Video-games: a first world obsession

Video-games are a leisure activity, played by kids, sometimes adults. When they are played by adults, they’re generally played for enjoyment, not unlike having a cold drink after a hard day’s work.

Games in general are a release from the monotony and frustrations of real life. Their primary function is to provide psychological escapism, within a safe space. People buy them, and play them for the purposes of pleasure. And like all pleasurable pastimes, they are probably best enjoyed in moderation. Like the Japanese Otaku who sacrifice the real world for their online obsessions, critics of video-games can sacrifice their grounding in reality too.

Their obsession can sometimes lead them into the land of the bizarre –

Thanks to a new cohort of culture warriors, today video-games aren’t just a leisure activity. They are now a battleground of abstract theories and warring ideologies. Critics want games to be viewed as art, replete with as many “cutting edge” political messages about racism and sexism as a New York indie gallery. But the trouble is, they are not art. They are entertainment. They are not made to make a political statement; they are made to turn a profit. McIntosh is like a food critic railing against a packet of skittles because he wants it to be a soufflé.

At the centre of this new-age cultural war is Mr. McIntosh (@radicalbytes). He is known for co-writing and producing the videos of ‘Feminist Frequency’ (Anita Sarkeesian) who hit the mainstream press this year in the New York Times and Colbert Report. From a superficial perspective, Sarkeesian and McIntosh make reasonable criticisms of video-games. It is obvious to anyone that games are hyper-masculine. And games as well as the gaming community, would benefit from having more female designers representing the female perspective. This is a no-brainer.

Ultimately, however, the problem with the type of ‘progressive’ thought as spouted by McIntosh, is that it doesn’t lend itself well to real-life circumstances. Everything is ideological; almost nothing is practical. Instead of rolling up his sleeves and creating games himself, McIntosh simply moans from the sidelines. Meanwhile, the connection between video-games and real world behaviours is a spurious one. In fact, when I asked Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker earlier this year about how we can reduce violent inclinations in young men, he suggested that video-games were instrumental for this purpose. Empirical data shows that since video-games have been around, all categories of teenage crime have declined significantly. By most people’s standards, this is a good outcome.

Media and cultural studies grads specialise in the abstract not the empirical. And their obsession with pop-culture, at the expense of real life, leads them to think and say ridiculous things. Only a person with a non-trivial amount of economic privilege, living in the luxury of the first-world, would ever be able to say something this –

Someone seems to be forgetting about  all the people in the world who do not have a wifi connection. Or who don’t go to the movies, and who have never played a video-game. I hate to break it to McIntosh, but these people do exist. And it’s a special kind of first-world privilege to forget that not everyone lives in the same culture as you do.

Aside from the obsession with pop-culture, at the crux of culture-war mongering today is an undying conviction that women, as a class, are oppressed. And men, as a class, are “privileged”. It follows a long tradition of left-progressive thought where one group is held up as morally pure, while another group is painted as morally corrupt.

McIntosh explores this theme in depth in his latest video, the 25 Invisible Benefits of Gaming While Male. At 1:11 one guy reads from the auto-cue: “If I enthusiastically express my fondness for video-games no-one will automatically assume I am faking my interest, just to get attention.” At 2:11 another reads: “When purchasing most major video-games in a store, chances are I will not be asked if, or assumed to be buying it for a wife, daughter or girlfriend.” These are examples of invisible male privilege.

Yet to any rational person with a three digit IQ, all these statements are evidence of, is the luxury that pop-culture critics get to live in. To imagine that the hypothetical assumptions made by a hypothetical store clerk in an imaginary store, are evidence of men’s supremacy, is to betray a deeply sheltered emotional life. In countries all over the world, the benefits of being male are not invisible at all. They include being able to work, leave the house un-chaperoned, vote, drive a car, and get an education.

