With the advent of video gaming as an art form, it is both natural and appropriate that criticism of its “canon” should arise. Just as scholars puzzle over the implications of Shakespeare, or of lighting in a particular Caravaggio painting, or of this or that bar in a Verdi opera, it is only to be expected that video games, if they are to be treated as art, should be examined just other art forms are.

But criticism implies understanding, and so much video game criticism is so lacking in understanding as to render it not only useless, but actively harmful. Partly, this is because it is (almost universally) lazily ideological, rather than substantive.  But more than that, the criticisms are also often just simply false, reading more like active malice covered by a patina of knowledge skimmed from Wikipedia. This makes the gaming community less receptive to any criticism, fearing it to be hostile trash. Gaming – and its critics – deserves better.

Example A of the wrong way to do gaming criticism comes in the form of a blog post on the Huffington Post titled, “Why Is Gaming Today So Insufferable, And How Can We Fix It?” Institutional gaming, the author claims, is racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and determined to pretend that anyone but straight, white, cisgendered men either doesn’t exist, or does so only as a sex object. What’s more, the author claims gamers want this sort of message sold to them at the exclusion of all else. Lacking supporting evidence of any kind, the piece could be used to teach a master class in the usage of assertion as a substitute for argument.

Alas, those assertions are, quite simply, wrong. Not only are gamers not as retrogressive as the author claims, but the gaming industry has often been on the cutting edge of social tolerance, even in its infancy. Moreover, the gaming community’s pillars openly disdain (or regard as guilty pleasures) many of the elements which the blog post’s author seems to regard as universal.

For instance, the author asserts that “people of color, when they appear in video games at all, are portrayed as ‘baddies’ whom it is the player’s job to kill.” That is, needless to say, an overly broad generalization. The Redguards in the Elder Scrolls franchise; the protagonist of the well-regarded Walking Dead game; Torque in The Suffering; James Heller in the Prototype series; and the entire world of character customization and existence of all the optional races in the game world amply demonstrate plenty of counter-examples.

Moreover, even in games that include these sorts of plot elements, such as the Call of Duty franchise, the fact remains that it is something gamers criticize, not clamor for. The popular online video game critic Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw disdainfully refers to games whose plot mechanics revolve around shooting villainously accented foreigners as “Spunkgargleweewee,” a term he coined in reference to the admittedly extremely silly game Medal of Honor: Warfighter. The game Spec Ops: The Line earned massive critical acclaim and support from the gaming community by deconstructing racial dynamics, and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim actively used the “no foreigners allowed” mentality as a way to morally complicate one of its major factions.

The assertion that homosexuality has been “invisible” in gaming is similarly misguided. As far back as the early 1990s, when most non-player characters were so utterly irrelevant they may as well have been invisible, Ultima 7: The Black Gate offered an option for the main character, even when male, to engage in sexual activity with a male prostitute named Roberto. The nearly canonized SNES title Earthbound features a heavily implied homosexual crush. And on the subject of Ultima, players were allowed to choose characters who were neither male or female, but “Other,” as early as the third game in the series.

Today, in the Fable and Elder Scrolls series, the player’s choice of the “gay option” comes after observing sexual attraction on the part of numerous people of the same sex, whose sexual orientation presumably does not change even if rejected. In both games, the player is often the only character in the game to be treated as a sex object, because programming has not yet allowed randomly generated NPC flirting. Once they have, one presumes gay interaction among NPCs will become commonplace. Games like Bully and Mass Effect, on the other hand, make no assumptions about the player’s sexuality, but treat them as bisexual by default, a choice which incurred equally misguided criticism by cultural conservatives in Mass Effect’s case. Within the gaming community, the question of whether gay gamers or gay characters should exist is long-settled. Current debates focus more on whether self-segregation is positive, not whether the community should welcome them.

The topic of sexism deserves much more space, but while there is evidence that the gaming industry needs to evolve in somewhat  with respect to its inclusion of female perspectives (especially in its production process), the idea that the gaming industry or community have historically viewed women as disposable or only desirable as sex objects ought to be debunked.

While many early games were written from a male perspective, this was not universal then, and certainly is not universal now. Aside from the obvious example of Samus Aran, the extremely popular heroine of Metroid, lesser-known cases like Dixie Kong from Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest and Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble (possibly the first game with a primary female protagonist) abound. In many fighting games, female characters are portrayed as quicker and more difficult to defeat, as in cases like C Viper in Street Fighter IV, or Nina in the Tekken series. In Mass Effect, a female Commander Shepard (the central protagonist) is arguably treated as canonical. Even Princess Peach, the archetypal “damsel in distress” from the Mario games, has been an active protagonist of four Mario games (Super Mario 2, Super Mario RPG, Super Princess Peach and Super Mario 3D World), one of which features her as the sole protagonist.

As to the HuffPost article’s contention that games feature “the nonsexualization of men,” all I can say is that anyone who is even vaguely aware of fan-fiction surrounding Dante of Devil May Cry, or Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII, or who knows of Cheat Code Central’s list of the Top 10 Sexiest Male Video Game Characters will spot this for the fruit of unbelievably lazy research that it is.

In short, the left’s critique of video games has not been taken seriously for a simple reason: Much of it is not serious, and should not be taken as a guide to art, to policy or to marketing.

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