Tuesday, May 4, 2010

It's Never Just a Game, Part 1- Escapism

I wrote this post originally for the Border House Blog, a clearinghouse for queer's, feminist's, people of color's, and other marginalized views on gaming and technology. There's a lot of great stuff being published there, so I highly encourage you to check it out!

I get the appeal of escapism. No one actually wants to think of their own troubles or the problems of the world while slaughtering Ares in God of War or destroying the Death Star. Gaming can be our brief reprieve from Kant and accounting, romantic problems and chores, responsibility and danger. It can be a refuge from the world, a small part of existence where everything can be right.

Taken in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with such an escape. In fact, taking the time to relax every once in awhile seems critical to maintaining mental health and living a happy life. The reluctance to question the provider of this good is understandable. I think that explains why critical analysis of video games tend to be dismissed by the notion that it’s “just a game.” Case in point: a friend of mine recently got into a discussion on potential antisemitism in Mass Effect 2, and one of our mutual acquaintances responded with, “If they want to politicize something, then let them, but enjoy the stupid thing for the game that it is.”

In other words, what we do here at the Border House threatens the escapism of the gaming public. The duty to think critically about the stereotypes that our gaming can reflect, and about the portrayal of those who exist outside the mainstream of American society, can seem like it’s getting in the way of a good time. If we could just lighten up, shrug off unintended insults, and play on, we’d be much happier.

It’s not difficult to deconstruct the privilege in this assessment. Obviously a gentile can safely ignore antisemitic sentiment if it pops up in their favorite game, but a Jew will be painfully reminded of every time they’ve been treated as lesser because of their racial and religious identification. Straight gamers can laugh at cheesy gay stereotypes, but queer gamers will be reminded of slurs tossed at them on the playground.

Members of minority groups would rather like to join their privileged brethren in enjoying some depoliticized, harmless entertainment. We’d love to have a small reprieve from our troubles and be able to just focus on beating a boss. That’s why it’s so frustrating when games, intentionally or not, remind us of our marginalized status. Being reminded that people of color are seen as nothing more than accessories to white protagonists isn’t the most relaxing thing when you’re just trying to beat Ultima Weapon. Ultimately the only way we’ll get media that reflects our existence is if we start making some noise.

That’s why we’ll keep writing.

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