Culture warriors need to realise that every time they talk about how oppressed women are when playing video-games, they are talking about a hobby which requires significant resources and time to pursue and is a sign of first-world privilege by definition. By prioritising the trivial, they ignore examples of discrimination which are profound. Women who are sold into slavery. Women who are barred from getting an education. Women who are brutally beaten for minor transgressions. Culture-warriors also insult Western women in their attempt to imagine us as delicate wallflowers in need of special protection.

Unfortunately, this is what happens when political and cultural debate is ceded to obsessives. Leisure activities are re-cast as battlegrounds of oppression. Trivialities and abstractions are put-forward as “evidence” in a war that relies more on the perceived sins of the imaginary “other side” than real-world data.

And stupid ideas get to live another day.

tokyo-otaku

Links

25 Invisible Benefits of Gaming While Male – Feminist Frequency, December 2, 2014

Video-games are not making us more violent, study shows – The Guardian, November 10, 2014

Are kids getting more virtuous? – Washington Post, November 26, 2014

The End of the World as We Know It – Steven Pinker at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, September 1 2014

21 Comments

  1. Thiago

    One subject that’s really related to this article is the “cultural barriers” to education for women.

    In industrialized countries, if women don’t reach higher positions in their fields, it’s *directly* related to misogyny and prejudice. People don’t need think about it: The men are blocking the ways of women and we should fight *this*!

    But when you say that instead we should fight oppression on women where it’s *directly* (or more evidently) caused by cultural values (like fundamentalist religion or non-western cultural heritage), they say that we should respect it and don’t interfere.

    So a question raises: Where we should focus our time and energy? Where we can get better results?

    For me, it’s clear that we shouldn’t using all this energy debating about videogames. At least not for now.

  2. papayasf

    Thank you. Good post. I’d also like to say that McIntosh is pushing a fallacy as old as Plato: that we can (and should) change society by controlling the content of its entertainment. In Plato’s utopia, the violent Greek myths would be sanitized, because hearing stories of violence supposedly made people violent. But it’s simply not true, then or now.

  3. Emma the Emo

    When real obstacles are removed for women, feminists have very little else to fight for, leading to this sort of complaining about trivialities.

    There is one thing I’m curious about. My Psychology textbook says that viewing violent movies or playing violent video games leads to a more violent attitude, without leading to a more violent society (few copycat crimes, considering millions of people view violent entertainment). It says viewing violent material leads people to:
    1.Learn new agressive behaviors.
    2.Come to believe that aggression is usually rewarded, or at least rarely punished.
    3.Become desensitized to the sight and thought of violence and the suffering of victims.
    And it also says that violent media makes people act more aggressively. But I guess not enough to make an impact on violent crime in society?.. I can cite the book and the studies in the book. I’m really curious what you think of this information.

  4. Richard

    Hi Claire,

    I think you made good points about the split from reality these everything-is-ideological statements suffer.

    I think, though, in your last few paragraphs you dismiss the claims of “oppression” with logic along the lines of: ‘to even play videogames is a privilege many don’t have. So, if you’re playing videogames, you have a privilege and aren’t oppressed’. This similar to “but there are starving children in Africa” / appeal to worse problems. – I guess instead the appeal should be “stop using words like ‘oppressed’ and ‘patriarchy’ to describe Western culture”.

    I’m less sure about whether you can dismiss over-zealous analysis of videogames because videogames aren’t created with the intent of pushing ideological agenda. I figure it’s the same as whether authorial intent matters when analyzing a book.

  5. Al Russell (@InformalBracket)

    This reads like an archetypal laundry list of how not to write a defense. I agree in the broad strokes, I really do, and McIntosh is probably one of the most despicable blowhards in pseudo-criticism at the moment, but taking him down should have probably been way easier than devaluing an entire medium for it and then resorting to one of the most common fallacies in writing for the latter half.

