I'm a former 1up.com blogger and have moved over here since the site was declared legally deceased. I've always enjoyed the reviews and features Destructoid has offered so I've moved my blog over here. I write about various topics, both personal and topical and how videogames relate. Hope you enjoy. I also tweet bitter and cynical musings.
There's a growing threat on the horizon, and recent events have made it all the more apparent. I'm not talking about DLC, Freemium or anything like that. This has to do with the future of videogames as a both a hobby and a cultural presence. There's a lot of text ahead. I implore you, stay awhile and listen.
The largest problem facing video game culture, as well as nerds, geeks, or whatever tag you prefer is a looming threat of exclusion. From game content and design to social celebrations of the medium, the situation is demanding attention. The most recent example were the comments made by Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade regarding the decision to pull Dickwolf merchandise from PAX Prime. He said that he regretted the decision, which drew outrage from many because the merchandise had originally been pulled because it made some fans uncomfortable. Regardless of what you think of the joke (The actual joke was the insensitivity of the RPG heroes, but PA latched on to the wrong part of it) or that humor should be all or nothing (It should) or that the rape joke was tasteless (Not funny and tasteless) the real problem with the statement is that it declares that Krahulik has no interest in all his fans being comfortable at the expo they helped create.
The joke is not at the heart of the issue here. It has nothing to do with the discussion. Throw it in the gutter where terrible jokes belong. The problem is that Penny Arcade did not apologize for the joke, recognize the mistake and leave it alone. Instead, this tasteless side joke became a disturbed banner and undying presence. Krahulik continued to latch onto the dickwolves concept for whatever bizarre reasons in defiance to the lamentations of many fans. The fact is Krahulik's lament is more or less a statement that he would prefer the chance to sell some merchandise as to ensuring that all of the show attendees feel comfortable. This is coming from someone that claims to champion board games, video games, and the other passions of geek culture. As annoying as the label is, geek culture is a thing that spawned from passionate fans of pastimes that were rejected by the mainstream. I can absolutely speak to being that "weird kid that plays video games." Hell, I still do on my lunch breaks at work while the other people are socializing. Video games, comic books, tabletop RPGs and anime were long the refuge of the ostracized. These hobbies were the cause of many folks being excluded from various social circles where they were made unwelcome through direct and indirect means. Geek culture owes its existence to finding like minded individuals who loved the same things, and found inclusion with those who enjoyed the ostracized hobbies.
Have you ever experienced that discomfort at trying to be part of a group that rejects you because of who you are, or is willing to make you feel out of place and uncomfortable, even though you would really like to be a part? Have you ever experienced something that brought back memories of the worst times in your life while others around you laughed it off? I feel this way when I watch TV shows or consume other media that makes light of having cancer. I lost a dear friend to it in a process that was so painful and emotional that I simply have no tolerance for jokes on that subject because it reminds me of the unhappiest days of my life. I recognize that those jokes should not be off limits, but any creator who wants to employ cancer as a laugh button is directly choosing to exclude me and others like me from their audience. Is it worth it, when there is so much more widely accessible subject matter for great jokes? If you want to see a gag about the hilarious insensitivity of RPG heroes, there are dozens of other brilliant, unoffensive takes on the idea out there.One joke is not worth making others feel terrible about their pasts, especially when those people want to be your fans or part of the same culture.
There is almost undoubtedly a subject out there that makes each and every one of us feel uncomfortable, scared, afraid, or ashamed. Everyone that is a part of geek culture has likely been rejected somewhere, somehow because of who they are, and we are our pasts. I wonder if everyone reading this has their own subject that makes them recoil from things they might otherwise enjoy? If so, why would you ever think to impose that same anxiety, discomfort, fear and rejection on people who want to enjoy the same hobbies you do? Why would you reject a fan for the sake of a laugh? If you do this, congratulations are in order, you have become everything you hate!
You are problem!
