Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Why I Can't Get Behind Video Game Controversies

Video games, right? Sometimes their "culture" has "issues." I guess every medium goes through a phase - sort of like music did when rock 'n' roll started or literature did in the rise of the "populist" novel. I can't help but feel like these things are big issues for people living very different lives to my own. I can't really get behind most of these issues because I struggle to see why they're issues at all. Let's have a look.

1. The Unfortunate Practical Consequences of Video Game Reviews are Not the Fault of Reviews or Reviewers
Apparently some video game developers or publishers, basically the bosses, see scores on Metacritic and such and go "Eight out of ten? Better fire that whole team then." And that sucks. But it's not the fault of the review. Beyond the fact that I think in the present day games rise and fall based on hype and marketing rather than reviews, the fact of the matter is that that situation is the fault of the skewed priorities of businesses and the nature of neoliberal economics. It doesn't matter why a game got slagged off - maybe it was accused of being buggy, maybe it was accused of being sexist, whatever - if people lose their jobs, it's not the review or reviewer's fault. Imagine if Stephen Moffat was surfing the web and saw my review of Robot of Sherwood where I basically said it wasn't very good and thought "Well that's going to devalue the Doctor Who brand, better fire Mark Gatiss then." I feel as if I probably wouldn't be to blame.

2. Criticism, no matter how polemic, is not an Attack, and even if it is, it Doesn't Matter
Let's just say for example that an item of criticism argues that certain recurring elements in video games normalise and desensitise people to violence. I'm dancing around the issue here by going for violence, but I think that's for the best. Let's say an article or what have you says that all these pugnacious male protagonists in video games normalise male violence. Does that mean that the author is saying you, if you are a male person, are violent, predisposed to violence or becoming accepting of violence? No, it's just trying to say that it might be a trend in society. Let's say a critic comes out and says violent video games with male protagonists represent the fact that all men are naturally violent. So what, again? People make stupid generalisations all the time - I'm constantly impressed by the relentless quantity of them that I read in the comments sections of articles I irresistibly view through the trending section of Facebook to remind myself that much of the human race is pointlessly horrible and wilfully ignorant. Even the most vituperative critic doesn't know you personally. Until such time as that kind of criticism causes you to be ostracised by your friends, family, colleagues and so forth or gets you locked up - which is to say when hell freezes over - it doesn't matter.

3. Critics can't force anything to happen and aren't trying to anyway
Like I said, criticism is just criticism: just words, intended to persuade, perhaps, but not authoritative. I've seen it argued, bizarrely, that critical theory is a force of "social engineering." It's not. Empiricism can be - hopefully for the better, but that rather depends on the ideology behind it. In any event it's not forcing games to be made a certain way, or for people to behave a certain way, it's just commentary. Even people being lambasted on social media doesn't equate to censorship, and it works both ways too.

4. Video games being 'entertainment' doesn't mean anything
Entertainment means different things to different people. Video games aren't obliged to be "just entertaining", whatever that means, certainly not according to a narrow "just having fun" definition of entertainment. They can be as moralising or meaningful or philosophical or intellectual as they want. Even games as products, which is in fact most of them, are going to provide for a consumer base that they think will turn the most profit. If a for-profit video game (again, most of them) "panders" to a particular political agenda, for example, it's only because they think it will make them more money, not because they're trying to shape society. Even if they are, you don't have to listen. I think a big part of this has to do with an anti-intellectual streak in certain parts of society who think that because they don't understand or aren't interested in discourse (or take it too personally, see above) then it shouldn't exist. Why not?

5. Living in a smug echo chamber doesn't achieve anything
Even the most moderate people involved in these kinds of controversies seem to ultimately still think that they're pretty much completely right about everything and that their equivalent "opponents" are poor deluded fools. Generally they (the other moderates I mean) are just ordinary people hoping for the best. Obviously the rest are just a bunch of ideologues whose entire identity is bound up in their views and trolls stirring the pot but that's simply the way it is. Obviously bullies, harassers and so forth need to be dealt with, but the people spouting crap constantly are just getting worked up into a fuss over nothing, like I do about New Who.

