Whether it’s in the concluding chapter of Ian Bogost’s How to Do Things With Videogames (“The End of Gamers”), Dan Golding’s more recent blog on the subject (with the same title, oddly enough), or the hundreds of tweets being written about it, we’re seeing calls to do away with the concept of “gamers” altogether.
This is great, but this change isn’t going to happen automatically. It is absolutely not inevitable. Celebrating that uncertain victory now is premature, hubristic, and an insult to the people who are suffering abuse from self-identified “gamers”.
As such, I’d like to postpone our back-patting and think about solutions for bringing this change about sooner than later, as I think that ending the regular harassment of women in games is better achieved today than tomorrow.
We can’t just Twitter-block the problem away. Even a video series critical of the medium is only a partial solution. Games culture needs to change at a grassroots level, and each of us have a part to play in that revolution if we want it to happen. It’s not only the worst of us who need to change. None of us are outside of this system. None of us are completely above its effects. None of us are entirely innocent. We all need to work to make our role in games culture more positive (which absolutely does not mean “less critical”).
So here are some preliminary tactics I propose for transforming games (feel free to propose your own in the comments, and offer revisions to mine):
We don’t wait. We don’t wait until after that big, exciting sequel is out. We don’t wait until after E3, GDC, or PAX. We don’t wait until we finish this game we’ve been investing hours into, or until after we unlock that new assault rifle. We don’t wait for other people to fix this. There’s just going to be another E3 and another newly-announced game and another excuse to not look at the present state of games culture. This industry has been distracting us with carrots-on-sticks since its inception, repeatedly pulling the rug out from under us before we could even get oriented in the first place. There’s always been a promise of something better around the corner, so we don’t bother examining or acting-on what’s right in front of us. But we must examine ourselves and act, right now. We’ve been doing far too much waiting in games. We need to raise our expectations and stop waiting for the medium to mature. It’s 2014. The first generation of consoles was decades ago. The only reason for games to be immature is if its consumers and producers are allowing them to be that way. The people who have decided to terrorize this medium aren’t waiting around, so we shouldn’t either.
We listen to those who are less privileged than we are, and we don’t adopt a default stance of skepticism towards their views and claims. We support them when we have the power to, we involve them when we have the power to, and we don’t ignore it when institutions fail to do these things. We each proudly claim the label of “social justice warrior” (if only to subvert its use as a pejorative). We do whatever we can to learn about the inequalities in the world, and we examine what we can do to change things for the better.
We display broader interests as individuals who make and play games. We spend more time learning about the world beyond this industry. We put more effort into making games about things other than what we’ve already seen in games. Apparent sources of inspiration for games are getting suffocatingly narrow because people are increasingly likely to ignore all of the things outside of their window when they decide to make a game. There’s a lot of fascinating, beautiful, and horrifying stuff going on out there, and it’s more important to understand that than indulge in yet another escapist fantasy universe.
We make and play fewer isolating games, including online multiplayer games. If our medium is designed for people to stay secluded for dozens of hours while having their egos stroked, then we reap what we sow in terms of the kinds of people who emerge from this pastime. We need to consider the very real possibility that the offensive behavior displayed by gamers in recent weeks is not unrelated to the artifacts they rally around (which I doubt are especially obscure). These people didn’t come from nowhere to fight about nothing. They came from games to fight about games. They’re organic results of the medium we’ve all played a role in cultivating, and they won’t go away if the medium doesn’t change significantly.
We become far more mindful of the games we make and play. Sexism in games is pervasive and toxic. Racism in games is pervasive and toxic. Violence in games is pervasive and toxic. Despite the skepticism the games press shows at every opportunity, it *really* looks like violent games *do* make us more aggressive and less empathetic. If researchers are repeatedly suggesting this and then we complain that the vilest people in our communities are too aggressive and not empathetic enough, aren’t we partially to blame for our general eagerness to make and play games that have these overall effects on people? If you think you’re not affected, you’re sorely mistaken and you sound no less ridiculous than people who claim that advertising doesn’t work on them. (By the way, kids are regularly playing violent games too, because that’s what our culture says is expected of “real gamers”. ESRB ratings are pretty useless.)
We maintain a critical eye towards the e-sports scene and its accompanying machismo. We’ve been trying to make careers out of playing what seem like the videogame equivalents of American football (MOBAs) and mixed martial arts (fighting games), in a warped attempt at gaining legitimacy for our pastime. Back when the genre of choice for the e-sports hopeful was first-person shooters, I had an intimate view of what these intensely competitive videogames often did to people (including me and my friends). Let me assure you that it’s very sad and ugly, and it doesn’t seem like that’s changed much. People passionately and regularly obsessing over brutalizing strangers’ avatars over the internet (in hopes of eventually doing it professionally) is scary and I deeply mistrust it.
