The past couple of months have been eventful for the video games community, despite this having been the usual quiet summer period.
However these events were not wholly as a result from video games themselves. Rather instead the community itself was the centre of the news stories.
The video game community has always been an opinionated one, but it is also one that is very much on the defensive. For years the medium has found itself having to actively defend against external elements threatening to harm and restrict it. Thankfully, the worst of these days have seemed to have passed, with the last of the threats such as Californian State Senator, Leland Lee having been arrested on corruption charges and subsequently suspended.
Whilst other lesser threats still exist, these mainly come from less reputable news outlets such as Fox News and The Daily Mail. Both outlets have a history of making baseless and/or poorly researched claims. It is unfortunate that negative instances from these sources still exist, although the frequency has lessened considerably.
With the number of external threats having dropped, the community has since turned inward; rooting out internal criticisms and mistaking them as new threats. This has resulted in those calling for change within the medium, or just calling out bad practises, being hounded online by what can be thousands of people who disagree with the statements and observations made by select individuals.
This is in part because with the major threats removed and a protracted previous console generation, a status quo has established itself which has provided a form of safety net for some. Gamers have often argued against the stereotype of the “loner playing games in their parents’ basement”, but there are a number of people who find security in not just the virtual worlds that video games provide, but also the camaraderie over a shared interest that exists online. For those that find themselves escaping from various negative aspects of the real world, video games and the internet as a whole are a domain where they suddenly have power over their lives and a place where they now have a voice; a voice which, when shared with others of a similar mind. echoes loudly. This can result in a cacophony of hate.
It now goes without saying that Anita Sarkeesian has experienced the worst of this. What started as a series of YouTube videos highlighting the negative ways in which women have been represented in video games has led to Sarkeesian fearing for not just her life but also the lives of her family. Her videos have always generated negative comments around the web, particularly on social media, and she has been resilient enough to continue. However, her most recent video, which was no different in content to previous entries (it was part 2 on the topic of women as background decoration), somehow managed to (for lack of a better term) “blow up”.
This was unusual as previous episodes had been more critical of the mediums portrayal of women and had been blunter in doing so. The sad thing about Sarkeesian’s series is that her overall message and goal is not shocking or radical. Feminism is continually portrayed as being anti-male and therefore pro-female, when the core ideology of feminism is for women to be treated equally. Yet because of the negative connotations associated with feminism and its use there are a core minority of males who fear that feminists are now trying to take away their video games; that a new threat has emerged to break apart the status quo.
Those who are interested in technology and video games have a tendency to be more liberal than those who are not. Yet by examining the nature of inequality within video games Sarkeesian has unintentionally brought to the surface the very misogyny that she wanted to remove from video games; an ugly side of the video game community that has been hiding underneath and present on the fringes, but now has become exposed to the world. The Daily Mail might not be writing about the dangers of video games, but when respected newspapers, such as The Telegraph, are reporting on the abuse directed towards women linked to the industry it re-establishes the stereotype that video games are a boys club with a crudely drawn sign on the door saying ‘no girls allowed’.
Shortly after the awful situation involving Sarkeesian emerged “Gamergate” presented itself as the next supposed big threat to video games. Once again women were unfairly at the centre of the “issue”. Indie developer Zoe Quinn (notable for her game Depression Quest) was accused of exploiting a past relationship with a journalist for Kotaku in return for favourable reviews. These claims were initiated by her most recent partner after learning that he had been cheated on. Kotaku investigated the claims and found that no favour had been delivered towards Quinn or her game by the implicated journalist, who had not even reviewed her game, although he had written a piece on her prior to their relationship.
The statement from Kotaku was not enough to appease those who had been outraged by the story and were now looking for a wider conspiracy that they considered to now be at the heart of the gaming press. The whole situation blurred together with the previous events involving Sarkeesian, resulting in a split with those convinced that there were wrongdoings hiding underneath the surface of video game journalism whilst also arguing against what they saw as “Social Justice Warriors” (SJW’s for short). This further cemented the vile nature that had recently emerged, as now those calling for a more inclusive and diverse medium and community were being attacked online whilst defending those already under attack.
