Game Criticism

With the somewhat recent row about Dead or Alive Xtreme 3’s sexism and with anger at the comments about the reality that choices in video games are political in response to Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, it’s time to revisit some of the monstrous hypocrisy and nonsense arguments for those repeatedly get angry at “SJW” games criticism.

To be clear: I have not played Dead or Alive Xtreme 3, or any of the volleyball games. It could be mind-bending gender progressivism for all I know. It could be a brilliant story with some unfortunate but possibly necessary sexist undertones, it could be mostly benign cheesecake, or it could have really destructive implications. I believe it’s important to understand a work in its totality. What I can say is that I’ve played the previous Dead or Alive games and that, while the games have had a steady improvement over time, there’s some sexist undertones in everything from outfits to the clear male gaze where women are posed for the benefit of a male audience instead of telling things about the character to the behavior of characters to each other. I was personally aghast to see Ryu Hayabusa, a character I had loved in the original NES Ninja Gaidens and the original anime that was made from the series precisely because he so clearly cared about and respected Irene Lew, seemingly repeating sexist nonsense. Team Ninja’s problem with sexism became most apparent with Other M, a game I actually rather liked, that failed to make Samus’ relationship with her former commander sufficiently equitable and instead played Samus Aran off as effectively a girl with serious Daddy issues rather than a badass space bounty hunter.

Similarly, I have not played Mankind Divided, but Cheong’s article in Heat Street is recklessly dishonest. He accuses “SJWs” in general based off of one individual’s comments, which he then willfully distorts. He claims that Feminist Frequency producer Jonathan McIntosh said that companies should “force” players to make the right moral choices, when McIntosh said nothing of the sort. McIntosh instead said that “Devs say it’s up to players to decide if internment camps are good or bad?! No. The question itself is political!” The very fact that the game presents a choice as if it were morally neutral or up for debate is itself a political statement. That is an inarguable point. Nor is it remotely incoherent to say that games that are presenting heroic protagonists should not have those protagonists do obviously evil acts. I think very few people would flinch at the argument that a movie that non-ironically showed a Nazi action hero would be morally reprehensible.

And Cheong’s argument is in fact emblematic of the problems with those who complain about criticism of video games from any kind of political standpoint. To say that no one can criticize games because of free speech is to say that free speech means that you can’t use free speech. It’s a moral and logical absurdity.

And it gets worse. The fact is that there is no justification to oppose people criticizing games on any basis, even if you take an incredibly narrow consumer advocacy standpoint.

Stop Protecting Profitable Corporations from Criticism

The first point is this: Other people have different political opinions than you and want to buy games that they like.

It’s incredible how myopically selfish the anti-SJW crowd are on this score.

Even if one dislikes feminism, or anti-racism, or leftism, or social justice advocacy, or whatever other ideology or viewpoint, for whatever reason, one has to objectively admit that not everyone shares that viewpoint.

As MovieBob expertly articulated, the idea that any critic can be perfectly objective about a game is fiddlesticks. We don’t consume media objectively. We do it as human beings. To pretend that you can talk about even a can of soup or a television set, let alone a piece of art like a video game or a film, without talking about your subjective, phenomenological experiences with those products for whatever reason, is ludicrous. Worse, even if a critic could somehow have a perfectly cosmic perspective that would be viewed as objective by any reasonable observer, that critic would still be failing to do their job or at best providing only one perspective.

If I’m a feminist, I am objectively going to be interested in whether or not a game presents something that may interest, challenge or excite me as a feminist. I will objectively be interested in making sure that the game will not be so sexist as to be unpleasant for me to watch. If I believe that war is wrong, I may be interested in a story like Spec Ops or Undertale that challenges ideas of violence.

If a conservative reviewer watched a Michael Moore film and told his audience only about the running time of the film, he would be failing at his job.

