Community Soapbox: Time for Gaming to Grow Up – Embracing Criticism of Content

Far Cry 3

By on March 12, 2013 at 7:31 pm

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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.

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

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.

64 comments (Leave your own)

Oh god, it’s going to turn into WW3 in here.

 

Props to caitsith for taking the time to write all this down. It’s a good read and well written!

 

Sorry that was just flat out rude of me. I’m sorry caitsith, that really is a well thought out article and I did say I’d read it if you wrote it. Whether I agree or not is another thing of course, but great job.

 

I feel like the “it’s not real therefore doesn’t matter” argument arises because of some of the harsher reactions to content, like you said. I myself was still (to an extent) able to suspend my disbelief in Far Cry 3, I was killing animals in order to help my chances of survival (being able to carry more ammo/weapons, as well as syringes).
If I were to put myself in the place of someone stranded on an island, my need to survive would eventually overcome what I view as inappropriate or distasteful. I don’t necessarily support the inclusion of certain species in FC3, but I don’t think that the intended message was to support wantonly massacring wild animals.
I think the reaction to Far Cry 3 may have had some influence on how hunting was implemented in Tomb Raider, and it was initially done so well. Lara’s emotion and reluctance over killing and eating an animal to survive was depicted excellently early in the game, and after that she seemed to never get hungry again. It seemed like any other hunting in order to survive was missing from the game.
Great article, really made me think.

 
jerichosainte

Nicely written man. Good mind churning stuff *thumbs*.

 

I love the point about reviewing games in a similar way to films. It’s particularly mind boggling to see the COD games get the stellar reviews they do when each and every one of the singleplayer campaigns in that series (after COD4) has been absolute rubbish from a storytelling perspective. Not to mention they do a pretty good job of perpetuating terrible stereotypes and having shocking scenes within them for no reason other than to shock. I get that people enjoy them, but let’s not give them the critical praise they clearly no longer deserve (once again, I still believe they were fairly good pre-COD4).

In regards to accepting criticism, it’s such a fine line as to how to react. You say that all criticism should be embraced, but I’m particularly wary about that. I absolutely agree that games should be criticised for being incredibly sexist towards women (this is just the first thing that came to mind), but I’m not so sure that we really need to be losing our shit over some tiger killing in Far Cry 3. It’s entirely appropriate for the game and the setting, right? You’re on a tropical island with tigers. You defend yourself from them, or kill them for food/supplies/etc. It’s not like a fighting game where women are needlessly dressed in practically nothing, whereas the men are layered in protective armour.

Yes, criticism should be embraced, but there’s a lot of criticism from some people who honestly don’t understand the context of what they’re criticising, and that’s where it gets stupid.

 

If there really are arguments and dramas over killing (virtual) animals in Far Cry 3, that’s I think the perfect sign that some people need to take a break from the gaming community for a while. Perhaps come back to reality first, take stock, and see things in a difference perspective about actual problems in life.

 

A very good article, and one I greatly enjoyed reading. I’m going to have to step up my game, this one really made me think. While there are points I agree and disagree on in the narrative, the core point of accepting criticism is one I really do believe needs absolutely to be said.

 

Hmm, well while I defiantly agree that more mature and thought out discussions should be had, it’s hard not to take a defensive stance when the “criticism” you receive is that ‘we’re all too immature to be able to play game’s; and that ‘we’ll all turn into murderers.’

Games can defiantly give off the same emotions as a film, or novels, perhaps even songs. While yes, movies can make you feel sad, you don’t exactly watch something like Saw and walk out a psychopath. Yet in saying that, I don’t disagree with you on the fact that games can affect people. Just like films, games with any sort of story development can make you dislike (Or even hate) a specific ‘person’, group of ‘people’ or perhaps country, equally, they can make you feel sad when the character you play looses someone that was close to them (In-which the developers actually spent a lot of time to get you to like in the first place).

And this last part in-particular:
“…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.”

Arguably, they’re two very different films, aimed at two different audiences. In fact, you see this in modern games. It comes down to your audience, some prefer action (Or endless shooting), while others story development and more emotion.

I can imagine many heavy FPS players would find something like Heavy Rain a bit tedious and boring, while players into story-driven games like Heavy Rain would find your average FPS dull and repetitive.

Ultimately, it comes down to the individual and they way the game presents itself. I know Gamers who play for the story, I know Gamers who play for the challenge, I also know Gamers who play because it’s entertaining, never immersing themselves into the game – and seeing things as nothing more than polygons with textures.

Interesting article none-the-less. :D

 
psychofruiterer

mmmm, Lenny Nero comes to mind from Strange Days.

