Would You Kindly Not

I don’t often feel the need to respond to articles about game design; ironically, when I do it’s usually to those that could be seen as being “on the same side” as myself. Thus the article that I am going to talk to is in support of a lot of things I agree with – and yet I find it disturbing enough to feel the need to air my thoughts.

Would You Kindly, by Mattie Brice, addresses a variety of complex, interconnected issues, so it’s not easy to untangle; please bear with me as I attempt to make my points.

The article begins with a very personal tone:

I thought his eyes were blue. But he reminded me they were the color of shit.

Sitting at the corner of my bed, I watched him dress. It was December, and we had argued again. It’s an argument that I have every relationship I’m in. The one when I ask if we could be seen together in public, for once. Hold hands if he’s feeling bold.

Electron Dance recently posted The Ethics of Selling Children, an article that questions (but does not condemn, as some have thought) what it calls confessional writing. The piece struck me as touching something important about a lot of modern game writing, something that has both good and bad aspects. I was reminded of it when reading Would You Kindly, because part of me felt compelled to ask whether this deeply personal story was relevant. Not because the story itself makes me uncomfortable – it doesn’t – but because its use in this context seemed questionable.

I realize saying this may upset some people, but the fact that an experience is traumatic, or that a writer writes about aspects of their personal life that are usually not discussed, does not necessarily make them intellectually relevant to the argument at hand. What particularly worries me is how easily such personal elements can give a powerful emotional charge (because they are powerful, of course) to a piece of writing that otherwise lacks merit, and make it very hard to criticize without appearing to criticize the author as an individual.

I’m not saying that’s entirely the case here, or that there isn’t room for all kinds of autobiographical elements in game writing – it is certainly an important way of showing what injustice feels like on a visceral level – but the line between personal experience and logical argument is an issue to think about for all of us.

It’s a funny thing, dating a man who’s never known oppression in his life. Where he has nothing to prove and no barriers to entry, there are always open wounds on my body from the briars of American society. He was shaken, to the point of an anxiety attack, that someone would think he was gay if spotted with me. That, he said, was a selfish thing for me to demand.

I looked into his eyes as he imagined what discrimination was like. I wonder, as someone who’s experienced it since the moment they were conscious, how life must be to easily sidestep such terrible treatment by our culture. That isn’t an option I will ever have- his reality, assumed to be the template for which all others are based, is actually a niche phenomenon that doesn’t account for the rest of us. It took all of my effort to not call out “boo-hoo” to his retreating back.

Here one of the piece’s main ideas begins to emerge: the divide between the white privileged male and the rest of society. Not something easy to speak about or criticize, so let me make it clear that I believe there is a lot of truth to what is said here. There is no question that society divides people into categories and treats them differently accordingly. We have centuries of writing to show that these categories are arbitrary and absurd – and this is where it gets really complicated, because functionally these categories exist even though they have no logical foundations (i.e. even though race is an imaginary concept with no meaningful biological basis, you will still be judged by it). Because of that, it’s very easy to start reinforcing those categories while attempting to defend the people caught within them. Thus we have the long history of multiculturalism reinforcing the logic of what in post-colonial studies is critically called “container cultures”, as well as the nationalism of oppressed peoples and ideas of the noble savage. Othering, as it is sometimes called, can be employed defensively as well as aggressively, and it is not only imperialists who have created simplistic images of “the Enemy”… or the self.

Now, there is no questioning that what is described in the article is a typical and depressing example of the hypocrisy of those who are less hounded by society; but it also contains the seeds of something that opposes the overly simplistic division into the privileged and the non-privileged: that someone could be shaken to the point of an anxiety attack at the very idea of being thought gay, at the thought of being seen with their lover, is a pretty big deal. It does not speak of freedom, but of constraints. Being allowed to acknowledge one’s lover is not a minor issue, and being forced to exist within an idea of gender that does not allow that, that causes crippling fear at the very thought of it, is discrimination.

The difference, one might argue, is that this person can easily, as the article says, sidestep such treatment. In the case of this individual that is probably true, but it does raise several questions. (Caution: the following sentence is a thought experiment, not my opinion.) One could argue that a transgender person has that option too; if they want to sidestep such treatment, all they have to do is act as if they identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Of course, that would mean denying who they are and causing themselves endless misery… but then, if someone is genuinely in love with a transgender person and is still terrified of being open about it because of social stigma, is that not also a cause of profound misery? Not as profound as being denied the right to be yourself, but is profound misery a competition? Is one genocide OK because it is less bad than another?

(I am not defending this person’s cowardly behaviour, but I am arguing against overgeneralization.)

Video games are often like my past lover. They live in fantasy realm that can only reference reality, not participate in it.

This is where things begin to break down for me. The comparison makes no sense; is the lover’s reality unreal because it does not apply to everyone? That would suggest that everyone else’s reality is also unreal, since it does not apply to him. The category of “white people” is in many ways fantastical, but that does not make their lives fantastical. Not only is the connection to the confessional part of the story forced, but what it suggests is that the only reality that matters is that of subjective perspective – instead of saying “the bigger picture includes myself as well as others” it says “the others aren’t real, there’s only me”.

2012 was a year of trying to become self-aware, employing satire and other forms of trickery in attempt to engage with social issues. Satire, it seems like the panacea for game developers, an avenue to have ‘fun’ while playing a ‘serious’ game.

Satire certainly seems to be on the rise in games, but is Spec Ops: The Line a satire? Is BioShock?

An acquaintance of mine once said to me, “satire is for the bourgeois.” Often, the social perils they seek to critique turns into torture porn, and the high road they present is to simply look away and forget it all. The minorities involved are sacrificed for the passing interest of the privileged- video game developers and other satirists in the past just wanted to make people uncomfortable, not actually change anything. And it isn’t the oppressed who benefit from the bourgeois squirming in their seats before they go to sleep it off.

