Can gaming be saved from itself?
Content note: This feature and all of its parts contain discussions of bigotry and violence.
I flick off Detroit, disheartened. The game forces the player to watch a scene of child abuse and then make the choice of whether to intervene. It could have been done so much better, and made more poignant. Instead, to get trophies, on at least one occasion the player must allow abuse.
It is difficult sometimes to distinguish whether it is truly fans who are the industry’s worst enemy or whether developers have created a monster they now have no control of, or perhaps more accurately, refuse to accept control of and accountability for regardless of the role of their own products play in shaping a community.
The gaming community has an appalling reputation and one that has been thoroughly earned. Entire books could and should be written on Gamergate, the infamous hate campaign that few really took seriously when it was at its worst. Its legacy endures today. There were prominent voices involved actively or who dismissive of the abuse which women were receiving who are still part of the community. Solidarity during this time was incredibly rare, including among YouTubers and journalists. Yet, Gamergate did not spring from nothing and its legacy is now embedded in gaming culture.
There is without doubt a toxic gaming culture that means that while the gaming audience may be increasingly diverse, many do not want to identify as gamers. This is a tragedy. People should be allowed to proudly love games and yet many cannot. It seems the one thing the community loves to hate the most isn’t a bad game, but fellow fans. There are issues from top to bottom: workers’ rights in development teams, concerns around diversity at every level of the industry (including the growing sphere of eSports), how harassment online is tackled and that includes discussions about whether tea-bagging should be considered virtual assault. The community is just that toxic.
At war with its creators and its own fans.
But what does this have to do with politics and gaming? The fact is, that fans have managed to make something as mundane as people playing games, and being represented in games, a political point. There is a lot of railing against identity politics in 2018 but the very reason anyone is talking about identities is because so many people have a problem with them – or specifically, have an issue with identities different to their own. Battlefield V proved that again recently. One single trailer was met with message after message complaining about women being represented at all.
One comment claimed that this was not a backlash against representation but against the idea of distorting history and they cited the popularity of Overwatch as an example. Yet, this simply does not stand up. Overwatch is a multiplayer game with very little story but a thoroughly diverse cast of characters people can play as. However, it has had backlash for its diverse characters. People even threatened to boycott when Tracer was revealed as gay. There were again threats to boycott when Blizzard included Middle Eastern maps in the game. Additionally, recognising the contribution by women in history is not a distortion of reality.
Women have long held an important part in military history. While they may not have won recognition for this (or rights) in the army until the 20th century in many countries, wars have long been waged and won by women. Throughout the centuries, it has been documented that women have fought in the military, even in times and eras where it was seen as an occupation purely held by (cis) men. Whether that’s with the Vikings through to the Medieval era. Women (and non-binary people) would dress and disguise themselves to be able to fight when they faced being banned from the military. From Joan of Arc to Queen Boudica, to the many women who fought Nazis as part of the resistance. Many women fought alongside men or within their own units. The ‘night witchers’ were women fighter pilots during World War II who flew over 30,000 missions and dropped 23,000 tons of bombs on the invading Nazi armies. Due to the open cockpits, the women who flew at night would be at risk of frostbite but they carried on, bringing terror down upon the Nazis.
Women’s place in history is indisputable, specifically their contribution to wars and military. Men of colour too have long fought in conflicts which have even taken place in the West or been led by the West. During World War I over 350,000 African Americans volunteered to serve with the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. In gaming, it’s easy to accept different alien species, androids, the idea of robot dinosaurs walking around but not, it seems, the idea that women or marginalised people should be afforded any space in the stories which are so often their stories too. Much like transmisics who cling to scientific falsehoods in the face of indisputable evidence that trans people exist, white supremacist and misogynistic gamers are trying to dictate narratives which serve their own political ideologies. It must therefore be asked if the games industry is listening to this agenda of fear.
Representation of women, and marginalised people, is still a rarity in games. This is something which consistently holds the industry back. Great stories should be the focus, but when games look and feel very similar and ultimately bland because of a lack of diversity then a disservice is being done to the content, and the to fans who want to see themselves reflected in games but rarely get the chance to.
