic it often feels like games are marketed more like cars than works of pop culture. And from that warped world view the idea of keeping politics out of video games almost makes sense. No one test drives a sedan and then goes home and writes about the car’s troubling presentation of minorities or its oppressive heteronormativity.
But that’s the core problem with the “keep your politics out of my video games” argument. It presupposes video games are apolitical to begin with. Like they’re these wholesome, pure things that exist free from the taint of ideology or bias or viewpoint. They’re mathematical expressions or cartographical mappings of the world, and anyone dissecting them in a political or social or cultural context is just bringing their own baggage to the conversation. But that’s just absurd on its face – especially as many of the games that generate some of the harshest criticisms bring their own politics to the table. Bioshock Infinite uses racially charged imagery as a replacement for actually giving Comstock a reason to be an antagonist for the first half of the game. Can race relations really be an off-topic taboo for dissecting or discussing the game when the game itself keeps bringing it up? Grand Theft Auto V comments on sex and politics more or less constantly. In fact it’s kind of the core of the game’s supposed satire. It’s the Houlden Caufield of videogames, running around pointing out how everyone is a phony. In essence it argues for a sort of South Park centrism where everyone with strong opinions is wrong because people with strong opinions are easy to turn into lazy parody. The game skewers everyone in a lazy effort to be above the fray, but in the process it ends up punching down at vulnerable groups of people more often than it punches up at existing power structures. It’s kind of hard to keep politics out of games that openly invite such discussions.
But even in games that don’t seem to beg for political discourse, a discussion about the game’s politics can still be had. There’s certainly something to be said about the assumptions, say, Civilization builds into its simulations. Look at its winstates and what they value – technological progress, military conquest, economic superiority, and cultural domination. You don’t win by eliminating hunger or poverty or by nuclear deproliferation or by having a particularly high standard of living. You get it for, for lack of a better way to phrase this, very American goals. Winning the space race? Becoming a recognized world leader at the UN? Having a giant shiny army that can easily crush other civs? Cultural domination by so-called great works that get exported to the world? Civilization values what the culture that created it values, and while the game didn’t set out to be a political statement the way it systemized the world certainly presents one.
Or we can look at the recent release of SimCity. It clearly values dense urban cities over all other types of cities: not only do the game’s city size limitations and overall goals reinforce this, but the developers have said as much. It’s less interested in exploring cities of all kinds than it is in asking you to grind your way up to the sort of city it idealizes – a tightly packed skyscraper filled metropolis. In its view sprawling suburbia is just lazily wasted space, and an agrarian or rural city literally doesn’t exist.
And remember the debate everyone had about Spore and whether it presented a case for creationism or evolution?Or how The Sims defines modern life as a game of conspicuous consumption? Or how EVE online is sort of a Libertanian dystopia?
My point is that while the outward intent of these games isn’t to necessarily be political, you can definitely see how the viewpoint and values of the developers makes their way into these games, right? How we can have a political conversation about the implications of a game’s systems and metaphors and how they reinforce or challenge different political ideas? That by having these conversations we’re not bringing politics into the game but rather discussing the already extant politics of the game?
Well, even if you can’t agree to that it doesn’t really matter. Because it turns out that insisting that games generally don’t take a political stance is itself a political stance. It’s an argument suggests the apolitical is anything that doesn’t openly advocate anything in particular. Gamers think politics is invading discussion of games because they don’t see anything political about the way games are. They’re comfortable with the games that are currently being made and the messages games are currently sending out about culture and society. Subsequently they don’t see them as politically charged works but rather works that reflect their perceived reality. “Grand Theft Auto V isn’t misogynistic and transphobic, it’s just presenting the world as it really is, you know? Civilization isn’t a game about cultural, financial, and military imperialism, it’s just retelling the story of man. Bioshock Infinite doesn’t wrecklessly invoke racially charged imagery as a lazy shorthand for evil without justifying itself, it’s just referencing, like, an actual period in history where people thought that and stuff.” But reframing a game’s politics as “just the way the world works” is at best a poor apologia for a game’s political views, and definitely not a meaningful refutation that those ideas are in the text.
Politics isn’t some alien subject coming in and invading our precious games and games writing with its harmful presence. It’s already here. Hell, it’s been here, from the abhorrent racism of Custer’s Revenge to the Western jingoism of Call of Duty, from the anti-nuclear stance of Chris Crawford’s Balance of Power to the anti-nuclear stance of DEFCON, from the city planning assumptions built into SimCity to the city planning assumptions built into SimCity. Games are and have been political, carrying messages about the worldview of their developers whether they intended them or not. Does that mean every conversation about games has to be political? No, of course not! There are plenty of engaging discussions to be had about story structure, emotional impact, mechanic and system design, and tons of other stuff. But when someone tries to bring up a game’s politics – whether it’s in a review, a criticism, or simply a forum post or Twitter comment – the response shouldn’t be a childish meltdown about how games aren’t political and to stop taking things so seriously. To do so is to insist that games don’t have the capacity to be political. We can’t have it both ways. Either games are expressive and they need to be responsible for what they express, or they’re just games and of no cultural consequence. You know which way I lean in that debate. What about you?