Better Discourse = Better Games

To follow-up a piece I wrote a few weeks ago about the ESRB, I want to talk about the maturity of the average gamer. In some ways, developers seem justified in designing unsophisticated games, toning them down to elementary levels to get the attention of the greatest number of players. There’s something about the way gamers relate games to entertainment and escapism which makes us believe they aren’t the place for more sophisticated content. And I’m not really referring to games which tackle political topics like Bioshock Infinite. I’m talking about basic adult level games that don’t assume you’re an idiot or a child. Most games feel designed for the maturity level of a kid.

In fact, when we talk about “mature” games in the community it’s almost always in reference to sexual content. Just think about that for a moment. This says a lot about the level of discourse in the gaming community that maturity is always in reference to “lolsex”. The ESRB confirms this with their Adults Only rating, which only games like Rapelay would ever get. I really do wish the RSAC system had been further developed as a ratings system because it at least acknowledged that most games are for adults.

At the same time, I don’t want to ridicule childishness. We all admire the qualities of children, especially their ability to imagine and be carefree. We almost envy children their lack of responsibility as adult gamers. And in doing so, games have a special appeal for people like us – people looking for an opportunity to get away from the grind of responsible adulthood. There’s a balance to strike between nurturing our inner child and becoming that child for the sake of gaming. Having a game which is so well designed that even a child could understand it is not the same thing as designing a game which patronizes adults.

The ESRB is completely unconcerned with content for adults. Thoroughly. It’s not part of their mission. In fact, there’s no establishment in the entire industry which is concerned with this. ESRB ratings are on almost every game. Even though we know better, we still categorize and think of games as toys for children. The industry is still structured as though children are it’s known audience, even though the data tells us every year that most gamers are well-established adults with full careers and children of their own. Still, a complete stranger to the community who took a visit to the Kotaku or Eurogamer comments sections wouldn’t be able to tell that the majority of it’s members are mature, working adults. The level of discourse on those sites is positively elementary, often rising to toxic adolescence, but rarely showing signs of maturity.

That’s a huge problem for games. For developers and creators who want to be taken seriously. For those who want games to be seen as art and those who want programming to be viewed as science, the level of discourse in the community doesn’t allow it.

Ubisoft recently embarrassed itself with foolish statements defending the decision to not create female versions of heroes in their game. The discussion that followed had all the usual arguments, almost none of which examined the facts surrounding the character development process. Ubisoft offered no insight into their production process in a bid to justify their statements. Journalists didnt’ call them on it either. Mostly what happened was ridicule and shaming, which they may have deserved, but which didn’t raise the level of discourse. In the end all the substance generated by the topic was that Assassin’s Creed wouldn’t have a female version of the protagonist. All that we got from it was a statement of fact. On it’s own, this wasn’t even worth pointing out.

So why couldn’t the community raise the level of discourse in this instance to actually bring about change? There’s a few things each side needed to do in order for the issue to even matter.

Ubisoft would need to be more open about their production process (and they’re merely the example here, all game developers should do this). When there’s no transparency, there’s no accountability. Of course, the excuses they gave were poor and probably outright last minute lies to cover their asses when they were caught with their pants down. It’s not likely they could have proved that adding a female would “double” their production timelines. So maybe that’s why they didn’t talk more about their production. Even so, in situations like these where there’s community concern about discrimination and representation, developers must be willing to be transparent. It’s not even a discussion without that information, because they can basically just tell us “it doubles it!” and we have to take their word as gospel. So accountability is essential to raising the level of discourse.

Journalists would need to do more than fish for sensationalism. No one probed Ubisoft about their production processes. No one did an interview, a studio tour, or even a content preview to explore gender in Assassin’s Creed. All of these things play their part in raising the level of discourse. I have to wonder how many journalists actually believe they should investigate companies like Ubisoft. Journalists are the link between us and them when it comes to access to information. Without them doing their part, it’s difficult to even get a conversation going about a game. Very few sites do behind the scenes research and even when they do, developers have to be willing to talk.

The final link in the chain are us, the players. Its our money that funds the games and builds the forums, wikis, and blogs. It’s our passion that fuels the guides, reviews, and open betas. We do a lot to affect the level of discourse. Everyone won’t be involved in shaping the conversation, and that’s alright. Everyone isn’t required, even though that would be great (it would lessen the task for us individually). What matters are that the leaders within our community are doing their part.

There are those who don’t care, or who care only inasmuch as the issues “ruin” their games.  Raising the level of discourse is challenging, but not difficult. All it takes is a willingness to listen to one another and treat each other with respect. You can’t easily dismiss someone you respect, or someone you see pieces of yourself in. You can’t easily ignore anyone that you think might be like you. So perhaps the problem is that gamers don’t see ourselves in one another. Maybe we’re plagued with hero syndrome, because we’re so used to being “the one” in our games. Maybe. I wish I knew why players were so hateful towards one another, but I’m afraid it’s not something that can be understood.

Whatever the case, one thing is for sure: we’re not going to get better games without better communities. We tend to look towards games as bringers of a better community, but that’s not how it works. While games can set the stage for the type of players it will draw, gamers themselves have to step up and become worthy of better games. The great news sites among us who allow the comments to become cesspools are the reason no higher level of discourse can be had. These sites should be protecting dialogue or removing the comments section altogether (contrary to popular belief it’s not better to have a terrible comments section than none at all; the former is far worse). But players allow the conversation to devolve as much as the lack of moderation does.

Blogging and podcasting and such may be all about talking about games, but these things help set the tone for many conversations about our games. When gamers take games seriously, the rest of the world will too.

As usual, Maddy Meyers has published a new piece sharing her most recent experiences with games journalism. I’m not a games journalist in the same sense, but I nonetheless can relate to the ridiculousness that is “professional” writing, in which groups vilify each others’ works in a bid to prove who’s more official. I thought that for those among us who aspire to write for a living, you’ve probably come up against your own set of obstacles. You can probably appreciate this story even more in that case, but it’s an eye opening read and enjoyable read anyway.