So, I’ve decided to create a new tag for a new series, called “Social Justice vs Games”. The purpose of this tag is not to argue that Social Justice concepts and ideas are inherently opposed to games in some way, either by opposing the concept of what a game is or by opposing some kind of gamer culture or to argue that adding any of the things that those who argue in the name of “Social Justice” want added to games will make games worse, as that’s patently untrue. No, the purpose of this is to oppose the assumption made both by Social Justice advocates and by some of the media that support them that there is, in fact, no possible conflict between the demands of Social Justice and the demands of games themselves, and that therefore all good gamers ought to accept and support the demands of Social Justice. In short, it is to oppose the idea that there is never any kind of forced choice between a “Socially Just” game and a good game. Sometimes, trying to bring Social Justice ideals to a game clashes with the elements that make it a good game, and so sometimes a maximally Socially Just game will just be an inferior game than if it instead focused on just being a really, really good game.
And so, to start with, let me use as my first example a game that I’ve talked about tangentially before, “Rust”. Essentially, this game is being lauded in the media as a grand social experiment, in what I’d say is the grand Social Justice tradition. They started out with only having white male avatars, and then added black male avatars … but the players couldn’t choose which race they were assigned, and since it was based on their Steam accounts every single character they created would have that race. And people protested, and the responses were met with essentially glee from those on the “Social Justice” end, talking about how it was nice to see “bigots” made uncomfortable and that this was a great experiment that would prove … something, I guess. Anyway, they later added gender, and again had that be assigned randomly and tied to your Steam identity. And there were protests. And people responded. P.Z. Myers said in the title to this post that “It’s good to have your identity shaken up sometimes”, and comments in that thread again relate it to being a great experiment and chortle at how good it is for them to tick off the misogynists. To be fair, some of the ones who are crying about it probably are, but they make no distinction between those people and the people who are reasonably annoyed at it because, well, it forces the race and gender of your character on you. (Which is, in fact, the main reason why right now I have absolutely no interest in that game).
They’ll reply to that with “But it doesn’t matter when they force you to play as a white male, does it? That’s okay, isn’t it? And that’s the whole problem: the default is white male. This changes that!”. And to reply to that, let me get into what character customization means to games and why it’s been a consistent demand from gamers for quite some time to allow for it. The general idea is this: a game is much more fun and entertaining the more you can make the character the way you want that character to be. If you want the character to be like yourself, you can. If you want it to be completely different from you, you can. If you want to model it on your favourite TV character, you can. Even in a linear story where your choices have little impact, just this switch in perspective can make the game seem fresh and new, or make it seem like you yourself are really in the game. Given this, the argument is that a game ought to let players customize their characters as much as they can unless they have a really good reason. For a lot of games, that really good reason was technical (which is likely and I hope the reason that “Rust” started with only white male avatars). For other games, the reason is the detailed story built around that specific character (JRPGs tend to follow this model) which means that you can’t really let the player customize who they are too much, although JRPGs like the Persona games with a silent protagonist are trying to do that a bit.
So, does “Rust” have such a good reason? Well, since they now allow for different races and genders, it can’t be a technical limitation anymore. And “Rust” does not have a strong and detailed, character-driven story that justifies removing character customization. So all it has is an appeal to realism — ie that you wouldn’t get to choose your race and gender in the real world — or an appeal to the experiment, that it’d be an interesting way to experience what people of other races and genders experience.
Now, if I oppose the former on the basis that games aren’t supposed to be about the real world, people will protest that that is an argument used to justify sexism and racism in games, and so my argument would be invalid. Fortunately, my appeal on that score will always be to what makes a better game, not to what works for a Social Justice viewpoint, and so I won’t be trying to justice keeping those things in on the basis of “That’s the way the world is” because games have as at least one of if not their primary purposes the ability to escape from the real world. Nobody plays games to experience exactly what they do in real life; even the closest games to this like “The Sims” are typically used for more than that. So since I want to escape from my life, giving me the ability to do that makes the game better. But this also has to be under the control of the player, so that they can decide how different they want it to be and how similar they want it to be to their real life. They can do that by choosing their genre, style of game and, yes, their character. So the argument for “realism” is clearly one that simply hides what is really happening: the removal of control from the player. But the more control you give a player to shape their own experience with a game, the more fun it is and the better game. So taking away control that they could give because it is more “realistic” makes it a worse game.
So the only argument left is the social experiment angle, which might produce results that Social Justice advocates will find useful and interesting. Unfortunately I — and, I think, most people — don’t play games to participate in social experiments. We play games to have fun. And being able to create and control my own character is more fun than not being able to, unless you provide something that provides sufficient “fun” to compensate. The ability for me to experience what it might be like to be treated as someone who is black or is a woman isn’t, in fact, sufficient compensation because if the game offered the choice of race and gender I’d be able to do that if I wanted to. If I found it less fun or wasn’t in the mood for that, I could just hop onto another character that didn’t have that quality and come back to it later. So, for these purposes, offering the choice works better for me at an individual level. It’s only if there’s some benefit from forcing the choice on people can you justify not allowing the choice, but then it’s hard to see how that make the game more fun for individual players.
From that angle, this isn’t even a very good social experiment, as people who are black, say, might be pushed into playing white characters which the Social Justice side says happens far too often as it is and those that the Social Justice side says need to be pushed into playing as characters that are not them — typically, white males — might still roll up a white male. No, about the only use for this experiment is not in it being in the game itself, but instead in saying that it’s being done and seeing what the reactions are, and who sides with them and who opposes it, and using what arguments. Which is what it’s doing, I suppose, but that doesn’t really say anything about the game. And the lack of customization makes it an inferior game.
“Rust” and its system may be valuable to Social Justice advocates, but it’s hard to see what it adds to games as either an entertainment medium or even as a work of art. If its system was adopted broadly, it would produce inferior games … which is precisely the reason why it won’t be.