The problem with satire often turning into torture porn is certainly one to be taken seriously – Far Cry 3 perhaps being a good example, or many of the films that are praised for their “cynical” depiction of an unchanging and unchangeable world in which everyone is a villain. But is that all that satire is? All it has ever accomplished? And even if all it accomplishes is to make those in power uncomfortable… is that such a bad thing? In order for people to change, they must first become uncomfortable with how things were before. And while change rarely comes from above, history shows us that even people of the so-called privileged classes have played important parts in changing the world for the better, even in the context of revolution and direct struggle. Furthermore, there are situations in which change must be initiated by those with power, because the oppressed simply do not have the material resources to cause change for themselves. “Those with power”, however, does not have to mean the bourgeois or the elite; it can mean the soldier controlling the rifle and the missile and the drone.

It’s true that satire can act as a pressure valve; it can also act as a lockpick.

Moreover, the use of the term “minorities” here reveals a thoroughly US-centric worldview, in which the oppressed are always depicted as a small group with a distinct identity, in line with America’s deep-seated fear of “the masses”.

Spec Ops: The Line is one of many games to come out last year as an attempt to engage politics. It was the only one of these I could get through, and there are some relevant points friend and colleague Brendan Keogh makes about American interventionism in his book Killing is Harmless. However, much like Far Cry 3, Lollipop Chainsaw, and Hotline Miami, it only serves a particular audience for what it assumes to be a wide-reaching social issue. It is like that past fling of mine who flinched at the first sign of difficulty, and turned away.

The return to the personal element here is hard to justify; how does turning away at the first sign of difficulty compare to addressing a specific audience? The idea seems to be that because the game “assumes” the horrific nature of war and imperialism to be relevant to a lot of people, it should target all of those people. But at this point we may criticize it just for being a videogame and not also a musical and a sculpture and a radio play; you can’t reach everyone, and if you choose to do what you can within a certain medium or genre, how is that a sign of failure? Especially when you are deconstructing that specific genre, attempting to subvert the expectations and thoughts of the people who play that genre so obsessively?

I played Spec Ops having already sampled many games thought to make players aware of the violence they were committing in them, and couldn’t help but shrug my shoulders. For me, military shooters are fantastical, so far apart from what I actually experience that they couldn’t comment on my life. Which was when it hit me- the violence in games aren’t at all based on the violence that actually threatens me off-screen. If there was to be such a game, the character wouldn’t have a weapon, wouldn’t be able to do much damage, and would have to get from my house to the grocery store without being assaulted by men. I don’t know how to use a firearm, I don’t have the fortitude to withstand bullets, and I’ve never been in the military.

Now this is simply breathtakingly self-centered. I’m sorry, but it is. Military shooters contain fantastical depictions of wars that are very, very real, in which people die every day, well over a million in the last few years alone; and if Spec Ops: The Line seeks to criticize the glorification of these wars in videogames, then it is speaking to a hugely important aspect of modern history that has affected an enormous number of people, soldiers and civilians alike. Is all that irrelevant because it’s not someone’s experience of violence? Does the existence of child abuse mean that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are irrelevant? Even from the most America-centered perspective, do the experiences of thousands upon thousands of veterans not mean anything because transphobia is also an issue? And how blindingly self-centered do you have to be to dismiss the horrors of war because you’ve experienced problems yourself? Plenty of people around the world have experienced starvation and poverty and exploitation, and yet they still speak up against war, they still have empathy for those who have been scarred by it – often more so because they have experienced violence themselves. Because if you live in this world with any awareness of what is going on, then a military shooter is commenting on your life, no matter your gender or your religion or your nationality.

These games export violence to extreme situations such as war because it is pandering to the bourgeois of video games, people who don’t experience the threat of real life violence and oppression every day. They can’t make a meaningful connection to those who deal with violent oppression because they most likely have no idea what that is. They don’t put players in the shoes of a transgender woman getting cat-called on her way to get coffee. They aren’t there when a car follows her for blocks as she tries to get home from a party. The common retort is needing these games to still be fun; to that, I say “boo-hoo.”

Pseudo-satirical extreme violence may pander to the bourgeois of video games in certain situations, but war is the worst possible example to pick. War is not a fantasy, not a discourse, not a boys’ game. War is the terrible everyday reality of millions of people who are bombed and tortured by the governments of the West (or governments supported by the West), and the instruments (and victims) of those governments are people who have been raised with precisely the myths that militaristic videogames endlessly repeat. To compare getting cat-called on the way to get coffee to the horror of being burned from the inside-out by white phosphorus is ludicrously offensive and myopic. I’d call it a “First World Problem” if that particular expression didn’t mask the extreme differences in quality of life in the so-called First World.

I have to give Spec Ops credit though, as it clued me into why I couldn’t relate at all to what these games were trying to do. It was when I encountered a one-word mission objective: Obey. Do what you are told, and you will be rewarded. This is what the privileged class, men who are white, heterosexual, cisgender among many other things, is told to do.

It is telling that for all its talk of privilege, the article never mentions economic class. It is also telling that in talking about war, it uses a description of the privileged class that would exclude Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell and many others directly responsible for war crimes and the persecution of dissenters and whistleblowers. And that’s just within the United States; this idea of the privileged class is entirely US-centric, ignoring the international ruling elite that is not only not exclusively white, but often also comes from countries in which the black/white dichotomy, so prominent in US culture and academic thought, is completely irrelevant. So either only the United States matter, or everyone in the rest in the world who lives in a country without a history of slavery is part of the privileged class, even as their oppression comes not in the form of cat-calls but in the form of starvation and police violence.

