Gaming is a Garbage Fire

I’m a regular visitor of the gaming website Giant Bomb, and usually dedicate four plus hours a week of my time listening to their various gaming podcasts. Not only are they frequently some of the funniest podcasts on the internet, but they’re usually a great place to get information on new games. These days they’re more or less my exclusive source for gaming news.

A few weeks ago on the Giant Beastcast (the East Coast crew’s podcast) host Vinny Caravella went on a bit of an uptempo tangent, professing that this was the greatest time to be a gamer. Not only did we have new technology like VR coming down the pike, but the sheer girth of games, from big-budget AAA action spectacles to indie point-and-click adventure games, assured that everyone, no matter what their tastes, could find something they liked.

And to a certain extent, I definitely think he’s right. Games are better than ever! There’s more variety than ever before, and at more price points. Speaking strictly in terms of consumer value and customer choice, it’s the greatest time ever to be into video games.

Speaking from just about every other avenue imaginable though, it’s a complete disaster. From top to down, gaming is screwed. It’s so screwed that, to paraphrase Roseanne, the light from screwed would take a million years to reach it. And no matter where you look, from the fans to the developers to the games themselves, things are bleak.

 

The Culture Of Gaming

Media as a whole is exclusive, reactionary, narrow-minded and self-centered. It’s always been that way. Movies, music and TV are all still widely segregated by racial lines, diverse portrayals of women beyond “sex symbol” and/or “damsel in distress” are still few and far between, and it wasn’t until relatively recently that gay and lesbian characters were given any kind of fair shake in any form of mainstream media.

That being said, you can find clear signs of progress. Just 30 years ago MTV was hesitant to play music by black artists because they thought those videos might scare white America. Anderson Cooper is an openly gay man hosting a widely watched news program on a popular cable news network. That would’ve been an impossibility even in the 90s. And Star Wars films made just 10 years prior don’t feature the racially and gender-diverse cast that The Force Awakens does.

Let’s compare that to video games. As a medium, games are over 40 years old. In that time, we’ve seen graphics and sound improve by leaps and bounds. We’ve seen stories progress from simple text scrolls at the beginning of a game to massive narrative-driven experiences that can span several titles. We’ve seen the types of games that can be made branch out from simple tennis simulators to pretty much everything imaginable, from complex adventure games, mindless action shooters, completely immersive role-playing games and simple tennis simulators (in VR).

That’s great, and that’s what the guys at Giant Bomb were talking about when they said that now is the greatest time to be a gamer. But if you want a game with a non-sexualized woman protagonist; a person of color who isn’t a walking talking stereotype; or any kind of GLBT representation at all, you’re pretty much out of luck. Yes, there are always outliers, exceptions to the rule that buck the trend and show that gaming is capable of diverse representations of many different kinds of characters, but they’re still languishing in the extreme minority, especially in the case of AAA gaming, where developers are far too terrified to enact any kind of change.

And recently it seems that an overwhelming number of games that do attempt to try something different in this arena, games that do enact any kind of progressive stance, are immediately shot down and attacked by gaming’s growing reactionary right-wing audience. Call them GamerGate if you want, I prefer to call them sociopaths. The name doesn’t matter. The intent does. These people are against any inclusiveness, any attempt at expanding gaming’s reach. They want a walled garden where women are fuckbots, men are manly heroes and us gays are…I dunno, doing their hair or something.

And where transgender people just straight up don’t exist. At all.

This group may be a minority in gaming culture, but they’re a vocal one, and one that seems to get shit done. They recently got a woman at Nintendo fired (who, ironically, agreed with some of their viewpoints regarding sexuality in Japanese games) and have done their best to slander, libel and threaten nearly anyone (especially women, see a recurring pattern here) who want to drag gaming out of the stone age and into an era where more diverse stories can be told.

They’ve managed to get away with this because, by and large, the gaming community has let them. When Gamergate exploded a couple of years ago, the majority of the gaming press sat on their hands. At first this was somewhat understandable. I suppose many saw it as a minor movement that would only be emboldened by the attention, but as it refused to die, and as their targets increased in scope, it took months for the press to collectively stand up to the hate mob and voice their dissent. That’s more than can be said for nearly every developer in gaming, however, who still refuse to take a stand against harassment in any notable way. Meanwhile, hateful asssholes like Doug TenNapel and Mark Kern loudly serve as signal boosters for hate groups who threaten and harass anyone who disagree with them.

(And hi Doug, I know you’re reading this because you have a Google Alert set up with your name. Maybe if your public persona wasn’t so toxic you wouldn’t have to personally check out every mention of your name? Anyways, don’t bother commenting! I won’t approve/read it!)

Game developers’ passive stance towards organized hate campaigns have made me far less interested in buying their products as of late, but it’s not the only way they’re destroying my love of games.

 

CRUNCH TIME

So you want to work in video games? Okay, here’s a primer of what you’ll need to do. First you have to go to school. Best get a loan. Yeah, the interest rates are downright criminal and you’ll be in debt for decades, but them’s the breaks kid.

