O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted. Sura 49:13
There are now more than seven billion people on this planet. Boys and girls, young and old, rich and poor, all walks of life, people everywhere are born, they live, and then they die. The vast quantity of people can seem alarming at first, but at second glance it reminds us that we live in a special time in history.
At no other point has there been the opportunity for people to know each other like they have right now.
Think about it. Even one hundred years ago, your life would have likely consisted of the experience of your family, your town, and a semblance of the outside world through whatever access to information you had. The limited nature of experiencing the broad cultural differences would have been nearly impossible, as towns were less diverse and transportation was scarce unless you had the means to travel.
The prospect of coming to know your neighbor, whether they were in your town or were broadly in your country, was still kept at bay through a variety of factors. Some of them were social, some were racial, others still yet were due to a disinterest and basic suspicion of people who are different from you.
To a degree, that still happens. But it’s changing, and right now especially, it’s changing rapidly.
The Quranic above text, to me, symbolizes the beauty of diversity. It tells us that even in spite of our differences, we are called to know each other so that we can see each other as one, fully cohesive human family.
Perhaps it’s the sage wisdom of a man in history, faced with the prospect of many tribes, many religions, and many more differences. Perhaps it’s a recognition of natural diversity, wherein it’s clear as day there are as many types of flowers as there are types of fish as there are types of smells. Perhaps it’s something else; perhaps it’s something even bigger and better than all of that.
Perhaps it’s a divine command.
Social media, online culture, and gaming in particular have a lot more to do with the problem of diversity than you might think.
What follows is a case that gaming and the broader culture gaming is participating in has as much to do with us getting to know each other, for better and for worse, than anything else today. It’s not just about diplomacy, science, economics, and warfare. It’s also about the simple fact that no matter where you go, people everywhere all around the world like to have fun. There is a omnipresent phenomenon in our species and the variety of animals which share our basic natures. We all try to avoid pain and we all experience joy. Fun and games, and the culture we build around that, are a great testament to that fact.
Facebook Sucks. And Other Interesting Tidbits about Social Media.
Are you one of those people with friends who share a lot on Facebook and other social media platforms?
Chances are, you are.
It gets really annoying to have your conservative Mom posting this-or-that about #Trump2016. Or your liberal friends post about how Hillary isn’t as bad as you might think. Or how corporations are ruining the planet’s precious resources for profit. Or what type of Harry Potter wizard you would be. Or that you just wouldn’t believe what those Kardashians are up to next.
Yeah, we all see it, we all know it. It’s everywhere.
It’s also easy to see how polarized people are or are becoming.
Take #GamerGate for example. The two camps were simple: 1) there is a problem with ethics in games journalism, and 2) there is a problem with misogyny in gaming culture. Obviously, to anyone paying attention, both are true.
But you’d think the two camps were fighting for dear life. And depending on who you asked, they were.
The sort of polarization of these two disparate positions is indicative of a sort of political discourse wherein we can’t find common ground with the other. The group which we see as exclusively other to us.
Each side, depending on who you asked, was a symbolic villain. A terrorist, even. (Yes, seriously, some journalist compared camp 1 to terrorists).
To me, it seems like we, as gamers, are going through some growing pains. Our identity is up for grabs. We’re finally starting to come into our own.
We’re starting to realize our identity is bigger than we had ever thought. It’s not that boyish, lazy, apathetic weak nerd identity which was thrust on us. It’s not even the caffeine-addled, Mountain Dew-drinking, cheetos-huffing teen they call us. That’s just Gamer 1.0.
Instead, it’s Gamer 2.0.
All gamers, of all kinds, fit into the identity open to anyone who, simply put, plays games and has fun playing them.
Want to know a secret? That’s a lot of people.
So what was going on with #GamerGate? Was it about the broader identity, or was it about competing social movements masquerading under just causes? It’s hard to say. It’s politics.
