Why is one game or console of greater cultural or commercial value than another, when both are obviously successful products? And why do we even care?
My personal game of 2014 was Hyrule Warriors.
Now, don’t start. I’ve heard the same tired rhetoric over and over again. “It’s just a Warriors game in Zelda clothing!” Uh-huh. Your point is? “It’s a stupid Wii U game!” Yes, in a year which Nintendo proved without a doubt it was dangerously ahead of the curve and committed to its own products and exclusives, and the quality of those products. “It doesn’t SAY anything!” What does it need to say? That accusations of sexism against the Zelda series are clearly ill-founded because Link is always supported by strong, sassy, wise women who are of equal importance in the story as he is? Or perhaps, it needs to say nothing at all? Merely being an enjoyable romp with a crushingly deceptive series of Adventure Modes to find yourself drowned in is enough for me!
We’ve had this problem for some years now though. Bigotry and prejudice is rife within the gaming medium. And not, as it turns out, on the end of the developers and publishers, but in the community, the gamers, the critics and the journalists all desperately searching for something to justify their self-worth and intellectualist credentials by putting down one product in favour of marketing or heralding another as the second coming of whatever deity you assign to, or not as the case may be. But why? Why is the gaming community further being seen as one of the most toxic in the world, and why are so many gaming websites pandering to agenda-driven politics in order to drum up traffic?
It’s been this way as long as I can remember. “Sega or Nintendo?” That was the mantra when I was at school, amongst the nerds who hung around the computer room filled with Apple products and a couple of old BBC Micros. I have to admit, I didn’t particularly give a toss. I liked Sonic. I liked Zelda. My grandparents had both, and I never needed to choose, but that was seen as the easy way out. I had to be one or the other. I had to stake my flag down on one particular side, when in reality I didn’t much care which company succeeded at the time, merely concerned with enjoying Mega Drive exclusives like Ecco The Dolphin, Revenge of Shinobi, Sonic and Streets of Rage whilst also at the same time enjoying the likes of The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past, Plok, Goof Troop and Lufia. And of course, the cross-pollination of things like Gods, Zombies Ate My Neighbours and such forth on the Super Nintendo.
It was as I grew older I was drawn to the dark side of the fanboy tirades, but it must be said I was a terrible fanboy because my position was never cemented. One minute I was all about the Dreamcast, the next all about the Gamecube, then the PS2, and I went backwards and forwards so many times it was frankly impossible for anyone to take me seriously as a committed fanboy for anything. I tried though – I tried because as someone who clearly identified himself (and still does) as a ‘Gamer’, it was the cultural norm within the community. You had to be flying the flag for someone, and you had to then take on those who disagreed with your position. To stray from the path was to be condemned and outcast. To be anything other than monogamous to a corporation that was all about sucking your wallet dry was scandalous. How dare I criticise the PS2 for expensive peripherals! How dare I suggest that Nintendo fumbled the ball a little with exclusives! How dare I suggest that Sega were taking Sonic in a poor direction! How very dare I have an opinion on issues in the gaming sphere!
As I got older though, and a little more considered and mature – with an adoring niece and a fresh view on the discriminations of society in general – I stopped trying to do any of this. All companies want our money. All consoles have great games. All consoles are available to purchase. Like my grandparents before me, why on earth limit myself to one meal a day when I can you know, have two or three and not feel like a constipated, bloated twit at the end of the day?
Of course, fanboyism still exists, as do prejudices. And we see that on all sides – not just in the console sphere, but the way we look down on mobile gaming as nothing more than Pay-to-Play Cashgrabs. Or how we herald PC Gaming and “The Divine Gaben”, in spite of the terrible slowdown in quality releases on the store of late. Or how we are either all about the feminism or chauvinistic pricks. Truth is, this crap is what is toxic, because it is always combative. We’re always trying to be “for” something; rather than being ourselves, or just relaxing and enjoying games for what they are. And occasionally, something is said that parts the chaos briefly and we have a momentary glimpse of clarity.
When you get moments of clarity like this, it’s sometimes like ringing a bell; there’s a period of silence, to sort of reflect that a bell has been rung, before people get back into the same old stuff they usually do.
Entertainment mediums by their nature tend to reflect societal norms, rather than create them. The truly terrible realisation for me isn’t that games are sexist, racist or discriminatory by their nature; it’s that WE, as consumers, a a society but most of all as human beings, are all of these things. We are a terrible muddle of issues, neuroses and contradictions, all desperately seeking something to slot into, all seeking our own place to exist, all following cultural and societal stereotypes in order to fit in and be part of something to remind us we are not alone in the vast scary void of cyberspace. We are complicated. And labels, accusations and insults do little but exacerbate and inflame often hurtful dialogues that lead to cyberbullying, social outcasting and the complete removal of self-worth.
If you spend an hour a day trawling a website to insult a consoles fanbase for their choice of console, I’d suggest you need to find something better to do with that hour every day. Read a book. Listen to some music. Take a long bath. Or – heavens – play a video game on your console of choice! If you make a career out of insulting male gamers, I’d suggest you may have deep-seated issues that remain unaddressed. If you’re a journalist stirring the pot in order to generate traffic to increase ad revenue – it’s your job. But I can’t say I see it as a fulfilling one. One day you’ll think, “Man, how did I end up just putting out clickbait and press releases for a living?”