If you play your role, you will have a good life. When your role has you on top of the social food chain, there is little complaint to obey. But times are changing- social justice is pushing against the oppressive system that puts one identity over the other, and this privileged class is at a point of despair. They are doing what they are told, don’t they deserve their just reward?

Is this really the world we live in? Are all white heterosexual males rich, or at least comfortable, so long as they obey? Because that is not the reality of unemployment, low-wage jobs and disappearing workers’ rights that most people (of all races and sexual orientations) face. It is not the reality that has left millions of entirely ordinary people, by this logic classed as part of the elite, without a way to survive.

And is the despair felt by the privileged class, whoever they are, the result of social justice? The ongoing crisis of capitalism, the rise of imperialism, the erosion of the welfare state – this is a matter of identity, not economics?

There is no denying that there are those who feel that the advantages they gained via discrimination are slipping away, but can even the Tea Party be seen outside its economic context? Pushing people towards the far right, making them hate those with the same economic interests as themselves, is a classic reaction of capitalism in crisis.

Being a minority in many transparent ways, that option was never there for me. It was obvious from a young age I had to break out the system because it wasn’t for me. And not on an ideological level, not a taste preference, my literal identity that is often decided by men in bureaucracies and development studios. It’s an obvious choice to not obey, because to obey is to die.

Certain people are, by their very nature, placed in positions where the oppressive nature of the system is immediately apparent, and trans people are currently one of the least accepted parts of our society. But what is “the system” in this case? Is it the economic system, the social system, some of both? What does “obey” mean? Does it mean conform socially or does it means conform politically? Because being oppressed in a social sense does not make one an opponent of the political system. Witness, for example, the debate about the US military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Gay people were being discriminated against; now they no longer are, and many in the US said that was a great victory. But to the rest of the world, especially to the Middle East and Africa, all it meant was that an organization dedicated to murder and torture was now a little nicer to murderers and torturers – not exactly a revolution. Women are oppressed in many ways, but was Margaret Thatcher a revolutionary? Is Angela Merkel opposed to the system? Again, the US-centric view deceives: in Europe we have gay politicians on the far right. Only a few short decades after homosexuality was considered a crime, we have homosexual politicians fomenting hate against Arabs and poor people; you could say that they changed the system, made it more inclusive, but even an oppressed sexual identity does not mean someone is in favour of meaningful systemic change.

Playing Spec Ops gave me a chance to glimpse at the psychology the privileged class. Design is commonly modeled around a player doing what the developers make them do; if the only option is to beat in a guy’s head with a golf club, we must take it. It is predicated on the plight of the heterosexual white man, moving in a system that favors them as long as they would, kindly, do what’s expected of them.

Who is this privileged class? Is it all the many millions of people who play awful, militaristic shooters like Call of Duty and identify with their supposedly heroic protagonists? Are they all white? Are they all rich? Is that the people who run our society?

And if the “plight of the heterosexual male” (homogenizing millions of people of vastly different backgrounds worldwide) is that he is rewarded if he obeys, why does a game like Spec Ops suggest that there is, in fact, no reward except horror and madness?

Even stranger is the argument that being forced to do what one is told to do is the characteristic of the privileged. Is it the privileged who are forced to join the military because they have no money? Is it the privileged who become cannon fodder or trained murderers against their will? No, the privileged are free to make the choices they want, to lament the ugly necessity of war; they have non-revolutionary choices. Whereas the oppressed do end up joining the army, do end up being cannon fodder, and a part of what pushes them in that direction (the only other alternative being revolutionary action, a frightening prospect even to the politically motivated) is our culture’s myths of the martial hero. To deconstruct that, to show its ugliness, is hugely valuable to the oppressed.

The trick of the game, much like it’s ideological predecessor Bioshock, is the only way to ‘win’ or not do terrible things is to stop playing. Turn off the game. To look away. For some reason, people laud games like Spec Ops and Bioshock for not giving a solution, for not putting in a step forward. That is the appraisal of people whose well-being doesn’t ride on someone finding an answer to oppression.

The lack of games that present a solution to such problems is certainly something to be criticized, but are these really such good examples? Sometimes the horror needs a beginning, middle and end for the story to work; sometimes the protagonist has to be trapped, because being trapped is a characteristic of modern life (less so for the privileged, not more). A more dangerous story than these is the one where the players can choose between various political solutions, none of which cause any fundamental change, or in which progressive choices are always seen as well-intentioned but ultimately naive and ineffective.

This isn’t to say either experience is solely enjoyed by or relatable to men, but that we’ve accepted that games constantly treat us as such.

As what? Men? Who are these people that can so easily be put into one category, as if they were all defined by their gender?

Then again, yes, games constantly place us in the same shoes and tell us similar stories. That’s a huge problem. But is it a problem with Spec Ops: The Line?

As for the suggestion that “men” or even “white men” is a category of people whose well-being doesn’t ride on someone finding an answer to oppression, that is extremely offensive to all those fighting to survive in a system that has long ago declared (class) war on them, and to the millions of dead who have fallen in the long struggle against oppression.

This is why the recent public foray about video games and violence is rather laughable. Games are clearly overestimated when it comes to the kinds of topics and play is actually there. American society, at least, has identified guns and violence with boys and men for as long as I’ve been alive, and most likely before the first video game. It reminds me of an anecdote Brendan makes in his book, that cover shooters remind him of playing games of pretend as a child. Video games are currently a translation of that, a reincarnation of stereotypically boys’ activities that do impart cultural values, but do not simulate anything real. We can see this throughout all other media, and can attribute the homogeneity of both the artists and the audiences they target.

What disturbs me about this is that the complaint is not about the focus in games on dehumanizing others and justifying killing, but about the fact that killing is considered to be a thing for boys. Apart from the fact that there are plenty of women in the military, is this all that men are? Is the reduction of men to killing machines something to be overlooked in favour of “games for girls” or equivalent identity-reinforcing clichés? In other words: we don’t have an industry of games for men, we have an industry of games for slaves.

