On a recent Sunday evening, I’m reading my latest edition of Game Informer, in my glorious porcelain library, and I come across the “opinion” section of the magazine. What’s great about this section is the apparent “hot take” on display that’s been sitting on the snail mail timetable windowsill that is a physical magazine these days.
What’s more, these “opinions” are largely from the same Jim Sterling-esque grab bag of topics that have rolled around in the video games culture since…probably the early 90’s? And oddly enough, there’s still this refrain that “video games (and gamers) need to “grow up?” Why? We still haven’t settled the dispute if girls can actually be gamers?!
Elise Favis, as punishment for being recently hired I guess, pens the June issues “opinion” article “Get Your Politics Into My Games”. Oddly, the title of the article was changed to “Video Games Should Embrace Politics” when it was published online, the authoritarian title does the following text no favors.
If you’ve been a gamer for any length of time, you know what this article is about without even reading it. You know that there’s at least one BioShock reference, and a heavy leaning on social justices favorite game of 2016: Mafia III, as some sort of “politics” being in games, and how that’s good. Really really good!
It’s why I’ve been backing away from the “games are art” nonsense over the last few years. I don’t even believe in the notion that “Art is politics” as quoted by Firewatch writer Sean Vanaman.
To be fair, according to the definition of art, anything that is expressed IS, in fact, art. Which is why it’s being bludgeoned to death by social justice ideological blowhards in video games culture? It goes hand-in-hand with this continuing notion that “gamers must grow up”, but why?
Far be it for me to actually research this, but has any other medium had to deal with a small clique of assholes constantly demanding that it do something akin to growth or…else? Were there people in the early 20th century demanding these talkies “grow up” and start having something to say? Alternatively, some powdered wig sect of French assholes telling composers to put more politics in to their music so that it could maintain some form legitimacy as an art form?
Why do video games seem to be so besieged by such ridiculousness?
It may be more telling that the “gamers need to grow up” fascination is coming from older “gamers” who may be feeling the sting of being in to a hobby largely aimed at and sold to children.
This idea came to me in the wake of Ian Bogost’s think piece about games not needing stories and the cries and fierce faintings from vapors that besieged the self-proclaimed video games press “intelligentsia”…like our good friends over at Waypoint.
You’d think a topic like “storytelling in games” would be right up the alley of the “intellectual” and “cerebral” denizens of a site like Waypoint. This is, after all, supposed to be their sole function in a crowded field of similarly minded shaved apes that react to flashing colors and loud noises known as the modern games press. These apes can wear clothes and bi-focals, they’ve read books recently.
Maybe because he’s writing a young-adult novel, Austin Walker took maximum umbrage with notion that the best storytelling video games have on offer is nigh YA at best. Even going so far as to call Mr. Bogost a “gadfly” for his click bait article trying to pass as philosophically tinged think piece on the strengths and weaknesses inherent to video games as a storytelling medium. What’s next, breaking out the powdered gloves and slapping each other about the face with them hurling insults at one another till one cries?
Mr. Bogost was on to something, another branch of this “gamers must grow up” tree, if it were. Video games are wholly known for their interactive nature, why then are they chasing Hollywood in terms of production? Why is there this graphical arms race for games that look so good, when repeatedly what really sells is gameplay?
He even mocks the notion that every time a “great story” and “video game” share a sentence it’s with the same tired fistful of examples. Chief among them is always BioShock, which wouldn’t you know Elise Favis namedrops in her “opinion” piece.
Look, BioShock is a great game…because of its gameplay…the story…it’s okay. What makes BioShock great is everything BUT its story. Which is somewhat how it should be when it comes to games? You want a great story, there are near endless ways of getting it elsewhere without the need to learn how to grapple with the various mechanics of a video game. What BioShock did so awesomely was weave a core mechanic of the game, completing mission objectives, into its plot of mindlessly doing as told without ever questioning as to the “Why?” The Ayn Rand bullshit…it’s in there, but as a tent pole for world building, atmosphere and slightly jabbing at her notions, but gameplay is what’s the order of the day.
