Review: WTF Is Wrong With Video Games?

A couple of entries back I mentioned having my brain tickled by an excerpt from WTF Is Wrong With Video Games: How a multi-billion-dollar creative industry refuses to grow up, by Phil Owen. Curious how much further the author’s premise developed in the book, I went ahead and bought it for my Kindle.

The book’s been brigaded with 1-star reviews, because the excerpt drew the attention and ire of the Internet’s gamer manbaby population. Sigh. There’s enough worthy thought in there that it doesn’t deserve that treatment, but it doesn’t shine as a stellar example of games criticism, either. I rated it three stars of five.

WTF has nine chapters, but divides conceptually into three parts:

  1. That exasperated grumble about AAA video games’ failures as art;
  2. A mini-memoir of Owen’s time working as a games journalist, serving as a light exposé of the games industry as a whole;
  3. A retrospective on the Mass Effect trilogy, the closest anything has come to satisfying Owen’s AAA-art-game itch.

It’s a shame that part 1 has gotten so much attention via that excerpt, because part 2 is the strongest stretch of the book, with some eye-opening anecdotes about games development and the gaming press. I’ll go further to say that if I’d been Owen’s editor (did he have one?), I’d have urged him to scrap parts 1 and 3 and unfold part 2 as the whole of the work. It could have come together really well, interweaving stories of Owen’s life and career with the arc of a few case-study games from initial concept to critical reception. Owen appears to know enough about the development of Uncharted 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example, to have spent much more time and word count on them. The book would still have been brigaded by Gators, because Owen rightly bears no love for GamerGate and that factors in his life story, but it would have made the book a better catch for those of us who don’t venerate hate mobs.

Part 3, a sort of extended Mass Effect 1-3 review occupying the longest chapter of the book, serves to show that Owen doesn’t hate video gaming universally. He praises the games’ storytelling and replayability, while continuing to highlight the design and writing choices he found incongruous, such as the seeming irrelevance of Mass Effect 2‘s plot to the trilogy’s overall arc. The chapter illustrates that Owen’s skillset remains in critique of individual works, and would have made a fine article on any of today’s big-name games writing sites.

That first part, though!

Owen’s premise, that AAA games don’t cohere as works of art, is a head-scratcher in that it’s trivially true. Of course they aren’t great art; they’re mass-market entertainment. You could as easily say that summer blockbuster popcorn action movies aren’t very good art–and in fact Owen goes there in one chapter, discussing the goofy disaster film San Andreas as a parallel example to his gripes about AAA gaming. Owen comes perilously close to recognizing that he’s barking up the wrong tree, mentioning in a couple of places that perhaps AAA games are designed to maximize addictive fun factor rather than to make thematic statements. If he’d recognized the merit of that and focused his attention there instead of on the art angle, he’d still have a strong critique to make: AAA games often suck at being fun, too! But he waves that away, taking the AAA industry’s occasional lip service to artistic aspiration at face value.

The paragraph that disappoints me the most with Owen’s approach, though, is this bit about indie games, from the introduction:

I’m also not going to delve too deeply into the realm of indies because there’s far too much variety there to make the sort of grand, sweeping statements I’ll be throwing down here. I can, however, confidently assert that the indie space has many of the same fundamental issues as the bigger budget projects (AAA), as that sphere is largely made up of the same kinds of people.

Owen’s dismissal of indie development makes me sad, because it’s in the avant garde of video gaming that he’s most likely to find what he’s looking for. Design the from top down, start to finish, with the purpose of delivering an artistic theme is exactly the sort of thing that altgames go for. Perhaps Owen’s experience with “indies” is limited to the likes of Braid, whose convoluted puzzles and collect-every-widget victory condition do no service whatsoever to its aim of deconstructing “save the damsel” storylines. In that case I can understand how his frustrations would be the same as with AAA games. It’s not a sufficient pool of experience to “confidently assert” anything, though, in that case, and assuming low-budget games have “the same fundamental issues” shakes out to be pretty nonsensical once he gets into discussion of AAA corporate structure and marketing.

