8 August, 2010
Games hard to really understand purely in terms of media that has come before. Games aren't like a TV show or a movie except that you push a few buttons (at least the good ones aren't). The role of the player is important to the process of enjoying a game since interactivity allows them some control. The exact role the player takes in creating the story is one that creates endless debate, but I think all sides agree that interactivity is a key element to games.
One of the most interesting things about this, however, is that it means players do tend to invest something of themselves into a game. In MMOs, this means that many people get heavily and personally invested into a game. What is really interesting is that this tends to hold a mirror up to the person looking at the game, whether they realize it or not. One's actions and perceptions in the game tend to reflect as much if not more about the person as they do about the game or even the game's creators.
Let's take a closer look at this, shall we?
Now, let me give the caveat here that I'm not a real psychologist. I'm basing this on my own observations and readings. With luck, maybe a real psychologist will chime in.
Games as tools of the fascists
One of my local (print) newspapers carried a slightly abridged copy of an article entitled Virtually Conservative that got me thinking about this topic again. The summary of the article is that games are inherently "conservative" in nature in that they encourage domination and order, allowing the player to accumulate stuff and eliminate obstacles often by violent means. The breakout text on the page says, "Video gaming is about control. Your participation is restricted to steering and maintaining the narrative flow, altering the course of the story, eliminating hindrances (monsters, or human antagonists) and generally being the only significant individual anywhere in the game." The author claims that progressive, egalitarian themes are missing from games.
As hard as it is to take an article that mentions DOOM (without a sequel number) seriously, it's interesting to really think about the deeper meaning here. Game developers, overall, tend to be more left-leaning in their politics as you would expect in an industry that predominantly has younger employees, with some libertarian types (as you find in many technological industries). Very few, if any, developers working directly on a game tend to be authoritarian or traditionally conservative. So, how do these messages get slipped in?
And if you gaze for long into an abyss...
A clue can be found on the site's about page.:
In These Times is a nonprofit and independent newsmagazine committed to political and economic democracy and opposed to the dominance of transnational corporations and the tyranny of marketplace values over human values.
Suddenly, this position makes sense. If your mission is to fight an enemy, sometimes you start seeing enemies everywhere. If you want to fight against the dominance of transnational corporations, then it becomes easier to see them and their philosophies lurking in the shadows. A game that restricts control and limits the player could be seen as supporting such an agenda.
But, let's have some fun and take a look at how games actually support socialism!
- In many games, the player(s) is(are) the only one(s) capable of performing the task required. In DOOM, your character was the only one tough enough not to get slaughtered by the demonic forces and it falls to you to clean them up. In RPGs, one everyone relies on you as the most capable to go defeat the big bad. "From each according to ability..."
- You usually acquire resources at about the rate you require them. In a FPS game, health packs are ideally placed in a level at about the location where you will need it. Before a big fight, you'll often find a big supply of ammo. In MMOs, they are designed so that you will earn about as much money to pay for a big expense like training skills, etc, when you need it. "...to each according to need."
- Most of your basic necessities are taken care of for your character. There is often no intrinsic need to eat or take shelter in games. Buying a house in MMOs, for example, tends to be a luxury item, but priced in such a way that nearly everyone can afford one.
- Acquiring excessive wealth tends to be relatively meaningless. In most RPGs, eventually money becomes useless and while shops still charge you, most other NPCs seem unconcerned about acquiring more wealth. In fact, if you need money in an MMO there are usually subsidized tasks (daily quests) that you can perform for a set amount of cash. There is no formal system of interest and there are increasingly few regular expenses that correspond to rent or free market wages.
- Many MMOs have economies that are monitored and controlled by the developers. The developers set the prices NPCs will buy and sell at, and they adjust the economy to ensure that everyone has a fair chance. This central control is similar in structure to the planned economies that form the basis of many socialist concepts.
So... are games the tools of the transnational corporations looking to oppress the workers, or are they the tools of socialists looking to undermine free market capitalism and declare a communist utopia?
Who's in charge here?
The answer, of course, is "neither". The offline world isn't simply black and white. Even the U.S. isn't a purely free-market capitalist economy despite the general preference for this economic model. Games are no different. You'll be able to find elements of almost any philosophy you want if you look hard enough, even without making much of a stretch. Does a game with avatars and no permanent death (reincarnation) advocate Hinduism? Again, probably not, although one could see how a Hindu could use this as a way to explain elements of the religion.
It seems that what a person sees in a game might reflect more about the person than the game. It serves as a Rorschach test, giving a glimpse of the person who is observing and describing the game. As above, someone who writes for a website dedicated to fighting the encroaching power of transnational corporations might choose to focus on the elements of games that could be seen as relating to that focus. Or, an economist might see a lot of economic elements in a game that are worthy for study.
Of course, this doesn't mean that there might not be elements in a game. Obviously Castronova's work dealing with economies of MMOs is measuring something that actually happens in our games. Game creators also do have their own agendas, and they might use the medium of games to encourage people to support their worldview, just as an author might write an essay to persuade the reader. But, I think it's important to take a look at the person identifying some element.
Beating a dead hooker...
One of the more colorful examples of this bias was the coverage about hooker NPCs in Grand Theft Auto 3. People were aghast that players could not only engage in simulated sex with a hooker to regain health, but then the player could then kill the hooker to get his money back. What kind of moral depravity do these games encourage?
However, as Raph Koster has pointed out, gamers generally focus on the abstract layer instead of the concrete layer when in a game. "Paying for sex to heal up" was more exchanging one resource for another, similar to buying a healing spells in a fantasy RPG, but with more complex graphics. The concrete representation did have meaning, but it was a game action with gameplay consequences that made it meaningful within the context of the game. The fact that it also dealt with a taboo subject likely made it a bit more exciting to some players as they were definitely doing something "naughty".
