Making gaming open to everyone

February 9, 2020

As our media continues to go further down the neoliberal alley, with the likes of US President Donald Trump's Twitter feed haunting our social lives, you’d be surprised to find a bastion of progressive values beginning to embed itself within an unlikely sector of the economy, the gaming industry.

Melbourne-based indie videogame studio House House recently announced on Twitter that it “will be paying at least 1% of [its] income to Indigenous groups, in perpetuity, as part of the Pay the Rent movement” and encourages “others to do the same”.

This kind of recognition on a platform such as gaming is substantial and a start towards pushing the industry in the right direction.

This complemented the studio's recent project Untitled Goose Game which features an acknowledgement of country in its end credits: “This game was made on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay respects to their Elders, past and present. Sovereignty was never ceded.”

The game itself involves the player taking control of a goose described as “chaotic-neutral”, with a set list of tasks aimed at bringing disorder to an English village.

When asked about the “very small but angry political responses”, game developer Jacob Strasser told Vulture: “We have a joke canonical version of the world of the game, in which... it’s set in a world where a goose chased Margaret Thatcher out of office, leading Tony Benn to take over the UK and enact social democracy in the UK”

This outlandish yet casual depiction of an alternative universe and anarchic caricature is exactly what led the questionable "protagonist" towards the anti-Brexit icon it found itself to be during October last year. Twitter user @sarahhiraki can be seen with the infamous goose holding the European Union flag, along with another depiction chasing Prime Minister Boris Johnson out of the country.

However, the response videogames get by attempting to include progressive values hasn’t been all positive.

Temtem was developed by Crema games, through publisher Humble Bundle, which is well-respected for its "videogame collections for charity". Its latest campaign — "Humble Australia Fire Relief Bundle" — was made available in an early access release. It allowed for players to choose their preferred pronouns when creating their online avatar.

It has, overall, been well received among the gaming community as a promising challenger to Pokemon’s monopoly of the monster collecting genre. But it has also been the target for ridicule by an outspoken minority as “SJW (Social Justice Warrior) propaganda”.

To be fair, the videogame has several shortcomings as an early release, but some user reviews were more concerned with “choos[ing] your own pronouns” and its “LGBT views” in their critiques. 

Gaming news website One Angry Gamer, notorious as the “Kotaku for right-wingers” (or “Breitbart for gamers”), gave a greater voice to these criticisms, with the site’s founder William “Billy D” Usher inferring it as the developer’s means to “accommodate mentally ill people who have ravaged all of our cultural norms”.

Usher descried the  an attempt to normalise mental illness… Leftists keep giving these mentally disturbed people a platform to spout their nonsense and sprout their degenerate religion to everybody else, especially in the media”

It’s this conservative minority that alienates both consumers and producers, and ultimately prevents videogames from reaching a broader audience as opposed to the hyper-masculine identity that they would like it to maintain.

Although there are various groups subscribing to a range of genres that do challenge this, the mainstream of videogames continue to attach themselves to the status quo and help to suppress attempts towards progressive changes. 

However, it is largely the fault of the industry giants that would like to appeal to shareholders and loud but small stakeholders by unapologetically parading their totalitarian colours.

Blizzard Entertainment issued a ban on Ng “Blitzchung” Wai Chung on October 8 for publicly expressing his support for the Hong Kong protesters during a Hearthstone competition live stream. 

The following day, The Guardian reported: “Ng believes the developer could be bowing to Beijing’s world view by silencing him.” This is not too far-fetched, as Chinese multinational conglomerate Tencent owns a stake in their parent company Activision Blizzard. It is known for aggressive expansion and string-pulling behind several other studios, displaying the hierarchical structure typical of these corporations.

Funnily enough, at the start of last year, Blizzard attempted to build “depth” in one of it’s intellectual properties, the Overwatch universe, by revealing in a short  comic that one of the game’s characters is a gay man.

Besides being criticised as a completely reactionary and pandering manoeuvre to create appeal within their soulless videogame (which it evidently was), it provoked an uprising among the homophobic section of gamers.

In January last year, Usher wrote: “Blizzard’s war on the straight, white male culture continues ... [the] Last Normal Character … Soldier 76 identifies as a thoroughbred gay man ... He’s a patriotic military man, a hard-fighting soldier with undying loyalty, and a code of honor. He’s the perfect representation for what the majority of gamers like to see out of a hero … one normal sized, healthy, properly muscled straight, white male with all of his limbs intact.”

So what does this all entail? The gaming scene is convoluted and rigid, restricted by phenomena like Gamergate, a harassment campaign in 2014 that targetted women developers amd feminist media critics. There’s still a long way to go if we are to create a more safe and embracing environment.

When we recognise gaming as a different kind of media, we can see the importance of introducing progressive ideas, albeit slowly.

Unlike other art forms, videogames go beyond the third person. The audience doesn’t just project themselves, but are an integral part of the experience — a player. Thus building a healthy relationship between developers and players becomes paramount. By being more transparent and addressing social issues in their business model and the games themselves, the needs of the broader community can be met.

Does suddenly introducing token marginalised characters help gamers feel more accepted? No, far from it. Being more aware of the conditions that restrict or hinder people from margalinised communities from playing videogames in the first place is the perfect place to start. 

And like we were taught in the playground, the key to having fun is allowing for everyone to feel included.

As House House's Stuart Gillespie-Cook told the ABC: “We're more about making sure people are having as good a time as possible while they play."

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