Recently, the editor of Eurogamer, Tom Bramwell, posted a couple of opinion pieces primarily focused upon sexism in games.
The suppositions laid down by Bramwell suggest that both video games and video game culture are deeply misogynistic and he cites the representation of women (or lack thereof) within the medium as illustrative of the issue.
Reading through the comments left in response to these opinions exposes a cornucopia of flustered irritation, anger and uncorked, boiling rage: some hate the idea of video games being held accountable for their representation of women, others disliked the implication they were implicitly sexist by simple virtue of playing games. Some just hated the tone of the piece.
Yet, irrespective of delivery, Bramwell has a fair point, as does anyone who observes the objectification of gender; sexuality; ability; and race in games (though no one seems to take offence at the collection of brick shit-houses that supposedly represents the male of the species).
Thing is, before sexism or representation was the problem within video games, there was the tricky (and still unresolved) issue of ludonarrative dissonance. Before that, the medium’s standing as an art form was a matter of some contentiousness. Before that, narratologists hotly debated the medium’s potential as a new form of interactive storytelling. And let us not forget the always omnipresent concern surrounding video game violence and its unproven capacity to twist the fragile minds of otherwise gentle souls.
In other words, there is always some problem or tricky issue with video games.
Now, one could argue that such debates and concerns will always occur and require attention as a new medium begins to develop and mature. Certainly, in order for the video game to attain its full potential, old-skool methods of thinking must be cast aside and our understanding of the medium must continually evolve. Issues such as the representation of gender and sexuality must be addressed if the video game continues to utilise a realistic aesthetic within its worlds and narratives.
But then one could ask why a medium inherently built upon the joys of interactivity and imagination is so beholden to human representation, narrative exposition and grim realism. Why pursue such avenues when it leaves the medium so exposed to the myriad of complexities that arise from their inclusion?
To a certain extent, the current issues emerging within video games stem from an identity crisis that has plagued video games for many years: the desire to be regarded as culturally acceptable. Despite the successes’ of Nintendo and Sega, the ‘90’s saw video games being generally perceived as a nerdy pastime and one viewed with mocking dismissal. With emerging 3D visuals and increasingly powerful technology, developers saw the potential to legitimise video games and to do so by aping an already successful medium: film. The thinking was thus: if games could look like films, sound like films and present film-like stories then, hey, we will finally be accepted, right?
Suddenly, every video game developer was exposed as a frustrated movie director and cinema’s methods of narrative exposition were shoe-horned into a medium that had previously been more focused upon collecting gold coins than presenting stories. By extension, the visual style of the video game (bright, cartoony and cheerful) rapidly altered and a greater importance was placed upon gritty realism. Gone were anthropomorphised hedgehogs and in their place stood reasonably-proportioned human characters.
However, by adopting the visual motifs and styling of cinema, the video game suddenly opened itself up to all the complexities of representation and storytelling but, unlike cinema, there did not exist sufficient understanding of the medium to be able to readily resolve these issues, especially when they arose within a play-focused, interactive context. Furthermore, hubris on the behalf of the developers lead many to believe they were equally skilled at script writing and directing as they were with video game development, leading to numerous cringe-worthy lines of dialogue and poor execution of story and character.
Accordingly, and based on storytelling chops alone, the vast majority of this new breed of video games were nothing more than straight-to-video action flicks and, if we permit ourselves some honesty at this juncture, even after all these years of telling stories, a dumb action flick is still the best most games could ever achieve.
And yet, there is no denying how narrative and character also helps to provide additional context and motivation for the player, whilst affording developers to add supplementary emotional colour to proceedings. Furthermore, when done right (such as the exemplary Last of Us), the fusion of narrative and play can produce a phenomenally unique and thrilling outcome. So, despite the problems they generate, cinematic storytelling within the video game medium does have some positive implications.
However, whilst developers continue to pursue these avenues they will have to take responsibility for what they create, be it their representation of gender, race or sexuality. We can no longer simply excuse video games by virtue of them being video games; it undermines the medium’s potential and legitimacy as a culturally relevant form of entertainment.
Conversely, we, as a collective, should also cease to be so deeply ashamed of our pastime being built upon such a simple pleasure as play. Play is of absolute importance, both as a tool for development and emotional well-being. Developers should embrace the medium’s pure potential as a form of play which is, in and of itself, sufficient enough to validate gaming and for us to be proud of our pastime pursuit.
So, here is a call out to all developers. Yes, please do continue to intertwine narrative and interactive play, but please just do it right and do it well. And if you cannot, hand on heart, create interesting characters, avoid ludonarrative dissonance or represent women without resorting to some Carry On-style farce (unless its contextually appropriate, of course), then maybe you should just make a toy for us to play with instead. After all, there is nothing wrong with toys.
And here is a call out to those who react so venomously to any attempt to approach potential problems within the medium: let us enjoy the feast that is gaming but let us also keep a critical eye on the food we are given. After all, a chef will never get better if no one ever mentions his signature dish is undercooked.