There is no justifiable reason to exclude someone from a hobby because they do not share traits that are irrelevant to said hobby. Your sense of humor should have nothing to do with other people sharing your love of video games. They may not like the same games you do, or as much as you do, but we have nothing to gain from this exclusionary behavior and everything to lose. That's less customers to support an industry that is struggling through a serious identity crisis right now. That's less potential opponents for competitive multiplayer, and less potential allies for competitive and cooperative games alike. That's less developers who will have new and original ideas to invent genres and concepts we have yet to see. There are absolutely no negatives to having videogames be both a more accessible pastime and industry for all, regardless of identity and personal history. This issue crosses over into far more areas than a demographic that does not like rape jokes, at this moment it is the largest hurdle that video games have to contend. We have seen the different faces of this issue rise across the spectrum of the pastime.
Tropes against Women in video games is highlighting a symptom of this exclusion, that not all groups are equally represented in the content of videogames. This is no surprise given that the audience has yet to fully open its own borders because it was built on those finding their own cultural identity and safe haven. There is a bizzare elitism which seeks to use any and all weapons available to keep videogames from growing its audience, something the medium needs to survive. Many fans of videogames have become bizzare, rabid creatures that seek to maintain some insane sort of deluded purity about who should be allowed to play video games and this insipid hatred shows up in every discussion that should be a legitimate exchange and instantly poisons both sides. What should have been an open discussion over the art designs in Dragon's Crown and how that was innately limiting the audience due to design choices instead turned into an internet flame war where even the enthusiast press and other game studios were slinging inane remarks at one another in a bluster war that made no sense and accomplished absolutely nothing.
Instead, we should have just realized that "This game has that. I wanted to play it, but don't like that. Maybe I should nicely tell the creator that I wanted to like that game, but I can't because X. Maybe next time Game 2 could not have X?" This entire argument and related debates are all part of the same overall issue as the dickwolves fiasco. We are back to a lack of inclusion, and that is what will hold videogames, comic books, and everything else back until we, as the fans and consumers encourage all facets to be more inclusive. We love our hobbies, but we should endeavor to make them more accessible to others, rather than hide them away from natural light like a room of creepy dolls.
Perspective is everything when it comes to inclusion, and I have learned this over the past few years in an extremely eye opening way. I started dating a wonderful woman four years ago, and we were married a year ago this coming weekend. We have fully inducted each other into our hobbies and they are now things we share together, and watching her grow to love videogames has really been a treat for me, but has also opened my eyes to excluding nature of a very disturbed segment of videogame players. I have seen other players in MMOs harass her or stalk her character disregarding the fact I play all of these games with her. I have seen the inane taunting and derogatory comments in competitive multiplayer trying to force her out of the hobby. Nothing opens your eyes up to a problem like seeing someone that you care for deeply suffer from it. At the same time, I realize that it is not something we can change overnight. I still use words and phrases I shouldn't, learned from a lifetime of 'gamer' culture, but I am working at banishing them from my vocabulary. I am trying to take more time in buying titles that are open to both of us, and look for experiences that actively encourage us both to play how we want. It has come to define the value I can find in a new game.
This entire prospect also highlights one simple truth that we should all take to heart. In a big way, videogames started as a hobby for those who rejected or were rejected by mainstream culture in their own way and identified as nerds or other such labels, and were often bullied for merely being passionate about a love for video games. I know I was bullied for it, growing up. Dodging monsters and traps doesn't translate to dodging fists. That is why we, the consumers of videogames, comic books, movies, tabletop games and all the other such hobbies need to be better than those that ostracized us. Social games, mobile games, MMOs and the Marvel movies have opened up our pastimes to new audiences and we need to encourage them to join us. We need to think before prioritizing cheap cash in jokes and divisive decisions over growing a greater audience. We need to open our doors and let everyone in to enjoy that which we know to be the one pastime to rule them all.
TL;DR - The wall of text says cheap jokes that hurt people aren't worth it, neither are exclusionary game design decisions or art styles. Let's be civil, let everyone enjoy videogames and be excellent to each other. And I love my wife.
This is a copypasta from my old blog on 1up.com. It was the first I ever wrote and remains the most important as well. Today marks the seventh year since I lost my closest friend in the world, and the subject of this blog. As I now write occasionally here on Destructoid, it feels like this piece should exist here as well. As ever, thank you for reading.
