don’t know, can’t know

Mon Jul-28th-2008 // Filed under: Games

In Australia, as elsewhere in the world, a lot of people in charge of the nation or in a position to strongly influence the public opinion are pretty ignorant when it comes to video games. This YouTube clip, from ABC’s Q&A program, demonstrates that very well: already discusses this whole thing, but I’ve got an additional observation or two to throw in.

Isn’t it just so predictable that the people who are pushing for censorship are people who make it a point to say that they’re not for censorship? Almost without exception, hearing someone utter the words “I’m not advocating censorship, but…” is a guarantee that you’re going to hear an advocation of censorship. It’s a little like hearing someone say “Look, I’m not a racist, but…” — you know that the next words are going to express a racist point of view. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Of course, it’s all the more depressing that these people simply don’t know what they’re talking about — just the fact that they all believe that video games are not subject to a rating system in Australia makes that clear. And that’s another issue that interests me, because this kind of ignorance is hardly unique. People like this rarely understand video games at all; among most politicians (and, it seems, particularly among those who are most keen on censorship) there’s a fundamental level of ignorance of the subject.

They know that a lot of games are violent, sure, but they have no context for that information. They don’t understand the psychology of games, or their cultural impact, or the wide variety of content available, or how that content — even in violent games — is proportioned against other content, or how (or even whether) games have cultural significance, or any significance, period. Their understanding of the subject is largely limited to knowing that people get shot a lot in games and believing that people’s minds operate on a strict “monkey see, monkey do” basis. They have no real basis for making these judgment calls, so they fall back on hysteria and “think about the children/risks” rhetoric — even though the risks are largely imaginary (and even if they weren’t, they certainly couldn’t provide any facts about them, because they really just aren’t familiar with the subject) and certainly nowhere near comparable to the risks posed by other factors — say, smoking, for the sake of argument.

That particular combination of ignorance and hypocrisy is frustrating, obviously, but frankly, I think we assign a lot of the blame in the wrong place — it’s not just these people who are at fault. I think the games industry, in general, has to shoulder some of the responsibility of educating these people (as well as people in general) about these things. One of the reasons these people get any traction with this crap is that the majority of the people they talk to are just as ignorant about this stuff as anyone else, and, unfortunately, that includes the gamers. The people in the audience (one of whom wasn’t even a gamer, but anyway) were fairly articulate guys, and that’s a good thing, but the way most gamers — even supposedly mature adults — approach and talk about games isn’t exactly fostering a culture of intelligent and mature discussion. I don’t think most gamers know all that much more about games, and if they do, they’re incapable of articulating it. Repeating “games aren’t just for kids” over and over again is just a reiteration of a point of dogma. As far as convincing arguments go, it’s not that different from what these people are saying.

Most gamers eager to talk about games and gaming are given to annoying verbal ticks and random stupidity — thanks to them, the discourse on the subject is dominated by a never-ending torrent of juvenile bullshit along the lines of “u fag how dare u insult [game company’s name] by not giving [game’s name] a 10 like [another reviewer] did cus hes not a fag”. Throw in a little bit of lolcat, some fairly impenetrable slang, a man-sized portion of blind brand devotion that borders on religious, and a lot of completely unprovoked hostility motivated by low self-esteem, and the resulting steaming shit cocktail pretty much sums up most gaming discussions — certainly the ones that the casual observer most easily runs across. So is it any wonder that the general impression of gamers as childish and morally compromised idiots persists?

Movies have sparked much of the same controversy over the decades, but at least there are educated and intelligent people arguing for them. Sure, Roger Ebert doesn’t understand video games either, but when he writes about movies, it’s obvious he’s smart as a whip. He thinks about these movies a lot and often articulates things about them that resonate with the reader, even if the reader is completely unfamiliar with the movie. I certainly don’t agree with him all the time, but that’s completely irrelevant; the notion that all critics have to agree with each other and that everyone should agree with the critics is ridiculous. (Which doesn’t keep it from persisting among gamers — but then again, game criticism isn’t so much about critique as it is about providing product descriptions.)

The Roger Eberts of the games industry are kind of hard to come by — I’m not saying that there are none (N’Gai Croal, for one, has been writing about games to mainstream publications, such as Newsweek for a good while now), but they remain the exception rather than the norm. The video games industry is absolutely huge and constantly growing, but it largely exists somewhere below mainstream awareness. Sure, just about everyone and their mother has heard about Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft, but their understanding of what these games actually consist of tends to be weak at best. Video game journalism, as a rule, tends to be either pretty hostile to the casual reader or, when it finds its way to mainstream publications, too weak and meaningless to actually engage anyone, especially when compared to the torrent of stupidity the rest of the gaming culture tends to be full of.

There are exceptions, of course. Allow me to share two favorites of mine, both by Ian Shanahan. His phenomenal article, “Bow, Nigger”, discusses gaming in terms that strike a chord even with people who don’t have much prior understanding of the subject: you read that and tell me it doesn’t stir something in you. Another article of his, “Possessing Barbie”, is a fascinating piece that explores the meaning and implications of our actions in virtual worlds. Like Ebert’s best pieces, it articulates things I’ve thought about with almost sublime clarity, and it reveals something about the nature of these particular games and gaming overall to the reader. Personally, I enjoy it for explaining something about myself and my experiences, but an uninitiated reader can enjoy it for learning something fundamental about what may well have previously been an impenetrable subject.

