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):

Screen shot 2015-10-19 at 8.04.35 PM


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.


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?

Debunking common responses to diversity

Those of us who speak often about diversity – particularly in gaming, but it’s an issue for all mediums – are often faced with similar responses. I want to reply to some.

Throat clearing

Let’s first be clear about what diversity support is: The call to have more games include people of colour, trans folk, etc., is about wanting more, not less.

We want not mere inclusion of, say, black characters, but ones who aren’t all gangsters (as in Watch Dogs); transgender folk who aren’t solely included as targets of transphobic jokes (as in Grand Theft Auto V); women who aren’t caricatures or replaceable with inanimate objects (too many to list).

Diversity is about the recognition that other people partake of a medium, are worth representing within those mediums as people, and who have certain issues particular to that group that are worth exploring in a respectable way.

The question about what to do with this recognition is where difficulty lies. But the responses to such a cause help no one.

Common, wrong responses

“Not every game has to cater to a minority!”

No one is saying every game has to. The call for more games to include and deal with issues that affect various kinds of people is not a call for every game to meet some magical quota. I don’t even know what such a measure looks like. I also don’t really know what “catering to a minority” means.

Diversity campaigning means “cater to all/more people – not just some”. Saying diversity is “every game must cater to a minority” is the exact opposite of the overarching goal of “more”.

We’re highlighting too many games already cater to one demographic (straight white men); in other words, games already cater to one group. We’re saying try make stories about more than one group of people; lots of cultures, nationalities, abilities, etc., exist. We’re all interested in games.

“Let artists create what they want!”

If you wish to make your game star another white man, that is entirely your choice. But it’s still a choice and we will and can criticise you for it. Just as you are totally free to make your lead character another boring white dude, we use that same freedom to criticise you.

Whatever your reason – publishers force you, “the market” decides, etc. – it’s still a choice to focus on the stories of white men. It’s still a choice to disregard other voices or cultures or people. There is no law you’re adhering to.

Make whatever you want: that’s freedom.

The ability to criticise art and artistic choice: that’s the same freedom.

We either both have it or neither of us do.

“It’s bad for business.”

I’m not sure how you ignore examples where a diverse cast led to the biggest profits a franchise had. We’ll ignore women leads sell better – again and again. Since when is it smart business practice to ignore substantial potential audience base?

Do you really want to be fostering an audience that is outwardly repulsed by the idea you treat women respectably? That maybe people of colour don’t have to be terrorists or gangsters? Is that the type of audience you want supporting your work? If not, then you can include other kinds of people and know that the alleged original audience of straight white dudes will continue to support you, because you’re good, talented, creative.

The men who loved Half-Life, which starred a power fantasy version of many of them, didn’t abandon Valve when Portal starred a woman. How belittling of yourself, your audience and the rest of us, when you view your audience based on the most bigoted.

But here’s a black/women/etc. character! Why are you complaining?

Highlighting the existence of a minority individual doesn’t disprove the problem of majority. No one is claiming such stories or characters do not existence – we’re saying it’s too common, too predictable for stories to focus on the plight of straight white men.

For example, if Idris Elba was cast as James Bond, that doesn’t disprove or undermine that James Bond was/is always a white man. It highlights Elba is an exception and that very fact he’s an exception is the problem.

When you point out a game that focuses on a well-written black character – say Lee, from Telltale’s The Walking Dead (who is, unfortunately, a criminal) – you don’t disprove Arkham Asylum, City, Knight, Watch Dogs, Dying Light, Assassin’s Creed (AC) 2, AC: Black Flag & AC: Unity, Witcher 1, 2, 3, Far Cry 1, 3, Lords of the Fallen, Max Payne, Alan Wake, etc. etc. etc. etc. all star and focus on the stories of straight white men.

We already know about the few games that do people of colour well. We’re saying they shouldn’t be an exception, not they don’t exist.

Just be good: who cares if they’re black or white, man or woman?

It’s easy to not care about race or gender or sexuality when yours is the one that’s catered to by default. I am told constantly by white men that race isn’t an issue (which, makes me wonder: if it’s not an issue, why are they fighting me about it?); men constantly tell women to “calm down”, because, hey, Lara Croft exists. And so on.

The way this is framed is that it doesn’t matter if a character is a woman or person of colour or gay, just as long as they’re well written. This gives the impression that straight white men are inherently well-written and you need to make some kind of case for your person of colour lead.

The actual point is this: You need to make all characters, regardless of race, gender, good (or interesting or, at least, not boring/Aiden Pearce). We can all agree on that. But when you use that assertion when people are calling for diversity, you’re diverting the issue. We’re not talking about quality of characters, we’re talking about inclusion. If race doesn’t matter to you, then stop getting involved when people of colour mention inclusion. Why would we want a badly written person of colour in a game? That could be worse than their non-existence.

Your point is either pointless (of course they must be well written!) or diverting (focusing on characters’ quality rather than their inclusion).


Diversity matters to many of us: if it doesn’t matter to you, please rather just ignore our conversations. You don’t really prove you lack of caring when you try divert complex discussions about diversity. You also don’t help when you make the same talking points we’ve been dealing with for ages. Help yourself or help us, but please don’t be boring and distracting.

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…]

Gamergate: Two faced bullies, suicide and general hatred

A harmless woman became the target of bullies online. It must be a day ending in “y”. Except of course she was involved in games and the harassers were proud supporters of Gamergate.

After bullying her, they then claimed to be victims themselves – of trying to curb bullying. See, after harassing someone, they then try say “Hey, this person feels harassed!”. I wonder why?

Then the gaters wonder why we don’t trust them when they claim to be “helping”. No doubt some are. But again: it depends on who, at that second, is using the hashtag.

You want some two-faced morality? Here you.

Oh, bullying a person who is considering suicide? Please tell me more about ethics…

But if you wanted some more awfulness from Gamergate, look no further than another of its spokespeople, Mike Cernovich. (HT @stillgray)

(If unable to view Storify, find original link here)

When people ask is there anything good coming from Gamergate, I am now going to respond with yes.
And that’s exactly why they need to give up the hashtag collective.

Gamers are angry and they need to grow up

After dealing with trolls for an entire day – thanks to a certain prominent atheist with a million followers Retweeted me on Anita Sarkeesian – I had my article on the same issue go live. I looked at what happened when Joss Whedon and Tim Schafer endorsed Sarkeesian, what men (and non-targeted people in general) can and must do – even if misogyny and sexism appears to be a dying animal. It’s cornered beast but still has claws.

Ubisoft, women and diversity in media

My latest for The Daily Beast is on Ubisoft’s (lack of) prioritising women in their upcoming games and the response, in general, from those wanting diversity in media. Specifically in the case of Assassin’s Creed: Unity I found this really disappointing, since this is a talented bunch of people – who not only themselves wanted women, but are great at encouraging diversity.

I’ve been sick and busy with work, so apologies for empty blog for awhile. I should be returning to at least my infrequent levels of blogging – I definitely have an upcoming fisk.