Damned Audience Part 3: Gamers and the Argument for Change

I hate the word ‘gamer’.

I do this not because of the multitude of unsavoury associations the word brings, but it merely states that to participate in a medium is to give yourself a title, to set yourself apart. This nebulous group is near-impossible to define; by its broadest definition (people who play games), it proves to be more divisive than inclusive in a manner not unlike children picking teams on the local schoolyard – only people the group has through a rigorous hazing process or social groupthink deemed worthy are granted the label.

Seriously, it’s stupid. We don’t call people who read books “readers” as if there’s some kind of special value attached to the act of reading. Every time I do I imagine a kid going proudly up to his local library and declaring “I’m a READER!” like he’s the coolest kid on the block (a possible idea for a campaign to promote reading literacy inevitably funded by people too old or out of touch for “cool” – make note). Then again, we’ve gained an entirely new subset of words for the dumbest things by dint of human nature to seek value (validation?) of the things we do, “foodie” chief among them (so you eat food, what do you want, a medal?).

However, this ill-defined collective has come under much fire recently in the gaming rags. Some of it is justly deserved – but the discourse thoughtsphere has polarized to such an extreme extent that I have to wonder if I’ve not been premature in my own judgements of the label. Only a Sith deals in absolutes.

Prevailing attitude #1, color coded for convenience:

Video games must grow up; too long they have been strictly the domain of manchildren, basement dwellers, and neckbeard males, serving power fantasies to a juvenile audience obsessed with sex and violence. To reach a wider audience and be taken seriously as art, they must be more inclusive, feature more Strong Female Characters™, and tackle Serious Subject Matters™ and Real Societal Issues™.

Apparently, some developers are beginning to Get It, whatever It is as stated in the flawed and entirely too vague argument above. Clearly they’re Getting It, because no other thing could have moved editor-at-large at Gamasutra, respected longtime games critic and industry journo (as far as a games journalist can be respected, anyway) Leigh Alexander to tears at this year’s GDC.

We can be genuine…. I cried because I have been talking and talking about “more games for more people” for years, and when I played Gone Home I had the stunning realization that there could be a game for me…. Games are becoming a place where there is more room for expression and vulnerability and not just the fantasy of power. We can do more than make power fantasies, said Manveer Heir. Character stories that are just fixated on gaining optimal outcomes, where you’re manipulating people as pieces, are just psychopathy, said Karen Sideman.
-Leigh Alexander

Leigh is a very intelligent woman who I hope very much to talk to in person someday. She has been writing in this cesspool of an industry for years, and somewhere within the viper’s pit of cynicism that we have to jump into in order to write about these things sober, she’s managed to stay comparatively sane and makes occasional stabs at objective journalism. I deeply respect her. But on this matter I have to say that she – and the people she talked to at GDC – are absolutely, completely, and totally full of shit.

I am fully aware that this was probably a deeply personal revelation or cathartic outpouring of emotion on her part, and that it’s been months since that article saw the light of day (yes, I started drafting this since then; I’m late, I know), but I remain nonplussed at the article. Leigh was overcome with the sheer amount of people who agreed with her that we needed to be authentic (more on that later), that we needed to take our medium and ourselves more seriously, and needed to be more inclusive in order to portray “expression and vulnerability”.

Don’t look for love or validation in a video game, kids. You can count on pulling that one out of a fortune cookie. You’re not going to find validation for yourself or your beliefs in the entertainment industry, not even at the bottom of a box of precious limited editions.

Leigh, I’m happy that there’s a game for you. I’m glad you found some validation in a video game and you found people who agree with you. I’m very glad for you. For the rest of us who don’t, well, I guess we’ll just have to suck it up or something and go back to stomping goombas or popping skulls. I think those things are a little more riveting than hunting for letters in an abandoned house god damn it

(Fuck Gone Home.)

There has been an entire spate of articles on Gamasutra recently about reaching a wider audience, about incorporating female characters into video games, and being more inclusive, whether it’s through tech, testing, or writing. Gamasutra is a website frequented by people who work in video games. Personally, I find it extremely disheartening to see the sheer amount of people working in video games who also believe games need to ‘grow up’ or change drastically in order to be more inclusive.