Living in this day and age tends to burden our lives with a lot of questions, many of which will go unanswered. Yet we will sometimes find answers to mysteries we would never have solved on our own in the most unique, but fascinating ways. Sometimes these moments come from others, words of wisdom, movies, books or art. I had one such connection from a video game.
That game was Persona 3 Portable.
For those of you familiar with the game, I'm sure you are wondering what I learned that was such a revelation. For those unfamiliar, Persona 3 Portable is a remake of Persona 3 that streamlined some features and added a playable female protagonist. It is a game about a Japanese teenager who moves to town and quickly becomes the center of a supernatural story that holds the entire world in the balance. Well written, with an extremely strong emphasis on characterization, Persona 3 devotes a large amount of game play to building meaningful relationships with a well realized cast of characters. The well loved cast start as cliched tropes of the JRPG genre, but quickly become personalities all their own fleshed out with solid voice acting and a battle system that is empowered by the strength of the social bonds that you develop throughout the game. The metaphor here is plain and clear, but still a strong message on the power of friendship, and how the support of others is what helps us to be at our very best. While the story deals with a host of macabre and supernatural elements, building real bonds with the characters that inhabit the world gives the task of saving the universe a stronger weight than most. It really feels as though there is more at stake than simply your party members. All the characters that you have come to know far beyond your playable party members now feel like potential casualties. The conflict has a bit more weight than your typical RPG finale because of those lives in tow, because of the time you've taken to know those characters. You are fighting for your friends.
Spoilers follow, so you have been warned.
The epilogue for Persona 3 portable is one of the most fulfilling among any video game I have ever played, in that the player is given a chance to explore the world in the wake of all their actions in the story. All those characters that you took time to form bonds with and to help turn their lives around, are now living a happier, more meaningful existence. From helping an elderly couple find peace with the death of their son and his memory, to establishing an up and coming young food critic each bond you took the time to shape is shown changed and reformed. The world is a better place because of the time you spent in it, talking to all those who live there. There is a feeling of satisfaction that no matter what may happen, everything will be okay. It is a strong feeling of peace and serenity. There is satisfaction that though the story is over, everything will end well. Everyone will be all right.
And then you die. Your character has made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that life goes on, unbeknownst to you that you have been doomed since the final boss was defeated. Your character sacrificed their own soul to keep the end of the world at bay. For some this was a moment of anger, and for others a moment of sorrow. For still others it may have been a predictable moment and filled with apathy.
For me, it was a deeply emotional epiphany.
Six years ago the closest friend I had in all the world passed away. He died of a rare cancer growing out of the optic nerve and brain that he had been fighting for four long years. Like all those we lose to the myriad of diseases that we call cancer, it was a painful battle that took a toll on all those who cared about Nate. All the promises of a bright future fresh out of high school, all the life moments waiting down the road were suddenly doors that were slammed shut. While loss is something that we all struggle to cope with, it is particularly wounding when it comes at the cost of so many years yet lived, and so many dreams not yet realized. I watched as the bravest person I had ever known somehow managed to keep smiling in the face of a grim and painful death. He managed to retain his cheer and kept a smile on his face in spite of it all. He was never concerned for himself, only for the pain that his loved ones were suffering while watching him slowly fade away. He was never concerned with being missed, only that we would lose ourselves in the wake of the day he died. Nate was looking after all those who were supposed to be looking after him.
I can remember sitting in his bedroom while he was under hospice care after he had lost his sight. I can still remember him smiling, even as we both knew that his death was coming soon, that he was on his final days. I could never understand how he could still manage to smile after the painful fate that he had been dealt. I felt it was some kind of cruel injustice on the part of fate, god, or whatever other force kept the universe running. He was closer to me than a brother, and the bond I felt was the strongest I have ever felt for a friend in my life, and I was having to sit here and watch him die. All the while having him tell me that it would be okay, that everything would be all right. It was an impossible thing for me to believe. I was watching the person who had pulled me out of a trashcan, fist fights, bad grades, emotional ruin, and countless other struggles tell me I would be fine, while I couldn't tell him I believed it. It was a moment of utter helplessness, depression and sadness. It was also the last time I saw him alive. His father told me that he died with a smile on his face, telling his parents that it would be okay. I used to wonder if it was faith or delusion and it was something I struggled with for years. I didn't feel like smiling, I felt pain and sorrow at every memory. My life nearly fell apart in his absence, and I couldn't find the words to tell myself it would ever be the same.
