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Concerning gaming

December 11, 2009

I blame my boyfriend. Last summer I’d never played anything on a screen much more complicated than Chip’s Challenge (… the memories of that time when I had been trying to beat Level 34 for the best part of a day and then my dad closed the game still traumatise me a little bit). And then I met J and the rot set in. First it was Rock Band. Then it was MarioKart. Along the way, there was Alpha Centauri and Civilization 4. Then there was the astounding mindfuck that is Portal (which I will write a post about one day, honest to god).

And now I’ll happily pick up a controller, whether it’s rattling through “Another One Bites The Dust” on expert bass, discovering astronomy and mining for fish, or bracing myself when it’s time to start spraying bullets through walls and accidentally be squished by my own air-drop (this happened to a friend playing Modern Warfare 2 the other day, approximately five seconds after J had said “It’d be hilarious if that hit you…”) The gaming virus has well and truly taken hold.

My IQ has not noticeably dropped; I’m still writing at the same First-class academic standard I did last year. My social life has not suffered. I still read books, including ones not set for my degree, and listen to music. And the last time I checked I still had a boyfriend – after all, it was his fault …

So that’s my narrative of how gaming sucked me in. With the zeal of the newly converted, I was happy to read this really good article by Charlie Brooker, dealing with the persistent and pervasive attitude that video/computer (terminology varies) gaming is somehow inferior, childish; something that allows its devotees to be looked down on as stupid, childish, sad, or immoral. It’s the attitude that says “Get a life.” That says “Why don’t you pick up a book for once?” That says “Aww, couldn’t get a girlfriend?” It’s an attitude couched in snobbery, wilful ignorance and a little fear, and like most attitudes of such provenance it’s both frustrating and sad to encounter. The people who purvey this attitude (and there are plenty of them crawling out of the woodwork on the Brooker thread) tend to have only the most tenuous of grounds for their dislike.

It’s not productive. Well, generally speaking the things you do for fun aren’t productive; you do them in the time when you don’t have to be productive. Watching TV is not productive. Reading a book is not productive. Having sex is not productive.* Playing a game that happens to take place on a patch of grass or a table is not productive. Going to the opera is not productive.

Only kids play games. What, precisely, is childish about running a civilisation, winning a sea battle, escaping the zombie apocalypse, searching out your long-lost [insert relative here], or saving the goddamn world? What, for that matter, is not childish about watching pretty pictures on a screen (TV), reading books where you already know the ending (literature), pushing your friends over in the mud (non-virtual gaming) or dressing up in your best clothes, going to someone’s house and eating a pile of fancy snacks (tea with the Queen)? I think a lot of alleged adults could stand to realise that doing things because you like them and they are fun is not, and should not be, the domain of children.

Now. With those out of the way – with the premise in place that videogaming is, honestly, another form of entertainment which some people like and some people don’t, just like football, chess or opera – it’s time to turn to the sphere that Brooker doesn’t really touch on (fair enough, given the stated point of his article).

My discipline is literature, and the purpose of a literature degree – ideally of any degree, though obviously some have more practical application than others – is to inculcate an inquisitive, curious mindset, to teach you to think a little harder about whatever it is you’re interested in. We talk about themes, we talk about implications, we talk about context, subtext, intertext and metatext.

‘Text’ for me will usually refer to literature, but it’s a recognised term for denoting any form of art that comes in handy units. A production of a play, a film, or for that matter a game can be a text as well. And, if we’re going to accept games as a legitimate form lying on the art-entertainment spectrum, it’s only reasonable to subject game-texts to the same sort of interrogation that we’d subject a book or a film or an album to – questioning in more detail the subject matter, attitudes espoused and things lurking below the surface.

And by damn there’s some nasty things out there. Violence in gaming is an issue that’s been done to death, so I’ll restrict my commentary to this: given that games rarely actually heroise violence for the sheer hell of it, what seems to me to be a more pertinent issue is the number that glamorise, or, worse, treat as entirely normal, problematic attitudes – unquestioning patriotism, for example, or belief in the rightness of revenge.

Most people can distinguish between fantasy and reality in terms of deeds, of actions. (The few that can’t are by definition seriously ill, and need support and help rather than witch-hunting.) The line between fantasy and reality in terms of mindsets, where the attitude is the action, is blurry to the point of non-existence.

Unpleasant attitudes promulgated by any work of art are going to stick in the mind a lot longer than unpleasant actions, because a mindset saturating a book, or a film, or a game, with a word here and a word there that all add up, is a lot harder to spot and much harder to be on guard against than the outright, descriptive “Hey, let’s nuke someone!” style that has to be applied to individual actions. Crowley gets it spot-on in Good Omens: low-grade, pervasive corruption is, in the long run, much more insidious than a single indubitably evil act.

The main stream of gaming is unfortunately saturated with low-grade, pervasive nastiness. The aforementioned casual attitude to war, nationalism, and revenge is one set of problems; the equally ubiquitous background presence of misogyny and homophobia is another. Given the merciless mockery directed at things like Lara Croft’s chest, and the status of misogyny (in particular) as one of the stereotypes the gaming industry would really like to get rid of – because being openly misogynist is bad for business – individual instances are perhaps less egregious than they once were. But the little things are still there, and they add up.

Things like: why do the male and female avatars in Rock Band have different available wardrobes? Why do only male avatars get some of the niftier jacket options? The silly foam vest cut in the shape of a giant skull is frankly hilarious. I’d totally make my avatar wear that. But I can’t. Why can only female avatars wear a skirt, or high heels? Again, you can’t tell me that would be harder to code than putting all the clothes in in the first place.

Things like: why can’t you play a servicewoman in Modern Warfare 2? It’s first-person, so you never see your character, and you’re mostly addressed by surname or callsign, so literally all that would need to be added would be a few alternative loading screens.

There’s no earthly reason why you couldn’t play sections of the game as Pvt. Jane Ramirez instead of her brother James, or as Sgt. Gail Sanderson instead of Gary. Female Service members have enough real-world problems already before the additional unhelpfulness of one of the most popular narratives of warfare ever (MW2 has somewhere in the region of 8 million players – more than any five real-world armies combined) completely erasing their existence.

So. That’s enough for today. I fully expect that, as I get more into gaming, there will be more gaming posts, dealing with this sort of issue; but I hope this stands as a decent summary of my introduction to videogaming, where I’m coming from and what I think.

*Well, okay, sometimes sex is a productive – or reproductive – activity. But it doesn’t have to be, any more than reading a book requires you to then go away and analyse it at length. Unless you’re an English student. Once the English-student mindset sets in, that’s it for safe-reading. We’re like the Catholics of literature.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Seamus permalink
    December 25, 2009 7:29 pm

    We so are the Catholics of literature. That analogy is going to stay with me, I think…

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