Politics & Policy

Games about Games

The politicization of games, the Internet, and everything.

The United States of America has a robot on Mars. I like that. I don’t mind that it’s not a constitutional obligation. If I had a time-travel machine and was bored, I might show up at the Constitutional Convention and argue for a section that said “The Government shall, at its difcretion, place mechanical contrivances on Celeftial Bodies.” It’s one of those things for which America will be remembered: liberated Europe, kept the peace, vanquished the Reds, and put robots on other planets in its spare time.

NASA put the picture up on its Google+ site. Last time I checked there were 50 comments, and the conversation had devolved into an argument about President Obama. I know, I know, you’re surprised: A Google+ post had 50 comments? But it’s proof of the bane of modern life: There is no subject so remote — so literally remote as a machine on Mars looking at a comet — that it cannot be ruined by politics.

Games, for example. The kind you play on your computer or console, not board games — although I’m sure there’s a Mother Jones article in the archives about how “Monopoly” indoctrinated children to admire the 1 percent, and “Life” was a brainwashing tool to lock kids into the heteronormative patriarchal structure. There are probably people angry at the Slinky for making kids unconsciously accept the fate of “downward mobility.”

Electronic games were previously politicized for turning players into violent murder-bots, but that’s faded. To repeat a point I made years ago, if violent games made players violent, then “SimCity” should have made millions of kids take up a career in urban planning. The new slam against games is the sexist culture that creates them, the sexist dweebs who play them, and the untold millions of players who do not realize how gaming could — nay, should — nay, must be an arena for Social Justice. For example, it’s possible to play “SimCity” today without confronting the historical patterns of mortgage inequity and de facto segregation. You can raise towers, but not consciousness.

Something must be done.

Which leads us to the blistering mess called GamerGate. It’s difficult to summarize concisely, and if you don’t care about gaming culture it’s not one of those things you might think matters a whit in the real world. The issues range from accusations of sexual favors in gaming journalism to the headwinds faced by female gamers to debate over the depiction of women in games — which, as you might suspect, tends to lean toward busty amazons who could have made a lot of money as fitness models but decided to be bounty hunters in a post-apocalyptic landscape.

It may sound like a nerd war with little importance, but it’s instructive. One of the more interesting accounts of the mess shows how the sprawling, yowling controversy is the future of debate on the Internet. I was nodding in agreement with much of it — until I hit this passage: “One of the genuine ironies of the Internet is that as it’s grown unflinchingly, even militantly tolerant of race, orientation, taste, and fetish, tolerance has been fashioned into a weapon, to be used against itself. ‘God, who cares?’ is a rote reaction among a certain sort of person when it’s announced that the hero of a game is a woman or black, or when an athlete comes out as gay, or when some other milestone is achieved.”

I am not sure what “militantly tolerant of a fetish” means, unless it’s punching someone in the face to prove you don’t care if they’re into latex. As for a hero of a game being a woman, well, sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. I suppose the Master Chief of the Halo series could be Mistress Chief; I recall being encased in armor for the entire game, so for all I know I was really Gisele Bundchen or RuPaul. What mattered more was the time it took to cool down my pulse rifle after emptying 50 shots into an alien.

In the last “Call of Duty” I played, I was in Vietnam, where women had a rather scant combat role, so hairy hands holding the gun seemed apt. Likewise most WWII shooters: not a lot of Rosie the Riveter commandos engaged in door-to-door street fighting smashing Nazi jaws with rifle butts. In the real-world future, perhaps women will be grievously injured in numbers that match their proportion in the population, in the name of progress, but for now we’re stuck with the stubborn facts of history.

As for a gay hero, the author correctly sums up the opinions of many: Who cares? How does that affect a game where you’re scaling a medieval turret to stab a Borgia? Ninety-nine percent of the time sexual preference in games is irrelevant. You could make the case that “Donkey Kong” was a heterosexual fantasy, with its rescue-the-princess narrative, but if you wanted to imagine Mario as acting out a societal role to suppress his same-sex desires, you could go ahead and do so. It’s still a game about dodging barrels thrown by a monkey. Who cares?

Add a gay option to a game, and it’s just another customization choice. “You have chosen Rognar from the Oxen Species. Powers: brawn, elemental magic, swordplay. Weaknesses: Bad grammar, ticklish, flatulent. Healing speed: fast. Stealth factor: low (see ‘flatulent’). Gender: Blended. Sexual Preference: Omnivorous. Press ENTER to accept.” If that’s who you want to be, then go a-questing in the imaginary forests conjured by code and see how that works out.

Taking on an identity different from your own, or one that’s an amplification of who you wish to be — that’s the essence of all these games. A shy kid whose muscles make a strand of spaghetti look like the cables that hold up the Golden Gate Bridge can be a mighty warrior. Gamers don’t complain if there’s an option to be something you don’t want to be, because they can ignore it.

Or can they? Should they?

“God, who cares,” you’ll recall, is a sign that we have a problem. Indifference is practically hate speech, or would be if you said “who cares” out loud. If there was a game that catered specifically to previously marginalized groups, and they were the only ones who played it, you might say: Great. Who cares? Well, Salon would jam the story into their Everything Is Horrible template and bemoan the segregated state of Sexual Identity in imaginary worlds where the primary objective is using your giant robot to punch another giant robot. IT’S A PROBLEM, PEOPLE.

As I said, this piece isn’t about gaming. It’s about finding yourself convicted of malice because you didn’t make the proper adulatory sounds on cue. Most gamers don’t care if someone writes a game with a specific social agenda. They just don’t want to pretend they want to play it. “Hey great whatever but I would rather play the one where I am a sniper in Stalingrad, ’kay?” Haters.

The Internet is a marvelous thing, but its ability to coalesce around grievances and amplify them to a deafening pitch does not make for a civil environment. Alas, there’s no escape from the politicization of everything, unless you move to Mars –

Oh. Right.

— James Lileks is a columnist for National Review Online.

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