What does it mean to be a gamer in 2015?

Do you consider yourself a gamer? What does it mean to be a gamer? I submit it means absolutely, fucking, nothing.

There was a brief period in history when this term kinda made sense, as it described those who played video games, as opposed to majority of the population who did not. It also made sense to pretend we actually have something in common due to the fact we enjoy video games back when there was a legitimate threat that government might actually ban this form of entertainment. We felt kinship to each other, because we felt we had a common enemy: a gray haired, conservative lawyer who later got himself disbarred. But that was then.

Gamer

This may represent you… Unless you are a PC gamer. Or use a different console.

Today the term gamer is useless because everyone plays video games and the game industry has gotten so huge and profitable that there is no threat of it ever going away. Take five random gamers and put them in a room, and chances are they won’t have much to talk about other than recent releases or upcoming games. Let’s do a quick thought experiment: imagine the following 6 people who can all be classified as “gamers”.

  • Person A: likes Call of Duty, Battlefield and MADDEN.
  • Person B: likes Civilization, Total War series and obscure turn based strategy games.
  • Person C: likes Dreamfall, Gone Home and Life is Strange.
  • Person D: plays League of Legends almost exclusively.
  • Person E: runs a big corporation in Eve Online
  • Person F: buys all those weird train simulator games on Steam

I made these examples up, but you know that folks like that exist. Think about what all these different people get out of the gaming hobby? Notice how completely different their favorite games are. How broad the spectrum of experiences gaming offers for all kinds of different folks from different paths of life? What do these six individuals have in common? The fact that they consume interactive media using a computer or a dedicated gaming console. That’s about it.

Some Gamers

Just some gamer type folk at this years E3 (via digitaltrends.com E3 photo coverage)

How do we even define who is a gamer? If we say gamer is someone who plays and enjoys video games then this covers almost everyone alive today. This includes your grandma who loves her some Candy Crush on the iPad she got for her 90th birthday. If this is the case, then the term is pretty much meaningless. Why do we even need it? It would actually be more useful to have a term for people who still don’t play video games since they would be a minority.

Elderly Gamer

Pictured here: a gamer. (via Debra Husz)

There is this notion, that the definition of the term gamer should be more narrow and constrained. Younger generations for example don’t consider “grown-ups” like parents, teachers or the elderly to be “real” gamers. So is gaming a youth culture thing then? Not necessarily. Teenage Jocks who exclusively play sports games with their bros are as likely to get declared to be non-gamers as teenage girls who spend most of their time typing in descriptive emotes into WoW chat on a slow role playing server.

Some argue that to be a gamer you have to play a certain kind of games. So someone who likes “walking simulators” and adventure games is excluded. Except, perhaps if they like the right kind of adventure games, like Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle or the right Sierra games. Someone may tell you that a person who only owns a WiiU console and uses it as a primary gaming machine is not a true gamer. Except maybe if they are a huge fan of the correct Zelda and Mario games which are the right kinds of classic games to like. Wherever you draw the line, there are always special exclusions.

Some say that gamers are people who are passionate about the industry, who follow the gaming news and are active in online gaming communities. But that does not seem right either. Folks such as Anita Sarkesian or Leigh Alexander for example are extremely passionate, and very active online, and yet some adamantly claim they are not and cannot be gamers. Same goes for women who spend months crafting elaborate cossplay costumes and go to gaming conventions and conferences dressed up as their favorite video game characters. There is a lot of gate-keeping that allows some people to be “gamers” just because, while at the same time requiring others to have legitimate and “ideologically pure” motives to even want to aspire to that term.

Gamer

Pictured here: gamer who is passionate and opinionated about her hobby.

What it boils down to is that the term “gamer” is basically used to denote “people who are like me, and who like the same things as I do” as opposed to the others. People who like the wrong kind of games, wrong kind of consoles, or express the wrong kinds of opinions about the games you like are not gamers. Or maybe they are gamers with an asterisk: casual gamers, fake gamer girls, game-bros, posers, etc.. And whether you are in or out of this exclusive club changes from group to group. You might self-identify as a gamer, but whether or not you will be accepted as one outside of your immediate social circles may very much depend on random attributes like the type of games you enjoy, the type of console you own, how closely you follow the industry gossip, your race, your gender, your political views, and etc. In other words, it’s completely arbitrary. It’s basically synonym for “my gaming buddies” or “the folks from my favorite gaming board”.