Six years later, it's very different. I now live in my own apartment with my fantastic wife, we have an adorable cat and a life of our own. I have incredible friends who stood by me through my darkest moments and greatest fears. Through the strength and support of my friends and my wonderful wife to be, I've been able to find the road that leads ahead. There is life after loss, though it is certainly a very different life from the one I had imagined years ago. Everything is better now, and true to Nate's words, I'm doing well, and everything has turned out all right.
What does this have to do with Persona 3 though?
The entire premise of the ending is a feeling of departure. Throughout the epilogue, the protagonist is tired, world weary, and feels ready to sleep and move on. Much like we as players are going to depart the world that the narrative took us through, the protagonist fades from existence in the aftermath of their tale being told. The game fades to white as the character you developed a bond of love with holds you in their arms and thanks you for everything you have done. The world washes to white after you find out that everyone will be safe, and that everything will work out for the characters you have come to know and adore. With that final scene complete, the credits roll and the story is over. Though there was an expansion to Persona 3 it does not continue the story of the character you were, only the battle of your friends. The story of the character you were is over, and though it felt like the character passed on early, it also has a strange feeling of being complete.
The entire epilogue is a sort of montage of the lives that your character has made better, and the friendships forged along the way. Everyone is doing better and their lives are on the right track, their futures are all bright. In that epilogue I found a strange sentiment of truth. It was just the smallest bit of understanding for how Nate might have felt. It opened my mind up to the idea and the very notion of being at peace with death in such a way. A game about Japanese teenagers fighting supernatural monsters in their high school managed to shape a moment of such incredible and brilliant narration that it opened my eyes to the idea that perhaps Nate felt in some small way similar. Perhaps he saw in his friends and family all the love they had felt for him, and in caring for us was able to know that we would be okay without him. Perhaps he was able to die with a smile in much the same way because he knew that those he loved most were all the better prepared for life because they had been a part of his.
How Nate really felt about his death and how he managed to face it will never be something I will be able to entirely understand, but I have a read on it now that I never had before playing a particular video game. That is a true testament to the power of the medium being able to give us an experience that we become a part of. The stories we interact with in a video game have the power to invest us in the story in a way that no other medium can manage. The stories are complete with our interactions and the choices we make. Every character in Persona was a choice I made to find out more about them and help them grow as characters. They may have been friends of my player avatar, but only because I wanted to be friends with them. Those fictional lives were changed because I took part in the narrative and that gave them a meaning that simple observation of another medium never could have. The ending might have worked out, and it might still have been touching to see the protagonist end up with so many friends and changing so many lives, but it never would have felt personal. That feeling of serenity at protecting your friends would be lost.
Knowing for only a moment what it means to die a meaningful death so that all your friends will live happily ever after, is a story that could only have been told by a story in which we ourselves take part. It is a story only able to be told in a video game. Such a story is a sign to me that the hobby we so adore still has so much to teach us. As we grow, so will the medium. Every day it grows with more depth, creativity, meaning and it will become far more than numbers on a scoreboard or flinging birds at pigs. It will become the only true interactive fiction, and that is a day I look forward to.
[SPOILERS. SPOILERS ARE BELOW. GO PLAY THE GAME FIRST. PLEASE, IT DESERVES YOUR TIME.]
After a long few years and three delays, the long awaited release of Bioshock Infinite has come and gone. Critically acclaimed, independently panned, yet apparently generally enjoyed, the game has sparked a debate over its merits and faults that reached all corners of the internet. The inevitable video games-as-art-debate has resurfaced to join the festivities as well as a host of debates over the violence within the game, with no measure of an agreement on any one aspect of the game in sight.