Ms. Favis goes on to trot out last years Mafia III and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided as games that tried to put politics in to their games. For some reason Mankind Divided is given the cudgel for not trying hard enough with it’s politics, when it could easily be argued that Mafia III does the same thing.
I’ll never understand the social justice obsession with Mafia III and its “politically charged” narrative from last year. You can see how much impact it actually had when you peruse the end of year lists from various games press outlets. Very few, if any, felt compelled to hold Mafia III high in the air as some sort of game changing piece of art. Sure, the story was mildly political, but that is largely dropped about a fourth of the way into the game as it becomes yet another also ran Grand Theft Auto clone.
Nevertheless, don’t let that stop assholes like Ms. Favis from painting some grand picture of what playing Mafia III is like, “As you roam though the world of Mafia III, you are constantly aware of the color of Lincoln Clay’s skin.” Well, yeah…he’s black. “Walking down the street, people stare at him warily,” Perhaps this is anecdotal, but I didn’t really get much of that in my play through of the game. I don’t have a giant television, so maybe some of that nuance was lost on me. “Upon entering segregated stores, shop owners order him to leave.” This too happened maybe once in my playthough, but for me it wasn’t a store, but a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. There’s really no need to go in to any stores, gameplay wise…aside from robbing it for tiny amounts of money, and even then the shop owner runs off, wasn’t present or in one case pulled a shotgun on me. Foolish! I shot him immediately…and the cops never showed up.
There are mechanics in Mafia III that lend to this idea of what it’s apparently like to be a black man in the late 1960’s south. When the cops get near you see a blue reticule pop up. They’re totally watching you. In the uppity white people part of town, there’s more dialogue about Lincoln being a black…but that’s it, and if you’ve played ANY open world game, the background vocals kind of blend in to ALL the noise, so you don’t really make out anything being said. You have to try really hard to find the stuff that Ms. Favis is getting on about. Because, again, it doesn’t really matter. It’s background elements, nothing more, nothing less.
None of this really matters because Ms. Favis has a tired thesis to propel. “The industry is quickly maturing along with the medium, and it’s time we did too.” To which I do the tired The Internets thing of saying “citation needed”!
If politics has taught us anything over the last few months…or ever, is that it’s a horrible signifier of what maturation is. If anything, it’s more a parallel to what people like Ms. Favis think gaming and gamers are, what with a Republican debate last year couching various people’s dick sizes. These were supposedly adult men, and yet even they were found to be base enough to vaguely note that they indeed had a larger dick than the other guy on the debate stage.
It’s frustrating that on top of this need for video games to “grow up” there are never any solutions, just vague examples and the constant propulsion of the desperate need to do so. For the sake of what exactly? That video games can be viewed as a legitimate art form?
If that’s the case, then I return to my constant refrain that the games press does not possess the capability of being critics of the medium. They lack the intelligence and nuance to be critical about an artistic expression, regardless of their protestations otherwise.
Ms. Favis argues that the idea of video games remaining superficial and shying away from political themes is ludicrous is itself ludicrous. She argues it’s because the two are always interconnected. Which beggars the question of just how far back she’s talking, because video games and politics have not always been interconnected? At least, how she’s phrasing it.
I don’t wholly disagree with what Ms. Favis is trying to get at; I’ve never been one to argue that discussing social issues is forbidden in any realm. However, it has to be done intelligently, and that has yet to occur in video games culture. Too often, you have social justice ideologues desperately trying to root out messages in video games with which to yank at and scream about from the highest of soapboxes. As if some profound element of a video games story will legitimize what they do for a living, or make it seem to the outside world they do something other than just play video games all day.
Sadly, there’s still a stigma to being a gamer, and trotting one of the few topics in the grab bag of tired topics to push against for the nth time isn’t expediting anything. Video games will mature in its own time, or maybe it won’t. Hell, it’s been around for many decades doing its video game thing, and nothing but the cold hard smell of money has driven it any real direction. Admonishing gamers to do something beyond their control isn’t going to lead to a maturation of the culture.