In my last column, I defended Grand Theft Auto IV from allegations of sexism, based on my opinion that it treats everyone distastefully. It provides a sandbox experience, I said, that allows players the opportunity to explore the underbelly of humanity and themselves, reflecting their own worst impulses back at them.
I was pleased that the article provoked thoughtful, in-depth discussion about the treatment of race, gender and other social issues in games, but in debunking a single individual's attack on Grand Theft Auto, my intention was not to provide a blanket pass to games that permit (and arguably, in this case, promote) antisocial behavior. So I was more pleased at the commenters who criticized the virulence of my GTA IV defense than I was at those who agreed with me (though, hey, who doesn't like to be agreed with?).
One of the ways I rationalized what I'd written is by noting that games are scapegoated and crucified at every turn by people who've never even played them, and that this unfair public flogging threatens the medium's potential for mainstream legitimacy.
Why those who make games don't defend their own craft vigorously is a question for another time, but my position has been that the least we can do is to return these volleys when they're aimed our way. If we want to see games truly thrive and grow away from stigma, it's our responsibility, really.
And that's why the most irresponsible thing we can ever do as gamers is to speak the phrase, "It's only a game."
We Live At A Flashpoint
It can be said that it's fair for gamers to be defensive. After all, we've got heaps of prejudice to confront. Social, ethical and political warriors seem to feel they can tear down the things we love after only second-hand experience, our generational peers have called us strange for decades, and the myriad brilliant little revelations we've discovered through play over the years go completely overlooked in the broader world we belong to.
We've also developed a heavily internet-based culture. Many of us have plenty of "real world" gaming pals, and online game services make it easier for us to play with friends we can actually speak to. But a strong central vein of the gaming audience does its group socializing on the boards, blogs and forums that comprise the backbone of our world, and that format means that we've got the ability to react immediately - with all the force and venom that anonymity enables. That reactionary, passionate society becomes self-perpetuating.
Those are the largest reasons why our community arguments around games are so passionate. And when someone, rationally or otherwise, criticizes a game's themes for being too violent, too sexual, racially offensive or gender-biased, we can almost predict the number of comments the discussion will spiral madly into, with a sigh, and a here we go.
We can understand clearly how we came to be so defensive, and to an extent we recognize the necessity of standing up for ourselves. But if we engage in what one Kotaku commenter referred to as "screeching industry apologetics," we must beg the question: are we really serving games?
Looking in the Mirror
I sometimes enjoy being violent when I play Grand Theft Auto. And sometimes I just enjoy the mission-based gameplay, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't find the ragdoll physics of a body crumpling over the hood of my car to be cool, and I suspect many of you would be at least slightly untruthful in that assertion, too.
I used the wrench a lot of the time in BioShock just because I loved the satisfying thud of metal on Splicer flesh, the meticulously crafted clink and thud, the way my victim dropped like deadweight. Someone programmed that in, deliberately, as if just for me.
Sometimes when I'm playing a first-person shooter, I wish the skull splattering would be just a little more grisly. Satisfying.
I was a Little Sister killer, and feel the game experience was more meaningful because I went there.
We can do these things and many more in our games; we can shove, shatter, abuse and denigrate. We can ogle Soulcalibur breast physics, we can get "environmental kills," pantyshots, a meat hook.
Suppose you didn't play video games at all, and merely were a person who fantasized for two to three hours each day, or however much time you spend gaming on a daily basis, about wrenching people in the head, about chainsawing half-dressed women, or about mowing people down during a war. Or about that quintessential chestnut: hiring a prostitute only to beat her up and take your money back.
Would you be healthy?
Our Own Little World
Now, be calm. Of course, it's a great big leap between playing a game and having a really unhealthy conscience. A game is, well, a game, and games are neither reality nor reality-simulators. But as realism becomes a priority in development, as we demand more immersion, more emotional impact, more game worlds we can really believe in, "it's only a game" will become more and more a flimsy excuse for why we love to do what we do.
We so desperately want "more choice" in games, more freedom, and more insight into how our choices impact the game world – and this is because we want to experiment. Human beings no longer live in an era where they must fight each other for social dominance, survive harsh elements or kill their food, but some lingering relic of that instinct probably persists, and it's probably that itch that we scratch when we're playing a violent game.
At least, that has something to do with it. Another part is, I think, we enjoy learning about ourselves based on the actions we take in simulated environments. Of all the things we do in games, very little of it can safely, legally or literally be replicated in reality – we'll never fly a spaceship, we'll never save a planet, we'll never sleep with a blue alien.
And obviously, not all the things we do in games, not nearly, could be construed as reprehensible. Gamers also love their peaceful Azeroth sunsets, their epics of aging mercenaries, their interludes of salvation.
But when we defend attacks on game content with "geez, it's only a game," then we're also relegating those moments of meaning to mere two-dimensional thrills.
The Hard Questions
"It's only a game" is a phrase that agrees with all of those who ever looked down their noses at the medium, who want to nutshell it as a child's plaything, who want to promote the kind of prejudice that will keep games from ever achieving widespread respect for everything they are.
When gamers ask whether the imagery of a white man shooting through a vacant-eyed sea of African villagers feels all right to them, we do ourselves a massive disservice when we simply dismiss questions like that, when we attack each other.
Whether or not you like murdering whores in GTA IV, we do ourselves a massive disservice when we fail to use that as a springboard to consider our own, and our community's attitude toward women.
So it may be our responsibility to defend games, to explain them when they're misjudged, to support our right to the full spectrum of emotion and experience they offer, both delightful and disturbing.
But questions like MTV Multiplayer's Steven Totilo's (our kind guest editor this week), asking, "Are Games Our Fantasies?" ought not to be brushed under the rug.
It must also be our responsibility to uphold a willingness to examine games, to discuss them civilly, to be willing to see what we're saying about ourselves through play. To have answers for the really hard questions: "Do these actions we take in games affect us as people? Does interactivity make it unfair to compare harsh content in games to the same content in movies?"
We want to defend, we want to react, and we want to forgive, because we want to love games and everything about them. And sometimes, we just don't want to think at all, and we'd rather just play, thank-you-very-much, and that's fine.
But don't say "it's just a game." For gaming's most passionate fans, there should never be any "just" about it.