Last week, in the chaos around the total meltdown of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning developer 38 Studios, one line stood out. Commenters on this site as well as on every other site that covered the story all zoomed in immediately on one specific statement from Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee. Twitter absolutely lit up with the quote, and a world's worth of "WTF" responses.
What did the unfortunate politician say to draw the ire of so many in the midst of the crisis?
Describing his hands-off approach to managing the 38 Studios deal, he told press:
I didn't meddle. If I did meddle there wouldn't be all this violence. All this horrible sexism in games.
Several readers took it to mean that the governor was yet another politician who just didn't "get" games and gaming, that he was out of touch. He doesn't understand what he's talking about, the mob reasoned.
But it seemed to me that in fact, governor Chafee knew exactly what he was talking about. The majority of big-budget mainstream games, especially as seen from an outsider perspective, are violent, sexist, or both.
Now it is absolutely, unequivocally true that not all video games rely on sex and violence; more on that in a moment. But in our AAA, blockbuster extravaganzas, the major method through which stories are told is combat. Consider: BioShock is routinely held up as an example of "games as art," and yet the point in the game that makes that argument most clearly is an unavoidable cut-scene where a man is bludgeoned to death.
Looking at 2012's big games, Max Payne 3 revels in its kill-shots. Mass Effect 3 is, at heart, a shooter, and Cerberus and Reaper enemies alike explode with gore if you nail 'em with a headshot. Prototype 2, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, Ninja Gaiden 3, and half the other games we've reviewed in 2012 exist for the variety of ways in which the player character can do violence to people and things. And that's not even looking at the two most anticipated titles due this fall, Assassin's Creed III and Call of Duty: Black Ops II.
There are, of course, games that don't exist for violence, or at least exist in the realm of more cartoonish, stylized, or abstract violence. Turn-based RPGs tend to step back from the violence implied in their combat systems, and there are genres galore that don't rely on putting a virtual gun into the player's hands. And even a game that does put a virtual gun into a player's hands can do it for the sake of science, rather than death.
Minecraft, all about exploration and imaginative construction, is ludicrously popular, now on Xbox as well as PCs. Journey is gorgeous and meditative. Fez is cute, quirky, and mind-bending. Trials: Evolution presents challenges of speed, not of aim. These are all examples of non-violent gaming that have, in one way or another, been smash hits this spring.
I know all this because I follow games. I'm a gamer whose friends and colleagues are gamers. But what do people who don't follow games see?
I asked my father, a definite non-gamer who lives in the Providence TV market, what games he remembered seeing TV commercials for this year. He answered, "The MLB game, the NFL game, the college football game, the NHL game, the NBA game, the space one you like so much, and the Rockstar game that isn't a Grand Theft Auto." So aside from the sports games, what did he see?
This is the long version of the TV spot that EA put together just after Mass Effect 3 was released. I kind of love it, in all its overwrought action-movie goodness, because I enjoy that sort of thing (and because I loved the game). But it mainly paints a picture of fireballs, explosions, and guns.
This isn't the exact same Max Payne 3 TV spot that caught my attention during The Daily Show late one night this month, but it's extremely similar. Again, it paints a picture of violence done for the sake of violence, of the particular kind of stylized slow-motion bullet ballet that comes from a particular kind of game and movie.
So looping back to governor Chafee's comments about 38 Studios' products, here's the E3 trailer, last year's big showcase announcement, for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. It follows a pattern that by now, we know all two well: thirty seconds of pastoral landscapes, followed by sixty seconds of mayhem and murder.
Violence in games isn't necessarily a bad thing. Even the ever-popular refrain that violent games make children more violent is looking pretty played out these days. I enjoy a shooter as much as the next player, and don't have any problem with them being made, played, or sold.
The sexism, on the other hand, really is a problem that needs to go away. And it shows up over and over. It shows up in games and in the community, in players and in fan reaction, in comments and, well, everywhere.
In the end, the face of gaming that gets presented to outsiders is, sadly, one still mainly full of exactly the sexism and violence that the governor seems to abhor. As a result, it's easy for someone who doesn't play many games to come to the conclusion that, well, that's all there is.
Whether or not the governor's "meddling" in either Amalur or Project Copernicus would have helped either the games or the studio is a question with no real answer. But was he right to observe that games are all about violence and sexism?
"Games?" No. But the games that scream the loudest into into mainstream cultural consciousness? Yes. And until or unless that changes, people like governor Chafee will keep seeing only the worst of what the medium has to offer, instead of the best.