When I was growing up in the UK in the 1990s, my family and I would watch a snooker themed game show called “Big Break”. The theme tune to said game show went something like this: “It’s only a game so put up a real good fight. I’m gonna be snookering you tonight”. The reason this song has been playing on repeat in my head of late is because “It’s only a game” seems to be a rather prevalent attitude at the moment. Last week I wrote an article called “Dissecting Far Cry 4’s Racially Insensitive Box Art“, wherein I analysed why exactly the game’s brazen box art was being called racist, but also why the lack of context and information given by Ubisoft meant that we ultimately shouldn’t jump to conclusions about things when we don’t possess all of the facts.
Now I’m well aware that the article’s title was a bait and switch of sorts – it was meant to be an enticing headline to promote discussion (and page views, who are we kidding). This tactic probably backfired, since it became evident that most of the people who saw the link to the article on Facebook, Twitter and N4G didn’t actually read it. Most comments scolded me for “whining” about the box art being racist (I didn’t) and for making a big deal about nothing (if you looked on Twitter when that box art was announced, you’ll see that I really didn’t). I was actually trying to take a more neutral stance on the issue, one that was echoed by popular consumer advocate and gaming mouthpiece Jim Sterling a few days later. The box art was pretty insensitive (note that I didn’t say “racist” in the article’s headline), but there was overreaction on both sides. Oh well, they won’t know, they didn’t read it.
What angered me more was the positively toxic attitude that “it’s only a game” so “it doesn’t matter” that’s being paraded around by so many apathetic gamers. I’ve seen this mindset become more and more popular as social issues are being discussed in detail within and around games. “Why do we need to talk about racism in games, it’s just a game. Can’t we all just have fun?” idiots will cry without thinking for a second about the irony of that question. I’m sure you, as a white guy, can have a barrel of fun playing as white guy after white guy. But when most people of colour portrayed in games are terrorists (if from the Middle East), computer nerds (if Asian), or wacky, wise cracking sidekicks (if black), is everyone having fun?
It’s not just racism though. People are quick to deny any accusations of sexism or homophobia in games out of some strange paranoid delusion that their pixelated tits will be taken away, or that they might have to hear a man say that he loves another man and “EWWWW THAT’S GAY”. The idea that better portrayals of women and LGBT people in games will somehow take away large breasted Japanese schoolgirls or Ivy from Soul Calibur is pretty ridiculous; it’s all about balancing the scales. At the moment, people want to discuss these things because they love games, and they want to be able to enjoy them as much as possible. That’s why Gone Home has such a devoted following, it had the good sense to say: “Here’s a story about lesbians. Lesbians are fine.” Having more gay people or black people or actual women with three dimensional character arcs that exist outside the size of their breasts will not take bouncing boobs away from Dead or Alive. That stuff will all still exist, but there’ll be stuff for people that don’t want that as well.
It happens with all forms of media. TV has seen a rise in positive female characters over the last decade, but it’s still possible to see pretty people being pretty with their pretty problems as much as it was before. I don’t choose to watch Jersey Shore or The Hills, I choose to watch Orange is the New Black, but I know those shows are there for the people that want them. Nobody says “it’s only TV, why do we care”, because TV is an important cultural window into the lives of people all over the world. So why do we claim that games aren’t important enough to include more positive portrayals of oppressed people whilst simultaneously not wanting the “SJWs” to take our precious games away with their women and gay people.
I understand that it can be tiresome to hear about social issues in gaming all the time. Sometimes we just want to sit back and shoot stuff or jump around and collect coins. There’s nothing wrong with that, and no one wants to change that. But by throwing apathy out of the window and saying, for example: “Hey, there aren’t a lot of gay people in games, but there are a lot of straight people. I’m straight, so it doesn’t directly affect me, but if I was gay I’d probably be kind of pissed about that”, we can discuss these issues in a reasonable manner and actually bring games to more people. That’s literally all it takes, to admit that there’s a problem and understand that even if it doesn’t affect you, it might affect someone else in an important way.
That’s why if you’re someone who pours scorn upon “Social Justice Warriors” because they want games to be a more accepting place for all people, you’re part of the problem. Through apathy or denial you’re saying: “Game’s are for me, not for you. If I can’t have games, then no one can.” You can’t claim that games are so important that you don’t want them being “tainted” by discussions about social issues, and then say “it’s only a game, so it doesn’t matter”. And if you hide your negative opinions towards LGBT people, women or people of colour behind your apathy shield, then congratulations: you are a bigot.
Games are important, whether you like it or not. They teach us to create, love and share. The experiences we have while playing games are important because they mean something to us. They can takes us away from the less desirable parts of life, or they can help us to deal with real life problems that drive us to escapism in the first place. It could be the teamwork and camaraderie of a successful MMO raid. It could be that rare moment of sportsmanship in an online shooter. It could be that solitary feeling of independence and pride one gets from advancing levels in Skyrim. It could be anything, so we should be prepared to talk about anything in order to further our beloved medium.
I’m a straight white guy, and I love games. I also love people, be they white/black/gay/straight/male/female/goblin/dolphin. I want to be able to share my love of games with everyone, and it’d be really great if you’d join me. Because I’d rather be an “SJW” than a massive dick.