The origins of “culture war” as it stands today are shrouded in uncertainty, with each side accusing the other of firing the first shot. It is defined as “the conflict between traditionalist or conservative values and progressive or liberal values,” but even this definition is a bit iffy to me. The term has moved on from its original usage, and is now used as an umbrella term for the idea that one version of culture and politics is inherently better than another, that the media you consume should reflect your personal political ideas, and that media has a profound effect on how people view the world.
Even before the ongoing shit-storm that is GamerGate there had been talk about “The Culture War” and how it affects us. Just look at what occurred Atheism+ for an almost mirror event of what was attempted in gaming. In 2013 self-confessed misandrist Samantha Allen published an post entitled “An Open Letter to Games Media” which calls for the wholesale shifting of gaming culture, and goes on to attack the very idea of neutrality.
The thing is, this isn’t a war, this is a debate. War is tribal. It builds factions, and is fought to crush a perceived enemy at all costs. There shouldn’t be one set of ideas that dominates the public discourse, with alternate views coming under attack. “The first casualty of war is the truth” holds startlingly clear for the imposed and unwanted “Culture War” that gaming has been thrust into. War breeds propaganda, dehumanization of “the enemy,” and excuses crimes in aid of the final victory. The next casualty is reason.
The culture war concept is an imported trait to gaming. The idea isn’t native, and the perceived battle-lines were drawn up externally. Those who relish in cultural warfare have been itching to inject this idea further and further into what is seen as the next battleground to them: the games industry and the gaming community.
This idea of cultural warfare is a completely American invention in my view. It stems from the increasingly divided politics in the country. Culture war ignores the centrism and moderate nature of the beliefs of the vast majority of people, and pits the right and left against each other in an “Us vs. Them” situation. There are two sides of very loud people screaming at each other, and everyone else in the middle suffers for it. This is seen as a desirable state of affairs to some because some folks want to “win” for their culture. Normal people don’t want to bully and dominate others with their ideas, and the concept is abhorrent to anyone who truly holds the ideas of liberalism and pluralism to heart.
Gamers didn’t seek out wanting to rebut these ideas, but instead had it thrust upon them. “Progressive Vs. Conservative” is a false dichotomy; people’s entire worldview can’t be boiled down to a simple binary choice. It’s so important for people like Samantha Allen, or any of the myriad articles in The Guardian, Vox, or Gawker media that attacks the idea of neutrality because nuance and balance prevent a culture war from being perpetuated. It prevents you simply accepting someone else’s ideas as different from yours.
That is, at a core level, what the culture was is: a way of whipping up sides in a conflict without anyone questioning why we have to be fighting all the time. We’ve seen it directly mentioned by Leigh Alexander in Time, and The New Republic put out an especially dense article called “GamerGate: A Culture War for People Who Don’t Play Video Games” (emphasis added by author) pretty much admitting that the culture war has little to do with gaming, and was just a way to crowbar political divisions into it.
Video games are supposed to be fun. Yes, they can reflect our everyday reality, but they also provide escape from it — they transport us to other worlds. Anita Sarkeesian, Jonathan McIntosh, and the clickbaiting gaming press are the antithesis of the joy of playing a video game. They are Jack Thompson, Tipper Gore, and Mary Whitehouse all rolled into one with a dash of half-understood teenage Marxism. They are demagogues, talking heads contributing nothing of worth to the gaming landscape. Their doctrine is based at a core level around restricting what can be made, rather than empowering creators to make what they see fit (as our EiC wrote about here). I also wrote about this in my previous article “Linkle and the Geek Culture War,” and how their end goal was to dominate the political discourse.
The debate is rigged. “This is a discussion we need to be having” is used every time something is proved to be untrue, or a figure-head is shown to be dishonest. It’s the same as what happened with the UVA rape hoax; feminists putting forward the idea of a campus rape epidemic had one of their core examples completely destroyed. So what did they do? They focused on “highlighting issues” and retreated to nonsensical party lines about “no perfect victim” and “systematic issues.” Whatever point you make will be drowned out by identity politics of one kind of another.
The bigger picture is made up of individual cases. You can’t talk about the “diversity crisis” in gaming without debating the merits and validity of specific instances. Unfortunately, debate is not something culture warriors want to have. If you engage on their own terms you are going to have a miserable experience where nothing much actually gets discussed and you likely end up blocked. That’s what happens when they turn the discussion to “diversity,” everyone gets bogged down in minutia and counter-minutia, and nothing actually gets done.
This culture war is artificial as well. It was created, and is perpetuated by those with something to gain at the expense of everyone else. What needs stamping out is not “the other side” of the culture war because they need the “other” as something to fight against. What needs ramped down are those profiteering and fanning the flames of an artificial state of war in culture.
The term “professional victim” is bandied around a lot, and there are a sub-section of people who make a living from playing up the abuse they receive online, but there is a far larger group of people who make money as two-cent pundits who justify their own existence by loudly professing the sky is falling within the gaming landscape to anyone willing to pay their speaking fees.
