I have been spending a lot of time recently thinking about the games industry, gaming culture and the strong divides that exist within the culture and the industry. Less so within the industry than the culture. The divides that I’m talking about are of course the idea that there are two camps in the gaming culture. There are the old hat defenders of hardcore gaming – a definition that seems to change shape and focus depending on individual rather than any set idea of what “hardcore” is. Hardcore seems to me more like a tool to exclude than to include. The same can be said for the word “game” in this context. It’s a word used to define a norm whose main function is to determine what a game is not, for the same reasons as the definition of hardcore.
We’re dealing with a language constructed mainly to exclude in this camp. We’re dealing with underhanded strategies to retain power in a culture that has been exploding with new players and new paradigms that threaten to upset the carefully cultivated identities of those who did not necessarily come first, but those who took the culture and shaped it to become a male exclusive domain.
We’re also dealing with the camp representing the new players, the new paradigms, the efforts to open up the culture and industry to those of us who are not part of the hardcore, culture shaping clique. Even though some of us have been around for a long time – even from the start – the excluding culture has not let us in. We have not been allowed to participate on equal terms. We have always been subjected to the definitions of the hardcore group, resulting in a capricious and tenuous hold on the identity as a gamer. One moment you may be. The next you are not, all determined by the wielders of power in the culture we should all be sharing. Those of us wanting to change gaming have been dubbed social justice warriors, and even if that definition became widespread only with the disastrous backlash called GamerGate, the idea of this “camp” has been around since 2006-ish.
The efforts involved with “keeping gaming the same” and at the same time not really defining what “the same” is are mind blowing, and often cruel. But I’m veering off course. My intent with this post is not to rehash this mess once again. My intent is to look at the culture from a perspective of what we are, how we act and what inclusion would really mean, for all involved.
We talk about the culture and the content as if there is a limited range of solutions. “We need more women characters” we say, forgetting that not only women are underrepresented in games. “We need better roles for the women” we say, forgetting that there are so many stereotypes floating around for those few non-white characters that appear in games that you might as well play stereotype bingo during the load screens. We talk about numbers, we talk about objectification and clothing. We talk about how women are in games. We talk about how women should be. In that effort to create a utopia where women are adequately represented, active, a part of, we forget that we’re not the only ones who are being treated as the “other”. Don’t get me wrong. I think all of the above are important and valid questions.
For us to really change games, gaming culture, the industry, we need to think about more than just women. We need to think about not reinforcing norms that are excluding people. And for us to gain that ability – that freedom in games – the old hat archetype of a white, middle aged man, will have to take a step back. To allow others representation will be a significant loss of power. We have to concede that for a multitude of characters with varying expressions to find a place, there has to be made room for them. I don’t believe in restricting games or even telling people that “this is what a game must be” (other than in my professional capacity as a designer). Sometimes I do wonder if we are capable of varying the available games enough to create the space needed for those who are not represented, though. Not without limiting the space for the “norm”.
A lot of the discussion surrounding the opening up of the gaming culture to accept new ways of looking at games, playing games and being represented in games contain the words “censorship” and “creative freedom”. The old hat camp argues that the fact that more often than not, the game is fronted by a male playable character is because the developers wanted it that way and should be allowed that freedom is countered by the stories of developers who have tried to create female led games and run into obstacles doing so. The obstacles are often not about creative differences at all, but about deeply held prejudices about what sells a game, and what doesn’t. I don’t even know what difficulties developers who try to create games with even more marginalized heroes encounter, because we so rarely hear about it in the press or in other forms of media.
We’re locked in place by prejudice and by preconceptions of what a successful game has to be, and when games who don’t conform to those prejudices and preconceptions surpass expectations, we are surprised. As if there isn’t a whole world out there with varied tastes and experiences that would love to play that particular game. As if there aren’t people who want to play of all ages, all interests, all kinds of walks of life. The trick here, I think, is to not let ourselves be locked in again. To not say “if we could only have so and so many women in games, all would be well”. To not say “If women were only represented better, all would be well”. I don’t think all will be automatically well just because we do these things. I think all will be well when we can determine that games have a wide variety of expression, a wide variety of representation, a wide variety of heroes that we in some sense all can identify with. It’s a HUGE thing, I know. But honestly – Eclipse Phase (table-top RPG) has already done it, by disconnecting mind from body. Some computer RPGs are on their way to doing it. Some console games have already done it. Look at Journey with its genderless and non-stereotypical player character. We can do it, but we need to be allowed to do it.
I’ll reiterate the idea of creative freedom. I don’t think developers who use the old hat white male character are particularly limited in their creative freedom. I think developers (who work in mainstream companies, mind you) who try to expand on what a game hero can be are being limited by locked in prejudices and preconceptions.