If there were a neo-Nazi video game reviewer out there that was reviewing games and telling his fanbase of emotionally damaged folks in trailer parks about which games would best help to combat the Jewish scourge and promote white pride, I wouldn’t criticize his right to say those things or even the fact that he’s making reviews. I would criticize the reviews and attack his toxic worldview, but I wouldn’t be angry that someone even brought up the issue. Frankly, his reviews could be extremely useful to me: It might tell me what games I should avoid like the plague!

When people insist that no one criticize games, they are insisting that we all simply blindly purchase games without any sense of whether those games will actually appeal to us on an incredibly important bandwidth of information. They’re insisting that we should have less information on a game and fewer criteria to make assessments by quality? Why not go one further and insist that the government censor all press outlets so that they can never again review any piece of art? Why not a government Fairness In Game Reviews Act that insists that no review mention anything beyond frame rates and bug problems? I’m being hyperbolic and reducing the other side’s position to absurdity, but not by much.

Games Get Better With Feedback

Let’s say that Kevin of Awesome Video Games Corp. publishes a game, we’ll call it Battle Planet 20XX, that he really thinks will blow people’s mind and will really get everyone to have really deep discussions about life.

Kevin wakes up on launch day and finds out that those reviews that came out after the embargo from socially liberal people are scathing. Numerous reviewers and regular consumers alike felt that the game was misogynistic and racist. It ruined their enjoyment of the game and they frankly felt that the message of the game was so toxic as to need a corrective.

Would Kevin’s appropriate, rational reaction be to say, “Those whiny SJWs! They crapped all over my art!”?

No. Kevin would be being monumentally arrogant, stupid and obtuse if he reacted that way.

No developer can possibly understand all of the myriad philosophies and worldviews that dictate how people consume their art. Robust criticism from all sides is valuable.

I used to love reading IGN reviews of games that were below a 6.0 in order to see the games be torn into for incompetence. It was funny and amusing to me. I still enjoy watching a reviewer cleverly tear into something they despise. I also love clever, cerebral analysis of games, like that provided by Campster or other critics. We’ve always known that a game should be torn apart for technical incompetence. So why shouldn’t it be torn apart for being incompetent about reality?

Not Buying Your Game Is Not Censorship

The anti-SJW controversy about Dead Or Alive Xtreme 3 was that it wasn’t coming out stateside, ostensibly because of SJWS. Never mind that the company’s statement as far as that went as not only extremely ambiguous but also didn’t really make much sense.

But let’s say that the game was not released stateside entirely because many people felt that the game was sexist.

So what?

Yes, I get that sometimes it sucks when other people have a game you’d like to have.

Boohoo.

Tell that to any Nintendo fan that never got Mother 3, Terranigma, Seiken Densetsu 3, and dozens of other great games in an American release and had to emulate or import them. Tell that to fans of shmups that are basically not being made any more. Tell that to anyone who grew up in the 90s who had to see great games never hit their shores for any number of reasons.

Frankly, I’m much more concerned that the AAA game industry seems to have so few genres left standing. I’m much more concerned that we have massive disappointments like No Man’s Sky and so many games that seem to be linear sightseeing tours rather than depthful experiences. I’m much more concerned that runaway budgets seem to be making games that are shorter and less diverse than ever. I’m concerned that the old-school JRPG is now basically the province of smaller mobile, indie and secondary-unit releases, that the adventure game now essentially has only Telltale Games and the other former LucasArts people championing them, and that a diversity of mechanics has coalesced. I’m concerned that so many games are gray-brown sludge or have to have zombies in them. I’m concerned about the broshooter and Ubisoft running franchises into the ground with overexposure. I’m concerned about intrusive DRM. I’m concerned that we’ve had some major flops from Kickstarter, especially Mighty No. 9, an example of another attempt to revise a franchise, the venerated Mega Man that was a fixture of my childhood, that failed due to apparent mismanagement and impossibly elevated expectations.

It is not censorship for a game to not be made because there’s not enough of a market for it. If you don’t like that, I can only tell you that you apparently despise capitalism. While I agree that capitalism sucks, I can’t imagine any economic system would make infinite games that appeal to everyone.

