It’s been a while since I’ve considered the idea that video games were art. It initially seemed obvious to me. Of course video games are art. They involve music, art, writing, world-building, and interactivity in ways that other media could never achieve. This makes them art on a whole new, very interesting level. The late Roger Ebert’s 2010 argument that games cannot be art made me rethink the terms by which games could be art. Despite his compelling reasoning, I think he missed just how significantly games can affect people. We can (and I have) find incredible meaning in the ways game developers insert us into an environment and allow us to achieve some sort of goal (or fail at that goal).
Over the last decade, a critical side-effect of games becoming increasingly popular art is the realization that they are interpreted through the experiences of a wider variety of people. According to the 2014 report by the Entertainment Software Association, 59% of Americans play video games, and 48% of those are women. Long gone are the days of the mid-2000’s when in multiplayer games, your comrades were a symphony of male voices of varying pitches and age ranges on the microphone.
As a result, games and gaming has had to come to terms with demographic reorientation. You can’t market a game solely to white males 18-35 anymore without at least considering how it will sell to other audiences. Advertising is changing–is being pressured to change.
The expanding audience for video games is subjecting the medium to all sorts of exciting new critiques from feminists, and queer theorists, and others. These writers and social critics are enriching the gaming environment by calling on publishers and game developers to realize that content objectifying women or perpetuating violent cultural subtypes cheapens the cultural impact of gaming and drives away important segments of gamers.
Social criticism is usually a good sign. It means your medium is being taken seriously, and that it is important enough to groups of very smart people that they want to change it in ways that they feel would benefit current and future gamers. That means they believe games have the power to change not only gamers and games themselves, but the rest of society with it. That’s powerful stuff.
But you wouldn’t think that was such a good idea if you have been locked in the #GamerGate echo chamber over the past few months. The Twitter hashtag got its start as most scandals involving women seem to: jilted lover posts seemingly incriminating material designed to incite an angry mob into a slut-shaming frenzy. The ex in question tried to link Zoe’s alleged infidelity with corruption in independent games journalism. Instead, it was just another virulent backlash against the changing character of video games and gamers by an increasingly tribalistic, hateful segment of conservatives that not even Cracked.com could find much humor in.
When famous conservative Adam Baldwin (yes, of Firefly fame) tweeted the #GamerGate hashtag to support the movement, it took off. Thus began a new campaign of hate, couched in a crusade of journalistic responsibility. At its core it remains a profoundly conservative, anti-feminist movement.
Gamers assert that people like Zoe Quinn making games about depression rather than shooting Nazis aren’t making “real” video games. Others argue that Anita Sarkeesion, whose video series on misogynist tropes in modern games, is trying to force games to change, or ruining video games as we know it. Both have faced death and rape threats, publication of their personal information (“doxxing”), and Sarkeesian was driven out of her home as recently as August, 2014, by escalating threats.
Recently, #GamerGate is making the rounds again. Gamasutra is a popular news website dedicated to games journalism and blogging. In August, Leigh Alexander published a piece arguing that the era of “gamers” must come to an end. The hypermasculine advertising geared toward gaming culture that this summer exploded into international news outlets, she argued, threatens to become representative of gaming and gamers throughout society. As a result, on September 10th #GamerGaters (also known as GamerGhazis, GamerGators, or just Gators) launched a campaign against the website’s advertisers. Intel was chief among them.
On Thursday, October 3rd, Intel announced that it was withdrawing ads from the site in response to the complaints. Their press release stated that they did not intend to support or denounce either party with their actions. Gamasutra may very well succumb to corporate perceptions of false balance putting feminism on a level playing field with mens rights.
Gamers are dead. Almost 2/3rds of Americans are gamers, and we’re not all white men 18-35 looking to fulfill our masculinist fantasies. This is the byproduct of games becoming art, and it is a good thing. In fifty years, today’s video games will be talked about, both in a positive and a negative light. Games like Mass Effect and Depression Quest will be mentioned for how they sought to broaden the sexual and psychological dimensions of typical games. Meanwhile, games like Hitman: Absolution will be discussed in passing as a product of the last generation of the 1990s/2000s “gamer.”
There will, of course, be a place for games like Duke Nukem and Hitman: Absolution as a genre in the future. But hopefully young developers realize that the atmosphere of sexism and sexual violence that pervade these titles are not central elements to what makes those games fun and/or artistic.
Gaming has become embroiled in the culture wars, and deservedly so. They are important, and millions of people derive meaning, friendships, and entertainment from them. Those who think that we can go back to “just games, not politics” are mistaken. If you want video games taken seriously, you have to contend with the political. Insisting on “neutrality” leads to the silencing of the social critique that drives the immense popularity and social power of video games. In this conflict, what seems like neutrality is not so at all–it is conceding defeat to conservatives.
I, for one, think video games are too important, too much damned fun to concede that they are no place for serious social critique.
- Zen of Design, “Is GamerGate Anti-Feminism? Well, Duh,” October 2, 2014
- Secret Gamer Girl, “The longterm plans of #Gamergate,” October 5, 2014
- Storify of Transphobia in GamerGate
- Katherine Cross, “We must dissent: Intel bows to GamerGate campaign to silence feminist video game critics,” October 6, 2014