Yes, games in general cover a pathetically small slice of human life and experience. Yes, game development needs to be far more inclusive, far more diverse. But the existence of Mainichi does not invalidate the existence of Spec Ops or BioShock, just like the existence of violence against transgender people does not mean we can stop caring about violence against the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Detroit.

This is why our Vice President calls a meeting to solve gun violence over the rare attack at a predominately white school and not the frequent, systematic murder of transgender women of color.

If there is a sentence that perfectly encapsulates the myopic nature of this article, it’s this one. Dismissing a shooting spree as “rare” (actually shockingly common in the US as compared to the rest of the world) and making a point of the fact that the victims were predominantly white (as if that makes them more deserving of death or less deserving of justice), asking instead for a focus on the hyperspecific group of people the author belongs to (not just transgender individuals, or transgender women, but transgender women of color) – and all the while ignoring that said Vice President is a representative of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”, a government that uses jingoism and propaganda, of which games often form a part, to justify its global policies of oppression.

There is a bigger picture.

I know many developers and players are excited about the avenue of satire. The ‘gotchya!’ is easy to formulate and punctuate an otherwise typical game. But letting business as usual carry on until the final stages serves no one any good- it creates the illusion that these problems are outside of us, easily boxed away when we please.

This is very true and very important. Just excusing the regular awfulness of most games by labelling them satire and adding an ending where you’re working for the bad guys or are mad or whatever – that’s easy and cheap and largely pointless. I don’t see how this relates to Spec Ops or even BioShock, both of which are far more than that, but in general it is a sentiment more game developers should share.

Indeed, challenging the player from the get-go with actual problems might not be fun and require the help of someone who isn’t white, heterosexual, nor a man.

And immediately we descend back into the murk of identity politics. Instead of asking games to address a wider variety of problems, the problems addressed by Spec Ops are simply dismissed as not real, fantastical in the same way that the war in Afghanistan is not real (because it doesn’t directly affect the author) or the hundreds of victims of drones aren’t real (because they’re not transgender women of color). And instead of highlighting the need for diversity, again the emphasis on the cliché Other of the White Heterosexual Man, the bogeyman of cultural studies. This isn’t a cry for equality, it isn’t support for the global struggle for freedom and human rights, it’s just another expression of the typically American (and focused only on America) obsession with identity within capitalism.

Boo-hoo.

When “boo-hoo” excludes millions of people – people of all skin colours and all genders – struggling for their lives, struggling with unimaginable events, struggling for dignity and freedom and justice in a world torn apart by wars and insane economic policies, then “boo-hoo” isn’t good enough.

I’ve seen the country I grew up in, the country I am the most emotionally attached to, rapidly decline into a crisis zone comparable to the Third World, where people die in hospitals because there are no drugs, where malaria is making a comeback, where people kill themselves because they don’t want to live off garbage. I’ve seen the streets of my youth turned into the playground of state-supported neonazis, where dissenters are beaten to a pulp by riot police. I’ve seen a “government of national unity” imposed without elections, and in “real” elections I have seen the people threatened by foreign governments, told that they will be punished if they should choose to vote for anyone but the same old corrupt oligarchs. I’ve seen my parents suffer and lose what little security they had managed to accumulate over decades of hard, badly-paid work. And my grandparents, the ones I grew up with? Fought in the Resistance, fought in the Civil War. My grandfather was tortured for his views and physically damaged for life, my grandmother was a refugee from the Pontic genocide. Oppression is not a foreign concept to us.

I’ve experienced racism, both subtle and overt, because of my appearance and my name. In everyday life, I’m confronted with racism all the time – on the train, at the dentist’s, just walking down the street. People come to my site looking for ways to “kill the Greeks”. I’ve gotten hatemail and threats. I’ve been sneered at. I’ve had Germans, in random conversations on Facebook, suddenly attack me or others for “owing them money”. People make a point of mentioning Greece when they talk to me, in an expectant tone that implies that I need to apologize for something. The German media and the German government have done nothing but present Greeks as lazy, corrupt thieves, and more than enough people in Germany have fallen for it.

It would be easy, in the face of all this, to turn to nationalism, to denounce non-Greeks, to demand the Greek minority in Germany be given more of a voice; to see the crisis of capitalism in terms of Greece. But to do so, no matter how tempting it might be emotionally, would be catastrophic; the problems faced by Greece are international and systemic, and there is no solution to be found within the narrow confines of nationalism. The only hope there is for ending the violence, both literal and economic, is to recognize that everyone – including the Germans – is oppressed by this system. The struggle in Greece is the struggle in Egypt is the struggle in Ecuador is the struggle in the United States. Even the ruling elite is not stereotypical; there are no Others.

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29 Comments

  1. You know, I’m one of those “privileged” straight white males (and apparently better off than many people in the West), and just for once I’d like to hear someone articulate how exactly I am to blame for the status quo, or what I could do to change it. But all I hear is how (boo-hoo) I can’t possibly understand what discrimination is like. Oh? Because I’m dumb or something?

    And yes, as a friend pointed out, the very concept of “first world problems” is dangerous, because it implies that those problems are somehow not real.

    Ultimately, I think the problem is that yes, most people have zero personal experience with violence… and nearly everything else. It’s all too easy to dismiss things as unreal when your only experience with them is (shameless plug) via the media.

  2. Jonas, thank you for so clearly and forcefully articulating this. This article boils down to nothing more than a “who has it harder” competition, and that game is bullshit.

  3. Sorry, by “this article” I of course meant “Brice’s article.”

  4. René

     /  January 18, 2013

    You articulated all the reasons why that essay disturbed me.

