[So I wrote this paper for English class on groupthink. It's nowhere near scientific or anything like that, but I'm probably going to add it to my writing portfolio. Anyway, here it is. Thanks for reading.]
It was March 6, 2012. Millions of fans waited outside stores or stayed up late on their computers to buy the final game in the epic trilogy known as Mass Effect. The game was hotly anticipated by critics and gamers alike not only for its Grecian like story of war and survival, but also for the improved combat mechanics, 4-player game cooperation, and even the graphical facelift. However, in one month, this game turned its publisher, Electronic Arts, into the worst company in America (Morran) due to what most claim to be an ending that “wasn’t fitting to the series”. While this may seem like a one-off instance, a similar situation happened with a woman named Anita Sarkeesian and her bid to use a crowd-sourcing website called Kickstarter to fund a series discussing female video game characters and their portrayal in gaming. While her funding goal had exceeded the limit, her personal website, Youtube page, and even her Kickstarter page was flooded with misogynistic comments that would shake even the most stalwart feminist to her bones. These instances, and many more like it, are contributed to the phenomena as groupthink.
Groupthink is defined as conformity to group values and ethics (Turner and Pratkanis 106). This means that an individual, despite their own moral scruples, will go against their own understanding in order to become part of the group. The evidence as to why we do this is limited at best (Turner and Pratkanis 107) but one theory states that the feeling of being “the only one” causes a fear in a person. That fear is possibly due to evolutionary patterns in our psyche since our ancestors knew that surviving in a group yields a better chance of surviving alone. Groupthink also has been attributed to other instances in history such as the Watergate Scandal, The McCarthy Hearings, the Bay of Pigs Decision and even in NASA’s decision to launch the Challenger shuttle (Turner and Pratkanis 107). However, the point of this paper is to not discuss why most gamers fall into groupthink, but how it has affected certain aspects of gaming culture.
The Mass Effect Controversy
The Mass Effect Controversy happened in the wake of the release of Mass Effect 3 as stated above. Scores of gamers flocked to the Bioware (the game developer) message boards to complain about what they had witnessed. The biggest reason behind the outcry was due to the lack of choices the ending had. Some would argue that the game was intended to have a tragic ending with the sacrifice of the hero to save the universe, but fan would not listen to this. Instead, fan created a campaign called “Retake Mass Effect” to force Bioware to give them an ending that they felt was more warranted to the series (Tsukayama). While Bioware eventually released a downloadable that changed the endings almost completely (Extended ending for Mass Effect 3 game released), fans were still angry that it had happened in the first place. However, from observing from the outside, this seemed more like a child throwing a tantrum on their birthday because they didn’t get the gift they wanted.
Part of this personal criticism is due to the notion that the series has a clear arc to it. The first game has the clear beginning that an evil is coming and the universe must put politics aside in order to prepare. The second game has introduces the evil forces as world eaters and that a certain device could stop them. The last game has the final battle on Earth after the device is constructed, but it must consume the hero in order to work. This arc is a basic definition of a Grecian tragedy or even reminiscent of Ragnarok, the Norse legend of the destruction and resurrection of Asgard. Numerous fans showed that they did not like the arc due to the idea that the main character died at the end. While there is a sense that fans put a lot into a series, fans do not control a series. To use legal terms, this instance has created a precedent that will shape the future of gaming. Fans now know that if they cause enough of a backlash, a company will be forced to change whatever they want to change. This is different from, say, a marketing demo to see what works and what doesn’t work about a game. The difference is that the developer is asking fans for input instead of being yelled at on message boards to change something.
The Sarkeesian Incident
Anita Sarkessian is someone who wants to have strong female characters in games. Her disappointment about female characters comes from the notion that a majority of them are the “damsel in distress”, the “hot girl in a skimpy outfit”, or the “tough chick that really is an emotional wreck”. She decided to go to Kickstarter to begin a series that discusses these gender issues in gaming and asked for a mere $6,000 (US) to fund this project. Sarkeesian not only met her goal, but exceeded it by $152,000 (Sarkeesian) . The notion itself was fairly benign, but it was met with comments that I will not repeat due to their extreme graphical nature. Sarkeesian’s series was misinterpreted as a feminist propaganda vehicle that wanted to completely rework how females were portrayed in games and wanted male characters to be subservient to the female characters. On the opposite side of this incident, supporters of Sarkeesian bared their fangs by saying that women are never portrayed correctly in gaming due to male developers wanting to watch a woman follow their commands.
This incident showed that groupthink can happen on two sides. One side will have an opinion that is either factual or not and another side will form to counter. The issue itself in this instance was lost due to the amount of feminism and misogyny on both sides. Sarkeesian’s message was to point out how certain characters are detrimental to the growth of gaming as a serious medium and how they are also detrimental to showing young female gamers how to be independent women when they grow up (Beirne). Instead, both sides skewed the point to be about whether or not a woman is allowed to wear a bikini on a beach in a video game.
I bring this incident up because it does have a serious discussion behind it. Gaming is growing larger as an industry and as a voice in entertainment. It is still young compared to television, radio and, film, but these are the type of discussions that need to happen in order for it to grow in a healthy way. Gamers themselves argue about whether or not if video games can be considered art and this type of conversation still needs to happen. The proper counter argument to the initial reaction is to also discuss the stereotypical roles male characters have in games. Nearly every male character is deemed to be an emotionless, Dirty Harry mock-up that seemingly shows signs of being a sociopath than actually showing what it means to be a “man”. In a way, in order to fix female characters, you have to fix male characters. Having one without the other seems to be counter-intuitive to the idea of having well-thought out icons that young gamers can look up to while having older gamers have fun with.
In a way, Groupthink in gaming can both show how much a change is needed and how ready the culture is for certain things. As mentioned above, gaming is still attempting to find out what is appropriate or not. Violence has been discussed ad nauseum and the ratings board has been set in stone, but now the focus has shifted in culture, which is difficult to change. Are gamers entitled and misogynistic? Of course not. Most gamers are well rounded individuals that want to share their culture with everyone else. The problem is that the vocal minority tends to grow whenever slight dissent breaks out. People can get swept up into something without even realizing it and that’s generally okay. The main problem, though, is that when groupthink takes over, the things that people enjoy become sullied by all the aggression and hate that comes along with it.
Beirne, Stephen. Interview: Anita Sarkeesian, games, and Tropes vs. Women. 02 July 2012. 12 July 2012 <http://www.destructoid.com/interview-anita-sarkeesian-games-and-tropes-vs-women-230337.phtml>.
Morran, Chris. The Voters Have Spoken: EA Is Your Worst Company In America For 2012! 04 April 2012. 10 July 2012 <http://consumerist.com/2012/04/congratulations-ea-you-are-the-worst-company-in-america-for-2012.html>.
Sarkeesian, Anita. Tropes vs Women in Video Games. 17 May 2012. 16 July 2012 <http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/566429325/tropes-vs-women-in-video-games>.
Tsukayama, Hayley. Mass Effect 3: Creators address ending backlash. 22 March 2012. 13 July 2012 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/mass-effect-3-creators-address-ending-backlash/2012/03/22/gIQAJS1aTS_story.html>.
Turner, Marlene E and Anthony R Pratkanis. "Twenty-Five Years of Groupthink Theory and Research: Lessons from the Evaluation of a Theory." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Vol. 73 (1998): 105-115. read