Monday, January 6, 2020
The Intersection of Gaming, Art, and Identity
"It's just a game."
My first test of faith when it comes to discussing video games came last year.
One of the perks of being small time is that, for the most part, I can talk about things without worrying about an endless deluge of people eager to explain why I'm wrong. It was unlikely, but not impossible. One day, I added my ten cents to a discussion of Modern Warfare's inclusion of White Phosphorus as a kill streak. I acknowledged that yes, it was a video game about war, but I felt that it being understated to something as simple as a killstreak that made you cough when the actual effects are horrifying(To the point that I'm not going to link any pictures because, obviously) was rather wrong. I tweeted it and forgot about it.
What I didn't realize was that tweet was added to a Twitter Moment- a collection of tweets about a specific topic. There were many conflicting view points with fair arguments on both sides, and if it ended there, it would have been fine. What I was not expecting was my mentions to be flooded with Call of Duty fans upset that I dare take an opposite opinion on the thing they loved.
I laughed it off, at first. I'd been playing Call of Duty games for years, and I knew that the COD community could be...emotional, to be generous. I sent it to my friends with an off-handed 'oops, I made the COD fans mad lol', muted the thread, and mistakenly thought it would be the end of it. No, I was very, very wrong.
For several days after it, I couldn't check my mentions because it was nothing but toxicity. People were commenting on my tweets that had nothing to do with Call of Duty. Suddenly, I was being called a snowflake and a whore(which in retrospect...what?) and all kinds of other things that, at that point, I'd never experienced. All because I had an opinion. I turned off my DMs, muted everything I tweeted, even stopped interacting with people as the more dedicated trolls were coming into my conversations- again, ones that had nothing to do with Call of Duty- and still hounding me about my thoughts on a multiplayer feature I'd long stopped talking about. It was a harrowing experience.
It was such a blow to my psyche because it was so...antitypical compared to what I was used to. Keep in mind, I do like COD games. I've played pretty much all of them sans Infinite Warfare(because, fan or not, my 'trainwreck' senses were in full effect). Hell, I routinely defend them when people decry them as 'bad', because people aren't interested in the positives when the general agreement is 'all of this thing is bad'(See also: Final Fantasy XIII, Resident Evil 6, Fallout 76- the list goes on).
I almost wanted to cry out, 'we're on the same side! I'm excited for this game!' I debated responding to many of them. But, if I can admit to being the snowflake I was accused of, I(like many other marginalized folk) don't always have the energy to weather what can sometimes be a constant stream of hate. Telling one transphobic troll to fuck off is one thing. Telling an army of them is like trying to fight off a horde of zombies: They don't care how you feel or what you say, and are only interested in tearing you apart.
I'm not a stranger to harassment: I'm a queer black woman. My handle on most games and platforms, Lyneriaa, is clearly female gendered. Before I type anything in League, before I get into a game of Apex Legends, before I even introduce myself to anyone online, who I am is front and center, and I'm proud of that. I've spent a good portion of my life not knowing who I was and being afraid of being known. I tell my friends all the time: 'I've been sad too goddamn long to not smile when I'm happy.' Even if I could, I'd never run from who I am as a person: The intersections of my existence- being trans, black, and a woman- define my experiences.
Last month, I bought Modern Warfare; Played through the campaign, spent a good amount of time in the multiplayer and the co-op missions. I liked it. I definitely did not like some of the militaristic themes which tried to justify doing horrible things in the campaign, but other than that, it was fine. Of course it was. None of my issues had to do with what the game was, it had to do with what the game said. It is a fun game, but there are issues when you examine the messages within it.
Not every game needs a deep discussion of its core themes and political stances, but Call of Duty games- and to be honest, many games in the same vein- are always political in some way, shape or form. If you're saying that torture can be justified if you're the 'good guy', then that is a statement. If you include White Phosphorus in your multiplayer mode and pretend it's toxic gas and not just shy of being a fucking war crime, that's a statement- a terrible, disgusting statement, but a statement nonetheless. If a game has something to say, it does it a disservice when we plug our ears and pretend it is a child's toy, with no meaning other than as another plaything until the next toy comes along. Video games cannot be art when someone decries them, and 'just a game' again when its time to treat them like the medium I believe they are.
I think that video games are art.
I've played video games that made me jump out of my seat and cheer, made me nearly throw my controller in anger, and made me cry my eyes out. I've played games that covered serious topics and even heavy philosophical subjects like meaning and existence and if any of the bullshit we go through even matters. Video games as an interactive medium has some of the most memorable, artistically beautiful moments in the entire history of media itself.
