Over the summer an unsuspecting group of video game fans were lured into a presentation for a fake game called Elika's Escape.
The United Nations Children’s Fund spent their scant resources on both a marketing and a production company to concoct a scenario for a game so vile that members of the audience were shown leaving the room. The goal was to raise awareness of the real events taking place in war-torn South Sudan, and to that end seems to have been successful.
It’s easy to overlook the dual message that UNICEF sent with the stunt. To gamers and other technophiles, it points the finger squarely at our shared hobby and rubs our noses in the violence which it glorifies. But to the general public, Elika’s Escape is just further evidence of the commonly held belief that gaming is an art form filled with horrible games, and that gamers are a troubled minority of the population.Fair warning: One of the images below is not suitable for work (NSFW).
Inside looking out
It’s a hard point to argue with people outside the hobby when top-selling games, year after year, are filled to bursting with wanton displays of military force and open-world scenarios where players are coaxed on towards ever more violent acts. In the film industry there are always non-action movies that do very well, but the biggest and most-discussed games of the year tend to be military-based power fantasies.
When I took this job writing about video games, my father quietly smiled and nodded. It wasn’t in approval, I felt, but more in a reluctant admission that I was being pulled away from a real career in the real world to wallow in a strange and seedy subculture. Only just a few weeks ago did he mention to me, almost off handedly, that he’s glad everything worked out in the end.
"I was really worried about you," he told me. He couldn’t even meet my eyes when he said it.
What UNICEF and my parents both fail to understand is that I have a kind of faith in the gaming community, a desire to see the best in it and the willingness to let it be what it wants to be, in whatever form that takes.
A game like Hatred can disgust me, but while it's Valve's right to set the standard for what gets sold through Steam that doesn't mean I want to see it censored. It's up to me to put my energy behind games that are the direct opposite of that experience in the same creative space, and to indulge in them instead.
The world of gaming is getting much more diverse, with many kinds of content and thoughtful, inspiring games that don’t lean on violence. But only people inside this industry seem to know it. The message remains painfully slow in getting out.
Only people inside the games industry seem to understand that games are much more.
I imagine that the folks behind the Elika’s Escape troll are deeply confused why Polygon’s commenters actually want to play the game they proposed, that they want to play it not out of a prurient desire to make children suffer but because they want to feel that specific pain through gameplay.
That’s because they’ve likely never heard of This War of Mine, of Darfur is Dying, of 1979 Revolution, of Valiant Hearts, of Escape from Woomera. They have no idea the kinds of experiences that are available in this space. Their idea was attractive to some gamers, and not for the wrong reasons. We want to learn more about our world through the games we play, and UNICEF’s game would have allowed for that.
Some people read books that are painful and sad and tragic and make them weep at the end. Other people play games for the same reasons. And no one outside of this hobby knows that.
Gaming has a public relations problem, one so deep that parents fear the hobby will ensnare even their adult children. Games and gamers are regularly judged in ways that are totally unacceptable for any other modern artistic medium.
Games and gamers are regularly judged
How else do you explain the normative assumptions that surround the censorship of Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please? His award-winning exploration of the life of a lowly border agent is evidence of games’ capacity for bitingly critical narrative, for gameplay-focused experiences that have the ability to capture the attention of the player and communicate to them in ways that movies and television shows simply cannot.
When news of that censorship broke on Twitter, I almost overlooked it. Of course Apple censored the game. That’s what they do. I saw the Tweet, rolled over and fell asleep. Apple censors many games, or simply won’t allow them into their walled garden. I had taken it as fact, and very nearly wrote the tension of that decision out of my story before my peers here at Polygon grabbed me by the nose and helped me to see it.
Apple eventually told Pope that it made a mistake. But the hew and cry was muted from most corners of gaming.
It’s just a few frames of nudity, some might argue. The tone and timbre of the game is unaffected by their removal. But in truth, its removal robs the game of several layers of rich subtext. Its inclusion help to drive home dehumanizing effects of bureaucracy, and the parallels for U.S. players in particular to the onerous body scanning performed every day by the TSA get brushed under the rug.
The inclusion of nudity was an artistic decision, but not one that games are allowed to tackle according to Apple. This is the company that suggested that criticism of religion is fine in a book, but not a game.
So glad the nudity in Papers Please was removed. Don't want that in the App Store. pic.twitter.com/oslNQilDaq— Bruce's Yams (@hippiemanx) December 12, 2014
So then why isn’t the same concern placed on the graphical content that exists alongside the music in the iTunes store?
Why the double standard for games?
What this kind of treatment of the medium tells developers and players of video games alike is that they are lesser beings. That they are being watched. That they had better moderate their tastes if they are to be accepted by the rest of society. This sort of subtle censure and bias against the very existence of games is much more damaging than written criticism of the games we play. We need to fear agents like Apple, not cultural critics.
We know that not all games are violent. We know that even those that are violent have the capacity to use violence in surprising and thoughtful ways. We know that there are important games being released by daring voices in this industry every year. That’s what makes the assault by the larger society, and the assault from within gaming itself in the form of GamerGate, such a tragedy.
It tells developers and players of video games alike that they are lesser beings. That they are being watched.
By telling those most invested in the medium that they are not allowed to be graphic, that they are not allowed to be political, that they are not allowed to experiment with (or without) certain mechanics, that they are not allowed to speak freely, the video games community is being told that they are not worthwhile, that their tastes are abhorrent and in some cases deviant.
By extension the entire industry gets pounded flat by hammers swung from within and from without.
As this climate continues, the opportunities for independent voices will dwindle. People will be driven away from the industry. They will choose to take their considerable talents elsewhere, or they will refuse to dive deeper into gaming’s archive of amazing works because they are afraid of what they might find lurking there.
And that cycle will only serve to bring about the making and the sale of the next callous clone of what came before, which will lead to another, and to another and another and another … And after long enough, gaming evolves not into what it could be, but what the rest of the world expects it to be.
Only then can they fight back against the perception of gaming.
The only way out of this hole we’re sunk in is for fans of video games to extoll the virtues of this art form, and for critics and commenters to bring their opinions to bear on every work. Only then can they fight back against the perception of gaming with their own words.
One way to start is to begin to change the dialog we have about games with those closest to us.
This holiday season, when your friends and families are sitting next to you making small talk about the latest movies or the newest tidbit of celebrity gossip, perhaps it’s time to ask them what games they’ve been playing this year. Show a genuine interest in Candy Crush or Pokemon. They’re solid games.
Next, start a conversation about their other interests, about their available gaming platforms. See what you can do to expose them to a new kind of gaming experience, the kinds of gaming experiences that they literally have no idea exist in the wild. They don’t even have to play it, but they need to know that it’s there.
Share with your mother and your father and your aunt and your uncle a game that will change their opinion about gaming, but also about the world we live in. And perhaps even about you.
Update: We've added a comment above regarding NSFW images.