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Do Video Games Need New Power Fantasies?

Leigh Alexander has an interesting piece about the need for new power fantasies in our entertainment, from TV shows to video games.

Alexander’s argument is one of regret, of becoming jaded with the world as it is. She sees video games in particular as heavily male-dominated, both in terms of gamers and the industry itself. But at one point, she believed that would change.

“I thought that cheaper tools, a broader range of creator communities, more cultural diversity within the traditional “male power fantasy” environment, and a shift in priorities toward touchable, expressive, and humane types of works would be a net gain for an industry widely misunderstood,” writes Alexander. “Most of all I dared, regularly, to suggest that better treatment of women, both as characters as well as employees and audience members, was one key way toward a more sophisticated and diverse future for the medium.”

Unfortunately, this optimism hasn’t panned out.

“Despite that reasonable belief,” she continues, “the industry model whereby wealthy white men peddle power fantasies that throttle everyone else’s needs out of consideration remains alive and well. In fact, we can probably expect it to grow, as interest in interactive entertainment bleeds out of the traditional “gaming” space and into other areas of technology such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence.”

So what’s to be done?

“Perhaps we can’t change the consumers,” Alexander muses. “But we can — and we must — offer different definitions of power, different fantasies for different people. If we’re creating our dream worlds in these designs and devices, there must be room for the idea that not all of us have the same kinds of dreams. What else might human beings want besides great power, freedom from consequences, and uninterrupted time with fictional women? Those are fine dreams for some, of course, but what about the others — for people whose far-off ideals simply include safety, acceptance, respect?”

I can sympathize with where Alexander is coming from. She’s frustrated by the fact that the video game industry is dominated by violent games that do little else. She’s upset that the industry still leans so male, so white. I can understand these frustrations, even though I disagree a great deal with her conclusions.

Leigh asks “what about the others—for people whose far-off ideals simply include safety, acceptance, respect?”

That’s an interesting question, and I think it’s important to line it up with the first sentence in that paragraph: Perhaps we can’t change the consumers.

I’ll make two broad points here. First, this is true. You can’t really change consumers. There’s no way, no matter the amount of optimism or verve you might have, no matter your commitment as an activist, that the video game industry will change from one that offers violent, exciting, action-packed games to one that offers safety, acceptance and respect. Ever. That will simply never happen. Indeed, we are far more likely to see racial and sexual diversity in video games thanks to efforts made by AAA publishers making first-person shooters than we are to see major change thanks to small indie titles whose main attraction is diversity rather than engaging gameplay. People play games to have fun, and most people who play games have fun by blowing things up, shooting bad guys, and solving various types of puzzles or platforming. Or playing sports and racing games.

Now, there’s room in all these genres for diversity. We’ve seen a lot more of it in games like Call of Duty for instance. But the main reason people play Grand Theft Auto or Need for Speed or Devil May Cry is for the gameplay. For fun. Some AAA games also manage to tell a great story, like The Last of Us. But mostly, video games are still games, like sports are games, and we enjoy these things because they’re games first and other stuff second—other stuff being the message, the morality, the politics. That won’t change. It hasn’t changed in film and it won’t change in video games. Film is still dominated by huge blockbusters even though women and men consume film and TV more equally than they consume video games. There are many girl gamers out there, but by and large it’s still a boys world and I’m pretty sure it always will be. Men and women have very different tastes demographically speaking, with female gamers showing up more for mobile titles than mainstream AAA offerings.

Simply offering new fantasies isn’t enough to change an entire market. There are tons of indie games out there that offer something very different than what’s being offered by the major game publishers, and the fact of the matter remains that these smaller games—some of which are absolutely excellent—don’t appeal to as wide an audience. Again, it’s like this in other mediums. Art-house indie films attract a certain niche audience, but they never have and never will compete with Transformers or Star Wars or Captain America. No amount of wishful thinking is going to change that.

Of course, this assumes we should change it in the first place—that we should replace first-person shooters with walking simulators, or Street Fighter with Life is Strange. I don’t understand this notion that the one should replace the other; that new power fantasies must replace old ones. These are fantasies, after all, not reality. I enjoy all types of games, and I think gamers should have choices. Now, more than ever, gamers do have choices. The biggest video games may still be violent (because combat is the most visceral and engaging puzzle available) but there are myriad other titles to choose from that do other things, and tackle subjects ranging from cancer to sexuality to memory. We have puzzle games, narrative-driven games with very little traditional gameplay, and all sorts of content at our fingertips that we never had before.

Alexander describes what sounds like a broken dream, but the realization of that dream is actually upon us. There are more choices for all sorts of gamers than ever before. She was never going to get rid of the types of games she doesn’t like, the types of games that appeal to the vast majority of gamers. The victory is in the fact that so many new games are being made for those niche audiences that didn’t have much of a voice before. Rather than crush what you don’t like, celebrate what you do. Rather than be upset over the reality of the market, be happy over just how much change has occurred.

Indie games are never going to be as big as AAA games. Indie music rarely matches the huge pop stars on the charts either. Art-house films’ success are measured on a different scale than the latest Michael Bay picture. This is the way it is. You can’t change it. I can’t make reality TV go away—hell, we have a reality TV president-elect.

Look, the fact of the matter is this: If you make a good product and do a halfway decent job of marketing it, people will pay for it and experience it. Developers who want to make huge, heavily text-based CRPGs will find a market for them, even if that genre’s heyday has come and gone. Developers who want to tell a compelling story will find a market for that, too. Others will just make competitive shooters, and if they do it well they’ll sell a bunch of units. And developers who want to talk about transgender issues, sexual assault, or simply create beautiful games about walking through the desert on a journey to a lonely mountain, will all find that there’s a market for those, too. This is something we should celebrate, because the world isn’t perfect but it’s still always getting better.

Choices. That’s what we need to always promote. There’s no “wrong” type of game. People who mock so-called “walking simulators” like Gone Home are no better than those who criticize violent games. Live and let live. Many of us enjoy all sorts of games, from weird JRPGs like the Persona series to walking simulators like Firewatch to the latest Call of Duty. The sheer breadth of games I play in a year is crazy, from strategy titles to mobile time-wasters to hardcore action-RPGs, to racing games and fighting games and quirky indie titles. I love that there’s all this variety. It exists even with the “male power fantasy” intact (perhaps because the “male power fantasy” is so often not even true to begin with.)

So no, we don’t need to replace old power fantasies with new ones. We need to celebrate the myriad choices available to gamers today. We need to encourage people from all walks of life, all races and religions, men and women, girls and boys, to make games or movies or art. The more the merrier! We need to stop telling people to be afraid, to cast labels onto all things like bad spells, to box ourselves off into groups or fandoms, little terrible tribes. Remember, there’s no accounting for taste. Some people won’t ever let go of their FPS; others will only ever play Candy Crush Saga. 

It’s all good. It’s all okay. And it’s all getting better.

Leigh Alexander thinks that there’s something wrong with us. I don’t know. I’m sure there is. I’m also pretty sure it doesn’t have much to do with video games.

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