Sunday, November 30, 2014

Gamer is not the new black.

I just designed a game. Another game actually. It only needs two packs of cards to play. It's purpose is partly to teach maths enjoyably. It’s also combative and competitive and despite being equal in wins and losses against my partner I like to brag that I am the ultimate victor to our six year old daughter.

I also have shelves of toy soldiers. I've designed my own races to play in other war game systems with and I've even made my own spaghetti-western themed skirmish game. (At this point I suspect the geek level has reached a sufficient point that about two thirds of people have stopped reading.) I probably come up with about three or four rules systems a year although many are just simple experiments.

I have boxes of professionally made board games too. A bunch of local guys and me get together once in a blue moon to play those games. I don't always win but when I do my victory dance is the most spectacular.

But for all this I'm not "a gamer". Not that is if you accept the dominant definition of the term. A gamer is an identity which has become entirely defined as people who play computer games. Even more narrowly a gamer identity tends to orientate itself around playing a few major video game titles which are heavily marketed as AAA games. You rock  Minesweeper? You’re still not quite a “Gamer”.

AAA games are the major game studios big releases and they generally look as diverse as action block-busters in movies. In fact due to cross-overs between movies and games you could argue we are facing a profoundly consistent aesthetic – lots of shiny metal, cartoonish physiques, frenetic action and editing, and burning objects in rainy landscapes; in 2005 the head of Bethsheda games joked that “We also believe that everything is cooler on fire." Sometimes art just imitates art.

None of this is new however. In the past we have had the noir aesthetic swing into fashion affecting films and books (and in its later revival computer games as well). Once upon a time the Western was so dominant as to be inescapable in toys, films, books, and magazines. Nowadays it is more likely to be the superhero or the soldier. I imagine American First Nations are feeling a little relieved for the shift.

What frustrates me as a person who plays games but who isn’t quite “a gamer” isn’t particularly the aesthetic narrowness of what is being served up as “gamer culture”. There are some awesome exceptions and as I’ve mentioned these trends will come and go. Computer games probably have more creative diversity than television as a platfrom anyway. Likewise the sexism and sexualisation that tends to go with the narrow aesthetic is not my greatest concern either. Once again this is nothing we didn’t see with film noir or other heavily stylized genres; although the near nude suit of female armour in gaming may look like a new aesthetic low its actually classic fantasy fiction fare.

I’m happy to support critiques of these depictions (more critical consumers may lead to better products) but equally I don’t think we can change these kinds of aesthetic choices by fiat. That’s a dangerous path as censorship often has very little grasp of nuance. For example Pin up Betty Page’s fuller figure is celebrated by some women as an alternative to modern ideas of beauty. I think such a choice can be criticized but no-one can deny there’s a conversation to be had with decent arguments on both sides about the meaning of that image.

Probably the one area of stylistic art choices that I do get my rage on about is the world of comic books. The early Marvel comics I loved had a great range of artistic styles and a super character would only have a supermodel or body builders proportions if there was some sort of relevance to their powers. Then when I got older the art changed; almost every male character was given over the top muscles and virtually every female character had bazooka boobs with a micro waist. Rob Lieffeld’s art is probably some of the worst examples of this.

For a long time I gave up on Marvel in disgust. It may be that the pendulum is swinging back. The Runaways for example, now several years old is a return to diverse body shapes as well as an awesome read. A quick peruse over Marvel’s latest work suggest there are a range of softer touches in play across their major titles. Not everything has to have muscles popping out of muscles it seems anymore.

I mention all these aesthetic concerns because they’ve been getting a fair bit of airplay lately as part of an online debate about misogyny in video gaming. I want to put these concerns to one side to focus on an only slightly related issue. Also I am deliberately avoiding mentioning the hashtag that shall not be named. As that “movement” purports to be about journalistic ethics it can perhaps ignore this post about gamer culture.

What has gotten my goat lately about “gamer culture” is the idea that gamer – specifically meaning the consumers of video games and almost exclusively AAA games – is a viable political identity that others must respect. “Gamer” according to some pundits is like being gay or black and when Gamers are bullied then this is equal to something like racism or homophobia.