The problem is that rational arguments, or even just someone’s opinion, cannot be made by people who have some influence in the industry without facing a barrage of anger directed back at them. Phil Fish was one such victim of this, an individual who was never able to catch a break. No matter what he said or did; there were plenty of people to automatically berate him for it. Regardless of how good (be it objectively or subjectively) Fez is there are plenty of people who claim the game is awful for a multitude of different reasons. It is one thing to have an opinion, of which Fish himself has many, but these people argue their case as if it were fact and to claim otherwise is therefore wrong.
Phil Fish famously (or infamously) declared that modern Japanese games ‘just suck’. As far as opinions go, saying something “sucks” is fairly harmless. Yet this statement marked Fish as being self-important and to some appearing to consider himself better than Japanese developers, whilst others branded him as racist. Fish’s remark was merely a response during a Q&A where he was asked for his opinion regarding the current state of Japanese games. Having been deeply influenced by Japanese games, and developing Fez as homage to NES era games, his comment came from a place of sincerity due to a desire for a return to the importance of the former heartland of video games.
As the backlash grew other indie developers came to his support, including fellow Indie Game:The Movie interviewee Jonathan Blow (creator of Braid and forthcoming The Witness), who added that Japanese games had become ‘joyless husks’. Somehow Blow managed to avoid generating any substantial criticism directed back at him, and neither of these Western developers were the first to make negative opinions regarding the current state of the Japanese game development. Back in 2010 Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune said that the games industry in Japan was ‘at least five years behind’ the West.
The whole situation was just one instance in the negativity that surrounded almost every opinion espoused by Fish. By the time he was openly lambasted by former GameTrailers contributor Marcus Beer for (ironically) not provided an opinion regarding Microsoft’s updated policy regarding independent games. After which Fish had finally had enough and “quit” video games. Even though he was still doing work behind the scenes due to his continued presence with Polytron and the subsequent re-releases of Fez, but whenever he did reappear the abuse came almost instantaneously. The problem for Phil Fish is that there are many people who have developed a hatred for the concept of Phil Fish; rather than explicitly Phil Fish himself. Phil Fish had become the personification of a breed of the growing trend of “arrogant and self-important” indie developers who made games with a pixel art aesthetic.
Phil Fish for a while gave as much as he took, but the problem with “feeding the trolls” is that doing so sustains them. There was always going to be an expiration point to this back and forwards. However there are others such as Minecraft creator Markus “Notch” Persson who despite making one of the most popular and successful games of the moment still would receive his fair share of online abuse. The problem for Notch was similar to that of Fish in that their personal fame had been confused with that of their respective games. Although in Notch’s case he was no longer directly associated with his game, having handed over continued development of Minecraft to a dedicated team at Mojang (the company he helped found). Despite this when an unpopular update regarding Minecraft servers was released Notch was unleashed to a barrage of unpleasant complaints, to which he had involvement over.
In the end, like Phil Fish, the fame became too much for him, and he “sold out”, leaving the company (and more importantly the game) he helped to create to Microsoft so that he could get away from it all. Before the occurrences that took place during the summer, a video began to circulate around, titled: This Is Phil Fish. The 19 minute video explored Phil Fish, not as the man, but the concept or the idea of Phil Fish. This influenced the way in which some looked back at the events surrounding Phil Fish (including this writer), but more importantly, it influenced Notch. He subsequently came to the realisation that he had become a “symbol”. Notch added that he has had more fun sticking to small prototypes and dealing with interesting challenges, and that he has no intention of making games that become huge hits. Ultimately he concluded that selling Mojang to Microsoft was ’not about the money. It’s about [his] sanity.’
Notch has not left video games behind, but he has attempted to leave the spotlight. To what extent his impact will be on the future of the industry is unknown, but it is unfortunate that he feels that in order to continue making video games he has to take a drastic step to do so. Notch cares about video games, which is clearly evident with the benefits that Minecraft has brought to the medium. For all the hate circulating around at the moment, Minecraft has succeeded at being one of the most inclusive games. People of all ages are enjoying the game and it has helped bring in a new generation, one that hopefully will move beyond the present faults.
All of the individuals mentioned here have contributed towards the continued growth of the medium in their own way, yet all have faced appalling feedback for doing so. Without individuals like these the medium will stall and eventually retract. The actions of a vocal minority are damaging and it is because of them that the medium does not deserve those who continue to evolve the medium in one way or another. However we need individuals who speak out about the problems that are present in the medium, we need individuals who stand up to criticism and continue to create their art, and we need as a collective to support these individuals.