We change the culture of game consumption to be less about buying and rating games, and instead develop a paradigm that is more about playing and thoroughly investigating games. The reason this is so vital is because to be a “gamer” is not merely to play games. At its core, to be a “gamer” is to obsessively and regularly make the correct purchases. “Gamers” are such vicious gatekeepers because they want to protect the perceived value of their investments. We can subvert that by making and playing more free games, changing the ways we evaluate and discuss games, and finding new ways to fund game development.
We jettison the hardcore/casual dichotomy. It’s utter garbage that’s only used for three reasons: 1) to feel superior to others, 2) to tragically submit to unjust hierarchies of play, or 3) to sell products (and effectively reinforce the other two). Besides, what’s more “casual”: mastering a free mobile game over many years or spending a Saturday buying and exhausting the latest murder simulator that you believed you were supposed to play?
We let the industry’s tentpoles fall to the ground more often. We stop allowing ourselves to be told which games we need to play. We’re smarter than that. We abandon any skepticism any of us have towards underrepresented people’s deep concerns about the medium, and we are instead skeptical of game publishers’ interests in our well-being. (Drug dealers want their customers to have fun too, you know.)
We always remember that we don’t need to buy new things in order to legitimately appreciate games. We play old games until they’ve revealed all of their secrets, and then we play them some more. We stop implicitly accepting the idea that games are meant to be disposable. We dissect gaming’s recent and ancient past (and everything in between) instead of just perpetually flailing around in its cacophonous, slippery, and overwhelming present (and future).
We stop upholding “fun” as the universal, ultimate criterion for a game’s relevance. It’s a meaningless ideal at best and a poisonous priority at worst. Fun is a neurological trick. Plenty of categorically unhealthy things are “fun”. Let’s try for something more. Many of the alternatives will have similarly fuzzy definitions, but let’s aspire to qualities like “edifying”, “healing”, “pro-social”, or even “enlightening”. I encourage you to decide upon your own alternatives to “fun” in games (while avoiding terms like “cool” and “awesome” and any other word that simply caters to existing, unexamined biases).
We don’t afford any credence to the idea that games are “just for fun”. Games are not neutral. Anita Sarkeesian is not imposing her feminist values onto games; she’s identifying the misogynistic values that game developers have (sometimes unwittingly) incorporated into games. You don’t have to think her efforts are perfect, but what she’s doing is not inappropriate. Discovering the values expressed by games is a responsible thing to do; discouraging that practice is cowardly. We need to regularly compare our games’ expressed values to our own real values. In the end, we may arrive at different conclusions about what different games mean, but we need to stop asserting that they’re meaningless.
We make and play fewer linear games about one person saving the world. Take a look at the people terrorizing games culture lately: they're almost all tyrannical brats with messianic delusions. Where do you think they’re learning this behavior from?
We make gaming more like recreation or reading than it is like religion. What we’re seeing lately is not merely a mob of odd hobbyists frustrated by change, but an army of fanatics on what they perceive to be a holy crusade. These people have dogmatic views of what games need to be (a theological approach, to be sure) and they express a devotion to the game industry that makes Mitt Romney’s tithing look stingy. Forget The Beatles, Mario is more popular than Jesus now, and any criticism of that franchise is going to be received by some as blasphemy. This is partly because we tend to treat gaming like it is a special club. But playing games isn’t special or unusual. It never was.
We get serious about inclusivity, which means understanding that “game” is a very loose category that—even when defined relatively strictly—encompasses an astonishing range of activities. This means that we should associate less strongly around such a vague term. Being interested in games doesn’t mean you need to play every game that comes out and have an opinion on it. It doesn’t mean that every game is for you. The games press creates an illusion that every big game needs to be played by everyone who likes games. Games as a medium (or—more accurately to my mind, lately—a plurality of media) are more diverse than all of film, radio, television, print, etc. Compare two random works of one of those other media forms. Then compare two random games (digital or non-digital). There’s no contest: the breadth of games is staggering, and we need to cool it on the preoccupation with having an encyclopedic expertise-of and exposure-to all games.
We do not assume that the harassment we’ve seen lately is a complete aberration. We understand that there is a link between this medium that terrorists see themselves as defending and the terrorism itself.
We agree that caring about the world and its inhabitants is more important than clinging to our toys.
We all grow up (starting this very instant), and we bring games along with us. This doesn’t mean making “grittier” or “darker” games. Rather, we make and play games that we have no reason to be ashamed of, and—most importantly—we’re honest about what may very well be shameful about games.