Inclusivity is a different kettle of fish, and it’s going to be long, so bear with me. Everyone under the sun working in games today from the biggest The Mans to the lowliest garage developer believes it’s a good thing to be inclusive. It’s a good thing both from a financial standpoint and a creative one, and there’s something wonderfully uplifting about knowing you’re making something and sharing it with the world.

However, the execution of inclusivity always comes down to ridiculous ham-handedness. Out of the desire to have more women participate in video games, the games industry has, in completely independent groups, managed to develop the exact same Inoffensive Strong Female Character™, a plucky and precocious (usually) brunette with short or shoulder length hair, gender-neutral clothing, modest chest size, always ready with a quip or sarcastic oneliner and able to take care of herself in a fight. If you squint really, really hard, they tend to look a bit like Uncharted’s Nathan Drake except with 200% less Nolan North. Nowhere in this design process has anyone ever asked the question “does this make more women play video games”?

The issue of characters in games, both as player avatars and as NPCs, is something that we need to clarify first long, long, LONG before we come to the discussion on inclusivity. There is nothing wrong with power fantasies – in fact, it’s important to look at why we love them so much. The reason that most games play out as power fantasies is simply because most players want to feel powerful and in control, and can, through skill and perseverance, gain the optimal outcome – The American Dream. In Extra Credits’ excellent video series on game addiction, they brought up the very true point that games fill a hole reality doesn’t fill. In a world spiralling out of control, where both economic and logical means leave us adrift and powerless, it’s easy to retreat to a game that lets you feel powerful, or be somebody, or do something that matters. (The dangerous corollary- If we accept this as truth, then the opposite, by definition, must also be true; do power fantasies hold less attraction for those who have power and control in their lives?)

Then comes the issue of player agency, which in layman’s terms define what the player avatar is doing in the game and why. Early videogames understood that the limitations of technology at the time meant that there was no link between the player avatar and the player – they instinctively understood that the player would pick up a controller and consciously understand that they were controlling a character apart from themselves. Nobody identifies with Pac-Man, for instance. If you identified with Pac-Man you should probably go see a doctor. Early examples led to Nintendo’s Link – an acknowledgement of the unspoken pact between player and game.

(That’s also why games used to come with such lavish manuals, by the way. They help nourish the fantasy – in this game you get to be this cool barbarian dude you see here!)

However, great advances in technology and the progression of cinematic narrative in games have now meant that game developers are looking at it through the horrific Hollywood lens. Hearing people talk about how games need to be more inclusive and then changing a bunch of things around in the belief that because of the changes they will find a wider audience is akin to Hollywood believing a big-name actor or a romantic subplot will help something achieve monetary success.

Back to the Inoffensive Strong Female Character™. Has anyone asked who really likes those and taken detailed answers from an accurate representation of the general population based on precise measurement of brain chemistry (without leading questions)? It might be a thing to think about doing.

Marketing 101, as explained by Jim Sterling of all people here, explains that there is no perfect pasta sauce. There are only perfect pasta sauces. One person’s taste in characters – or games – is not someone else’s taste. The only way to win is to diversify and expand – generally in line with attitude #1’s way of thinking. I believe that’s why World of Warcraft saw the significant female percentage of players it did because of the extensive character customization that allowed players to be whoever – or whatever – they wished, from triple-cocked draenei to transvestite dwarves.

However, I’m also going to add a caveat. The more people you try to please at once, the less people you end up pleasing. This is a universal truth and applies to absolutely everything. No matter how proud people are of a subculture, as soon as people they don’t like are part of the subculture they more often than not reject the subculture. People don’t like being part of a faceless morass, even as they seek people to connect with and groups to belong to. They want group identity just as much as they want individuality.

So by all means make more games like Gone Home. Just don’t make other games contain Gone Home elements. The parts fans of Gone Home like will not necessarily mesh with what fans of other games like, and the resulting concoction would be barbeque sauce and ice cream.  Games are an entertainment medium. An entertainment medium cannot be inclusive, unless you’re desperate to shove everything into one box and file it away so it’s easier to think about. A game in a box is not going to make you feel like you belong. The only thing that can be inclusive is people.