The culture war in gaming is a feast for sensationalists. It forgoes people having to build up a deep knowledge of gaming to create content, and instead relies upon them merely forming the loudest, most headline grabbing opinion possible. We are constantly bombarded with news of impending doom in the games industry and community unless action is taken. This simply isn’t the case.
Controversy drives traffic. That holds true everywhere, even here at SuperNerdLand. Series like my Ratchet & Clank retrospective, and some of my less controversial Magic the Gathering pieces get a fraction of the traffic my gaming editorials and opinion pieces do. But as I demonstrated in “The Death of Games Journalism Part 2: Business 101,” the outrage clicks model is short-sighted. I’d rather cultivate an audience of a hundred people consistently viewing and appreciating my work than than thousand who occasionally click on an opinion piece, but don’t give a shit about you as a writer, or the community. Taking adrev money from people coming to hate-fuck your deliberately sensational article isn’t good enough to make up for not having an actual audience built from trust and respect. The amount of money articles on this site made from ads before we disabled them was usually measured in pence.
These culture war profiteers have sold their integrity for nickels and dimes. Look at YouTube and what makes money there. The top channels are footage of games with commentary people find entertaining. People want to be entertained. They also want to look at raw footage of games and make up their own minds. Outrage content and cultural criticism is dwarfed by actual gaming content in the areas of media that are growing. The gaming press aren’t going to survive long on their twenty pieces of silver from stabbing gamers in the back much longer. This also extends to those who are basing their entire business model of perpetuating outrage against “Liberals” or “SJWs,” and perpetuating the idea of a victory for their “side.” In my mind, outlets like Reaxxion were just the other side of the culture war coin, much like The Mary Sue or any other agenda driven press, and its closing is a sign that outrage isn’t strong enough to sustain an outlet for long in the gaming space. You can’t replace the actual passion for gaming. As Boogie2988 said in a characteristically eccentric video, “More people just need to shut up and game!” The original refrain of Vivian James was “Can’t we just play video games?” More people need to remember that.
I keep being told that “the vast majority of gamers don’t care about GamerGate,” and that’s true to a point. It’s also true that the vast majority of gamers simply don’t care about political issues in the first place, and would rather just play good video games, not get ripped off to play them, and not be told they are shit for it.
That’s the way it should be. People should be able to enjoy and create games free from all the political bile being pumped into the industry from the outside. I’m not here to “win the culture war,” I’m here to rebut what I see as faulty ideas that are being strong-armed into a community — and an industry — causing unnecessary misery for many of those caught in the crossfire. Stop trying to make developers comment about GamerGate and stop trying to Kafka-trap them into issuing statements you can spin to say they support your “side” of whatever petty internet slap-fight is happening this week.
The politicized environment turns most people off. If you don’t fit into what a certain group considers to be an “ally” then attempts are made to twist your words into a form more conducive to conflict. Those who refuse to abandon an idea of moderation or neutrality end up dragged and shouted down, or cajoled into silence.
Writer Trever Bierschbach articulated this idea very well in his piece for Trigger Warning “Allies or Yes-Men, why I Don’t Much Care for Social Activism”
Cries of “Just shut up and listen,” “Your opinion doesn’t matter,” and “Silence is consent,” are contradictory statements that tend to make people disengage and walk away. How can one be an ally of a group that doesn’t want diverse opinions, yet still want their diversity to be recognized? How does one find the will to care, when the extent of one’s involvement is expected to simply be “Listen and believe?”
(I encourage you to read the full piece. It’s a balanced critique of social media activism.)
It’s little wonder most developers and publishers don’t want to get caught in the crossfire of an artificial culture war. The safest option whilst there is a highly charged environment is not to comment lest your statements become twisted, and you’re pilloried by one side or the other. Anything you say that does not adopt one extreme or the other will always “not go far enough” for one side or the other.
But I have good news! You can just play video games if all the politics and bullshit depresses you. You shouldn’t fight just because you were told to, and you don’t have to choose a side — no one can force you to care about an issue if you don’t want to. You are an individual, not some ally or soldier for the service of someone else’s cause. You are accountable to yourself and your peers; social media is a false environment and the pressures stemming from the empty noise on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook can rarely have an impact in your real life unless you let them. Publishers and industry organizations amplifying the demands of those who feel entitled to interfere with creative work should feel ashamed. They are bowing to paper tigers, and loud but isolated demagogues.
People are sick of divisiveness, sick of those at the top trying to turn groups against each other for their own gain or gratification. Stop. Stop turning something so well loved into another political minefield where everyone is constantly at each other’s throats. Gaming existed just fine before these vultures came along. I rebut these faulty ideas not because I believe in the power of some final victory in a contrived war state, but because I believe in the need for a multifaceted debate.
If this is indeed a debate then we should be able to make our arguments passionately, but shake hands afterwards. My hand has always been, and will remain, outstretched. In my writers introduction — my very first thing on the site — I wrote “I’m not here to tear down, I’m here to build back up” and I stand by that. The culture war is a confidence trick, an illusion. You don’t have to be at war. You can just get on with building a better industry and press. You can just go forward creating your artistic vision. When you stand up to bullies they invariably crumble.