I’d thus exhort Phil Owen: come over to the altgames side, we have what you’re looking for! Play some Twine games designed to enlighten cishet white dudes about the lived experiences of the marginalized, like Bloom or 12 Hours. Wade into some of the weird, political, artsy stuff that comes out of game jams. Widen your narrow focus, currently fixated on the $60+ shelf. You’ll wonder why you ever went looking for love in AAA places.

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CDA 230, Feminism, and Provoking Thought

Earlier this week, freelance social justice writer Arthur Chu penned a piece for TechCrunch calling for the repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. For those who aren’t tech law wonks, Section 230 establishes that platforms hosting user-created content are not liable for the things their users create. In other words, if somebody defames you on Facebook, you can sue the person who wrote whatever ugliness it was, but you can’t go after Facebook itself. According to Chu’s observations, the combination of Section 230’s protections plus the overall engagement economy of the Internet has created a cycle of perverse incentive for these platforms to turn a blind eye to abuse. They have no obligation to moderate their content, thanks to Section 230, and because hateful content generates clicks, shares, and ad revenue like any other kind of user content, they would cut into their own profits if they voluntarily shut such things down. So they let it all slide, making the Internet’s best-known content platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc.) staging grounds for hate campaigns that ruin lives.

The piece was pretty widely panned. Ken Levine of Popehat argued that far from protecting the targets of abuse Chu intended this measure to help, it would put lots of fresh ammunition in the hands of their attackers. Techdirt’s Mike Masnick pointed out that the civil redress Chu enshrines in his post tends to be abused to shut down marginalized voices far more often than it allows them to score victories over the establishment. Both of those articles spell out several other sound arguments about the problems Section 230 repeal would bring on; hit the links for the full blow-by-blow.

What I find interesting, though, is Chu’s response to the claim that without CDA 230, the Internet as we know it would not exist. The massive surge in liability would make any user-content-hosting platform untenable as a business. To this Chu has said: good! Let those things burn. Chu pictures, it seems, a much quieter Internet: no Twitter, no comments sections, no user-submitted product reviews. Everyone who wanted to publish material would need to do so using their own resources, assuming all responsibility and risk for whatever they put forth. WordPress, for example, could not host people’s blogs for them; you could download and use their blog-creation software, perhaps, but on your own server only. Alternatively, content platforms might exist, but their pace of output and growth would be a crawl: every piece of user-added material would need exhaustive top-down review, to the point of paranoia, before seeing the light of day.

Would that be better for marginalized people than what we have now?

I’m not convinced it would be. Certainly, abominations like GamerGate wouldn’t take off, without liability-shielded havens from which to launch their bile. SWATting and doxing would take a great deal more effort and secrecy to accomplish. Those would be good things! But without Twitter, we also wouldn’t have Black Twitter. There would be no YouTube to host Feminist Frequency‘s videos. Activist groups couldn’t organize rallies using events on Facebook or Google Plus. Overall, the rapidity with which good ideas spread today would hit a brick wall. I for one would not have come around to my current progressive views on abortion, same-sex marriage, etc. at anywhere near the speed I did, were I not constantly exposed to content currently possible under CDA 230.

I do give Chu credit, though, for putting this bit of tech orthodoxy to the test. I have techno-libertarian leanings on a few topics myself, as my thoughts on copyright evince, but I rank my feminism as a greater ideal than those. If it could be more convincingly shown that the structure of the Internet today is more destructive to the marginalized than it is helpful, then I would reconcile the dissonance of my past pro-Internet stances by abandoning them. If copyright really does help the little guy against the big, rather than the other way around as I’m currently convinced it does, then by golly I will be a copyright goon. Chu’s thoughts as I’ve seen them articulated so far don’t come anywhere close to prompting such a paradigm shift, but props to him for getting me to consider the possibility!

Gamers, Pure and Special Just the Way They Are

There’s a persistent thread in children’s entertainments that goes, in various forms, “you’re beautiful just the way you are.” It’s a sentiment meant to guard against bullying, especially on the basis of factors beyond one’s control: appearance, family background, etc. But I wonder if some folks, exemplified by recent hate movements like GamerGate, have taken this message to heart with respect to things that are under one’s control.