Lenny – “Have you ever jacked in? Have you ever wire tripped? No? [smirk] A virgin brain. Well, we’re gonna start you off right. This isn’t like “TV only better”, this is life. Yeah, this is a piece of somebody’s life. Pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex. You’re there! You’re doing it, seeing it, hearing it. You’re feeling it. It’s about the stuff you can’t have, right? Like running into a liquor store with a .357 magnum in your hand, feeling the adrenaline pumping through your veins. I can make it happen. I can get you anything you want. Ya just have to talk to me. I am your priest. I am your shrink. I am your main connection to the switchboard of souls. I’m the magic man. The Santa Claus of the subconscious. You say it. You even think it. You can have it! Are we beginning to see the possibilities here? You know you want it.”

Call me when we get to there, things will get interesting then for sure…
For now, games are just games.

 

what an extremely well written article! GON; pay this person.

I can just see this turning into one of those massive threads, so I’ll try to get my bit in before I have to read essay-length comments.

I’m not too sure about the conclusion you came to early on that stated that because “it’s not real” it can’t be critically analysed by the audience. most of the time you engage in criticism, praise, or even discussion of a game (or movie, or tv show) you have decided to take the step to place yourself inside that universe. you are consciously moving into the ‘not real’. you need to accept the “terms” of the universe that the creators have decided upon. I don’t think your link between criticism and how real the game is valid.

I was initially going to say that gamers get so defensive about calling certain things real because then logically you sort of need to remove anything you wouldn’t condone in real life. that would suck, and remove a big reason that games exist.

but I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. you’ve already established that there is some arbitrary line that dictates what is acceptable and what isn’t. rape and stomping babies: no. shooting, hunting and sexual themes: yes, sort of* (*and weirdly enough, a maybe on the sex. something I will never get over. the amount of influence the founding of the USA had on media today is crazy… but I’m getting sidetracked). so now the discussion needs to be about the line. is it in the right spot? should there be a line? and even then calling it a line is doing the conversation a disservice.

telling gamers to more readily accept criticism is fine, but there are conditions. I’m glad to read and consider criticism that is logical and well put together. I will not accept the criticism of PETA.

I believe the calls of “it’s not real” are typically justified. I don’t play games to abide by the same rules as real life. however, context does matter. I’m not going to be stoked if there was a game that distastefully approached certain content.

what’s my point? I don’t need a point.

 

Cool, then I guess the OP will accept the criticism that he’s only stood up and agreed with every politically correct statement ever made and said that everyone else if they aren’t accepting of it are therefore immature.

It really takes balls to stand there and just go along with the sheep, to completely deny all and any logical point or statement to the contrary because well, to do otherwise wouldn’t be acceptance and therefore not mature.

Honestly, if you’re going to post this kind of drivel Tim you might want to re-evaluate the entire community soapbox thing.

 

what a load of garbage, If games “affect” you then you need to stop playing them and seek HELP immediately! If you cannot distinguish fantasy from reality you certainly have problems.Games for me are an escape from reality so are movies but once i am done i don’t come away thinking i am still in that realm.I am tired of Movies and Games getting blamed for people’s psychotic behaviour.Blaming games and movies for nutcase’s that go on rampages is an easy out, Murder and general violence has been around longer than games and movies so what do you blame that on when you don’t have games or movies to fall back on? Killing tigers in far cry 3 wow big deal never heard anything about the “big game hunter” type games get whined about but soon as it comes to a POPULAR game people scream blue murder.Sure some content in games are pretty harsh and that you would have to wonder what’s going on in the dev’s head to create such content.In the end you MUST separate yourself from fantasy and know what reality is or again you need to seek help immediately.

 

Did Jack the Ripper play a CSI game?

 

thefinn,

Actually reading through the infamous tiger thread again I noticed how quick he was to post an opinion and how much he arced up when very few others agreed with him.

 

“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.”

I’m a little confused on this statement. Is this implying that when people criticise something they are in fact perfectly happy to see it reproduced in future but just thought they would needlessly point it out? Are you saying that if somebody criticises something, that nobody is allowed to shoot down that critisism with common sense and logic simply for the sake of debate or conversation and that any opposing opinions must in fact be feeling threatened?

I guess I’ve been reading the internet wrong all these years.