Bioshock Infinite should be praised for sparking debate. Regardless of what you think about the game itself, the debates are an extremely good thing for the gaming industry as a whole. Regardless of what you think of those whom you disagree with, the debates over the merits and faults have gotten those who play games and those who create them to have a candid discussion with one another. The interplay of ideas and opinions is a good thing, and for a game to have sparked this discussion does all the more for showing how our hobby is evolving as a medium. That being said, I wish some of those discussing the game would slow down in their rush to praise or condemn, and kindly think about what they are about to discuss. No viewpoint is outright wrong, but there are a great many that are ignorant or not willing to consider other aspects of the game, and this ignorance holds back the debate as a whole. After reading a host of criticisms and reviews, in a moment of self-importance, I am sharing my own thoughts of the debate and highlighting several things about the game I would love to see others consider. This is my opinion, and only my opinion. I recognize that but I hope it sparks something in anyone reading it, so that they will reconsider the game and all parts of it.
First off, the game is a fictional narrative centered on the theme of choice and the futility of defying fate. Bioshock Infinite’s narrative is not thematically focused on racism, religion, bigotry or class warfare, even though these themes are present in the narrative. It does not try to be a social commentary, and is if anything, a historically flavored first person shooter that uses real historical events with creative license to empower the setting and define the characters. Any game that attempts to set itself in the past should be aware of the historical setting that it attempts to embody, and Infinite does so with grace and wit. While it would have been incredibly interesting for the game to become a discussion of racism, religion and class warfare, I would argue that such a discussion was never the objective of the narrative. Around two thirds of the way through the game, the narrative appears to jump ship on its own story threads in a way that feels very jarring and strange, when in reality we are being reminded of the actual focus of the plot. The story is about Booker, Elizabeth, and how their adventure through Columbia represents their attempt to defy fate. The narrative is also focused on Booker being confronted with the sins of his past, the monster he could have been, and the monster he will always be. It is not a tale of redemption for Booker, whom merely loses the opportunity that creates the plot. This discussion of choice, futility and the burden of our pasts is the true narrative of Infinite. While the plot could have timed a few of the story beats regarding this in a better way, overall the game really delivers on this front. Other story threads are left unexplored such as the story of Songbird, but are resolved by way of the ending even if in an unfulfilling way.
Why then, is there such strong racist imagery? This is to highlight the kind of thought that existed at the time, and to define Comstock through his utopia. The early 1900’s were rife with racial bigotry, and Infinite does not sidestep this reality. Infinite incorporates it into major decisions in Booker’s back story and through one all important moment separates Booker from Comstock through the burden of guilt. Booker staggers away, believing that he has to live with what he has done and struggles with his self-worth the rest of the game. Comstock embraces his past, believing that he has been forgiven for all of his past actions and in his delusional zealotry comes to believe they were never wrongs in the first place. All of Columbia reflects this state of supposed purity while rotting underneath.
Comstock is an illusion of wisdom hiding a brutal extremist, just as his city is an illusion of prosperity that houses every vein of intolerance and suffering. The Hall of Heroes, a segment that has drawn considerable heat from some discussing the game is meant to frame Comstock’s obsession with his own image and complete lack of guilt over his inhuman actions. It is not meant, as some have claimed, to actually cast the victims of the Boxer Rebellion and Wounded Knee Massacre as the aggressors and villains. These segments are so blatant in their use of propaganda techniques that they are not only meant to by the designers to be obviously false (with or without the player understanding the historical context); they are by design supposed to make the player feel repulsed and uncomfortable because such disturbed rationalization of human brutality ever existed and still exists. Each encounter with Comstock’s vision of racial purity is supposed to define Comstock and highlight the different men that Comstock and Booker have become.
There was has also been a lot of exchange in regards to Fitzroy’s revolution, and that it casts the downtrodden and poor as violent anarchists who can only achieve freedom through violence. While the revolution that players progress through is indeed a violent uprising that highlights the barbarism of the Vox Populi, the game itself makes clear that for most of the narrative Elizabeth is able to open portals to dimensions that reflect what she currently hopes for. This plays into Elizabeth calling her power a form of wish fulfillment, as she finds the idea of the Vox overthrowing Comstock to be a romantic ideal which she compares to Les Miserables. It is merely a gateway to a dimension that conforms to what Elizabeth hopes for in which that timeline employs whatever chain of events are necessary to most closely meet her demands. She does not create these dimensions, as the ending makes perfectly clear, but prior to releasing the constraints on her powers, she can only open tears that reflect her current wish. There may exist dimensions where the Vox Populi are able to overthrow Comstock using non-violent means, but given the violent nature of the man himself and the oppressive fist that he uses to control his utopia, the odds are in the favor of a bloody, violent conflict.
