Back in 1954, a psychiatric whistle blower named Fredric Wertham published a book called Seduction of the Innocent, which made all sorts of alarmist claims about the comics book industry. Unbeknownst to the general public, the supposedly kid-friendly world of comics was anything but, and were, in fact, dripping with filth and the vilest of themes, including excessively graphic violence and sexual obscenities.
While some of his claims seemed questionable then and now (Superman as a fascist? Batman and Robin as lovers?) Wertham did a marvelous job drawing the public’s attention to some of the worst excesses of the comics industry. The comics industry responded by adopting a “Comics Code” sanitizing regime that threw the baby out with the bathwater. These efforts stunted the American comics book industry, which soon lagged behind other countries in terms of art and themes. Serious comic book authors in this country either went underground, gave up, or produced childish, squeaky-clean stories purged of meaningful content.
My point is not that the comics industry needed no regulation–simply that the reaction went much too far, and ended up stifling creative freedom in the process. And, if we’re not careful, the same thing–if not worse–is about to happen to American video games.
Now, it seems, the games industry is getting a dose of the Wertham treatment. I got my first whiff of it when someone sent me a video from Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency site. I watched, as I was no doubt supposed to, with some confusing mix of indignation, disgust, and anger, as Ms. Sarkeesian offered up a foul-smelling smorgasbord of misogynistic episodes from a wide variety of bestselling video games. The implications were clear: video games, those who make them, and by extension those who play and love them, were all a pack of potentially dangerous woman-hating sociopaths. Clearly, something must be done.
But what? Isn’t there already a sort of Comics Code for games, namely, the ESRB ratings–which were themselves a response to an earlier Seduction of the Innocent movement back in the 90s? As you’ll recall, the furor whipped up by Mortal Kombat and Doom over violence were enough to send the industry scrambling to try to police itself before the government intervened. Unfortunately, as Sarkeesian’s videos make clear, these efforts weren’t enough. What we need is a sort of Feminist Code for Games, another kind of intervention.
I think Sarkeesian makes some good points. I don’t play most of the games she covers in her videos, such as her favorite target, the Grand Theft Auto series. That franchise (and the many others who mimic it) are, without question, in very poor taste. That, of course, hasn’t made it any less popular. And there goes the mantra: “We only make this awful shit because people buy it. If they didn’t buy it, we wouldn’t make it. Our hands our tied.” And they have to one up the last one, to make it even more shocking and degenerate, or they’ll look too tame compared to the competition, and so it goes, on and on.
It might actually be a relief to some publishers if there was a legal or self-imposed, industry-wide intervention that would rein in this crap. Maybe the only reason so many stoop so low is for the sake of competition. It’s hard, perhaps, to sell a feminist-friendly title when it must sit on the shelf alongside the latest GTA, which is free to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
However, I think the reason why this has all gotten so many people angry is that Ms. Sarkeesian’s videos and related diatribes have not been done in good faith or with good will toward the gamer community. The idea instead is more to air our dirty laundry before the public, embarrass us, parade the worst examples and excesses, insinuate (if not outright declare) that gamers are “dead” or some such invective, and then (gasp) act righteously indignant when there’s resistance to any of this.
How would any community react to someone (whether from the inside or outside) throwing the public spotlight on its worst attributes–coming into its neighborhood and club meetings–insinuating that those attributes are representative of the community at large, label them all as “virgins” or “degenerates,” and then become a famous celebrity for doing so? Am I saying that we should just tolerate the sexist and misogyny? No. Could this have been handled better? Most definitely.
To my mind, there’s always a principle of self-interest motivating folks like Wertham and Sarkeesian. They are good at whipping up the public furor and setting themselves up as brave cultural warriors (oh, and by the way, they’re available for speaking engagements). They are adept at setting up the old “with us or against us” scenario, in which to disagree with them is to side with evil goons or nut cases.
Oh, and of course, they want to constantly draw attention to the grave, mortal peril they’ve endured for airing all this dirty laundry. Indeed, to hear many tell it, gamers just can’t wait to “doxx” anyone who dares take a stand against misogyny. If these people are acting irrationally–nutty, I’d say–can we really claim to be surprised? How would you react if you felt violated, exposed, and vulnerable, and weren’t all that bright to begin with?
If no one was stupid or idiotic enough to make any threats, it’d all just blow over. The idiots who do these things have only “proven” their point…almost as if by design.
The first rule of rhetoric is to show good will toward your audience. Clearly, we have seen no hint of that. But, then again, gamers are not their audience–it’s the “concerned citizen” types who know next to nothing about games, but who will now assume they know all they need to. A little knowledge, as they say, is a dangerous thing.
For every example of “blatant misogyny” in Ms. Sarkeesian’s videos, I could show you three that advocate strong female characters, male characters who respect women, and themes that push our respect for diversity and toleration forward rather than backward. If you’d like to do the same, just go to the local game shop and pick a few titles at random.
I have long advocated (much longer than Ms. Sarkeesian, I might add) that gamers need to grow up, clean up, be more inclusive, and set some sensible limits on what kind of content is allowed and what is taboo. Appealing to the lowest common denominator, while it may result in better sales, will not result in a better product, and will, in time, reach a point where the public indignation quite rightfully rises to a point where something must be done. The difference is that I, and the many others like me, have always had the best interests of gamers, game developers, and, hell, even game publishers at heart.
But guys like me don’t get on the Colbert Report.