6. "Gamers" and "game culture" are not homogeneous
I've read a tonne of stupid definitions of what constitutes a "gamer" in my time. I don't like the term "gamer" because I don't like labels. Labels mean applying someone else's definition to yourself, which in my opinion is a wilful reduction of your own agency (usually to achieve a sense of belonging). No one person or group of people can speak for "gamers," "game culture" or "gaming" as a hobby. That's just another kind of conformity. Then again, conformity has infected all permutations of "geek culture" for a long time - it's a form of tribalism which serves the interests of big corporations that make films, video games, merchandise and so on.
I've seen it argued that the problem with the generalisations from the other "side" is that no one is there to positively represent "gamers as a whole." Sorry, but there is no "gamers as a whole." If you feel the need to identify as a "gamer" that's your business, but "gamers" are not "a whole" except by stupid definitions like "well, people who just play casual games on mobile aren't..." and all that other pointless tribalistic crap. Why do you feel the need to fit into a group so badly?

Ultimately I will admit that I don't support the "video game controversy" for a few reasons:

1. I don't object whatsoever if there is "progressive" or what-have-you stuff in games or game reviews because it interests me, and also because honestly I think most of it is justified - that doesn't make me some kind of pro-totalitarian "cultural Marxist" trying to turn the world into one big Political Correctness State. Well, maybe some people would argue that it does, but whatev. Even if I was, it isn't a crime. I know some of the controversy people are actually "progressive" themselves. I don't really get what their issue is exactly, but at least see Point 4 below and Point 1 above. Furthermore, if you value "free speech" (whatever that means) you have to accept that it includes the freedom to criticise free speech (although I don't think these commentators are actually denying free speech, mostly just encouraging people not to be dicks).

2. I don't take it personally when people make generalisations about my sex/gender or ethnicity (because I realise they represent a generality and not specifics - in case you're wondering, they're the "privileged" ones)

3. While I enjoy entertaining gameplay, I also enjoy it when any and all of my entertainment interrogates sociopolitical issues because they interest me

4. I think the rampant cronyism between Triple-A publishers and major review sites like IGN is a far bigger problem than reviewers and indie developers having close ties or any consequent cronyism that may or may not be going on in that sector. Hell, I gave Depression Quest a positive review and I certainly don't know anyone involved in making it, I found it when trawling Steam Greenlight. Don't know what that makes me.

5. Too much of the taking-issue-side seems to involve "being a dick because I'm insecure and therefore angry" to an equal if not greater extent than justifiable complaints

6. I think both "sides" think the extremists on either "side" represent the "whole" (although I still think one "side" is more justified than the other, who mostly even in the most moderate cases just seem upset that their favourite game didn't get a good enough number out of 10 on one website or another - pro tip: most games, especially Triple A games, are shit)

7. I kind of think the whole thing shifts the blame away from neoliberal economics, which is the Blofeld-like spider at the heart of most of Western popular culture's problems, deploying useful idiots to distract from itself. I think the biggest problem with The Video Game Controversy is that its aims would notionally allow the Triple A industry to keep peddling glossy but empty corporate slop - the idea that people actually want slop, or at least defend slop because they're intimidated by the idea of more than slop, bothers me a bit. You're free to enjoy or even want slop, but don't pretend that there's anything noble about it.

Maybe this all seems like I'm namby-pambying around the issue but I can't help but think that a bit of namby-pambying wouldn't go astray. In any event it's just the opinion of this humble commentator. I'm not fond of conformity, even the kind that claims to be opposed to another (alleged) source of conformity, and I find people getting worked up into a frenzy about these kind of issues fairly exasperating. I know each "side" can accuse the other "side" of doing the same things it's done (although the idea that either "side" is a homogeneous entity seems fairly inaccurate) but ultimately I find it all to be largely ideological rather than rational and based on a lot of insecurity and other petty things. I think ultimately, the main points are these: criticism is not a personal attack (even if it seems like it is), the fault is not with reviewers (all criticism has its place, even the kind that basically just says "this is shit") and, most importantly of all, I now can feel secure that I posted something in January after delaying my Hobbit 3 and Doctor Who reviews.

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