This not only plays well in comparing Booker against Comstock whom only solve their problems through violence and force, it showcases another version of Booker who was willing to use the plight of others to achieve his ends, throwing further doubt on the nature of a man who only became a hero after dying for a cause he did not care about. The violent revolution universe in Infinite is not a statement suggesting that the poor and segregated minorities can only achieve equality through violence. It is a reflection of Elizabeth’s fraying idealism which is irreversibly shattered when she kills Fitzroy. In every other regard, it is one potential timeline in a sea of infinite possibilities, used to highlight Elizabeth’s character development once forced to face the nature of the world outside her tower. Even her change of clothing in the immediate aftermath is another symbol of Elizabeth’s maturation, discarding her attire reminiscent of a Disney princess for something far more mature and womanly. Every set piece is meant to further establish the journey of Booker and Elizabeth, and all the other topics are just parts of an excellently realized backdrop.
These themes that Infinite touches on, that have been further discussed here, are great additions to a narrative that is meant to be entertaining and thought provoking. Infinite has been decried and ridiculed for relying on an established gameplay foundation of violent shooting, and for talking about racism, religious zealotry, and class warfare but not hosting an entire debate on the topics it touches upon. Both of these points simply do not hold up. Firstly, the first person shooter platform suits the story very well as both a point of immersion and to give players a familiar system so they can spend more time getting immersed in Infinite’s vibrant world and less learning another new set of controls and which buttons do what. Infinite as a shooter assumes the player is familiar with the genre so that the player can be thrown headfirst into conflict and respond with familiar comfort, much like war-veteran Booker DeWitt should.
While the system does have faults and debatable highs and lows, holding Infinite’s design as a shooter against itself is a meaningless endeavor. This is especially so in regards to the content that Infinite dabbles in. It seems almost as though some are angry purely because Infinite talks about some heady and weighty topics, but does not stop to give you a thorough lecture on them. Infinite assumes you are an adult and can think about and process these themes yourself, inviting you to take from it what you want based on what you enter with. As a player with a solid background in American history, I found Columbia all the more convincingly realized. The perks of understanding the historical context do neglect delivering the same experience for the entire audience, but Bioshock as a series has always delivered based on what frame of mind you take into it. The more you are willing to lose yourself in it, the more you will enjoy it and be absorbed by the art direction, focus on immersion and attention to detail. Many appear to have entered it with a frame of mind that demands more from the game from entertainment. Still others have thought the Wounded Knee Massacre to be a Skyrim reference, though that unfortunate state of ignorance is a problem for another website.
The focus of this blog is not to simply say that one cannot have criticisms of Bioshock Infinte and to defend it against any and all complaints, but attempt refute a number of arguments that are superficial and shallow. By all means, if you do not like the game, feel free to say as much. I wish more of those discussing Infinite would field genuine criticisms that do not rely on absurd demands of the game. Do you not enjoy shooters? That is a perfectly acceptable stance, but do not decry the game as being too violent because it isn’t the genre you want it to be. That insults the creative vision built around the game itself. Do the modern trappings of a rechargeable shield and two weapon limit turn you off from the combat? A very valid criticism, one I agree with, but make that statement rather than complaining that combat is mainstream and boring. Do you wish the game had focused on social injustice rather than dimensional travel? A fine way to feel, but do not reprimand the game because it is focused on a historically themed, time traveling, swashbuckling adventure designed first and foremost to entertain. Did the Christopher Nolan style theatrics near the ending feel like they were confusing for the sake of being confusing? Say as much, and recognize that it just is not for you, rather than generalizing that the story is dumb.
