There’s a backlash happening across the globe right now. Even though popular culture seems okay, I’m pretty sure we’ll see a surge of movies, books and games that reproduce these values soon enough. What 24 did to torture, so to speak.
The last time we have a backlash that affected the gaming industry was in 2008 in combination with the economical recession. A lot of the women I had worked with for a long time were let go – so was I – which resulted in pitiful numbers in the yearly census of game devs in Sweden. At least when it came to how many women were working in the industry.
We’re experiencing a similar backlash now, but this is not so much economical as it is cultural. That games are changing, not only as a cultural phenomenon, but as a past-time is nothing new. This change has been happening ever since mobile phones started to saturate the market on a larger scale, because what are mobile phones? Handheld gaming devices. They also have the advantage of not being culturally restricted to one demographic – unlike gaming on PCs and consoles. “Everyone” has a phone, and I think that most people who do have at some point tried out gaming on them.
This casual gaming saturation among the populace at large led to the rise of multiple mobile gaming companies (and Facebook games) who stole ideas from each other and mistook “casual” for “stupid”. And so we saw a range of mobile and Facebook games that were less than what they could have been. The game loops were not a lot of fun, and most games during that period of time were limited in gameplay, basically it was grinding with time restraints.
This changed when audiences started demanding more. More gameplay, better economy, better topics. The stigma on casual games was affixed though. Casual games are still low status, with the idea that they cater to a rich and primarily female audience with no appreciation for “real games”. Jesper Juul in his book The Casual Revolution showed that casual games – the popular ones – are neither simple or stupid. They’re often complex, hard to master and just as intricate as console games. Jul points out that the biggest difference is time spent per session.
The many different ways in which we can be game players are better understood via the simple model I described earlier in this book: we have different fiction preferences; we have different levels of knowledge of video games; we are willing to commit different lengths of time; we have different preferences for difficulty in games.
Juul goes on to say that games intended for a broader audience should try to be more flexible – and at the same time we don’t buy flexibility, we buy a game. The game can never be separated from the player, because the player and the game together is the experience. This, to my mind, makes the discussion about “real” or “not real” games irrelevant. The real games are the good gaming experiences, and those vary between different players, and even between sessions, depending on what experience the player is looking for.
Juul also points out what makes the biggest difference among gamers are the ages of the players. The older a gamer gets, the less time there is for playing, and the less time they have for long sessions. It would therefore be more accurate to say that “old people aren’t real gamers” rather than “women don’t play real games”. Since a “real game” is such an illusive beast, I think the real issue isn’t about demographics or game types. I think it’s about exclusion. Who are let in and who are not? More often than not, that is all about gender.
Let me elaborate.
Ever since the moral panic of the 80’s when Dungeons & Dragons was painted as the New Evil™, nerds and gamer nerds in particular have taken on the persona of underdogs. They’ve been standing up against a cultural establishment unable to understand the value and entertainment of games. There definitely was a time when gamers were derided for their interests and gaming was considered nerdy and socially stigmatising, but the saturation of gaming devices and the widening audience (at the moment people playing games consist of approximately 60% of the online population in the US and similar numbers in Sweden) has changed the landscape significantly.
Yes there are still those who would use games like GTA V as an example of “dangerous games”, but in truth, those are the exceptions rather than the rule.
More than half the online population are playing games. The carefully cultivated underdog persona of gamers are no longer valid. With that changing landscape follows a change in identity and a focus shift. If gamers are no longer the marginalised nerds, what are they? I have no answer for that question, except to say that “gamer” can no longer be a distinguishing part of an identity, and thus the identity calls for a re-examination. Unless of course the “gamers” guarding that identity refuse to let those they deem unworthy in. A part of that change in demographic also mean the the culture will be scrutinised in a different way. Perhaps even questioned.
With acceptance into the population at large also follows a different critique of the gaming media. Instead of the uninitiated onslaught of moral panic, the media is questioned on a basis of artistic content, stereotypes and tropes and the idea that games have a social and cultural value that propagate these ideas to the culture at large. This is a critique that games have been free of for a long time. Many reviews now – and then – focus more on the mechanics rather than the narrative content. Even the content and narrative content of the mechanics is often overlooked.
This broadening critique has of course shone a light on the more problematic aspects of game content. The blatant sexualization and objectification of women, the stereotypical way people of colour are portrayed, the mockery of trans* people, and the gay man as a wimp and gay woman as someone to convert to the joys of heterosexuality with manly manliness.
All those fantasies, regardless of if they are questionable or not, are aimed at the same audience. The straight, white, cis, heterosexual man. They are power fantasies, so of course they feel good to play – unless of course you’re outside the demographic.
That criticism happens to be the most common. Keep in mind we haven’t even started talking about the ethics or morals of indiscriminate killing. The only real “demand” has been “wouldn’t it be nice with diversity and equality?”.
A subset of the audience – the gamers that are guarding entry into gamerdom as if it was the holy grail – says “no”. It doesn’t have to be as unambiguous as that. Instead the commentary might be “we have Jade and Lara and Bayonetta, what are you complaining about?” or we might be told we’re only looking for a way to be offended or that (the men) are only doing it to get laid.
The initiated critique we have started to see is however met with the same derision and assumption of lack of knowledge as the moral panicky and often ludicrous critique that games received – and to some extent continue to receive – based on assumption rather than fact.
There is a built in cultural response among gamers. One is that the gaming population is still an underdog, fighting against the “establishment” and as we all know, the underdogs are supposedly the good guys. However, numbering in around 60% of the online population is no longer to be a marginalised group. And yet there is what feels like a desperate bid to try to keep “gamers” in the corner of the underdog, as the audiences become larger and and the criticism of games become better and more precise.
One way of doing this is of course to set up barriers for entry, and the only commonality these barriers or “rules for being a ‘real gamer’” has, seem to be “I’ll know it when I see it”. This somewhat haphazard rules set is being uniformly adopted by self-professed gamers and the audiences being excluded are primarily women, LGBTQ-people and other marginalised groups within gaming. I’m sure the litany is familiar. “50% of gamers are women” “that’s not true” “umm, statistics…” “Yeah, but those aren’t real games”.
A part of the backlash – built on these premises – is of course GamerGate. It opened the floodgates to organised hate and harassment, all the while pretending that it was all about ethics in games journalism. GamerGate only gave the haters something to gather around, which made the whole movement stand out more, but games have been a precarious place for marginalised groups for a long time.
The cultural backlash we’re currently seeing may have a unified front in GamerGate, but the hate has been there for a long time. I have a feeling that the more popular games become, the harder the resistance to letting everyone in is. My belief is that this is all about safe guarding an identity that is breaking up.
Unfortunately the latest backlash – starting with GamerGate in 2014 – has made women afraid to speak up, and it has also seen numerous women and members of marginalised groups leave the industry or community for good. I think it’s hard to imagine what it feels like, going through such massive amounts of abuse as Quinn, Sarkeesian, Jubba, Moosa and Wu and many more with them are going through. All because men are feeling threatened and deprived of something that can not really be owned in the first place.