A Discussion On “Improving” Gaming With A Touch Of Marx

So I met an interesting individual on twitter who goes by @Soul_James, whether or not he is a troll is hard to say for sure, but some of the things he was tweeting out caught my interest. One of them being that he feels games journalists are bad at talking about the story of a game in a review, which I happen to agree with almost universally. The other being that he felt “non-gamers” should be writing reviews. I reached out and asked him to define “gamer” for me to make sure I was on the same page when trying to understand his rant.
We got into some interesting discussions about how he feels people who are new to the gaming scene, without a thirty-year backlog of experience, make better reviewers and how you should be reviewing games from an ideological perspective. Some of those ideas based on my interaction with him probably include the insertion of Marxism, since he did mention it specifically. He also suggested that all reviews by men should be removed and should only be handled by women and only after a period of time where that has happened should reviews by men be re-implemented because then they will have “shit to say about games that’ll be worth really listening to.”


Hmm, On Second Thought It Might Be Worth Doing As He Suggested…

Our conversation starts here, though due to the nature of twitter it is hard to follow the entire conversation and see everything that was said: so I asked him if I could move our discussion to DM’s so he could get out what he had to say without the disjointed nature of discussions on twitter. Below is an easy-to-read formatted transcription of what we discussed:

Would it be fair to describe you as someone who wants to apply some Marxism into gaming media?

It’s not that I want to “apply Marxism to the gaming media” exactly. Tho that is, technically, a true statement so you could write it if you wanted to.
It’d just be needlessly alarming, but I’ll confirm it either way. Some Marxist economic theory would go a long way towards making games more interesting.

What exactly about doing that would make games more interesting in your opinion?

What does a Sims game look like, set in a non-capitalist world? What other ways could we procure objects in a suburban setting, w/ individual happiness as the game’s central measure of success? These options aren’t on the table for ideological reasons, which nothing in either our reviews OR our “thinkpieces” really acknowledge this is even the case

Games are SIMULATIONS. You could experiment w/ the social implications – good & bad – in a videogame w/ ease. Games already do this tackling political issues like surveillance, ie social issues that are salient to white, middle class consumers.

Yet all we really explore is various forms of violence, set in roughly capitalist economies.

I could point the finger at neoliberalism or some other thing – because obviously games don’t CAUSE all this – but ultimately it’s gamers that I see most rigidly guarding the boundaries of their own hobby. No girls, no politics, no anita sarkeesian


One Of My All Time Favorite Game Is Telltales: The Walking Dead, I Believe This Broke Boundaries

Anita Sarkeesian is a person that I actually want to be out there, because it helps point out the fundamental flaws in certain “criticism”. She happens to be wrong on a number of points she attempts to make, and completely misrepresents the games she criticizes in an unfair manner. Video games are also sometimes highly political and while “Chrono Trigger” for the SNES is considered by many the greatest game of all time, it delves very deeply into a lot of politics, including racism, classism, and even climate change. It is not that gamers are against political themes in gaming: it is that they are against it being shoved down their throats, having it be called a “good game” and “good gaming experience” by reviewers who are lecturing them.
This sentiment especially applies when the game ends up being terrible in almost every way, but let’s get back to our friend’s opinion on the matter:

Gaming is too young a medium to have such entrenched conservatism! We all roundly agree that pursuing the “potential” of games is important, for its own sake & for the sake of gamers who need consumer products, but when we actually try to push these potentials here & there, gamers are always the first to be like “nope nope nope”


Actually The First People To Go Nope Nope Nope About Change Are Usually Games Journalists

Not really, most gamers seem to be against people calling them evil because of mean words said by someone online who is associated as a gamer not because they do it in the name of gaming, but because they found someone to be particularly annoying. People pursuing “gamings potential” have often showed a want to remove things they personally despise from gaming creation, such as excessive violence.

At best, it’s a cultural protectionism that’s misplaced. If you want to guard games from hostile influence, then capitalism is a far greater threat. So is our own weird tradition of masculinity. But instead some of us have spent 2 years trying to harass Zoe Quinn off the planet. It’s a woeful misunderstanding of the existential threats we face as a community. But it’s hard, because as I keep saying, Games Are Toys. They have ALWAYS been consumer products. There’s no “cave painting” equivalent of games. It’s not like writing, which let’s anyone create a novel.


