What’s the worst piece of criticism you read last year? Here’s my pick: Pitchfork’s review of Blue Slide Park by Mac Miller. I figured out three things about this album: it’s rap, the Mac Miller raps about subjects like partying and getting famous, and the reviewer thinks his flow is monotonous. There’s nothing about the music and production. Everything else in the review is about the culture, frat culture or pop music culture or rap culture or Eminem or whatever. It’s not just limited to music, though, here’s a response to Scott Pilgrim reviews that decided that making fun of video game players or hipsters was the best way to respond to the film.
Of course, there are also game variations of this. Chief among them is the consistent attempt to declare that gaming as a whole is broken because of some horrible thing happening in a sub-set of gamers, or that a game designer said something bad in an interview. These things can be important and relevant, definitely, but they’re not gaming. Or at least, they’re not a huge part of it.
Let’s give this a more concrete example. Issues of gender and sexuality are some of the most common topics of discussion and controversy relating to the game industry. Why, just last year we had a huge amount of discourse about BioWare’s marketing including a canonical Commander Shepard. There was also a continuation of the Penny Arcade “dickwolves” controversy. There were multiple debates about gamer culture as represented by Kotaku, both at that site and elsewhere. There were comments by the designers of Deus Ex demonstrating the sexualization of female game characters. I’m sure there are others. But none of those things are games.
Or, to put it another way, in 10 years, if someone gets asked about what happened in 2011 in games, they’re not going to talk about Kotaku’s public soul-searching. They’re going to talk about the games released in that year. And what do we have in terms of games, gender, and sexuality? Well, there’s Dragon Age II, which received a great deal of praise for its characterization and relationships. Gears Of War III offered a playable female Cog for the first time. Also Star Wars: The Old Republic did a poor job of offering non-straight relationships alongside its multiple straight relationships. This is pretty normal stuff for gaming: largely status quo, a few obvious mistakes, a few steps forward.
Of course, this isn’t just limited to those who want to make the game industry more politically aware. Consider how many discussions we have about review scores, especially attacking or defending scores for games that haven’t even been released to the public yet. Or whether a preview for a game indicates that the company involved is trying to go for this market or this market. Or complaints about, say, Skyrim’s interface being “dumbed down” because of console gamers. All these things are about cultural perceptions of a game or gaming, and not actually games themselves.
Again, I don’t want to say that these other things aren’t important. Yes, the business of gaming matters in terms of making more games. Yes, review scores matter in terms of encouraging more honest discussion of video games and possibly making them better. Yes, issues of inclusion on fan sites are related to issues of inclusion in the industry generally. They’re all related, and that’s important to keep in mind. But that these things are related to one another does not mean that they are the same as one another.
Sometimes it’s worth taking a step back and remembering this. Gaming is about the games, and it has to be, otherwise it’s not gaming. Chasing arguments based on perceived intent is a good way to get into arguments, but it’s also tiring and frustrating. It’s not like there’s not plenty to discuss already.