It can be annoying when people who don’t know the first thing about videogames claim that games can’t say anything relevant on a human level. Still, those are people we can ignore. In my experience writing about games, the true pebble in the shoe are those who know them very well, yet decide we can only take a game’s message seriously if we’re going to praise it. If, instead, we intend to criticize a game for its message being toxic, then the game’s only purpose is to entertain, and all criticism is an overreaction.
The logic behind this defensive attitude is full of false assumptions: that only some or a few games convey any message at all, that a piece of entertainment must by definition have nothing to say, that if criticisms were correct players would replicate in-game actions in real life, that you can make art without your pesky subjectivity getting in the way, that freedom of artistic expression means toxic ideas are above scrutiny.
The reality is that all games say something, as insignificant as it may be. There’s no way around that. All mechanics convey meaning. All the elements of a game say something, and all important elements of a game say something of importance.
Sooner or later, videogame exceptionalism will have to accept that at least in some respects, videogames say things about the world more or less like any other expressive medium.
Anthony Kiedis Wasn’t in Point Break
The most frequently used expressive medium is the spoken word, so let’s think this in terms of a friendly conversation and suppose, for example, that a man says, “Anthony Kiedis wasn’t in Point Break.”
Is it possible that the man hadn’t actually meant to say anything? Yes, the man might have mumbled sounds at random, but the chances of that turning into a coherent sentence are negligible.
Can I question the message that was conveyed by him? Of course! My experience may dictate that in a scene from the intense action film Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991) there’s a character identical to the US singer and composer Anthony Kiedis, better known for his role in the rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers. Can I argue against the message? I can do that too! In fact IMDb tells me the man’s claim is false: Kiedis was indeed in Point Break.
It’s worth noting that the message’s mere enunciation did not convince me that the message was true. It should be obvious, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the message existed.
If I point out the mistake and the man is stubborn enough, he might deny the validity of my research, or say I misunderstood his original claim, or complain that I’m violating his freedom of expression. In the world of videogames, however, we have an even wilder response:
“I meant nothing by what I said. I was just speaking for entertainment’s sake. Had I really conveyed the message that Kiedis wasn’t in Point Break, everyone within hearing distance would now be editing Kiedis out of the film’s IMDb and Wikipedia entries.”
The number of wrong assumptions in such reasoning are too many to tackle one by one, and yet they’re exactly the ones repeated time and again in the world of videogames to combat any attempt to reflect critically on our craft.
Success Relies on Cooperation
Let us now take these observations about the workings of simple communication and apply them to a famous videogame. One of the numerous messages World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004) conveys, as Jane McGonigal would point out, is that success relies on cooperation.
How does it convey this message? There’s little mystery to it: the game puts the player in situations where, in order to succeed, she needs her character to cooperate with other characters. Death is presented as a negative value, a positive value would be conquest, and cooperation is positive by association, as a means to conquest. In this case we’re talking real cooperation with characters controlled by other people, but cooperation between fictional characters may convey the same cooperative message, as is the case with Thomas Was Alone (Mike Bithell, 2012).
An old fashioned person might argue that games are too childish an activity to have a positive impact on society. That if World of Warcraft were the key to solve the Great Human Problems, all online players would instantly become kind and cooperative and altruistic to the point of heroism.
But that’s not how it works, right? That there are selfish people playing World of Warcraft doesn’t negate the fact that the game has a prominent message in favor of both cooperation and the human capacity to join forces and coordinate skills to tackle complex issues. The pro-cooperation message is still in the game, not by chance but by design choice, and its existence is not affected by the fact that the game is a piece of entertainment.
It might be argued that there is good and bad people playing World of Warcraft because there is good and bad people, period, and the game bears no influence on anyone’s moral inclinations. But a positive message of cooperation conveyed to dozens of millions of people throughout the years, many of which dedicated enormous amounts of time to the game, must have an impact on society. Denying it would go against everything we know scientifically about marketing, cognitive conditioning and the mere exposure effect.
Not only World of Warcraft tells us cooperation fosters human wellbeing, but it has inspired in a tangible way thousands of games dedicated to conveying that same message.
Success Relies on Violence
And yet, doesn’t World of Warcraft also revolve around violence? It does so in a way just as simple as with cooperation: it puts the player in situations where, in order to succeed, she needs her character to perpetrate physical aggression against creatures framed as the Other.
Is it correct to say games of war and conquest make people commit acts of violence in real life? No, in fact it is statistically false. However, what does that have to do with the obvious fact that most of them propose violent methods of conflict resolution? Millions of people every day practice this virtual violence in a game that, plenty of them admit, changed them as individuals and defined them in life, which is probably true.
I now believe, as you do, that peace is the noblest aspiration… but to preserve it, you must be willing to fight!
(Murders four monsters in less than 10 seconds.)
We’re among friends here, nobody thinks that role-playing is particularly satanic or that mass shootings in the US are a consequence of games. I’m not even saying that shooting virtual rifles for hours will make a person more agitated or hostile.
I suspect, however, that the ubiquity of violent mechanics throughout the years has tied the concept of “game” and “fight” together, for example. I suspect that because of this many people today believe that, in a game, there is no fun factor if there is no violence. I suspect that this is why many people avoid certain kinds of games and miss out on the most enriching works of art from the last few years, which in turn hinders the variety and depth of the games that are going to be made in the coming years. Is this a catastrophe? No, but it is a shame, and one has a right to complain, right?
All Mechanics Convey Meaning
It is not possible to make a game without values. A simple platformer values physical performance as a positive thing, both in the agility of its character and in the player’s fast reflexes and hand-eye coordination. A simple puzzle game does the same with analytical thinking. That most of these messages, individually, have a negligible impact on our lives, does not mean they don’t exist as messages. Being aware of these messages is the first and most modest goal of any person who wants to exercise any form of reflexive cultural critique.
In the world of words, for example, we receive spoken and written messages every day all day, and that doesn’t mean we’re constantly caving to everyone else’s will. But the things everyone tells us throughout our lives, and especially in our formative years, almost completely define our values, just like family origin is a pretty accurate indicator of religious conviction and ideological inclination, despite some exceptions.
Any value a game conveys to us has to reinforce or contradict other values we bring from the rest of our instruction and experience. World of Warcraft tells us it’s great to engage in cooperation and in violence. Since we bring our moral opinions from outside the game, we can effortlessly follow the former advice and ignore the latter.
However, when society promotes certain toxic values and a developing team decides to make a game reinforcing them, the excuse that games are pure entertainment is beside the point.
What’s the point in hiding behind the fact that no player is turning sexist because they played a misogyny-ridden game? To which extent freedom of expression to say something means the rest of the world has no freedom to criticize it? It’d be like handing out clubs to people on the street telling them to start hitting each other, then defending your actions by arguing nobody was going to follow your instructions anyway.
If I believed videogames are killing people I’d be doing investigative journalism. If, instead, I do games criticism, it’s because I think it’s important to reflect on the relationship between interactive art and our way of seeing the world.
Anthony Kiedis was in Point Break. Look it up.