There Were Many People Who Hated This Game But Many People Looking Forward To It

There are too many games, and types of games that exist for protectionism to exist, popularity is what “innovators” seem to be concerned about. Depression Quest is not a good game, and yet “innovators” want us to view it as a good game. If anything bad games are being unnecessarily protected from the masses by a group that sees themselves as elites. In regard to our cave paintings many would consider pixel art of Mario quite close to such a thing. As for Zoe Quinn? She was involved in this quite a weird thing to involve yourself when you are against harassment.

There’s no history to reach back to. I appreciate the urge – I feel the fragility of early gamer cultures, in the face of rising popularity & commercial involvement – but the mythical “gamer past” doesn’t hold refuge.

The first video game was made in October 1958 and was similar to Pong. The gamer past does in fact hold refuge, people still play the original Pac-Man, to this day, as well as Pong. The “Gamer Past” is alive, vibrant, and well. Tetris also says hello. These are games with, not only historical merit, but they are also used by many game devs to this day as tools to learn from.


One Of The Older Games In Our Gaming History With Nearly 500 Million Sold

We should be demanding a consumer landscape as diverse & interesting as gaming ACTUALLY is, which we can all see pretty clearly w/ the “indie renaissance” & the subcultural small-dev team tradition turning out industry-changers like Minecraft.
You can do a LOT of shit w/ games, for any kind of person, but instead we keep trying to hammer our commercial offerings into “game-like” games that all follow the same boring, iterative process that gaming TECH follows.
Game, sequel sequel sequel. Add copious DLC. Microtransactions where possible. Reboot, start over.
Selling the same thing back to us w/ small incremental improvements. That’s consumer tech, that’s not gaming. Gaming is supposed to be INTERESTING.

Gaming is already interesting though, and quite diverse as a simple search in Steam would tell you. As for your problem what you seem to be looking for is for developers to create games that allow people to get something out of a video game other than entertainment. This is not very difficult to control but to create something like that would require a game dev to be making something that isn’t quite a video game anymore. Games that have attempted this type of thing were not good and that didn’t impart anything to other video games because the idea did not perform well.
Many of the reasons we see Call of Duty over and over again, as well as its various clones, is because they continue to perform well and are an in demand product. In many ways the reason you keep seeing the same iteration of video games is because gamers are practically commissioning their re-creation through massive sales of the most popular games.


As Much As I Don’t Really Like This Series As Much As Other Games, It Is Wildly Popular

Which is WHY, to bring it around finally, I want them to “learn Marx.” I don’t want them to SPECIFICALLY read Karl Marx, I mean I want them to study to theoretical complexities of the systems that govern them.
Economics, politics, culture, etc. That’s pretty dry stuff & most ppl are busy, I get that, but why didn’t GAMES impart any of this?
& if they didn’t impart any of that, what DID they impart instead? These are questions gamers should want, but instead we’ve always reacted w/ hostility to anyone asking them.
That made sense back in the days of Jack Thompson vs GTA3, but as gamergate unfortunately showed, it’s an instinct that’s outgrown its usefulness. Now it’s a liability.

Games impart entertainment, much like movies, books and music do. Anything that is additionally imparted happens either by accident or through a deliberate effort made by an individual: to discover a deeper meaning in what they have just observed. If I were to watch Saving Private Ryan the primary goal of those who made the movie was to entertain me. Anything additional I got out of the movie came from my own observation or looking deeper into it.
As for you argument about GamerGate being effective in the days of Jack Thompson, Jack Thompson’s identical arguments are being used in the current “critical environment” for video games. Part of the problem with the people who are “just asking questions” is that they aren’t just asking questions, they are simultaneously accusing gaming, and gamers of some existential wrong doing.

In your opinion then would this actually make games more interesting though or simply different?

There’s no meaningful distinction between those two things. Interesting =/= good, or enjoyable, or fun, but those aren’t necessary conditions for a good game.
Same as they aren’t for movies etc.

This is the root of the problem for people who want to innovate and make video games that teach something, it doesn’t make for a good or appreciated game most of the time.


