Is it just me, or have things gotten a little uncomfortable around here lately? No, I am not making yet another website redesign joke. I mean our gamer culture, and I think it's time we had a talk.
Video gamers have had a weird past month or two. Fans who follow the culture closely online, whether that's through the Twitter feeds of their favourite personalities, the comments sections on their daily blogs or in the threads of the forums they haunt, might've noticed a certain degree of cultural friction happening.
Is Bulletstorm too offensive? Is Duke Nukem sexist? And just what the hell is this Dickwolves thing about? If you're late to the party, just Google some words from that string and you'll catch up. Or just read on. Because everyone's talking about stuff like this, and it seems we've all got something to say.
Plenty of gamers would rather not be part of a culture where the products celebrate toilet humor; the idea it's tasteless as all hell to have "Gang Bang" as a skill in Bulletstorm is certainly a valid perspective. Plenty of businesspeople think it's sexist or exclusionary to have a press event in a strip club, as Duke Nukem did. I mean, why do we really need the old Duke anyway – haven't "we" grown out of games that act as hyperbolic fantasies for boys who want to kill things and look at boobs?
Plenty of gamers would rather not be part of a community where a person, concerned about rape victims, can say she thought a rape joke in a video game webcomic wasn't funny – and then other gamers react by going to her blog and saying they wish her rapist had killed her. This is a thing that really happened, people. An ugly-ugly disgusting thing. What's with "our" culture, you might ask, where people just want to play violent "bro-shooters" and bathe in blood sport, sex jokes and cruel language? Where are "we" going wrong? What's happening to the video game community?
Well, for one thing, we also live in a world where somebody can go on Fox News' website and say that some vague amorphous collective of hypersexed and overviolent video games is leading today's youth to commit rape – and there is still an entire legion of Americans to whom this seems like a valid argument.
Video games are a multi-billion dollar industry, and yet most of us have met someone who's tried to make us feel like the fact we play games makes us some kind of weirdo, closeted inside with our creepy little hobby.
We also are part of a world where some people would like to see games as art – original, spiritual creations the product of an artistic mind, that test the boundaries of the familiar – and where some people don't. Some people are having fun with their video games, thank you very much, and they don't see why Jason Rohrer's Passage, a low-res, minute-long game where you basically walk from one end of the screen to the other and die, holds any kind of entertainment value.
The thing is, almost everybody is right, here. Me, I'm on the side of art games, for example. I believe that interactive entertainment as a medium has only begun to be explored, and I like to see games that try to represent the human condition in a broad range of colours. But I also like to shoot things. I aim for the head. As a woman in a field long-dominated by men, I really hate seeing games that realise female characters as shallow constructs equipped with breast physics, there to be objectified. But I also love Bayonetta, absurd naked hair wolves and all. I didn't think she was sexist, I thought she was stylish and fun.
Most of us have met someone who's tried to make us feel like the fact we play games makes us some kind of weirdo.
That's just me, though. Bulletstorm's not for me, but maybe it's for you. It can be very tempting to look at all the culture clash we've been having in our community, hold up a game like Bulletstorm, and say "hey, stuff like this is the problem." It's easy to look at Cliff Blezsinski's devil-may-care attitude and big personality and say "you're making it worse".
At the same time, it can also be easy to feel very tired of having to defend your hobby regularly, to feel like people think you're a sicko or a potential serial killer just because you want to blow up a virtual warzone for a couple of hours at the end of your day or because you and your close Xbox Live buddies love rude inside jokes.
It might be annoying when you really just want to play – it is called a game, after all – and people are standing in the background urging you to consider art. Or to be a role model, when all you want to do is make a webcomic. People are calling you a bro-jock-douchebag or assuming you're immature or stupid just because you're excited about Duke Nukem after a decade of waiting? That sucks.
The one thing of which all of us participating in this cultural friction are guilty is a failure of perspective.
How many articles have you read about how "games are for everyone now?" And yet we still expect that "everyone" means we're all the same. We make fun of people who enjoy FarmVille like they've betrayed us somehow; we get upset about the rise of social gaming like it's corrupting something that belongs to us, instead of helping it grow. When someone's enjoying something that we're not, we lay the mantle of obligation down on them and we expect them to change their mind. We expect them to agree with us, else fail to be a real gamer. I don't even like the word "gamer" anymore, because inherent in it is that obligation.
I don't even like the word "gamer" anymore.
If you say a game is too violent for you, you become somehow an enemy of "gamers", even if you like to play other things with near-religious fervor. If you speak up to criticize an issue happening in the gaming community, you're flooded with troll attacks for betraying "gamers."
Don't you get it?
We all play video games. We're just all different. We're each a gamer in our own individual way.
Just because something offends your taste doesn't mean it lacks the right to exist for people who think it's fun or important. There are caveats to this, of course – no one should ever, ever have to endure slurs, discrimination, threats or hate-speech because of gaming. It should never cross your mind to verbally assault or harass a stranger on the internet because they said something you don't like about video games or because they approach them differently than you do. That's just complete madness. Like, stop it. Seriously.
No one should feel there's no place for them. No one should have to swallow media or culture that they disapprove of or else feel like they don't deserve to participate. If you don't feel like you belong among Bulletstorm players, for example, there should be somewhere else for you.
Let's allow and encourage the art and business of game development to make places for all kinds of people. Let's stop feeling obligated to present a united front; we are not all one single audience. One game is not responsible for representing all games. Your fellow players do not owe you anything – except for basic respect and human decency. There is nothing to attack, and you have nothing to defend yourself against. Don't take sides; enjoy what you love and let other people do the same. Just play. And be kind to each other, if you can. That'd be really nice.
Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.
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