Better Than We Found It

When I first started playing and writing about games, it was a different time. Advertisements were built on the backs of the grunge-fantasy vibe of metal bands. Or they wrapped themselves in the elegant evening dress of perfume advertisements, but eschewed the class to gaze longingly at busts and butts. The discussion surrounding games said very little about the social and political ramifications of a subjugated animal kingdom like that found in Sonic the Hedgehog, or the cheery and well-dressed kidnapping frequent in the Mario Bros. mythology. Instead, it was largely excitement for upcoming releases. Pure entertainment hype. It was a time of 90s excitement and colors, Nintendo and Sega fan wars, and edgy-masquerading-as-dark first-person shooters like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Duke Nukem 3D.

Between long rounds of Pokemon games, there were whispered rumors that Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft had a nude cheat, and the titillation of polygonal boobies was supposed to be eternal and innate. People who play games like topless, well-endowed women. Period. The advertisements, the conversations, the expected audience was just north of puberty, male, and strictly interested in the sexual exploration of the female (or at least feminine) form.

That’s what games were.

At least, in theory. In practice, there were a wealth of game experiences that never really fit that bill. Quiet, text-centric adventures existed online via MUDs, in which roles were played and lives lived digitally. These were the realms of all sorts of players, but many were older than the sixteen-to-twenty-something guns, gore, and gratuity audience that all the advertisers were desperate to rope in.

As games grew, this audience started to be a little less quiet. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games were beginning to catch the attention of more than just the older players, and there was more to gaming found in The Sims than the hard rock album covers games like Twisted Metal promised us. We were no longer just edgy and angsty teenagers looking for sex and power fantasies. We were also “non-gamer” women finding our footing in this really loud and aggressive masculine space. We were the older gamers who enjoyed exploration and experience as much as (or more so than) big boobs and bigger guns. We were players who enjoyed gaming for a multitude of reasons, and we were starting to think critically about what we enjoyed. We thought about more than just the bloody, splotchy mess of bones left behind in Mortal Kombat’s fatalities. Folks who played games were always more than just the teenage boys we were assumed to be, but it started to be a little more public about it. Advertisers never really caught on, but the public perception was changing. Most of all, within the niche.

Games discussions weren’t just about that hormonal teenager anymore.

Sometime in the past few years, the tipping point finally made it’s way out of just the confines of this niche. GamerGate was a thing that managed to shove it’s way past the quiet confines of just people who spend their free time reading about games. News had made it’s way into newspapers, and newspapers didn’t really like what they were seeing. “Gamers” were proving themselves to, at least by outward appearance, be exactly the sort of loud and hormonal teenage boys that are still being marketed to. But there was far more to games than just the basement-dweller stereotype playing them.

Pokemon GO was expanding to be a huge part of everyday life, even outside of the gaming spheres. Everyone from retirement age real estate agents to late-20s soccer moms had at least heard of Candy Crush Saga or Flappy Bird. Facebook’s Farmville was an alert that found its way to nearly everyone’s social media page. Games had gained a legitimacy by virtue of uniquity. Not necessarily with the same artistic merit as one might afford orchestral compositions, theater performance, or beautiful cinematography, but a relevance in daily life it entirely lacked previously.

Today, I feel as though games still haven’t made it. People who aren’t thought to have played games previously are actually playing them, they’re less of an unknown quantity to the average passerby, but the medium as a whole is still somewhat arcane. We lock our best experiences behind a kind of literacy with the internal vocabularies and control schemes. We put so much focus on multiplayer and competition within so many genres that competitiveness is baked into the DNA of what makes a game. Scores and the ideas of “winners” and “losers” have never really left games culture, even if the games themselves rarely put numerical metrics to their narrative experiences.

I think so much about this because I’m very conscious of the kind of world I’m living and playing in. Little touches like “Good game.” and “That was very hard fought, well done.” have been replaced with quick, almost mechanical “gg” spam and sarcastic “What a save!” from teammates whenever a defense play goes less than perfectly. In a way, the gaming community demands of its participants a legitimacy only granted by supremacy. If the player is proven to start out of the norm, such as by being apparently female, the expectations mount even further. Players are expected to earn their place, and anyone who fails to do so shouldn’t be there.

To me, this is an artifact from that older time, where everything in games was meant to fall into the misguided belief of alpha masculinity, where those who exist have earned their place with strength and superiority, and anyone who can’t put up should shut up. But that wasn’t ever really what games were about. It’s certainly not what games are anymore. Games like Papers, Please exist in this new gaming sphere where it’s okay to have games that aren’t about beating other players. Marvels like The Last of Us exist to give players a stroll down a narrative experience. One that challenges our motor skills and reflexes, certainly, but also challenges the idea that games are just mechanics. Games exist in a multitude, now more than ever, and the idea of gatekeeping really shouldn’t be a part of the culture.

I feel a responsibility in this new age to be a part of something different. To offer full “Good luck, and have fun, everyone!” before a competitive match, genuinely mean “Good shot.” when even an opponent lands a skillful bullet through my head, and recognize that it’s okay to engage with games critically intellectually even if they’re not always seen as media worth that kind of scrutiny.

Because as-is, games are good, but the culture around them still doesn’t seem to be. I feel like part of being in this community is sweeping at the end of the night, putting the chairs up, and turning off the lights if I’m the last to leave. I want both games and games culture as a whole to be better than how we found it.

I’m afraid of what games will continue to seem if we don’t.

Written for Critical Distance‘s Blogs of the Round Table, for the Responsibility theme. If this was to your liking, go check the other entries out.

Rise of the Tomb Raider image courtesy of Flickr user BagoGames, and Battlefield 1 image courtesy of Stefans02.

Taylor Hidalgo is a freelance writer, editor, co-curator of the Blogs of the Round Table, and aspires to befriend the internet. His works can be found throughout the internet, but also catalogued on this site, and he’d love it if you went and made friends with him on Twitter.