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.
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.