The Digital Frontier

Socially and culturally, video games occupy a portion of what I call the digital frontier, a place where the war for social justice is raging in the virtual space; where unfettered sexism, racism and other forms of group oppression and discrimination are entangled in a battle for greater games. What makes it such a critical battleground is that virtual spaces provide as much opportunity to re-establish regressive notions of group identity as it does opportunity for progressive ideas that can really transform the gaming space into something inclusive of all groups. Representation matters. That’s the battlecry of those who are the community’s toughest critics and most passionate gamers. What are we up against in this battle and is there some sliver of common ground all sides of the conflict can agree on?

Political Correctness as Appeasement

Concept Art of KerriganPolitical Correctness (PC) is the brush used by defenders of the status quo to paint every effort at inclusiveness and diversity as appeasement and dishonesty. It’s used to denigrate those perceived to act PC and to discredit all actions taken towards radical change. When I see “PC” being used in response to cultural sensitivity and social/political awareness, I see the person using it as angry and offended that things they feel entitled to are being challenged; a person afraid that change will take something from them that they hold dear. It’s good to have a healthy fear of change, but these responses aren’t usually of the healthy variety. When our contentment relies on the discontentment or deprivation of others, or when others gaining something is viewed as a personal loss, I consider that a good barometer of an unhealthy sense of self. It can cause serious conflicts of identity and make it difficult have relationships with others.

Gamers have quite the reputation for vitriolic and vicious responses to challenges to our space. When sexism and racism and other -isms turn up on a game site or blog, there we can find angry (mostly) dudes shouting down those challenges and attempting to derail discourse or trample it into obscurity. But why the violent response? Because it poses an existential threat to them.

For men, as an example, accusations of sexism are challenges to male identity. They are bound up in the homosocial aspects of masculinity, where we (men) do things for the approval of other men in the quest to relentlessly demonstrate our heterosexuality. For example, the artists responsible for Sarah Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades in Starcraft 2 aren’t simply sharing their sexual fantasies or demonstrating their artistry, but signifying their heterosexuality for the approval of male gamers. She is something male gamers toast to, a symbol to appraise the quality of their masculinity. The angry responses are not only a sincere defensive reaction to a perceived existential threat, but simultaneously an opportunity for men to prove to other men their solidarity and commitment to manhood. Threats to the group are a direct affront to our personal identity and so we respond accordingly to shut it down. But sexism is only one easy example to make. This applies to all identity politics.

Escapism

Quote by M. Kimmel

In the broader analysis of the construction of fantasy, video games offer an escape unlike other media. It can thoroughly immerse us within our fantasies through the use of interactive avatars and virtual environments. The gamer culture which emerged from this has been built on the values of middle-aged white men who have been the architects of our virtual fantasies and founders of the communities we inhabit. As sociologist Michael Kimmel puts it in his book Guyland, video games are “both an escape from reality and an escape to reality — the ‘reality’ that many of these guys would secretly like to inhabit” (Kimmel: 150).

Our game developers have created a space largely for men like themselves and filled it with traditional notions of manhood, ostensibly things which represent their own beliefs about masculinity. I don’t judge them on that, because none of us had control over the social structures that helped create who we are. However, the most popular gaming titles each year espouse a social Darwinist view of the world as naturally consisting of unbridled competition (sports), projections of male sexuality onto women (fantasy), and often asocial behavior (stoicism, unfeeling, disregard for others, such as seen in war games and the like).

So if people recreate in fantasy things lost in our reality, then it’s worth asking what it is our developers have aimed to recreate in their games. In the western world, we have seen the nearly exclusive use of the Middle Ages as a backdrop for these worlds. Medieval fantasy seems the preferred time period to simulate and the values of the time are reproduced and valorized in ways that romanticize classism, discrimination and other forms of oppression.

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The hyper-masculine values extracted from the European Middle Ages and repackaged for gamers as an age of glory for men is unmistakeable: the appeals to bravado, gory violence (portrayed as natural and always justified), conquest (of women and other property), domination, virility, sexual success, and entitlement to rewards as a birthright. However, these aren’t limited to the medieval period. Games like Call of Duty and other combat simulators peddle to an antiquated warrior culture as well, where belligerent behavior is expected and fostered, shrugged off as natural male behavior or a healthy outlet for pent-up rage. These are some of the things which help construct our gaming fantasies, that developers and players like have determined were worthy of recreating.

Through this lens, the absence of ethnic minorities and the second-class role of women in those virtual spaces is understood to be justifiable because it’s something you would expect a game striving for historical replication to capture. The question is why we want to replicate this; what is missing from our reality that drives us toward these fantasies? Medieval Europe was a time and place where white men were in charge and their authority unchallenged, their superiority taken as granted. The battlefield is still largely considered a man’s place and minorities are still depicted largely as insane bad guys. These are the most popular fantasies our game designers have reclaimed for us.

Is there any wonder that accusations of racism and/or sexism within the gaming community are followed up with extreme threats and promises of violence by fans? If there is a longing for these values, then I might expect someone who espouses them to react in this way.

