To hear the gaming press and hobbyist writers tell it, now is the winter of our discontent. There’s been a din of disillusionment – the commercial industry is giving us little to talk about beyond simplistic and repetitive genre conventions, clumsy sexualisation and the fetishism of violence wherever we look. Gaming refuses to grow up.
You’d think the summer season’s new trailers were part of some kind of contest to see who could pack the most curses, bare breasts, explosions and blood founts into one video. Thoughtless provocation tries to pass for adulthood; the creators of the newest Hitman and Tomb Raider games struggle to apologise for using violence against women as a plot point, even as it seems they don’t quite get why they were wrong to do so.
In some respects, this isn’t anything new. What’s changed has been the way the media confronts its frustrations. For one thing, the social landscape online spent months decrying the booth babe renaissance we saw earlier this year at E3, symbolic of a little-boys’-club culture where women aren’t welcome as equal participants. And we’re increasingly unwilling to tolerate the palpable hostility many women, myself included, experienced at the event.
Gamers and writers online have been rushing forward in greater numbers to tell personal stories in the hope of changing the wider perception of what ‘mature’ really means. Any day of the week you can find someone’s gut-wrenching account that illustrates rape isn’t just a plot point or a word you bandy about on Xbox Live; marginalised people and groups constantly speak out about how the oorah culture around triple-A games childishly refuses to include them.
Yet amid all of this incidental complaining, most of the gaming press still hands forward each publisher’s marketing message – wearing innumerable fingers to the bone to publish impressions, screenshots, trailers, podcasts, the all-important ‘best of’ scorecards – while its members vent their disillusionment on social media and in private. Plenty of writers do try to dig up interesting angles, concerned with bypassing the ‘negativity’ in favour of the ‘real’ story.
The problems with the commercial industry are bigger than incidents of harassment online, or discomfort at an event such as E3. These things are symptoms of a cultural sickness at the heart of the commercial game industry, tied to how releases are marketed and covered, and we are all complicit in perpetuating it.
It’s harder than ever to gain a career making games or writing about them. The ones who do make it are those most devoted to the obsession, those on a desperate chase to regain the magic of childhood or college at all costs. That’s part of why the commercial game industry clings doggedly to familiar, juvenile constructs – celebrates them even – and resists welcoming evolution and diversity.
Yes, the late console cycle and the risk-averse triple-A economy play a role. But it’s as undeniable as it is unbelievable that there are adult men who think breasts and swearwords are the ticket to grown-up land; who believe the best way to make a tough, inspiring heroine for the modern age is to drag a sex object out of the 1990s and pump her full of trauma; or who are proud they’ve made a game where you shoot all the people who talk funny.
And they’ve become sportscar-owning millionaires. The economy appears to have rewarded a certain childish egocentricity and refusal to self-examine. There’s disdain for those idiot journalists who lack appropriate respect, whose clueless yapping might get in the way of sales, and whose tireless demands for more are hypercritical and entitled.
Yet we in the press are complicit. When most of us reach a certain age and gain families to support, we transition to communications-oriented industry jobs because this seems sensible. That means the bulk of longtime writers are those enough in love with gaming that it doesn’t occur to them to question it. Fearful of alienating or offending our volatile audiences – or worse, our heroes, those famous game developers – we nod along, obediently transcribe. The best is when someone whose games you played when you were little likes your interview with them. It’s nice when a marketer praises your article; it’s nice to be first with a picture of a controller.
No wonder that when the industry’s most successful creators hear of the demand for maturity and sophistication, all that results are teen-boy tropes. And we gripe in private, but we accept this. Stagnant, emotionally arrested culture isn’t anyone’s fault, it’s just how things are. What do we know about the complex craft of game development, anyway? Let’s stick to what we can comment on: at least the graphics look good, at least someone is trying. The problem is the audience, the marketers, anyone but us. Let’s be positive; we have to respect everyone’s hard work and be positive.
Come on. Growing up means responsibility. Isn’t journalism supposed to be about holding people accountable? We need to try harder. For a while, we were all so happy to be here we’d put up with anything. But what happens when only rich guys are happy to be here any more?
Illustration: Martin Davies