Change is absolutely necessary for a medium to thrive, especially one as dynamic as the games industry, but it doesn’t take an advocate for change to see that the pitch for change is incredibly, incredibly flawed. All it takes is one look at how New Coke fared to see an example of it blowing up all over the place. People don’t care that they’re being told something is “new”, or “better”, or “more inclusive”. They like Classic Coke just the way it is and changing the name, the brand, and the product in search of a nebulous audience that may or may not exist is a giant middle finger to the customer. The advertising ‘narrative’, or the message the consumer gets from this sort of behaviour, is this: “You don’t give me enough money, so you’re not important enough for me to care.” Whether this is true or not is a different story, but as any marketer knows the narrative is far more important than reality. Whether New Coke or Classic Coke tastes better is irrelevant; what matters more than anything is consumer perception.

Insulting the consumers – many of whom have stayed loyal for years and supported you through thick and thin – is a cardinal sin. Those who hate the most and loudest are usually former lovers. Despite this, what do I hear from the game industry? Endless diatribe on how these supposedly hardcore consumers are manchildren, basement dwellers, hapless, virginal nerds, psychopaths (see above); how they’re sexist, misogynist losers for continually funding ultra-violent game titles that treat women as objects to be ogled over (much like explosions, guns, and falling buildings. And in this entire morass not one video game critic has the balls to publish an essay linking guns in first-person-shooters with depictions of male sexuality and the act of firing with ejaculation). Ladies and gentlemen of the videogame industry, these people are your benefactors. They keep the food on your tables, the clothes on your backs, the roofs over your heads and your kids in school. They are your Damned Audience. And if you’re ashamed of them and think of them as something to sweep underneath the rug whenever respectable company comes calling at the door, think about it this way – they are the only people who will shed tears at your demise.

Now of course this is the part where the developers all line up to wail and gnash their teeth and scream about how the stupid fans are restricting their creativity and stunting their creative vision. Too bad we all know that isn’t true – creativity isn’t a factor at all constrained by limitations. If that was true then Steven Spielberg’s Animaniacs wouldn’t have half as much fun screwing with the WB censors; creativity is often a response to limitations, as artists find clever ways of bypassing them. Just ask Japan’s proliferation of tentacle porn; you’d never know that depictions of genitalia (but not tentacles) are censored across the country just by the sheer volume of material that comes out of there every Comiket.

Here’s something to keep in mind; just because something is targeted at a small niche, or identifies with a very small niche, does not, has not, and never will make it exclusive. Once you release product it’s on the shelves, out in the cloud, what have you. You have absolutely no control over who plays your game. You can delude yourself into thinking you do, but you look like the MPAA trying to sue all one and a half million people who downloaded the latest hit movie off file sharing services. Trying to control who buys a product and who doesn’t is a fruitless endeavour. They can’t even get full control of substances declared illegal over half the civilized world, for crying out loud.

During the course of my master’s degree, I met with the writer Junot Diaz who told me the above (in slightly nicer language). It was a revelation from the heavens; I had been obsessed – and to be honest, slightly depressed – about the mainstream success of a book I deemed execrable. Filled with internal turmoil and agonizing endlessly over whether or not I should try and write complete crap of the same sort in order to make a living, his words were like a revelation. They pertained to writing at the time, but I’m starting to see it applies to everything else as well. Part of the thrill of entertainment is the illicit, exciting nature of eavesdropping; the voyeuristic nature of someone looking in from the outside, and through participating in that medium being granted a moment of insight into that world. You don’t have to fight in World War II to enjoy Bridge on the River Kwai. You don’t have to be a fantasy addict or a goddamn elf to read Tolkien, and you sure as hell don’t have to be part of what for lack of a better term, the popular media has been calling “the dudebro audience” to play Madden. A good recent example has been the Hasbro-animated My Little Pony series – never in their wildest dreams did anyone at Hasbro suspect that they would gain a dedicated audience of young men ages 18-25 for a show clearly aimed at young girls ages 8-12. Hasbro didn’t pay SWAT teams to break into houses and brainwash people with cortical electrodes and reinforcement therapy; they found the show on their own.