When complaints are leveled at Bioshock Infinite based on the things it is not, rather than what it is, it makes the whole debate sound strangely entitled. This becomes all the more bizarre when so many other developers have leveled complaints at the game, when looking at their own titles turns their complaints into hypocrisy or come off as repulsive elitism. There have been some absolutely brilliant and insightful looks at the game, and where it succeeded and failed. Johnathan Blow had some great insights on where the combat design fails and could be improved, rather than simply saying it was terrible across the board. John Teti’s review attempts to look at the game in some very interesting ways and suggests that it is a remake if anything. He makes some interesting points for consideration, even though I have to say I disagree with almost all of them, especially his discussion of Andrew Ryan against Zachary Comstock. Everyone does not have to love Bioshock Infinite, and you can dislike it on the grounds that you just did not enjoy it, but be honest about it.
Do not try to mask your dislike in strange critiques that it should be an entirely different game because it is not the one you wanted it to be, that is a silly waste of everyone’s time. The debate is great, and I cannot wait to see what other conclusions players come to. The game has fostered one of the most enjoyable conversations over a videogame I have ever had, with my wife, who played through it at the same time and came away from it with distinctly different impressions. The industry as a whole benefits from us talking it out, and showcases just how much a single videogame can inspire thought or debate as a creative work. Just be honest about how you feel, and would you kindly take the time to articulate it?
This blog is late to the party, but it's something I've been thinking about a good deal lately.
Is there any medium in existence which features more characters setting out to save the world, or their friends, or their family, or loved ones than video games? Among protagonists, perhaps no medium has a higher percentage of characters that are trying to right wrongs or save the day. In many cases, these heroes are completely one dimensional in their single minded pursuit of their heroic goals, simply to fill the need of an objective in a game. It is striking that entertainment filled with so many heroes out to defeat the villains and right the wrongs of the world, can be so quickly blamed for the worst behaviors of human beings. There are two points to discussing this topic that the media and outside sources completely avoid, for fear of sabotaging their own propaganda fueled ratings.
Heroes and heroines aplenty.
First, competitive multiplayer should be set aside and recognized for what it is; competition. Anything that pits human beings against one another plays to long held survival instincts and it is the very nature of human beings to try their utmost to win any competitive endeavor. Regardless of what is displayed onscreen, there is no parallel beyond the thrill and aggression that come with competition. The pursuit of being the best is what drives many of the aggressive responses that we see in competitive gaming. Like any other sport, it is the thrill of competition that drives aggression and crude behavior. Changing the setting does not make the competition any less of one. Competitive reality television makes this perfectly clear. Imaginary pixel warfare is no different from any other sport in this regard. Ask anyone that’s played Mario Party and they will tell you that the nature of content onscreen is irrelevant if it drives you to compete for the thrill of victory over others. Any number of well designed competitive games spark this pursuit of victory, and for many franchises building this world of competitive play is the sole objective. The content is irrelevant if it effectively drives you to win, it is as simple as that. Video games as a hobby should not be penalized for encouraging competition, nor seen as any more a source of aggression than when fans of rival sports teams brutally injure one another. There is no difference, aside from a lack of interactivity.
The second point that mainstream media and opponents of video games always neglect to mention is that the overwhelming majority of video games feature characters that are agents of good. Gaming’s most recognizable icon, Super Mario, has been out to rescue damsels in distress so many times that it has become something of a joke within the series itself. Every Final Fantasy title has pit a group of ragtag heroes against an evil being/god/nihilist/force of destruction and tasks the player with fixing a world beset by evil forces. Even the most decried violent shooters like Doom, Wolfenstein, Quake, Half Life, Call of Duty, Halo and many others feature a protagonist who is trying to defeat evil and nefarious forces, be they the demons of hell, ruthless terrorists or an evil invading force of aliens. A great majority of the supposedly ultra-violent games focus on defeating the most stereotypical of evils. While there are titles available that do not automatically set a player on a predefined path of morality, few of these titles encourage or demand reprehensible behavior and instead leave morality as an open choice. These games leave the choices up to a player to determine their own behavior and morality, and such a thing can hardly be seen as anything more than a choice. The ability to choose is something that only video games have been able to convincingly offer, and even this mechanism is still in an infantile stage. Most choices that have been offered have been comedic in how polar they are and hard to take seriously on any level. It is only with recent titles such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead, that choice is starting to see signs of real maturity as a mechanism in games. The ability to choose between good and bad behavior in a fictional medium is still a very new idea in the grand scheme of media, interactivity itself not being much older. Choice is the ability to co-write an interactive experience, not an endorsement of any particular behavior.