Gamers of sorts

True gamers wear rainbow collored trilbies. All others are casuals.

So the definition of the term is either so broad it’s meaningless, or so narrow and arbitrary it is useless. There is no such thing as “gamer identity” or “gamer culture” because no one can agree on what these things could be. And any group who thinks they know what true gamer culture is, simply narrowed down the definition of the term gamer to conveniently exclude everyone who disagrees. Gaming is mainstream, and so by definition gaming culture is mainstream culture. Gamer is someone who consumes games. Gamer is a consumer of a product. What kind of identity is that?

Note how other media forms don’t have an equivalent term. There is no word for people who watch movies, read books, listen to music or enjoy art. Terms such as bibliophile, audiophile or film buff have an entirely different connotation. We use them to describe connoisseurs with refined tastes and deep knowledge of the medium. But people who are connoisseurs of gaming, and want to analyze games as works of art, dissect their themes and discuss their issues are frequently labeled as outsiders who don’t get “gaming culture” and can’t enjoy a good game. People who are the most vocal about their “gamer identity” don’t see themselves as medium’s experts. They self-identify as non-discerning, uncritical hyper-consumers.

Film Buff

Pictured here: a film buff. (via Brows Held High)

That’s not necessarily something to be proud of or something to aspire to. But it gets worse. In recent years the term gamer started to accumulate even more, derogatory connotations. Yes, I’m aware that in the past some people might have used “gamer” as a drop in replacement for “nerd” when they wanted to be insulting. You could argue that it was always somewhat derogatory. This is different though. These days people who love games, and are passionate about gaming related things are reluctant to label themselves as gamers, because the term has been tainted.

Not only does it describe indiscriminate hyper-consumer but it also stands for toxic, entitled behavior that has always been the bane of gaming communities. Gamers are the angry teenagers shouting slurs, obscenities and threats into voice chat. Gamers are entitled biggots who thing gaming should be a safe space for white males where they can be sexist, racist and homophobic without fear of getting called out on it. Gamers are the people who demand to debate feminists critics and insist on lecturing them about journalistic ethics. Gamers are people who are too busy making seven hour log Youtube vlogs about “Cultural Marxism” and spamming Twitter hashtags with anime porn to actually play any video games. Granted, not everyone thinks this way. But more and more people realize you can be passionate about video games without being a gamer. Especially if large online communities don’t consider you a gamer, and seek to exclude you.

Massive Asshole

Gamers are this fucking asshole in the background who probably thinks he is hilarious.

Here is the thing though: even if a bunch of entitled manchildren decrees you do not fit their arbitrary definition of what it means to be a gamer, it does not prevent you from playing games or talking about them online or offline with like minded people. Because, again, gaming is mainstream now. There are more and more gaming publications targeted at more discerning consumers, connoisseurs and people who want deeper analysis. AAA publishers are slowly realizing they can actually sell games to demographics other than entitled white male teenagers and college students. As reasonable people simply stop identifying as “gamers” (but rather as, say, game enthusiasts) and disassociate themselves from “gaming culture” whatever that might be, the concept of what it means to be a gamer changes for worse. In such an environment being a gamer is all about performing the right behaviors, and adhering to the right stereotypes. It is about perpetuating the toxicity, aggressively policing those who step out of the line, and extensive gate-keeping.

The meaning is slowly shifting from “person who has acceptable opinions about the games I like and is not member of a group I hate” to “insufferable jerk whom I already blocked on Twitter”.

How will gamers be remembered 20 years from now? Likely as bunch of entitled, angry internet assholes. In fact, it’s entirely possible that the inevitable Simpsons reboot will replace the annoying comic book guy with smug gamer dude whose catchphrase is going to be “actually, it’s about ethics…” Because, lets face it – being a know-it-all fan of comic books is not going to be weird for people that don’t remember a time when Marvel and DC did not dominate Hollywood. Being super smug and weird about liking ultra-popular AAA games that everyone likes on the other hand. That’s actually rather comical.