There’s a brand new research study that suggests, though each camp sees itself positively, almost no one of influence sided with those claiming it was about a problem of ethics in games journalism. This interesting article tackles the narrative, the history, and the patterns of belief on both sides. It gives an interesting account of how people convince themselves of one thing over another, and how they self-identity and self-select the information that’s important or irrelevant.
For what it’s worth, I think a lot of it is still more complex than any one event or even sequence of events. And I think it’s born out of a long-time struggle with the identity of gamers and the culture of gaming.
Maybe, just maybe, it was everything all at the same time.
One thing was clear to me, though. Dialogue, even along hostile lines or limits, is imperative to growth. Not just to any spurious controversy, movement, or debate but also to culture in general. We really, really need to talk it out. Whether you’re a cultural marxist or a cultural libertarian, we need to engage each other.
It’s hard for people to imagine that engaging with a political rival can be useful. We see how politicians day in and day out refuse to compromise with one another and we also see, as a result, how it affects the broad majority—usually against their own interests.
The #GamerGate controversy, though relevant to our broader gaming industry, was held on the battlefield of social media. Articles, editorials, tweets, tumblrs, and all other forms you can imagine emerged wherein people were calling each other out for a host of reasons.
Things like doxing, where personal information is exposed online, became common scare tactics for people on both sides. Death threats, also, became common scare tactics on both sides. Of course, depending on who you ask, it was worse for this or that side and, also depending on who you ask, it was motivated by this or that reason (misogyny, for example).
These tactics are abhorrent and skewer any real dialogue we might have which would expose the two core issues at hand: one, that there is a serious problem with ethics in gaming journalism (and journalism period) and two, that there is misogyny in the gaming industry. Both of these two concepts can exist concurrently assuming you are willing to put the effort to hold two ideas in your head at the same time.
But there is evidence that would suggest engagement, even on a basic level, can be useful in promoting a more moderate worldview. You know, the type of worldview that would be more commonly accepted as true regardless of the interested party.
Two studies have surfaced in the last couple of years I want to draw your attention to. One, from an NYU researcher named Pablo Barbera, suggests that social media generally speaking helps people mitigate an extreme worldview. If you are a radical conservative or liberal, exposure to constructs and concepts outside of your normal parameters will help you grapple with the basic fact that not everyone agrees on everything. In turn, you are forced to question your preconceptions and engage reality on bigger terms.
This article outlining the study from the Wall Street Journal (I know, I know) points to a Pew Poll which concluded people aren’t eager to be overtly political on their social media platforms. That might sound weird because we all know people who do it day in and day out, but generally speaking the majority of people you are connected with are probably silent. Why?
The Pew Poll, this article says, found that 26% of Facebook users have blocked or de-friended people from their connections over politics.
Sometimes, when we are over-sharing it can come off as preachy or, worse yet, hostile. As someone who personally is unafraid to share their political positions, I can relate to this. In fact, I usually think twice before I say anything and wonder first how it might be perceived.
But this study suggests something extremely important. In spite of the fact there may be people triggered by dissenting worldviews and in spite of the fact a quarter of Facebook users have de-friended or blocked someone over them, exposure to these worldviews do benefit both parties. They mitigate hard-lined positions and may yet open them to new perspectives.
To me, this is undeniably a good thing.
The second study comes from Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication. It suggests that social media can contribute to social change in more than just garnering likes or attention.
One thing that has always bothered me about internet social activism is that it usually stops at a share, a like, or a random click. Remember #Kony2012? Whatever happened to that? Did they catch that guy and liberate the child slaves? Did they paint the night or whatever it was they planned on doing?
No, of course not.
Sometimes, these activism campaigns are even more ridiculous in how they spread information and pull at your heart strings. An example of this is the “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” campaign. In it, various celebrities like Adam Levine or Leonardo DiCaprio wore T-Shirts bearing that catch phrase on it so that common folk like you and me would know that Feminists aren’t necessarily only women and that they can also be rich or famous, or motivated by other concerns all together.