  5. Fantastic! Seeing the good in ‘Kindly’ as well as the bad, and expressing it eloquently and with some real thought put into your explication/analysis. It’s unfortunate that this kind of response is rare in our circles.

    A great read.

  6. ok, I think I found a few inflection points here where my reading of Mattie’s piece was just exceptionally different from yours.
    “Military shooters contain fantastical depictions of wars that are very, very real,” – Yes. Ok. And they are SO fantastical that they are a common past time for soldiers serving in actual wars! They are completely DISconnected from any sort of reality about war. This is Mattie’s actual critique (as I read it)

    “and if Spec Ops: The Line seeks to criticize the glorification of these wars in videogames” – IF is key here. Mattie’s argument is that it CAN’T criticize the glorification of these wars. It might try to, but it falls flat on its face for the reasons Mattie articulates: the actual moral correct thing to do is to “turn the game off”, to opt out – but as you point out, people in ACTUAL wars can’t do this.

    I think the key here is you are reading Mattie a bit too literally. The point she makes isn’t that the problems Mattie has are directly analogous to war, it’s that she is un-privileged in some aspects. The problem she has with Spec Ops isn’t that war is unimportant, it’s that it’s a privileged view of war and it’s critique is similarly privileged (predicated on turning off the game, opting out)

    “suggest that there is, in fact, no reward except horror and madness?” – well I think the 30gamerscore achievements that pop might undermine your point here. The act of buying and consuming and finishing a video game is in fact a reward to some players! It’s entirely possible to play spec ops as a straightforward military shooter, which is a criticism many, many people have made of it

    and on a more unrelated note:
    “we don’t have an industry of games for men, we have an industry of games for slaves” I think if you look at all the fridged sexy women in games like Shadows of the Damned you can reasonably conclude we have a games industry for straight men, yes.

    “Dismissing a shooting spree as “rare” (actually shockingly common in the US as compared to the rest of the world)”
    – yes, but a shooting spree is a rare cause of gun deaths in the US

    “and making a point of the fact that the victims were predominantly white (as if that makes them more deserving of death or less deserving of justice)”
    mattie is hardly the first person to note that the victims were white or that comments immediately following the shootings – “we never expected this to happen in a neighborhood like this” – carry some additional weight. Saying Mattie implies children are undeserving of justice is an extremely unkind interpretation in my opinion.

    “asking instead for a focus on the hyperspecific group of people the author belongs to (not just transgender individuals, or transgender women, but transgender women of color)”
    again, I think this is an overly literal reading – the point is that violence against privileged people gets the VP to haul ass to find a solution, where unprivileged victims often never even see an attempt made at finding a perpetrator

    “problems addressed by Spec Ops are simply dismissed as not real” well, because they aren’t, except on the most surface level (war exists, WP exists). Batallions don’t disappear in the desert. Spec Ops doesn’t address drones or abu gharib or what Israel did in a war a few years ago. It just makes up some contrived situation and forces the player into it. That’s the core of Mattie’s critique, and I think you got something else entirely out of Spec Ops (which, fine!) and that’s why you get such a different message from Mattie.

  7. StranaMente

     /  January 19, 2013

    I agree with all the points raised in this post, as I was struggling to focus what I felt wrong in the original piece.

    Trying to keep the focus on games, I will say that I think that Spec Ops is to be lauded for what it is and what it aimed to do, and not condemned for what is not or what it doesn’t tried to do.
    Spec Ops tried to tackle the problem of violence, war, warcrimes, and conflict between player agency and ethics. It’s also a somewhat clever metacritique of violent games.
    It did it so in many ways, subtle and overt, from the ever slightly shifting tone of the characters’ barks and gameplay mechanics to the overall plot.
    The game’s aim was to criticize war, the so called “peace keeping” missions.
    It’s debatable in which measure the devs accomplished such endeavour, if the game really managed to address those problems properly or not.

    The game, though, never tried to expose the problems of transgender individuals, and it shouldn’t receive criticism for not doing something it never aimed to do.
    It’s like pointing out that Dys4ia or Mainichi fail to address the problem of economics crysis or slavery.

    It’s evident that any one work of art can not address every problem of everybody.

    What the developers of Spec Ops, Yager, did was bold in an industry dominated by the glorification of soldiers and wars.

    Mattie is completely right to pretend the game developers to be more open to diversity, to be inclusive and to aknowledge the minorities. But this game is truely a baby step in that direction, and should not be dismissed this easily.
    I think it should instead be appreciated for at least try to break the mould.

    It’s right to raise the awareness, to make this complaint, to discuss of these problems, but I think the game chosen to discuss these issues is the wrong one.

  8. Jonas, I think you’re usually quite alert in terms of politics, but I believe you missed the mark here… I hope you can take the time to analyze if there was something more that annoyed or disturbed you in Mattie’s (flawed but fascinating) article. She talks about video game war as a construct that has little to do with the real-world violence gamers (even straight white male gamers) will ever experience. She talks about violence, but you reduce it to “injustice”. She’s not talking about getting cat-called in the street, she’s writing about the fear for her own life – actual fear, based on actual, disproportionate, statistics. How can that be unclear?

    The concept of “privilege” (like “oppression” and “to obey”) is part of a wider feminist discourse, and must be read in those terms, not literally. When you talk about “the system”, there’s a deeper theory at work behind those words… I’m Latin American, and I wouldn’t even begin to talk about the last fifty years of American interventionism with someone who doesn’t know what I mean exactly by using that word.

    I think that the final, personal words in your article begin to sketch an idea that has little to do with Mattie’s article. I hope you go beyond the understandable present need to defend these words and elaborate on the idea of struggle – another concept that hero-worshiping videogames have a hard time expressing.