Posted in video games | 2 Comments

Witcher 3 and Diversity

Witcher 3 is a fun game. It is also a game almost exclusively about white people. There are white humans, white elves, and white dwarfs with Scottish accents, and about a hundred different types of monsters that come in all shapes, sizes and colors of the rainbow. While playing the game you will encounter many Noonwraiths, Neckers, Drowners, Luberkin, Ghouls, Fiends or Warewolfs but you will not see a single person of color. Game critics picked up on this, because it’s 2015, so of course they would. Very predictably bunch of “gamers” jumped to defend it pointing out that game is based on “Slavic mythology” and that complete lack of people of color is somehow “historically accurate” seeing how the setting is supposed to resemble pre-Christian Poland.

As an actual Slavic person, who was born and grew up in Poland, I feel that I should chime in here.

Witcher 3 does not contain any people of color not because of “mythology” or “history” or “book lore” but most likely because CD Project Red never even considered adding non white characters to their game. They literally forgot that non-white people even exist, which is something that happens when you are a white person, living in predominantly white culture, and consuming predominantly white media. You can literally spend a few years making a cool video game, designing awesome monsters, and interesting characters, and not even once consider giving one of them a darker skin color. Folks who made the game not evil racists (at least I don’t think they are), they just happened to do a thing that white people very often do, which is to ignore everyone that does not look like them. By doing so they contributed to erasure of non-white people in the industry. Witcher 3 is yet another game that features exactly zero people of color. This is a problem.

Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

It may not be a problem to you, but it is one to many, many people who love and enjoy video games. If you don’t understand why it is a problem to them, or why they would like to see themselves represented in their media… Well, you are a part of the problem.

If Witcher 3 was the only game released this year which was found lacking with respect to race and representation, we would not be having this discussion. But it is not. It is a part of a cultural trend that extends beyond video games and into all popular media we consume. It’s an issue that is bigger than video games.

Because of that, criticism that calls game devs out for lacking diversity it is valid, and constructive. This is something we most definitely should be talking about in reviews, so that CD Project Red (and the industry as a whole) can improve. After all, the dev team did not fail out of menace, but out of ignorance. And the only way to combat ignorance is to make people aware of these issues. Defending the lack of diversity in the game citing “mythology” or “historical accuracy” is incredibly silly and disingenuous.

Firstly, Polish/Slavic mythology isn’t really a thing.[1] You can’t talk about it in the same way as you talk about Norse mythology or ancient Greek or even Egyptian mythology. There is no concrete body of mythological lore you can print in a book and use as a game setting.[2]

The ancient Slavic people that roamed central and eastern Europe territories that we now recognize as Poland left virtually no written records. Most of their religious beliefs, customs, rituals and stories have been very successfully erased from history by the efforts of the Catholic Church. For example, there is no such thing as a Slavic people’s version of the creation myth. Doubtlessly such a myth must have existed, but we have no knowledge of it. It was lost to history.[3] While we know of a handful of Slavic gods that were worshiped, most of what we know about them is based on conjecture based on analysis of the precious few stone and wooden idols that were not smashed or burned by the Inquisition, and church records.

In fact, most of what we know about the religious customs of the day has been sourced from notes of Christian monks about three or four hundred years after the last Polish pagans have died. The same monks who have been actively suppressing that very knowledge for more than a few centuries. There are scant few bits and pieces of folklore that has survived to this day via oral traditions, customs. Some are enduring part of Polish culture to these days. But even those those were scrubbed and sanitized over the ages loosing much of their original meaning and significance. So anyone telling you that Witcher 3 is based on actual Slavic mythology is full of shit. We literally know more about the religion and myths of fictional land of Westeros than those of very real, pre-Christian Poles.

Monsters not in Slavic Mythology

Things that are not authentic Slavic mythology: dwarfs, elves, witchers and whatever the fuck that horned thing is.

