Here at CBB, we see these broad identities as interrelated, bound together by a shared appreciation for (video) games. Whether you define yourself primarily as content creator or enthusiastic consumer or critical scholar, your tastes and opinions are still influenced by a combination of the three. We play a game not only because the game is “fun,” but because it offers us something we can think about and discuss. We critique a game not only because we want to ponder its significance in a particular time and place, but because critique is a way of expressing our respect and passion. We create art not only because it sates a sense of pride, but because it allows us to shape and affect the community that has shaped and affected us. We are all of us invested in video games through the culture we were born into, the culture that raised us, and the culture that continues to change around us.
That is why, with each passing reference to a new or ongoing point of conflict [pick one or all: Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear; GamerGate; Anita Sarkeesian; Zoe Quinn; Ethics in Journalism; Censorship; Artistic Freedom; SJWs; Oversensitivity; Overwatch & Tracer; Nintendo and Alison Knapp; etc.], I become a little more disenchanted. I am deeply pained that the treasured games of my past (and present) are now a contentious holy grail perpetuating the artificial division between gaming and game criticism despite the breadth of common ground that should unify them. Video game criticism, born from the long tradition of literary and film criticism, is cast as oppositional – and even inimical – to gamers and artists.
And so I wonder: when did artistic production transform from a space for critical reflection to a binary battlefield in an ongoing “culture war” – a term that I, frankly, despise? 1
While “culture war” might seem an apt descriptor for the violent and dangerous rhetoric dominating video game discourse, its continued use encourages the perception that this is a zero-sum conflict for which the ultimate prize is the trajectory of video game development. The attitude of “us” versus “them” is certainly a familiar one, especially in today’s political climate, but that partisanship is hardly a model we should emulate in the gaming community. Because when all is said and done, the video game “culture war” has only marginalized those of us in the center who are invested in the exchange of differing ideas. Our voices are drowned out by vocal advocates on both sides who believe they speak for the “majority,” and in the best interest of video games. The future of video games requires cooperation and sensitivity to individual perspectives, yet we currently have no choice but to align – radicalize – ourselves as either defenders of artistic freedom, or warriors of equality and diversity.
Why are these qualities considered mutually exclusive? Art has never been, and will never be, free of the cultural concerns that helped produce and define it; and art criticism must endeavor to remain incisive without relying on insular generalizations that sacrifice nuance and accessibility. When we cite our commitment to the “greater [ethical] good” (whether that’s free speech or social justice), we invoke a rhetorical shield that convinces us of our opinion’s infallibility. After all, if we stand on the right side of history, then there is no need for us to examine our own blind spots – no need to re-evaluate our approach and the complex facets of our position. To argue that Overwatch‘s Tracer suffered from gratuitous T&A syndrome (ahem tits and ass syndrom) on a public forum is, apparently, to demonstrate a leftist, fascist tendency towards censorship and “reverse” discrimination. By that same token, to critique Polygon‘s infamous Bayonetta 2 review and its premise as weak and unproductive is, apparently, suggestive of latent misogyny and of ignorance that misses the larger picture.
In other words, there is no room for concession. Acknowledging valid counterarguments, and then lingering on them, is the same as betraying our
guild allies. And with the enemy as irrational, hateful, and selfish as they are – why bother wasting the time? That’s what I hear, anyway.
So, I am torn.
I listen to friends who discount and refuse to engage with more conservative opinions, derisively noting “what do you expect from Reddit?”. Well, I’m a Redditor who, though at times frustrated with it, ultimately finds the community capable of rich, intellectual discourse.
I listen to friends who eschew the word “gamer” because of its associations with GamerGate and toxic behaviors. But I refer to myself as a gamer, as an overly competitive lover of MOBAs prone to trash talking, and as a devotee of Animal Crossing and Yo-Kai Watch.
I listen to friends who express anxiety and resentment over the perceived intrusion of “social justice warriors” who might, at any moment, call upon mob justice as revenge for a misspoken word or thoughtless graphic. And yet, it is undeniable that I fulfill many of the SJW characteristics, and that I have never felt the desire to raise my metaphorical pitchfork.
I am stuck in the center, with people pulling me back and forth across a line that shouldn’t even be there.
I will not be reduced and have my thoughts trivialized because I am a Redditor, because I am a gamer, because I am a social activist, because I am so many other labels. I also refuse to do the same to others – to those who want to be able to question and push and learn without being treated with suspicion. The subjective, complicated, variable natures of art and culture cannot be allowed to ossify into an ignorant certainty of one’s own ethical high-ground. Questions cannot be discounted in favor of stagnant echo chambers, not when they actually have the capacity to open us to dialogue and prevent us from merely preaching to the choir.