If other people believe that particular types of games should not be made, or particular messages in games are wrong, they don’t owe anyone else their silence. They can write reviews, plan boycotts, and refuse to purchase the game.

The only thing they can’t do is insist on censorship. When and if anyone suggests that a game with too much T&A is banned from being sold by the government, I will be the first one in the trenches, no matter what feminists are on the other side.

Aside from that, if Anita Sarkeesian or anyone else wants to say that a game is sexist tripe, that isn’t censorship. You are of course free to disagree loudly. Just don’t pretend you’re protecting consumers or free speech or any of the other ways that misogynist, racist trolls and disingenuous alt-righters lie about their intention. You’re debating politics. Have the courage to do that openly.

If It’s Art, It Should Be Treated As Such

Gamers have a choice to make.

They can either truly believe that their medium is an art form, as I do, and that that medium can change lives, as I do, and then criticize that medium when it doesn’t live up to its potential or actively promotes immoral and destructive ideas…

Or they can concede to the Jack Thompsons of the world that games should in fact be censored and regulated, as consumer products for children most certainly are.

If art has the potential to elevate, it has the potential to denigrate too. If art has the potential to explore wild new landscapes and inspire the imagination, it can also leave some behind or drag us into hellscapes.

Criticizing games from every possible perspective is how we will arrive at a mature art form that is inclusive for everyone. If you like your Dead or Alive Xtreme 3, then vote with your dollars and pay for for it. The issue is when people try to pose as if someone asking for something else, and even insisting that there’s some ugly implications from what you chose to consume, is ipso facto wrong-headed or censorship.

I understand that gamers often feel like they’re being criticized. They feel like they’re being punched down at.

Well, not this time.

Yes, when lawyers and governmental officials used games as a boogeyman to avoid dealing with gun issues or anything else and blamed video games for violence, that was punching down.

But when games make fun of, exploit, or poorly represent women, LGBTQ minorities, the poor, ethnic minorities, or anyone else; when they spread actual misinformation, as the Call of Juarez: The Cartel did; when they spread either overt or covert propaganda; when they reify narratives like American military supremacy and righteousness that actually poses real threats to real people… they are actually punching down.

This isn’t 1968 anymore. It’s not even the 1990s. As video games are entering the public eye, the fact that they often seem to be juvenile, crass, and even outright offensive is preventing the good that games can do from reaching a wider audience. When games like the Call of Juarez take real-life wars and treat them like a game then actually miseducate and misinform on these real-life issues, the public good isn’t just not being helped, it’s being hurt. Even if we don’t want to insist that games raise consciousness or challenge our preconceptions or help us learn, we should at least insist they’re benign, and games with racial and gendered stereotypes are not benign.

And frankly, why shouldn’t you want everyone to have fun?

When gamers oppose a gay option in their games, they’re opposing not just the fun that LGBTQ people may want to have but also even straight gamers who may be excited to roleplay being in someone else’s skin. I personally get frustrated if a game seems to arbitrarily prevent me from trying to play a woman, or an ethnic minority, or a sexual minority, or anything of the sort, for no apparent reason or justification.

Gamers need to start embracing a big tent. We should want games that make everyone feel welcome. Even if individual games can’t do that, certainly all of games can collectively. The only way we get there is by keeping on giving artists feedback on their work, honest and possibly even brutal feedback.

With great power comes great responsibility. We love video games because they have power. Let’s embrace the attendant responsibility.

This article was written by Frederic Christie, a writer for dusk magazine.

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About Fred B-C (28 Articles)
I'm a freelance hope warrior. While I am still figuring out exactly what that entails, I write novels and short stories, write for video games, design board games, do inspirational speaking and life coaching, and generally try to make the world just a little bit more pleasant. E-mails at frchristie@ucdavis.edu are always appreciated! (Yes, even trolling ones).

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