“I’m special just the way I am,” if taken at face value, can be used as an out from any need to change or moderate one’s behavior. In fact, calls to behave differently or better are seen as part of a system of shame and bullying. If one’s personality is just the way you are, part of an immutable identity, then criticism of one’s behavior is inherently pointless and unjustified. “I’m perfect just the way I am! How dare you ask me to change?” So, for instance, the stereotypical image of the gamer, with its crude, obsessive, poorly groomed basement dweller, insofar as it is an accurate picture of an individual, is a thing to be embraced. Discarding personal hygiene in favor of more gameplaying time is the way I roll! Anyone who thinks I should change my ways is just a bully.

You can see this belief surface in other ways, too. For instance, there is a tendency to drag up many-years-old comments by an individual that have some hateful component to them, and hold them up as representative of that person’s true self. After all, if someone acted in a certain way at one point in time, and personality or behavior is a fixed part of one’s identity, then any change should be treated as suspect. Apologies for such past behavior are disingenuous, capitulation to outside pressure at best. Jim Sterling and Ian Miles Cheong have received a great deal of this treatment.

Of course, there are hypocrisy and double standards here too. For instance, if Breitbart columnist Milo rescinds his past disparaging remarks about the gamer community, that’s accepted and praised. Apparently, the hardcore gamer identity is the true one, and movements in its direction can be genuine. So long as it’s unsullied by disagreement with the gamer core, at least: people who don’t toe the party line, such as Anita Sarkeesian, continue to be treated as posers even if they begin to play games in the hardcore fashion. One can always rationalize a belief like “we’re special just the way we are” in a way that stays in harmony with one’s political agenda.

We should thus be on guard against the tendency to absorb messages that reinforce our entrenched sense of self and render us defensive against change. There are plenty of messages in children’s media and elsewhere that teach moral growth and abandonment of problematic behaviors, but if we cherry-pick those messages that say we don’t need to change, the rest fades into the background. I don’t know how to bring a greater self-awareness to those who have chosen this entrenched identity mantra, but I can at least celebrate counterpoints. And I can resist the little cultural memes that reinforce this idea, such as saying “that’s just the way he is” in response to someone’s bad behavior. That’s the way he is, but it’s never just the way he is. People can change for the better. I must always believe that, to have any hope for the world.

Tilt: Conversations with Randos

Trying to change someone’s mind is not the only purpose of engaging in argument. In fact, it’s often the least likely to be successful, especially if the argument in question takes place with a stranger on the Internet. I tend to get into back-and-forth with folks to attempt to grasp where their ideas come from, what basis they have–and if something I say brings about new understanding the other direction, that’s a bonus that gives me hope for the future.

The end point of these conversations, then, isn’t someone saying “you’re right.” Instead it’s a sort of impasse that I wish I had a specific word for (maybe academics among my readers know of a term?), where I discover a piece of thought so axiomatic and/or alien to my viewpoint that no further understanding is likely to occur.

I’ll call this moment a “tilt.” It’s a reference to pinball machines, which have mechanisms to detect when the player has rocked (tilted) the game beyond acceptable bounds, for which the penalty is usually being locked out of play for the rest of that ball. There’s also the expression “hit tilt,” which is to say, had enough or reached one’s breaking point, and “The Tilt” in the tabletop roleplaying game Fiasco, which is a randomized event injecting new chaos into the story so far. All of these things have the sort of connotation I’m after, of getting to a point where things come to a halt and/or get weird.

As an example, the last time I commented on Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik sticking his foot in his mouth, I talked with a friend who was frustrated that people were calling Krahulik out on it. The tilt occurred when I realized that said friend didn’t think Krahulik would ever change his ways: he felt that given the guy’s track record and personal history, criticism would never get through to him. My background in my own personal growth has me taking hope for betterment through hearing opposing views as given, so the fundamental difference in our opinions had been found. I could understand how the rest of his frustration followed from that different starting point, so we’d gotten as far as we could.

This week I posted a couple of Tweets under the #GamerGate hashtag. I’m not entirely sure of my own motives in doing so; they were criticisms of the movement that carries the tag as banner, but I didn’t necessarily intend to start a debate. I underestimated the tendency of folks to monitor a tag looking for fights to pick, though, so I did get some activity. What follows are the tilts that eventually occurred!