    First off, you throw an entire artistic medium under the bus as petty, meaningless trifle and then imply that, in its entirety, does not (or cannot) make political statements. This is patently false, as there are thousands of politically-charged, quality independent titles (Molleindustria being my favorite producer of such), and some of the most prominently bestselling games are in some form explicitly political (Call of Duty comes to mind). This point especially fails considering that GTA V, the game at the forefront of all of this nonsense, is in many ways a political satire. If Dan Houser wrote GTA V as a movie or a book instead, it would not make his given message any more or less valid. Games are, and can be political. There is nothing wrong with this, and saying that they can’t be political is honestly more insulting than anything McIntosh has said, because he at least believes they’re capable of communicating ideas.

    Second, the whole thing later segues into a fallacious ‘things are worse elsewhere and thus these complaints are meaningless’ diatribe. This is akin to a parent telling their picky child that there are children starving in Africa – it’s tacky and makes no point unto itself. McIntosh is a whiner, I’m in full agreement. His arguments are petty at best, but an argument being petty doesn’t say anything about the argument other than, well, that it’s petty. There are plenty of logical petty arguments. McIntosh’s points are hot air, but they condemn themselves well enough by being close to entirely false. They’re not hot air because they’re about video games.

  6. Albus Dumbledore

    You could have said “*most* games are not art” and avoided the hardcore gamer rage. Or better: Most AAA games are about as much art as summer blockbuster movies are.

    “Are games art” is a great topic of argument in videogame circles.

    Sincerely,
    Obligatory feathers-ruffled gamer who also reads novels, watches movies, and has this really spectacular game concept art canvas hanging on his wall.

    ..

    “It is obvious to anyone that games are hyper-masculine”
    have you never played any JRPGs? Great fun, but they often lend to musing on one’s sexuality.

  7. Cirsova

    Also, no one takes McIntosh seriously because they’re sick of seeing a ridiculously wealthy white dude endlessly complaining about how poor and middle class white people are the problem, especially when he is constantly mansplaining to women gamers and whitesplaining to non-white gamers.

  8. Wahaha MAH DRILLS (@mahdrills)

    The only exception I would raise is that entertainment itself IS art. Games are art whether you enjoy them or not. The problem with these people is they are trying to make current games into their type of art. Rather than just making their own, they have to complain about everyone else’s tastes as the “problem” that prevents them from living in an “ideal” society.

  9. Stephen (@Hellion545)

    “McIntosh is like a food critic railing against a packet of skittles because he wants it to be a soufflé.” I’m not annoyed and I’m indifferent to people to accepting games as a legitimate medium. I care about this post because you as an outsider are closer than most to what defines the whole kulturkampf in games.

    Games contain mechanical systems (what you play) and narrative systems (what it expresses). The mechanical systems require a vocabulary beyond what these critics learned in their liberal arts classes so they choose to focus on the narrative systems and examine them in a literary manner. That’s not inherently a problem. There’s room for mechanical and narrative analysis in games criticism. The problem is that the critics tout games with serious themes in spite of the fact that they are poorly written while producing shoddy literary critiques of said games. And they do it all in a desire for legitimacy and recognition of their work by The Cathedral.

    The critics employ their poor palettes to examine shoddy soufflés (serious but poorly written games with uninteresting mechanical systems) while denouncing wonderful soufflés (oftentimes silly games containing great mechanical systems) as skittles. Sexist skittles. Self promotion drives their behavior. They are bad critics who discard the ludic nature of games which is the defining characteristic of the medium as a whole. They’re incapable of good and concrete analysis so they use the bad post-modern theories they learned in school to accuse games and gamers of sexism. Why? Because games and gamers are easy targets. People in general don’t accept gaming as a legitimate hobby, so accusations of sexism stick. Many mainstream developers and critics have given into the pressure put on by these Progressives. They already have a hard enough time working on and with a medium most people don’t get. No one would want to deal with accusations of sexism on top of that.

    These critics never worked enough in school, possibly from playing too many games, so they never honed their skills as writers. The only place where they can pass off their second rate hack writing is within games criticism. They then attempt to change the medium to something that fits The Cathedral’s definition of legitimate art by sprinkling accusations of bigotry to push it in the direction they want. Anyone who has actually worked to understand film, literature, and the ludic nature of games can tell you that these critics and the games they tout are mediocre. One look at Sarkeesian’s master’s thesis or McIntosh’s twitter reveals their lack of ability to analyze, even when they use their own toxic politics. The problem is that saying such things about them comes with the threat of their histrionic accusations of sexism.

