”Keep Your Politics Out of My Video Games”

Bioshock Infinite Representations of Racism

”Can race relations really be an off-topic taboo for dissecting or discussing the game when the game itself keeps bringing it up?” asks Christopher Franklin

Errant Signal released a wonderful video yesterday about politics in video games and the importance of engaging in critical discourse about them.

Title ”Keep Your Politics Out of My Video Games”, the video opens with a description of gamers’ attitudes towards critical discussions: on one hand, they want video games to be taken seriously and respected. They want their gaming knowledge and skills to be acknowledged. On the other hand, they can react rather aggressively to any form of critical analysis of, say, the representations of ethnic groups, women, LGBT or gender roles in games. As the Christopher Franklin, the video’s creator, states:

”[t]hey want to proclaim their hobby to be art with no strings attached. They want their games to be adulated without also being criticized. They want their games to be hard to play but not challenging to consume. They want they want games to have tremendous power, but without any responsibility.”

I would not generalize such attitudes to all gamers, however. Many of them engage in rich conversations, be it on blogs, social networks, forums or elsewhere which are fueled by the increasing number of academic who are devoting their research to games and gaming. For instance, Elizabeth LaPensée, Ph.D. (ABD) in Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University, created this great video about representations of indigenous peoples in video games. You can read more on her work and Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, of which she is a member, here.

Furthermore, gamers and non-gamers alike take part in (sometimes heated) debates whenever the media highlight a scandal surrounding a game. About a year ago, the (alleged) rape reference in Tomb Raider created a turmoil that lasted for weeks, if not months. In most cases, the individuals who took part in the debates either tried to highlight rape culture or sided with the producer’s denial of a sexual violence reference. In other words, ccritical discourse, of which Franklin himself is an active defender, is enjoying growing visibility.

Despite this, it is true than those who do respond negatively to critical analysis of video games are highly vocal, and can even go beyond the limits of civility and respect. Feminist Frequency‘s Anita Sarkeesian knows that. In fact, some gamers feel entitled to act aggressively towards women in general, even if they are simply playing video games: for examples, have a look at Fat, Ugly or Slutty, a collection of the best of the worst harassment female players face.

Gamers are not the only ones who act this way. When Michael Lee Lunsford created fully clothed versions of superheroines last April and shared them on his Tumblr page, he received much positive press with mentions on The Mary Sue and the Huffington Post, to name only these few. But he eventually took down the redesigns from his Tumblr and Deviantart pages and published this Compilation of Explanations page where he addressed some of the many negative comments, such as ”stop ruining comics!”, he had received.

Lundsford's fully clothed superheroines

Such attitudes are common towards people who engage in critical discourse of geekdom, either by writing, creating videos or art. Various ongoing debates, such as the one about ”cosplay sluts” or ”fake geek girls” illustrate some of the current tensions in geek culture; as it becomes more mainstream and more diverse, tensions emerge between people of different ages, political opinions, ethnic background, sexual orientation or identity. Some geeks fear the games, comics or movies they love will change, or even that geek culture is dead.

However, Franklin highlights an important problem with the dismissal of critical analysis of video games:

”But that’s the core problem with the “keep your politics out of my video games” argument. It presupposes video games are apolitical to begin with. Like they’re these wholesome, pure things that exist free from the taint of ideology or bias or viewpoint. They’re mathematical expressions or cartographical mappings of the world, and anyone dissecting them in a political or social or cultural context is just bringing their own baggage to the conversation.  But that’s just absurd on its face – especially as many of the games that generate some of the harshest criticisms bring their own politics to the table.”

Take 10 minutes and have a look at this great (and conveniently) short video. 

What are your thoughts on this? Are gamers open-minded when it comes to critical discourse?

Head over to Christopher Franklin’s presentation and transcript of the video. Kudos to Anita Sarkeesian who shared it on Twitter!

About Marie-Pierre Renaud

I am an anthropologist living in Quebec city, Canada. I specialize in native studies and anthropology of health. I am a geek. I founded and now co-manage The Geek Anthropologist blog. I am working on transforming my memoir into a book and journal articles. I like to knit while watching Star Trek. Reach out to me for collaborations! https://mariepierrerenaud.co/

There are 5 comments

  1. jaklumen

    I think video games are going through some growing pains. Trying to summarize down the long paragraphs I typed earlier…

    On one side, a lot of arcade video game manufacturers started out in amusement (read: carnival/midway) games, or are in that business now. I think that’s partly why a lot of people look at video games as kids’ stuff.

    But on the other side, video games came to personal computers, and moved away from these amusement game influences to become more like interactive stories. I think this is the aspect that gamers want to be taken more seriously… but it’s hard to shake the amusement game connection and the juvenile connotations, I guess.

    I’m 39. I’m just old enough to have seen a lot of this for myself, but for courtesy and sake of space, I tried to avoid listing examples. Great article.


  2. Millan

    I’m a gamer, besides an archaelogist & historian. As i live in an european, mediterranean country, I perceive a strong biased “USA-centric” view of world and politics in today’s games.

    That would not be a problem if werent for the (quite often) associated “right winged, conservative, simplistic and ultraliberal and ultracapitalist” view of the world.
    Of course you can also find that view on movies, Tv series, etc…

    But my point is: i see a bit more of a reflexive, mature attitude towards fiction and creation, and much more self-criticism, in movies and tv series, compared to games. Also, novels and written fiction seem to me more balanced on those terms.

    Maybe authors and scrptwriters of games should be thinking more of “adult” games in the sense of games touching other “adult” themes not related to boobs and blood… For example, an AAA FPS could perfectly keep all its action & violence & thrill while touching a bit more on ethics, nihilism, postmodernity, politics, postcolonialism, etc… just as, for example, the novels from J. Le Carré, Grahame Green or Frederick Forsyth.


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