Gaming’s Siege Mentality: Even Nice Guys Wear Helmets
Polygon has a reputation for being from the nice guy side of the gaming press. This mainly stems from it being the target of vilification from GamerGate misogynists and its perspicuity in pointing out the sexism inherent in a character like Bayonetta. That makes it several rungs more respectable than the average online game rag, which exist, in mass, to sell expensive kit to onion-skinned collectors and win cool swag for their highly journalistic staff. Sarcasm aside, they at least attempt to inject a semblance of thought into their output. Such is the case for earnest nice guy features writer Charlie Hall, whose latest article, “Hatred, UNICEF and how gaming’s perception makes it a target for censorship,” tries to defend his hobby from enemies both foreign and domestic.
Though the specifics of the article differ somewhat from the norm––having something to do with UNICEF pitching a fake game to raise awareness for war victims in Southern Sudan––the article has a theme that rings of the primeval. Hum a few bars and the words come rushing back: gaming has a PR problem, and the best way to solve that problem is for gamers to take a genuine interest in the playing habits of people who dabble in games but don’t consider themselves “insiders.” Like a Paul Haggis film, the article arrives at its conclusion by tying together several thematically related plot threads, all of which have to do with gaming’s aforementioned image problems. Hall begins with UNICEF but also includes the recent case of Apple censoring a popular independent game’s nudity while not doing the same for films and television shows it also sells in the same store. He even manages to work in some fatherly disappointment about his career choices.
While the entire article is a noxious stew of individualist liberal nostrums, it manages to provide some unintentional insight into a genuine problem with capitalist subcultures, especially ones like gaming that are essentially pagan monuments to commodity fetishism. Despite being nominally opposed to Let’s string together a few choice quotations and see if we can see the symptoms, appearing like a scarlet rash.
A game like Hatred can disgust me, but while it’s Valve’s right to set the standard for what gets sold through Steam that doesn’t mean I want to see it censored. It’s up to me to put my energy behind games that are the direct opposite of that experience in the same creative space, and to indulge in them instead…
Some people read books that are painful and sad and tragic and make them weep at the end. Other people play games for the same reasons. And no one outside of this hobby knows that.
Gaming has a public relations problem, one so deep that parents fear the hobby will ensnare even their adult children. Games and gamers are regularly judged in ways that are totally unacceptable for any other modern artistic medium…
The only way out of this hole we’re sunk in is for fans of video games to extoll the virtues of this art form, and for critics and commenters to bring their opinions to bear on every work.
Forgive that lengthy interlude, but it’s important to find every link in a chain before you can decide which one is the weakest. What Hall is saying reveals that he has far more ideologically in common with the court jesters in GamerGate. To him, I’m sure that would sound ridiculous since he uses different words and, as we’ve seen from above, different messages are everything. For both GamerGate demagogues and Mr. Hall, gaming culture has no intrinsic problems. Games and games are marginalized and taken for foolish trifles, which maintains the illusion that this colossally profitable and mainstream pursuit is a besieged minority.
Only those in the know have an appreciation for the wonders that games offer, he reasons. Gamers are good people, and GamerGate is an anomaly. Hall never once questions the institutional structures or the capitalist underpinnings of the entire enterprise, the fact that his “hobby” is a lucrative machine oiled by mass marketing, partly facilitated by publications like his. “Gamer” is an identity fundamentally tied to ownership, and this is a value Hall never questions. Not only this, but his conception of censorship and intellectual freedom are clearly not ethical questions at a fundamental level. Rather, they are market functions that deliver the best product to the right consumers.
Gaming does not have a problem of appearance or image. It’s not something that a bunch of freelance game-playing consultants can solve around holiday meal tables. Nor can they be solved with consumer “activism” or “voting with your wallets,” as if mass culture were something that came from the people rather than being something foisted on them. Appeals to the value of criticism and disagreement are cute, but they would be more substantial if the author had any idea what was actually wrong with his deeply disordered community, one he doesn’t even seem to take too seriously given that he uses words like “hobby” and “technophiles” to describe it. At least he’s perceptive enough to notice that the game industry is basically a branch of the gadget business––though he shows no sign of thinking that’s a bad thing. Games can be wonderful, but are fundamentally constrained not by an image problem but by the demands of a capitalist system that marginalizes anyone who can’t fit the mass-market mold. Real artistic progress requires more than a few stories: it takes a cultural revolution, which no one in the gaming press, to say the least, is capable of even broaching at this point.