The difference between oppression and gamers
June 22, 2012 § 2 Comments
Okay, this one has been percolating in my head for a while. It started with reading about the Tropes and Women in Video Games idea for a kickstarter. I will admit, I wasn’t terribly interested in the idea because I usually find examination of tropes needlessly reductionist, serving only to prove whatever point the examiner started out with. I watched the video, said to myself “Well, it’s not breaking new ground or anything but we sure haven’t gotten better about this kind of thing, maybe it’s necessary after all” and moved on with my day.
Then over 5000 comments were left on the You Tube page attacking and even some threatening to rape and murder Anita Sarkeesian for having dared to suggest there’s a lot of sexist bullshit in video games. I want to highlight that. A woman made a kickstarter to fund her project about sexism and video games and over five thousand comments were left harassing and belittling, and in some cases outright threatening her with death or sexual assault for it.
Well, congratulations on proving her point, guys. I no longer doubt that the web series needs to be made. But more than that, I find myself wondering how we ended up here. How did video gamers, a subsection of the larger ‘geek’ community of self-defined outcasts and misfits, end up swarming like movie piranha the second someone dared to suggest that there may be some flaws in the hobby? Admittedly, this is far from the first time I’ve noticed something strange in how the subculture reacts to criticism. In general, gamers seem to respond to the idea that there’s anything wrong with, say, playing a video game where you watch a female protagonist get battered, broken and almost raped (hi, Lara Croft, I remember when you raided tombs) the same way the human body responds to an infection. I believe in part this comes from a poisonous ideology that has taken root in the heart of many gamers, and even in the larger self-declared ‘geek’ community at large. It is this toxic idea that they are the oppressed, the victimized, that they are hated and ostracized by the majority of our culture. It is an idea rooted to some degree in our culture going back to the end of the Second World War. We can see it in old TV shows and movies (it is the main premise of I was a Teenage Werewolf starring Michael Landon, in a manner of speaking) this concept of unpopularity equating to being a pariah. From Peter Parker to Marty McFly, the awkwardness of adolescence is magnified in our minds by the structures of the hierarchy that is built in the teen years, the ancient nerds vs. jocks dichotomy. The problem is, this isn’t actually oppression in most cases.
If you want oppression, try being gay in high school. Liking video games in high school isn’t being oppressed, it’s being the majority of kids. Several of the richest people in the world today got that way through liking computers, it’s no longer a ticket to ostracism if it ever really was outside of a few short years in someone’s life. But we enshrine the concept of our outsider status. The myth of our social oppression is enshrined even as the actual situation is almost entirely the opposite. Gaming is an industry now, and one that makes hundreds of millions to billions of dollars a year. That’s not on the fringes of anything. Deciding you like video gamers or are a geek does not put you into a despised social status now (if it ever really did, which is very debatable) because millions of people are doing the exact same thing. It’s mainstream. It’s a part of the larger overall culture.
When The Big Bang Theory is all about you, the subtext has been obliterated.
But the myth persists, enshrined in a thousand thousand hearts, the idea that we’re under attack. Trained by years of Jack Thompsons and parental watchdog groups ready to seize upon any pretext to brand video games as nightmarish murder simulators, we’ve lost our ability to actually understand the critical process. Seeing ourselves as victims and under attack, we can no longer distinguish between a self-serving publicity attempt and a genuine desire to find flaws and improve the community and what it consumes. Worse, we’ve adopted the very tactics of those we pretend to be oppressed by, lashing out in a mass mob of bullying to try and silence dissent instead of examining what’s being brought to the discussion.
Let me make it clear. When you threaten to rape someone to try and silence them, you have moved from pretend oppression to real oppressor. You are not the victim. You are the victimizer. Whether or not you agree with the critic isn’t the issue. Whether or not you’re offended by the Hitman: Absolution trailer, or the new Lara Croft game, or Lollipop Chainsaw’s relentless assault of objectification isn’t the issue. I am not arguing that you have to care about any of it. I am arguing that the mass reaction to people saying that they have a problem with it shouldn’t be a knee jerk defense of our poor endangered hobby. Not only isn’t it endangered, neither are you. You are not video games. You are someone who plays video games. Believe it or not, the act of criticism is a real and necessary step if video games are to keep evolving as a means of presenting a narrative and expressing artistic intent. But even if you don’t care about that artsy bullshit, criticism is necessary because without it, no one learns or evolves or grows and we get the same shitty game over and over and over and over and over and over again.
There’s a goddamn reason we get so many goddamn sequels. There’s a reason game developers will often sit back and make the same game, but with more blood and nudity, because the quality of our discussion has been so stilted by reactionary hate to any dissenting opinion. We’re incapable of seeing through the bullshit because when someone says “Hey, isn’t this bullshit” then we launch ourselves like wasps at an intruder to the hive in our close minded way.
Frankly, the way we treat women, gender relations, race illuminates who we are and who we’ve chosen to be. Misogyny, racism, sex or gender based hatreds like homophobia, transphobia, hate speech – these all show how far we’ve come, or not come, in terms of dealing with real oppression. There are people out there who are really suffering, who feel alone and isolated and unloved, or outright hated by the society at large and prevented from becoming part of it for any one of a thousand reasons and who see life as cruel and unfair and who may well end up taking their own lives or growing into damaged people who need years to come to terms with what they went through. Stealing their struggle and wrapping ourselves in it because we like to play video games and someone called us a nerd once is monstrous, and using that stolen oppression to justify threatening to drown someone in semen because they dared to say or do something you don’t like about the hobby you picked up is obscene and reveals you as the bully, the aggressor, the oppressor you try so hard to frame the world as.
It is possible to disagree with someone without trying to get a mob to shout them down. And it should be the preferred state. If you can’t come to an agreement and can’t move past the exchange of arguments, then walk away. Just leave the discussion. Threatening to kill someone, discussing how fat they are, calling them names or trying to crash their web site, defacing their wikipedia page – these are the actions of bullies. It doesn’t matter how right you think you are. These tactics are used by many groups – men’s rights activists, white supremacists, cults – especially because they fear the ideas of their opponents but have no good ideas to use to debate them. Since these groups care more about winning then they do about the morality of their actions, they willingly use these kinds of personal attacks and harassment. Is that who you are?
A great many people reading this will say “But I’ve never done anything like that” and that’s great, neither have I, but we’re being tainted by association with the people who do. As long as ‘gamer’ and ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ are used both by us, and by them, we end up tarred by the blowback. Perhaps it’s as simple as not using those terms. Despite my love for Hypatia of Alexandria, Hildegarde of Bingen, Cathars, and so on I don’t really think I count as a nerd anymore, if I ever did. I play video games, yes, but I don’t feel like that places me in a special culture or makes me a target for oppression, so perhaps I’m simply past the point where I matter. I still think, not only for the sake of the art form but for us as people, we must learn to treat criticism as it warrants. We must judge each criticism on its own merits, and we must learn how to measure our responses and treat each other with enough consideration that we can have criticism. It’s important to be able to hear detractors.
Gamers are not oppressed. And we’d better start working to make sure gamers aren’t the ones doing the oppressing.