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Opinion: Kicking The Dog At The Game Critics' Rant

Opinion: Kicking The Dog At The Game Critics' Rant Exclusive

April 7, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander

If games can't "grow up," is it because their creators can't?

A couple weeks ago, on the last day of GDC, the IGDA's popular annual "rant" session convened a panel of game critics including MTV Multiplayer's Stephen Totilo, X-Play host Adam Sessler, the Wall Street Journal's Jamin Brophy-Warren, Smartbomb co-author Heather Chaplin, former Newsweek writer and new-minted creative consultant N'Gai Croal and me.

It was our chance to vent our spleen individually -- Totilo urged other writers to improve their craft, Brophy-Warren made a passionate plea for more character diversity in games, Croal noted the uselessness of the old "hardcore" and "casual" labels, Sessler took up arms against Metacritic, and I decried the negativity in the ecosystem among developers, journalists and the audience we both share.

But the most-discussed rant after the fact was Chaplin's, excellently-delivered and direct. She asserted that the familiar defense that games themselves are an adolescent medium -- one I'll cop to trotting out myself fairly often -- is a straw man.

We frequently cite the young age of video games, she says, but when film was this age, it was about to birth Citizen Kane. When popular music was this age, Chaplin said, it had its Beatles already.

She argued that games' age is not the correct source of blame for the often insultingly juvenile nature of games, the tiresome prevalence of space marines, bikini girls and typified young male power fantasies. Her point: Games aren't adolescent. It's game developers who are a bunch of, in her words, "fucking adolescents."

If you were at that panel, then you probably saw my jaw on the floor at that. My first reaction was that I was simply so impressed that she had the stones to get up and say that to a room full of male developers. Agree or disagree, you had to applaud her -- and nearly everyone did.

After all, who isn't a bit sick by now of seeing Lord of the Rings and Star Wars treated as if they are the absolute only two extant cultural sources for non-realistic narratives?

The games that we hold up as groundbreaking in terms of story, immersion, emotion here in the West, are what -- Oblivion? Mass Effect? Half-Life? Let me be enormously clear, here: Those are great games any way you slice it, and I have the highest genuine respect for the teams behind them and the way in which they try to further human interaction in their very high-quality work.

But plainly: That's nerd stuff.

And hey. I'm a nerd. Just to be clear I'm not holier-than-thou here, I run a video game blog in my spare time. But every time I hear a game designer talk about how they hope video games can be "sophisticated" and "reach broader audiences" the way that comic books can, I die a little inside. Comic books are cool and all, but if I thought video games would stay stuck in that niche, I'd quit writing.

I agree with Chaplin: Boob-heavy big gun fantasies aimed at young men are not mature at all, and I want developers to do better.

Although to be fair I'm largely paraphrasing her argument here, Chaplin essentially maintained that this adolescent "guy culture" and the games it produces prevents development from diversifying -- it repels women who might bring alternate perspectives to the table, it repels, basically, everyone who isn't part of it, which means that games are in danger of staying stuck in this self-perpetuating rut.

The rut's real. She's right about that. And there may be some small holes in her argument: Music went through centuries of widespread cultural permeation before it could birth rock. By then, it was already a reflection of the human condition, a sign of the times. Film was much more widely respected as an entertainment medium right from its inception. And while on the timeline games should chronologically be ready to produce a Citizen Kane, the concept of game-as-art, as something other-than-toy, is much younger than the medium's overall age. Many of these possibilities are still new to us.

But those are technicalities. Where I take a sharp detour from her argument is where she accuses developers of arrested development. She says that true sophistication in games requires "responsibility, introspection, intimacy, and intellectual discovery," traits she says "frighten men."

She even raised (and educated me in) the biology concept of neoteny, whereby new species begin to resemble the embryos of the animals from whence they evolved -- Chihuahuas, for example, look like fetal wolves.

The takeaway: Game developers are men who are so backward they're more like babies than adults. She asked the audience pointedly: "Do you want to be a Chihuahua or a wolf?"

According to Chaplin, these baby-dog developers are so childish the only material they're capable of manifesting creatively is the "adolescent male power fantasies" they can't actualize in reality. Translated plain, she's calling them impotent.

Hold up. Chaplin wants more emotional maturity, more sophistication, and less adolescence for games -- and that's a hard wish to argue. Seriously, let's all maybe read a few more books, guys, let's maybe watch a few more films, let's try to gain some further cultural sophistication. Let's try for real sexuality instead of just half-dressed celluloid constructs.

Let's try for conflict that goes beyond the splattering headshot. Let's look at some more advanced examples of maturity in art than, say Watchmen, which is fine and all, but it ain't literature. Sorry.

But a dearth of cultural maturity -- and the social maturity that tends to go with that -- is a long, long way away from a lack of manhood. Okay, many game developers may be culturally unsophisticated, but challenging their human adulthood and masculinity is a really low blow. And blaming men's fabled "fear of intimacy" for just about everything is a chestnut as old as, well, Lord of the Rings.

I get comments, emails and correspondence with innumerable designers, writers, programmers, artists, producers, marketing folks, whatever you can name -- and to tell you the honest truth, I do not know anyone like the beastly children she described. Certainly, not a one of them would ever look me in the face and call me a "little girl." I'd sock 'em for that.

Why do power fantasies need to be childish -- what human being at any age dreams of being less powerful? And what does maturity have to do with gender, anyway?

Despite ever-increasing progressiveness, I'd never be so naive as to claim there's absolutely no "guy culture" in games. There's "guy culture" everywhere. And yes, we want diversity on game teams. We want the traditional development base to become more open to new perspectives. We want more women on board.

As a woman, though, I never felt that emasculating men was the right way to get them to accept me.

More and more women are showing up at GDC every year. More and more of them are speaking at GDC. I hope next year they bring better ideas than kicking the boys in the nuts. That's neither constructive, relevant, healthy nor necessary, and I'd hate for that to be the industry's introduction to "girl culture."

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