Nuance and challenge are not threats because we are not at war.
As gamers and game critics, we should be able to challenge each other as well as ourselves so that we evolve alongside our culture of games.
Everything is sexist. Everything is racist. Everything is homophobic. And you have to point it out to everyone all the time.
– Anita Sarkeesian
If there is one characteristic that defines gamers for the mainstream and academia, it’s the resentment and/or hatred towards Anita Sarkeesian. The Big Bad. The epitome of all things wrong with social activism and PC-culture. In fact, stereotypical gamer distaste for Sarkeesian has propagated to the extent that this excerpt, “Everything is sexist…,” has been taken at face value with no one bothering to wonder about the original context. For those truly sincere about ethics in journalism, the misuse of this particular quote should be treated as entirely unethical. It’s all well and good if our position against her (and other critics) is based on an issue with cherry-picking, but to sustain that approach, maybe we should also avoid and call-out cherry-picking in our own community.
Here’s an extended audio cut:
In this particular instance, Sarkeesian’s response is self-deprecating and reflective. She acknowledges the impulse that drives some social activists to make unproductive and generalized claims, no matter their good intentions. She laughs at herself and invites the audience to do the same in a joke that doubles as a critique of mainstream social activism. Yet, somehow, her argument – which actually echoes concerns that “gamers” have vocalized about essentialist frameworks – has been strawmanned to completely distort not just Sarkeesian’s position, but the kind of cultural critique she seems to represent. There is plenty to say about the flawed state of video game criticism. There are plenty of ways to refine, to challenge, and to complicate another person’s understanding of the game. But there is absolutely no need to condemn criticism itself, thereby erasing legitimate issues relevant to video games and the video game industry.
The increasing reliance on the rhetoric of “cultural marxism” generates a boogeyman that has no place here. A cultural critique of games is one that looks at mechanics, graphics, narrative, and the entirety of the game as products of their environments. In the same way that we can read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1831) and discuss its relationship to Romanticism, science, and gender roles, so too can we contextualize video games in terms of their relationship to traditional art forms, new genres, and socio-political trends. As players, we consume these cultural artifacts and are affected by the experience. What an artist actively intended, what we intend when we game, is only part of the picture. A work’s reception and its shifting significance to different people is what preserves it. Would Metroid (1986) be as impressive today if we hadn’t historicized it and recognized what it achieved within its own time both mechanistically and ideologically (i.e. the surprise reveal that Samus is a female)? Would the video game industry be so dynamic if artists weren’t inspired by tradition, and motivated to build on – and change – these same traditions? Culture is how we ascribe meaning to an object, and cultural criticism is an attempt to think about the broader implications of that meaning.
A cultural critique is not a condemnation of a work and its artist. A cultural critique is not a request that all works adhere to a single ideology or standard. A cultural critique is not, and should not be, a demand that art be subordinated to individual aesthetics and beliefs. More often than not, “artistic freedom” and “censorship” are buzzwords that derail discussions – especially considering the vague nature of “freedom.” What does artistic freedom even mean? The right for an artist to produce work according to his or her own values? That hasn’t changed. The right for an artist to produce work without being subject to (certain types of) criticism? That’s a bit different. It’s apparent that while reviews of mechanics and technical elements are fair game, subjective considerations are perceived as lesser (irrelevant). However, it’s insane to attempt to divorce these components. We don’t play an FPS because it’s interchangeable with all other FPSs that use a point and shoot design. We play specific games because each one offers us a unique blend of mechanics and narrative and setting worth discussing.
I like sharing my thoughts with others, and I like it when others share their thoughts with me. In the end, my gaming experience is only enriched even further when I’m introduced to details I hadn’t noticed on my own, or counter-points I hadn’t considered. This is why I find the recent fiasco with Blizzard’s Overwatch mystifying. Fipps begins by complimenting the game and clearly laying out his appreciation for specific elements (I just want to note here that many of Anita Sarkeesian’s videos begin the same way). The other half is a thought-out critique of one character’s one pose. Fipps does not condemn sexuality in games as a whole, nor does he condemn all female Overwatch characters. Fipps simply suggests that given Tracer’s background, perhaps she’s ill-suited to a standard over-the-shoulder aesthetic. What ensues is a tangled thread of unreceptive, vitriolic responses, most of which deliberately misread Fipps’s post as a puritan rejection of female sexuality. Very few directly addressed Fipps’s point about character consistency.
