Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Video Games as Social Commentary

I am reminded time and time again, by people on the sites I visit, that video games should be treated like other established mediums.  That their depictions of violence, sexual content, and other subjects should be regarded the same as their movie, radio, and print brethren.

Yet time and again, we see video games come under fire the same things that have been presented in the media for centuries.  I won't go into detail, because people far more eloquent than I have already talked at length about it.  What I do want to talk about is what role can and should video games play in in relation to sensitive issues.

First off, to me, it's important to have a variety of people working on something that could be viewed as delicate.  You need as many different viewpoints to cover more of the spectrum of who you're trying to reach.  If you're going to write a story about rape, you damn well better not be a team of straight white males (that was an arbitrary distinction, relax).  having different perspectives gives you such a wealth of valuable information in order to fully realize how different groups react to different situations.

We'll touch back with that later, but I'd like to make my first point on the main subject here.  Bioware released Dragon Age 2 in March of 2011, and they quickly came under fire by some groups on the internet.

They were attacked because the character you played as, your custom made avatar, could be gay.

The following is a single post in an entire thread dedicated to this topic on Bioware's official forums.  Forums that the staff routinely check.

To summarize, in the case of Dragon Age 2, BioWare neglected their main demographic: The Straight Male Gamer.
I don’t think many would argue with the fact that the overwhelming majority of RPG gamers are indeed straight and male. Sure, there are a substantial amount of women who play video games, but they’re usually gamers who play games like The Sims, rather than games like Dragon Age. That’s not to say there isn’t a significant number of women who play Dragon Age and that BioWare should forgo the option of playing as a women altogether, but there should have been much more focus in on making sure us male gamers were happy.
Now immediately I’m sure that some male gamers are going to be like “YOU DON’T SPEAK FOR ME! I LOVE DRAGON AGE 2!”, but you have to understand, the Straight Male Gamer, cannot be just lumped into a single category.
Its ridiculous that I even have to use a term like Straight Male Gamer, when in the past I would only have to say fans, …”

To sum it up, this is why we can't have nice things.  Bioware, who has been one of the better game companies when it deals with more sensitive issues, is being ridiculed by an entitled group of gamers who think that an entire genre should be catered to them.

At this point, I'd like to point out that video games, as a medium, were originally designed to be a child's play thing, but has since evolved to accommodate players of all ages.  So why couldn't genre's evolve in the same way?  He says that the 'overwhelming majority' of RPG players are straight males, but has no statistics to back up his claim, apart from his small sample size of people surrounding him.  While gaming was predominately males at one point, the female gaming population has risen.  According to the Entertainment Software Association, 45% of gamers are women.   Following that up, the US Census Bureau's International Data Base has the global female population around 49%.  In one fell swoop, this man has marginalized three and a half billion people by saying that his group, and his group alone should be made happy.

Of course, that last statement is hyperbole, and of course, I'm detracting from my main issue to personally laugh at this guy's expense, but it brings me around to this.  How can non-gamers take video games as a legitimate medium for thoughtful discussion if we have people like this as ambassadors for video games?  It seems funny to say right now, but the biggest thing in the way of gaming being more inclusive to people of all creeds and lifestyles, is the fans of the games themselves.

I mean, maybe I'm looking in the wrong place, but I don't really see people in bookstores glaring as anyone walks through the doors.  I don't see anyone getting up in arms about a movie that depicts homosexuals.  It's a really strange phenomenon that games are almost handcuffed to being about fantastical things that aren't supposed to intersect with the real world social issues.  I do feel that there's a lot of room in this medium to grow and incorporate or teach us about different cultures or sensitive issues that may be too uncomfortable to talk about in person.  Even if you're not teaching outright, you can teach through subtlety and background events.  It's like having those different sexual orientation options in Bioware games.  It can teach people, who may have no interaction with homosexual people in his daily life, that people are the same regardless of their orientation.  Gay, straight, or neither, any of them can be heroic enough to save the universe.

I feel like the best way we can work on this is by adding more choices to our video games.  We need meaningful choices in our games, to see them have consequences.  I would love to see a game where how you interact with one person could affect how other people view you, based off hearsay, gossip, or overhearing the conversations.  The point of this is, when we play Video Games, it seems like we lose touch with reality in such a way, that we try to justify being a jerk in the game.  There are, of course, certain people who respond well to it, but I'd like to see your character's personality have that affect on other people.

If video games can make us care about other people, I feel like they've done their jobs.  I'm not saying that every game needs to be more conscious.  We need our games like Grand Theft Auto to be an escape, something where we can tune things out for awhile and relax.  I'd just like to see more games handle these issues like race, gender, sexuality, and even just tough decisions.  Just, games that make you feel things, that's what I want to see.

You may think I'm full of shit, and that's fine.  This article probably is all over the place content wise, but if you take anything from it, it's this.  I think games can be a great medium for exploring the human condition, and actually could be used to build empathy towards other people.

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