Sadly, the T-Shirts were exposed to have been made by Malaysian factory slaves, most of whom were women. My God! Come on…
This study out of Georgetown says, in spite of these dreadful facts, it’s not uncommon for people to actually care beyond the click. They might actually get involved, donate money or time, and also have their consciousness raised. That’s a really, really good thing.
Face-to-face interaction, before the internet, was the primary mode of information exchange. Naturally, when you are exposed to information only available to you through your real-life social networks it’s highly likely you’ll only come across things within a predetermined paradigm.
This all matters much more than people think. And if you can appreciate these facts, maybe it’ll mitigate a hard-lined position of being in one camp re: #GamerGate.
The Problem of Cultural Appropriation in Gaming
Even though chess is frequently considered the King’s game, a little known fact is that it comes from India and came westward through Persia.
We’ve all seen movies or read books wherein royals or generals are playing chess during wartime or political struggle, imagining that the game symbolizes their experience. Maybe you even saw that happen in The Witcher 3.
Is this cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation?
These days, it’s easy to come across an article or a video of some opinion-sayer making the claims that American or Western body is appropriating a culture in media. Our industry, gaming, has only recently been accused of this.
I saw a video the other day where a YouTuber was talking about how in some Call of Duty game taking place in Karachi, Pakistan the languages spoken and written on storefronts and signs were Arabic. Of course, anyone who knows much about that region would be able to tell you their common language isn’t Arabic.
Indeed, that’s obviously insensitive to the reality of Karachi and Pakistanis in general. But it’s not exactly cultural appropriation. More like cultural misrepresentation.
A better point about the problem of gaming and cultural insensitivity is suited along two prongs: how we engage in digital violence and how we sexualize or infantilize women.
What do I mean by that?
An example of digital violence comes, as well, in Call of Duty. Not because the developers were too ignorant to know the difference between this culture or that culture, but more in that we are constantly killing images representative of populations we, in fact, kill in real life.
It’s a pretty easy pattern to spot. If you’re playing the latest action shooter, chances are strong you’re at war with droves of digital people. You’ll mow them down with super-powered weapons and it’ll be a lot of fun. But what’s more insidious is the fact that these nameless, faceless droves of digital entities are generally non-Western or non-White, with a few exceptions.
That’s all well and good, of course. In the broad sense that we are a nation (or coalition of nations) actually at war, it’s pretty normal to depict our enemies in our media with our boys in blue winning the fight. We’ve been doing that for years and I don’t expect that’ll change. But what I’d caution against is getting caught up in the flurry of violence without a modicum of self-awareness. As in, wouldn’t you be better off if you considered what you’re actually doing?
Imagine for a second that these jihadis or Russian-esque combatants are real people. They have families if they’re lucky, they have hobbies, interests, passions, and they have some cause they see as just. It might be to defend their homeland, it might be revenge for one of the other faceless entities killed already, or it might be to fight an oppressor and a hostile occupation.
You’ve got to at least be able to sympathize a little bit here.
And further, imagine when those games enter the marketplace in other countries. The unthinking, uncritical person might not care and might find the latest Call of Duty or whatever to be a lot of fun. I’m happy for that. But to those who are even slightly awake, it might cause them to take great offense. It might feed an image of our culture that reifies the belief we hate them, we see them as primitive, or even worse yet, expendable.
Wouldn’t it be better if, as they start to play our games in other parts of the world, they see themselves in the mix and not just as villains or a death-count?
The second thing, how we sexualize or infantilize women, is pretty obvious and is one of the crucial driving factors for some outraged during #GamerGate.
It’s hard to deny the fact that gaming, by and large, sexualizes female characters. Look at Tifa Lockhart, Lara Croft, or basically any female character in a fighting game. They’re generally scantily clad, equipped with unrealistic proportions, and are littered with experiences that — even when painted heroically — infantilize them.
