Discussing the design of the games we play, and everything that entails, can be tricky. I may care about things you are happy to ignore, and vice versa. But in these discussion you can find some of the best insight into the games we play. It's worth engaging.
(This story was updated on June 4, 2015)
That's why I love the story we ran about the "damsel in distress" trope. It includes quotes from a good variety of developers along with real-world examples that show how you can make your games more interesting, and perhaps more fun, by either ignoring that trope or subverting it in some way. More recently we discussed the issue of games without a single person of color, or games that "force" players to play a randomly-assigned race.
Both were written by individuals deeply engaged by games. Both are an act of appreciation and support. You don't spend that much time thinking about something you don't care about deeply. But there is one thing you hear all the time when you tackle these topics:
What's wrong with just letting the developers, or publishers, do whatever they want?
It's an odd question
There is nothing wrong with that. It's an important part of having a healthy, thriving development community.
The fact that any game designer can sit down with a laptop and a cup of tea or even just a piece of paper and pencil and design anything she wants is a huge part of what makes gaming such an interesting art form. The question itself is rather leading, because it assumes that there are people who are arguing that artists working in games shouldn't be able to do whatever they want. It assumes one side of a discussion wants to impose their will on the other, which can't be further from the truth.
The argument that developers should have their output limited is an invention
The reality is that most people online don't really care what games you play. If you find a certain character sexy, or you enjoy designs that bother others, it can be interesting to explore why, but that's where things stop. There are no game police that want to destroy your enjoyment. At worst they're only asking that you seek to understand and engage with it.
There is, as far as I know, no movement to somehow artificially limit which games can or should be made. Even games I may find morally reprehensible are discussed based on their content, and what those games make me feel. These things matter, and active criticism of games we disagree with is a healthy thing. I'm one of those people who think we need to adjust the ratings to allow more exploration of content, not less.
But no one is arguing that there should be a rule or, taking it further, some kind of law that states what characters should look like, or how they should act. People who are writing about their reaction to the character design in Bayonetta are reacting to the work put in front of them. They're not arguing that their statements reflect how all games should be, or that some sort of ruling body should be erected to enforce any set standards for play or design.
Don't confuse critical reaction to the tip of an enforcement spear. No one is coming to take your games.
The argument that developers should have their output limited is an invention. What critics are saying is that those decisions have an impact on the game and their enjoyment of it, and their reaction to the content may change or limit their enjoyment of the game. Creating the game is the first word of a conversation. Playing the games, and writing or talking about them, continues the conversation. You can control how that conversation begins, but trying to dictate where the conversation goes from there is impossible.
Developers are free to create whatever they like, but no one is ever free to release a game or even show the game to players or the press and not be subjected to the reactions of those players. There are many games with elements that are troubling to certain members of the audience that are still fun for them to play, and that tension is part of what makes games so interesting.
You can enjoy killing your friends online in a war-like first-person shooter and still be bothered by how aspects of the game celebrate violence or more controversial aspects of things like the militarized police. It's very possible, and in my opinion almost necessary, to look at entertainment you enjoy critically and explore why you like certain images and why others bother you. Sharing those thoughts is a useful thing, as it helps others see games from perspectives other than their own.
Two sides, one coin
Freedom to create what you like is matched with the freedom of the audience to react however they'd like. It may mean avoiding some content. It may mean telling other people that content may send a message that's damaging. But I have yet to see an argument that would seek to limit the freedoms of the creators themselves.
The argument, if anything, is an invitation for more people playing the games to share their thoughts and feelings, to join into the grand tradition of public reaction and contemplation.
By engaging certain content and topics you may limit your reach, there are some things that would require an AO rating and would thus limit your work commercially, but that's a discussion about commerce more than it is about freedom. You won't be stopped from creating it, or releasing it. You'll only limit your sales. It's an important distinction.
Damion Schubert is a senior designer at Bioware Austin, and he tackled the idea that developers were somehow being limited in a recent blog post. In fact, he thinks the idea that developers are being forced to make games a certain way insulting.
"Do you think Will Wright needs protecting? Sid Meier? David Jaffe? Raph Koster? No. They need input," he wrote. "And they should have the freedom to take input from wherever the hell they want. If we don’t get input, we make the same derivative crap over and over again. Do you think you’re qualified where to tell these people where they should seek this input?"
Trying to argue that criticism is somehow seeking to silence developers is a losing game. Trying to stop the criticism you don't agree with is also a losing game. What you can do is read everything you can about the art form you care about, and learn what you do or don't like about it. Engage with it. Learn everything you can. You'll enjoy it more. Developers will always be free to follow their joy, and we'll always be free to talk about it.
The system is operating as intended.