Don’t Ignore Video Games

The anxieties of technology and representation date back to the 18th century. Since the event of novels in the modern Western tradition, there has been concern about narrative and art’s abilities to persuade the mind away from morality and goodness. Right now, video games are in the spotlight–and they have been for a while. Unlike novels, movies, and other narratives, video games are different because they tell a story through the player’s choices and strategies. Moreover, video games are often all lumped together, and no “classics” exist in the mainstream consciousness, with the exceptions of Pong and the Mario series.

Kotaku’s post on the first video game case going to the Supreme court is a run-down of what’s going on and who’s involved with the case. I gather that what is at stake here is the criminalization of selling violent video games–the big questions here are what constitutes “violence” and who gets to decide that. I bring up hate crimes because the Kotaku post points to a scene from the game Postal 2, which I then looked up on Wikipedia. The wiki article contains this passage:

Homophobia in the shape of an arcade game prop called Fag Hunter. The AWP mod (included in the Fudge Pack release) expands Fag Hunter into a mini-level where the player has to kill 20 stereotyped gay NPCs (depicted as bald, unshaven men wearing pink dresses). link

I can’t think of the appropriate expletive to express my shock and disgust. This passage does, however, highlight an interesting feature of video games that aren’t so vehemently talked about: hate crimes. Banning violent content in video games is too broad to address what I consider to be the most damaging aspect of video game tropes.

Art is mostly interpretation. I accept (to a point) interpretations of Postal 2 that understand the game as an extreme satire. Because of it is over-saturated with violence and ridiculousness, it is possible to see that Postal 2 embodies the worst bits of video games. Furthermore, Postal 2 seems to have some evidence of self-awareness. Mobs that attack the player include book-burners and opponents of video games. Considering its self-consciousness, how does the “fag hunter” mini level fit in? If Postal 2 is in fact commenting on video game violence, why this a part of gameplay? Is it just boasting its own irreverence? What really outrages me is that this is not getting enough press or attention. Video games and their content are too often skimmed over with the general notion that video games are too unimportant or minor to be worth seriously critiquing.

While an overtly homophobic movie or book would be quickly lambasted, it seems that video games get far less attention from the big media. Perhaps it is just that I am reading the wrong group of blogs, but while Jonathan Franzen and The Social Network will make headlines in the more widely-read news blogs, video game coverage and its related social issues come up rarely. When they do, it’s usually within niche circles or about all the blood and gore rather than the message or context. Part of this, I think, is because video games are, by many, not considered real art or narrative.

So what is all this doing on a blog concerning the thoughts of twenty-something feminists, most of whom are not gamers? Firstly, I’m going to say, I don’t think banning violence is the answer here, and honestly, won’t do much. Rather, I think video games have to be accepted as a legitimate art form and treated as such. Before criticizing their content, we need to look at the universe it presents and how we interact with it. Instead of outlawing video game violence, video games deserve the criticisms we give to shows such as Mad Men and movies like The Social Network. Video game content needs discussion and is deserving of critical insight–and this will do far more to understand and attenuate the potentially harmful aspects of video games. Is there homophobia or rampant sexism in a game? We could discuss what game does in addressing that and point out its specific message. Let’s stop giving video games a free pass on real social issues when we say, “well video games are violent and stupid.” Feminist discourse does not have to be opposed to video games. Rather, I think it has the potential to create a demand for video games with more depth and good stories, which is far more effective and does more to challenge its sexism, racism, and other conventions.