I’ve been reporting on #GamerGate, the consumer revolt against shoddy standards in games journalism and wacky feminist critiques of popular titles, for almost a year now. In the process, I’ve been able to try out a lot of video games.
Following voluminous feedback from my readership after that first column I wrote on the controversy, I knew it was time to “go native” and become a gamer myself. Or at least to dip my toe in the water.
Previously, I had been rude about games, gamers and gaming culture, painting with the same broad strokes seen to this day across the liberal internet press and mainstream media. But I soon realised that my impressions of gaming culture were wildly off-base as I was embraced by the community, a community I have found to be perhaps the friendliest and most welcoming group of people on the internet.
Which is not to say I won’t continue to needle them for being dorks. But I get now that gamers are not the bad guys. All four of my research assistants are now video game fanatics, and I attend meetups for gaming enthusiasts all the time. Believe me: as an unashamed social snob, I’m as surprised as anyone to now count gamers among my friends.
I talk a lot of shit, but I’m willing to change my mind if presented with an argument instead of pearl-clutching cries of “muh soggy knees!” Gamers rose to the challenge and corrected me, and here I stand.
With several thousand gamers watching my Twitch stream, I experienced my first game, Valve’s smash hit Portal 2. It’s a sort of puzzle game where you have to move blocks around and press buttons in the right order to progress through each of its increasingly complex levels.
I was terrible at it. Perhaps being gay means I have a girl brain and I’m not as good at problem-solving, puzzles and systematised thinking, because the only person I know of who was even more hopeless at it was iJustine.
Anyway. In my quest to delve further into the gamer mentality, I have played a variety of games since. I’ve even invested in a proper gaming rig. Because I have a guest-starring role in it, Postal 2 (not to be confused with the aforesaid Portal) has emerged as my favourite title.
I remember that first gaming experience as my introduction to what makes this hobby so compelling to the millions of gamers around the world. I had what they call “agency.” It was up to me to determine what actions my characters would take and my progress in the game would be determined solely by my own actions.
My usual entertainment paradigm of fine chocolate and expensive booze with a handsome gentleman whose name may have escaped me while watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns suddenly felt self-indulgent and lazy.
Indeed, some of my viewers remarked that my smile while I played Portal 2 had even more of the schoolboyish charm for which I was already internationally recognised. I’d come home.
What made gaming elicit that smile from me is the challenge. The player is required to master basic knowledge of game mechanics to get past the initial hurdle, and then continuously build up his skill level as the game’s difficulty level increases. A well-made game requires the player to keep learning and improving in a short timespan.
The “fail state” is unheard of in any other entertainment medium. No book or movie will lock you out of the experience you have already paid for if you do not prove yourself worthy of progression. Imagine a Twilight novel in which readers had to complete a quiz at the end of each chapter to unlock the next one. Millions of oversexed housewives would be straight out of luck.
Of course I am not a particularly skilled gamer yet. Just as Eskimos have a reputed 50 words for snow, gamers have hundreds of words for colleagues still learning their way around a first-person shooter. Doubtless some of the more unpleasant variations will show up in the comment section.
Games succeed, it seems to me, when they ask something of us. The more hardcore gaming crowd, which I recognise I will never be part of, greatly enjoys mastering fiendishly complex systems and using them to bend the game to their will, often to the point of breaking.
It’s the cycle of failure, self-improvement and eventually success that means personal qualities honed while gaming, such as gumption and grit, are useful in real life, not to mention skills such as hand-to-eye co-ordination, memory, resource management and problem-solving.
Gaming also improves the pace of decision-making, since excessive delay usually results in a loss.
At the extreme end of the challenge curve we find franchises like X-Com, which is notorious for its difficulty and steep learning curve, and games like Dwarf Fortress in which I lasted about eleven minutes. The sadistic nature of this type of game is its main selling point, like the high price of a designer handbag. These games force the player to deal with overwhelming odds, occasional bad luck, and holds nothing back in trying defeat him.
I hope the majority of the soldiers assigned to my X-Com squad were liberals, or at least Celine Dion fans, because they got a guaranteed ticket to an early grave. I stopped playing X-Com because it was too hard, but I recognise that I am not the target market.
One of my researchers has over 100 hours in the game. Sometimes I’ll watch him and marvel at how many Sectoids he can trick into walking into the same Heavy on Overwatch. Unlike so many critics of gamers and game culture, I don’t despise things I can’t do or ask for new rules just for me: I admire those who succeed.
The video games industry is struggling with the question of agency, because it wants to appeal to the broadest possible base of gamers. Developers limit their products for the benefit of lowest-common-denominator players, giving in to the “Press X to not die” brigade, producing bland results: titles that are essentially movies with snippets of gameplay in between cut scenes.
If I wanted to luxuriate in long cut scenes, there are paid websites for that. So-called LCD players, often filthy second-rate peasants on consoles, well. They just bring the tone of the neighbourhood. (See? Even as a gamer I can still be a snob.)