Gamer rage: One conversation didn’t last long because I blocked the other party. They were incensed that they’d been labelled misogynist, racist, etc. I’ve gotten past such defensive anger in my own life. If someone called me out as sexist, I’d be appalled, but my next reaction would be to figure out what I’d done wrong, apologize, and try to do better. I couldn’t possibly expect that of this stranger, so seeing that their attitude came from hurt and anger I didn’t share in was as much of a tilt as I could hope for.

Interaction is Corruption: A second brief conversation revolved around the concept of journalistic corruption. This person’s smoking gun was games writers who contributed to developer Patreon campaigns or had been roommates with developers. I wished I had a link to one of the several excellent “how journalism really works” articles opposing this extremely low bar for “corruption,” but hadn’t saved any off.

In any case, I figured out that our standards for games reporting were irreconcilably different. I don’t fetishize objectivity. I want the kinds of insights that come from people having connections, being close to the action, a personal stake. Game reviews where someone plays and shares their impressions in an otherwise featureless context are ubiquitous: I just need to pull up Steam recommendations, YouTube Let’s Play videos, or the like. Close relationships with creators, though, are less common and add value for me. To think that’s “corrupt”… tilt.

Censorship and the Use of Force: A third, more involved thread covered ground around the idea of censorship. I maintain it doesn’t make sense to cry censorship unless someone’s calling for a ban or other restrictive government action, or employing something like litigation, DMCA takedown, or physical aggression to suppress speech. This person, however, believed that “public shaming” constituted a use of force sufficient to qualify, and that changing “artistic vision” in response to criticism was capitulation to same.

Tilt! I don’t hold a creator’s ideas as sacrosanct: if they get critique, and choose to change course due to agreement with the basis for the critique, better business prospects for a tweaked work, etc., then that’s all part of the commerce of ideas, products, and art. Moreover, I don’t see shame as intrinsically problematic. It’s often a necessary emotion to go through in reaching a new, better outlook or habit. But to this gamer, anything causing shame is dirty pool. Therein lay the foundation of our differences!

Fictional Characters are Real. The last and most extensive conversation ranged over a number of topics, but the core of it discussed Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women” video series. This Twitterer professed to support feminism, but believed Sarkeesian’s work to be detrimental to the cause, driving young gamers into the welcoming arms of the radical right wing.

There was a bit of victim blaming (saying Sarkeesian was responsible for riling up 4chan and thus getting harassed), a lot of condescension (he seemed to think that being 37 years old made him an old sage, here to deliver wisdom to his youngers), and an assertion that Sarkeesian’s unwillingness to answer every possible question in real-time debate constituted a dodge of criticism. Delving into this last point hit the tilt. I held that Sarkeesian answers her critics in subsequent videos rather than in Twitter or YouTube exchanges, but this debater felt she’d never addressed her best counterpoints. I sought an example.

His best shot? Damsel in distress tropes aren’t disempowering, because when the hero rescues the damsel, he improves her situation, thus empowering her. Criticizing e.g. the sexualized attire used for many female game character designs amounted to slut shaming of women who have no voice.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Yes, sometimes a tilt is characterized by the “there’s so much wrong with that I don’t even know where to begin” feeling.

Interestingly, this bizarre tactic of acting like fictional characters are real people, and thus one should treat critique of their portrayals as if it were a condemnation levied against a flesh-and-blood woman, came up in the “Censorship and the Use of Force” discussion as well. It’s moon logic I can’t possibly adopt, therefore I hit tilt there, but the rest of it all does come together if you take it as given. Of course, if fictional characters are real people, then critics are being sexist to say they should wear different clothing. Of course if fictional characters are real people, then it makes sense to cry foul when those people’s situations and behaviors are lumped together in a trope analysis. It’s just that outside of Rando Land, people are criticizing choices made by game developers, character designers, marketers, etc., not choices made by the characters. Characters can’t make choices, because they’re fictional inventions, their actions and circumstances dictated by their creators!

Anyway, that’s a lot of gabble about what I was up to at midnight last night. I feel like I’ve learned a few things about the worldviews of folks who take the #GamerGate tag seriously. I still don’t agree with the arguments, because of these premises I can’t possibly grant… but I can at least grok how people arrive at some of the downstream hue and cry, given those starting points.

