No-one Is Coming To Take Away Your Shitty Toys
This week's sideshow entertainment in the world of socially-progressive games culture is another massive argument on Rami Ismail's Facebook wall.
To summarise: Rami made a tiny blip of a post about boob physics in The Witcher 3 being referred to internally as "eye candy" and then some asshole made a concerted effort to complain about political correctness, denied that there's any structural privilege in being a straight white man in America, and then made the bold claim that racism (and presumably sexism, ageism, et al) only persists because of people who keep bringing it up and calling others out on it - this fascinating notion that we live in a post-prejudice age, soiled only by the whining of people of colour, women, homosexuals, etc, who cling to the 'victimhood' of ages past, who for some reason believe documented history and observable systems of causality are to blame for their disadvantaged social/economic/political position. Yes, our ancestors forged global empires on the flagellated backs of slaves! Yes, womens rights over their own bodily integrity have been violated by male-dominated political institutions throughout history! I agree, all of that stuff was terrible! But that was YESTERDAY! Didn't you get the memo?! Starting TODAY we're all equal! Other than in an ongoing series of freak, one-off incidents which I don't think we should read anything into. Now, let's never mention this again and just continue as normal until trickle-down economics has evened everything out.
(This may be a good time to plug Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent feature about racism in America. Videogames!)
Who this guy was isn't really important, but he expressed a lot of sentiments which I'm sure most of us have heard before during these kinds of arguments. For the sake of this article, he makes a good stand-in for a whole way of thinking which is often dismissed and maligned in socially-progressive games culture (deliberately, because it's the worldview of an asshole). It's good because, while I often paraphrase things people say to ridicule them (see above), there's a lot more insight to be gained by reading a genuine quote. Here's an example:
Eye candy is meaningless. Should we also pull out any homosexual references cause some prude will be offended? Or sexual identity altogether? Free flowing hair offends some other cultures... we should pull that? Is this the world we live in in which we cater to the lowest common denominator of complainers? Fahrenheit 451 explains the phenomenon all too well. We censor ourselves to the point that a game merely has a title and ending credits. - Some Asshole
In the interest of providing a fair and balanced account of this obtuse clown's half-baked opinions, you can read the full thread by clicking here.
Over the years, I've seen a lot of people roll their eyes at 'political correctness' and pose this kind of exaggerated rhetorical question about how it's impossible to please everyone; this idea that if you took everything that could possibly 'offend' someone out of your creative work, you'd end up with an insubstantial beige soup of nothingness. It's a shallow argument deployed by cynical developers who don't want to admit to their own bullshit, and the kind of lay gamers who speak out in defence of cynical developers with childlike innocence (here's a thought: presuming that minority groups will never be satisfied until everything worthwhile has been destroyed is quite obviously a patronising attitude in itself???) "This is censorship!" they cry, in an eye-opening demonstration that they do not understand what words mean.
Let's talk about censorship.
When people criticise developers like Ubisoft for not including female playable characters in a game like Assassin's Creed: Unity, it does not prevent the game from being made! Nobody is forcing anyone to include female characters! There is not some guerilla army of political correctness enforcers waiting to round up and destroy game discs because of their bullshit content! Politically unempowered groups - such as feminists in gaming culture - cannot force change on anyone, because THEY ARE UNEMPOWERED! Their lack of political power is the source of problem?!? I'm amazed that people consider this a complicated or contentious statement.
The majority of decision-making power in the games industry rests with predominantly straight, predominantly white, men, and their disproportionate possession of political power has a profound influence on gaming culture. That's not to say that herds of straight white men gather round in meeting rooms and devise secret plans to oppress minorities in their game designs - few people actively make a point of putting bullshit politics into their game for its own sake - but when a team is up against a wall, the decisions of how to assign budgets and manpower will tend to be made by a straight, white man, with all the bias and assumptions and experience that comes along with that. Adding female protagonists would cost time and money, and they just don't consider it a priority. And why should they? Why would a demographic that has always been catered to at great length put much stock in issues of representation? It's a perfectly rational explanation, but understanding the process doesn't change the end result that you've made yet another game about featureless white guys stabbing people in the face.
