Just because "games aren't real" doesn't mean we can't criticise them.
By caitsith01 on March 12, 2013 at 7:31 pm
Welcome back to another Community Soapbox article! If you’ve got something you’d like to say to our community, check here for more information about how to get your thoughts up in lights.
In any discussion about any controversial content in games, one argument tends to get repeated over and over by a certain type of gamer. It runs along these lines: because games aren’t real life, and because gamers know the difference between games and real life, it doesn’t matter what gets depicted in games. Shooting people in the face? Not real, doesn’t matter. Massacring tigers and other endangered animals in Far Cry 3? Virtual tigers, you idiot: not real, doesn’t matter. And so on. This reasoning has been repeated here on GON in countless threads, and the wider gaming world is awash with it.
The “it’s not real” argument is often trotted out in response to the hysterical criticisms of gaming by various conservative political groups or individuals. People who have never played a game in their lives tell the world that violent games turn kids into relentless killing machines. PETA and its ilk insist that any virtual depiction of an animal which involves the player doing anything other than softly stroking its mangy fur and murmuring sweet nothings in its ear is an affront to the rights of animals everywhere.
It’s no coincidence that the most ridiculous of these attacks come from people who have a vested interest in either scaring other people who know nothing about games, or getting free publicity from the inevitable media reaction to their drivel.
It’s not just the most extreme and unreasonable criticism which meets howls of “it’s not real, leave us alone”, though. For example, the recent discussion on GON about the depiction of a certain scantily clad female character was interesting insofar as some gamers felt driven to aggressively reject any enquiry into the way in which the character was portrayed (or, perversely, to call that enquiry itself sexist), let alone to accept that there might actually be any element of sexism in the trailer in question.
That debate was in the face of evidence that gaming has a problem with sexism. And then there was the Great Tiger Shooting Debate of ’12, where a number of gamers were prepared to go to the wall defending a game that encourages players to massacre a series of highly endangered animals (and, as it turns out, the Tasmanian Tiger, an amazing Australian animal which was in fact driven to extinction by human hunting).
Ultimately, this attitude from gamers does gaming as a medium a great disservice. To explain why, a few points need to be made.
All criticisms must be allowed
First, the logical consequence of the “it’s not real” argument is that games cannot be critically analysed on the basis of their content at all. If no-one is allowed to comment on the level of violence or the treatment of animals or the depiction of women in a game, then logically more benign content in a game is likewise off limits.
It would be hypocritical if gamers, as a community, rejected any “outside” criticism of content but then engaged in that type of criticism ourselves – be it positive or negative. If you want to talk about how bad the ending of ME3 was (i.e. an artistic choice made by a studio), then you better be prepared to respect the right of someone else to talk about how tasteless simulating the violent beating of female prostitutes by a burly man is in Deus Ex or GTA IV (i.e., a different artistic choice made by a studio).
Second, the “it’s not real” argument is actually an ultra-extreme libertarian free speech position which few people, even gamers, really agree with. Few gamers would say that a game where the player commits sexual assaults, or stomps on babies, or stabs people with an HIV infected needle, or commits acts of race hate, is immune from criticism. And if that type of content can be legitimately criticised, then other criticisms must be dealt with on their merits, not simply because games “aren’t real”.
Third, the “it’s not real” argument frequently conflates two different ideas – whether games should be censored, and whether they should be criticised. Some gamers seem to think that any criticism of a game’s ideas or content amounts to a demand that the game be banned by the government, Soviet-style. While that might be a conditioned response thanks to the people who do occasionally make such demands, it is also an immature response and a straw man argument. To criticise is not to seek to destroy. We should be able to have a conversation about the artistic or social merits of a game without it being regarded as an existential threat to the game, or the medium.
Fourth, it is patently ridiculous for gamers to suggest that they are emotionally and psychologically immune from the content of games.
Games affect you, whether you like it or not
While many games (especially silly or badly made ones) leave barely the faintest shadow on the mind, others quite clearly have the ability to be powerfully affecting. Red Dead Redemption is a great illustration of this point. If you didn’t feel some strong emotions living as John Marston on his bitter, blood-stained journey to hunt down his former friends through the dying days of the Old West then you might want to ask your doctor to check whether you are, in fact, a psychopath. RDR is the current high-water mark of gaming as a story telling art form, presenting a finely wrought world full of pathos and drenched in grim violence which is not glorified so much as it is mourned.
It follows in the footsteps of films like Unforgiven and novels like Oakley Hall’s Warlock, which explore the human capacity for honour and brutality through the modern fairy tale of the western. I’m sure more than a few gamers have been moved by other games, such as the Mass Effect series or Heavy Rain (and if any of you could figure out what the hell was happening in Metal Gear Solid 4, that probably moved you too, what with all the “Snake is old and sad” stuff).
In short, games, like other fiction, quite clearly can affect the emotions and the mind. It is a sign of the immaturity of the medium (and the audience) that so many gamers insist that they can engage in a highly realistic and immersive simulation of an experience and leave it totally unchanged. Certainly, the evidence confirms that playing FPS games doesn’t cause you to go outside and re-enact what you’ve just played at your nearest school. But are you sure that it hasn’t affected you at all? Is your brain so lacking in plasticity that you are totally unaffected by all those grim shots to the head delivered in FPS games? Are you sure you don’t, say, regard the US military slightly more benignly because of all the times you’ve “been” a US soldier or pilot?
I once played Tetris for so many days straight that I started dreaming that I was playing it. If a few days of coloured blocks can do that to the brain, what can a thousand hours in a photo-realistic killing simulator do?
So if we accept, for a moment, that “it’s not real” isn’t enough to excuse games from criticism of their content, where does that leave us?
Accepting criticism is a sign of maturity
A great strength of gaming is that it is, by its nature, an environment of near-total freedom. Game makers present choices, and gamers make them. Anything which can be imagined can be recreated and experienced. Gamers buck like wild stallions at the imposition of rules, be it DRM or just crappy, freedom-limiting endings to games (DX:HR and ME3, I’m talking about you). These are amazing and unique things, and it would be terrible if that freedom was lost.
But as stated above, there is a difference between the freedom to do something and the freedom to do something without criticism or comment.
A more mature medium beckons, one where games are not assessed purely on their mechanical qualities as a kind of digital pinball machine, but also on their artistic merits. To allow that to happen, gamers should embrace the in-principle legitimacy of criticism of the content, and not just the technical merits, of games. As an audience, we should stop howling down anyone who raises questions about the content of a game and instead realise that discussing reasonable criticism of content actually makes gaming as a medium stronger.
As the technology behind games gets more stable and consistently impressive, reviewers should likewise start reviewing games more like films – sure, the special effects were amazing and the chase scenes were exciting, but what about the plot, what about the characters, what about the themes? And the people who actually make games should ask themselves why they are making certain choices, and whether they are artistically justified choices or just pandering to lowest common denominator titillation.
I hope that one day soon there will be widespread acceptance of the idea that it is reasonable to distinguish between John Marston hunting rabbits in an authentic depiction of the wild west in RDR and a 25 year old extreme sports douchebag with a shotgun wantonly gunning down animals which in real life are horribly endangered in Far Cry 3. When we as gamers are mature enough to make that distinction without getting defensive, then we will be ready to move from a medium where most games are the digital equivalent of Rambo to one where the gaming equivalent of The Godfather is a possibility.