To be honest, I don’t know if I even agree with Fipps in this case. However, his post is organized, cites evidence, provides justifications, and leaves plenty of room for productive, healthy debate. Unfortunately, the thread became a polarized mess. Blizzard’s quick response – to remove Tracer’s victory pose – ignited the flames further, with many dissatisfied players interpreting the revision as another instance of SJW overreach. But who exactly is being censored or limited? Blizzard’s justification, “We weren’t entirely happy with the original pose, it was always one that we wrestled with creatively,” the justification of the actual art team, is not good enough. Because it does not align with a particular narrative, Jeff Kaplan’s perfectly reasonable statement is treated as suspect. Because apparently, one group of gamers knows Blizzard’s artistic vision better than Blizzard does. And the other gamers who might’ve agreed with Fipps’s assessment? Well, they’re just a vocal, disruptive, entitled “minority.”
The point of beta testing a game is to gain feedback, and to incorporate that feedback into the next release. The ability for game developers to expand, debug, modify, and patch their works of art is amazing. Consumers can know that they’ve directly participated in the creation process. Modern games are the result of community input, and of course, some of these voices and ideas are in conflict; once again, we should see this as a chance for dialogue, not radicalized positions. Why is it that Tracer’s change is somehow more corrupt than the regular patches that update League of Legends‘ aesthetics based on player opinions? Why is it that critiques of some champions’ proportions and lackluster design are valid…right up until they aren’t?
I reiterate that Fipps’s critique did not apply to the other, sexual characters in Overwatch, and yet, we are to believe that the end is nigh? Take, for instance, this post in the League of Legends subreddit.
Aside from the fact that gilding standards are evidently lower than I thought…how is there no cognitive dissonance here? Why is designing characters based on an arbitrary standard of “hotness” that I doubt everyone shares – I find Kindred beautiful – a better artistic ethos than designing with a mix of bodies and preferences in mind? My response to such nonsense is:
When will League of Legends release an 8-bit champion of sexy sexiness, because boy, those were the days?! Look at these young gamers, thinking their opinions matter. I bet they’re mainly console gamers anyway who have no idea what real games were like.
And she’s completely right. The defensive reactions to critiques relating to sexuality and female characters are unnecessary. No one is trying to eliminate “sexy” characters because “sexy” in and of itself is a neutral thing; within the right context, plenty of feminists argue it’s empowering. The purpose of critiques like Fipps’s and drysider’s is to encourage creativity and evolution in game design. Whether or not a game element is “good,” is entirely dependent on the game as a whole.
- Just consider, for a moment, that criticism is not the enemy. It is an invitation to a conversation about a shared interest.
- Consider, too, that these critiques are founded on a sincere desire to help make games better.
- Consider, finally, that we can disagree with some or all of a critique without completely discounting the perspective it offers.
Maybe our experience of a game and game culture is vastly different and so, for us, the stakes of some cultural critiques are laughable or exaggerated. That’s fine. But we can still endeavor to listen to the many other experiences that exist alongside ours, and that form the diverse audience invested in video games.
Critics suffer from a context problem just as much as gamers do. When I see articles like Patrick Keplek’s, I am reminded that the rhetoric of gamergate has ingrained itself into the landscape of video game discourse. Rather than pursuing nuance, we have fallen back onto broad generalizations, tropes, and observations that reiterate what we already know, and appeal to those who already agree.
Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic (1979), Anita Sarkeesian’s Women & Tropes video series, etc. have long established the fact that patterns exist in how we depict certain bodies. But these patterns do not hold the same implications across contexts, and they do not serve the same set of functions. The Bayonetta 2 review that became one of the linchpins behind GamerGate was right to expand its scope and address how Bayonetta as a character might be a manifestation of outdated conventions. At the same time, the review is reductive and filled with problematic assumptions that we, as critics, should reflect and improve on. Rubrics and points are awful ways to quantify games and gameplay, especially if the intent is to make socio-cultural factors accessible to mainstream consumers. If we can dock points for gratuitous cleavage, then we can also return points to Bayonetta 2 for being queer friendly? For every potentially demeaning body bounce, players are also reminded of Bayonetta’s devotion to Jeanne.
The weakness of “trope” based analysis is the correlating tendency to forgo intersectionality in favor of isolating obvious markers such as skin color, physical features, plot arcs, and the like. Yes, women’s bodies are on display in many video games – but where do we go from here? Sometimes this display is empowering, sometimes it’s demeaning, and sometimes it depends on race and sexual orientation. The trope, the pattern, can take us no further than a limited, obvious conclusion. If we analyze a piece of art knowing what our argument is (sexism, broadly defined), knowing what we’re looking for (T&A syndrome), we’ve already missed the forest for the trees. We miss the points of intersection, and the tangled, contradicting threads that make critical discussions valuable.
