The argument over whether video games are art or not is pretty much over: they are. Anyone who disagrees at this point is mostly trying to be contrarian. That said, we are still refining our skills and vocabulary for critiquing games, and more rapidly than ever. This very blog uses an intersectional feminist/social justice framing when we look at video games, and even that is evolving. However, there is a fairly strong canon of social justice literature and discussion that we can draw from to observe media. Video games are difficult in that they are still a young medium, and one thing we are still working on is genre.
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?
Double standards are everywhere in geek cultures. Most of them are easy to spot in such things as clothing and armor options for genders. Such standards extend into character archetypes as well. A very well known trope that is often reserved specifically for women is the Damsel in Distress trope. We’re all familiar with this, but one character archetype that seems to skip women is the Jerk With A Heart of Gold.
Trigger Warning: strong, derogatory language. All language consists of quotes from another gamer. Please proceed with caution.
Dear Game Developers,
I am coming to you guys as a owner of many games across many mediums. I have been a PC, console and handheld gamer since my parents got me a Nintendo 64 and Game Boy for Christmas. So I’m coming to you as a fan, not an unknowable advocate.
I’ll take “Titles I Never Thought I’d Use” for $500, Alex.
I was all ready to chalk Grand Theft Auto V up as a failure in representation. In all fairness, I didn’t expect to ever see a Grand Theft Auto game actually stop taking potshots at the LGBTQ+ community. Since I started playing GTA games with Grand Theft Auto 3, there was always that one character created as a stereotype of a gay male, complete with an effeminate voice, color-coordination, and neckerchief. The game developers over at Rockstar North aren’t all that subtle.
That’s Bernie from Grand Theft Auto IV. He is a former soldier who came out sometime after the fictional war he fought in. That’s great, but the way protagonist Niko describes Bernie’s soldier ways compared to today gives the audience a not-so-subliminal message that, because Bernie is gay, he is automatically different.
While it’s not always the case, I don’t know of any cases in real life where someone coming out changes
the essence of who they are as a person.
Fast forward to Grand Theft Auto V, which just came out Tuesday, where I have noticed some subtle changes to the GTA universe that hint that Rockstar is moving away from stereotyping LGBTQ+ characters. In one of the first missions, protagonist Franklin gets into a discussion with a bigoted paparazzi member, Beverly, concerning in-game gay rapper Clay “PG” Jackson.
Man, who gives a fuck if he’s gay or not, man? The man is not married. It’s his business. Leave motherfuckers alone… why do you care, man?
I found this to be a drastic change from previous GTA games. Instead of the protagonist staying neutral, like Niko did frequently in cut scenes, Franklin makes a logical statement concerning Jackson. Beverly’s statements, in comparison, seem about as ridiculous as they are. Franklin makes sense. Beverly is a dick.
While this is the only reference to the LGBTQ+ I have run into yet, Rockstar North has
been taking steps away from relying solely on stereotypes. In 2009, Rockstar North released Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony. The focus of the game centered on Gay Tony, a nightclub owner in the fictionalized Liberty City.
Gamers can see the development of Rockstar North’s thought process in The Ballad of Gay Tony. The character still holds traits that could be considered stereotypes. His voice is slightly effeminate and his nickname itself is a label. But the focus on the character analyzes his humanity, not his sexual preference. The fact that Tony is gay doesn’t really matter to the development of the story arc.
Now, I’m only halfway through the game as of Friday morning. The end scene could have a character that uses and abuses every LGBTQ+ stereotype in record time and if so, I will definitely write about that. But I’m finally getting the feeling that Rockstar is realizing that compelling story-telling trumps malicious stereotypes any day, and it’s making me look forward to the potential addition of an LGBTQ+ character in the game’s DLC packs.
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