Of course, whether someone uninitiated ever runs across these articles, or articles like them, is a good question; it’s not as if you can pick up your newspaper and read them. Is it any wonder they don’t understand what they’re dealing with? We don’t make it easy. That certainly doesn’t excuse their appalling stupidity and ignorance, but it’s not like we’re doing all we can to educate them.


  1. Yeah, it could and should be much better. However, videogames are such a young medium that a base level of ignorance is to be expected. I do expect things to change once the current generation gets on with raising their own kids and having a say in the world.

    Videogames are very hard to explain. You would need to play yourself to “get it”. Even watching someone play a game does not substitute for the real thing, which can be hard to understand to a non-gamer. The participatory aspect is so central to the medium.

    I read “This Gaming Life” by Jim Rossignol on my summer vacation. It felt to me like the sort of thing that needs to move into the mainstream before we can forget about this accusatory, mysterious tone that’s still very much the order of the day when it comes to discussing videogames in media. And considering just how many kids play videogames to some extent these days, I can’t see this ignorance going on for too many years, now.

    Comment by Joonas — July 30, 2008 @ 1217415922

  2. How is the understanding of videogames in finnish media though? Are there good mainstream reviewrs of videogames or are all the good reviewers and writers in the gaming magazine ghetto like in the 90’s?

    Comment by JJKM — August 5, 2008 @ 1217943269

  3. Well, on the whole, I think it’s better, yeah. But (and this is really another whole blog post I’ve already got half-written here…) part of the problem with videogame journalism is exactly the fact that so much of it is about reviews, about the products, rather than the culture or the experiences or the people involved. It’s kind of easy for people to freak out over over GTA when the only thing they really know about it is that you kill cops and hookers and it’s terrible.

    I mean, people don’t necessarily give a shit about the new Rambo movie, for example. They might think it’s pretty awful and terrible movie, for example. But the thing is, they can read interviews with people who made it, and chances are that they see something they can identify with, for example. Even if it is Sylvester Stallone. That humanizing aspect is pretty much missing from video games, on the whole — especially in the mainstream media. And I really think the games industry shoulders the bulk of the blame for that, because getting access to the actual creators is notoriously difficult, in great part because these companies are so paranoid about things leaking out about their new products. And that’s certainly understandable, but your mainstream reader doesn’t really care about those new products, but they certainly are going to want to know what a guy who makes a game like GTA thinks about things. But that’s not how it goes; again, it’s all about the product, not the people.

    Also, it’d help if the games industry in general got off its ass and started to do some serious lobbying out there so every pissant loudmouth who wants to make a name for himself didn’t get traction just by flouting his ignorance. Apparently there’s recently been some improvement on that front, but I can imagine that just getting the big companies to realize that they need to work together on that sort of thing for the good of the entire industry is an uphill struggle. There’s not exactly a lot of history of solid cooperation there.

    Comment by Mikki — August 5, 2008 @ 1217944879

  4. That’s pretty comprehensive and well thought out, I haven’t really thought of if at that angle, I have to agree you with that videogames do sort of exist in vacuum when discussed in media.

    I don’t remember seeing creators discussing their games in mainstream media, or gamers on why some particular game grabs them.

    I remember couple of sucky “That’s our boys doing money with furriners.” style reports on finnish game houses on telly.

    Speaking of GTA, It would be cool to have in mainstream media outlet a reporter that gets the sandbox model of gaming, and is capable of communicating the idea to average reader or viewer.

    Comment by JJKM — August 5, 2008 @ 1217974232

  5. I’ve seen these arguments a lot over the years, from lots of different angles and made by lots of different people from the genuinely concerned to the emotionally invested to the downright disingenuous bandwagon jumpers.

    What’s fascinating me recently is something that always seems to lie there in plain sight, right on the table as the educated and the ignorant alike fall over their own feet trying to make some other point.

    In the TV piece linked by the OP, the host won’t even let the debate begin before he’s pointed out this particular elephant in the room and it’s so universally, unquestionably accepted that the most magical part of what he’s saying goes unnoticed, in favour of some vague horror that’s almost embarrassing to all concerned.

    He says (paraphrasing): “This is the game where you inject yourself with drugs in order to kill more people.” …and everyone shifts uncomfortably at the thought of anyone doing such a thing.

    And no-one even sees the most stunning part of what he says, not the drugs, not the killing, he says ‘you’. You do this.

    You do this.

    You do this.

    And no-one says ‘wait, that’s stupid, no-one does any such thing’, or ‘no no no, it’s just a character in a story that does the bad things, what are you talking about?’. Everyone knows that the difference between a film and a game is you, you do those things.

    Gamers want it, it’s why they game. The censors fear it, because no-one knows where the line is between game-you and real-you, and they’ll use Society’s Moral Outrage and the tender vulnerabilities of their children, they’ll argue the protection of society and prevention of self-harm, but it’s all smoke and guff.

    The real issue is that no-one knows where the line is between game-you and real-you. You’ll press hardware manufacturers for faster processing and better graphics cards, press them hard with your credit card. You wave fistfuls of cash at software houses for cleverer programming and smarter visuals and they’ll do it too, because they want the same thing you do. They want more immersion, they want it more real, they want better ways to be less of themselves and more of something else, maybe even, eventually, completely.

    Thing is… what if it works?

    Comment by Yaffle — August 28, 2008 @ 1219892009

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