How #Gamergate Could Be Taken Seriously

EDIT: For context, check out this enormously helpful post from Gamasutra.

When I wrote my prior entry, I bemusedly wondered if I’d get dogpiled by the “hate mobs” I mentioned there. (That I could so idly wonder with nothing but an inward smile is a mark of my privilege as a little-known male gamer.) I didn’t, but somehow I did get a comment from one rando: James Desborough. I followed the guy briefly, early in my usage of Google+, as someone involved in the tabletop RPG scene–until I discovered he’s a raging sexism apologist, of the misogyny-doesn’t-exist variety*. However it was he stumbled across my post, he had this to say:

Wow, that’s a total and utter misrepresentation of what’s going on, buying into a false and deflection-oriented ‘misogyny’ trope that got us here in the first place.

It’s kind of a weird response, given that misogyny qua misogyny wasn’t the focus of the post, but it did get me thinking. I like to think of myself as open-minded; I signal-boost these conversations because I used to hold some ugly regressive views, but from exposure learned better. I’d rejected Desborough’s comment out of hand based on my past experience with the guy, but what would it take for me to listen, to think that he or other #Gamergate proponents had something worthwhile to say?

I don’t speak for other social-justice folks (surprise surprise, we’re not a monolithic conspiracy), but here’s what it’d take for me to hear someone out who professed to the anti-“SJW” side of things.

Unequivocal denunciation of doxxing, “leaking” private photos, and threats of violence. I realize that might sound unfair, like demanding of religious folks that they constantly profess their non-allegiance to terrorist groups. So yeah, it’s not fair, but I’d need to hear it. No exceptions, hedges, or dodges. If you believe that anybody deserves that kind of treatment, you’re part of the problem, and I’m not going to engage with you. If that’s a no-brainer, good; take it as a freebie.

Articulation of the “nightmare scenario.” As posed here by Scott Madin. So you’re up in arms; something is rotten in the state of Denmark; something must be done. How so? Why? If whatever it is you think Zoe Quinn did wrong went unnoticed, if Anita Sarkeesian got to make her video series without getting attacked for it, what’s the terrible thing that would have happened? If the people you’re crying “corruption” against got to keep doing their thing unhindered, what would go wrong? The answer would need to A. actually be bad, and B. be plausible, to fit the bill. So for instance “forced diversity in games” doesn’t work, because wider positive representation of gaming’s actual demographics would be awesome, and the idea that some government censor is going to mandate specific representations is laughable and not something anyone is calling for anyway.

Demonstrated understanding of how games journalism actually works. One of the major disconnects between the #Gamergate hue and cry and its targets is the nature of the games industry. There seems to be some belief that there’s an objective reality to game quality, misrepresented when someone reviews a game they have a personal connection to. But there is no such objective measure; different people like different things. Some people find Depression Quest a powerful work of interactive fiction; others find it boring and a poor representation of its titular illness; neither of these things is demonstrably true or false. The games press is by and large a marketing machine, with review sites in the unenviable position of reporting on games sold by the same companies that pay to keep the review sites up and running. If your best argument hinges on the idea that some games “deserve” good reviews and some don’t, or that the “bias” introduced by developers and games reporters being personally acquainted is aberrant, you won’t get far with me.

Acknowledgment of the ironies. Okay, this one isn’t a requirement, but it’d impress me! #Gamergate to date has been rife with irony. People harassing and attacking women (and people who speak up in defense of women) to demonstrate that gaming doesn’t have a sexism problem. People engaging in coordinated silencing campaigns because they think there’s a conspiracy to quash free speech. People campaigning for advertisers to exert control over content, because the content isn’t unbiased. Gamers, once adamant against the Jack Thompsons of the world in holding that they could distinguish fantasy from reality, buying into gonzo conspiracy theories. Gamers finding allies in the same neocon right wing that birthed Jack Thompson. And so on! If somebody from the #Gamergate crowd can grok how bizarre all that is, and try to address it, I’d listen.