There is nothing more liberating; to realize that you’re not constrained by limitations of genre or the trappings of even the damned audience. You don’t have to change a thing – if anything, isn’t it great that people like it the way it is and want to share it with their friends? The best advertising is word-of-mouth, and the only things that can be inclusive are, after all, people. To stamp my humanist card for the day, the only things that speak to us universally and connect us all as human beings are love, emotions, and our physical bodies. Barring hearing and visual loss, we’re all going to be hearing the same music and looking at the same sky, and seeing the same games.

Prevailing attitude #2:

Casuals are ruining gaming! Fucking Peggle is NOT A GAME! The label belongs to us and always will – you’d better not even try and talk to me unless you can prove you beat the SNES versions of Ninja Gaiden, name at least 500 pokemon, string together one-frame links in Street Fighter, quote dialogue from Baldur’s Gate and take on Fatal1ty in a Quake match! Developers are pussying out in terms of features and are making games stupid so stupid people can play them!

At the other extreme of the spectrum… well…

You can kind of understand where the proponents of attitude #1 come from. It’s really difficult to communicate the depth of emotion you felt when Aeris got stabbed by a supersoldier with unreasonably long hair, sword, and alien DNA to people outside video games when the very same medium contains a game where you can kill people with in-game anal probes. Regardless of subject matter, it’s often not the games themselves that drive people away. It’s the people.

One of the darker aspects of gaming’s origin is that for ages they were almost exclusively the territory of hapless manchildren by dint of their sheer goddamn complexity, back when computers required sheets of perforated paper to perform simple equations and made as much noise as a printing press. Getting a computer to perform tasks was far harder than it was today. And even then, they existed as power fantasies, virtual worlds and characters for people to explore when the world outside didn’t make any sense. These people have aged, and grown. They have seen the audience for videogames balloon to tremendous size and collapse in on itself and balloon again. They are the people society rejected for various reasons, and now they’re seeing their refuge encroached upon by the very society that rejected them in the first place.

Of course they’re going to lash out, with all the lack of manners, social graces, and consideration for others that removal from society has taught them in the first place. The anonymity element to the Internet Fuckwad Theory simply adds more fuel to the fire. The proponents of attitude #1 have not helped the situation either, tarring these dinosaurs with the mark of the beast and declaring open season on hibernating bears.

As previously discussed, these people like things just the way they are, and respond to change negatively, as is only natural. People don’t like change; as much as it can be a force of good, it usually carries destructive connotations as the old is swept away. These people are not responsible for the video game industry being focused around violent, sexist power fantasies – nobody has forced them en masse to buy anything, and nobody has forced them en masse to buy games that move us forward into a more progressive, more gender-neutral future. They’re merely an audience; a paying audience. It stands to reason that the wider public has just as much access to video games as these people – they simply chose not to buy what they didn’t like. There are only perfect pasta sauces, as we’ve already discussed, and these people have already found their perfect pasta sauce and would rather you not change the recipe.

We’ve also discussed that it’s not the responsibility of the medium to be inclusive, rather it’s the responsibility of people within the medium to be more inclusive. As far as that point goes, I genuinely believe it’s a bit of a lost cause; as desperately lonely as human beings tend to be, they also lash out when approached with anything they distrust, much like abused cats.

I don’t have a solution for human nature; one day the last dinosaur will fall over dead of its own accord, out of prey to hunt as the market moves in search of bigger and bigger profits. However, the dinosaur is on an eternal quest for other dinosaurs, trying to find safety and security in companionship. The audience has this responsibility; as advocates of what they love, they bear the responsibility of having to take the good with the bad. If they love what they love, it is their job to find some way of effectively communicating this to others and helping them to glimpse, even if it’s just a little, what they love so much in the first place.

Sure, maybe some people have already made up their minds. But the joy of a new shared experience is often worth far more than what you paid for the game. I am part of the damn audience, and I’m always willing to share.

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2 thoughts on “Damned Audience Part 3: Gamers and the Argument for Change

  1. Pingback: #gamergate and the past week | UNIVERSE IN A POCKY BOX

  2. Pingback: Final thoughts on #gamergate | UNIVERSE IN A POCKY BOX

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