What Games Are: The Politics Of Play Matter

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a consultant game designer and creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

A few years ago, film critic Roger Ebert royally put his foot in it when he declared that video games could never be art. Tone deaf though his reasoning was (he got hung up on their functional nature and saw the capacity of play as destroying all possible representation), the most interesting aspect of the debate was just how pilloried he became. Ebert wasn’t just wrong, he was on the wrong side of history.

It was an example of how games are increasingly political, and of how some of the next gamer generation finds personal significance in them. I don’t mean stuff like players who cosplay their favorite characters at conventions. I mean issues of representation, reflection and the dynamics of power.

Nintendoh!

Just look at how Nintendo got caught up in a PR vortex this week around Tomodachi Life. The game is a lighthearted sim intended to be played for laughs. Players can use their Miis to play the game, largely watching them interact and do silly stuff. One of the things that their Miis can do in that context is marry. But the game doesn’t support gay marriage. Reports first indicated that it initially did, but was phased out as “a bug”, but later proven untrue.

There are several articles considering why gay marriage was left out of the game. For the most part they concluded that, because it’s a Japanese game and Japan is more conservative, perhaps it was considered too far. Or maybe in all honesty is just never occurred to the developers to include. Regardless as the issue gained momentum ahead of the game’s launch in the West it become a question that Nintendo had to answer. And its first answer was profoundly dumb (“Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of Tomodachi Life“) for not realizing that the addition or removal of gay marriage was itself an act of social commentary. Everything is, whether you intend it to be or not.

Mansplaining

For every noble cause there are also opportunities for the reactionary voice. Witness the small furore surrounding Depression Quest designer Zoe Quinn as she documented an experiment with implantable tech. Quinn is a fan of implanted chips and wanted to toy about with having a programmable one in her hand. The actual device she implanted (an NTAG216) seems pretty rudimentary, but it’s still an interesting experiment.

Yet to look at some of the comments on the Kotaku article that featured her experiment is to see the dark political underbelly of gaming. You know, the one that thinks that anything that women do is basically an act of being a fame-crazed showy whore. Or that they clearly have a flexible relationship with sanity and need to have their derangement mansplained to them.

Perhaps no-one gets this treatment more than Anita Sarkeesian. In her most recent Tropes vs Women essay Sarkeesian makes the perfectly reasonable point that female characters in games often tend to be feminized versions of male characters. In many games you’ll have a slew of character choices for instance (the tall one, the fat one, the small one etc) and one of them will be the female character. The female character is often attired in pink, girlish and annoying. It’s woman reflected in man rather than woman as woman.

Sarkeesian’s point is that we should enjoy our games but also consider their culture. And maybe be a little less blinkered and more willing to think of female character representation on its own terms. Seems perfectly reasonable doesn’t it? And yet she receives heavy backlash. Some are valid counter-arguments but many are ad hominem attacks on her person. And she’s often threatened.

Money And Speech

Another form of the politics of play is to be found in crowdfunding. We seem to be past the novelty phase which drove huge amounts of money to some games, but in 2014 there’s a lot of crowdfunding going on. Many of the kinds of game that do well in crowdfunding tend to be aligned with tribal causes. Funding the return of retro classics or spiritual successors, for example, is pretty common. So is funding what-games-should-be projects like Storium.

Yet consider Harmonix’s Amplitude campaignAmplitude is one of those games from back in the day, a forerunner (along with Frequency) of Guitar Hero. It’s considered a cult classic and – like many cult classics – there is a latent market for its return. However unlike many a similar campaign, Harmonix’s campaign raises a lot of political questions because it seems like a game belonging to “The Man”.

Peter Molyneux faced similar questions when he raised funds for Godus in late 2012. Surely, many a journalist asked, a guy like Molyneux could gain funding through official channels like publishers. And similarly with Amplitude, surely crowdfunding is supposed to be about the little guy against “The Man”. Indeed I wrote recently about how Oculus Rift’s sale exposed a very deep divide between how games people think about this stuff as opposed to tech people. In tech crowdfunding is for neat stuff. In games crowdfunding is supposed to be a statement of loyalty according to some.

In a sense crowdfunding seems like it should be a reinforcement of that Supreme Court ruling that money equals speech, but whose speech? The sentiment that some games are worthy of funding regularly runs through the gaming media yet by this standard there have been some notable failures such as 1979 Revolution. And at the same time Amplitude is may well make it (going on its current performance), which leads to this question: Is the politics of play actually that important, or is it just loud?

Tokenizing Games

Do the politics of Titanfall really matter to its sales? Does the conspicuous lack of a female character in Grand Theft Auto V actually matter? Or, more darkly, is the vague suspicion that such omissions happen for fear of hurting sales true? Do the economic perceptions around what crowdfunding should be in the media really matter? Or does it all just amount to lip service?

And that brings up an uncomfortable thought: The politics of play may (not to be insensitive) essentially be a sideshow. The Nintendo example may be interpreted as a lesson in how not to do PR, but not really change anything as such. We may see a phase of game makers inserting token characters and other elements by way of appeasement, but not taking the political issue any further than that. Game developers, publishers and platforms need to be smarter than that.

One way to read the dynamics of crowdfunding is to think that the politics matter only so far, but that’s only to consider where it is today. It forgets that the younger generation are simply cash-strapped. Maybe current Kickstarter success is largely about affluent mid-40s white guys and their childhood obsessions with games involving Cthulhu or fantasy sagas and so on, but that dynamic won’t last forever. They’re simply the ones with disposable income for whom games are a certain kind of passion, but it’s different for their successors.

The younger generation may well be up to its eyes in college debt and unable to pay rent while middle-aged moms burn money in Candy Crush, but that will change. The indie kids of today care about identity, representation and consider their play as more than simple amusement. The dynamic of a smarter and more sensitive culture is stirring all around us (from the NFL through to the Eurovision) and that’s just in free media.

As today’s generation gets better jobs and start having more disposable income it’s eventually going to be the decisive force, the one that gets to with its wallet and make the crowd decisions. Society is on the move in games just as in every other part of culture, and it’s up to us game makers to engage with rather than token-ize it. Otherwise we’ll be replaced by those who get it.