An Issue With Agendas

Why do gamers seem to hate journalists with an agenda?

From the point of view of the journalist, their agenda is a positive thing. They are trying to get more female protagonists in games and making games, trying to get more LGBT representation in games, and trying to get more racial diversity in games.

So when readers say that their sendup of Final Fantasy for having no playable female characters and the op-ed about heterosexual white man being life’s “easiest difficulty setting” are bad because they are agenda-driven, they react with confusion and hostility. Its easy to assume the majority of gamers are just misogynist assholes when faced with this reaction, but in my opinion the truth is not so black and white.

Gamers aren’t against progress, they’re just against your approach to progress.

In simplest terms the gamers who oppose “agenda-driven” reporting are supporters of bottom-up progress; which in this case is providing diverse people opportunities to make games that represent a diverse world. The journalists in question seem to support a top-down method; tearing down already completed works for not meeting their lofty standards. I want to examine the issues with this practice, and why it pisses so many gamers off.

The typical method of gaming critics is not to champion the good examples of diversity in game development and games themselves. You seldom hear praise from the big sites about how the new Lara Croft is a capable, non-sexualized protagonist with a better story arc than any recent shooter protagonist. But you will hear that she’s “a girl trying to escape a man’s world” that her constant injuries are fetishistic and one death scene in game could be construed as supporting rape-culture.

The journalists behind these articles know that there are more clicks in a “This game promotes misogyny!” article than there are in a “This game is a good example of a strong female character” article, so almost all of their critique trends towards the negative. We see reviews that mark a game down because it made the reviewer “feel like a bully”. We see articles telling us that this video game makes us equate kissing with killing. Their method of change is not to produce “less problematic” content or invite discussion, it is to find something they perceive as objectionable and then denounce it. When you’re told over and over that everything you like is terrible, its easy to become frustrated with those doing the telling.

My Equality is Better Than Your Equality

Another source of animosity on this matter is the issue of equality of results vs. equality of opportunity.

I believe it would be hard to find a gamer who believes that anyone should be restricted from making games, writing about games or becoming involved in the gaming industry. This is known as equality of opportunity, everyone has the right to pursue their goals, whether that goal is to write, to write about, to critique or to develop games. If there are institutional barriers preventing that, they should be removed. If everyone has the opportunity to contribute, we will have more diversity of product and the market will choose who deserves an audience. This is the kind of equality I, and I believe many other gamers believe in.

The prevailing attitude of gaming media seems to be that of equality of results. Every person (in this case ones who they perceive as marginalized or oppressed) deserves to enjoy the same level of success, unless you disagree with them of course. So when a female developer or critic produces something, it cannot be criticized lest we drive more women out of the industry. If it is not nursed on a steady diet of unreserved praise, we will lose these important voices in our industry. The media needs to understand that this attitude breeds resentment in the consumer. What would have originally been a discussion of points made or game content becomes a flame war when someone tells the public “no you cannot talk about this”.

While gaming journalists may believe they are doing this for the best, saving the delicate flowers from criticism, this attitude harms the creators too. The worst thing you can do for someone’s art is to tell them it is perfect when it isn’t. When you hear nothing but universal praise and dismiss criticism by its very nature, where then is the drive to get better? By insulating women in the gaming industry from criticism you are telling them “this is good enough, do not attempt to improve yourself”.

This is what gamers hate about the modern industry, success does not seem to be achieved through skill, but by playing by the rules. When there is a “megaphone” waiting to crush your dreams, why divert from the narrative? Gamers want a meritocracy, and above all they want good games. If people entering the industry refuse to take criticism then I am sorry to say, maybe they shouldn’t be in this industry.

Art by Committee

Games are art.

This is an argument that has been made since we were able to make sprites bigger than a few pixels. And we’ve won. The Supreme Court ruled that video games are protected under the same laws that protect other art. Games appear in museums. Game design courses exist alongside fine arts courses. Many parts of development teams are known personally and professionally as artists. Games are art.

Now, like other forms of art they are experiencing external censorship and criticism.

