Recently Gamespot Editor Carolyn Petit, speaking with me on a panel at the GaymerX2 convention in San Francisco, recounted a private message she received in response to a review of Gone Home.
"I got this message from a reader and it was pretty well-worded, and well thought-out … but what he was saying is, essentially, ‘well, Carolyn, you shouldn’t have given Gone Home such a high score because if game designers see games like Gone Home getting so much acclaim then we’re not going to have traditional games anymore!’"
Time and again, this leitmotif of gamer-speak arises: the idea that someone, somewhere is going to take your games away. A "terror dream" that sees us reliving the paternalist past and lashing out at all criticism in hopes of keeping the grasping hands of the censor at bay.
They’re not coming for you
The writer and independent game designer Autumn Nicole Bradley helped develop this idea in conversation with me, as a way of uniting the whole of gamer history into a coherent sociological theory that could help to explain this phenomenon.
Why do we treat most criticism or change as a coming apocalypse?
"The terror dream" as a psychosocial metaphor is owed to journalist Susan Faludi’s eponymous 2007 book. It describes a buried, nightmarish memory, rising to the surface periodically to control our actions whenever our taken-for-granted world seems to be under threat. "The nightmare confounds order," Faludi argues, "[and] alerts the sleeper the wished-for narrative isn’t holding."
To this day, gamers are revisiting a buried experience
For many gamers, especially men, that "wished-for narrative" is a tale of triumph against censorious parents, violent nerd-hating bullies, and puritanical politicos who wanted to take away their beloved hobby, one where a boy’s club prevailed and they could indulge the womanising power fantasies of strength and valor that "real life" had denied them.
Mitch Gitelman, studio director of Harebrained Schemes, of Shadowrun Returns fame, believes that this narrative, however, constitutes an exclusionary "nostalgia for something that shouldn’t exist."
"Games haven’t been reflective of reality throughout their history," he argues. Instead, having been created by men for men, they were a "natural reflection of male fantasy" that sheltered two generations of young men who often felt put upon by a world that wanted to take it all away from them.
To this day, gamers are revisiting a buried experience, reinscribing and reinterring it every time the "take our games away" discussion comes up. But what experience?
"Gamers’ feeling that something is going to be taken away from them is not entirely a fantasy," Gitelman reminds us. From Jack Chick to Jack Thompson, to Senator Joe Liebermann to governments around the world, it seemed there were grasping bullies around every corner who have tried to actually take games away. The censor even emerged in the person of our own parents, often as not.
But now, of course, mom doesn’t want to take our games away. She wants to play them. And in so doing, many male gamers fear, will ruin the experience forever. Never mind that women have been here from the first.
Such gamers see our virtual world as a fragile and ephemeral one, perpetually under threat from outside forces. For the many gamers who lived through the 80s and 90s, growing up at a time when video games and Dungeons and Dragons were being scapegoated for mass shootings, suicide, and Satanism, the experience left a psychic scar that expresses itself as a violent reflex at the first sign of criticism.
If we are defending gaming from the slings and arrows of "outsiders," then in a society that retains prejudicial stereotypes about women and LGBT people they too will be construed as invaders whose criticisms, or even just their very presence, herald the end of gaming as we know it. To give ground to feminist criticism, for instance, is seen too often as analogous to supporting a government ban. No quarter can thus be given; all discursive space for compromise and evolution is collapsed into suffocation by crushing fear.
Yet even outside of these openly "political" issues, this terror dream surfaces. The outrage over3’s ending, for instance, was in some ways the apotheosis of the whole trend. Valid artistic criticisms of what could fairly be called an unduly minimalist ending quickly spiraled out of control into angry campaigns with furious declarations that developer Bioware was ruining RPGs and gaming as a whole, and that the simplistic color choice of the ending foretold the stultification of gaming.
Mom doesn’t want to take our games away. She wants to play them
The advert for content that appeared after the credits only stoked the outraged fear that the end was nigh, and that games were being reduced to lazy, uncreative, simple pay-to-play machines for "QQing casuals."
Each of these blow-ups reveals a tangle of anxieties that weave in and out politics, legitimate concerns, and paranoid prejudices and fears. Disarticulating them is never easy.
Dragon Age 2, for instance, was also not above genuine artistic criticism, with repetitive level design and a story climax that undermined core characters and premises, but the sheer hatred for DA2 among many gamers is a supernova that defies all description.
It inflected the online harassment of former Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler, culminating in threats against her family, it laced into homophobic anger at the game’s inclusive romance options, and it led to the infamous rant from forum-user Bastal who lamented that "the straight male gamer" was no longer at the center of design decisions.
Above and beyond any reasonable critiques to be made of the game’s design, it was simply an avatar of uncomfortable changes. Hawke wasn’t on a Hero’s Journey but at the mercy of events; Isabela was a woman of color; men flirted with your male character. In so many ways, DA2 constituted the existential challenge that often arouses the terror dream, inspiring a coruscating hatred against everything it seemed to represent.
This isn’t good news
This unreasoning terror exploding in every direction makes for an inhospitable critical climate. It gives developers a lot of chaff to sort through on forums and social media while searching for constructive criticism that helps them do better work, and it silences whole communities of gamers and designers who have good-faith reasons for wanting to take gaming in a different direction.
Change is happening, and it’s going in the right direction
But as gamers we will have to learn how to develop a critical community that does not mistake acidic rage and hatred for the kind of productive passion that has so often led to great games. When every effort at change is seen as Jack Thompson-redux, we remain bedeviled by the ghosts of censors past and hamstring the maturation of our own beloved virtual worlds.
Harebrained Schemes’ Gitelman ended our conversation by sounding a hopeful note, "The next generation of devs grew up in a different time. What the older guys might see as progressive or new is just common sense to them. Plus, more and more developers are women and minorities. Change is happening, and it’s going in the right direction. You’re just going to see more and more of that as time goes on."
To be sure, we face a myriad of challenges, particularly from the swelling corporatization of gaming and its budget-busting consolidation and influence-peddling. But the threat is not coming from people like me who want to see better written games that tell richer stories, and who believe that one of many ways to do this is to diversify who those stories are about.
Ending sexism should not be seen as akin to ending gaming as an enterprise. "No one is going to take your military shooters away!" Carolyn Petit said.
The terror dream of games being stolen away is our shared heritage as gamers of a certain generation who survived a turbulent and uncertain era. But we have to realize that we’re winning the censorship battle and our medium is not going anywhere. It’s here to stay, as surely as painting, poetry, sculpture, or photography. Though it may change, adapt, and fractally effloresce in the process, it’s not going anywhere.
The nightmare is over, and it’s time for us to wake up.