Myths of 2013: Kicking Videogame Culture Up The Arse

At a time when everyone is going over their favourite games of the past year, I find it's important to take a moment to be a bit of a downer. It's the way of the Irish. Each passing year contributes to the narrative of the next like stitches in a weave, contributing to patterns too near to see just yet. We walk away hoping things have gotten a little bit better, that the next year might be a blessing, a time to cleanse and grow as people. A new year rarely signals a fresh start: it's inevitable that we carry away some baggage, both good and bad, and for its part 2013 had its fair share of bad baggage. In the spirit of forward-thinking I'd like to look back on some of the myths that persisted through the year which we could have done without, with the hope to give everyone a great big kick up the arse in how we go about ourselves for the year to come.

1. The myth that the games press is a meritocracy, which is a fairy tale top-billed games journalists tell themselves to self-justify their presence in the industry while dodging questions on the actual quality and character of their work. They say everyone working in the field is there because they are excellent at their job and they deserve your respect, even if the work they do contributes to making your life miserable. This is the belief that they've established their careers on sweat and passion for the medium, not through political friendships or assisted by access through social circles. Personally, I know of many struggling games writers of superb character and talent that put the lie to the meritocracy every single day. The same applies to the struggles of indie developers, many of whom live on a shoestring budget but produce the most miraculous games available. For those unlucky enough to have not yet hit it big, the meritocracy myth can be soul destroying.

2. On the other hand, it’s largely believed that the most important thing you need to know to get ahead in the games press is to know how to network. They say being a good writer will only get you so far, that the bulk of your journey to the top will be fuelled by the contacts you make and your ability to flatter and cosy up to powerful political allies. Having unique opinions and perspectives is considered not a requisite. This is the only way to succeed as a games writer. It's a truism that comforts established writers and editors of their power as industry veterans, serving as a way to flex their muscles whenever another writer criticises them, soothing their egos to know they are irreproachable except by their buddies. Most interesting is that folk who cry meritocracy are the quickest to threaten others with their political positions and connections. With the recent boom of Patreon revenue for traditionally excluded writers/creators like Mattie Brice, Lana Polansky, Zoe Quinn, Aevee Bee, Merritt Kopas, and others, hopefully the belief that established editors have a chokehold on who gets to write and what gets to be discussed will fade in the year to come.

3. Following on from that, there's this notion that everything videogame-related necessitates centralization is sadly still alive and well, be it geographically, ideologically, in online structures and digital spaces, or whatever else have you. Kickstarter has yet to visibly put the terror in large publishers, despite the great energy it generated a couple years ago. Editors and journalists still think the utmost of themselves and their mates, confident that an over-saturated market gives their dominating sites the opportunity to cajole and railroad up-and-comers. Still far too much emphasis is put on a handful of enormous conferences and conventions, suspended on the belief that success for your game or for your criticism is contingent on your presence at these exclusive spaces. Scratches have begun to form, as the promise of Patreon, as Gone Home's tremendous success in spite of Fullbright's boycott of PAX, as Zoya Street's proposed games criticism conference in lieu of the limited platform offered by GDC. Publishers and studios might well soon realise that shorter smaller game formats can flourish as alternatives to the AAA bloc. Time will tell whether these scratches only turn into scars, or whether they might grow and grow until the certainty in centralisation shatters and the industry opens up anew.

4. The belief that it's not a game and that it's important to make sure everybody knows it's not a game so that they stop talking about it, where ‘it’ is any game you want to get rid of. It's a derailing tactic, a way to gatekeep and shut down the conversation on what's valuable and worthy of our time. I'm glad to see titles like The Walking Dead, Gone Home and Depression Quest making it to the top of so many game of the year lists, steamrolling attempts at their dismissal via some harebrained design checklist. The NotAGame polemic is getting blasted as an artefact of increasing irrelevance – I'm confident the coming year will find the rhetoric again diminished. Likely we won't see it completely obliterated as a way to frame criticism until Uncharted 7, where a dumpy Nathan Drake plods around his apartment browsing his old adventure journals and puzzling over why everyone he's ever known has removed him from their lives. Still, as we live and breathe, NotAGame is a slowly dying thing.

5. Common wisdom rules that your game has to be a shooter because shooters are what sell, so you only make shooters so it must be a shooter. Substitute "shooter" with any long-standing genre structure. This was the year where consensus held that BioShock Infinite's best bits belonged to the first 20 minutes, long before it's gunplay kicked off, and where Remember Me lost favour by prioritising brawling mechanics over memory tinkering. Ancient mechanics and tropes now embedded in our minds as needless and tired are still the favourite vehicles for the biggest titles of the season. Years-long development cycles for big budgeted games ensures recognition of new design concepts and narrative approaches is slow in implementing, so that tomorrow's AAA titles are still catching up with 2011's innovations. Hopefully the excruciating process will soon cop on to the notion that the old ways might not always be the best.

6. 2012 was the year where the community at large started to realise that discussion of sexism, racism, classism, ableism, etc., was not going to be a flash in the pan. While I feel this progressed in 2013 in securing social issues within the collective consciousness, there was still a vibrant atmosphere of combat against these new pressures of personal responsibility and consideration. Far too many people still view the work women do and their equal place in the community as inherently threatening, and criticism of bad behaviour as insincere and unusual. Theirs is the myth that any sort of feminist inquiry absolutely must be shut down before it destroys everything. As with all things, it will be some while yet until perception of such behaviours as oppression becomes internalized, if ever. This coming year will see the egos of casual abusers further crack under the realisation that it's not going away.

7. The infectious conceit that every single offence, every step backwards and every racist AAA blockbuster deserves a free pass for having provoked discussion. This was the last line of defence for BioShock Infinite: after all its misguided attempts at a social narrative it should be exonerated for at least trying, for getting people talking about racism, as if people weren't talking about racism before BioShock Infinite stuck its big fat head in with its own choice bigotry. Every time someone apologises for their behaviour, reverts, and apologises again, it's considered a win for the good guys, a chance for the offender to congratulate themselves and reference their nastiness as something wonderful and productive. It's especially heinous that this wheel-spinning comes at the cost of the people actually damaged by the offence, that people cheer and pat themselves on the back over their sense of self-growth as they routinely dance circles on the backs of folk already ground under.

8. The use of the 'gamer' label to police discussion, or in other words, the attitude that the only valid perspective comes from a gamer. It usually presents as a front to protect culture insularity, masking normative assumptions about gender and class. We saw it in arguments used against Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs Women in Video Games project as many detractors expressed 'concern' that a laudable objective would be pursued by someone who doesn't identify as a gamer. Unfortunately it's so pervasive at this stage it often manifests out of simple defensiveness, like whenever someone's granddad writes a blog post that they didn't really get Journey and a mob forms as if to apprehend the infidel. It's an old habit to break–though the groundwork is being laid every day, this is perhaps the myth that’ll get the most arses their kicking.

Stephen Beirne is a freelance critic of videogames as cultural texts, examining design and social phenomenon under narrative, philosophical, political, social and feminist lenses. His work has featured on Destructoid, Gameranx, Popmatters, Unwinnable, and more. You can follow him on twitter @ByronicM or find more of his writing at Normally Rascal.