    I’m indifferent to games becoming more inclusive. If women want to play and make games, then go for it. There are some jerks within this medium. I had to man up to deal with them and they better woman up to deal with them too. I’m tired of hacks and this idea that making games more inclusive will better the world. The games industry may be the largest industry, but criticizing it in the manner that Progressives do won’t bring about any change. It will only elevate bad critics and the mediocre art they tout.

    1. webkilla

      Great reply there – I really like your points on vocabulary to explain and understand game mechanics and the ludic nature of games.

      As far as I can tell pretty much all gamers are indifferent or even supportive to gaming becoming more inclusive – what they do take offense to is people like McIntosh or Sarkeesian implying that this inclusivity should come at the price of alienating the existing consumer bases for the AAA game industry.

      Neither the industry or the gamers want that, but anyone whenever anyone speaks out against people like Sarkeesian or McIntosh they’re accused of being sexist. Its horrible and needs to stop. These left-wing critics need to realise that there are different demographics and consumer bases for different kinds of games, so pretending to be outraged that not that many FPS gamers found Gone Home interesting is simply ridiculous, and demanding that all games be ‘accessible’ to the sort of people who liked Gone Home… just doesn’t make sense.

  10. Varg Vikernes

    I think teenage crime went down not because of the games themselves, but because the teenagers playing the games no longer had so much time spent boring themselves.

    Teenage crime in our part of the world (i. e. the decadent ‘West’) is *mainly* a problem related to boredom. So I guess *any* type of entertainment would have achieved the same.

    And I disagree with you: games are not *just* entertainment created for profit. It is — just like pretty much everything else these days (even education) — a means to spread *propaganda*, to indoctrinate the young and to suppress certain ideas. Certain groups are *always* demonized (i. e. Russians, ‘Nazis’ and Muslims) in these games, and that is not by chance.

  11. BarryF

    I don’t care for Ayn Rand’s objectivism in the slightest, but I do think that in her story, The Fountainhead, in the character of Howard Roark, she painted an excellent picture of the ideal attitude that should be taken towards creative acts.

    This attitude can be boiled down to one simple sentence: Creators should have complete and utter discretion over their creations and should never have to compromise for the sake of the audience/customer.

    Now, today’s creatives don’t bring to mind Howard Roark, but these pop feminist pop culture critics are definitely reminiscent of Roark’s critics, who demanded that Roark make his talents subservient to the will of the masses.

    I’d love nothing more than to see creative women in game development following Roark’s credo:

    “Before you can do things for people you need to be the type of person who can get things done. But to get things done you must love the doing; not the people. Your own work; not any possible object of your charity.

    I’d be glad if those who need it find a better standard of living in a house I built, but that’s not the motive of my work. Nor my reason, nor my reward. My reward, my purpose, my life, is the work itself. My work done my way. Nothing else matters to me.”

    Ironic that today, such a statement would be denounced as narcissistic when it is in fact the exact opposite. Garnering the approval of others is a narcissists only purpose, reward and life. Nothing else matters to them.

  12. royyman32

    As a gamer myself I agree with most of these points. If you really want to talk about the oppression of women, then why focus on first world problems? I will cede that video games do portray very narrow images of women, but video games are only affecting the mindset of a handful of people in the big picture. I really enjoyed your methodical breakdown of the perspectives.

  13. Gary

    That first quote by the borderline psychotic Jonathan McIntosh is hilarious. It’s “not a coincidence”?? Yes it is! It’s got absolutely sod all to do with social control. It’s because any game with structure and control is incapable of creating meaningful conflict and challenge.

  14. billgncs

    interesting – art and entertainment are very closely intertwined. I would consider games very much art, from the mathematics of the rendering images to the voice actors. Games fill a niche very much like sport – contests with a clear rules and a winner and a loser.

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