by Josh Templin
Left Start is a column examining video games from a left/socialist perspective. The first column looks at angry gamers and details what they really should be angry about.
Gamers are angry. Perusing hundreds of comments on IGN and reddit has taught us that. So have the continued threats against Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn. Recently, angry gamers may have convinced Nintendo to fire marketing employee Alison Rapp, their ire stemming from the perceived censorship of Nintendo games. The continued harassment propels the narrative that gamers are whiny, reactionary, and entitled.
But gamers should feel entitled. We are entitled to an industry which recognizes our diverse voices. We are entitled to an industry which reflects our ideals. We are entitled to a better industry than the one we have because we are its lifeblood as creators, laborers and consumers.
GamerGate has focused the media’s attention on one small subset of “gamers:” the privileged misogynists who inhabit places like reddit’s “Kotaku in Action” forum. Members of that community are afraid of losing their privilege and they’re lashing out at perceived injustices perpetrated in the name of progress. Their aims are not always clear but their tactics are timeless: bullying and marginalizing.
They argue that there is no boys club in gaming. “Social justice warriors,” a pejorative term used for anyone who uses social justice rhetoric, are completely wrong about the industry. The real problems, according to these gamers, are journalistic ethics and the bane of “political correctness.” But their conception of ethics is nebulous and their fight against social justice puts them on the wrong side of history.
They maintain their position in the face of countless anecdotes by women and other gamers who feel marginalized. In spite of the wimpy excuses from male developers exposing their male-centered design, and in spite of the well-researched arguments of researchers like Sarkeesian.
But these gamers who fear change and threaten women are not the angry gamers worth listening to. There is a sea change taking place in gaming, and its target is the gaming industry which continually ignores their voices and threatens to commodify everything about video games that we love.
Whether they are AAA titles or indie gems, more games than ever are being sold off piece by piece. Steam asks us to green-light unfinished projects worthy of capital investment. Kickstarter places swaths of funding into the hands of the consumer. Developers harness the capabilities of their eager community to patch out unwanted bugs.
As far as their approach to diversifying games, the indie community has stepped up where major developers have failed. But an independent developer doesn’t guarantee integrity. There are countless retreads and trendy apps designed solely as cash funnels. While discerning gamers might avoid the most unscrupulous ones, they still poison the well by lowering standards.
Every time these discussions about the issues of the video game industry come up, we hear the same neoliberal mantra: “vote with your dollars.” This is less the battle cry of capitalist apologists and more the outright dismissal of the collective power of the gaming community. The question is always which commodity we should buy, and never whether games should be commodities at all.
While the increased involvement of the community seems beneficial on its face, it hides a dark side: all of our gaming experiences are being filtered through an industry that neither cares for games, nor for gamers. The developers and consumers love games, surely, but corporate culture demands profit above all else. It is not the GameStop employee’s fault that she must shill pointless pre-orders or warranty plans; the blame falls squarely on GameStop and other corporate entities like it.
Many gamers will point to this piecemeal commodification as an acceptable evil when it’s subtle and as an egregious injustice when it’s obvious. For instance, Steam Greenlight is a boon for indie developers, while Candy Crush is seen as a money sucking waste of time.
But the truth is that when money is the primary catalyst to drive development, games are not the only thing affected. The studio system creates massive layoffs, while pushing remaining employees to the brink. Many developers speak openly of “the crunch,” where employees work ridiculous hours to finish projects within deadlines.
The same corporate culture that exploits workers equalizes games into commodities. It’s an example of what Marx called commodity fetishism; the tendency for capitalist markets to blur the lines between commodities and between commodities and labor. And with every year, more money is spent on games, with corporations honing in on ways to monetize every aspect of gaming.
But not only has more money not made games any better, more dollars thrown at games have not produced a reflective industry. While just under half of gamers are female, only 22 percent of game developers are (IGDA). It shows that giant developers have failed to hire more women in any kind of proportion to spending by women.
The solution to making the industry accountable to us is truly owning the industry. Cooperative ownership would ensure that developers’ needs are met while at the same time ensuring that games are not made purely out of the need for profit. As with all art, games should be unshackled from the constraints of capital.
The way to a better gaming world is not sending more dollars to different corporations: that merely ensures that competition produces more streamlined games, a more monopolistic industry. The struggle to ending commercialized games starts with a less commercialized world. It ends with an industry we’d be proud to call our own – because it is.