It’s been a wild year in politics these past few months, and there are no signs that this will change anytime soon. As with most cultural events, this tends to bleed into the media we consume. As such, there are both people who celebrate the addition of politics into media, and those who abhor it. This commonly manifests in the meme-level response “keep politics out of x”. With the controversies and subsequent blowback over whitewashing (and lack of starring Asian roles) in Doctor Strange, Ghost in The Shell, Marvel’s Iron Fist,and Death Note, a large portion of people seem to want to consume media in a vacuum and ignore these issues. My personal experience tends to be more rooted in the video game space, considering the rise of progressive themes in games. Especially after the storm that was Gamergate, some people hate the idea of political themes in video games. I’d like to delve into why that claim is disingenuous, and why it’s never been possible.
When talking about politics in video games, a good place to start might be the Grand Theft Auto series. A lightning rod for controversy, GTA has never been shy about including political topics in their settings. GTA, with all its warts, does have a basis in satire, even if it is mostly present in the side content. In the worlds of Liberty City and San Andreas, for example, there are television programs parodying both “liberal social justice warriors” and “right-wing conservative firebrands” as uninformed, misguided, and wrong. It’s the classic South Park approach where “caring in one way or another is the ultimate sin”. Regardless, politics are incredibly present in these games. So, how could anyone ever claim that they don’t want politics in games?
So The Last of Us. Again. If you’re not familiar with the game, it’s a survival horror based on the concept of a human-infecting cordyceps fungus. It follows a jaded, aging smuggler (Joel) who lost his daughter in the early stages of the apocalypse, as well as a spunky, foul-mouthed teenage girl (Ellie), who is somehow immune to the infection. They fight their way through the ruins of the United States, killing fungus-infected zombies and bandits as they go. The game has incredible character development, revealing both the characters’ backstories and advancing their relationship together, while simultaneously engaging the player in an immersive and occasionally terrifying gaming experience.
Sean Connery once said that “there is nothing like a challenge to bring out the best in a man.” Of course this is just as true for women as it is for men, but the statement contains a certain subtext about masculinity. Failure to thrive under pressure is the trait of a boy, not a man. There are these calls to action that are supposed to define us as men. Defeating a challenge is one; capability for violence is another. Men are generally well aware of the cultural pressures on us to be violent. Even though most of us are not violent people, we still sometimes feel the need to respond to the pressure by asserting that we would be very dangerous if we wanted to. The two ideas are at odds: societal norms that say men are violent while violence actually has nothing to do with masculinity. It can certainly be argued that a male’s inclination toward violence coupled with the ability to back it up has served both males and the human species as a whole quite well in the past. However, what was a virtue in the past is not necessarily a virtue today. And even if violence were hardwired into men, we’re still much more than just blood-thirsty beasts. And the reason we play violent games is more than our own bloodlust. So why, then, do so many games portray violence and masculinity as being so closely intertwined? Let’s take a look at some of these games. In particular, we’ll look at: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare; The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion; and a lot of God of War. Just a warning, this whole article is going to be chock-full of spoilers, so read cautiously. What these games all have in common is that they make a statement about the connection between masculinity and violence. They deal with issues like “is violence rewarding,” “can violence defeat evil,” and “is violence just how men deal with their emotions?” What lies beneath all of those statements are these facts: men are not very free from cultural norms, men are not empowered or nurtured properly as men, and society seems to have no idea of what masculinity is at all.
Yesterday, the White House unveiled “Now is the Time: The President’s plan to protect our children and our communities by reducing gun violence.” Super good! I don’t intend to attack the the President, his plan, or even the fact that he calls for more research into any possible relationships between video games and violence. With the trauma of gun violence being so severe in American culture, encouraging research into what many citizens believe to have a causative relationship with violence, i.e. that violent video games lead to violent crime, is the right call. While it is politically unfortunate that the President seemed unable to find a place for video games in his plan than under the section to “End the Freeze on Gun Violence Research,” (page 8), I don’t think that we have much to worry about regarding any lasting effects on public opinion. We know that all good research into the topic, assuming fair distribution and reporting of research results and data, is going to show that video games and their place in society are nothing to be afraid of.
Here is my point; how do we already know that we have nothing to fear? Hasn’t research already shown that violence in video games has a lasting effect on gamers, causing them to be desensitized to violence and therefore less likely to check impulses toward violent behavior? Since video games are more immersive than other forms of media, doesn’t it stand to reason that they affect a greater ability to impact and change the human psyche? Let’s look into why not. Continue reading →
It’s the new year, and I feel excited about video games. I am excited about the mountain of games I acquired as presents and with gift cards, as well as games coming out later this year. For as much as I love good games, I am sad over how many of my friends and family just don’t enjoy them the way I do. Whether they lack interest or skill, it’s always difficult to share this part of my life with them. That’s why I’m trying to think of new ways for me to try and share my gaming experience with them.
There are of course the games that are fun to play with a group despite the challenges of the game. Games like New Super Mario Bros. U, Call of Duty, and Tekken Tag Tournament 2 are great because, due to their tendency toward bullshit difficulty spikes, the whole group enjoys the accomplishments of even two players finally beating a level. Plus, the shared suffering leads to lively conversation. Other games which have narrative arcs which tend to appeal to those outside of the medium are always fun to pass and play, even if some people are terrible. These games include Alice: Madness Returns, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and Resident Evil 5, and they tend to be just as fun to watch as to play if you are already invested in the subject matter. Hell, some games are such a spectacle that it’s fun to pass and play without any narrative context. Call of Duty and Halo attract droves of casual players who only play in groups. Any of these are fine, but I feel my repertoire lacks a certain “universally appealing” punch. So imagine my delight and excitement as I realize a way to better involve more people in the same games I already love. Continue reading →
Once upon a time about six years ago in a Gamestop, not so different from a store near you, I came across an in-store display. “Games for Girls” it read in its lavender lettering, flowers adorning the sides. I doubt any guy bought the games that were in that display. Indeed, I can’t imagine any girl buying many of the games in there either. If you’ve spent any time anywhere, you probably know the games that were displayed: Imagine: Babies, Girls Mode, Cooking Mama, some horse game. I exchanged a knowing look with the female cashier, chuckled a bit, and went on my way, but the advertisement has never left my mind in all these long years. I had never really wondered why before a couple days ago. It’s beyond a simple incredulity about the stupidity of the campaign and I’m discovering this area of gaming is much greyer than I originally thought.