A new age of gaming is upon us.
Those words have been used frequently in the history of video games and the expansion into the global industry that it has become today. This time though the change does not come because of the spectacular new graphics available, or the breakthroughs in gameplay or even the monumental changes wrought by Occulus Rift. No the change is because of the reporting of gaming to the world at large instead of our little corner of society.
The reason this issue has been brought to the forefront of the conversation about gaming is because of the recent “gamergate” scandal.
Indie game developer, Zoe Quinn, had released an interactive title, Depression Quest, as a means to represent her own relationship with depression; she called it a “powerful use of the medium”. The game was relatively well received; but critics, whilst celebrating her, also held her in scorn and questioned whether this was an appropriate use of the platform.
Some critics ridiculed Quinn for using the game for such dark subject matter whilst others called into question the quality of the gameplay and stated that for such a simple game it received a disproportionately high critical response.
That response goes to one of the key issues plaguing the industry currently. How should games which do not have revolutionary gameplay but have strong narrative be perceived by critics and the public?
Critics often malign games which do not alter the fabric of gaming but have strong narratives whereas the reverser is often true of the community. The Last of Us is a universally loved game, a game I would personally rank in my top 5, and yet the gameplay is not revolutionary; it is the story that brought this game to the top of rankings the world over. The narrative makes the gameplay seem superfluous and that is the problem that critics have.
The same is true of Metal Gear Solid: Guns of the Patriot. A game designed to be a tearjerker with heavy dialogue scenes where the gamer is taken for a ride but does not play. The response again was universally positive because the story was so compelling. Why do AAA titles get this pass whereas narrative heavy games which come from indie developers are given a hard time by critics?
This issue has been brewing between gamers and critics for close to a decade. The evolution of gaming away from being seen as the geeky pastime of adolescent boys into the art form that it has become has been difficult to navigate. Video game journalism used to serve gamers in pointing them towards titles which they would enjoy whilst not straying too far into the ethical dilemmas of killing everything that moved.
When global interest came to gaming, the interest brought the mainstream critics. People unfamiliar with the gaming world with contrasting voices demanding that games meet their idea of what games should be. There was suddenly a different interest being taken in gaming such as the cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian who applied an analytical lens to game tropes and conventions, such as women in gaming. This movement was a death knell for the traditional gaming journalist.
Games had become more visible but gaming was forever changed by this political pressure. Stalwarts of the industry such as Grand Theft Auto were derided for their sexism and violence by people trying to define an industry which had long since found its identity. Those amongst us who would identify themselves as gamers, were chastised for enjoying the world of hack n’ slash or a conventional shooter.
This powder keg was always set to explode but following a spiteful post from Zoe Quinn’s ex-lover, Eron Gjoni, accusing her of sleeping with a journalist in order to secure a more favourable rating, the explosion was imminent.
This is despite the fact that the journalist in question, Nathan Grayson, did not review Depression Quest and had never reviewed any of Quinn’s games. The incident however led to broader allegations that developers are too closely linked with journalists and that between them they are too connected to the cultural criticisms which has led to gamers having to defend their position on games.
The harassment of Quinn escalated; threats of rape, document tracing and hacking attempts were part of her day to day life following Gjoni’s blog entry and have caused her to fear for her safety. The scandal also dragged in Anita Sarkeesian following her video outlining the tropes of women in gaming. Sarkeesian, following her latest video, which is shown below, was criticised violently with the abusive messages coming thick and fast. Although a warning the video is lengthy, you will have to clear a schedule for it.
The hash tag #gamergate soon emerged and was derided by feminists and cultural commentators as being wildly misogynistic. The group itself however argues that once they were accused of sexism they took issue and started “fighting back” against those who believed that games should be held to a higher standard or that gaming itself should try to do better on cultural issues. This shift would signal a fundamental change in gaming. Games were not designed to be instruments of social change they were designed to be and should in my opinion remain entertainment.
The problem of course is that all entertainment or art will be criticised if it does not adhere strictly to the social guidelines set out by these critics. Music is not derided in the same way. People search for the meaning of songs frequently but they do not feel the need to criticise the industry nor the individual artists if there is not a feminist agenda in the music. Although social commentators often will criticise those who are perceived not be feminist enough but they are never accused of misogyny.
Game developer David Hill “a lot of game journalists hate the nepotism, and most importantly, they hate the relationship the industry has with journalism”, stating that the industry was “co-opted” by the AAA publishers as marketing for their titles, and thus acting as gatekeepers for gaming criticism. “We want to approach these works of art as works of art, and not just as the next success or flop. But that can’t happen on any large scale, because of that corruption, because of the commercialism of it all,” Hill said. According to Hill, “the biggest targets of Gamergate have been people who are frankly powerless in the games industry. People like Zoe Quinn and Phil Fish, they are not gatekeepers. They are not able to enact any real, significant influence on the industry.”
The issue with #gamergate was that it was co-opted so quickly by negativity. There was real potential for issues within gaming to be discussed; such as the aforementioned over criticising of games for not being cultural leaders. There are a great many issues in gaming but maybe this cultural criticism is good for gaming. Not because it will help games, which will go on being what they are, but because it is a signal that the mainstream has realised that this is a force. Gaming to them is not something that can be placed in a box anymore; it is a legitimate art form that they have to take seriously. It is about time that they did.
Entertainments job is to captivate you for as long as they ask for. If they stumble upon a message or meaning or truth in that time, they got lucky; but it’s not the reason they did it. The job of this industry, as with music, film or sports is to hold your attention for as long as they can no more and no less. Why should this industry, still in its infancy by comparison with the other entertainment giants, be held to a different standard than any other? There have been games that are beautiful in that they tell stories that are not only interesting but also send a message but should all entertainment have to have a deeper message?
This scandal has been responsible for one positive thing though. The public now understands a little of what goes on inside the gaming world. Maybe this will signal new voices moving in to the difficult career of gaming journalism, maybe those new voices can and will report unbiasedly without any vested interests. Maybe there will be a change. Let’s hope that we can get back our sliver of society and let it grow the right way this time.