  9. lany

     /  January 19, 2013

    as i am a trans woman i found this hard to read…. becoz i actually agree with it and i need to think about how i have use gender/race categories :/

  10. slimepolitik

     /  January 19, 2013

    “My grandfather was tortured for his views and physically damaged for life, my grandmother was a refugee from the Pontic genocide. Oppression is not a foreign concept to us.”

    this is too personl plz Jonas stik to gaesm

    “I’ve experienced racism, both subtle and overt, because of my appearance and my name. In everyday life, I’m confronted with racism all the time – on the train, at the dentist’s, just walking down the street.”

    wat i do not gettit how is this about GAMES Jonas? I cam her for gaems

  11. I’m a feminist. I don’t know if that makes me into an enemy of transexual people now after so many public fights but in my academic time this is what many of us argued about, that we have to take a international transgender perspective not get trapped. I don’t agree 100% with all you say but I understand your perspective as a comrade (Marxist)

  12. Riask

     /  January 19, 2013

    Your points are sprawling and in breaking down the original text it diverges in seemingly a load of different direction. I really have to ask: What is your point?

    While wars are definitely real things happening, to the vast majority of gamers taking part they are so far removed they might as well not be. Wars happening in far away and fought by people who only exist on TV really hold no significance to my life in any way and as such is not really a subject relevant to me in any way in a video game.

    In turn, a game about games is thus even less relevant. It is interesting in that it is a game willing to discuss itself, but for the large part of the audience, especially when you include people outside the US, Spec Ops: The Line does not really discuss anything relating to reality.

    It is good that you are disturbed by the idea that killing is for boys, but it is not Mattie Brice’s article that should disturb you, but rather the reality we live in.

    Of course not all white men are rich, but the world we live in is one where we either obey the role given to us, or we pay the price.

    How does that relate to Spec Ops? Not at all, because the only thing in my life Spec Ops relates to is other games.

  13. Jonas, I think that this article is projecting many of the issues raised onto the original when they are not actually there. I think the simplistic “enemy,” the zero-sum “my issues are important and your issues are not” game, the false dichotomies that you are responding to misses the point of Mattie’s article by a wide margin.

    Intersectionality is kind of an old topic in feminism, the idea that there are many different axes of oppression that intersect with one another in the overall system. When feminist followers of Janice Raymond’s ideas enact transphobic spaces, the trans women who fight against this – who must fight against this, because they don’t have the privilege of just going along with it and not raising a fuss – are not setting up all of feminism as “the enemy” or denying the oppression of women, they are fighting for their very existence. When Mattie talks about why she feels that her struggle is unrepresented, she is not obviating the struggle of all straight white males everywhere, nor holding up anyone who is black, or a woman, or trans as the image of perfection that can never hurt anyone. That we can be both victims and agents of oppression along different vectors is, it seems to me, a simple and obvious truth and I think Mattie’s article was written with that knowledge firmly in mind.

  14. When Mattie talks about why she feels that her struggle is unrepresented, she is not obviating the struggle of all straight white males everywhere, nor holding up anyone who is black, or a woman, or trans as the image of perfection that can never hurt anyone. That we can be both victims and agents of oppression along different vectors is, it seems to me, a simple and obvious truth and I think Mattie’s article was written with that knowledge firmly in mind.

    I wish I could agree with that. I’ve read the article again to see if I’ve misunderstood the text, but all the sexual/racial generalisations, all the dismissals are still there.

    I don’t think that the things I criticize are actually Mattie Brice’s point, I think they are what almost inevitably follows from the logic of identity politics.

  15. While wars are definitely real things happening, to the vast majority of gamers taking part they are so far removed they might as well not be. Wars happening in far away and fought by people who only exist on TV really hold no significance to my life in any way and as such is not really a subject relevant to me in any way in a video game.

    I think that is frighteningly myopic, given that wars are fought with our money by our governments using soldiers who are part of our society (a huge part in the United States). Even here in Germany, even before Germany started sending soldiers, the people who got sent to be tortured passed through Frankfurt Airport only a few kilometres away. We are surrounded by wars.

    As for videogames, the existence of games like America’s Army and the cooperation between military shooters and the weapons industry is a good example of the role games play in recruitment and propaganda. To speak back to them at that level, then, could be highly valuable.

  16. She talks about violence, but you reduce it to “injustice”. She’s not talking about getting cat-called in the street, she’s writing about the fear for her own life – actual fear, based on actual, disproportionate, statistics. How can that be unclear?

    I didn’t reduce it, I responded clearly to the words that she wrote – that’s why I quoted the entire article in bits and pieces. And I pointed out that that fear shouldn’t be depicted as “superior” to issues like the horrors of white phosphorus – not because her fear isn’t awful and shocking, but because, as Eric said, the “who has it harder” competition is bullshit. There is no need to dismiss such an important issue as war simply because you deem it irrelevant to your personal life. By the same standards I could say that the problems of trans people are irrelevant to me, which is actually what a lot of people immediately assumed that I did, because that’s the logic they operate by: you only get to talk about or be interested in this tiny slice of reality that your group inhabits.

    The concept of “privilege” (like “oppression” and “to obey”) is part of a wider feminist discourse, and must be read in those terms, not literally.

    Still doesn’t justify it being used to make sweeping generalizations that completely mask the way discrimination operates in society.

  17. I think if you look at all the fridged sexy women in games like Shadows of the Damned you can reasonably conclude we have a games industry for straight men, yes.

    That would imply that straight men are inherently sexist quasi-rapists. “Upholding gender stereotypes” is not the same as “straight”.

    Batallions don’t disappear in the desert. Spec Ops doesn’t address drones or abu gharib or what Israel did in a war a few years ago. It just makes up some contrived situation and forces the player into it. That’s the core of Mattie’s critique, and I think you got something else entirely out of Spec Ops (which, fine!) and that’s why you get such a different message from Mattie.