“I played Witcher 3 and loved most of it,” says Rachel Clark-Raee. “I was annoyed with how women were animated in it as they were basically there as the love interest with very little agency of their own.”
The Witcher series, like many fantasy franchises, has also been criticised for the lack of people of colour in its games. Fantasy is a realm where many different species are created and their oppression is explored yet, so often, people of colour are entirely absent from these narratives. The reasons why usually ignore all reason or fail to really address the developers’ /creators’ sub-conscious decisions. Witcher came from a series of books and its been argued that the lack of people of colour is due to its Polish heritage as a story, but that implies that people of colour have never set foot in Poland which is simply untrue. Often, the justifications for absent representation fall down when under scrutiny, but Rachel is still hopeful for the industry – precisely because of its audience.
“…The gaming industry has more opportunity to change because it is by far a younger industry than say movies,” says Rachel. “The general trend is for younger generations to be more socially aware. Obviously, this isn’t always the case and things like gamer gate show how far we still have to improve. But I’m an optimist.”
“I would say the problem is comparable to other media such as films music or books. I feel the issue with more managing discussions around disagreement instead of spewing hate. People no matter what their opinion should IMO be able to listen to each other and share differences.”
However, media critic, Alwin Nijsen, thinks that gaming developers do have a different approach to those within the film or TV worlds when it comes to politics and what choices are made with inclusion and direction.
“I do think that,” says Alwin. “It’s probably because the engagement between gamedevs and audience is much larger than the one between movie studios and audience. You make a movie, people go watch it, that’s the interaction. But with games, there’s a lot more long term planning involved. You have to get people to pre-order the game, you have to keep people playing, you have to keep them buying DLC, loot boxes or expansions. Sometimes you have to keep them paying for a monthly subscription. While games potentially have much more freedom to tell weird and wacky stories and be as inclusive as they want, I think the fear of alienating the ‘most hardcore’ fans makes it so the big budget titles play it safe when it comes to diversity and politics.”
Alwin cites recent examples of backlashes to content to show that audiences were willing to shout loudly at developers who try to get political.
“It’s still happening,” Alwin says. “Battletech allowed you to pick gender-neutral pronouns for your character and lots of people got very upset about this. The remake of Baldur’s Gate One added a dialogue option with one NPC [non-playable character] which revealed they’re transgender. Again, this led to protests. It’s not unreasonable to think that heads of studios see those reactions and start asking themselves if putting in certain messages is ‘worth the trouble’.”
Gamer Chris McIntyre agrees that studios may be frightened away from including certain content within their games – but that they have a responsibility to representative content anyway.
“I think gaming is in a fantastic place to explore politics. It’s a medium people of all ages and backgrounds can enjoy in one form or another, and it certainly affects the way we see others. Subtle inclusions can normalize concepts for vast swaths of people, such as when The Sims 4 began making their games more transgender/non-binary friendly. I don’t think the gaming industry as a whole has a duty to reflect and explore political realities, but I do think that any good individual should always be looking for ways to teach empathy, inclusion, and acceptance through their work.”
“Movies have long since been seen as acceptable political vehicles, as any mature medium eventually will. The studios that create cinematic powerhouses like The Last Jedi and Black Panther pull from ‘nerdy’ sources, but it would be foolish to call them nerdy movies. They are some of the highest grossing movies of all time. Their appeal is widespread. The backlash from the ‘nerds’ who disagree with their politics is loud, angry, and tiny in the face of the rest of the world. They are watching, kicking and screaming, as the things they thought were theirs are being dragged out of their dark corners and into a world that wants more nuance and reality in their media.
“Gaming as a whole still relies too much on this market for even the biggest studios to pull away completely from their core audiences, so these loud and angry few still have some sway over even some of the bigger games. However, blockbuster hits have been making shifts in the gaming atmosphere for quite a long time, and it’s not likely gaming as a whole will seem like a bastion of bigotry for these people for much longer.”