Yes, some of the names of the monsters in the game are indeed based on Slavic, and more specifically Polish folklore. But the rest is almost entirely made up. The Witcher novels on which the game is based are pretty standard Fantasy with some “domestic” themes and folklore thrown in. In fact, A. Sapkowski’s entire shtick for early Witcher stories was to take a classic fairy tale (more often something from Grimm Brother’s rather than from actual Slavic folklore), apply 90’s style “edgy” filter by making everyone curse like a sailor, have the Witcher blunder into the mess and then reveal the good guys are actually the bad guys at the end. The books are standard Fantasy pulp, with very standard Fantasy elves and dwarfs imported directly from Tolkien. Geralt’s story arc pivots around fairy tales and trope subversions to ultimately fall into an Arthurian heroic archetype. Sapkowski swims in anachronisms and constantly winks at the readers to the point of breaking the fourth wall.

Also, Witchers, mutated monster slayers with super powers are not, and never have been part of Slavic mythology. Or any mythology for that matter. They are entirely made up by A. Sapkowski who, could easily trademark the term “witcher”, if he has not done so already.

Coincidentally he said pretty much the same things about Polish mythology in an essay he Publihsed in 1992:

Andrzej Sapkowski, Piróg alboNie ma złota w Szarych Górach, Berlin, November 1992

Andrzej Sapkowski, Piróg alboNie ma złota w Szarych Górach, Berlin, November 1992

Witcher 3 pedigree is as much D&D, pulp fantasy and Tolkien as it is Slavic mythology. Sapkowski never intended it to be held up as a celebration of Slavic mythology. He was mainly interested in writing interesting story, with interesting setting and cool characters. You can read the rest of the essay (in Polish) on Scribid.

So please, spare me the whole “based on Slavic mythology” excuse, because it is bullshit.

The argument from “historical accuracy” is also moot and void, because the game does not take place in a historical period, but in an entirely imaginary setting. But if we wanted to be sticklers about it and say it is supposed to be “based on” Poland as it existed at some point in time (but, you know, with elves, and werewolfs and drowners) it still would not make sense. As I mentioned above, we don’t know much about Polish history prior to year 966, when pagan chieftain Mieszko I was baptized and crowned by the Roman Catholic Pope. This was a shrewd political move as it legitimized Poland as an official Christian nation, and meant our western neighbors could no longer try to annex our territories in the name of “spreading the faith”. The story of Mieszko is literally page one of our official history as a nation. We really don’t know all that much about our pagan ancestors. We do know that Slavic people did travel and traded by sea and by land, and not just with their immediate neighbors because that’s what you do when you are in Europe.

Józef Brandt

Painting by Polish artist Józef_Brandt depicting the scene from a Polish-Ottoman war.

Poland, as you may be aware is not some lonely island in the middle of a Pacific ocean where it would be isolated from other cultures . It is a country smack dab in the middle of the big cultural melting pot that is Europe. At the height of it’s power, Polish and Polish allied territories stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Poles traded with, and warred with the Ottoman Empire, Tartars, Mongols and etc.. Polish medieval fashion was full of Eastern or Southern influences. The staple of Polish nobleman attire were ornamental silk belts, and Winged Husars (elite cavalrymen) would adorn their armor with leopard pelts. Neither silk nor leopards are native to Poland, but these materials were imported from Asian and African nations. That means traders, scholars, political envoys… Not to mention that Polish territories also have always had sizable population of Roma people.

I have not noticed it at first, but others pointed out that the map of Witcher 3 universe is essentially a map of Poland rotated in such a way as to specifically erase the neighboring regions that had significant non-white population:

The world of The Witcher books and novels is most emphatically not just the world of Poland. Great swaths of the third game take place in Nilfgaard, the plain-as-day Holy Roman Empire analogue. The Northern Kingdoms are rather obvious as the fragmentary kingdom of Poland before the time of Casimir the Great in the fourteenth century, although individual kingdoms like Temeria have strong flavor from other medieval monarchies like France. There is even a group of islands to stand in for the kingdom of Denmark! The Witcher is Polish, but it is definitely peddling a vision of neo-medievalism that encompasses the greater part of Europe. And, at least for me, what is the most striking aspect of the map? Well, it’s been rotated ninety degrees counter-clockwise and cropped so that Poland’s eastern and southern neighbors functionally exist no longer. It’s just fuckin’ deserts and mountains there, move along. That means no Huns, no Avars, no Magyars, no Pechenegs, no Khazars, no Cumans, no Turks, no Mongols, and no Ottomans can have analogues here, none of the nomadic peoples of color who shaped the face of medieval and modern Europe. That’s really weird, isn’t it? A history of Poland without Hungary or the Golden Khanate is unimaginable to me, yet here it is, and people are defending it as “historically accurate,” whatever that means.