*I was willing to excuse some old sexist publications of his (passed off as satire, a prime example of Sarkeesian’s recent point that mere reproduction is not satire) as the mistakes of someone who now knew better. But then he decided that the conversation about problematic depictions of rape in games needed an article “In Defense of Rape,” and went on about how the fighting game circuit isn’t sexist because it heaps abuse on dudes too. Uh huh.

Overactive Imaginations: “Gamergate” as ARG

I remember my let’s-pretend games more fondly and vividly than almost anything else in my childhood. When a game began, the world took on a new layer of meaning: a swing set became a fighter jet cockpit, a concrete slab a temple in the clouds, a tennis ball a blast of magic fire. You could say my current interests in role-playing and collaborative storytelling games attempt to recapture those freewheeling imaginative jaunts in a form palatable to adulthood.

One aspect I find remarkable, looking back, is how readily I was able to recruit others into these imagined worlds. My younger brother and my best neighborhood friend participated most frequently, but I also remember some occasions when playground acquaintances, nowhere near as close of friends as that core trio, joined in the fun. At one point, I declared that a schoolmate named Billy was the sage Amos, who had revealed to me that the basement of my house was a monster-infested dungeon.

I don’t remember how I convinced Billy to play along–did I pitch the idea, or simply walk up and address him as Amos, expecting him to figure it out as we went?–but as you might expect, my interest lasted longer than his. Eventually, I greeted him in character and he rejected the scene, exasperated that I was still on about that Amos thing. I remember, too, the very last such let’s-pretend game I ever played. High school was not far off, and the scenario was a science-fiction adventure with Super Soakers representing our blasters; I played an anthro-cat named Tai. Those of us playing pew-pewed from positions of cover on my parents’ front porch when a group of kids passed by on the sidewalk. They reacted with scorn to our immature play, sending some mockery our way as they went. My playmates shrugged it off, but for me that was the end. Their jeers punctured the dreamspace, and I could no longer repair or sustain it.

The past couple of weeks witnessed a series of ugly events oddly dubbed “Gamergate.” Gamers organizing on 4chan and Reddit took up an ex-boyfriend’s angry rants as ammunition to attack indie game developer Zoe Quinn. They harassed her, published personal details about her, and circulated discrediting rumors (mostly false and at best misguided), painting her as an example of “corruption” and missing “journalistic integrity” in the games industry. As the hate fed upon itself, the accusations got more and more bizarre; Quinn was not just one dev who’d supposedly done something sketchy to get ahead, but a conspiratorial mastermind manipulating the whole of the Internet to promote her preferences in games and crush dissent.

I can’t help but see this twisted vision of the world as analogous to those old games of let’s-pretend. Ordinary things gain superordinate meaning assigned by the reality being imagined. Videos like Anita Sarkeesian’s spectacular “Tropes vs. Women” aren’t just literary criticism of art; they’re attacks meant to censor and destroy the video gaming hobby. Games journalists aren’t just folks with diverse opinions scraping by in an unforgiving industry; they’re a global conspiracy out to promulgate an artificial social justice agenda. Instead of the muddy and nuanced world we live in, with real people’s lives and emotions in ordinary crises, it’s a game, with bad guys that must be destroyed to prevent an apocalyptic end to the world. And why not? The perpetrators of these hate campaigns identify as “gamers” first and foremost: it’s no surprise that when they feel uncomfortable or threatened, they turn things into a game to cope and respond.

So I wonder: what will be gamers’ Amos or Tai moment? At what point will the imagined world deflate? I have to hope that at last, someone (or many someones) in those mobs will wake up and say, “You know, this isn’t fun anymore. We’re hurting real people for no reason. There is no conspiracy. It felt good to think so and get angry about it, but it was just a game. It’s time to grow up.”

That sort of epiphany is the only way out of this shared hallucination. And unlike my growing out of Super Soakers and swing sets, I hope those who awaken from the Gamergate dream will look back not with nostalgia, but with horror and remorse.

Useful links:
Depression Quest, Zoe Quinn’s interactive fiction about life with mental illness
Feminist Frequency, Anita Sarkeesian’s games critique platform
Ars Technica chronicle of the Gamergate fiasco
Devin Faraci’s incisive from-within look at the gamer mindset