Games are Art, and that means criticism.

Recently, Halo 4‘s lead developer mentioned that games, and the gaming community, have a serious issue with sexism. The comments on the article… were awful. There were the ones that instantly proved her right (one person said that the fact that Halo 4 was made by “whiny, sensitive women” who cared about this issue had convinced them not to buy it), but the ones that really stood out for us were the ones that called talking about sexism in gaming a “pointless crusade,” said that raising the issue was an “ego trip,” and saying that because gaming was full of misogyny trying to change it was a waste of time. These comments, and these complaints, go way beyond the issue at hand to one of the biggest problems with gamer culture: an instantly defensive attitude towards any kinds of critical discussions. Not just to negative criticism, but to the very idea that we should be looking at games intellectually and through critical lenses. This isn’t just ignorant– this is hurting the very medium that gamers claim to love.
Because if you don’t want a critical discussion, you don’t really believe that games are art.

“Trying to actually discuss relevant issues? Big risk. But the priiiiiiiize… is being taken seriously by critics outside gaming.”

Gamers act like children about social issues. This is a more specific part of what we’re talking about, but it’s where we wanted to start because of this article and other problems the past several months in the gaming community. Look at this article, in which a lot of issues with race and gender in major games are examined. You might notice something, which is that it’s not a very great article. Jacob in Mass Effect, for example,  is the most well-rounded and professional member of your entire crew, and the fact that he has daddy issues (like everyone else in the game) and moves 6 months on after your brief fling ends and you’re under house arrest and he’s living half a galaxy away aren’t issues of bigotry on the part of the designers. Similarly, Gay Tony in GTA IV? Fantastic character and one of the most rounded and human gay characters in gaming.

Do you see what we did there, fellow gamers? How we actually responded to the issues raised in the article that we disagreed with, and didn’t think that any discussion of social issues was an attack on our personal clubhouse? That’s how grown-ups who like a medium act about criticism. You don’t say, as virtually the entire comments section did, that “feminists don’t know anything about games” or “games are just catering to their market” or “but tits are nice to look at” and “all that matters is that the game is fun.” If you truly believe that games are art and should be treated as such, you have to accept that all art gets looked at through critical lenses. Imagine if an art critic said that Gauguin’s work is sexist or racist and people who love art, who spend a few hundred dollars a month on paintings and art books and going to museums, said “clearly you don’t like paintings” and “who cares about that, I just love the pretty colors.” The only reason that games could get a blanket immunity to criticism on social issues is if we said “well, they’re just toys for adolescent virgins, so who cares?” If you want games to be art, you have to accept that they’re going to be treated like every other form of art. (And if you, say, respond to the very idea of a feminist look at games with ranting and death threats, then congratulations– you understand the medium as much, and approach these issues with the same tact, as Jack Thompson).

And speaking of Gauguin, yes, the man is absolutely sexist and racist– he abandoned his wife to go have sex with women in Tahiti while

“Ugh, just another complaint by a watercolor fanboy whose parents were too poor to buy him oil paintings as a kid. Grow up and stop loving babby painters.”

fetishizing their culture and doing a lot of talking about the noble savage. You know what else he was? One of the greatest painters of the 19th century. And that’s because acknowledging criticism doesn’t mean art is bad. This is part of the problem– gamers have a hard time hearing “there are some problems with this game” as anything but “this game is awful.” You’ll see this manifested in whining about review scores– “this game deserves a 100 instead of a 98, clearly if you think it’s a masterpiece but not perfect you’re an idiot” –but it also shows up in other discussions. There’s a thread running through gaming that any attack on any aspect of a game you love is a personal attack. It’s why console fanboyism exists, and why gamers treat other people’s opinions as invalid– “I love Resident Evil 6 so it’s an objectively good game, and any critic who didn’t enjoy it has to be deliberately lying.” Criticism, both in terms of quality and critical interpretations, is meant to be a part of discussion, not the be-all and end-all of “is this game bad or not?”

What criticism isn’t meant to be is a venue for people who love art to try and control discussion of it. Let’s compare two similar works in different mediums. Blue Velvet is a fantastic movie– aggressive, innovative, and unique, taking viewers to dark place and trying to challenge how we interact with film. Heavy Rain was a game with a lot of the same ideas and approaches, loved by a lot of critics, scored by the… same composer (okay, “similar” might have been a little too kind). And we love Blue Velvet. We’d put it in the same category as Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, or The Seventh Seal. It’s safe to say that we love it as much as the people who think that Heavy Rain is the best game ever love it.

“I’ll send you a love letter. You know what a love letter is? It’s a 6.5 out of fucking 10. You get a love letter from me, your Metacritic average is fucked forever.

And, if you love Blue Velvet, you know Roger Ebert’s review of it. The one where he just didn’t seem to get the movie– where the balance of comedy and horror, the sexual menace, and the feeling of unease and disgust never worked for him. The review where he gave the best film of the ’80s one star. And do you know how we feel about that, as people who love film and love Blue Velvet? We acknowledge his points, state our disagreements, have a laugh that it didn’t work for him. David Lynch joked about it and then made Twin Peaks. In the long run, we love the review– it raises questions, and the discussions it provoked (both among other critics and between Ebert and Siskel, who loved it) have enriched peoples’ understanding of the film.