What I mean by this is we baby women in gaming. We very rarely make them the stars of their own show. For every Tifa there’s Cloud Strife, her hero and savior. For every Peach there’s Mario, her hero and savior. You know what I mean.
It’s not to say gaming is exclusively guilty of this, as it’s a general trend in most media and even our culture generally speaking.
But another place where this takes place and is especially concerning is the culture around conventions and cosplay. This can’t be attributed to male gamers, per se. Rather, it is a tactic of marketers who, in my opinion, are trying to mainstream the culture.
With the advent of gaming going mainstream we saw how gamers were sold a load of goods under sexualized imagery. But that’s what gamers want, right?
They play their part, speaking about gaming and geek culture, prancing around in their underpants (or sometimes in nothing at all, they are Playboy Playmates after all), making it seem as if that’s what gamer-guys wanted or desired. Indeed, some did and some do, but interestingly enough… many don’t.
I don’t mean to get down on those two, because I believe at least in the case of Adrian Curry is a true-blue gamer, but it is to say that they participated in an activity that undeniably sexualizes female gamers broadly. I’m sure they’d willingly acknowledge and admit that. In their defense, there’s nothing wrong with it, per se, it’s just that it has market and cultural effects for better or worse.
All of that said, Time.com posted an article not too long ago which stated that many boys who play videogames don’t really care. They don’t necessarily want their female characters (and by extension spokespeople) scantily clad. They don’t really care if they’re playing as a female protagonist. In fact, it would seem as if generally speaking, what we claim about boys and videogames is wrong.
It would seem that, even though there are some benefits to sexualized imagery, it doesn’t have to be the one and only facet of female gamerhood. Indeed, we can do better and can offer up games that are more palatable to the post-Leisure Suit Larry generation. They want it.
On the topic of conventions, it is an extension of this problem. Gamer-cons and other conventions aimed at nerd or geek culture are known for a few things, one of which is the archetypal “booth babe.”
Booth babes, employed at E3, were a way of attracting conference attendees to a booth by way of scantily clad models dressed up in themes costumes pertaining to a product. If you’ve never seen one, think of some milk maid type selling you a German beer. It’s the same type of thing. A promotional model.
But the reality of booth babes is they’re not working anymore.
This culture has extended (not as a result of, but alongside) to the casual attendee. Nowadays, it’s not irregular to see common people dressed up like their favorite characters. And, also regularly, dressed up sexually.
Nothing is wrong with this, again. It’s a normal consequence of being human and having a sexual nature. But it is important to note how this perpetuates the problem of sexualizing females in the broader industry, when perhaps there might be other market forces at play encouraging the activity in the first place.
A criticism of this activity I’ve heard which tackles the supposed charge of cultural appropriation is that, frequently, white people put on “yellowface” at these conventions.
That means that white gamers or enthusiasts will dress up like Asian characters, sometimes accentuating a social stereotype which might be offensive.
I’m of the opinion this is a lot less significant than those who are outraged by it, but I’m also a white straight male who, indeed, is privileged. Taking the charges seriously, I can see how this would be a problem in the same way that violence is a problem. It extends or perpetuates the pattern or image that we, in the West, hold little regard for other cultures and see them as merely accessories to our own.
Even with all of this in mind, let me make the case as to why this isn’t all bad.
Where can we go from here?
Switching Lanes and Getting to Know Each Other
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “stay in your lane.”
Usually, this is to signify someone—typically a white person—is jumping their boundaries and often, not always, appropriating a culture.
Examples of this would include white girls who will wear Indian-styled headdresses at a festival concert. Another example would be a white person who would wear a grill.
