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Social Justice Warriors and The Grand Conspiracy

The Gamasutra/Intel debacle cannot possibly be summed up better than in the pictured tweet. I’ve blacked out anything identifying because I’m specifically leaving individuals out of this post. This is not about any one person. If you need a broader primer, this article at The Verge is a good place to start. For actual, non-fantastical ethical concerns in games journalism, this is a pretty good start. (Edit: And this, because GG is not about ethics.)

So, how’ve you been?

Let’s talk about social justice warriors and their grand conspiracy to… well, I’m not sure what. But it must be bad for so many people to get all riled up. All I can say for sure is that I’m with you! (I’m not.) These people, these SJWs, must be stopped! (Nope.) We must not have social justice in gaming. (Because why?) Because justice is bad. Inclusion is bad. Diversity is bad. It’s a grand media conspiracy to destroy gaming because gaming must never change. It must never be criticized. It must never evolve. It must never engage in self-examination. It must never grow or broaden, it must only double-down on what it’s been for the last ten years or so, because that is the only history that matters. More guns. More explosions. Bigger tits. These things must not become an endangered species just because a bunch of chicks who are barely gamers to begin with, and the dudes who want to score with them, think games can be more inclusive.

If you support the ideals that you believe the Gamer Gate movement represents then that paragraph is going to sound belittling and misrepresentative. And that’s okay. It was meant to be. I know, being a large-ish (maybe?) group of people, you’re not actually all of one mind about this, and what GG represents from one person to the next isn’t identical. I believe there are good people (probably) who support GG and what it represents to them; people who are genuinely fair-minded (probably); are not racist or misogynistic (probably); people who are not inherently hostile and believe with every fiber of their being that they are on the right side of the issue (probably). I believe these people exist because they have to. No movement of this relative scope can legitimately hinge on making sure vocal women can’t sleep soundly at night. I have more faith in people than that. For the life of me, though, if you’re one of these “reasonable” Gaters, I can’t begin to figure out what “issue” you think you’re on the right side of.

Seriously. I have questions…

Your so-called group of SJWs? (As if there is a some card-carrying universally like-minded SJW organization. Hint: There isn’t. They’re every bit as individualistic as you are and you should stop thinking of “them” as some kind of swarm. “They” are not your enemy.) But taken as a whole, I can understand what many, who are ascribed that label, want. It’s pretty simple stuff, really. Generally speaking, they want gaming to be more inclusive of women and people of color. They’d like AAA publishers, in particular, to stop drinking quite as often at the well of overused tropes. They want to see less use of obvious degenerating gender and racial stereotyping in games because they believe these stereotypes are harmful to the perception of women and people of color in the real world. (I wonder what could possibly give them that idea ?)

Yes, I can see why you would be afraid of what havoc these warriors for social justice can bring to gaming. These are some dangerous notions, so much more dangerous than the onslaught of hostile and threatening criticism they face for the crime of speaking up.

Except you know that’s preposterous. You know that if mutilated hookers disappeared from games tomorrow that it doesn’t mean gaming as you know it is gone forever. I am going to go ahead and assume you are not that stupid. So please explain to me, what is your line in the sand? What damage are your so-labeled SJWs or anyone like them doing to society or the world of gaming? What games have been cancelled and what titles have completely tanked in sales because someone suggested that a female protagonist would’ve been better? How does an opinion column, one that argues the label “gamer” is no longer particularly useful, damage your quality of life or that of anyone else? If games don’t have a problem with misogyny or detrimental stereotypes then what changes are you afraid of happening? You do know that the stoic, white male hero isn’t going anywhere, right? Go ahead and explain all this to me. I’m listening.

Okay, so let’s approach from the “journalistic” side (while trying to remember this is not the New York Times; this is enthusiast press, like Entertainment Weekly). If what concerns you is the editorial direction of websites that feature games writing, maybe you’re not aware that there are like a billion of them, catering to every possible style under the sun? Maybe you’re not aware that these sites are not democracies? They get to choose their content. You may not like their choices, but, the beauty is that if they consistently choose poorly, people won’t go to them and your problem with them is solved. (See: High Scores, No.) And if people do go to them, then maybe the work and viewpoints they espouse aren’t as outside then norm as you’d like to believe. Maybe –and stay with me here– if you, specifically, can’t find an outlet that adequately reflects what you like about games (because the only good writing is writing you agree with?), then you’re either looking in the wrong places or you must acknowledge that it is your views that are increasingly outside the norm in 2014?

This, to me, is the biggest mystery in the entire Gamer Gate fiasco. It’s a movement in search of a cause. It is misplaced and unrestrained anger looking for a punching bag and it’s not particularly picky about who it’s punching. “Look! This gal thinks differently from us and she’s saying so publicly! Get her!”