“They are watching, kicking and screaming, as the things they thought were theirs are being dragged out of their dark corners and into a world that wants more nuance”
The Last Jedi and Black Panther have shown that representation has not harmed them. In fact, it has given them enormous sales. People want to see people like them in the media. The campaigns to boycott these titles were met with resounding failure. Critical reviews were outstanding as were sales, no matter what Rotten Tomatoes might say.
Evan Culbertson agrees that politics can make media even stronger.
“The Last Jedi is probably the best Star Wars movie, in large part BECAUSE of its politics,” says Evan. “Disney isn’t paying attention, and they shouldn’t.”
Gamer John Aridi believes that the games industry is somewhat lagging behind other media in being able to deal and control inevitable backlashes from fans, but believes that eventually, the games industry will take charge.
“I think that in the movie industry – and in television – it has started to become clear that the volume of bigotry in public forums doesn’t lead to loss of ticket sales, and so more risks are being taken by the people that sign the checks. Sure, there was a huge backlash against TLJ – almost all of it totally undeserved – but it still took something like 1.3 billion dollars. Black Panther faced significant backlash but still made over a billion dollars. In the end the numbers don’t lie. I daresay that the gaming industry will reach its tipping point – wherein a handful of games will face a huge backlash for being progressive, and still make a significant profit and review very positively. Publishers just need to be brave enough to publish them!”
Jamie Hagen though believes that the content within games has helped create the monster within the community. The politics (or lack thereof) within games has arguably enticed extreme voices to shout even louder.
“Many games incur large online backlash if they merely diverge from the accepted pool of protagonists with no other political content involved,” says Jamie. “And the culture around gaming is a big part of it. I’m not really sure why. My best guess is gaming’s narratives up to this point have been superficially encouraging diversity whilst playing into every stereotype of a given group, and this trend of false representation makes gamers resent that they’re being told that what they cherished as proof their chosen media was acceptably progressive was in fact heavily flawed, but that’s an off-the-top-of-my-head conjecture.”
Christopher McMahon’s PhD is focused upon gaming. Christopher emphasises that there will likely always be some form of a backlash to better and more progressive content, but that shouldn’t deter advancements from being made.
“There’s always going to be nasty people that push back against people that fight against dominant power structures with the media they create,” says Christopher. “I don’t know what the approach will be for different media but I think good and kind people that are creating new and exciting media just need to keep doing so and keep confronting the pressing issues of our day.”
“There’s always going to be nasty people that push back against people that fight against dominant power structures”
Christopher though believes that while there is a moral responsibility to combat abuse in fandoms and gaming communities, developers can’t be thought of as separate or let off the hook when they can help set the tone of the entire conversation around politics.
“I think developers have a moral duty to push back against abuse. Developers and others in the gaming industry should curate communities more, gamers that are abusive should be banned from the community, be it forums or the games themselves, so they know it’s not acceptable. But there’s the problem to consider that what if it’s the people making the games that have shitty politics? If you look at Kingdom Come Deliverance, the developer was pro-gamergate and claimed that progressive media is trying to destroy video games so I think the abusive culture around games is not just coming from the community but also some people making the games.”
Developers control the content which goes out, that in turn influences audiences who then help steer developers when it comes to what sort of games are produced next. The cycle is toxic and difficult to break. Yet, as gamers become more diverse, they are shut on the sidelines watching the same angry voices yell at each other.
“Gamers are fucking terrible. It’s embarrassing,” says Evan Culbertson. “There are more people playing video games than ever before, and the people who engage with game content are more diverse than ever before, and yet there’s this ‘old guard’ of straight white dudes fighting against inclusivity and progress. It’s just absolutely unacceptable.
“I think it does hold some developers back, to be sure – but… Blizzard doubled down on making explicitly diverse and queer characters, and they’ve got one of the most popular games in the world. As I write this, the Battlefield V trailer came out and some corners of the internet are FURIOUS about the inclusion of black and female characters in a WW2 fantasy game, which is unbelievably absurd. My hope is that DICE (who develop Battlefield) will ignore the backlash, as some other developers have, and continue pushing things forward.”