It Tried To Teach Something But Ended Up Being Fairly Average

This is the interesting thing though. Assuming games as art, what does, in a more traditional sense of art such as painting, sculptures etc. really teach us as opposed to illiciting emotional responses and leaving a potential learning impact?

Nothing. Imitating these forms is all games really ever do
Videogame art is made of the stuff only GAMES can really do.

Most “good” videogames are applauded for how they reflect these existing media’s successes in slightly different ways. CoD4’s retelling of Enemy at the Gates & Saving Private Ryan & a few other cinematic inspirations Mass Effect’s attempts to be a bigass interactive movie.

They do a good job, but this is all safe-bet, imitation production focused on return-on-investment. Bare minimum in terms of innovation.

What do you think video games have to do to be truly innovative than? What would an example be of something you find truly innovative?

I thought Papers, Please was pretty great, if you want one specific example.
It utilised the nature of videogames to craft a perspective that wouldn’t really have worked in any other medium.

In that sense, it was interested. It encouraged the player to really think about the experience of public service, civil unrest, bureaucracy, totalitarianism. By plonking the player in the middle of those things, & incorporating them INTO the gameplay experience.


Quite Entertaining But More Games Like Papers Please, That Are Good And Successful, Would Be Difficult

Here is where we get into the meat of the argument. These games are being made, they already exist, but not every video game can also be Papers Please. That game ended up working because of how it was designed, and while it did sell over 1.8 million copies which is phenomenal, when you compare that to a game like Grand Theft Auto 5 selling over 60 million copies or Tetris having over the years sold nearly 500 million copies or paid downloads: it starts looking insignificant, even tough it isn’t.

But a game like Papers Please is an exception for both being different and unique as well as inovative, it is not the rule. Unlike a game like Minecraft, which has clones everywhere, you are unlikely to see many clones of Papers Please that can pull off exactly what it managed to do; because making a game like it is not an easy task while also being entertaining.

Easy example: any Metal Gear Solid. Not exactly a secret that game’s popular among critics. Because it makes you THINK ABOUT VIDEOGAMES. Hideo is always fucking w/ our understanding of what games should be about, how they should tell stories, what different representations mean.

But MGS is a freak occurrence that mostly got big by being too subtle in the irony department for fans to notice. But they still noticed Raiden, for example. Fuckin went off.
Just like we all did over the ending of Mass Effect 3. Those were still good games, but the simple experience of not getting exactly what you want is apparently unacceptable to many consumers of videogames & that’s a depressing inability to deal w/ change. We ignored this trend, ultimately resulting in gamergate. A reactionary movement fundamentally opposed to change itself w/in videogames.


The Controversy Over Mass Effect 3 Was About Far More Then Gamers Not Getting What They Wanted

This is the primary problem with the argument of wanting to implement a learning experience into video games: those trying to do so think gamers have a problem with change, which is why they believe these games are not succeeding. If the game is not something someone wants, why should they be forced to say it is good? Why should they be berated by critics and reviewers for being the supposed problem, in the gaming industry, for not liking a certain game?

Not getting what they want is also a poor representation of the Mass Effect 3 controversy. Fans were promised that their decisions would greatly impact the endings of the game and the endings simply were nothing like what the developers promised: I know, I watched them. Not all change is good, and video games that are not good are not going to be received well by gamers.
Claiming also that GamerGate is opposed to change in video games is quite an odd sentiment to have. If anything they seem to be heavily against political agendas influencing the gaming scene, as opposed to being against change in the actual products: which is an entirely different issue in and of itself.

Overall change in video games can be a good thing: as creative stagnation in the past has shown time and again that entertainment media needs to stay pliable to remain viable.
But in many cases those who are fighting and yelling the loudest for change to occur, such as my friend here or people like Anita Sarkeesian and Jack Thompson, seem to believe that to achieve their desired change also seems to come with a demand for the creation of games they view as the problem to halt. However most good video games, like any example of good art, don’t easily come about if you control the hand of the artists too much.

(Editors Note: @Soul_James does not approve of wanting to ban any form of video game for any ideological reasons.)

Joshua Wiitala

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Just a man who has been playing video games against doctors orders for nearly 30 years. The 80's was filled with idiots. Want to reach me? @JoshuaWiitala on Twitter.