Thinking Points (I) – Taking Things Seriously

Note: These articles will be shorter than most and more focused on opening up a debate.

I don’t want to weigh in directly on the current debate about sexism and “ultraviolence”  in gaming; for one, there are two quite different (albeit linked) issues here being rolled together in the eyes of some. Firstly the juvenile, reductive and quite frankly low-quality writing in games that lets creating protagonists who instead of being central agents of plot are needing “protection” be something accepted unthinkingly. Secondly the bigoted and immature screaming of online subcommunities which, at the core of it, is no different to football hooliganism or any other kind of nastiness within those who identify themselves by a pastime.

Instead I’m looking at this furore and seeing in it potential futures that are quite interesting. For a very long time, voices within the computer gaming “community”, be they players or creators, have complained about video games being perceived as a “lesser” pastime, one which is not taken seriously enough by the “serious” media. Quite rightly, misinformation and tabloid nonsense are condemned as muddying the waters and being founded in ignorance. This week, though, one only has to look in broadsheet newspapers to see that games are being taken seriously. For an artistic medium, the nature of what subject matters are acceptable, and more importantly how these subject matters should be depicted, is key. This debate is happening now. Serious voices not interested in simply condemning a medium for unfounded reasons are looking at what is being offered up as the future of the medium and saying “no.”

Video games have been taken seriously and found lacking; they have variously of late been found to be sexist, to glamourise and trivialise sexual abuse, to promote torture and killing of non-combatants, to fetishise violence and to, on top of all this, be badly written and largely lowest-common-denominator stuff. This is not hysterical liberal bias against a precious, untouchable medium, as some of the silliest responses have claimed. This is the same lens used to scrutinise other mass media being held up to gaming, and the conclusions not being favourable.

The question is thus no longer one of “should games be allowed to depict _____” – of course they should. This is freedom of expression, and the increased interest in games from the media (on a shaky foundation previously) has led to the creation of a legal and regulatory framework to allow games to say what they like. Now the question is about how they say it, but the defence has yet to move beyond “it’s a right to cover these issues.” The arguments against Tomb Raider are not specifically saying fiction can’t cover murky ground in sexual terms. Instead, they’re questioning the way in which this is being covered. Similarly, complaints about Call of Duty have, for the most part, moved beyond complaining about the presence of violence per se – but instead the way in which the violence is depicted. The idea of the military hero myth is no longer being challenged. What is being challenged is how the military hero myth is now showing the idealised soldier to be prepared to torture and kill whoever he sees fit, and to be amoral in doing so. In the past idealised soldiers were noble, courageous and skilled at arms. Modern soldiers in fiction, less so.

So there’s the thinking point – as it seems to me, this controversy is not a calculated attack on games from some ill-defined cabal of fun-hating Others, it is doing exactly what gaming’s defenders want – holding the lens of modern debate up to a previously unconsidered medium. And if gaming really is a serious medium worthy of serious consideration, it can only come out of this improved.

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