    Does that mean that Apocalypse Now isn’t relevant to Vietnam because there was no Colonel Kurtz? If Spec Ops uses (or rather subverts) the language of games, isn’t that entirely the point? And isn’t attacking it for not being Mainichi and thus completely and utterly irrelevant to the author, because we can never ever experience or understand anything beyond ourselves, somewhat unfair?

  18. just for once I’d like to hear someone articulate how exactly I am to blame for the status quo, or what I could do to change it.

    You are certainly not to blame for it, since it is systemic in nature. But you can do a lot to change it – not on your own, but as part of the overall struggle.

  19. What neither you nor Mattie can see is that in fact, Spec Ops is not a war game – it’s about the soldier’s mindset, about the act of killing, but in a philosophical dimension that’s not far separated from a thought experiment. A war is a politically charged conflict, and Spec Ops, like Heart of Darkness, is a boys’ adventure – a superhero tale. A deep, beautiful, smart one, but not a game that explores real-world violence, or real-world war. It’s about Americans shooting Americans, and the “middle eastern” mute survivors we are supposed to feel guilt for killing are as dehumanized as the enemies in Call of Duty. Are these people from Dubai? Why are they dressed like Iraqi peasants and behave like “noble savages”?

    You mention Apocalypse Now, and it’s a telling comparison: it’s an adaptation of the same book, but Coppola decides to set it in a real war scenario, painting american soldiers as psychopaths, not tragic insane heroes. There’s no Kilgore in Conrad’s book or in Yager’s game. There’s a political dimension that Spec Ops simply does not have.

    You talk about war as if it was a tragedy (and from your point of view it might be, you never profited from one), but the British and American boys who buy these games actually think that war is a wonderful thing. How could they not? Both american political parties are deeply invested in a ten-year war that’s (from their point of view) economically and politically sound.

    Americans know, whether they like it or not, that their well-being is built on military success and the death of foreigners. The oppressor benefits from war – I can’t think of one game set in an actual war, with actual american soldiers that isn’t pro-war, pro-soldiers, pro-death.

    You are an informed man, Jonas, and you know that there are subjects where it’s best to tread lightly. The trans community is incendiary in its defensiveness, because there is an actual campaign to destroy it, to deny its very existence. Julie Burchill’s disgraceful column exposed what many (left-leaning, feminist) people actually think behind closed doors, and in its context, your well-meaning article reads in a different light.

    Left-leaning Latin Americans don’t usually talk or write about Cuba. The reports of human rights violations are a concern in many ways, but we KNOW that everything we may put in words adds fuel to the fire of the enormous international community that wishes to destroy everything that the country stands for. We can write, but we have to be very careful because (as Porpentine wrote yesterday) something is very wrong when the men and women who want the trans community to die agree with you (of course, this DOES NOT mean that agreeing with you and hating trans people are the same thing!).

    I think there are a lot of holes in Mattie’s argument. Like my awkwardly worded comments, it’s not a “well written” article, but her point is actually very clear: games that purport to be about violence have nothing to do with the violence we face daily. The most violent cinema or literature (Funny Games, Last Exit to Brooklyn, A Serbian Film, Irreversible, 2666) deals with everyday violence, the actual fear of death that Mattie (I think, bravely) writes of in her flawed and beautiful words. She’s not saying that the oppression of other people’s oppression doesn’t matter – she’s saying that those games don’t speak of oppression but of an abstract idea of violence. You know why? Because the games are not made by the oppressed but by the oppressor.

  20. In the last paragraph I mean, of course “She’s not saying that the oppression of other people doesn’t matter”.

  21. You are an informed man, Jonas, and you know that there are subjects where it’s best to tread lightly. The trans community is incendiary in its defensiveness, because there is an actual campaign to destroy it, to deny its very existence. Julie Burchill’s disgraceful column exposed what many (left-leaning, feminist) people actually think behind closed doors, and in its context, your well-meaning article reads in a different light.

    The controversy surrounding Burchill’s article (the events and discussions that caused it and followed it) are the perfect demonstration of the self-destructive hopelessness of identity politics.

    There is also an active campaign to destroy Greece, one that I’ve felt on a very personal level, but that doesn’t mean I am willing to support nationalist forms of thought that stereotype and dismiss “privileged foreigners” as some great homogenous mass.

  22. I see your point – and agree with it to some extent, though I don’t think that to tread lightly is to support. I still think that pointing out these issues in the context of Mattie’s article may have been a mistake… her piece is very personal, seething with anger, fear, and a particularly rigid worldview – which, like nationalism, is a necessary evil for the oppressed. The points she makes are worth discussing, even if you don’t agree with the rationale behind them.

    I hope you write about the community’s reaction to this response, without the unstable crutch of an ideologically muddled video game. This was the beginning of a fascinating conversation, and you were brave enough to write it knowing that you had a lot to lose by clashing with people that you love and respect. Please follow through.

  23. which, like nationalism, is a necessary evil for the oppressed

    See, that’s the crux of our disagreement – I think nationalism is what gives the oppressed false solutions. It replaces the oppressor who looks different with one who looks the same. That’s why I felt compelled to write something, even though I knew people would be massively pissed off.

  24. It’s a fair point. I think nationalism doesn’t imply chauvinism, and maybe (as a Marxist) I oppose it to individualism. A community has to agree to a shared worldview, and speak in that context, at least externally.

    The difference is, we can discuss it in pure ideological terms because, to us, it’s not a matter of life and death. That’s what I mean by treading lightly… the trans community reacts that way for the same reason that persecuted cultures always do – to protect their own from an external enemy that wishes them dead. Maybe their reactions will be more restrained when (if) life is not at stake anymore.