Katy Perry came under fire not too long ago for this exact issue. She has done a few things which have triggered a variety of social justice activists and those who are culturally aware and/or sensitive. One time she wore a grill to the MTV Video Music Awards; another time she went to the same award show with MTV RiFF RaFF (an artist known for flaunting that style as both a gimmick and a lifestyle); still yet, she has been accused of accessorizing with black people and black culture—a charge lodged at Taylor Swift and many others—and for biting on the broader style of Hip-Hop without paying homage or respect.
A lot of that is basically true. And it’s been true for a very long time, not just with Katy Perry or Taylor Swift, but with celebrities and musicians in general.
Michael Jackson once made a cryptic speech talking about how our history has been white-washed. He spoke about how basically every form of dancing was, in some sense, a mimetic replication of black dances or black culture. He was cheered on, but the memory of his point was more or less forgotten instantly amidst the circus of his persona.
The problem with our history is that we tell it from a deeply Eurocentric and American perspective. When we talk about Civilization, we either start with classical Greece or perhaps Egypt. But even when we talk about these mighty eras we typically link the lineage of those directly to Christendom through Western Rome and then, ultimately, to America through Europe.
Truly, the history of human culture is far more chaotic and also far deeper than that simplistic narrative.
Cultures in India have shaped cultures in the Near East and Asia. Cultures in the Near East and Asia have shaped cultures in Europe. Cultures in Europe have shaped cultures in the Near East and Asia. And so on and so on.
There is much greater exchange of culture through history than we like or care to admit. And in general, we throw Africa out of the mix all together, even though it is the source and step-one of the human family itself.
Gaming, by and large, is affected by this trend of history-telling and cultural analysis.
When we think of gaming history it’s true our minds often move to Nintendo, but they also go directly to Western inventions like Atari or broader computer gaming. But even this story is simplistic when we consider the reality that Nintendo, as a company, was not originally a video game company, but instead was invested in enterprises like trading cards long before.
If we were to consider the historical lineage of gaming not just at the outset of the 80’s or late 70’s, we might come to see how certain games were shaped by other cultural forces. And, further, how those cultural forces were in fact part of a long history prior to post-war Japan or America.
But when gamers buy into this narrative, it’s easy to forget that gaming is a global phenomenon.
By our critics, rightfully so, we are told to stay in our lanes.
If you’re a white American male, you probably are being somewhat insensitive dressing up like Kotaku anime character. If you’re a white American female, you might be equally as insensitive if you’re dressing up as a character from Sailor Moon. Especially if you’ve sexualized your representation of them.
Even with this in mind, let me ask the critics one question: is there anything good that comes from this?
I think there is.
I’m not here to apologize for misrepresentation or racism or insensitivity, but that’s what I’m about to do in a way.
I would argue, on the flip-side, this unique and pivotal time in history is allowing the common person, the broader mass, to experience new cultures and demographics of people in a way unlike any other time.
When I see these nerdlings dressed up in Asian garb, I can totally see why it’s easy to see their insensitivity being worn on their sleeves. But I also see, for the first time in any popular way, people truly interested in other cultures on a massive scale.
I grew up in a time in gaming when gaming was a sort of reified construct. People who gamed weren’t delineated along a sort of Western and non-Western line, as the majority of console games that were extremely popular were Japanese.
Metal Gear Solid, Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Street Fighter, and Final Fantasy were all extremely popular games in their own right, and little mind was paid to whether they were Western or not. What I mean by this is that the culture around gaming was more or less a-social, which obviously its detrimental effects (casual racism, cultural insensitivity, etc.).
So when people dressed up like their favorite Final Fantasy character, it was never a matter of them pretending to be Asian or wearing yellow face. It was that they were participating in a sub-culture that was undeniably attacked by outside forces (gamers are losers, gamers can’t get girls, gamers are basement dwellers, gamers are ugly or unfit, etc.).
Tropes like the ones I just listed are part of the reason, I believe, we have seen the actions and beliefs of some in the #GamerGate controversy feel as if foreign and hostile forces are trying to take their culture.
It’s a longstanding tradition in the gaming community to feel as if the outside world sees them a certain way and, indeed, to feel as if they need to defend themselves from it.
