On “letting” artists create & criticising what they create

So I said

And a hat wearer said in response (to another person who highlighted my Tweet):

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This is in reference to my criticism of games in general and, more than likely, Witcher 3 in particular (yes, angry nerds are still angry about that for reasons I fail to understand.)

Look at what this person thinks.

“Letting creators do what they like” – what could this possibly mean? To “let” someone do anything requires an ability to prevent. Even moral conundrums of “letting the fat man die” means being able to prevent his death. When I or other critics write about what games can and should do (and not do), we do so with words and argument; we do not “let” creators do anything because we’re, quite literally, in no position to either allow or prevent them doing so. We’re writing blogposts or articles or Tweets – not laws or business policies that have to be adhered to.

The ideal is that creators – and others – will look at our arguments and agree with them. This won’t happen all the time or even most. But that’s how you start engaging critically: your view sparks another, which sparks another, which sparks another. People engage, debate, think. In the end, they can look at your argument and decide it’s boring, dull, not worth listening to – and move on. It’s an argument, not a legal binding document that, if ignored, will land you in prison.

I want creators persuaded to do better by virtue of them agreeing with my arguments; I want them to go “Hm, that’s a good point: I will include more people of colour!” and then do so, of their own free will, because they read me and others and decided it’s a good idea.

Or not. Or they can totally go “lol no” and decide not to. Either way, they came to their own conclusions because that’s how arguments work.

Even if you disagree with my opinions, to claim I “let” creators I criticise do anything is just obviously false: I do not run any corporations, I do not run boards that censor products – yet it’s a belief repeated so often, I believe such people do believe it. I really think they perceive my disagreement with how media fails to represent people of colour – or whatever – as me preventing creators making their art.

I think GTA V is a hot load of shit, but I’d be incredibly concerned if Rockstar found out they were not allowed to create what they wanted. That’s not just awful for Rockstar but all creators. I don’t want a moral police that Rockstar have to submit petitions to, in order to get a game past. I want Rockstar themselves to engage with criticism and think “hey, maybe homophobia/transphobia/sexism/racism isn’t cool, maybe we shouldn’t?” If they don’t, well, I guess they’ll just keep making their massively successful franchise?

It’s hard to comprehend what power angry people like Hat Person think critics have – but the perception feeds into the worldview that critics “deserve” harassment and righteous opposition. There’s a perception that because critics are being listened to they are also being “obeyed”. The inability to negotiate the difference between criticism and control is a thorn in the leg of fruitful debate, a wrench in cogs of passionate discussions, meaning nothing useful can be produced.

I can guarantee you that most prominent media sites have had famous critics hating Michael Bay’s films – especially Transformers. As far as I know, Mr Bay is still successful and the film franchise was still going strong amidst all the hatred. Being heard doesn’t mean being listened to – let alone obeyed. You can get your argument on the front page of the New York Times and I can choose to ignore it.

“Let creators create what they like!” Well, I can’t. I genuinely can’t do that. Because I can’t do the opposite either. Even if I wanted to, I don’t even know what not letting creators create what they like means – unless you’re talking government censorship.

Critics create criticism – why is our work not allowed? Art is allowed to be criticised; that criticism itself can be criticised. What you can’t do is, instead of disproving arguments, portray them as authoritarian dictates – which is the most bizarre portrayal I’ve seen of contributions from someone who is a freelance writer to a video game website.

The assertion also seems to give immunity to art just because we’re fond of it. Because someone made it and we love it, we don’t want anyone thinking any part of it is bad. It’s sacred and perfect.

But this is nonsense.

You can like and criticise the same thing; it’s possible and important to think about the flaws of the things you love dearly, because nothing is perfect. Criticism is essential to progress: how do we get better if we don’t know what’s wrong? If something is perfect, it means there’s no reason to try. If nothing else, that sounds rather uncreative and boring.

Hate our arguments; ignore me; whatever. But this idea that I or other critics have any significant control over corporations or people with more money and power than us is ridiculous.  I dunno: If we had such power, we wouldn’t be freelance writers – we’d just be bringing this stuff out and enjoying it from the comfort of our yachts (those are things that fly right?).

What we’re aiming for is improvement by virtue of persuasion, not dictates; that so many don’t even know what that looks like is kind of alarming to me.

If you like my work, please consider leaving me a tip: It’s greatly appreciated.