We overlook that Bayonetta 2 is a satire of T&A syndrome, and that as a satire, Bayonetta’s overt sexuality has an additional dimension. Mark Filipowich’s claim pushes us past the “so what?” that I’ve frequently come to feel when I read cultural criticism. In two sentences, his “The Inelegance of the Video Game Satire” provides the nuanced, insightful, and contextualized critique missing from Gies’s piece: “The game shines a glaring light on how exploitative games are designed from the perspective of the male gaze and then does nothing. It shows us sexism but doesn’t offer anything other than more sexism.” Think about the wealth of questions that can be generated from this brief analysis. What is the modern relationship between video game satire and sexuality? How can satire subvert sexual traditions? Is the satirical significance negated when the primary consumers are unaware or unmoved by it?
By asking these questions, we are slowly carving out another path for a future game to traverse, one that, hopefully, takes us further than we currently are.
I find Maddy Myers’s review compelling for this same reason – not because I necessarily agree with its every conclusion, but because it contextualizes Bayonetta 2‘s cultural elements within the rest of the game. It understands that a critique isn’t about the “gotcha moment” or reiterating one’s own social awareness; rather, a critique complicates. Myers’s recuperative reading – “When I play, Bayonetta is me, and the camera’s glances are just the ‘sub gaze’—the male submissive’s gaze” – forces us to rethink our stagnant assumptions: that voyeurism is always male; that bodies on display are always passive; that sex appeal always targets a straight, male audience.
These are the types of reviews and cultural critiques we need to expect. Generalizations, as easy as they are, are a symptom of intellectual complacency, and invite damaging generalizations in return, doing nothing to convince those who are not already on our side. Instead, game criticism should embrace its individualized perspective as a way of fostering participation and debate. That’s what culture is: exchange and evolution.
If we demand critical thinking and self-reflection from gamers at large, then we should also demand it from ourselves.
Art has meaning and art affects us – else we wouldn’t return to it. There is no such thing as an apolitical, acultural video game, and there is no foundation for the belief that some inherent (nonexistent) core of artistic purity is being tainted by social change. (And for the record? A work can have political significance even if it wasn’t intended as a political act. That’s how subtext works. That’s how communication works.)
Artistic production is as much about the consumer as it is the artist, not in the sense that we are entitled to an artist’s work, but in the sense that art is the summation of all our contributions and influences. It’s why we players and game enthusiasts are passionate – protective – of the games we play. We want others to see games the way we do, and we want games to progress forward. Yet, even if our visions occasionally clash, we are not at war. What we are, is in the midst of a conversation that still has to find its footing through mutual respect and empathy.
The transformations in the gaming industry are not orchestrated by an evil, entitled minority; they reflect the minds of writers, programmers, graphic artists, marketers, and so many others growing together, and inviting you to grow with them.
I know that the constant stream of articles and viral posts about social justice can be exhausting, and at a certain threshold, seem like white noise. I’m well aware that the growing reliance on “calling out” and shaming dissenters is dangerous and harmful. 2 I’m saddened by the hypocrisy that allows self-proclaimed social activists to justify and excuse doxxing, threats, and stalking because they do it on behalf of marginalized groups.
Similarly though, I’m frustrated by the toxic – yes, toxic – attitudes that remain unchecked in game communities. I’m infuriated that complaints about clearly discriminatory behavior and disturbing comments are laughed off as the exaggerations of overly sensitive whiners. I’m frightened that anecdotes, police reports, and screenshots from people who have been deeply scarred earn more derision than sympathy.
And ultimately, I believe that the ease with which we discount the opposition – as people we wouldn’t want on our side anyway – has radicalized our rhetoric, and entrenched us deeper into our respective echo chambers.
(P.S. As always, different opinions are welcomed and encouraged. If you want to write an extended response, just click on the submissions page and send us a note)
- If you’re interested in the phrase itself (used in relation to video games), then you might want to try Kyle Wagner’s “The Future of the Culture Wars Is Here…” (2014) or, the more recent “The Ugly New Front in…” (2016). ↩
- Research has shown that the “mobilization of shame” is associated with “compassion fatigue,” and even worse, can create “a moral outrage that has the power to overwhelm the potential for bearing genuine ethical witness.” In other words – it becomes a selfish, if cathartic, exercise. ↩