And so what if I happened to like Hyrule Warriors so much I’d call it my game of 2014? I could like so many over-analyse it; it’s the first proper evolution of the Warriors formula I’ve tried in years, it’s packed with content and hidden extras to unlock through skilled gameplay rather than just being given via a paywall, it runs beautifully, plays great, looks gorgeous and has some of the finest post-release support I’ve seen for some time (although Nintendo in general seems to be good at that lately). It would be easy to justify why I love Hyrule Warriors, but underneath it all remains one undeniable constant. It’s fun. I’m enjoying myself. It makes me happy. I can forget briefly about all my other problems and focus entirely on something which makes me think, “Actually, the world isn’t nearly as crappy as I thought it was.”
We’re so often so concerned about being right, we forget that there is value in being wrong. Learning through our mistakes is an important part of what makes us human and sentient beings. Being given interesting information that makes you a better-informed person. Or just in general learning to deal with being wrong or making mistakes in a grown-up manner which doesn’t resort to insults, name-calling and sticking your fingers in your ears like a spoilt ten-year-old.
This is why to me it struggles to shake off the likes of Anita Sarkeesian and Jonathan McIntosh; who are hardly a paradigm of virtue and morality. I don’t even want to quote them. Some of their comments are truly abhorrent. It’s why I feel it struggles to shake off constant unfounded accusations of violence in the media. It’s impossible for rational voices to tackle fundamental issues like these when the whorl around them is constantly engaged in acts of warfare against anyone who dares be critical of things they love. We cannot take aim at these people for being pretty shady and terrible human beings (which they are) when, in reality, such things happen all around us. How can we? We might land a few glancing blows here and there, but for the most part, they have access to questionable commentary from Twitter to further their cause. Adding fuel to their fire only seems to be making it burn brighter.
Seriously, remember when we had an actual honest-to-goodness dialogue with Roger Ebert? When we used our brains rather than our reflexes and the depths of human depravity to argue why video games could one day, if not already be, an art form in its own right? Remember when we managed to discredit Jack Thompson? Oh he was clearly going down, his own behaviour ensured that, but after a while we simply mocked his erratic moodswings and moved on with our lives. It’s easy to think we haven’t been under attack in the past – we have. Only in the past, it was about undermining the gaming industry. Which has become impossible to do, even by the most vocal critics getting ever more vicious – they realised it’s too big a tree to shake. But taking on the community? They’ve found themselves a hornets nest and are poking and prodding away, hoping a swarm will come after them so they can prove that they’re mean and horrible and want to hurt them.
Truth is, it’s instinct now to just swarm on provocation. We’re so used to it. It’s a daily occurrence across the Internet. I don’t even think we realise we do it sometimes. And it’s not just about us – it’s been known for some time the average age of a gamer has been increasing. Who will want to be a ‘gamer’, a fan of games, with all this crap associated with it? An old quote I recall from my student days; “If you see a fight going on down an alleyway, will you take that shortcut?” Odds are… no. It’s probably nothing. But… why take the risk?
It’s not about fighting back. It’s about seeing the wood for the trees. Intolerance to anyone with a differing viewpoint or opinion has too long been encouraged and rewarded; games journalists cannot wash this blood off their hands, by the way, as they largely nurtured this scene over the last fifteen or so years. Nice they’ve seen the light but you know, they kind of created this with their console wars coverage and their clickbait. That’s on them. Never forget that. They shaped this through years of wilful neglect and encouraged much of the mob-mentality that we see now. It’s not right they play the victims when caught with their pants down, no. But that’s why this whole thing exploded, isn’t it? We caught them with their pants down. Actually, somewhat literally in one or two cases. They got caught. Unfortunately, they shape the media narrative by being the narrators of the media. Sad, but you know. Reality check. They turned on gamers in a heartbeat to cover their tracks. And no doubt will do so in future if the need arises. They moulded the gaming community into the perfect mob. And by token, the perfect scapegoat when they needed it.
But if they can change on cue; then so can we. And we’re likely far more able to leave them behind, as a footnote on Wikipedia, than they can leave us – their audience, the people they have often relied on to both pay their wages and fight their battles. But we need to lay down our arms and accept each other first, because only in doing so can we genuinely work together to fight back against those who seek to profit from our objectification. We are seeing this happen. We have been seeing this happen. And no doubt we will continue to see it happen. But as long as there are voids between us, some of these alliances feel uneasy, more out of necessity than actual cohesion.
All I ever wanted was to play good games in the company of good people. And, you know, sometimes good people have flaws. Or can from time to time be dicks. It’s okay. It happens. It’s just important to know that is a thing we can’t keep ignoring. We’re surrounded by people on the Internet with real minds and real feelings. Act as though you were in a room full of people. Odds are you’d be on your best behaviour. So you know… think of the Internet as a room full of people. You’ll want to punch one or two. That’s normal. But you know… try not to do that. Tends to be frowned upon.
Let’s just be and do better in 2015. We’re gamers. And we know a thing or two about how to slay trolls…