”Don’t bring X into gaming! Games are supposed to be fun.” I’ve heard that argument a million times, and usually it isn’t true.
Can games be art?
In the late 90s I heard a lot about how we’re not supposed to call games a medium or an artform, because games are supposed to be fun, and art is to opposite of fun. The discussion went on for a while, then a consencus was reached, and then a year or so later it would spring up again.
As far as I know, it never got to the point of death threats or rape threats or even online stalking, just flame wars online and in real life, and sometimes people got slightly mad at each other.
It went a little bit like this:
- This game that I’m making is art.
- No it’s not, you pretentious piece of shit, it’s a game!
- It’s a game that is also art. It’s an artistic game.
- How dare you call games art?
- It’s my game, and if I say it’s art, or at least aims to be art, then that’s what it is.
- Stop it! If you try to make all games into art, then they’re not fun anymore!
- I’m not trying to make all games into art, just this one.
- But a game is supposed to be fun.
- Can’t art be fun.
- Technically I guess it’s possible, but I know you’re trying to make the kind of art game that’s not fun.
- You’re probably right, since it deals with heavy themes, and the whole point is to make the player experience negative emotions and make hard decisions.
- There, so it’s not fun!
- You’re right. At least if you define fun as mindless escapism. Shooting at monsters and having a laugh.
- Hang on, I also have fun playing horror games.
- You mean it’s fun to be scared?
- Totally! And I have fun dying horribly, and sending armies to die, and battling wits against world leaders.
- So your definition of fun includes experiencing negative emotions, dealing with heavy themes, and making hard decisions?
- Shit, you’re right. Okay, so ”fun” is a bad word, maybe. But games should be entertaining and meaningful.
- I think art should be entertaining and meaningful.
- So what kind of art game are you making, then?
- Do you want to become a playtester?
- Sure! Sounds like fun!
That went on for a while in different forums and conventions, and so on, until everybody agreed that games are a medium that you can use to convey different experiences. The experiences could be entertaining or artistic or pornographic or political or pedagogic, or whatever. Just like with books or television, except sometimes cooler because they are interactive and participatory!
But even during the worst of those times, I bet that if I had been in a bar with my strongest opponents heatedly debating these issues, if a bunch of violent non-gamers had arrived and picked a fight with one of us, the others would have stepped in. Because after all, we are all interested in the same stuff, and share the same passion, and are even so passonate that we want to discuss it.
Once we agreed that games can be art, the pro-art group broke into smaller groups. Because an even more difficult question is: What kind of art should games be?
At one point I wrote a manifesto explaining how the point of role-playing games (both tabletop and larp) should be to immerse in your character. It was written in a very provocative style when I was 21, and obviously got many people riled up.
So we debated whether it’s more important to be your character, or tell a good story, or create a believable world, or have an important topic in the game, or what!
Many people who had previously not been so interested in talking about games as art now joined in and chose sides. And still some people were put off by all this fancy pancy talk about games as art, since they’re just supposed to be fun, right! (They tried to join the previous discussion.)
Once I was approached at a bar in a very strange manner by the owner of the bar. He said: – Mike, there’s a lady here who said you’re an idiot and you should kiss her ass.
I went to her table, and introduced myself.
- Hello, my name is Mike. I heard you think I should kiss your ass.
- Well, yeah.
- May I ask why?
- Because you wrote that stupid Manifesto, and you want to stop us from role-playing the way we like to role-play.
- Did you read the Manifesto?
- We’ve talked about it extensively in my group.
- May I give you the highlights from my point of view?
- I think role-playing games are so great and role-playing is so much fun that it makes sense to think about what you’re doing and do it as well as you can.
- Sure. But that doesn’t mean everyone should do it the way you want!
- No, they should do it the way they want to! And to help them, we should have clearly stated goals and styles that people can choose from or create their own style, or pick and mix.
- That makes sense. I just love role-playing games so much that I don’t want anybody to spoil them for me.
- Me, too! That’s the whole point. And obviously, you wouldn’t have been so angry about my Manifesto, if you didn’t really love the games you play!