Joe argues that because games and the internet grew up alongside each other a huge section of gamers are online – which amplifies their backlash. Yet, this runs the risk of inflating the number of people who actually truly don’t want better content. There are fears though that this has had an impact with games. There were rumours that BioWare made several characters only able to romance someone of a different gender because same gender romances could be met with a backlash.
“As I recall,” Jane says, “in the first Mass Effect game Kaidan Alenko was supposed to be a romantic interest for both a male and female protagonist, and the VAs [voice actors] recorded dialogue as such, but EA feared this wouldn’t go down well with what they considered to me Mass Effect’s core demographic, so the M/M romance was ditched in the first game. I think this has to be largely because of the culture EA perceived those fans to have, as it was happy to have M/M romances in other games (i.e. Dragon Age) it viewed as having different audiences, long before it allowed them in the Mass Effect series.”
Alenko was eventually able to romance both the male and female versions of Shepard. Sadly, many fans lament that a similar decision was not taken with characters such as Miranda Lawson and Tali who were also rumoured to have been watered down for the audience. The gaming community is aware of the power it wields when there are even whispers across the internet that development teams have backed out of storylines for fear of a backlash. Progress is being made, however although it is often at odds with what the loudest in the gaming community want. When BioWare were proud about one queer character, this was clearly shown. Joe points out that Dragon Age wasn’t spared a backlash for its inclusion of queer characters.
“A small example is I remember when Dragon Age: Inquisition came out I saw a lot of straight women being angry because they couldn’t romance Dorian as a female Inquisitor. I even saw someone make a mod that made it so female Inquisitors COULD romance Dorian, because that many people were mad that he was a gay character that only male Inquisitors could romance. This is just one example, but I think it shows exactly how problematic the community can be. Like, there are so many characters that are heterosexual but there was such a big outrage over one character who was gay.”
A better era for gaming on the horizon?
Like England supporters who got sick of the sight of football fans causing chaos during the European Championship, it can be incredibly draining for gamers to keep seeing the same toxic, and often abusive, comments online. There is a longing for progress. Gamergate is not a distant memory when the impact still rumbles on. The backlash against politics in games is rarely focused around respectful discourse or arguing about how to improve narratives. It so often revolves around the binary question: should marginalised people be allowed spaces in the community?
“I know when I first started gaming, I always was looked down on as not as real of a gamer because I was very young and also [perceived as] female,” Joe says. “For so long games were aimed towards cisgender, heterosexual, white men and it shows, in the games and in the community. While yes, gamers do come in all shapes and forms, it’s still obvious that game companies are still aiming their games towards the most privileged of gamers and ignoring the rest of us.”
“The current gaming audience will have learned this from my generation,” Joe says, who saw the rise of online gaming from the 90s onward, “sadly, as we sort of created the rules for online play. Gamergate was, I think, the inevitable result of this environment.
“Gamergate genuinely frightened and angered me, because it was the perfect storm of entitled kids who’d grown up with the entire gaming industry (publishers, developers and the press) telling them that games were for boys only, the technological capabilities of the 21st century and its capacity for abuse, and the unwillingness of those who maintained ‘ethics in games journalism’ to even think that they might be in the wrong. Add to this the reluctance of the gaming press, developers and publishers to accept responsibility for their part in creating this environment, and you’ve got an entire industry that was complicit in the harassment, doxing and threatening of marginalised folks. Has this happened before? Not like this. Seeing people literally fearing for their lives and their loved ones, all because of some imagined slight against a hobby? I can’t recall anything like that happening before.”
Chris McIntyre though believes that Gamergate has not been unique to the gaming community, but that it still is something the industry should tackle when so many people with toxic ideologies do flock to gaming for a reason.
“Gamergate is not a phenomenon unique to gaming,” says Chris. “‘Comicsgate’ is essentially the same thing happening in the comics community, complete with its own version of ‘it’s about ethics in gaming journalism’ (something about diversity being bad, I’ve tried not to look into it too much). And then there’s the ‘incel’ movement, which sees just about everyone taking the blame for horrible human beings that are unable to find a partner.
