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Opinion: Video games caught in the crossfire of the culture war
Opinion: Video games caught in the crossfire of the culture war Exclusive
April 10, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

April 10, 2012 | By Christian Nutt
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More: Console/PC, Exclusive, Business/Marketing, Design



[There's a culture war happening, and a letter campaign directed at EA from anti-gay groups is further evidence that video games are often unknowingly caught in the crossfire, says Gamasutra features director Christian Nutt.]

Yesterday morning I got an email from gay rights advocacy group All Out inviting me to sign a petition in support of Electronic Arts, which has recently been targeted by a massive anti-gay letter-writing campaign.

EA had actually sent a message to Gamasutra about this last week. This campaign involved thousands of letters and postcards -- addressed to the "CEO, Board of directors, creative leaders, and other executives inside EA," according to EA spokesperson Jeff Brown.

I wasn't sure what I wanted to write about this, or if I even wanted to write about this, period. We evaluated internally at Gamasutra if acknowledging this story would simply give the anti-gay letter-writers the press coverage they desired. The issue is important to me, personally, as a gay man, and as someone close to the game industry, but I didn't want to write a personal narrative about it. This isn't about me.

But once I saw the petition in my inbox, I was motivated to write. What I want to discuss is this volley of shots across EA's bow, and All Out's response -- just one more exchange of fire in the ongoing culture war in 21st century America. This is something that most people can easily ignore, but if we're planning to make increasingly complicated creative choices with our games, it's something we can't afford to ignore anymore.

If you pay attention to the news, you must be aware of the increasing frequency of these sorts of controversies. From the One Million Moms boycott of JCPenney after it hired Ellen Degeneres as its spokesperson to the Starbucks boycott organized by the National Organization for Marriage after the Washington company came out in support of marriage equality -- which Microsoft did, too, in some news that's a bit closer to home -- we're seeing stories like these more and more frequently.

I think it's easy to look at these as isolated incidents, particularly if they don't directly affect you. But the truth is that there is definitely a fight going on right now, and groups on both sides of the issue are working both to manipulate public opinion and mobilize their followers.

The fact of that matter is that as the battle heats up, both pro- and anti-gay forces are getting more passionate. Nothing will stop this, and if Roe v. Wade is any indication, even the Supreme Court deciding the marriage equality question -- which it may well do in the next few years -- things may not calm down for a good long while after, if ever.

Look at the rhetoric on both sides of the EA issue.

The Florida Family Association calls it "social engineering in a CHILDREN's game" and pairs it with a picture of two young boys with PlayStation controllers, mirrored with an image of two Stormtroopers embracing. "Enough is enough with LGBT activists trying to capture the minds of our children through the intense emotions children encounter when playing video games."

"Master Yoda wants to make sure Electronic Arts knows anti-gay haters don't win the game," says All Out, on the other hand. "Sending you a message of support against the dark homophobic forces, I am."

All Out might couch its message in humor, but the point is that both groups understand their audiences, and will push their buttons -- and neither is ambiguous in its characterization of those on the other side of the issue.

I bring this up primarily because developers have to be aware of what they're getting into.

I believe that the game industry has a tendency to fail to consider the repercussions of its creative choices. This isn't isolated to any specific issue -- you can find examples with very little effort. There's everything from Modern Warfare 2's No Russian, to Resident Evil 5's African zombie hordes, to IGN's flirtation with casual misogyny, and League of Legends' female character design. You can see the links for the ways in which the developers involved failed to think these things through.

All the same, I'm not saying that BioWare didn't consider things. Responding to a post titled "BioWare Neglected Their Main Demographic: The Straight Male Gamer," Dragon Age II lead writer David Gaider writes that "We have a lot of fans, many of whom are neither straight nor male, and they deserve no less attention," backing up his assertion with data and a discussion of the creative limitations placed on the team.

He closes with the comment "I wish we could do the ideal where there's something for every desire and opinion, but as usual we make do."

I may be kidding myself, but I think that's the real spirit behind BioWare's introduction of these choices -- these are role playing games, after all. Players are given tremendous amounts of choices in BioWare games, and this is just one more example of that.

Whether or not EA considered the implications up front, the company has now released statements to the press that "EA is committed to defending the right of developers to create games free of political harassment" and "we're not changing the policy on same sex relationships."

The point I'm making is that not all developers do consider the implications of their creative choices carefully, even if some do. But even if you do, there's no guarantee that you'll be backed by a corporation which is willing to stick its neck out for you.

Two parts of the postcard that EA released, addressed to CEO John Riccitiello, struck me in particular.

The sentence, "The overwhelming number of players on Star Wars games is children who do not need to be forced as a captured audience to participate in homosexual content" is one. There are two major assumptions in the statement: one is that you're "forced," as a player, to engage with the content, and secondly, that Star Wars: The Old Republic is aimed at kids.

These are both easy assumptions for, say, a Floridian grandmother who buys Lego Star Wars for her grandchildren and who has no idea what The Old Republic or even an MMO is, let alone the distinction between Traveller's Tales and BioWare. I don't know who signed this postcard, but it's an easy scenario to imagine.

The other thing that struck me is the only handwritten message on what is obviously a form letter: "Remember Sodom." I'm not pointing this out to make the connection between the message and hardline Christianity -- everybody, I think, is aware of it -- but rather as an examination of what the person who sent the card felt was the most salient possible addition to the canned message.

The destruction of Sodom -- from which we get the word "sodomy," of course -- is interpreted by hardline Christians as the Old Testament God striking down a city of homosexual vice. The point is: this postcard was sent by someone who believes that the world is sliding in a very specific and very dangerous direction, and that was their sole personal message for EA.

In the end, the industry is still struggling with the notion that games are for kids, in the minds of the masses. BioWare's developers may consider that they're creating mature narratives aimed at adults -- for what it's worth, Star Wars: The Old Republic is rated T -- but that doesn't change public perception, and this is, again, something to consider.

Cross this with a battleground issue like gay rights, and you have a recipe for this kind of clash. The 2008 "Sexbox" story from Fox News seems quaint in comparison, doesn't it?


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