Some gamers don’t want criticism, they want PR

Over at Gamespot, Kevin VanOrd – one of gaming’s best writers – “broke consensus” by giving Arkham Knight 7/10. Many other places are giving it much higher scores, including a perfect 10 at Polygon. They did a video talking to Kevin about why he did so (even though you can read the review itself to find out why.)

I noticed this comment and it kind of perfectly encapsulates what is so wrong with so many gamers’ responses to criticism.

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Yes: A person who admits to not playing Arkham Knight thinks it should get a higher score, based on a trailer. Because, I guess, trailers are never created to show off the best parts of the game, running perfectly smoothly, with the right set pieces, by a huge corporation’s marketing team. It’s not like it’s their job to sell you on a product of theirs based on decades of experience in marketing.

It’s strange because clearly this person could just ignore this review or Kevin’s perspective in their purchasing decision. (You’ll notice that this person asserts Kevin knows nothing about games, an accusation I know all too well as of late.) As someone who adores Arkham Knight, I can see where Kevin is coming from. That was his experience and it actually resonates with a great many other people.

The key to writing a good review should be that even those who disagree can still pick up on those aspects they’d love: For example, Kevin noted how often you use the Batmobile. He found that tiresome. However, I love the Batmobile and I loved the parts where I had to use it. So his response to the same scenarios are exactly the opposite of mine: there’s no arguing there, it’s simple fact that our tastes just differ.

It’s strange that someone who clearly has been swept up in the PR to purchase the game feels the need to defend it against someone who’s played it (and is clearly an experienced critic). Kevin isn’t stopping you; he didn’t say it was bad; he gave it a 7 not an 8 or 9 like most other places. That people who haven’t played it are taking issue with the score should tell you so much about how so many gamers respond to criticism in general. It’s tiring dealing with such responses. But we haven’t reached that point where such responses are the exception rather than the constant: Too many gamers want everything and everyone to be mouthpieces for PR, rather than individual, critical perspectives on our favourite medium.

Games are not exempt from social discussions

In a March update to 2013 indie survival horror game, Rust, the devs explained a new change: the assignment of skin tone.

Writing on the game’s official blog, they said:

Everyone now has a pseudo unique skin tone and face. Just like in real life, you are who you are – you can’t change your skin colour or your face. It’s actually tied to your steamid.

Right now your avatar is randomised via three things. Skin colour, head mesh and head material. We only have 2 face textures and 2 face materials, which means there’s 4 possible combinations. We will be adding more of these later on (at which point your face will probably change).

There’s a lot of skin colours in the world, and it’s really easy to appear racially insensitive when doing this. This is compounded by the fact that everyone is really used to seeing this guy as a white guy, so when you see him as a black guy it feels like he’s just “blacked up“. So we’re spending a lot of time trying to lessen that effect.

Race is a complicated issue in a world where people are still judged, targeted and marginalised – even in first world countries – because of their skin colour. Many people would like to believe we are beyond it, but unfortunately, we are not. And this is precisely what scholar Megan Condis tackles at Al Jazeera:

The reactions to Rust’s unprecedented experiment were swift. Many gamers were aggrieved by the skin tone automatically assigned them. Others felt drafted into racial discourses that they preferred to ignore, and lamented the entrance of social justice activism into what they saw as a blissfully post-racial online world. But the backlash only underscored a disturbing reality: By insisting that race doesn’t or shouldn’t exist online, such attitudes ensure an online status quo in which people of color remain marginalized and invisible. (Emphasis added.)

This continuation of marginalisation arises from gamers’ insistence race doesn’t belong in a review; in sites focusing more on what characters’ smoke than why there are no people of colour.

It’s everywhere and people who loudly proclaim to be totally not racist perpetuate this toxicity through erasing our concerns.

While there were blatant racist responses to Rust’s decisions, there were also those who believed it an “enforcement” of issues. What’s striking, however, is that so many people forget how often people of colour are forced to play white people; how often gay people play as straight people; and so on. The straight white male lead and focus is ubiquitous in gaming – and a lot of media. This ubiquity leads to those identity aspects becoming invisible. As Condis puts it:

Why is it that the supposed lack of choice with regards to the player’s avatar only became a concern after people of color were added to the game? The reactions reflect a failure on the part of some gamers to recognize that whiteness is a race at all. These players appear to think of whiteness as a neutral type of embodiment, the universal category of humanity against which all those who do “have” a race (anyone who is not white) are compared.

Many people often respond to us people of colour’s concerns about race with frustration and anger; it’s particularly awful when, consistently, white people ask me to stop talking about race. I’d really love it if, instead of telling me to keep quiet about race, white folk interrogated this anger – not at systems of oppression, but at their own boredom, their own frustration at us, and how it adds to an environment we keep saying is unwelcoming to us.