Where there is censorship in the games industry, I would say it comes from two sources. The first is government regulation of things like sex and violence, which isn't something developers can directly control (indirectly, they can always lobby or vote for different politicians, etc). The second is internal censorship within companies, of the sort where an executive (who has probably been too busy with other things to look at your game until a few months before launch) will look at an alpha build of the game and demand changes based on 'what the players want' - think of this as the kind of censorship that censors commercially risky design decisions, like having a non-white protagonist. How can you tell that these are the only sources of censorship on a game? BECAUSE THOSE ARE THE ONLY TWO GROUPS OF PEOPLE WHO HAVE ACTUAL, DIRECT POWER OVER THE DEVELOPMENT TEAM.
If a game critic calls you out over an ill-judged racist joke in your game (for example) and it goes viral and sparks a wave of public disappointment and lost sales, that's not censorship! Even if a distribution platform like Steam removed you from their store, or a magazine refuses to write about it, that's still not censorship! Your game is still intact, just as you made it - nobody has forcibly destroyed your master copies or thrown you in jail. What many angry defenders of the status quo describe as "censorship", I would describe as "your audience reacting to the design choices you have made with your product", just as they would if you manufactured a car with a giant spike protruding from the center of the steering wheel. Developers face a simple business decision over whether to adapt to this or not. And is it really so surprising that, as the average age of gamers continues to rise, there might be a growing segment of the market who react like grown-ups when presented with bigotry??
Oh man, and can I just take a moment to say how infuriating it is when self-declared True Gamers wade into discussion threads about immature content and start defending the developers on their behalf? I should preface this by saying that there really are some issues of nuance and context to bear in mind when calling out shitty games and the people who make them - for example, only insiders will understand the events that steered the game into its final form, and few of those in the know will be in a position to speak out about them. Speaking of which, I read a great thing last week about how the power structure of a typical corporation basically shifts all sense of responsibility onto someone higher up the ladder and then out onto the conceptual shoulders of "shareholders", which basically frees all frontline workers and managers from feeling personally responsible for anything they do, but sadly I can't find the link for that. Sorry.
But no, when you read some perfectly valid criticism of a game you've helped to make, and then see some random kid in the comments giving a flimsy and inaccurate defence on your behalf, when YOU know the REAL reason why something came out a certain way is because of some seemingly-unrelated decision an engineer made six months ago which slowly escalated into a serious technical limitation which you simply don't have the necessary resources to correct, but because your contract forbids you from discussing such things publicly you have to just sit and watch this ignorant child make you look like a plum... well, you have to learn to take some deep cleansing breaths and move on.
If you ever feel the urge to publicly second-guess the development process that led to something terrible being included in the game, please consider not doing that instead.
Hey, gamers? Don't worry. Developers are not going to stop making shitty games just because critics call them out on it. Some of them will, and I look forward to that, but there will always be people out there making games where you play as a forgettable white guy shooting people in the face and rescusing babes in bikinis. Nobody is going to take that Dionysian joy away from you, except yourself, when you grow up.
The rise of mature games that don't feature shitty characters and situations does not diminish your supply of immature shit in any way. It caters to a growing market of consumers who have just as much of a right to play a fucking videogame as you do, and doesn't harm you at all. It doesn't even damage individual games - Super Metroid and Bayonetta rank among the best games ever made, despite starring assertive, independent female protagonists. If you think True Gaming is at risk of being destroyed by political inclusiveness, remind yourself that Dark Souls was a huge commercial and critical success.
Developers? Nobody is going to put a gun to your head and force you to adopt a socially progressive game design; except perhaps your boss, but that's really no different to any other random thing your boss might demand of you. There is, believe it or not, a market out there for games with atypical, well-written characters! It's up to you whether you want to explore that or not.
There are no hard and fast rules of what you must or must not put in your game. All I'm saying is that, as an adult human being, you have to accept responsibility for the work you produce. If you choose to fill your game with uncritical representations of oppressive shit, you are telling the world that you approve of oppressive shit. If you claim that you only put it in there because you thought it would make more money, you are telling the world that you are happy to sell out your "true" values (also, I think you may be deluding yourself re: your actual true values). By all means, do it! Just be a grown-up and accept that society will judge you by your work.