Written for Escapist Magazine, recreated with permission.
Although gaming is alive and well, the basement-dwelling Mountain Dew goblin teenager stereotype who screams at his mother for “interrupting” his boob-modded Call of Duty match to give him his pizza rolls image others have of gamers is still very troublesome. It’s an image we need to resist.
I think one of the biggest things the game community struggles with communicating to the outside world is that games, and by extension those who play them, aren’t what they’re imagined to be.
Part of the struggle is one of vocabulary. Games are a relatively young medium, and their unique quirks and methods still aren’t known to everyone. Telling a lifelong player to be mindful of their sensitivity settings isn’t really a hard step for those familiar with the parlance, but has no context or frame of reference for those outside of first-person gaming. It’s also true of things like frame perfect links, expert jungling, getting mana screwed, pocket Mercy, No Mercy runs, TAS runs, and countless other expressions within gaming. For the average person more on the periphery of games, terms like these have no real glossaries, and certainly very little frame of reference outside of already knowing the basics of each game.
The other part of the struggle is the culture itself. It’s hard to push into games from the outside because there is resistance to the concept of glossaries. More pertinently, those who need them. Things that widen games to audiences formerly in the outside of the culture read as some kind of betrayal. Those who feel passionately about games seem to want to keep them close, locked into a familiar shape with familiar communities. The culture that feels those already playing belong to the in-group, and out-groups trying to join either need to fold themselves quietly, or leave. That games don’t belong to anyone but those already in.
This culture is a problem, and one that manifests itself in a lot of ways. Women have a hard time pushing into game communities without the expectation to just tolerate the sexism already present. Minorities who speak against the overwhelming lack of representation are just called racists themselves for failing to accept that whiteness is the default, and any deviation is somehow confrontationally political where overwhelming underrepresentation isn’t. Fantasization of sexual femininity and toxic masculinity is the expected normal, and any push for alternatives is seen as invasive and unwanted. Honesty about design is read as manipulation, and developers are punished for getting out of line or designing games in “wrong” ways.
The lattermost point found its way to Twitter on a thread by developer Charles Randall. The thread begins talking about the fact that developers tend to be stingy with information. “Because gamer culture is so toxic that being candid in public is dangerous. See that recent twitter thread about game design tricks to make games better — filled with gamers ‘angry’ about ‘being lied to.'” He goes on to say, “Any dev who talks candidly about the difficulty of something like that just triggers a wave of people questioning their entire resume. ‘Questioning’ here being an absurd euphemism for ‘becoming a target of an entire faction of gamers for harassment or worse.’ There are still topics I can’t touch because I was candid once and it resulted in dumb headlines, misunderstandings, and harassment.
“But here’s the rub: all the stuff you ever wanted to know about game development would be out there if not for the toxic gaming community. We *love* to talk about development, the challenges we face, the problems we solve, the shortcuts we take. But it’s almost never worth it.”
Randall continues at length to discuss how the objection to developers “being political” is a part of the same problem, how developers tend to be more forthcoming among each other, and how the problems like these lead to the gaming community (and, at times, press) being left in the dark because of the culture that would follow.
All of these things seem to stem from the same idea: What games have been for the past forty or so years must remain the only thing games are allowed to be. Any change to format, mechanics, or culture should be heavily questioned, criticized, and thrown out if too avant garde. Keep costumes skimpy, muscles big, breasts and butts bigger, characters white, status quo stable, and no matter what-if someone speaks out against any of it-mob them into silence. Games belong to “gamers,” and anyone who doesn’t toe the line clearly isn’t a Real GamerTM.
No one is saying these games are inherently bad, or there should be no games styled and developed in this way, but that we genuinely need to recognize that skimpy nuns, bikini-clad martial artists, exposed-breast ninjas, and The Witcher sex scenes create an image that the games community doesn’t resist.
The problem this creates is that, from the outside, gaming appears to be a teen dude’s clubhouse that hides copies of Playboy under the furniture, invites his friends over to objectify the girl who wears short skirts to class, believes strongly that minorities couldn’t have realistically existed in fantasy medieval times, and vehemently defends the artistic merit of combat armor designed for and worn by lingerie models. At a glance, it isn’t an image that seems wrong, either.
As genuinely great as games like Bayonetta and Lollypop Chainsaw are, we also need to accept that the criticism about the sexuality built into them is valid. No one is saying these games are inherently bad, or there should be no games styled and developed in this way, but that we genuinely need to recognize that skimpy nuns, bikini-clad martial artists, exposed-breast ninjas, and The Witcher sex scenes create an image that the games community doesn’t resist.
And when parts of the community do resist, they’re met with very public and vocal dissent about how they’re trying to “censor” games, or are accusing the community of uniformly being misogynist or racist. That’s almost never the case, and acknowledging that the culture can sometimes resemble a sex-crazed white boys’ club is exactly why the visual of an energy drink-downing troglodyte has never been entirely dispelled from what gamers are. We need to resist the apparent rule in this culture that games are above questioning sexist, racist, or adolescent design or cultural decisions.
Things like feminist and racial critique of games are a part of the spectrum of what a people who play and criticize games are, and have always been. Without letting ourselves acknowledge these things as a part of the natural discourse of games, then it will always feel a little bit juvenile. It will always seem to people that our dramatic space operas are just sex games with blue aliens. It will always appear to senators and lawyers that our violence is harmful fantasizing rather than just one of many tools in games’ storytelling belts.
Further, the longer aggressive disagreement to anything perceived as “harming games” is the culturally appropriate, level-headed response, the longer even game developers will find this community toxic. Even from within, the rhetoric of war pervades disagreement more than actual discourse does. Games culture has an aggression problem, and it’s time to own up to that.
Dispelling the toxicity does mean taking a hard look in the mirror and honestly admitting that the toxic things that happen-even with the best intentions-are damaging. That is the basis of the harmful “gamer” label. What the rest of the world has internalized over years of booth babes, anime waifu boob mousepads, underdressed heroines, white-only heroism, and violent revelry does not make our community look like the mature medium games have largely become over the years. As long as the community keeps throwing very public, very aggressive tantrums at anyone pointing this out, though, it will keep looking this way.
As Leigh Alexander has already said, “Gamers” are over. The worst aspects of the “gamer” image need to be universally examined and challenged. Those challenges need to be accepted as a part of the culture. The parts of the gaming community that encourage furious dissent aren’t being evaluated enough, and that’s keeping communities at their most angry. This culture needs to start fighting an image it’s never fully earned but still has. That image is holding gaming to an image that has been in the deathbed for years, but needs to finally by buried.
Games have already changed, and will continue to change, and holding onto an aggression-centric culture isn’t helping.