Video games have, for the past decade or so, been on an upward trajectory towards acceptance as a legitimate art form. That is to say, the industry has been slowly separating itself from its simplistic roots and establishing games as capable of constructing meaningful narrative outside the scope of simple murder simulators.
Not that we all don’t enjoy a good murder
This progress has not been met without its fair share of kicking and screaming however. There are in fact entire political movements devoted to keeping video games squarely in the archaic “no girls allowed” era. Keep in mind, these movements are at their core harassment crusades rather than well reasoned campaigns borne out of some inscrutable sense of civic duty. Even amongst more moderate gamers though there is some questioning over whether these advances have gone too far. Some fear that the golden age of gaming is giving way to a more socially reputable and therefore less fun era of watered down Gone Home clones. This is a bit hard to swallow considering the top selling game of 2016 was Call Of Duty: Infinite Warfare. A game that, and I’m just spitballing here, probably dealt in large part with war. But are these fears legitimate? Let’s address a few of them in turn, starting with …
1. “I don’t want anyone pushing an agenda, I just want to play video games”
This is may come as a shock, but video games are a product sold for money.
In theory anyway
That’s already an agenda right there and one most would find hard to argue against. Video games are also an art medium just like any other and can be made for any number of reasons. These “agendas” aren’t in competition with a game’s enjoyment factor, however. When a creator is inspired, when they feel compelled to communicate an idea through gameplay, it translates to a more engaging experience. It is in fact only those games that harbor a purpose or message outside the immediate scope of its entertainment value that will stand the test of time. This is all besides the point however as inclusivity in itself does not qualify as an agenda. Which reminds me …
2. “Diversity in games is unrealistic and just SJW pandering”
This common accusation has its roots in a pretty blatant misconception- that the people making this complaint are not already being pandered to. Every white, grizzled, stubbly male protagonist with a grey sense of morality exists not as a bizarre coincidence alongside every other protagonist of nearly identical qualities. Rather, they are part of a sacred and time-honored tradition of ensuring white male gamers have someone to identify with and idolize.
“an acceptable degree of diversity”
Any female, nonwhite, or LGBTQA character inevitably receives criticism for being forced into a narrative they don’t belong in for the sake of diversity. The inclusion of these characters can hardly even be said to be evidence of diversity in the first place, however. They are but tiny etchings in the colossal monument to straight white dudery in games. Despite this, there are some that still think this “pandering” is misguided, which brings me to my next point …
3. “There’s no reason to think pandering is profitable”
Much like the previous complaint, this one is indicative of a systemic misconception; namely that only straight white men play games and therefore any attempt to market to another demographic is misguided. Quite simply, this is flat out untrue.
Pictured: Blizzard’s response to criticism over their lesbian character Tracer
On the contrary, it is often the case that representation convinces large groups of people to play a game who might not otherwise. This makes sense, people want to see media that is relevant to them or at the very least acknowledges their existence positively (a tall order for some studios). Video games don’t have to sacrifice believability to be inclusive; in fact, the opposite is true. If video games want any chance of garnering respect they will need to demonstrate their ability to be grounded in the real world. That means incorporating people from a wealth of different cultures and backgrounds, not just a small sliver. Despite the reality that there is no “average” gamer, there exists a common criticism leveled at any who would challenge the video game hegemony …
4. “All these SJW’s don’t even care about video games”
This is another complaint stemming from the flawed belief that women and other minorities only criticize games rather than play them. Aside from being altogether untrue, this idea seems to equate critique with dislike of video games as a whole. In reality, the opposite is true. People only take the time to discuss and evaluate the media they enjoy; for most it’s part of their enjoyment. In pointing out of the flaws of the games industry critics help to define what makes a game good and bad. This helps games grow and mature. If no one ever leveled a complaint at a game, by what metric could they ever help to improve?
“Games about non-white pixels are just pandering”
Even those that deem criticism of games valid take issue with some pretty major talking points. That’s why you hear things like …
5. “Male characters are just as sexualized as female characters”
Okay this one is admittedly a little more believable. I mean, there’s plenty of hot video game guys right?
Seriously though if protagonists weren’t enviable and attractive people wouldn’t want to play as them. The inherent joy of games is getting to play as a pinnacle of our own ideals and desires. The issue lies in the misconception that this fantasy is equitable amongst genders. It cannot be said that both women and men exist as sexual fantasies in games. While this is often true for women, it is more appropriate to say that men exist as power fantasies. Quite simply, men are the people we want to emulate while women are meant to be objects for the viewer’s consumption. We can look at this from another angle by examining what role women tend to fill in video games. It is often the case that on a given team of characters there exist a multitude of personality types, for males that is. The hero, the doofus, the wizard, the smooth talker, a male can fall into any number of archetypes. All too often however any female characters are just that, female. They have no niche to fill other than the fulfillment of their gender. This phenomenon is appropriately referred to as the “smurfette principle“. The message here is that male is the default, the expected. Women are confined to a simplistic existence of contrast for the male identity. Still, there are those that argue that women can be sexy and still “empowered”, that’s why you hear things like …
6. “Dictating how women should dress is the REAL sexism”
This observation asserts that, because women in video games are choosing how to present themselves, it is sexist to claim that they are objectified. “Who are we to question her decision? Clearly this is just how this woman expresses herself. When you try and tell a woman what she can and can’t do, that’s sexist.” Even if we ignore the fact that in the physical world women are inherently forced to commodify themselves and their sexuality to demonstrate value under the capitalist system, there is a pretty glaring flaw in this logic. Namely, that video games aren’t real. Ivy from the Soul Calibur doesn’t “choose” to dress like she does, the writers do.
The magical dancing sword whip is the most believable thing about this image
This is because Ivy isn’t a person, she’s a character within a story. We can’t know what her choices would be because she doesn’t exist. This argument might hold weight if just as many characters chose to be enticing to the male gaze as those who didn’t, but this certainly isn’t the case. These characters are subject to a pretty blatant agenda of objectification, regardless of whatever convenient narrative is constructed to justify it. It’s like saying, “Hey I’m not racist, I’ve got lots of black friends.” except all your black friends are just crudely drawn pictures made by you.
Every art medium changes over time as new practitioners add their own unique skills and viewpoints. It was once believed that books signaled the end of intelligence but we’ve been reading them for a while now and are doing okay so far. The truth is that gatekeeping does nothing to protect the integrity of a given artform. Instead, it only promotes stagnation. There’s only so many times a swarthy space marine can mow down a wave of space baddies before we start to feel a strong sense of déjà vu. New gamers means new perspectives and new games. There were always be a market for sex-fueled murder romps, they’re not dying anytime soon. Rather than ensure that these are the only games that have a right to exist we should instead seek out new and exciting genres. There’s plenty of room for everyone.