- That’s true.
- Do you still think I should kiss your ass?
- No. Actually, I was expecting you to come to the table and be an asshole, and we’d have a shouting match and you’d storm out.
- I’ve noticed people can usually talk things out.
And that was true back then. This was around 2005, when we already had lots of forums and stuff, but social media was still in its infancy.
Now we’re seeing a new kind of discussion. That the message told in this medium should not be analyzed because then it’s not fun anymore.
For reference, message in all media is analyzed. Myself I’ve taken some courses on Media Studies and Comparative Literature at the university. People study films, tv, radio, music, websites, social media, video games, board games, mobile games, card games, role-playing games, gamers, gamer identity, gamer culture, gaming, and so on. It’s widely studied.
One of the many things that are being studied is the content in the games. By content I mean the audiovisual execution, but also the story, the characters, the world, the theme, the morals, and so on.
You can argue that studying games isn’t as much fun as playing them, and for many, you’d be right. Some people love to study games, because they love them so much. (In the 90s there were some game scholars who only studied games but rarely played them, which seemed to me like studying literature but not reading books, and which created a whole set of other debates, but let’s not get into that. Nowadays game scholars play games.)
Anyway, some people study games. And it’s probably not making the games less fun for you if somebody is doing that, as long as you don’t have to do it. But you can, if you want to.
One of the kinds of games that are studied are the big AAA titles like Grand Theft Auto V, and Alan Wake, and Shadows of Mordor. And one thing that’s been discovered, is that there are huge similarities between those games. Similarities that don’t exist between all major movies or major books or major tv shows. Often you don’t even have to be a scholar to discover these similarities, you just have to play a few of the games.
For me one of the major similarities is the main character. It’s very often a 30-something straight white guy with a low, growling voice, short dark hair, beard stubble, and a thirst for vengeance. Sometimes the guy is black. Sometimes he’s not out for revenge but he wants to save the world. Sometimes he has long or blond hair
And there’s nothing wrong with that guy! I love that guy! But is he the only thing that I love?
Now, I’m a 30-something straight white guy, so you’d expect him to be targeted for me. Someone in the game studio must sometimes say, ”Hey, could we have a gay main character? Or a female main character? Or a happy-go-lucky gay rastafarian artist main character?” (You get the point.) And the they’re told ”No, Mike Pohjola is a 30-something straight white guy, and he just can’t get those characters.”
I’d imagine that if we can play in the future, play in the past, play in imaginary lands and even abstract lands set in the imagination, we could play a woman, too.
Not all the time. I’m not saying all video game main characters should be women. But if less than 10% are women, isn’t that a bit odd? Like female gamers wouldn’t like to play ladies every now and then. Or guys just couldn’t take it if in one game they had to play as a woman?
When I make games (not AAA titles, but I’ve worked on many other kinds of games), I try to make sure the cast isn’t all male, all white, all straight, all 30, and so on. One of the characters can definitely be a 30-something straight white guy. But if they’re all 30-something straight white guys, and the game is not strictly about that, then it’s just odd.
The argument seems to go something like this. (Or would go if it wasn’t side-tracked by anonymous trolls.)
- Not all video game characters should be 30-something straight white guys.
- Why not?
- Because it’s not realistic.
- It’s not supposed to be realistic, it’s a game. It’s set in Middle-Earth!
- Even in Lord of the Rings not all characters are 30-something straight white guys. But I admit Tolkien didn’t have too many active women in his stories.
- There! Was that your only reason for wanting to forbid 30-something straight white guys in video games?
- I’m not forbidding them! I’m saying there should be other characters, as well.
- But why?
- Because many players are women, many players are gay or queer, many players are not white.
- If they love playing games so much, I’m sure they can get into the skins of a 30-something straight white guy.
- Of course they can! Otherwise they couldn’t play any games!
- Well, that’s what gaming is all about! Exploring new worlds and trying on new identities! I’m sure it’s quite an adventure for them to experience the life of a 30-something straight white guy.