That is, perhaps, the biggest difference between the Gaters and those of us in the pro-inclusion crowd. I don’t see people in the latter group trying to bully anyone out of the industry or out of the hobby (and I follow a lot of the people near the epicenter of these debates). The vast majority of what I’ve seen written, tweeted, or recorded, has been in advocacy for how gaming could be better for more people if it were more inclusive. You can’t say that about the Gaters. This is a movement that is entirely about silencing voices. Boycotting something is not how you express disagreement with a perspective. Boycotting is how you say that something is so beyond the pale awful that it must be ended immediately, and until it’s gone you won’t do/buy thing X. That has its place in our society, but that place is not because Chris Writer, who happens to write things like, “Game Y would be better with more women in it,” belongs to a group of professional colleagues that –Gasp!– actually discusses issues in gaming and games criticism.

The stupidest part of all this bellyaching that writers (and developers) have opinions and a tendency to express them is that gaming –you know, the actual games– is experiencing a renaissance at this very moment. Today. It has a long way to go, so don’t conflate this with me saying awesome = above criticism when it’s not, but it is getting better and it’s becoming so much more like it used to feel when I was a kid — hugely diverse.

I remember walking into a software shop as a ten-year-old and marveling at the sheer volume of options at my disposal. Not just the total number of games, but the variety of them. For a kid to walk in the software aisle in 1986 as your dad told you, “You can pick out just one”? That was a flipp’n holiday. And a huge giant matzo ball of stress because how can you possibly look at this wall of stuff and pick just one?

And then gaming got popular. Like, really popular. Like you were no longer the weirdo because you played games. And when something gets popular, more money gets involved. And when more money gets involved people who like to make money get involved. And these people don’t actually give a fig about games or gamers, just money, so they’re only going to fund the games that they believe are likely to make the most money. Simultaneously, the machines on which we play got more advanced. And as they got more advanced, games got a lot more expensive to make. And then, one day, you suddenly had to pull up giant armored trucks full of money and pour it out onto a table to get games made at all. And with all that up-front money required, you kind of had to be hugely, ridiculously successful in order to make it worth being a ginormous publisher in the first place. We have stockholders to appease, dammit!

(Hey, look at all those sentences that start with “and!” Suck it, 8th-grade English teacher!! I’m living the dream right now!!! Exclamation points for everyone!!!!)

As this played out, the variety and types of games narrowed and it narrowed some more and it narrowed some more. We call this the Golden Age of AAA Publishing. Or I do. Except I don’t mean it because I’m a sarcastic git. It’s really more like a ginormous, burning mound of coal, the kind that’s putting more carbon into the atmosphere and slowly killing us all. (Ooops. That was liberal. I apologize for my embrace of a giant consensus of edumacated climate scientists and their desire for the human race not to die out within a millennia. They’re worse than the SJWs.)

AAA publishing produced a lot of good games, so don’t get me wrong. But it didn’t produce a particularly broad variety of games and the script just a few years ago had become so beyond the pale rote and boring to me, that I very nearly gave up on gaming altogether.

A quick synopsis of me from 2011 to 2013.

A funny thing happened, however, while I was busy lamenting that $60 boxed copies of games were becoming more and more homogeneous. People, a whole lot of very creative and talented people, were making and utilizing tools that could make independent and small studio game development plausible again. A hobby that started out as a few of guys or gals in their basement or garage dreaming up something cool and different, and turned into something that only a team of hundreds could build, began returning to a few guys or gals in their basement or garage dreaming up something cool and different.

Only these folks? There are more of them and they’ve got the Internet now, not to mention a couple of very popular delivery platforms that will host and sell their content. I don’t know if gaming has gotten bigger as the indie and small dev scene has exploded, but it has absolutely gotten broader. I’ve watched gaming evolve for more than 30 years. There is more stuff out there today, and a greater variety of it, than at any time I can remember. As a gamer, even if that broadening means that there’s also a preponderance of stuff out there that you wouldn’t play if your life depended on it, that’s something you should celebrate, not something to fight against. It’s okay for some things to be for people who are not you.

The other thing that’s happened as gaming has broadened, is that so has the media that covers them. Guess what happens when the people who write about games become a more diverse group? Yeah, you get more and different opinions about games. And you? You’re not going to like all of those opinions. Some of them are even going to say mean things about games you like.

I KNOW!

Scandalous.