Granted, the world was not designed by CD Project Red. This particular bit can probably be entirely blamed on Sapkowski, and as an author he has the right to set up his world any way he likes. But people defending the game using “historical accuracy” should probably note how the map was manipulated to specifically exclude a number of Poland’s neighbors.

Literally Polish Knights

Winged Hussars, Polish elite heavy cavalry. Note the leopard and tiger pelts.

My point is that if you wanted to include a non-white person in a story set in Poland at any point in history, it would take a minimal amount of research to come up with a believable, and historically “accurate” back story for that character. In fact, this works for just about any region or time period in medieval Europe. Observe:

Q: How do we get Morgan Freeman into a Robin Hood story?
A: IDK, crusades or something.

Done. It makes sense (just as much as anything in Robin Hood story would), is historically plausible, and does not really require complex explanation. It’s literally that simple.

But, once again, the world of Witcher 3 is not historical Poland. You don’t really even need a plausible explanation. If CD Project Red wanted to be even a little bit diverse, they could totally do it. Perhaps by including some traders from the tropical Zerrikania that is mentioned but never described it in much detail in the books. Or maybe some people who live in Southern parts of Nilfgraad Empire happen be brown and some of them become soldiers in the army that is now occupying the Northen territories? Because, why not?

Someone could argue that this would be breaking with the so called “book lore”, but would it be though? The developers of the game already had to take many liberties with the source material when they translated and packaged it for English speaking audiences. For example, all the Dwarfs in the game have Scottish sounding accents. Why is that? Well, mainly because of Peter Jackson’s portrayal of Gimli I assume. Sapkowski never specified that his Dwarfs sound vaguely like Scots because in his books they do not. They all speak Common, a language which just happens to sound like Polish because Common languages in fantasy setting always happen to sound like whatever the fuck language the story is written in. It’s a fantasy trope.

But when the voices for the characters were recorded, the development team made an arbitrary choice to make Dwarfs sound one way and not another. There have been plenty of other arbitrary choices made to fill in the gaps, or flesh out things that were not described in much details in the book. Sapkowski never really said that all of his characters are intended to be white. Some characters are described as fair skinned or pale, but nowhere in the books does it say that everyone is. So would making a character whose ethnicity and skin color are never mentioned to be non-white a bigger departure from the source than say… Giving Geralt a plot induced amnesia and having him wander through the world, having weird non-cannon adventures in between the books. You know, like CD Project Red have been doing since their first Witcher game?

So please, stop using my culture and heritage to try to validate your own prejudices. As an actual Pole, and someone who read the Witcher novels before the games introduced them to English speaking world, I can tell you that I would not mind seeing people of color depicted in that universe. It would not somehow devalue my culture or heritage to see non-white people in the game loosely based on the beliefs and folklore of my homeland.

If you do mind, and the very idea of people of color existing in a setting based on our culture and folklore offends you for some reason, then that’s entirely on you.

Posted in video games | 49 Comments

Mad Max: Fury Road

You don’t need me to tell you to go watch Mad Max: Fury Road. You have probably already seen it twice, and even if you didn’t you have likely read a dozen of glowing reviews. There is little I can say here that would change your mind about it. In a way this is probably the shortest and simplest movie review I have ever had to write. Which is why I’m about week late with publishing it. I have been trying to figure out what to say about it, but all that comes to mind is: “go see it”.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road Poster

Usually when I leave the theater I have a list of complaints about the movie I just saw, but when I was done watching Fury Road I had none. It is a perfect fusion on old school, 80’s era action cinema, modern special effects and stunt work and progressive, modern storytelling. It is a movie about women who overthrow a literal patriarchy told as an extended car chase scene. It has post-apocalyptic automobile mayhem, electric guitar flame throwers, larger than life villains, explosions and vibrant female protagonists who are neither background decoration, nor damsels to be rescued, but the actual heroic protagonists.

