Of critics and cretins: Anxiety over game criticism
I’ve made a considerable effort to show how much I value criticism about video games. I find them fascinating and complex, and talking about what or how they communicate through narrative, characters, and mechanics broadens our understanding of what they can do. There’s plenty of work to be done and many great conversations to be had regarding games in this respect; reviews rarely, if at all, offer any more information than if a game is worth a player’s time and money.
It’s really a shame, then, to find in-depth criticisms often met with overwhelming disdain or even hostility—especially if a writer critiques hot-button issues like race or gender. Talking about how great games are, defending them as works of art, or explaining that they are culturally relevant is all fair game. But all too often when someone brings up racism or misogyny, he/she is shot down for digging too deeply, for looking too closely, or is just generally accused of trying to ruin video games for the rest of us.
The most infamous case of people vs. critic is the one that surrounded Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist pop culture critic whose lecture I attended this past Thursday. Her webseries, Feminist Frequency, explores representations of women in pop culture, and discussions range from LEGO to Glee, all with the purpose of injecting a feminist perspective into the cultural conversation. When she decided to steer the conversation toward video games, as proposed by her Tropes vs. Women Kickstarter, she was met with a cyber mob that launched brutal attacks at her and her project, including threats of death and rape. Things worsened when fake twitter accounts claiming to be her attacked her credibility by attributing quotes to her that she never said. For the full story, check out the video below:
Her story has a happy ending. Her Kickstarter raised over six times the intended goal, expanding her initial five video project to include more videos and even a classroom curriculum to broaden the discussion of gender in games. Clearly, some people find value in a discussion of gender from a feminist perspective. For my part, I’m looking forward to seeing where she takes this project.
Before I go further with what I’m about to say, let’s take a step back for a recap. Her crime that prompted such fervent outcry was proposing a project that would study the representation of women in video games, resulting in a handful of YouTube videos. That’s it. That was the looming evil on gaming’s horizon that delusional crusaders fought back by flagging her posts as terrorism, threatening rape, and attempting to severely damage her reputation. YouTube videos.
What interests me here is not necessarily the heinousness of the attacks but the source for such stubborn resistance to her project. Sarkeesian posits a systemic misogyny in gamer culture, and given that most of the corrosive bile spewed at her specifically attacked her gender, it’s not a particularly hard leap to make. It is, however, a hypothesis I wish to trouble. It seems a bit reductive to attribute such a passionate resistance to her project as to an outcry of hate from a masculocentric locus. I think the mob mentality may have a bit less to do with gender and more to do with a wide-spread paranoid fear of change, regardless of its source.
When I was growing up, gaming was much more of a niche hobby than the entertainment juggernaut it is now. Discussions of strategies for progressing through The Legend of Zelda were relegated to lunchroom tables and playground corners instead of message boards. Hell, the one person who picked up a Nintendo Power, Gamepro, or Tips & Tricks was king and consultant. Arcades were spaces where gamers could battle in Mortal Kombat or team up in NBA Jam, and while gaming may have not been quite the “in-thing,” it was deeply meaningful. Now, with the unbridled momentum of modern gaming, those who had enjoyed gaming while it was kind of an outsider’s hobby become more defensive toward a wider audience.
If I were to play devil’s advocate, I guess I could understand the impetus to resist criticism beyond the simple review score. Games have been targeted by an ill-informed media time and time again, usually in a sloppy bit of scapegoating. It’s no surprise, then, that a group of gamers would feel threatened when criticism steps beyond the bounds of “buy, rent, or sell,” and let’s be honest, we’ve all seen comment sections where people cannot even read or watch a review without slinging accusations of corruption. It’s not hard to understand why we value our hobby, but that’s where my sympathy ends.
When that paranoia results in a large-scale attack on an individual simply because she wants to begin a critical dialogue, I have a hard time sympathizing with the dissenters. Folks will light up a post about how a character’s hair changed color, or we can rage about the ending of Mass Effect 3. Yet when someone mentions that there are sexist or racist elements in a game, legions of fans leap to defensive positions, hoping to stem the tide of an impending attack. This type of reaction often reduces the critic to a caricature of him/herself (a bra-burning, man-hating feminist; a snooty tweed-clad ivory tower-dweller; an inflammatory civil rights activists) instead of actually engaging with the complex ideologies the critic brings to broaden the discussion about games.
Here’s the overlooked fact that the mob has failed to understand: criticism is not a practice of damning indictment. Criticism is an ongoing dialogue about cultural values present in texts in meaningful ways. The goal of the critic is not to take games away from the gamers but to launch discussions about why they’re important, what they do, what they represent. But most importantly, critiquing games should not diminish the fun we find in them; it should allow us to expand the ways we think about them, offering new ways to appreciate them–maybe even improve them. Talking about the problematic portrayal of race in Far Cry 3 or about how female sexuality is on display in Bayonetta does not take away our enjoyment of the games; only the most delusional and insecure of us would find such concepts threatening.
When a critic is told to simply shut up and stop talking about sexism, racism, homophobia or any other issue in video games, we miss an opportunity to discuss games openly and bounce ideas off each other. It’s healthy and though-provoking to discuss these issues, but it’s not productive to automatically side with the game and demonize the critic outright. People should have their opinions. People should voice their opinions. People should, most definitely, defend their opinions. It’s damn good to disagree with critics, but it’s even better when someone can do so while providing a nuanced argument rather than a shouting match. Debating with someone is hardly the same as shutting them down with threats, and it’s sure as hell not the same as outright attacking someone through the shield of internet anonymity.
It seems pretty bleak to be a game critic who wants to bring up the heavy issues in games, but that’s hardly an excuse not to do it. For all the detractors who worry that criticizing a game is tantamount to damning it to some Dantean punishment, there are those who sincerely want to learn about games or engage with them by debating ideologies. For all those who scream and throw fits about a proposal to study gender in games, there are those who will fund a project that attempts to add a focused perspective to the conversation. Critical dialogues about games should not be silenced; they should be embraced, challenged, debated, and enjoyed. So let’s get to talking.