These accusations have no power in a medieval fantasy and through this lens these social ills cannot be defined as problems at all. The sexism, racism and classism are part and parcel of the construction of the fantasy, whose authenticity is lost when those things are absent. Men invested in these fantasies feel entitled to have them and history is used as the reason this should be so, creating a virtual space where men escape from reality and to reality as Kimmel pointed out. This glorification of the medieval and warrior value set becomes much more worrying when we acknowledge the relationship between our fantasies and our personal longing. The fantasies we enjoy often betray us.

When gamers like Anita Sarkeesian or developers like Jennifer Hepler or commentators like Carolyn Petit dare point out that perhaps there’s a bit of misogyny and sexism in our games (both of which are characteristic of the Middle Ages), this is the audience to whom they dare speak. Why should we be surprised at the aggressive reaction given the context from which it emerges?

Reclamation of the Real

On the digital frontier, certain groups of men are desperately trying to reclaim themselves through sexist and racist fantasies. They are reasserting their right to things which they perceive the real world has taken from them: their right to dominate, right to women as sexual objects, as loot; their right to be the default audience whom everyone else must adapt their tastes to; and their right to establish “the way it should be”. They have historically been the group who has always filled these roles and they don’t see why they shouldn’t continue to do so.

Grand Theft Auto V

This is not a parody of sexism and racism, but a celebration of it.

This points to why some of these men believe calls for change are equivalent to the scandalous requirements of being “PC”. They are trying to reclaim their right to be the opposite of PC, which for them means a natural Man, defined as belligerent, aggressive, competitive, and controlling. For them, games are supposed to be a pure space where PC has no place, where change is unnecessary, even a silly suggestion at all; where minority groups are not welcome, because inviting them is considered being PC! Additionally, this minorities’ demands should be ignored because they are merely tolerated, merely allowed to participate in gamer spaces. As we’ve seen in many a comment section, these marginalized groups are told that if they don’t like it they can go elsewhere because this was never meant for them in the first place.

I’m grateful and lucky to know of many men and women who are more progressive, more amenable to sharing the digital frontier generally and gamer spaces specifically. Certainly there are large swathes of the gaming community who don’t subscribe to such fear-driven beliefs and violent reactions to calls for inclusion and sensitivity in our games. There are many of us who believe that requests for a more colorful character palette, a more diversified representation of culture, less objectification, more gender expression and on and on. Yet the rage and sense of entitlement on the digital frontier is so ever-present that we cannot ignore it. It demands our attention and I hope the men and women who share this gamer space with me will continue to have the energy and courage to keep this topic on their lips and at their finger tips.

As for video games, I believe change must start with our developers and the games they make. Developers are too often apolitical and amoral in their designs and public stances. It creates the toxic environment for dismissal of serious issues by their fans who defend their work. It seems like the popular belief amongst developers, as seen through the games they deliver (not the words they speak), is that to create virtual worlds with inclusiveness, equality of representation, and less sexualization is to be “PC”, which is understood by them as appeasement. They concern themselves only with making “cool” games, leaving the thorny issues of sexism and racism for presidents. To have an opinion of sexism, for them, is a violation of the fantasies they’ve been selling in which sexism and racism are not only a given, but are celebrated and which literally help construct the virtual worlds we’ve come to love and enjoy. If these issues are only for PC persons and politicians, I expect developers to not retreat to PC apologies and PR gloss on the matter, but to come clean instead of laying the responsibility on their fans. They should join the discussion instead of evading it for as long as possible and crying foul as soon as someone asks them about it.

Real PC

Political correctness really means having a respect for others, their experiences, and their dignity. People who paint being PC as insincerity or appeasement, or who believe that being politically correct diminishes them personally, are tragically missing the wider points at the heart of the discussion. Accusations that a person is being PC are done to dismiss their points as superficial pandering.  Meanwhile those who abuse the term in this way are proclaiming their birthright to behave in ways that are spiteful to others, thinking themselves entitled to the way things are and believing that fantasy notions of social equality to be the way forward, even as those fantasies reach into the past.

I take questions of identity very serious, and even when I disagree with others I try to respect what they’re feeling when issues challenge their identity because it can cause anxiety. It is a fundamental query of our humanity: who are we? It’s critical to have dialogues on the digital frontier which involve our politics, culture, and social concerns, but developers have to participate in that conversation through the fantasies they design in our games. Games are not only influenced by our personal beliefs and those of society, but create influences of their own. Every game has a message, no matter what a developer says to the contrary. The only question is what that message is.

The battles on the digital frontier have only just begun, but they have been pretty bloody so far. The good news is that sanity seems to be prevailing (progressive discourse). The bad news is that insanity is determined to fight to the last man, refusing to yield to our common humanity and right to a dignified gaming experience the same as they are.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The nice thing about fantasies is they are alterable.

Sources

Kimmel, Michael Guyland.

Kimmel, Michael The Gender of Desire.

Grayson, Nathan, “Blizzard on Heroes of the Storm, Female Designs in MOBAs”. Interview from Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

Scree Tags: #fantasy #escapism #gamertalk