Because I think video games are art, I critique them as art.
I frequently drown myself in long-form critiques of the themes present in video games. I think a game's themes- the message it is trying to convey- are just as important as if it works when I put the disk in or open the application. Some very great games have very problematic issues below the surface, like Grand Theft Auto 5 mishandling its female characters or Bioshock: Infinite's lack of understanding when it comes to power dynamics(tl;dr Daisy Fitzroy deserved better). Its themes are important because it represents what the game is trying to say, beyond just the game itself.
Celeste is one of my favorite video games(and personally my video game of the decade) not only because it is a blast to play, but because it had a core theme- dealing with your anxiety and depression- that resonated with me as someone who struggles with it. Without those themes, it is still a fine game, but it is an amazing game because it also tackles a relatable subject many of the people who played the game deal with at some point in their lives. Its beautiful execution of that theme, combined with the stellar game, make it an astounding success.
This doesn't even mention games that are art first and games second; in the past few years, games like Firewatch, Journey, and most recently Kind Words have shown that the interactivity that video games allow can create games that re-define what we even consider games in the first place. People argue whether or not narrative focused experiences(or 'walking simulators' to people who don't like playing games where something doesn't die every 12 seconds) can be considered games- Gone Home comes to mind- but I'd argue games with nothing to say are less games than Gone Home or Dear Esther or any game with a story to tell. Remember Hatred? That game that served no purpose other than 'going there'? Remember RapeLay(ugh), the literal rape simulator? Those aren't games because their entire focus is being disgusting for the purposes of being disgusting- Hatred for being a boring murderfest with nothing to offer(and also for being a terrible game to play anyway), and RapeLay for being, and I cannot stress this enough, a goddamned rape simulator because humanity just has nothing left to offer. That's not a statement. That's clickbait. They are the Buzzfeed and Dailymojo of video games, and should be treated as such- called out for being garbage, and ignored when they beg for attention.
Not every game is for everyone. Just as not every piece of art is liked by every patron, the same can be said of video games. There is nothing wrong with not enjoying a game because you don't enjoy the experience. There is something very wrong, however, with burning down the museum because you don't like the art inside. I love narrative experiences. I also love action-packed games with something crazy happening every few minutes. Both of those experiences have the right to exist. In fact, they need each other. Every game being a hyperviolent and oversexualized mess would mean more and more under-researched news articles about whether or not video games cause violence. But an unending amount of narrative experiences takes away from the fun that brought most people into gaming in the first place.
Video games have something for everyone, and varied experiences not tailored to the default gamer stereotype means, ultimately, better video games.
"Why do you care so much?"
Video games have done more for me than I could ever fit into this article. My trans egg cracked when I played a sexy game called Hardcoded that showed me trans people are just that, people. I met my best friend in the world over a game of League of Legends in 2013, and this year, I'm going to be living with him. Final Fantasy X was the first video game that ever made me cry because I couldn't save everyone in the end. I love video games more than anything in the world. It is because I love them that I want them to be better.
I want them to better represent the people that play them by letting us be more women, more black men, more people that aren't the same demographic they've targeted for the past 40 years. I want to not have to piss and moan for an entire game's life cycle just to get to play as a black woman. I want to see queer characters and not have to force myself to not love them because I know they're only there to die or be fucked. More than anything in the world, I want to be able to have these fucking conversations without feeling like I have to put a target on my back for giving a shit.
I've been playing these games for more than 20 years now. I know why we love them. But the person on the outside- the person who sees the scantily clad woman whose only there as an object and not a human being, sees the black character who is just unable to have a name that doesn't scream 'Token Black Character', or see another row of main characters who just don't look like them. Those people will never know why video games are an art form because it doesn't make them welcome.
When I critique a game, it is with nothing but love; love for a medium that, honestly, saved my life. If by having these conversations, I have to wear labels like 'Journalist' and 'Feminist' like a target for trolls and bigots on the internet, I'll wear it gladly. Do you know what's happened the past ten years of marginalized people taking the games industry to task? Changes. Changes happened. Not big ones, and certainly not quickly, but they fucking happened. The reason things are slowly improving today is because people opened their mouths, and not without sacrifices.
That means something, so I'll keep writing.
Noelle 'Lyneriaa' Raine is a blogger and journalist that discusses video games and esports from both a critical and surface level perspective. She can be found on twitter @Lyneriaa. If you enjoyed this article, she has a Ko-Fi.