“It does, however, seem that the ‘nerdier’ pastimes are like a magnet for this kind of insidiously disguised bigotry. Women and minorities of any kind will likely run into these issues anywhere they go, but gaming didn’t get its bad reputation for no reason. And that reputation absolutely affects developers, especially indie ones. The main target of Gamergate, Zoë Quinn, has continued to create and develop due only to her own strength and willpower in the face of a incredibly overwhelming years-long assault against her by a group of people who, by this point, are just angry she didn’t give up and will latch onto any possible reason to harass her.”
“Gaming didn’t get its bad reputation for no reason”
Rachel agrees that the hate experienced within the gaming community can be seen elsewhere – and that it could be a wider issue for fandoms and social media platforms to also play their role in stamping out hate.
“The backlash factor like Gamergate is a problem for creators and like with any ‘controversy’ I feel the problem there is more to do with how people react on social media,” says Rachel. “The studios should defend their staff absolutely. But really we need to fix the problems that make it okay for people to spew hate online. Which given how widespread me problem, in gaming and out, is not likely to be solved any time soon.”
Evan Culbertson though, points to outlets who can help define the media narrative, particularly Waypoint, Polygon and Kotaku which Evan believes have all made an effort to examine the industry when it comes to social justice, but they often get a furious backlash because of that.
Yet, that there are outlets committed to trying to demand better games and a better gaming culture is a ray of hope. Games have a huge audience, but if developers only hear one side then we will only ever get one type of content. That’s why other gamers shouldn’t be shouted down or silenced – and developers themselves should prioritise different voices. Representation wins respect and is ultimately good for business. It may annoy the trolls, but people want to see themselves in stories.
“I think video games need to challenge a lot of the tropes that are persistent in games to this day,” says Christopher. “There needs to be better representation in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and class. People not only need to see themselves in video games but others should see other people and hear their stories.
“I think we’ll know we’re heading in the right direction if more MRA (Men’s Rights Activists) types spit their dummies out over a video game’s content.”
Critics can often face comments that they’ll never be happy, but should we ever be? The fact is, if you talk with gamers then they actually have a huge amount of ideas for how to improve content. They know what they want, but they also understand it’s an ongoing process. Books did not just stop at historic great authors. There were more that came after Lawrence, Dickens, Angelou etc because we’re supposed to keep chasing progress. After Harry Potter was written, nobody said “oh, let’s stop writing now; this can’t be beaten”. In fact, in the decade following its publication there has been more discussion about how to make stories better than the most successful series ever. The very idea we shouldn’t try to do better is completely at odds with the whole reason why we tell stories, and why people pursue creativity. If you can’t ask for better from a product without it resulting in trolling and harassment, then really, who are the snowflakes and gatekeepers of an entire industry?
For gaming to reach its true potential then there has to be an exploration of how to be better. We need new stories. We need better games. Developers may be scared to approach that, but these gamers know what they want and to be honest, it isn’t a huge amount.
“I think really I’d just like a commitment to examining issues thoroughly, thoughtfully and with the consultation of real people affected by those issues,” Jane says. “Better diversity of representation of course, and appropriate VA casting. For example, whilst I thought the casting of Jennifer Hale as Krem in Dragon Age Inquisition did show that BioWare cared about the character and were committed to securing a high quality performance to do him justice, it would be better if trans characters were voiced by trans VAs.”
“I’d just like a commitment to examining issues thoroughly, thoughtfully and with the consultation of real people affected by those issues”
Charlie also wants better diversity – and issues to be addressed within games and not just used as prompts for a plot-line. Mass Effect: Andromeda was a new game in its own right, set in the same universe as the original popular trilogy but with its own story. Yet, the concept was hugely problematic as the new main protagonist set out to a different galaxy to essentially colonise it.