If we are going to be honest about recognizing the overwhelming number of heroes that exist in video games, then we have to recognize the outliers as well. There are titles available that do encourage negative behavior like any medium. Purposefully disturbing novels, radio broadcasts, movies, and television have all been created by someone seeking to incite a response or for darker personal reasons. Video games are not alone in having obscure elements that tarnish the rest of the medium as a whole. There will always be reprehensible elements in anything that allows for personal expression. These negative creations will always exist, and we must simply ignore them and let obscurity do its work. Video games have outliers that have either set out with the purpose of being controversial by definition or are trying to provide an experience that did not previously exist. Grand Theft Auto exists in the same culture that the Godfather once did, and both glorify a lawless lifestyle, but their existence is nothing more than culture exploring itself and seeing what stories are available to be told. Yes, there exists the ability to use GTA games as mayhem simulators and to commit nefarious behavior, but if the ability to go crazy with a simulation was a door to the downfall of society, I think many more sprees of destruction would have come from The Sims than Grand Theft Auto.
With these negative elements explained and set aside, I am still dismayed every time that I see video games decried by pundits and news outlets who, true to form, can only ever focus on the negative side of any issue or any impact anything has on society. Through the power of ignorance, suddenly the hobby that I and so many hold dear is instantly the pastime of the deranged. The multitudes of heroes that decided to take a stand and make a difference are lost to political aspirations and ignorance. All the experiences and discussions of characters throughout the Metal Gear series are lost because the main characters can wield a gun if they choose. Metal Gear is a series that dares to dabble in serious discussions on violence, warfare, nuclear proliferation, international politics and endorses pacifism to the degree of making it possible to complete over half the installments without killing a single enemy. We never hear these traits discussed when video games come up in debate, no politician or new media outlet has ever acknowledged Metal Gear’s ability to broaden the horizons of a player or initiate discussions on its subject matter. No politician has ever championed the messages of friendship, camaraderie, and self acceptance found in the brilliant Persona series of RPGs that dare to explore modern issues of identity, sexuality, and death. No source outside our culture has ever explored the ability of Final Fantasy VI to initiate internal musings on heroic values and how to rebound from loss, despair and failure. Outside of gaming websites and journalism, no one had the time to spare for Spec Ops: The Line, a game which raises questions about the very nature of surreal violence, the culture of war and what those subjects represent for video games. The term outsider is a divisive one, but a term that becomes ever more appropriate for those who comment on video games from a spectator seat. Those who decry video games and wish to saddle them with the blame of horrible human beings are more than happy to stand in judgment while only ever remaining on the outside looking in. They would never dare to try and understand that which they demonize and fear.
We as gamers must continue to strive to show our hobby for what we know it truly is, while endeavoring to stay strong in representing our pastime. The debate over violence in video games is one that seems to go on without an end and is undoubtedly tiring, but we have to continue to make ourselves heard. We must use the abundance of positive examples to exemplify why our hobby is not only without blame and entitled to creative freedoms, but why video games are simply a beneficial and fantastic part of our culture. We have to talk loud and proud about subjects like Portal’s brilliant pacifistic, empowering approach to first person games. We have to talk about the power of interactivity, and how player input took the video game version of The Walking Dead to emotional places that the neither comics nor TV show will ever manage to reach. There should be discussions on the prolific number of positive roles that games cast players in, and how many encourage noble, heroic values. We should be encouraging others to experience the stories of heroes defying fate in Chrono Trigger, to revisit the wonder of childhood and purity of emotion through Earthbound, and to enjoy the hilarity of Monkey Island. We have to look past the pandering attempts to appeal to baser instincts, past the appeals to controversy, and past the just plain poorly made, and show others the best of what video games have to offer. There are countless examples of not only the great things that games contain, but the epiphanies they can spark within us, and the stories of how they entertained us, helped us grow, or brought needed relief when the world was crashing down upon us.
We need to start sharing these stories and meaningful moments. Those who play video games and those who love our hobby need to bring the outsiders in, to talk with them and show them who we are. We need to help those who decry video games understand the best traits of the medium. We need to refute what they are trying to vilify and make clear the folly of it.