Consider that when we write “Gaming culture is unfriendly to those who are not straight white cis men”, we have straight white men swear and harass us to… disprove this? It’s as if the articles about how minority groups face oppression get comments that prove the necessity of those articles.

The industry and culture is hostile and part of that hostility is privileged people who claim to be not racist or sexist telling the rest of us to chill out, quiet down, stop overreacting. We have given so many examples, shown so many ways – it’s not a question of evidence, it’s now a question of why privileged people don’t want to accept that evidence. It’s their refusal to self-reflect on their anger at us, rather than the systems and culture we point to that hurt everyone.

I, and other people of colour, can’t do that acceptance for them, neither can any other minority person who is frequently the target of hateful but privileged angry people. As Condis highlights in her piece, ubiquity of particular types of people has led to invisibility – and, because we don’t fit into that ubiquitous mould, that so-called “target demographic”, we become targets, not members, of yet another space.

This isn’t just gaming. It’s every day life. We shouldn’t want invisibility, we should want safety.

No one is forcing you to participate in these discussions. If you really don’t care, fine: don’t read, don’t participate. It’s a pity though that so many would rather pretend race doesn’t exist and isn’t an issue than try make games more inclusive, diverse and accepting. Games themselves talk about race – why won’t gamers?

I am made dead by Gamergate verbosity

I wrote an article about Gamerbro-types owning up to their own politics and social agendas – instead of making boring, obviously false assertions like “We just wanna play games”, “Keep politics out of games”, etc. Why am I comfortable enough to play and review games, and also talk about my own view of politics and social issues, but my “critics” are not?

Why is it OK to mention the number of pixels but not the low number of people of colour? It’s never been explained but we can all start having proper discussions when such folks own up to their views; just admit “I find race issues boring”, “It makes me uncomfortable to confront sexism”.

That’s so much more honest, so much more fruitful than trying to silence us with “make it about games” – when, for me, so much of diversity issues is seen in games. It is about games, for me: Telling me to keep quiet about race in games is telling me not to experience games. And if you don’t want to read about my experience of games, don’t read my reviews. These people are not babies, but for some reason this needs to be explained.

Regardless, a very boring commenter went on a verbose rampage, trying to drown us all in words – because, I guess, mortality isn’t an issue when you have an endless spawn option. I mean just look at this Niagra fall of words!

I’m working some things out, so here’s a fisk.

[Read more…]

An argument to reconsider words is not “thought policing”

How many people would use the k-word slur or a non-human animal species to describe persons of colour? Would any of you call me “camel-fucker”? Would you use “faggot” to describe a gay person? I imagine the answer to these is no – and it’s a “no” driven not by fear of police or lawyers, but some sense of morality.

Can you imagine anyone having to write an article today asking people not to use the k-word to describe black people? It seems ridiculous, because you probably don’t need to be convinced of that. If I had to blog about why you should not describe me as a “camel fucker” or “raghead” or “Paki”, I’d imagine you’d ask: Who the hell is this for? 

But let’s say there was someone, a white man,  who had never encountered these terms used in a bad way or himself used it as a term of endearment in an “ironic” way. Presumably such a person, who had never fully considered the impact on those it actually affects, would read my piece and reconsider his terms.

Whatever his conclusion, no one other than himself is preventing him from using those terms. I am not leaping out my blog to silence people who use “Paki”, I simply block them and conclude such people are not worth talking to. The entire Internet is available for Paki-bashers of the world to unite and use the term “ironically”.

That’s the end of it, really: Words on the internet ask you to reconsider using a term. Agree? Disagree? No one’s stopping you. Seems easy, no?

Well, judging from the way gamers responded to a similar suggestion about the term “Master Race”, maybe not. [Read more…]

UPDATE 3.00: I created a monster called #Readergate on Twitter (UPDATE: It’s in Bustle)

I think.

Anyway, I want to sit here and be proud and pretend I did something for once in my life.

But more importantly, go have a look at some of the brilliant responses from others – and please contribute your own. It’s hilarious and cuts to the heart of the stupidity of #Gamergate. The power of satire can always be useful.

UPDATE: Caitlin White has a succinct yet remarkably accurate write up of its history in Bustle. Great piece.

UPDATE 2: There’s a write up at Salon that’s excellent.

UPDATE 3: I also tried to respond to some #Gamergaters on reddit. I got some reddit Gold for trying, so there’s that.