Sunday, September 1, 2013

They did not cover this shit in Cotillion.

A few weeks ago, Alyssa Rosenberg said something thought-provoking:

I spent a while trying to think of an adequately brief response to this, because I find the sentiment intensely familiar. And yet, it's not as simple as "what she said, but with videogames." I poked and prodded at the whats and whys, but nothing fit easily into 140 characters without seeming entirely off-topic. So I settled for a gesture of enthusiastic agreement:
Meaning that I was going to write my own blog entry about the interplay of politics and aesthetics. I would then, in all likelihood, worry about whether or not it would be gauche to mention Rosenberg when I tweet the link to that entry. This is the problem with being in easy shouting distance of people you happen to admire, who incidentally could make you internet-famous for at least a little while. She responded:
So now I feel like I've just told her what to write about, which is a dick move. I consider issuing a correction--"no, no, my writing is what's important here"--but that doesn't seem like a good idea either. So I resolve to just make it the beginning of an irritating blog post.

While racism, sexism, et al. are as annoying in videogames as in any other medium, they're mostly discussed at the fringes. The mainstream discourse, such as it is, is less about whether videogames are supporting (or just failing to critique) deleterious social norms, as it is about whether or not they cause mental illness and/or violent crime by existing. I'd sort of thought we were done with this debate, since even politicians barely pay lip service to media effects these days, but Sandy Hook Changed Everything, and everything old is new again. In the last week, I've seen two new headlines about publications, one on violent media in general and one on violent videogames in particular. Having poked my head in to see if there's anything mind-blowing, I don't have a lot to say.

I'm bothered by infantile power fantasies and gun fetishization because they're dull. I'm bothered by cynical, unambitious, lowest-common-denominator approaches because they result in bad game design. I don't believe bad games are harmful because they encourage people, sane or otherwise, to do bad things; I believe bad games are harmful because they're an enormous waste of human potential.

Next time you finish a AAA game, count how many designers, artists, and coders you see.

Modern videogame development is a long, expensive process, requiring the concerted cooperation of hundreds of people over a period of several years. To have put that much vitality and creativity into something dull, something cynical, is profoundly sad.

Ian Bogost writes that "[t]he debate about newsgames' value as speech turns out not to be a conflict between support and detraction but rather a conflict between the games themselves and the games as cogs in someone's favorite discourse machine." Distinctions between newsgames and any other intra-medium distinctions we might feel compelled to draw up notwithstanding, talking about value precludes talking about content. When we stop arguing about whether or not a game is dangerous, we have the freedom to write about whether or not that game is interesting, and why.

You might not know it from this particular blog, but I assure you, it's a much more interesting conversation.

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