I’m a gamer. I’ve been one my entire life; hell, before I finally badgered my parents into getting me the classic grey-and-black Nintendo Entertainment System, I used to play Intellivison at my babysitter’s house (portmanteaus/weird dial controller 4 LIFE). I love card games, board games, sports – I love it all.
As a kid who routinely felt powerless and confused by the wider world, gaming gave me the ability to control my own destiny – to match wits against a series of problems, and beat them – had a huge appeal. It still does.
Gaming is undergoing a sea change right now. For the last five years, the gaming industry’s revenues outstripped Hollywood and the music industry, and at a growth rate of more than 9% annually, is expected to eclipse their combined revenue within 10 years. With big money has come an increased emphasis on games as art, as the industry has expanded into increasingly baroque subcategories.
There are indie games, games as art, games as storytelling vehicles, music games, casual games, massively multiplayer online role playing games, augmented reality gaming – we are effectively at the moment when games have reached a tipping point where you are less likely to meet someone who doesn’t game as you are to meet someone who does. It seems like there’s something out there for everyone. Except there isn’t.
The single greatest thing about games is that they are immersive in a way that goes beyond any other medium. In order to successfully play a game, you must become something other than yourself – a sword wielding hero, a player on an NHL team in a lockout season, a temple-robbing adventurer, a jewel-shifting-whatever-the-fucker.
Games are just the best thing ever
For every hurr-durr Call of Duty or retread of last year’s virtually identical sports game, we are getting games that combine jaw-dropping art direction with social psychology, games that teach you how to pop and lock, first-person shooters with more multilayered cultural references and deadpan humor than Arrested Development and underwater dystopias that act as one of the most nuanced criticisms of Objectivism since Adorno and Horkheimer.
The funniest thing I heard this year wasn’t a stand-up routine, or a comedy on TV or at the movies – it was a game where I played a silent female protagonist solving a first-person puzzle game involving teleportation and malevolent AIs. The most beautiful western I saw last year wasn’t True Grit, it was a game where I played a cowboy looking to be reunited with his family, made by the same sociopaths who brought you Grand Theft Auto. The most pants-shittingly-scared I have ever been wasn’t during a horror movie, it was as an engineer fighting reconstituted undead on a planet-cracking mining ship orbiting a strange alien world.
I honestly feel really, really bad for people who don’t want to grab a controller and just try this stuff. They are missing out on some of the best culture we are producing right now.
The best gaming moments are the ones where you can appreciate the art of what the game is doing, and made even better if you can share it with others. That sharing can include cooperation or competition – I’m not asking the world to get rid of face-shootin’ any time soon – I like shootin’ the occasional face – but the best moments are when you go “holy shit, did you just see that?”.
The best video game moment of my life was sitting in a friends’ basement with 10 other people, playing a cheap plastic guitar while my friends “played” the bass, drums and sang along. I looked over and realized that our singer was being joined by a chorus of everyone else in the room, and for a brief moment it felt like we were a real band with real fans. That’s an indelible experience, something that connected me with the people I love in a way that even watching a rock concert would have never brought me.
There’s a catch – there’s always a catch
But like virtually every mass-media cultural product that came before it, games started off as a product created and consumed by men. For the first 30 years of gaming, tastes and products were determined by gaming’s creators – young men who were often acting out their own sense of powerlessness by creating worlds that they felt comfortable in. From its inception, the idea of “girl gamers” has been seen as either:
- The classic “shrink it and pink it” contempt for the consumer, aka The Barbie Horse Adventures Effect
- The “casual gamer”; as someone married to an individual in the thrall of Bejeweled, I can tell you this is a real thing.
- The “social gamer”, the Draw Somethings and Words with Friendsers, not to mention the plague of Farmville and Cityville and Shitville.
- The geek equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the hyper-idealized kitch object who likes all the same stuff as the boys, but, like, has tits too, I guess?
While gaming seems delighted to take ladies’ money, each one of these models keeps women on the outside of what is considered to be – at least for a certain subsection of the culture – the elite, or 1337 side of gaming. “Elite” in this case being a part of T3H H4RDC0R3Z – those people who treat gaming as a lifestyle, not just something they do in lieu of watching reruns of Breaking Bad. This group is remarkable in that they see themselves as elite – despite the evidence to the contrary – and band together online to preserve their exclusivity, walling off their world from noobs and outsiders, routinely using hate speech and incredibly puerile insults to protect what they see as the mass culture’s incursion on their territory.
I really, really hate these guys.
Games are changing. Shit, culture is changing, and these guys are fighting it tooth and nail. Read any article about women in gaming – be it an executive for a major multinational gaming company, girls who play or write about games for a living, or individuals who are critiquing gaming from a feminist perspective – and you’ll see message boards filled with personal attacks, critiques of the subjects’ appearance, threats of rape and murder and worse. These people – and their “FUCKING FAGGOT” contemporaries in the world of online gaming – do more to set games back as a form of art than the worst Doom-playin’ school shooter.
So, what’s next?
I can’t think of many games that could pass the Bechdel Test, but thankfully things are starting to move in the right direction. Conversations have begun about the role of gender in gaming, with multimillion-selling games like Mass Effect including not only the option of a (frankly, much better-written and acted) female protagonist, but the inclusion of same-sex relationship options for both gender. While the system is still overwhelmingly biased in favor of male characters, there’s at least an acknowledgement that hey, sometimes it’s fun to play as a girl, the same way it’s really fun to pretend you’re a fucking space marine. Seriously, I want to be a lady space marine when I grow up.
My friend Allison thinks that this change – and the subsequent reaction to it – is the outcome of the continued push to create a more representative culture; one that better reflects the world we actually live in. This is necessarily at the expense of the ubiquitous while male, and as women keep pushing for their rightful place in the culture, the people who already feel like they are disconnected and disempowered in other way are reacting to what they perceive as yet another safe place they are having disrupted by outside forces. Quite frankly, I’m delighted. I’m tired of being me, sometimes – that’s why I play games, for Chrissakes. I hope this bullshit is just the death rattle of that hardcore culture.
More and more, I’m seeing women – coworkers, friends, acquaintances, you name it – who are playing the same games as these guys. They are taking the fight to them , in their own way, and doing it while having fun. When I ask them why they like the game they play, they might comment on the gameplay, or the writing, or the people they play with, not because they are trying to prove a point. In fact, they usually give the same answer I do.
If the hardcore people have a problem with reality, that’s understandable. If they were anything like me, it was usually that reality that drove them to play video games in the first place. But you don’t take the hard bumps you get in the real world and act them out on the people who want to join you in your imaginary one. You recognize and have empathy with them, you include them in your narrative and you grow your tent; if you lose a little control along the way, that’s okay. Besides, I can’t hit the high notes in Rock Band and I need someone to be my Steve Perry.
*A huge thanks to Allison McNeely, web editor of the universe, for giving me this title and helping me walk through this topic that I honestly feel wholly underqualified to discuss.