 

bennyburner:
I feel like the “it’s not real therefore doesn’t matter” argument arises because of some of the harsher reactions to content, like you said. I myself was still (to an extent) able to suspend my disbelief in Far Cry 3, I was killing animals in order to help my chances of survival (being able to carry more ammo/weapons, as well as syringes).
If I were to put myself in the place of someone stranded on an island, my need to survive would eventually overcome what I view as inappropriate or distasteful. I don’t necessarily support the inclusion of certain species in FC3, but I don’t think that the intended message was to support wantonly massacring wild animals.
I think the reaction to Far Cry 3 may have had some influence on how hunting was implemented in Tomb Raider, and it was initially done so well. Lara’s emotion and reluctance over killing and eating an animal to survive was depicted excellently early in the game, and after that she seemed to never get hungry again. It seemed like any other hunting in order to survive was missing from the game.
Great article, really made me think.

I’m sure some people think my contributions to the tiger thread were basically trolling, but I actually was slightly shocked that the makers of FC3 thought it would be fun to kill tigers and the like (and would have DLC where you can add even rarer animals to kill). I would guess I’m a few years older than most of the crowd here, and I have to sort of exist in a different world most of the time to the world of gaming. If I told most people I work with that I spent my weekend pretending to kill endangered animals for shits and giggles they’d be appalled.

What really interested me, though, and prompted me to write something further, was that what actually sparked TigerWarz was a comment that it was “tasteless” to include killing tigers. Not that the game should be banned or vetoed or anything like that, just that it was tasteless. Even that seems like a bridge too far for many gamers, though.

Re Tomb Raider, that’s interesting, and sounds like it’s more along the lines of RDR than FC3 (I haven’t played it).

 

vcatkiller:
Sorry that was just flat out rude of me.I’m sorry caitsith, that really is a well thought out article and I did say I’d read it if you wrote it.Whether I agree or not is another thing of course, but great job.

Nah come on, I can take it!

I totally respect that many will disagree with me. Also that people are rude on the Internet.

 

ausjoker:
I love the point about reviewing games in a similar way to films. It’s particularly mind boggling to see the COD games get the stellar reviews they do when each and every one of the singleplayer campaigns in that series (after COD4) has been absolute rubbish from a storytelling perspective. Not to mention they do a pretty good job of perpetuating terrible stereotypes and having shocking scenes within them for no reason other than to shock. I get that people enjoy them, but let’s not give them the critical praise they clearly no longer deserve (once again, I still believe they were fairly good pre-COD4).

In regards to accepting criticism, it’s such a fine line as to how to react. You say that all criticism should be embraced, but I’m particularly wary about that. I absolutely agree that games should be criticised for being incredibly sexist towards women (this is just the first thing that came to mind), but I’m not so sure that we really need to be losing our shit over some tiger killing in Far Cry 3. It’s entirely appropriate for the game and the setting, right? You’re on a tropical island with tigers. You defend yourself from them, or kill them for food/supplies/etc. It’s not like a fighting game where women are needlessly dressed in practically nothing, whereas the men are layered in protective armour.

Yes, criticism should be embraced, but there’s a lot of criticism from some people who honestly don’t understand the context of what they’re criticising, and that’s where it gets stupid.

I actually ran out of words, but I agree with you. I’m not for one second saying all criticism is reasonable or valid. What I’m trying to attack is the idea that games are immune from criticism by definition.

There’s an idea that gets used by American courts in free speech cases – that the best antidote to hate speech is more speech, not censorship. I guess that’s what I advocate. Not that gamers reject the concept of criticising the content of games, but that they engage with that criticism and deal with it on its merits (obviously if the criticism is sufficiently loony, no-one would bother).

Another thing I ran out of words but would have liked to cover is that context is extremely relevant. For example, it is hard to criticise a multiplayer FPS for containing mindless violence, because the context of the experience is that the game is a vehicle for competitive play rather than communicating ideas. Likewise it doesn’t make much sense to say the latest FIFA has to be criticised based on its content. So my arguments apply much more strongly to games when they are trying to tell a story more in line with the traditional role of novels, tv shows and films.

Some people would probably argue that the context of all gaming (basically: a complex electronic toy) makes it effectively beyond the reach of values-based criticism (which I suppose is what I’m talking about). I disagree, for the reasons I’ve tried to explain.

 

ElectroTyrian:
If there really are arguments and dramas over killing (virtual) animals in Far Cry 3, that’s I think the perfect sign that some people need to take a break from the gaming community for a while. Perhaps come back to reality first, take stock, and see things in a difference perspective about actual problems in life.

Thanks for demonstrating the exact attitude I was writing about.

Do you sit down to watch At the Movies and yell at David and Margaret to get a grip because movies aren’t real? To stop talking about imaginary things because there are actual problems in life?

How are (single player, story based) games any different?

 
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