However, it's interesting that people fixated on this aspect so much because it was one fairly minor part of the game. In a game full of shooting and vehicular mayhem, it was notable that prostitution was the aspect that made people most vocally upset. The game does not require the player to engage in prostitution to heal; in San Andreas there was a detailed eating system where players could eat to heal, but eating too much or too little would affect the character's physical attributes. (See? Eating too much fast food IS bad for you, even in video game land.) The game also did not require the player to shoot a hooker to get back money, that was a choice made by the player.
So, why did people fixate on that one particular aspect? Primarily because it was an easy way to demonize video games as a whole by selecting an extreme example. But, this argument often ignores the fact that engaging in prostitution and then killing the hooker requires player choice. Simply because the option exists doesn't mean that the game is encouraging this behavior, especially since the game does not require it to progress. This is also sexual in nature, and we know how Americans feel about sex. But, I think there's also an element of discomfort with people looking at their own attitudes here. Just as those who prefer to legislate morality often fall prey to that form of "moral turpitude", people pointing out sexual content often have ulterior motives. (Note to Republicans: yes, the Democrats are just as hypocritical, but it's usually not quite so obviously related to morality as in this glaring case.)
Before I get into this next part, I just want to take a moment to say that hatred is a very real thing. Human nature, unfortunately, encourages us to shun that which is different from ourselves. Racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and other forms of hate are alive and well in our world, and games are no exception, especially when it comes to the sorts of things that random people will say in public chat channels in MMOs. My point here isn't to say that these things do not exist in games, they certainly can, but pointing out examples you've noticed isn't the same as proving that there is systematic behavior on the part of the developer.
A post caught my attention recently, and reminded me of another post I read. The first post was by a WoW blogger discussing examples of sexism in WoW, specifically misogyny. To be honest, some of the examples are pretty damning, such as how some of the female characters have been given diminished roles potentially contradicting the lore that has already been established. Some of the examples, however, seem to be a stretch; after complaining about how some female NPCs wear (the same) skimpy outfits, the author of the article tries to dismiss examples of male partial nudity by explaining, "...there isn’t the same sexualisation of those [male] characters going on." (Does anyone sane really look at Sylvanas and think, "I'd like to get into those skimpy pants!")
In that post, one particular quote stuck out: "[There are] groups of NPCs with no female model at all – ogres, kobolds, furbolgs, Gronn." An interesting observation, although I'm not sure how one sexes (definition six, perverts) a Gronn to determine that they're all male. But, this reminded me of a quote from another article about sexism,
If anything the developers at Blizzard have bent over backward to give females in Azeroth positive images and in many cases have minimized negative ones. Here are some examples: [...]What about the ogres? Again no female ogres. I guess male ogres just hatch by themselves.
Interesting that two different people can see the same thing (no female models for some races) and come to different conclusions: a woman sees this as one example of a bias against women because they aren't included, while a man sees it as an example of men being demonized and the only proper sex for villains. Which perspective is right? I don't think there's a clear cut answer, and both posts make good arguments. Again, we see that the observer brings her or his own perspective into an observation of what message a game is trying to portray. The "Rorschach test" of seeing no female models in a game and the posts people make tell us more about the individuals than it likely does about what the game creators intended.
The monsters making the monsters
A wise man once mangled a famous quote and said, "Game design is the art of the possible." Game design is a immense and complex thing, where the designer not only has to attract and keep a player engaged, but also do things like tell a coherent story and possibly even create a whole world to explore, while maintaining this mysterious state called "fun" for the participants. It's a huge task, and some designers certainly do take intellectual shortcuts to make the process easier.
What about in the specific case of no female models for some of the monstrous creatures in WoW? Ultimately, it was probably more of an issue of allocating limited resources than any honest bias. In the case of ogres, I'm sure that having fat, ugly female ogre models would likely result in some more unsavory comments by the less mature elements of the WoW community. Given the alien physical nature of the kobold models, it's hard to see how they could be made more feminine without falling back on silly and potentially insulting stereotypes like making them wear dresses, giving them monstrous (heh) breasts, or adding a hair bow. Ultimately, the time it would take to make a good effort to make a proper female model was probably not available to the developers, so the variation wasn't included for fear of not wanting to do something sloppy and potentially even more insulting than simply not having the models.
Again, this isn't to say that some subtle sexism (misogyny or misandry) can't possibly exist in games, rather that people pointing out such flaws need to understand how their own biases influence their observations, especially in an interactive medium like games.
Even if the developers aren't guilty of sexism, let's look at what can be done to improve the world. Addressing hatred requires, like most design problems, that we not just point out the problem but also the solution. Looking at Pewter's post on The 'mental Shaman, I'd really suggest concrete ways to address issues of misogyny that may appear in WoW. I think it's also important to understand the consequences. Would adding female ogre models really help the cause of sexism? Or, would it encourage more crude behavior from some players? Sadly, I suspect that it would cause more problems than it addresses in this case. But, having a list of proposals would go a long way to really addressing the issue rather than just stirring up a hornet's nest.
I think it's also important to address the idea rather than attacking individuals. For example, I admit I'm a white, almost middle-aged male. Using that to attack me for "not understanding" doesn't address the issue, it distracts from it. I shouldn't have to trot out my marginalized person credentials in order to address the issue.
I'll also make this friendly warning, as owner of this blog: hateful comments will not be tolerated. I don't expect this to be a problem for most of you, but please be thoughtful as you respond lest I have to become a harsh authoritarian, as all game designers secretly are. ;)