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Noah Baron Headshot

Why Is Gaming Today So Insufferable, and How Can We Fix It?

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Most people who have played video games have had negative experiences with them -- especially those who have played online, and have been called every variety of name.

Recent commentary on the problems in gaming has focused on how these have been created by the gaming community itself. The gaming community, observers and activists claim it is misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic and racist. Those objecting to these unfortunate "-isms," which seem endemic to the gaming community, are not wrong in pointing out the presence of this prejudice, nor are they wrong in condemning it.

However, they do miss a significant part of the problems plaguing the gaming community. It is not simply that the rape jokes which are routinely made at gaming confabs are objectionable, or that the homophobic vitriol pouring forth from the microphone headsets in online gameplay is offensive, or that game designers are often as dismissive of the concerns of women and minority groups as much of the community; rather, it is also about the pervasive, even aggressive, invisibility of queer people and people of color in video games, and the in-your-face double standard of the hypersexualization of women and the nonsexualization of men. As Simon Parkin observed, games have the potentiality to advance empathy and social justice -- but they haven't; instead, players are forced to participate in the normalization and validation of whiteness, of heterosexuality, of masculinity.

Video games also have great potential as an outlet for those who have been forced to the margins of society, but because of both the egregious failings of the community, and the deficiencies of the industry, they have failed to live up to their promise.

Parkin, writing in New Statesman, proposes the "death" of the idea of a "gaming community" as a solution to the exclusive nature of gaming. In his column, he takes note of some of the many offenses committed by those in the so-called "gaming community" (jokes at the expense of queer people and rape victims being the most common). He also argues, rightly, I think, that the stereotype of gamers as "socially inept [and, I would add: straight, white, cisgender] boys with poor hygiene and a proclivity for impotent rage... shunned by the jocks and achievers" not only informs how "mainstreamers" view "gamers," but also how "gamers" view themselves. What Parker doesn't say, however, is that this is in part why straightness, whiteness and maleness all become seen as maybe even more normative within the "gaming community" than they are in "mainstream" culture.

The danger of this trend has manifested itself in a variety of ways -- some of which have already been explored in other articles. Particularly prominent as an expression of the kind of entitlement I'm talking about has been "the non-apology" by high-profile members of the "gaming community." The PennyArcade "Dickwolves" incident is an instructive example of this. PennyArcade, a webcomic focused on gaming, posted a strip in which one character remarked that he had been "raped by dickwolves." A number of rape survivors objected to the strip but, presumably because women and rape survivors are not seen as part of the gaming community, the creators of PennyArcade responded only by posting a non-apology deliberately misconstruing and mocking the concerns of those who had objected. Soon after, PennyArcade began selling "Dickwolves" merchandise.

But as I've already mentioned, the problems of gaming go beyond the failings of the community: The industry is to blame as well. For example, the industry has perpetuated the stereotype of the straight, white, male, cisgender gamer; the industry could also work against that stereotype. Likewise, queer characters are almost nonexistent, and trans* characters are even less common; people of color, when they appear in video games at all, are portrayed as "baddies" whom it is the player's job to kill; women, although common in video games, wear little, if anything, and have been obviously designed for the sexual gratification of straight, male players. Just as with television and film, the lack of characters similar to oneself has a distinct alienating effect, especially in a subculture that seems to take pains to alienate marginalized people already (the liberal use of various homophobic and racial epithets is common wherever gamers go, it seems).

But video games are also unique in that they allow -- even require -- players to take on an avatar; in other words, players must "be" someone else. For most of our lives, marginalized people have already been forced to "be" someone else: Queer people have lived in the closet, transpeople have been unable to express their true self, people of color have been held to a white standard of beauty. And almost without variance (although there has been a welcome growing number of exceptions in recent years) the character the player must play as is straight, white, male and cisgender, just like we are falsely told the "gaming community" is (characters whose sexuality is merely ambiguous, or whose sexuality is not canon but has been "clarified" only after the fact, do not count in a genre where heterosexuality is explicit and everywhere). For many of us, this is even more alienating than our invisibility in most media; it is a bitter reminder of the lies we've been forced to live for too many years -- made all the worse by the fact that it is through a medium which promises us an escape from reality.

This is especially important when it comes to queer characters, who seem to lag behind even the portrayal of women in video games. Even where it is possible to play as a queer character (a rarity), this almost always exists in the context of a "gay option" -- where a player can choose to play as a gay character or to make their character gay. While this is better than our previous invisibility, it is still problematic. As the PBS YouTube show Game/Show points out, for those who do not choose this option, homosexuality does not exist for them at all. Imagine a game which allowed players to choose to entirely avoid, for example, people of color in their gaming experience. The very idea is ridiculous and morally repugnant.

But this sort of inclusion would not only have the effect of making the gaming world feel more open to queer people -- it would also work against the rampant homophobia and sexism that pervades the gaming community today. As Game/Show also pointed out, forcing straight gamers to have a gay avatar would force them to -- at least in some small way -- understand what it is like to be gay. Studies have shown that the closer straight people are to queer people, the more supportive they are. Anecdotal evidence suggests this is even more the case for those who actually try walking a mile in the shoes of the "other."

By extension, it would make sense that including female characters who exist for purposes other than to appeal to sexually frustrated straight male teenagers (a good start would be actually useful armor for female characters) would make the gaming community more open to women -- an important part of which is treating women as people rather than as sexual objects.

Calls for the "gaming community" to change, or to die, may help move us forward in some ways; certainly there is no lack of wrongdoing to point to on the part of the community. But focusing too much on the fault of the community exculpates the gaming industry from any blame. The industry has the power to be a leader in changing the community -- and it may, in fact, be the only way forward.