“I’d like to see more queer characters, more disabled characters, less default white grizzled dudes,” says Charlie. “I’d like to see more thoughtful games – ME:A but with the colonialism actually addressed..like, if they’d made it take place after the Reapers invaded, so there was an actual reason for them to flee instead of some Columbus style reach a new world stuff. Or Cora’s character arc – if they’d actually addressed how problematic her whole ‘I’m more asari than the asari’ deal was, that would have been amazing. It would be amazing if a game focused on, say, overthrowing a Western tyrannical government, or took some current political issue and turned it into a game. Like. A game around the themes of Black Lives Matter? Fighting police racism and corruption. I dunno I’m not very creative, but I think there is a lot of potential here.”
Detroit: Become Human does parallel with Black Lives Matter and the early civil rights movement. A group of androids fight from servitude and pursue different forms of activism, however, the game widely co-opts these struggles and is incredibly insensitive of racism. The story is disappointing, but Charlie isn’t wrong to want a story that does focus on activism. Jane’s suggestion of consultation with marginalised people could have gone a long way to rectify the mistakes in Detroit and made it a worthy game. Yet, even when brands are trying to include diversity and look at politics, they’re doing a half-job without thorough research and so they risk being accused of cashing in on the recent increased fascinating with political activism, without actually saying anything meaningful at all.
Paul believes that developers need to re-prioritise and put stories before gameplay, graphics and game mechanics.
“I would love to see games designed story-first, with mechanics and gameplay built around that. I feel like there is a watershed moment for narratives in games still to come, and I think it can only happen with the involvement of people from marginalised backgrounds. I want gamers to accept that, like film, there is room for different stories to be told, for different people and that it’s okay for them to exist. That’s idealistic as hell, I know, but until we can move past the ‘games are for white, straight cis males’ mentality, not a lot’s going to change.
“I think there also needs to be a serious addressing of what makes a game ‘fun’ to play. Right now, focus is on frame rates, lag, feel of a weapon, all technical stuff, when it perhaps needs to incorporate more nebulous things like ‘am I engaged with the content? Is the story making me think? What happens if I play as a black woman instead of a white male?’ and have those concerns shape the flow of the game. Some gaming news sites have begun to question this in their reviews (Eurogamer and Polygon), with the typical grumbling about ‘PC SJWs ruining games’ in the comments section. I would definitely love to play an RPG whose story and mechanics change based on your choice of gender, ethnicity and class, and whose designers make those actually meaningful and impactful choices. I know Dragon Age Origins attempted some of this, but only in the prologue if I remember rightly.”
Paul points out that there is a huge amount of compelling and interesting content that could still be explored within games. In some ways, developers have barely scratched the surface of what could be possible through games.
“I would also love an FPS to actually take the step of going beyond a soldier involved in warfare, and introducing peacekeeping roles where you’re punished for firing your weapon, or for a playable character be a newsreader or politician, and the narrative beats in those sections change the outcome and objectives of the soldier character on the ground – if the nation surrenders, for example, and you’re there now as peacekeepers, do you respect international laws and not fire on the populace, or do you fire on civilians who might have been enemy combatants and become a war criminal? Or a game that has a combat section, but then the aftermath of coming home, possibly with PTSD and the psychological dissonance of being a civilian again. That sort of thing. We’re starting to see games like this being developed, but until one of the big developers, like Blizzard or Naughty Dog, puts their neck on the line to tell that kind of story, gamers won’t come around any time soon.”
A quick change is hard to imagine in this community, not when Battlefield V is still attracting hate-filled comments. There is a loud and proud part of the community that simply resents people who aren’t exactly like them. Nevertheless, it is clear they do not reflect the whole community. They may give their keyboard a workout, but the gaming community is made up of diverse people whether they like it or not.
Developers should put their faith in the wider community, and in games themselves. People who truly care about games just want good ones to be made. None of the other loud noises really matter in the end, and including politics can be a brilliant and necessary choice. Games don’t live in a void. This is a fraught political era and the industry cannot pretend it is living in a separate dimension to the rest of the world, not if it wishes to be taken as seriously as other media. Developers may not have intended to create the community it has, but it’s got it now and there’s a responsibility to ensure that the very worst demands aren’t caved into. Women, marginalised people and good political stories deserve their time and space within this industry. Gamers too have a need to see representation and politics – they want it. The question which: which type of gamer will developers choose to listen to?
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