Heavy Rain, though, had a very different relationship with critics. David Cage, who wants so badly to make gaming’s Blue Velvet that he hired Angelo Badalamenti to compose the soundtrack, called its critics– who gave it a 6.5, vastly better than Ebert’s Deuce-Bigalow-level-score –“children” who were “just barely intelligent” and were simply resistant to the revolutionary work he had created. He then did the worst thing anyone can do in regards to game criticism: he points out the Metacritic average and says that because these reviews are so far below the average, they don’t count. That because a person’s opinion is different from the majority that opinion shouldn’t be treated as valid. When Cage responded like this– to a handful of critics who said his game was mediocre-to-decent and not a masterpiece –it wasn’t just a tantrum that he wasn’t being universally adored, it was making a public statement that he believed popularity and selling lots of copies mattered more to him than making art.

And the fan’s response to this prima donna behavior was to carry it further. To say that everyone who doesn’t like Heavy Rain is a shill for Microsoft deliberately trying to sabotage a PS3 game. They say that the scores should be exempted from Metacritic averages because they’re obviously the product of biased hacks. They say that any critic who lets their “personal biases” determine how much they enjoy playing something– who lets their opinions shape their opinion piece –should be fired. This is unique to gaming, and it’s not just about reviews. This is how gamers react to critical discussions. And it’s awful. Games are never going to be able to grow and develop if you attack the very idea of critical disagreement. If minority opinions are treated as irrelevant. If the individual perspective of critics is treated as a bad thing. If game developers rely on Metacritic averages to defend their art. That’s not how art lovers defend art, that’s how P.R. executives defend products.

And then they fall back on the single worst defense of a game ever when people raise the issue of plot. Whether you like the game’s story or not,

“You are looking at a man who– you are looking at a man who has zero lives left.”

it’s an objective fact that there are problems. There are narrative contradictions, elements and ideas that are quickly dropped, stilted dialogue, and a plot twist that relies on lying to the player. These don’t have to be dealbreakers. It’s perfectly fine to say that they’re not major issues, just as you can say that a movie has a bad script but is really fun and visually stunning. What’s not fine is to say “well it’s better than Halo‘s story.” And what’s absolutely unacceptable is to say, as many did (and as Cage’s promise to “make a game with a story as good as a Hollywood movie” implied) “it’s just a game, so lower your standards.” These are the same arguments that pop up in response to any negative review or complaint about games that anyone makes anywhere, and they’re insulting to the medium. If you think games are art, respect them by actually holding them accountable. Don’t just say “well, not every game can have a story as good as Taxi Driver.” When Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver, he wasn’t content to say that no movie could measure up to Crime and Punishment– instead he tried to write a film that could. You see this every time a game’s story is criticized or examined– the notion that as long as the game’s fun, all of these issues can be disregarded. The idea that writing, art design, characters, plot, or social awareness are just optional add-ons is something unique to games, and it arises out of the same defensive attitude as our previous examples. When someone raises the fact that a game has narrative problems, you’re not a little kid trying to defend your hobby to your parents anymore– you’re someone who claims to be passionate about an art form who should be willing to engage in an actual discussion. When Roger Ebert said that games weren’t art, the gaming community exploded with rage– only, every time the issue of a game’s artistic failings is raised, for many of the people that were apoplectic at Ebert’s claim to fall back on saying that it doesn’t matter as long as the game is fun.

Gamers have gotten so used to, for years, accepting mediocre writing that they see it as standard. But the achievements of gaming can only matter if they’re looked at in context and treated as examples. The fact that Bioshock and No More Heroes can say great things about gaming and tell powerful stories isn’t just a neat little bonus– it’s every bit as big of an achievement as making a game that’s incredibly fun or has the best graphics ever. If you believe games are art, you have to treat them as every other critic of every other medium does. You have to hold them accountable for their failings. You have to recognize that other people have different opinions and priorities. You have to accept that games should be for everyone, not just straight white men. You have to discuss them and look at every aspect of them. Saying that the only thing that matters is how much fun you have is only true when it comes to toys for children.

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. Emma from NC

     /  November 3, 2012

    Fantastic post, as always. I think that the dialogue about the artistic merit of games will evolve as our understanding of what makes a game “artistic” evolves– the same things that make a movie or a book or a painting great are not necessarily the same things that make a game great, but the only mode we have for discussing art is to discuss it as if it’s a movie, book, or other established medium. Not all games need to have a compelling story to be great–Pixeljunk Eden is gorgeous and engaging, and it doesn’t have a story at all–and storytelling methods that work in books and movies don’t necessarily translate well to the interactive nature of a video game (CUTSCENES. AAUUGH.)

    When gamers say “all that matters is that a game is FUN,” I think sometimes what they mean to say is that there are different standards for what make a game truly good than the standards that we apply to other art forms. But most of the time they’re just being stupid.

    Oh, and you might be pleased to know that I’ve started playing Morrowind. I haven’t made it out of Seyda Neen yet, because I couldn’t remember how to unsheathe my weapon fast enough to stop the mudcrab from killing me. Also, I took off my character’s pants by mistake, and I can’t figure out how to put them back on. But! Once I get over the learning-curve issues and the muscle-memory kicks in, I plan to explore this vast, crazy, critically-acclaimed game that you like so much!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: