Why the Video-Game Culture Wars Won’t Die

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Video-game culture warriors inhabit a dark, authoritarian universe where if you dislike this game, you’re racist.

The video-game culture wars seem to be flaring up a bit. Wednesday, Heat Street ran not one but two articles on a favorite bugaboo of “real” gamers everywhere: artsy, story-focused games which offer scant interactivity and demand little to no skill on the part of the player. They’re more like films than games, goes the usual critique, and games are supposed to be games. Worse, these games often tackle themes like race, class, identity, and so forth, inevitably offering up some sort of progressive message — they’re political, which is just about the worst and most annoying thing a video game can be.

William Hicks explained “Why ‘Walking Simulator’ Video Games Have Become So Political” in his article, while Ian Miles Cheong decried, in his, the perception that “Criticizing The Indie Game ‘Virginia’ Makes You A Racist Misogynist” (that one’s got a lot of spoilers for Virginia). “Walking simulator,” for those unfamiliar with the term, is a derogatory phrase used to describe these types of games because, in the eyes of a certain aggrieved subset of gamers, all you ever really do is walk around and read stuff and listen to dialogue, and that’s boring.

Here’s Hicks, decrying the rise of walking simulators:

These types of games are beloved by Feminist Frequency types who hail them as brilliant alternatives to the “male power fantasy” inherent in most big budget violent games. Many jaded, liberal, gen-X reviewers inflate the scores of these titles, saying these are finally games made for “adults,” and chiding the wider industry for its perceived immaturity.

Reviews of these games are often polarized. While the progressive cabal of reviewers are tripping over themselves to praise walking simulators, others score them incredibly low. The underlying sentiment among the low scorers seems to be that because these games try so hard be like films, they should be compared to them. And unsurprisingly they rarely hold up.

And here’s Cheong, complaining about the positive critical reception of Virginia, a recently released story-focused thriller in which you play a young African-American F.B.I. agent — it’s a game which embraces a style of dreamy weirdness that is very reminiscent of Twin Peaks:

Designed to be akin to a silent film, it’s hard to really tell what’s going on given the lack of cues, non-chronological storytelling and sudden dream sequences. Virginia tries to kindle any nostalgic feelings you might have for ‘90s TV shows like the X-Files and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but it fails to grasp any of the aspects that made those shows great: namely the chemistry between the characters.

Game journalists love it. It has reaped commendations from the likes of IGN,Polygon, The Verge, Time, VICE, and ZAM. They praise the game for all the qualities that would bore most gamers—the lack of interactivity or a coherent narrative that would turn off anyone who holds the medium to a higher standard.

While Hicks and Cheong are making different arguments, both are trying to defend the same basic ideas: that titles like Virginia aren’t games in the same way “real” games (read: Gears of War) are; that the only reason people are into them is because the corrupt SJW media relentlessly shoves them down readers’ throats; and that the indie game scene has gotten politicized in an oppressive, SJWs-only way.

Hicks and Cheong are speaking to a group I’ll call video-game culture warriors, or VGCWs. Terminology is a little tricky here. I don’t want to say “Gamergaters,” because while there’s huge overlap between Gamergaters and VGCWs, there are likely a fair number of VGCWs who don’t consider themselves Gamergaters, especially since that community seems to have gotten a bit more radical of late. I also don’t want to use “hardcore gamers” or anything like that, because there are plenty of hardcore gamers — the people who destroy you in endlessly impressive and agonizing ways every time you try to play Overwatch — who don’t care a whit about the culture wars (a point to which I’ll return shortly).

VGCWs constitute a fairly small group, and the vast majority of the world’s estimated billion-plus video-game players remain blissfully unaware of their complaints. But given the fact that two years after Gamergate first erupted, there’s still a cottage industry geared at stoking this form of resentment — arguably a growing cottage industry, in light of all the resources Heat Street, Breitbart Tech, and other sites have dedicated to covering and amplifying VGCW rage — it’s still worth exploring exactly what’s going on here, and explaining why Hicks’s and Cheong’s arguments make so little logical sense.

So here, in no particular order, are some thoughts about all this.

Most gamers really don’t give a crap about this culture war. In much the same way some people see Transformers but not Memento, others see Memento but not Transformers, and yet others happily see both, gamers — defined, as it should be, as “people who play video games” — have a wide range of interests and preferences when it comes to video games. Naturally, there is a bigger market for so-called AAA games — your Gears, your Halos, your Final Fantasys — than there is for typically quirkier, quieter fare like Virginia or Gone Home.

But it’s important to realize that while the same normal snobbishness holds within gaming that holds within any other sprawling fan community, with people snarking about one another’s preferences all the time, most gamers — likely the vast majority — don’t view this divide between “real” games and “walking simulators” as particularly meaningful. People play the games they like to play. If I want to unwind with some mindless fun, I’ll play Super Meat Boy, which is brilliant. If I want to think about relationships and family and secrets, and how the three interact, I’ll play Gone Home, which is also brilliant, but in a totally different way. There’s no reason we can’t include all these different types of games under the broad rubric of “video games,” and it’s worth remembering that only a very small, very loud minority is making a mountain of this taxonomic molehill in the first place.

It does feel like games dealing with “meaningful” themes do sometimes get graded on a curve, but this isn’t unique to games journalism. Fragments of Him is far from the only example of such critical leniency, but it’s a good one. Released this past spring, it’s an artsy indie game that traces the aftermath of a fatal car crash on the friends and family of the victim, a young British gay man. “Fragments of Him is an astonishing story of love and loss,” trumpeted the headline of Polygon’s review, written by Colin Campbell. Destructoid’s Laura Kate Dale gave the game a very low score, citing the clunky interactive elements and bad pacing, but praised its “strong acting and writing.”

I think those reviews, and others, pulled punches in a way that isn’t going to help drive the medium forward. I argued back in May that Fragments of Him both plays poorly and is poorly written — the game-play elements are fairly dysfunctional, the story is filled with cringeworthy, look how grief-y and meaningful their grief is, lines like “It’s okay to long for him still, but I know it’s okay to live again, too,” and “It’s enough to know part of him lives on with me,” and it doesn’t come close to exploring the concept of grief in a nuanced, sophisticated way.

Does the fact that some reviewers disagreed with me mean games-writing has been infiltrated by SJWs trying to push some political agenda? Of course not. For one thing, people are allowed to disagree about what constitutes good writing or good symbolism, of course, and there’s no objective formula for judging that sort of thing. But perhaps more important: Remember that Crash, as ham-fisted, offensive, and just plain wrongheaded a look at race relations that you’ll ever see Hollywood produce, won a Best Picture Oscar! That alone should be enough to end any claim that there’s something uniquely awful going on when it comes to game critics and the equivalent of Oscar-bait titles. When it comes to art dealing with heavy issues like race or sex or identity or tragedy, people have a tendency to tear up over bullshit, over emotionally manipulative saccharine pablum. It would be shocking if that weren’t happening in games criticism. Critics are humans, too.

Those problems are compounded, at least a little, by the fact that your average video-game critic entered their chosen field to review Halo, not Gone Home. For most of the history of games criticism, story and character development have been afterthoughts, or close — and people have gotten hired for review jobs and for gigs because they have a solid feel for what constitutes a fair difficulty curve and snazzy visuals, not for their literary-analysis chops. In fact, there’s almost zero skill set overlap between the task of reviewing a “traditional” game and the task of reviewing one of the story-focused ones so loathed by VGCWs. The best possible person to review the latter is probably a lot closer to a film critic than a traditional games critic (setting aside assessing a game’s GUI and control scheme, which doesn’t require a huge amount of gaming experience or expertise). This problem is likely to improve as outlets continue to realize that they need to attract writers with a more diverse set of skills, but it’s a problem nonetheless.

Even if artsy games do sometimes get graded on a curve, that still doesn’t excuse the annoying VGCW tendency to lump them together in one monolithic category, ignoring massive gradations in quality and critical response. Hicks argues that “[t]hese types of games are beloved by Feminist Frequency types who hail them as brilliant alternatives to the ‘male power fantasy’ inherent in most big budget violent games.” This is dumb straw-man pandering and it makes me cringe to even engage with it — for Chrissake, many of the exact same critics who rate “walking simulators” highly also rate AAA shoot-’em-ups highly! — but it highlights an important myth driving VGCW complaints: that all the artsy games they hate constitute one terrible stew.

In reality, those of us who sometimes enjoy artsy games are — shockingly — capable of explaining why we enjoy the ones we enjoy, speaking coherently about which elements work and which ones don’t, and so on. We aren’t zombies — different games have different strong and weak suits. Some are brilliant and others suck. If you want, I can explain to you why I loved Gone Home, why I liked Firewatch a lot, why I thought Lieve Oma was fine but also a missed opportunity, and why Fragments of Him didn’t do it for me.

All of these games can spark interesting conversations. Just in the course of pitching and writing this article, an editor and I disagreed about various elements of Firewatch. In the Hicksian/Cheongian world, none of this intellectual activity and debate is going on. Instead, I fell in love with Gone Home as soon as I realized there was a lesbian in it, because I was just so damn eager to performatively support lesbians, or something. This is stupid and insulting. Fragments of Him had a gay relationship at its center, and I disliked it because it wasn’t a good game and wasn’t a good story.

The VGCW worldview relies on a weird false-consciousness argument that ignores the evidence that there is a market for smart story-focused indie games. Given the reaction many fans and critics have had to these games, particularly the best ones, there’s solid reason to believe there is a dedicated fan base for this fare, even if it is a smaller fan base than that of the potential audience for, say, Hearthstone. People want more games like this.

Hicks and Cheong and other VGCW peddlers can’t really acknowledge this. In fact, it’s vital rhetorical territory for them, because if it’s simply the case that a lot of people out there like Gone Home and want more games like it, then all those panicky VGCW claims about the SJW infestation of gaming basically collapse to “I am mad that people like different things than I do” (consider the preceding sentence foreshadowing). So they ignore the reality. Cheong’s argument is typical: The positive press for Virginia, he writes, “wouldn’t be an issue if the game weren’t being pushed so favorably by the favorable press, which deludes people into purchasing it. Those buyers invariably get upset and demand refunds.”

Cheong seems concerned about a hypothetical consumer who reads positive reviews for Virginia, ignores everything in those reviews describing what the game actually is, buys the game based on the fragment of the reviews he read, gets outraged to find out a game marketed as a weird Lynchian thriller is a weird Lynchian thriller, and then demands a refund. Is this a scenario worth losing much sleep over? For what it’s worth, the only Google News result for “refunds Virginia game” is … Cheong’s own article. Where are these grifted gamers Cheong is expressing such tender concern for? On the other hand, there are oodles of articles covering the countless refund requests for No Man’s Sky, a massively hyped AAA with no progressive politics that is the polar opposite of a walking simulator.

The point is, if you have any faith in markets to sift products that people like and want from products they don’t like and want — and whatever else markets are, this is one of their strong suits — these common arguments about gamers getting bamboozled don’t really make sense (they also treat gamers themselves like moron lemmings). If narrative indie games sucked over and over, people wouldn’t express enthusiasm about them, and there wouldn’t be a small but burgeoning scene surrounding the acts of making, playing, and discussing them.

Instead, people do play these games, read about them, debate them, and make them. Oftentimes, financing an indie project is more of a challenge than financing a “traditional” game, of course — no one is saying there’s the same market for Gone Home that there is for Destiny — but it’s impossible to take an honest look at the current landscape and conclude that interest in these games is contrived as a result of fawning media attention. In much the same way people like indie films focused on characters and story and emotions, but these films will never supplant Transformers at the box office, people like narrative indie games, too.

VGCWs ignore the fact that long before adult indies were even a thing, the gaming press was relentlessly hyping mainstream games too. There are absolutely problems with how the gaming media and the gaming industry interact. Often there’s an absence of sufficient critical distance. No Man’s Sky, again, is a great example: That game shipped with many features missing in part because games journalists didn’t ask questions they could have, in part because they took astoundingly wonderful tech demos at face value. Most of the blame goes on the developers themselves, of course, but this is a pattern: Gaming outlets often shut down or at least dial back their critical faculties when they are in the presence of hype. (Other forms of fan-oriented journalism have the same problems, of course.)

Before Gamergate, there was no organized, cohort of truly outraged gamers pressuring the IGNs and GameSpots of the world to do better, to fight back against the increasing power and financial resources of the major studios. It was only when the subject turned to games about social-justice-y themes — games that tend to not make much money, and which constitute a tiny fraction of the overall gaming scheme — that the VGCWs suddenly found their outrage. That’s not an accident, and it makes it harder to take the culture warriors’ bottomless outrage seriously.

VGCWs and their favored media outlets endlessly promote the dumb myth that anyone who criticizes a social-justice-y game immediately gets branded a bigot. Virginia ended up winning me over, in the end — I have complicated feelings about the game but they’re positive, on balance. But let’s say I tweeted negative things about it. Eventually, because the internet is full of dumb people, one of those dumb people would pop up and say something like, “Oh, so I guess you just can’t handle a game with an interesting pair of black female characters.”

This would be a silly thing to say, and it would represent a fringe position — just about anyone with any credibility in the gaming world understands that you can critique games about race and class and identity and sex without giving up your Good Liberal card, if possessing such a card matters to you. As these games have gone mainstream, the critical conversation about them has, overall, grown more sophisticated. So I would probably just block the internet-jerk in question. (It goes without saying that there are plenty of similarly annoying internet-jerks among the VGCW crowd — if you point out on Twitter that the latest unhinged Gamergate rumor is factually inaccurate, at some point someone will pop into your feed to accuse you of “white-knighting” for the subject of that rumor.)

This sophistication is another bit of bad news for Hicks and Cheong and the VGCW argument more broadly. If it’s true that there’s a generally complex and sophisticated conversation being had about Gone Home and Virginia and their ilk, and that people feel comfortable criticizing these games as they would any other form of art, then it sucks the wind from their “Brainwashed SJWs!” arguments. Outlets like Heat Street and Breitbart Tech have gotten around this by elevating isolated, annoyingly shrill Tumblr and Twitter and random-commenter content to the status of a powerful and relentless movement coming down hard on anyone who dares criticize SJW-infused games. This is a constant drumbeat: An authoritarian fog has descended upon games discourse, making it impossible to criticize any game favored by the media’s SJW overlords. Just look at these random tweets!

Other times, outlets seeking to pander to VGCW resentment paint a picture of SJW authoritarianism not by elevating Twitter and Tumblr randos but by simply misrepresenting the arguments made by more prominent figures. Both Heat Street articles, for example, grunted disapprovingly at a video posted earlier this week in which the YouTube personality Jim Sterling highlights the fact that a small subset of gamers have reacted in dumb ways to Virginia, accusing it of being “SJW propaganda” and so on, and Cheong’s short piece is primarily a rebuttal of Sterling’s video.

Here’s that video, which you can feel free to skip since I excerpt the key points below:

And here’s the context with which Sterling presents his discussion of the reaction to Virginia, which he himself describes as merely “pretty decent”:

I’m here to talk about the outright hostility the game has gotten from a certain small subset of idiots, and I do stress certain small subset. Before you go getting offended on behalf of said idiots and start writing your #NotAllGamers comments, do keep in mind that if you’re not guilty of the charges I’m bringing before the court, then this video is not about you, so you don’t need to get upset … In the name of fairness, the backlash against Virginia has not been huge, if only for the fact that it’s not that well known a game … Generally, few people are talking about the game, and most of those critical of it think it looks boring and just don’t like those sorts of games in particular, which is fine, of course: you’re not politically, socially, morally, philosophically obligated to like a video game. And if a game is not ticking your boxes, it’s not ticking your boxes.

The entire point of all that throat-clearing is to make it clear that in Sterling’s view, you’re allowed to dislike Virginia. Sterling also argues, referring both to Virginia and other indie storytelling games perceived as having social-justice slants, that “Even if these games were talking loads about social justice issues, acting as if their existence infringes upon your right to enjoy games, or is evidence of propaganda being forced on you against your will, is completely irrational.” (Part of Cheong’s argument, to be fair, is that Sterling downplays the role of race in the game. I agree with that to an extent, but Sterling’s broader point, that different people like different sorts of games and this doesn’t pose a threat to anyone, holds regardless of what you think about Virginia’s themes.)

That’s pretty airtight: If you don’t like these games, play other games. But Cheong does the same thing VGCWs often do when this comes up, which is transform an argument he can’t win into something else — somehow, we get from the video Sterling actually made, throat-clearing and nuance and all, to that headline claim that “Criticizing The Indie Game ‘Virginia’ Makes You A Racist Misogynist.” No one who matters anywhere is saying that!

What’s going on with VGCWs is a version of epistemic closure: If you take what they say online at face value, it appears that many of them sincerely believe they are trapped in a 1984-esque dystopia in which crack SJW squadrons are ever-poised to swoop down and tattoo RACIST on their foreheads if they refuse to call Virginia a stunning and brave work of intersectional justice-art — and no amount of evidence is going to jolt them out of that imaginary reality. It must feel pretty oppressive.

More broadly, the level of entitlement and petulance of the VGCWs is annoying. I think this, from Hicks, is the most important and revealing paragraph of the two articles:

Many in the game media believe that games are exactly art, and should strive to express themselves more like other artistic mediums. But the problem with this kind of thinking is that games are not just art. They are the sum of game and artistic elements, with the game part coming first. Yes, the written narrative, the backdrops, the character designs are art, but the game itself is not. (You wouldn’t call the game of chess “art” either).