Of course, we know they don’t really need to. Gamers are comprised of a much more diverse set of people than that. But you know how it goes.
Gamers, right now, are at a cross-roads in the sense that they can choose to stay limited in the older identity that is thrust-upon them and in some sense accepted. Or they can choose the new identity which is far more open and inclusive.
The thing we have to worry about, now, is whether or not gamers are going to accept the new identity that is forming as we speak.
I think they will.
But the critics and detractors of Gamer 1.0 need to understand that if they really want that next-level identity that we’re really working on installing we need to try to find common ground and not attack them at every moment possible.
If you see nerdlings who would be brave enough to go out in public dressed like an anime character, be happy they are interested in another culture and, more than that, interested in engaging their own culture in the first place. To many people I’ve met through the years, their outside life is one which is a-social and, in my eyes, solitary. It can be very lonely, I imagine. I have great sympathy for them.
It would be very nice to see everyone welcomed and our identity to level-up to where everyone is free to engage the culture and history of gaming in any way they see fit.
So long as they aren’t openly trying to steal, mock, or hate another culture why would that be a bad thing in any sense?
The key here is intention.
As we start to see gaming culture more mainstreamed, we are indeed going to see more and more people engaging the culture in a way which can be confusing, offensive, and insensitive. We will see more people, not unlike Katy Perry, doing things which are the equivalent of wearing a grill or wearing blackface.
But you have to recognize this is partly a growing pain of getting to know each other better.
Not every time is it something to be abolished and fought with ferocity. Sometimes it’s actually to the benefit of bringing people together who would otherwise have no interest in another culture and, more than that, a narrative of their culture which puts them at the center. My belief is that someone showing interest is at least on the right track, even if they could be better.
Let me circle back to the information about social media helping us mitigate extreme attitudes.
Think of it like this: exposure to an idea helps make it less foreign, and in turn less hostile. If we open up the dialectical exchange of cultures in our industry and indeed champion it, I expect we will see relief in the attitudes of gamers who are perhaps racist, misogynistic, and culturally insensitive.
In a matter of moments I can link up, meet someone, and play a fun game online with someone from many other countries or cultures all around the world.
For some information, check out this article on Al-Jazeera about gaming culture in Nigeria.
When we start to see that as fortunate rather than problematic, I think we are going to make rapid positive progress. It’ll be as if the Olympics is happening all day, every day.
We aren’t quite at the point where the critics of gamers and gaming culture can turn down the heat, as there’s still much we need to weed out that is in fact problematic, but we are inching closer and closer.
In Katy Perry’s own words, “when someone tells you ‘stay in your lane,’ just respond ‘this my highway BISH.'”
Just kidding. But I think you get her point.
We’re all in this together and if we want to make this industry as great as it could be, open and inclusive, and representative of all gamers, we need to get on board with the prospect that every individual has a role to play in building that collective and cohesive culture. My bet is that we are, in fact, going to do that.
Here at SmashPad we used to call ourselves Gamer 2.0. And in a sense, I still feel that’s who we are. We’re here to help bridge the gap between the old-school and the new-school, and bring you commentary from all perspectives, from all gamers.
Though maybe not everyone would agree (and that’s okay)!
I personally think cooperative or interactive media, in general, will bring people together like we’ve never seen media do in history. While Hollywood was able to sell a semi-unified American dream to the world, it won’t be like that for games. Once the industry is loosed and cultures all around the world are able to create freely, we’ll really see something wonderful.
But until that time, we do need to encourage the industry to be less violent towards other cultures, less likely to sexualize women and girls, and be more open and inclusive of everyone who actually plays games (which, really, is everyone).
Games, social media, and the broader culture we are participating in are helping us get to know each other. And if you believe like I believe, it’s not just happening, it’s inevitable.
So in the words of Jean-Luc Picard: “Make it so.”