It’s is actually quite amusing that I have watched this film and Age of Ultron almost back to back in the span of two weeks. If you read my review you know that I was disappointed with the portrayal of Black Widow and Scarlett witch. Fury Road succeeds everywhere where the latest Avengers movie has failed me. George Miller takes all the stale sexist movie tropes and subverts them in new, exciting ways.

For example, Charleze Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is most definitely an “action chick” of sorts, but not in the same way as Black Widow is. When she fights, she does not strike sexy poses for the camera. She is not “movie beautiful” and she does not try to be. There is dignity and gravitas to her character that is absent from the portrayal of Black window, despite the fact both occupy the same action heroine role in their respective films. I mentioned this phenomenon of fight scenes and violence being depicted differently in my review of Pretty Deadly. Miller does it right: women are depicted as capable rather than sexy, effective rather than graceful. He specifically tries to avoid the male gaze, especially during combat.

In fact, Miller’s care not to sexulalize violence against women is especially topical, considering the ongoing media debate on this topic. If you have been online in the last week or so, you are probably painfully aware of the general disappointment at the way creators of Game of Thrones have been handling depictions of rape. Or the very fact that they keep injecting rape into their stories.

Mad Max: Fury Road offers an interesting counterpoint to those who claim that depictions of misogynistic, violent societies should include such scenes for the sake of realism and pathos. George Miler however proves that this argument is bullshit:

Miller does not need to show us that Immorten Joe’s wives have been sexually abused and enslaved. We already know what from the context. We can imagine the kind of trauma they might have went through without having to see it glamorized on the screen. Max believes their story and emphases with them without having to have witnessed it.

In fact, while Miller demonizes toxic masculinity by casting Imorten Joe as a literal patriarch and his War Boys as a destructive warrior cult, Max is held up as an example of positive, masculinity. Max does not mind being used as a sniper stand, because he knows Furiosa is a better marksman than him. He does not mind fighting henchmen to give her enough space so that she can take out the big bad. He never questions her competence just because of her gender. He treats the female protagonists as his equals. He never feels the need to save them from themselves. He never delivers a monologue telling them how things are in the “real world”. He trusts in their abilities, respects their judgment and recognizes their bravery. None of this diminishes his status as a action movie bad-ass or masculine hero. In fact, it makes him all the more relatable and likable. But despite being the titular protagonist, it is not really his story. It is Furiosa’s. She is the breakout star of the movie.

http://devrandom.click/post/119466943421/lierdumoa-furiosa-isnt-the-fe male-action-hero

That, in itself is somewhat ground breaking. We don’t see this in Holywood that often. But Furiosa is even more than that.

Furiosa is disabled, but her disability is handled with the grace and subtlety that is rarely seen in Holywood, much less in the SF action genre. Her missing arm is never a plot point or subject of conversation. She is simply allowed to be, and none of the characters treat her differently because of her prosthesis.

You could write an entire essay on the many ways Furiosa is an amazing character. But if she was the only female protagonist in the movie Miller might have fallen in to the same tokenization traps as Whedon did. Instead, however, he wisely side-stepped those issues by making her only one of many varied female characters.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a summer blockbuster action film in which the main protagonists are disabled women, women of color, pregnant women and elderly women. I was especially overjoyed to see Melissa Jaffer (whom I haven’t really seen since the days of Farscape) cast as a tough, motor-bike riding, rifle shooting desert scavenger. I was even more impressed when I heard that she did her own stunts.

For these, and many other reasons, many critics hailed the film as a feminist triumph. Granted, not everyone agrees. There has been a lot of discussion whether it can be called a feminist film, and what makes film to be feminist. I already shared my thoughts on it in a Storify the other day so I will include it here, rather repeat myself:

Whether or not Mad Max: Fury Road is actually a feminist picture, it is still a fantastic movie with great characters, memorable action sequences and unique aesthetic. When I first heard they were making a new Mad Max movie I did not think I could get excited for it. The genre seemed overplayed and dated to me. George Miller however knocked it out of the park, proving not only that he can resurrect an old franchise in style. He made it clear that he can make modern, progressive movies better than folks half his age.

I hope that folks at Marvel are taking notes. This kind of movie making is what we need to see in 2018 when they finally give a solo film to Captain Marvel. After her stint as Furiosa, Theron should be a no-brainer pick for Carol Danvers.

Posted in movies | 4 Comments