This piece rounds out of a loose series of articles I’ve been trying to write for a good number of months. If you could boil down my work two core concept it’s these: politics fucks everything up, and video games are a medium I have a deep love for that have enriched my life. I think these are sentiments many can relate to. Being bogged down in a political quagmire is no fun. I’ve said it before, but I really think many “cultural critics” are more a fan of their own politics than anything relating to art or entertainment. There are some people who very obviously have a deep love for video games, the gaming community, and their audience. There are those who love to be entertaining, and it shines through in their work. It’s easy to spot a fake, and gamers are particularly adept at it.
“They don’t know much, but they know what they hate” sums up my thoughts on the chattering critics tearing down the work of others whist building nothing. I want to be a man who’s known for what he loves, not what he hates. I want to evangelise for the transforming power of an interactive medium, and I want to share the good that games have done in the world. I want those who have created experiences, and yes works of art, that have helped form me as a person to know just how much their work means to me. Media still regards gaming as the runt of the litter, and all the talk of a “persecution complex” won’t change how gaming is stigmatised in the mass media.
My role here is to remove the lies, bullshit and misdirection heaped on top of the gleaming diamonds of gaming’s past, present, and future. There is no crisis here. There are only accusations of sexism, racism, bigotry, and homophobia because it helps an entire class of untalented social science majors justify their existence. Of course someone who is paid to promote “diversity in tech” is going to scream “fire” at the top of their lungs when saying that there is a problem. Their job depends on it.
If they just admitted that everything was going pretty well, then all things considered they would be out of a job. We need to get used to things not being in a state of crisis. Fact is, we have dozens of great titles made each year from all over the world by all kinds of people with all kinds of viewpoints.
The source of my anger, the indignation that fuels much of my writing, is how badly written games media sells gaming short with its focus on the political, and its instance on forcing the same conversations over and over. They inject of guilt and shame into realms of the imagination made of pure joy. That is the great crime of the culture war: the tug of war that pulls the arms of something wonderful and leaves bitter parties fighting over the shreds. Gaming has had growing pains, and it has problems, but overall it is a community and a medium capable of staggering good. I want to show the wider world the wonders that culture critics are putting down, and make them answer to the creators they are tearing down without a second through.
If the first casualty of war is the truth then the first casualty of the gaming culture war has been the voice of the rank and file developer. I’ve spoken behind the scenes with some of you folks — people I never expected to have a chance to talk to — lamenting how they can’t express their opinions anymore for fear of being seen as taking the wrong “side.” We are in danger of causing lasting damage to a medium simply to gain a hollow, political victory. If you would sacrifice whole genres and audiences in order to make gaming better fit your political position then you don’t belong with those who hold a real affection for the medium.
Stop. Just stop. Look at what is being done to this medium and community in the name of progress, and ideological victory. If they truly loved gaming as they claimed they do then they would be able to put the politics aside and share in the passion of others. There is precious little talk encouraging content creators who often feel trapped as mid-level cogs in the machine without them having auteur status. Demagogues are allowed to drown out the voices of those who have put decades of work into building studios and franchises because of politics; because it makes for some nice clicks and controversy. We can’t have a logical discussion about game design anymore without having to wade through this extraneous nonsense.
No matter what you believe, if you love gaming and that’s what you dedicate your time to then you are a gamer. “The State of Gaming” by Alexander Macris is still essential reading for anyone wanting to cut the through the noise and understand where the community stands right now. The concept of the gaming enthusiast is something that is impervious to cultural attack, no matter how hard some try. You can’t shame people out of loving video games .
This is your hobby, your passion, you can enjoy it as you like. You don’t need to take abuse, and you don’t have to listen to it. Simply enjoying the games you love on your own terms makes the cultural critics, the censors, and the gender warriors of this world screech in failure. I’ve heard so many times that “these are discussions we need to be having,” or talk of “taking people out of their comfort zone and challenging them,” but anything outside of a cultural critics narrow safe space is “problematic” or “bigoted.”
The gaming press and the hipster indie developer circle jerk is like someone insisting the movie theatre has a lecture about geopolitics before the movie starts, and if anyone disagrees with any of their points they get upset and try and shut the entire film down. Ultimately this is a battle between fun and unfun, between simply enjoying a medium and anxious hand wringing. In the long run I know what will win out. People don’t buy products because you make them feel miserable, they buy games that will provide them with some level of satisfaction.
I’m here for the games. You’re here for the games. If you’re not then you’re in the wrong place.
Latest posts by John Sweeney (see all)
- Shouting Into The Void: It’s The People You Take With You — March 10, 2018
- 10,000 Hours in MS-Paint No.5 – Grab Them by the Vagana — January 17, 2018
- 10,000 Hours in MS-Paint No.4 – Virtue: The Signalling — December 4, 2017