- It used to be. But now it feels as if every game was set on Middle-Earth.
- What’s wrong with Middle-Earth?
- Nothing, but a little variety would be nice. You enjoy GTAV and Gears of War, right?
- Of course!
- Right, and they’re set in very different environments.
- Exactly. So a completely different experience.
- Except that you’re still playing a 30-something straight white guy.
- The main character in GTAIV was black!
- And that was great! But the fact you still remember it just tells me how rare it was.
- What’s wrong with playing a 30-something straight white guy?
- Nothing, but that’s all we do. What’s wrong with playing a 14-year-old gay black girl?
- Why would I want to play that?
- Let’s say you are a 14-year-old gay black girl, and…
- I’m not.
- Let’s say I am. And I love games. In what game can I play a character like myself?
- How would I know?
- Let me tell you: In no game with pre-made characters.
- What about roleplaying games where you make your own characters?
- They’re great. But what if I want to play something else?
- Don’t be so selfish. Not everyone wants to play a 14-year-old gay black girl!
- Not everyone wants to play a 30-something straight white guy.
- Yeah, but most gamers are 30-something straight white guys.
- First of all, that’s not true. Most gamers are women.
- Most real gamers, I mean.
- Second of all, even if it was true, could it be because most games are made by 30-something straight white guys about 30-something straight white guys for 30-something straight white guys.
- Of course! Because they’re the ones who buy and play games.
- By that logic, if you had more female characters, you’d have more women playing these games.
- Yeah, but women don’t like games.
- Oh, you mean they don’t like the kinds of games that are all about 30-something straight white guys.
- Many women do like them. But it’s a bit repetitive.
- Okay, but you women are still a minority.
- Actually, I am a 30-something straight white guy. And I find it boring. I want more variety in my video games.
- Okay. I’m actually a 14-year-old straight white boy.
- So neither of us really knows what anybody else wants?
- I know what I want.
- And I know what I want. Can we agree that we’re both gamers and we both have a right to want these things from our games?
- Yeah, okay.
- Wanna play a game with me?
As I said, this very reasonable (but imaginary) discussion tends to get side-tracked into line two by trolls desperate to make everything about evil feminists destroying games. The chance to actually have this discussion is destroyed.
Not a discussion anymore
GamerGate pretends to be about the above, but it’s not really about games anymore.
For some people it’s about expousing the corruption in the game media. And that’s a really lofty goal. But the corruption in the game media is not about individual game journalists receiving favors from indie game developers. (Maybe that sometimes happens, too, but that’s not what it’s about.)
The corruption is that the only reason game media exists is to get advertising money from game companies. This is the reason they do not write critical reviews of major games, or write exposes on game studios, or do any sort of proper journalism at all. Game media is a part of the marketing wing of the big game studios and distributors. That’s the corruption we should be looking at!
For many others it’s against standing up to ”social justice warriors,” i.e. people like me who are bored with only having 30-something straight white guys in games. If I had an honest one-on-one discussion with any of the people who think they oppose us, I guarantee it would go more or less like the discussion presented above.
Then there is the third group, the mean-spirited trolls so full of hatred and energy who often kidnap the above two groups to support their agenda. These are the people organizing campaigns of death threats, rape threats and boycott. Who dishonestly claim to want to stop game media corruption or stand up to ”social justice warriors” but who simply like to entertain themselves by launching these wars.
Wars that, to them, feel like entertaining online campaigns happening almost in a virtual reality. But which for others are deadly real. When people have to leave their homes and cancel their presentations because of fear that they will get attacked, killed or raped, you have stepped over the line.
Dear mean-spirited trolls, do you want to know what’s the reason why games sometimes are not fun? You are the reason. You take the fun out of gaming and out of being a gamer.
Stop ruining games for us.
The writer is a role-playing game designer, transmedia consultant and a novelist who has also worked as mobile game fiction designer, story consultant on video games, and game journalist. He is waiting for Shadows of Mordor to come out on Xbox.