  25. The difference is, we can discuss it in pure ideological terms because, to us, it’s not a matter of life and death. That’s what I mean by treading lightly… the trans community reacts that way for the same reason that persecuted cultures always do – to protect their own from an external enemy that wishes them dead. Maybe their reactions will be more restrained when (if) life is not at stake anymore.

    To me it is a matter of whether my parents will still have a roof over their heads next month, whether my friends will have food to put on their tables, whether I will have a home to ever go back to. People are dying in Greece every day – stabbed by neonazis, murdered by the police, or taking their own lives. In Germany there was a wave of murders of Turkish and Greek people (dismissed as the Döner murders, the victims derided as criminals simply because of their ethnic origins) that in all likelihood involved the German secret service.

    See, we can play this game of “who has it worse” forever, and no-one will win, because it’s a bullshit game, and it’s never an excuse for more stereotyping.

  26. I think it’s your anger and frustration talking in that last post, because that reads as Marxist as Ayn Rand.

    You tell me that even though you consider your own struggle a matter of life and death, you still want to discuss it through dialectics. Philosophy and politics are different things. Ideology (thankfully) doesn’t follow a clear rational path, and trying to put another culture’s “struggle” in the abstract is, at the very least, callous.

  27. I think it’s your anger and frustration talking in that last post, because that reads as Marxist as Ayn Rand.

    What? I honestly don’t know where you’re coming from with that comment.

    I’m describing a bad situation that could easily lead someone to stereotyping some kind of vague enemy (it’s tempting, emotionally), like “the white privileged male” or “the Europeans” or “the Germans”. And I’m saying that’s not a good idea, because we are all oppressed by the currently existing system, and the only solution lies in breaking down those categories.

    The fight against nationalism is also the fight against sexism and racism – and even those who are oppressed are capable of perpetuating such systems of thought, because the system actually encourages them to do so. Identity politics uphold capitalism.

  28. I didn’t want to question your view on identity until you made your point clearer, but your reasoning in these last posts inches worryingly close to the objectivist view on nationalism, which Rand defined as the “mystic-altruist-collectivist axis”.

    You’re describing the situation that leads many of your compatriots to turn to nationalism – but I would call that chauvinism, or jingoism. A desperate delusion, not a national identity. That’s fascism by a different name, a distinction that Rand also failed to make, saying that nationalism, patriotism and jingoism were the same thing.

    Maybe bringing up Ayn fucking Rand is a little harsh (she’s a step behind Hitler in forum flame bait), but after all, her guiding principle was “reason”, and I think your pursuit of a logical argument is clouding your political views, which tend not to be guided by dialectics but shaped by facts, observation, and experience. Arguments and ideas are not the same thing.

    The more I read, the more that your argument seems to suggest that the true oppressor lies within the oppressed, and that the struggle is philosophical and not political. That this “mindset” of identity is the true culprit of the cultural hegemony.

    Speaking from my own experience, I’m lucky enough to have lived an uninterrupted 10 years of socialist government, 6 in Argentina, 4 in Ecuador… both fiercely nationalistic cultures, or patriotic, or whatever you may call them. Socialism thrives in strong, proud communities that had to define an identity after centuries of oppression and the systematic demolition of their culture – Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil. Unless you don’t consider post-Dieterich socialism “actual” socialism.

    And maybe in your case you can talk about vague enemies, but that was not the case in my experience and (I believe) that’s not the case in Mattie’s experience. Privilege (not “the white privileged male”) is the enemy, and until the ones that benefit from it decide to put their interests aside (a profoundly illogical thing to do), the system will go on undisturbed. This currently existing system that you speak of is upheld by very real institutions, countries, corporations and complexes, many of which we may be a part of.

    I feel that you are (understandably) on the defensive, but I think that you are open-minded enough to consider that your theory of identity politics may apply to your own personal experience and not to Mattie’s or mine.

  29. Decoy Octopus

     /  January 21, 2013

    Totally agree with your criticisms of the original piece, but yours would have been stronger if you stuck to incising not identity politics, but the actual fact that Mattie’s piece fails to strongly connect her personal narrative to any clear argument on games. We appreciate and value hearing her story, but I also don’t understand where she means to go with it. What is she saying about satire? What games had the aim she described, and where did they fail? She needs to better connect why the state of how games deal with social issues reminds her of her identity challenge and love life. I adore the gal but I didn’t get it, either.

    I don’t necessarily hate so-called confessional writing, so long as I like the writer. And given that the gaming space has hardly had a plenitude of formerly-underrepresented people being honest and heard I am in zero hurry to sit up and go “BUT WHAT IS YOUR POINT” or “BUT WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH GAMES.” Note that there are a ton of verbose confessionals sprawling around from people writing about their kids, dead parents, traumatic childhoods and sex lives with tenable value to the critical conversation and yet it’s often Mattie’s that draw these complaints. I’m not so sure people are as comfortable with her story as they say.

    NONETHELESS, I do read a lot of writing these days from people who are guttingly personal in what I agree with you is an attempt to elevate their writing and ensure they are widely praised for their bravery.

    Maybe they just want to ensure they are heard and accepted and are using writing to do it, versus being particularly wise about games. That’s okay too.

    But I think most of these writers want to make important contributions to the gaming conversation, and as such I think it’s okay to critique the work in this way – just keep to pointing out where analogies don’t work and where you feel someone hasn’t made their point (or any point). Debating someone’s subjective views of their experience isn’t going to help them become a better writer.

    Neither, of course, is assuming their considerable bravery and honesty accords them complete immunity from criticism. I think Mattie would never intentionally seek that, and the attention and time you accorded her piece shows respect. And any writer who refuses to entertain conversation about their work or that of others may reveal themselves to be just attention-seeking after all.

    But yeah – these comments should be about constructive feedback for storytelling and different approaches to games criticism. That they’re about privilege and perspective is interesting, but yeah. Games, sometimes.