I suppose I should preface this by acknowledging I haven’t been diligently keeping tabs on the “GamerGate” movement. I am not a heavy reader of gaming journalism, as I am not too avid a gamer — I complete perhaps three or four feature-length games a year. But I still appreciate the artistry behind the games I play, and it is that artistic integrity at stake, in the long run. That’s why I find the current, censorious movement in gaming to be so troubling.
Efforts to censor video games are, of course, nothing new. One canard that refuses to die is that violent video games lead to violent behavior in those who play them, and game developers and consumers have had to fight the resultant efforts to censor content (even though repeated studies have refuted this theory). Now, the industry faces another charge against its work: It’s sexist. According to victim extraordinaire Anita Sarkeesian, popular video games are rife with misogyny and pandering to the male demographic, even though there are now just as many female gamers in the market.
Of course, what Sarkeesian fails to consider is that female gamers seem inclined towards simple puzzle-based games, the kind that can easily be played on a smartphone or tablet; the audience of more time-consuming, plot-heavy games remain mostly male. And when your target audience is overwhelmingly male, it pays to feature male protagonists as muscular warriors and female protagonists as improbably shapely and scantily-clad. The results can be silly, no question, but how often has it been demanded that romance novels feature at least some pudgy, balding men on their covers? Every artistic movement is granted some suspension of disbelief so that it may appeal more to its audience. Why should games be any different?
But the people who now stand opposed to free expression in gaming aren’t just against the skimpiest of “armor” and the amplest of bosoms. The current movement consists largely of those known as “social justice warriors,” whose philosophy on free speech was best summarized as, “Your rights end where my feelings begin.” Known as the driving force behind “trigger warnings,” people of their ilk have gained notoriety by “debating” those who disagree with them by stealing and vandalizing their protest signs, and pulling the fire alarm* when they are slated to speak.
These are the people who have nominated themselves as the judges of what is and is not appropriate content for video games.
For an example of the threat SJWs pose to artistic integrity, let’s look at my favorite game franchise of all time: Fallout, a series that canonically spans four role-playing games and a combat-focused spinoff set in a United States after a nuclear apocalypse. Boasting an incredibly rich mythos and atmosphere, it chronicles humanity’s efforts to rebuild civilization from the ground up in an environment that has allowed the darkest elements of humanity to thrive.
A common enemy seen in all Fallout games are bands of violent bandits, known as raiders, who routinely pillage the more civilized communities in the wasteland. As feminists themselves would probably guess, those raiders count some rapists amongst their ranks. This has become an issue for some, as chronicled in this series of exchanges between a social justice warrior and one of the series’ designers.
One of Fallout‘s strengths is its uncompromising look at what the worst of humanity has to offer, and all art must be uncompromising to maintain its integrity. But here is someone who wants the narrative to be softened, defanged, for no other purpose than to avoid making a small fraction of the games’ audience uncomfortable. What sort of artists would permit this?
Some artists, of course, may be easily swayed by the appeal to supposed equality and fairness. (Legendary designer Tim Schafer, for example, appears to have been suckered in already.) But the main threat comes from ill-advised investors on new game projects. The most highly developed and promoted “AAA” games require budgets rivaling those of Hollywood blockbusters. And the higher a game’s budget, the more willingness to sacrifice artistic expression in order to avoid potential controversy. (Yes, it might seem hypocritical to denounce self-censorship of art while condoning pandering to the audience, as I’ve defended above. But the key difference is that pandering is the choice of the artist, while altering content to appease the social justice warriors is yielding to the power of the censor.) And there have already been movements to pressure games to contort themselves into SJW-approved content:
But the question arises: What if there’s a dearth of female gamers because they’re put off by male-centric games, and there are no games that cater to them because they don’t appear to be a significant demographic of the gaming audience? What would it take to break the cycle?
The answer is not, as the SJWs have proposed, to browbeat existing games into submission and deny them free expression. It is to put more effort into attracting women to the games industry, allowing them to design games that appeal to female audiences. In other words, to expand the industry and make more games, not to cut content from existing games.
And why hasn’t anyone taken the initiative to bring women into the industry already? Actually, they have. You can be forgiven for being ignorant about this, of course, as the SJWs don’t seem to care much for it. They seem dead set on cursing the darkness, with cratefuls of candles and matchbooks laying at their feet.
What drives the social justice warrior in this matter? Is it really to help the gaming industry reach different, untapped markets and providing underrepresented demographics with games they would enjoy? Or might this be yet another misguided attempt to make the world fair by forcing those perceived to be unfair to play by their rules?
In the end, I just care about the games, and developers’ right to portray what they want in them. If there is disagreeable content in a game, it should be regarded as controversial artwork, not a defective product. If video games are art, they should be entitled to the same rights of free expression as any other medium.
If you’d like to read more on GamerGate, some well-written and -spoken pieces on it can be found by Allum Bokhari, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Cathy Young. For more in-depth coverage, you can check out some resources put together by hardcore GamerGaters here and here. I haven’t exactly perused these myself, so this is not an official endorsement of them, but they should provide some counterpoints to the movement as it’s been portrayed by shamelessly biased media in the mainstream.
* Edit: It has been noted that I had brought this up while disregarding the violent actions of those opposed to Ms. Sarkeesian in order to silence her, such as sending her death threats. After some consideration, I must admit that it was rather hypocritical of me to imply that the false fire alarms were exemplary behavior of SJWs as a whole, while presumably dismissing the actions of those behind the death threats as those of a few bad apples within the GamerGate movement. Please grant me a bit of space for some hyperbole in the name of rhetoric, and take my words with a grain of salt. Thank you.