If someone creates a painting that you hate, a painting that you find horrible and objectionable, a painting you believe is a representation of all that is wrong in the world…

You still have no right to change it.

You can choose not to look at it or you can refuse to buy a print but the artist is under no obligation to change it based on your opinion. For better or worse, everything in that painting is the choice of the artist.

Games journalists don’t seem to grasp this idea. Games appear to be the only art form that must appeal to and represent every demographic simultaneously. They will demand playable female characters when the game was not written for a playable female character; Mighty No. 9, Assassin’s Creed Unity. They will decry freedom of choice built into a game because if framed a very particular way it can be seen as sexist; Hitman: Absolution, any GTA game. And they will claim 30 year old games are examples of modern societal issues; Dragon’s Lair, Ms. Pac Man.

The tragic part is that these were the people who led the “games are art” charge. They campaigned for legitimacy and respect for our medium and when they got it they set about burning it down. They told game developers, “Yes what you made is art, now lets start talking about how your art can appeal to me”.

What I, and I believe many gamers would love to see is less attacking of existing art and more provision of opportunity. Nobody is arguing against diversity of sex, race or sexual orientation on screen or in development, we would just like to see it come from positivity, not guilt trips. Yelling at a game for featuring primarily white men is the negative approach, providing opportunities for minority developers to get into the industry and change that is the positive. Tearing down a game because it uses a “trope” is the negative approach, trying to get girls interested in games and game development is the positive. If diversity comes as a result of shaming games and game developers at the highest levels, it will only grow to be resented as all things forced upon you are. If it comes from a grassroots movement, it will be much more likely to be embraced as a representation of how diverse we truly are at all levels of the industry.

This is why gamers loved The Fine Young Capitalists project. It wasn’t attacking video games, it wasn’t telling us that women are special by their very nature. It was a way to show the world “Women have good ideas for video games too and we’re going to prove they can make money”. The reason it got funded is not spite, it is because this is the way we want to see women succeed in the gaming industry; on the strength of their ideas, not the novelty of their gender.

It’s all about the money

And at the end of the day, thats a major issue with an agenda driven crusade. Games developers and games publishers, while they have varying degrees of passion for the art, are driven by money. For years gamers have bought what they’re currently buying, games like CoD, Assassin’s Creed and Battlefield are licenses to print money, so diverting from the formula that made these companies billions is not a smart business move. So any criticism levied at these games for not being diverse enough, not being inclusive enough is going to fall on deaf ears when they see that they made 1.3 billion dollars last November with a white man as their protagonist.

There will be token efforts of course; such as hiring “consultants” and engaging with these personalities at a superficial level, but in an industry as big as video games, none of the big companies want to be the first to take a drastic risk. To change what is produced in the industry, you cannot rely on changing the current mindsets of the people in power, you need to focus on getting people into the industry. But the current practice is the opposite of this, it breaks down into a vicious cycle of: Journalists decry video games –> game devs make token efforts –> It isn’t good enough –> Journalists decry video games.

If these game journalists are true believers and not just clickbaiters they need to see the necessity of breaking that cycle. If a particularly egregious example of sexism or racism appears in a video game, by all means report on it, but that cannot be the sum of your efforts. When you ignore efforts to get women into gaming like The Fine Young Capitalists in favour of writing articles about how gamers are dead it comes across as abhorrently self serving. You are shouting from a platform about an issue while real people are below you working to fix it.

If you truly believe the best way to fix video games is to do what you’re currently doing; then I won’t change your mind. You’re going to call me a misogynist, a bigot or a gatekeeper, that’s if you even ever see this article, otherwise you’ll just assume I’m still “dead” because I call myself a gamer. But I want to tell you that what we hate is not the message of equality but the means by which you address it. We don’t hate women in gaming; Jade Raymond, Amy Hennig and Corinne Yu are all great examples of women whose success in gaming came as a result of their skill, not their gender.

If you want to create ways for more women to enter the gaming industry, we will gladly hold the door. If you continue to tell us that we’re scum and all we do is hate women and promote misogyny, we will stand in your way.