Linkbait: They’re not coming for your games

Polygon just dropped an article by Katherine Cross about the knee-jerk defensiveness of gamers. In it, she ties fears about government censorship, widening appeal, and diversity initiatives into one cohesive narrative: That games are an ephemeral construct, ready to disappear at the slightest disturbance. I thought it was worth signal boosting that article here for two reasons (aside from it being spot on): First, she spends three paragraphs discussing the furor over Dragon Age II, arguing that “[a]bove and beyond any reasonable critiques to be made of the game’s design, it was simply an avatar of uncomfortable changes” and we’ve got a Waffling Around Games podcast in the works about that same game. Second, I can’t help but make a wry contrast between this approach to games and the usual attitudes towards diversity and representation in the industry. Better representation is treated as something that will (or perhaps even should) happen on its own, with no special effort on their part, but gaming? Gaming will collapse at a moment’s notice if we don’t virulently defend it from the mildest of criticisms.

3 comments on “Linkbait: They’re not coming for your games

  1. In the comments, someone asks “how does diversity actually make a game better? I’m talking mechanics, narrative, and gameplay here people.”

    To which someone else replies, in part, “Sure, game mechanics exist completely independent of almost any human experience, but I think it’s pretty clear how narratives benefit from diversity. People come from many, many walks of life and the more their experiences are represented, the more interesting and multifaceted the story becomes. There is staggering, Stepfordish homogeneity to the FPS narrative, and of course almost no diversity is tolerated. Inject an earnestly-told experience that truly represents a different perspective and I’d consider the genre again.”

    There has been no response as of yet.

    But the very fact that someone was asking what the point of diversity was in games anyway echoes something I heard at work (?!) recently in response to efforts toward a more diverse workforce: “What is the point?” With the best of intentions, I think we have made doubly and triply sure everyone knows to be “for” diversity. But we forgot the whole “why” part. This is…uncomfortably reminiscent of some arguments we’ve had with my in-laws. My ears perk up in response to criticism of a “staggering, Stepfordish homogeneity to the FPS narrative,” because it states more concretely what I’ve just felt to be a nebulous dislike and disappointment in a genre I’ve learned to avoid. But I’ve yet to learn how to make voice this criticism successfully to those whom the status quo favors.

    As to part of the fury over DA2 being about you not “being on a Hero’s Journey but at the mercy of events,” it brings up the question of why people play games. [Note: I want to listen to your podcast but I am also hesitant to do so until I have replayed DA2 as I plan to, in order, before the released of DA3, and I don’t want to remind myself too early of things I’ve just had enough time to enjoy experiencing anew.] The line given out by the media is always one of escapism: escape your shitty life and job for this fabulous world of blah blah blah. But obviously this is a very shallow reading of a very large number of people pursuing very different kinds of games. Clearly there are scores of us who play to invest ourselves in characters and in a story, as much as we do when we watch movies or read books. We need to stop telling ourselves the same old yarns about escapism, because it’s an overly simplistic explanation and does an injustice to the legions of people who play for other reasons. Who don’t need to be on a hero quest and who take the very idea of a hero with a healthy dose of skepticism, and who find relatable–for example in DA2’s case–your frustrated entrapment between a flurry of regional and ultimately world events greater than you, where your personal struggles are subsumed beneath much vaster conflicts on which you will inevitably have to pick sides despite having initially an interest grounded elsewhere, in people and events close to you. (Even when your picking sides doesn’t guarantee a win–even when it’s only to placate a meddling bureaucrat or threatening guard, and when all your options are distasteful and without reward, and do not ground you as the center of the universe or even of the sideplot.) Surviving that diminution is the hero quest of the 21st century, and it is time we face it instead of bury our heads in the sands of “heroes” past.

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head with the fact that we often skip over the “why” of the diversity, and one of the main problems is the difficulty in articulating the benefits to those who currently benefit from the status quo. The people who benefit from the current homogeneity are made blind to those benefits, and so it is impossible to argue for diversity based simply on the prospect of extending those benefits to other groups. I think the main benefits are narrative, as that poster alludes to, whether they be in the form of having a greater variety of interesting stories or in simply making stories better by exposing them to more perspectives (I’m thinking here of David Gaider’s anecdote about the female writer who spotted problematic subtext in a romance plot that had completely slipped by everyone else).

      Of course, building on that is the impression that most of the gamers favoring the status quo are less concerned with narrative than they are with gameplay and mechanics. While the benefits of diversity to narrative are, in my mind, fairly straightforward, I’d have a much harder time advancing a cohesive argument that diversity improves gameplay or mechanics. The best I could do would be to say that the more varied people you have working on a game, the greater the potential pool of ideas, but I’ll be the first to admit that’s an awfully vague argument.

      I definitely think escapism gets a bad rap and is often used as an overly simplistic (and pejorative) descriptor. What I find compelling about the emphasis on control in relationship to video games is that more often than not, that sense of control is more illusion than reality. There are always hard barriers to what you can do, and the sense of control people get out of games is more about how those games prime them to only do what they are allowed. So escapism in games is ultimately based on enjoying the ride the developers have created for you, as opposed to controlling its trajectory. Games that shatter the illusion of autonomy, whether deliberately as in the case of DA2, or inadvertently, as in the case of FFXIII, are going to keep drawing ire until people make peace with that.

      1. I do find incomparable though those first few hours and potentially days of play where I don’t yet know what my limits are, i.e. how far can I travel, how involved in these people’s lives can I get, how detailed and forking a path the devs have laid out for me. I never forget that there are going to be boundaries in there somewhere (and indeed I really hope so; since rare is the game where I want it to be all pvp all the time, such that my innocent flower-collecting or ore mining can turn into a ganking with miserable speed). Those are always the the most enjoyable times for me, when I’m still learning what the rules are. Because I _want_ there to be rules! But the learning of them keeps me from feeling too comfortable, too situated, too old-hand, too familiar. It’s why I avoid, if at all possible, “spoilers” as to who you can romance or not in games–because I want to have tried every possible option first before it is made clear to me that no, sadly Morrigan is only ever interested in manflesh that way, and no, for whatever reason, Sylgja will not leave her harsh miner’s life in Darkwater Crossing for the cushy mansion you as the Dragonborn can offer her.

        We know, at least if we are familiar with the constraints most games operate under in our current time, that all things will not be possible. But finding out what is and isn’t is deeply rewarding and, moreover, fun. At least for me.

        …which…was a bit of a tangent.

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