Okay, got that degree and a mountain of debt? Good job! You’re one of thousands in the same boat. Hope you can stand out well-enough to get an entry-level position at a developer, where you’ll probably have next to zero creative input but still be expected to work long hours, often six to seven days a week, to meet a release date that was announced with no regard to the realities of game development. Oh, and you’ll be paid salary, so don’t expect overtime.

But your making games just like you always wanted! And the game you’ve spent years one finally came out and was a success! Congratulations! Aw, but you don’t get that promised bonus. You see, bonuses were only guaranteed if the game got a MetaCritic score of 90 and above, and it got an 88.98. But at least the game was a hit. It was such a hit that your studio is expanding! New offices, more games in development, more staff (but still somehow you’re being overworked with unpaid overtime). You’re even bought up by a bigger studio because your games are such hits!

But then your next game bombs, largely because of pressure to maintain a yearly release schedule. Turns out that studio who bought your company out doesn’t have patience for such failure. Your company is shuttered, or radically reorganized to be a fraction of its former self, and you’re out of a job.

The business of game development makes the oppressive Hollywood studio system of the 1940s and 50s look like a proletariat paradise by comparison. Unions are nowhere to be found, worker abuse is rampant, companies are bought and destroyed seemingly at the drop of a hat. You could be working for one of the biggest game studios in the world one week and out of a job the next, and the person who made the decisions that led to your games being less-than-stellar would be the one letting you go. Game development is a sickening and unfair business that is abusive towards its workforce to such a degree that I’ve started to feel downright dirty supporting them, almost like a scab crossing a picket line.

However, that’s becoming less and less of a problem, as fewer games are coming out in states stable enough for me to want to play them

 

Unfinish Him!

Tony Hawk Pro Skater 5, a minor game that I still had high hopes for, shipped incomplete. It was so broken that anyone who bought it day one had to download a patch that was over seven gigs big only to download another seven gig patch several months later. Neither fixed fundamental problems with the game. Then there’s Rock Band 4, another game that shipped unfinished. The legal wrangling to allow for imports from previous games was not (and as of this writing is still not) complete, features were missing, and modes that were previously in other games were removed entirely. It too has seen several patches since its original release, but it’s still an incomplete game in many ways. And let’s not even get into what the hell happened with Batman: Arkham Knight, a game that was so broken on the PC they actually pulled it from the shelves.

While these extreme cases are the exception in the overall scheme of things, in terms of AAA titles, shipping out an unfinished game is quickly becoming the norm. Street Fighter V, Destiny, Halo Master Chief Collection, Watch Dogs, The Witcher 3, Assassin’s Creed Unity, Far Cry 4, Just Cause 3, Battlefield 4, these are just the examples I could come up with off the top of my head of games that shipped incomplete.  Bugs happen and that’s understandable, but for a game developer to knowingly ship a product that is literally not even finished should be criminal.

Making it even worse is the fact that while a lot of game developers couldn’t be bothered to ship their games complete, they still managed to find time include in-game storefronts where players can buy additional content for cold hard cash. The game may crash on boot up, online might not work and be prepared for massive framerate hiccups, game-crashing bugs and countless other problems that distract from the experience, but don’t worry, they’re ready to take your dough for additional content.

For some reason, this isn’t an issue for most gamers. Maybe if someone could blame it all on a woman we’d see some action.

 

Gaming is broken

The culture of games has become so twisted, insular and hateful that from an outsider’s perspective it must seem like an alien world. The man-children crybabies of gaming are taking over, making sure that diverse and minority voices in gaming are subjugated and attacked with such ferocity that they flee to other fields with no one to take their place. Prominent toxic developers help to spread the hate, while the majority of alleged allies in game development and press sit on the sidelines, too cowardly to speak up.

Meanwhile, game development has devolved into an almost Dark Souls-like experience, where developers are forced to endure untold injustices and foul labor practices all in the name of an unrealistic release date. All at the whim of forces beyond their control at all times, who may shutter or “reorganize” any gaming studio at a moment’s notice, usually due to decisions made by the parent company and not the studio itself.

And when a studio is lucky enough to release a major game for a console or PC, it ships broken, with the gaming public far too often forced to endure buggy products stripped of key features for months, while the game incrementally improved via multi-gig patches. But no matter how broke a game is, systems designed to take more money from their audience via season passes or microtransations are built in and ready to go day one.

I want to like games. I want to buy new games that I can play with my boyfriend. I want to buy new games that explore new territory alongside new games that deliver on well-worn concepts and tropes in fun and entertaining ways. I want to talk about games with my friends and discuss games online with communities who feel the same way I do. I want to enjoy games like I did when I was a kid, or even just a few years back. Before everything exploded into a toxic mess of hatred and bile.

Yeah, we can play more games than ever before. But I’m not sure I want to anymore.

 

(Note: Got something interesting to say? Leave a comment! Want to defend the actions of a hate mob who gets off on abusing women? Go away, I won’t approve your comment.)

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