Like politicians who become slaves to public opinion polls, developers and publishers become slaves to their play-testers, who may not be skilled gamers or, worse, who may be arbitrarily gender split or in some other way unrepresentative of the publisher’s actual customers.
A play-tester for Half Life 2 Episode 2 managed to walk in circles for half an hour, while the play-testers for Dishonored were dissuaded from taking action in the game due to enemy guards warning the undercover assassin protagonist not to.
Gamers needing explicit instructions to progress through a game is part of a worrying trend that includes the idea of skippable combat to get directly back to the, erm, scintillating dialogue and story. (Which typically, I’m sorry to say, makes 50 Shades look like Shakespeare).
To the chagrin of the vast majority of gamers, there are even more extreme examples of this behaviour in gaming today.
Developers like Tale of Tales with their game Sunset and The Fullbright Company with Gone Home have opted to create pseudo-games lacking gameplay in any traditional sense of the word. They want to tell stories and for unknown reasons have chosen games as their medium, in spite of, in Tale of Tales’ case, apparent hatred for the medium.
These “games” are linear, lack fail states, actual choices and any sense of accomplishment. They are derided by many gamers as “walking simulators” since the only interactive part of the experience is walking around. In the case of Sunset, another appellation might be better: a housekeeping simulator. (“Press X to scrub the patriarchal dictator’s marble floors.”)
The problem of course is that I can walk around just as easily in real life, and the experience is much richer as I gather the attention of handsome young men and those that appreciate my impeccable taste in clothing, shoes and sunglasses. And I don’t have to be assaulted by the heavy-handed politics that seems to go hand-in-hand with such games. (More on that in a moment.)
While I don’t want to get into detail how shallow and pretentious they are, here are a few thoughts. These two particular games utterly fail at creating a compelling story or engaging and challenging the player. I imagine they are birthed out of a frustration at being laughed out of film or art school.
I guess video games seem an easy, trendy place for middle-class anxiety merchants and professional panickers to release their “transmedia” experiments. That might have been true if they weren’t seriously asking $20 for the privilege of beta-testing [sic] their new women’s studies essay on our downtime.
Because it isn’t just the artists laughing. The market has spoken, and is rejecting these games: Tale of Tales, developer of the aforementioned housekeeping sim, are quitting the industry after selling only 4,000 copies of Sunset, despite the best public relations efforts of disgraced former blogger Leigh Alexander.
Pretentious hipsters and their ideological guildmates on the radical left aspire to be “artistic” by emulating the bland entertainment and mixing in clumsy political messages: Gone Home is about lesbians while Sunset deals with race, war and oppression. The resulting “games” aren’t worth the bandwidth it takes to download them, if sales are anything to go by.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Video gaming has produced elegant and narratively rich games that nonetheless include gameplay and challenge. Take the acclaimed classic Planescape: Torment, which tells the story of an immortal amnesiac.
The outstanding writing, characters and storyline overshadow the gameplay to such an extent that combat ceases to be the primary focus of the game; instead, the player focuses on interacting with the world and characters and losing themselves in the plot.
In short, Planescape features a diverse and interesting cast and some killer writing. As with BioShock, which explores the controversial philosophies of Ayn Rand, but unlike Dragon Age: Inquisition, nothing is shoved down your throat.
Role-playing games like The Witcher offer moral and political choices, but the best games are ambiguous and difficult to predict. They require the player to pay attention to characters and setting, the payoff being not only reward or punishment for the player, but also watching characters deal with the consequences of their actions. The Void by Ice-Pick Lodge, a Russian adventure game with a cult following, also offers a positive example of artistic games.
Unlike walking simulators, the market has responded to artistic products that can legitimately use the name “game.” When a spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment was crowdfunded on Kickstarter by a team including many of the original developers, it received more than $4 million dollars from nearly 75,000 contributors – more than 400 per cent of the original $900,000 funding goal.
In my experience so far, in general, games should stick to being games rather than visual novels or movies. Difficulty, choices, teamwork and competitiveness all add more meaning than pretentious and ham-fisted messages about the oppression of minorities.
Games function as escapism. Many of the people who play them are escaping from the harsh vicissitudes of the real world, letting off steam in a safe virtual environment. The last thing they want is to have white guilt foisted on them by social justice warriors.
Many gamers themselves come from marginalised, lower income backgrounds. Imagine the poor garbage man spending twelve hours a day slinging sacks of trust fund refuse only to come home to their intellectual effluvient on his computer screen. For the love of God, let the poor man ogle at some breasts and shoot a few Nazis.
You can urinate on me, decapitate me and kick around my dismembered limbs in Postal 2: Paradise Lost, but I don’t make a fuss no matter who’s doing the kicking or why. In fact, provided you’re playing a game that enforces consequences on your actions, there’s only one thing you can do wrong if you want to be a Milo-League Gamer, and that’s play on a console.
There is zero evidence that any video game makes players more violent or – heaven forfend – more sexist in the real world. Personal agency and the ability to explore choices unavailable or impossible in the real world is what makes video gaming special. Without it, you may as well whack on Netflix.
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