The straw men continue to pile up: Who thinks “games are exactly art”? What does that even mean? Who is arguing that it is useful to judge the original Super Mario Bros. on its literary/artistic merits in exactly the same ways one might judge Firewatch? Again: This is an entirely different reality from the one most of us inhabit.

But even setting that aside, in a low-key way, this is a pretty crazy statement! Hicks is stating, as a fact, that “the game part come[s] first,” that “the game itself is not” art. But … why? Who says? If someone claimed that in film, “the romance comes first,” full stop, or “the action sequences come first,” full stop, you’d roll your eyes and find someone else to talk to. But because there’s still this lingering uncertainty over what games “are” — and, more important, because a group of people are angry that games are more things than they used to be — those of us who like and write and think about video games are forced to argue against positions that are, on their face, really dumb.

VGCWs have a fragile, frequently emotionally fraught relationship with their hobby that makes rational conversations difficult. “You wouldn’t call the game of chess ‘art’ either,” writes Hicks. It’s a weird analogy for a number of reasons, but perhaps most of all because, while I guess it’s technically true that I wouldn’t call the game of chess art, I also can’t imagine anyone anywhere getting mad if someone else did call it art, or claiming that such a designation hamstrung their own ability to enjoy chess.

But I don’t blame Hicks for this strange analogy; in fact, I can relate. I’ve written about and followed the video-game culture wars for more than two years now, and I’ve actually never been able to come up with an analogy for how Gamergate and then the broader VGCW movement have reacted to the introduction and increasing popularity of the subset of video games they hate. (The VGCW outcry does bear a certain superficial similarity to how some white people responded to desegregation efforts in the 1950s and 1960s, but that seems like an extremely over-the-top comparison — we’re talking about video games here.)

My closest frame of reference is sports fandom: I follow the Boston Celtics and the New England Patriots fairly closely, and have a solid sense of the psychology underlying NBA and NFL fans, even crazy ones. But still, I just can’t, no matter how many times I try, imagine an analogous situation to what’s going on with VGCWs. Of course, people on online forums have dumb, overheated arguments over whether college or pro football is “better” (obviously the NFL is), but at no point does anyone feel like their identity is under attack by someone else’s choice about how to spend a Saturday or a Sunday. Nor does anyone feel like a website that covers college football is somehow detracting from the NFL experience, or vice versa. That’s because football and basketball are massive things that allow for all sorts of different levels and varieties of fandom. This is not a complicated concept to understand.

Video games are similarly massive, and yet they have this small, angry, tireless core of obsessive purists who seem to feel personally attacked, in this weirdly emotional way, when developers and critics do new things with the medium, or talk about it in ways that they find unfamiliar or discomfiting. The VGCWs seem incapable of saying “I guess I’m not into that” and moving on, even despite the fact that a massive chunk of the gargantuan gaming industry still caters to them and their interests.

This is unhealthy! If I spent any time getting upset about the fact that a lot of people like college football more than pro football, I would quickly become insufferable. This is what VGCWs do, over and over and over — they just can’t accept the fact that people are into stuff they themselves don’t like. It can never just be a matter of taste; it always has to be a 150-decibel series of thundering orations about Ethics and the Gamer Identity and Corruption and other concepts that either don’t apply at all, or which are appropriated in a brazenly opportunistic matter.

Remember that, in 2014, Leigh Alexander’s column about how “‘Gamers’ are over” — rough translation: VGCWs constitute a small and shrinking proportion of the overall population of gamers — wasn’t just met with angry disagreement and rebuttals, both of which are perfectly acceptable reactions to a column you think misses the mark, but rather with a full-blown effort on the part of Gamergate not just to humiliate Alexander and render her unemployable, but also to investigate her and supposed “collusion” on the part of the gaming press. You see, since other outlets also covered her column — shocking that a column that receives a lot of attention would, um, receive a lot of attention — clearly they were all trying to “attack the gamer identity,” or something, et cetera, and so on, and what have you. This was a thing many, many Gamergaters actually believed at the time — it became a part of the dogma that a bunch of evil SJW video-game journalists got together online and said something like, “Let’s attack gamers, the bastards. Let’s strike at the very core of the gamer identity.” (Some blessedly patient soul went to the trouble of debunking the idea here.)

Such are the wages of a refusal to accept the existence of taste and subjectivity, of an obsessive embrace of the weird, immature, discredited idea that there’s only one right or pure or true or non-corrupted way to appreciate video games — or anything else.