“It’s just a game”
This post is outside the usual technical pure technical focus of this blog, but the subject matter is important to me, and I wanted to write down my thoughts on it while they were still fresh.
This is a tweet by Anita Sarkeesian, and a disturbingly large number of misogynistic (and outright hateful) replies she got in response. This would be a shameful display in any context, but it is especially bad considering that her “objectionable” statement is both a factual one and completely right. There were no games with female protagonists shown at the Xbox One E3 reveal.
So why the hate? Presumably because of things like her excellent “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series (which is excellent, and which you should watch immediately if you haven’t done so already. Go ahead. This post will still be there when you come back). As a player of video games, it’s hard not to notice how obviously, painfully right the points she makes are. I think Anita is doing the game developer community a great service by pointing out how badly we’re currently screwing up in this regard; not only can we do better, we should be collectively ashamed that we don’t.
However, that is not the point I’m trying to make here. Instead, I want to address a rebuttal I hear frequently in cases like this: “Relax, you’re taking it far too seriously, it’s just a game!”, or alternatively, “Games don’t affect people like that”. (This statement also makes frequent appearance in discussions on the role of violence in games).
When coming from game developers, I find this statement extremely baffling. And here’s why: most games referenced in this context are interactive experiences that a player will spend at least a few hours with. Considering how the human brain works, it is exceedingly unlikely that something, anything a player spends that amount of time on will leave no trace whatsoever in her brain. That does not mean that violent games makes people violent, or rampant misogyny in video games makes players hate women. That kind of thinking is far too simplistic and reductionist. But still: players will spend multiple hours of their life in a virtual world of your creation. That experience will, in some way or other, influence their thinking. Independent of whether it’s actually “harmful” to submerge players in a world of casual misogyny and ultraviolence – is there any point to it? Or is it just something we do out of laziness and without consciously thinking about it? And if so, what does that say about us?
But let’s take a step back. Say you really, truly believe that games leave no lasting impression of any kind on the player. That whether they play it or not makes no difference at all, for better or for worse, to their lives – they might as well have been sleeping. Because if you really think that is the case – then why are you spending years of your life working on the damn things?
See also: Brian Moriarty’s lecture “Entrain”.