The beauty is, you don’t have agree with any of it. Nobody is forcing you to carry a placard and decry the evil AAA publishers because maybe not every single shooter in existence needs to have a set piece featuring strippers. Mostly, this cabal (not a cabal) of SJWs just wants to be able to speak about this stuff without you calling them in the middle of the night with orders for Five Guys, or, you know, issuing vile epithets, rape, and death threats on Twitter. And if you could cut out the doxxing that would be swell too.

I know that’s asking a lot, this request to behave with some shred of basic human decency, even in the face of people saying things you don’t like. It is, sadly, the world we live in. But we’re not talking about you, right? Because you, Rational Gamer Gater, you are probably staunchly opposed to this behavior too. For you it really is “about the principles.” Well, there are two things here:

1. Whether you like it or not, if you align yourself with this whole GG thing, this harassment campaign is something you’re aligning yourself with. It’s not avoidable.

2. People writing things you don’t like is not corruption, nor is it, in and of itself, a reason for those things not to exist. More to the point, people writing things you don’t agree with doesn’t make them wrong.

Game reviews and opinion columns are not supposed to be objective, nor balanced, nor must you agree with them to get something out of them. Some of the best game writing I’ve ever read took positions with which I didn’t agree. (A favorite quote: “If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. If you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”) Writers who can paint a clear picture and substantiate what they love or hate about a game (or gaming) in an eloquent way are hugely valuable to the gaming community because they do, in fact, allow you to make your own informed judgment about what to buy and who to follow. If you’re looking for a game review or an opinion piece to be objective, or if you think something is bad purely because it engages in ideas or perspectives you don’t agree with, then your problem isn’t the writer or the outlet, it’s you.

Now, say I’m wrong about every last thing I’ve written here. It wouldn’t be a first for me. Guess what? Even in that case, all you folks who are upset because you’re convinced gaming journalism is corrupt can still sleep soundly at night in the knowledge that games writers really don’t move the needle all that much and when we do it tends to be in a way that spurs sales, not spurns them. Publishers determine what and how games get made, not critics. Publicly traded AAA publishing companies, in particular, go where the money is. If gamers buy a game en mass, then no egghead writer is going to stop the publisher from making another one just like it. Boom. Done. Ballgame.

As long as publishers feel there is more money in bigger guns and dead hookers, that’s what we’ll continue to see. However, many of us in the “pro inclusion” crowd believe there is actually more money to be made in being more inclusive, and opening more doors to more and different people, than there is in a potentially harmful status quo. And there is at least some evidence to suggest that needle is moving. Slowly, yes, but it feels like it’s happening and, if so, it’s surely in large part because games criticism, development, and publishing are gradually becoming more diverse. More smart women and people of color are finding places for their voices to be heard and it’s a travesty that so many people would ally themselves with a movement whose sole purpose is to extinguish those voices.

A good chunk of the time when I hear something from one of those voices, I don’t even agree with them. Or, more accurately, I agree with some bits of it, but not others. Yet I’ve learned more in listening to those voices and giving them my consideration than I have from bandying about with a bunch of people who already think like me. I hope this trend of fresh new voices, and old voices finding new and more platforms, not only continues, but accelerates. We can only learn, grow, and benefit from them. And if it just so happens that it leads to publishers and developers pushing harder to make their games more mature, more consistent in acknowledging women and people of color as something other than stereotypes, then remember that they’re doing it because they think there’s a larger audience for them in doing so. It’s not because of censorship (maybe look that term up before you start bandying it about), it’s because the market always wins eventually and sometimes that means you lose.

It’s an outcome that I can only hope comes to pass, for the simple reason that this hobby is at its best when it’s by everyone, for everyone.

Let’s Have a Heated Debate

Mrs Merton preparing for a heated debate, which is likely to be more sensible and mature than most video gaming debates

There’s been a slew of articles here on NHS of late debating the merits of next-generation consoles, the rise of mobile gaming and the sustainability of current industry models. And not just here: in the wake of E3, it’s been a popular topic all over the internet. I have nothing that I especially want to add to that debate, but what I do think is rather more interesting is the manner in which that debate has been conducted.

I was inspired to write this piece after watching a discussion on twitter between @will_luton, the creative director of a mobile gaming studio and games journalist @robfahey on this very subject. Aside from the topic itself, there was a rapid acknowledgement between them that it has become a curiously polarised and rabid discussion, in which adherents to one side or another not only ferociously defend their opinions in a joyfully fact-free manner but seem to insist that the model they’re defending is the only viable one. And that this isn’t just coming from fans, but some senior corners of the industry as well. Recently, I did see a piece discussing the topic on CVG that rose above the muck, but aside from that, it’s been a remarkably unhelpful debate.

