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Critics are a part of life. While many exude negativity, they serve an important purpose and often hold a great deal of influence. Gaming has its fair share of critics, but none more controversial than the social critic. These individuals are usually highly educated in social science and examine creative works in the context of the greater culture. They put a focus on the impact a book, film, game, or any work of art has on society in general, rather than their enjoyment or mechanical prowess. While it can be debated whether video games as a whole are art, individual games absolutely have the propensity to be artistic. With art comes politics, history, and complex social questions and representations. A social critic is meant to examine and illuminate the subject matter so the audience can analyze it for themselves.
There is a place for that in gaming, a medium which opens the doors on moral questions in ways other forms don’t. The problem is not that social critics exist, it’s that social critics in gaming have not done their jobs very well. This has resulted in a tarnished reputation where the average onlooker sees the idea of social critique as just a symptom of a culture who takes offense at the slightest provocation. This is due in large part to those critical of the social impact of video games not demonstrating a true understanding of the medium or the culture surrounding it. This becomes a problem when trying to have a real discussion.
There are many problems with the current state of the social critique of gaming, but above all, it’s that critics tend to treat gaming the same as they would every other medium. Many of the critiques thrown at gaming and gamer culture is taken from critiques of film, books, storytelling, music, and every other form of entertainment. But video games aren’t the same thing as movies. There is a nuance to video games that film does not have which nearly all major social critics miss in their examination of the genre. It’s the play factor, the foundation which makes video games video games at all, and that’s conspicuously absent from criticism.
The Grand Theft Auto series is a common target of social critics for its sandbox atmosphere which allows the players to reenact extravagant violence and action. It takes place in a semi-realistic setting, leading many to believe it encourages violence, or at least, desensitizes players. This same criticism has been used against films which portray intense violence. However, does violence have the same effect on a person if they are controlling the player than if they are simply viewing it? Obviously not. Watching a person shoot another where the viewer is completely detached from the situation is going to have a different impact than controlling a character to shoot another and then having to feel the consequences for yourself. Gaming is all about cause and effect. Yes, you can shoot people in Grand Theft Auto, but you will be immediately met with the consequence of having to evade police or possibly fight off passersby. As well, games like Grand Theft Auto introduce a new element to media violence other mediums don’t: absurdity. Few people would argue that Looney Toons encourages violence, despite their reliance on heavy slapstick, because the “violence” in the cartoon is unrealistic and silly. No one in their right mind would imitate it.
The same can be said of nearly all video games which depict violence. No amount of realistic blood will remove the utter ridiculousness of some of the violence in Grand Theft Auto. Most players do not go into the game to commit realistic acts of violence. They will line up ten cars and see if they can’t cause a chain explosion, fly a helicopter to the highest point in the game and do a nose dive into the pavement, stand on top of a building dropping grenades on traffic. You don’t tend to see these actions in real life, because they’re ludicrous. Players know this, and it is why they do them in the game. Games give the player options to make choices, particularly sandboxes, and most players take that opportunity to dream up amazingly wild scenarios they’d never dream of reenacting. Similarly, the introduction of consequence is never found in any other medium. Certainly players can do these things, but likely they will prepare ahead of time since reckless and violent actions more often than not have negative effects on the player’s progress.
This is not a trivial difference. Studies have found that gamers are influenced by the type of character they play, not simply by what they see on screen. Playing a character who is inherently empathetic can increase empathy, even if the character engages in violence. This is part of the other unique aspect of video games critics miss: the player-character relationship.
Take the popular topic of gender representation in video games. The argument here is near identical to arguments against film and comics: that women are too sexualized, objectified, or otherwise not given a balance of human characteristics. This has been applied to video games, but does it apply the same way? I would argue not. Because again, you are not simply viewing a character, you are that character. There is a special type of metaphoric relationship between a player and their avatar. Whether the character is a silent protagonist or has a fully fleshed out backstory, they exist solely through the hands of the player who guides their choices and actions throughout the game. It creates an expectation of trust, where a player must trust their character will follow the directions given to them and continue with the player through the story. Assuming a character can accomplish that, the player will build a respect for the character. So if that player character is a woman, regardless of what she is wearing, the player will inevitably find her more relatable. Because in the context of the game, they are her.
This also leaves a space open for mechanics to become a part of the social discussion. If a game is not programmed well, or a character is not controlled well, how does that impact our impression of the character themselves? Obviously, it hinders our view of the game, but when we talk about those controls we are referring to the character. “He doesn’t move well” or “I can’t get him to do this”. It is more likely, from the point of view of gamers, that controls will hinder our view of a character, than what the character is wearing or what the character’s gender is.
Gaming is the ultimate tool for promoting empathy, because it requires players to put themselves in the shoes of another. This topic is rarely covered when discussing characters and players, because social critics focus on the two as separate entities. They focus on the character as a standalone concept, in the same way they’d critique a character in a piece of literature. In the context of the player, the character becomes unimportant. But this relationship is a crucial part of games. The character and the player must be understood and examined as a whole unit, not solely as separate.
This is the responsibility of social critics. To understand how the work they hold in their hands is unique and examine all aspects of it. They have to take into account the unique aspects of games that differ from other forms of expression. They have to be honest about the games they play and represent them properly and appropriately. They cannot simply take a game with violence and denounce it. They must examine how that violence occurs in the context of the player. They cannot simply see a female character in skimpy clothes and dismiss it as a trope. They must examine the relationship that character holds with the player. If they intend to start a true discussion, it must be understanding of the viewpoint of a gamer, not simply of a critic.
Update: minor copy corrections