Games, Consumerism, and a Tangent on Diversity

Recently, I was on a flight, and when I was doing my usually parsing through of the in-flight entertainment options, one title in particular caught my eye – a French-produced documentary about the effect on video games on the consumer’s market (unfortunately, I’ve completely forgotten the name of the documentary, and my googling prowess hasn’t helped me, but if I remember it, I’ll update here). What I thought might be fun is to go through the points raised in the documentary and give my own comments on them.

Disclaimer: I have no economics knowledge whatsoever, so take whatever comments I make about the economy here with a grain of salt.

Although the description said it was going to be about the economic effect of video games, it sort of had a bit of everything in it.

The documentary opens with a discussion about how games have changed in the public eye – as gamers have grown up, so too have games. I thought this was a great point – we now live in a society where some games are considered art, where we have a diverse range of experiences available to us, and (for the most part), games aren’t considered to be the coin-operated ventures of the past.

But then the documentary goes on this weird tangent about how games are violent and mindlessly so for our “adrenaline-fuelled” society. It doesn’t actually give its own opinion on the “video games cause violence debate”, cleverly directing the question to a sociologist who then avoids the question, but it implied that most blockbuster games are violent spectacles featuring mindless explosions. Now, while this may be true for some games on the market today, I think it is a gross exaggeration to say this is the case for all games. For example, recently I’ve been playing shooters that are more than a mindless explosion simulator – although reasonably dated by now, games like Mass Effect and Bioshock showcase a side of shooters that isn’t one of mindless violence. Some games even use morals as a plot point, to cause the player to think about their actions. One such game recently was the Tomb Raider reboot, where the gore played a part in shaping Lara’s character – this was slightly ironic as this was one of the games in the montage of this documentary. This was a major thread throughout the documentary, and I find it a little upsetting that this “video games and violence” debate is still being used to fill time in documentaries.

In addition to the above, we go onto another tangent about the lack of representation of women in games and the industry. Yes, there is a diversity problem in the gaming industry, but the documentary failed to provide a compelling reason as to why this was so, instead portraying games almost as misogynistic propaganda pieces. The case used to propel this point was 2013’s Beyond: Two Souls, where the director for said game stated that gamers openly contacted the company, claiming they simply didn’t want to play as a female character. I question the validity of this statement – In Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Tales from the Borderlands (among others), at least one of the player characters is a woman (or girl, in The Walking Dead‘s case), and neither of those games have been panned like Beyond: Two Souls. This doesn’t even include the possibility to play as a woman in RPGs like The Elder Scrolls series and other such games. In fact, the only genre I can think of that doesn’t have a great deal of female characters are the “adrenaline-fuelled” blockbusters like Battlefield and Call of Duty. However, I think a case could be made that even today, the majority of the military is comprised of men – and this is a separate issue entirely, and while shooters should have more women in them, I think the real world should be a greater focus for change rather than the depictions of it in a game (again, there’s arguments for how the representation of women in games would encourage women to go into the armed forces, so I recognise that this could go either way).

And this then leads to the changing gaming market. This was actually a rather interesting segment, although unfortunately I’d heard most of it before. We receive the usual talk about the change from games being made in garages with tiny budgets to games now requiring the budget of film to do well (the documentary practically ignores the indie game scene, another issue I have with it), and then the greater change to mobile casual gaming. We get another small tangent here about how casual gaming is the bigger market, and how the typical gamer now is a woman in her mid-40s, but honestly I feel like this sort of hurts the message the documentary was trying to give in it’s previous tangent, which was that women don’t play that many games. Carrying on from the “violent video games” tangent, we’re told about China’s ban on consoles and it’s curfew on teenagers. Then we’re back to free-to-play games and whether they can be classed as “free” (an issue which Apple has at least recognised already) and how the app store is a Darwinian system, where only the best survive. An interesting tidbit one of the developers brings up is that they have 45 seconds to 2 minutes to snag a gamer – if you don’t like a mobile game in the first 45 seconds to 2 minutes, you’ll generally get rid of it.

Lastly, we’re brought to yet another representation issue (the documentary absolutely loves these – I can’t decide whether it was trying to be a documentary on consumerism or all the issues with gaming) with how Middle-Eastern countries are portrayed as the villains in a post-9/11 world, and the propagandization of shooters. A big example the documentary uses is the US Military’s America’s Army, where you form a squad with other players to take down terrorists as America.¬†Another example¬†included a Chinese game about repelling Japanese attackers. The documentary uses footage of a Middle-Eastern man saying he wished he wasn’t stereotyped as a terrorist by modern video games, and I definitely sympathise with him – but at the same time, video games have a story, and after any attack stories that resonate the most with players will be chosen- and sadly, the majority of terrorist attacks appear to be from Middle-Eastern countries, and that is why the general public resonates with stories where Middle-Eastern people are the villains. We’ve also had games where America isn’t always the hero: Bioshock, from what I’ve played, appears to be very much a cautionary tale about the perils of capitalism. While I think there are definitely some issues with representation in games, I also think this documentary exaggerated the issues.

I think a better option than making exaggerated documentaries is to actually tackle the underlying issues in games. Recently, I think there’s been a shift in the types of games we play – nowadays, blockbuster games actually tend to have some thought put into the plot, and I think we can use that to our advantage to help with these issues. For example, stories could include a female soldier dealing with sexism, or a game focusing on Middle-Eastern culture (perhaps in the vain of 2014’s Never Alone, which fused Native American culture and video games).

(On a side note, I like how the documentary got side-tracked from consumerism to representation, and by extension, so did we).

What do you think on the issue of diversity in games? Any ideas for solutions? Leave a comment with your thoughts below!