This is sad, but not terribly surprising. Outside of politics and sport, there’s not a topic of conversation I know that’s capable of reducing people to raw, screaming bundles of quivering indignation faster than games. You can see it everywhere: conversations in game stores, the message boards and comments threads of gaming sites, even in press releases. That it exists is pretty much indisputable. The more interesting question is why.

There are various angles one could consider. Perhaps the most obvious, given the grammar failures and logical fallacies you’ll commonly see in these debates, is simply that the participants aren’t terribly bright. I don’t really buy this. For starters, there’s circumstantial evidence that gamers tend to be slightly smarter than average. More compellingly, you can see the same shrill tones rapidly being adopted in exchanges between well-known gamers and writers that you know full well are capable, upright human beings most of the time.

Another possible factor is money. Gaming is not a cheap hobby once you’ve shelled out for a console and are paying upfront for AAA games on release day. If you’re on a PC things are arguably even worse given the exorbitant cost of high-end hardware. So pinning your colours to the mast of a particular platform involves backing up your decision with sizable sums of money which, in turn, is likely to make people feel needy for reasons to justify their choices. There’s mileage here, because there are similar effects observable in other high-cost interest groups like home cinema and hi-fi. But it can’t be the whole story. Debate in games is noticeably angrier than in other areas, and the disease still affects gamers who are lucky enough to be able to afford multiple platforms.

The revolting Aris Bakhtanians preparing for a debate about his reptilian comments on sexual harassment in games

There’s a clue, I think, in the nature of these discussions. Can you imagine someone as crass and pig-headed as Aris Bakhtanians feeling enabled to defend his grotesque sexism on a audio-visual fan board? While audiophiles vigorously debate the merits of lossy versus lossless audio formats, do you really hear them demanding rigid adherence to one model to the exclusion of all others? What’s strikingly different about debate amongst gamers isn’t so much the manner of delivery, but the level of maturity. Refusing to acknowledge other people’s feelings and opinions, even if you don’t agree, is immature. Rigid adherence to a fixed and absolutist point of view, regardless of logic and reason, is immature. Shouting and sulking when you don’t get your own way during a discussion is immature. Simply put, the unfortunate hallmark of a lot gaming debate is a lack of maturity.

Which of course begs the further question of why this should be the case. And here we have a chicken and egg problem to solve: is gaming discussion immature because gamers are immature, or do otherwise sensible gamers commonly lose their marbles in gaming debates because the pervasive culture around them is immature?

To answer that I think we need to delve down into the history of the industry. It’s easy to forget in the modern era of mainstream games that gaming was once a minority hobby, and one that was largely confined to children. The very term “game”, divorced from digital connotations still has powerful connections with kids and immaturity in the minds of most adults, as anyone involved with board or role-playing games can tell you.

There’s no single point at which video gaming suddenly became acceptable and mainstream: it’s been a long, hard slog to get there. But it’s undeniable that most of the major outlets for news, commentary and criticism date back to the early days of that transition when games were still perceived as an activity for kids, and many gamers were twentysomethings, teenagers or younger. A lot of the big name sites were founded around 1996 when those in my generation, the first who grew up with the hobby and therefore represent the torch-bearers for carrying it into the mainstream, were around 20. They, naturally, aimed their material at those age groups because it was representative of their audience.

Too many gamers react like this when confronted with opinions they don't want to hear

The problem is, simply, that for most outlets, the writing has never grown up. Why would it? For starters, let’s face it, there is something slightly disturbing about grown men pretending to be digital barbarians ploughing their way through hordes of orcs. And in turn, the industry product itself has never grown up: even those of us who’d like to see more mature, more interesting games aren’t getting them, as John Walker lamented on Rock, Paper, Shotgun a couple of months back. Without a mature audience, why would the product grow up? Without a mature product to comment on, why would games journalism grow up? And without mature journalism, why would debate grow up? And without mature debate, there’s pretty much no hope to improve the level of thinking that fans devote to games. It’s a horrible, self-perpetuating circle which ends up leading otherwise sensible, mature people to think about games at the level of teenagers.

What hope is there for moving on? In the short-term, none. In the medium term, a great deal. There are two big name sites, Edge and Eurogamer, that frequently manage to strike a higher tone. Initial signs are that the newest kid on the landscape, Polygon, is gunning the same direction. Articles discussing the level of infantilism in gaming, debates like the one which inspired this article, small blogs improving the level of commentary are all becoming more and more frequent. All of us, writers, readers and commenters alike are part of this process and can do our bit to help. Just like gaming’s journey into the mainstream, it’s been a long hard slog, but those of us trying to pull debate out of the mire are finally gaining critical mass.