In the worst examples of this sort of Gamer pride any criticism at all of gamer culture is seen as bullying. This means anything that can be said about “gamers” has to be overwhelmingly positive or it is treated as hate speech. There is a call out for “gamers” to band together against these slurs and instead talk up their community.

I see this as the penultimate expression of political exhaustion. We are all cast as consumers in the modern public sphere. A Gamer is after all a type of customer. You become a gamer by shopping, consuming and promoting products. Sure the consumption of games can be both social and intellectual but so too can any consumption. A Gamer is just like a sports fan, a coffee-holic, or a cinephile. These are identities which can be a great basis to locate friends but once they get political tend to become spectacularly naff.

Under consumer culture only certain classes in society can take up political identities related to experiencing targetted oppression ie. identities of gender, race, physical ability or sexuality for example. This is similar to how we define refugee. A refugee is not generally technically someone fleeing one country for a better life in another. Legally they must have very narrow and specific reasons for their oppression. They must be being persecuted in the particular. But this misses the way in which consumer culture leaves us all deprived.

Just as for a refugee living in a war torn country is bad generally (even if you specifically have no reason to be targeted) many people feel generally alienated and disempowered in consumer cultures without a clear relationship between that feeling and a category of oppression. Even people who occupy clear categories of oppression while fully knowing how those oppressions are real still feel malaise unrelated to that oppression. Women hate their oppression based on gender but many doubt that eliminating that alone will bring them full humanity for example.

Frustrated by any meaningful way to collectivize this diffuse disempowerment and alienation of consumer culture we ironically take up consumer identities instead. As mentioned earlier the position of an oppressed identity is the only legitimized way to talk about oppression. Subsequently especially for people without access to other political identities it makes sense to occupy the available consumer positions society offers to express any unhappiness.

My strong suspicion is that these consumer identities will not satisfy. The oppression they talk about is largely manufactured or superficial. For example when someone ignorantly declares all Manga is that big eyed screaming school girl stuff ( really only a portion of shōjo manga) a die-hard Manga fan is not oppressed; they can go out and buy the same over-priced box sets as before. A political identity which distracts people with false claims of oppressions keeps their energy from their real problems.

Additionally to maintain a consumer identity like Gamer a person has to keep consuming and to justify doing so will often confuse consumption with a creative act. Games are particularly pernicious in this regard. The choices they give players within their worlds feel like creativity but with perhaps the exception of sandlot games like Minecraft there is mostly linear progression and by any comparison to real life in- game choices are profoundly narrow and forced. In the final analysis the impact of a gamers life is blunted, redirected down the mazes of someone else’s creation (exactly why no gaming character plays computer games in a game). This doesn’t matter so much if gaming is understood as recreation or even mental exercise. It is only when being a gamer is given a political meaning that the identity becomes poisonous.

I believe our unnamable malaise is the replacement of genuine creativity (including politics) with consumption in consumer society. Hence I feel when we embrace consumer identities like Gamer we actually immerse ourselves in more of what makes us unhappy. Then to articulate something of that dislocation we bury ourselves deeper into these identities. It’s a cycle only broken by personal collapse and as people fall out of it exhausted and unsatisfied more people are taken up into it.

I recognize I've made sweeping statements that might be wrong. Raver for example is an identity centered around music (and truly garish fashion) which developed something of a philosophy in the values of PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity and Respect). I never saw it having much impact beyond its own world though due to how easily it was preyed upon by businesses. Punk is a more viable political movement which could be argued also originates as a consumer identity although Punks’ strong DIY attitude may be the reason it escapes being purely consumptive.  Maybe gamer has some potential to morph into something more constructive. A part of this would be leaving the AAA games behind and supporting more indie ventures and ultimately self-made games.

Even then I don’t see Gamer as anything other than a dead end politically. Like all the other political identities which ultimately rely on consumption I think they cannot recreate the citizenry and full humanity we are missing. We can’t buy ourselves what we need. We have to figure out how to actively create a society we can flourish in instead.