Reactions …

So, I was watching Chuck Sonnenburg’s review of Technobabylon and had an interesting reaction to it. At one point, the two detective characters are investigating the murder of a married couple, and a flashback shows that the couple is a same-sex couple. And I found myself rolling my eyes and thinking “Of course”, in precisely the same way that I react to clearly pandering attempts to appeal to vocal minority/special interest groups. Except … that wasn’t an obvious case of that. Sure, it’s clearly an attempt to portray that sort of relationship, but since those things happen having it just be in the story shouldn’t have been enough to trigger that sort of reaction. Now, later, Chuck talks about how one of the characters is trans, Asian, lesbian and probably one or two other things as well, which does justify that sort of reaction, but why was I reacting to that there? I’d never played the game and there wasn’t anything that really stood out before that, and my reaction to the revelation that the lesbian character was a lesbian only garnered a “Huh” reaction, so why did that jump out at me? I won’t give myself credit for having seen the obvious pattern and so came to the right conclusion from the subtle signs, so why did I react that way when, objectively, I had no reason to?

I think the reaction comes from the current context around discussions of these sorts of issues. Currently, any game that isn’t seen as being “diverse” enough is criticized, and any game or media that is seen as “inclusive” is praised for being that rarest of the rare and doing something great and modern and sticking it to the Gamergaters and all of that crap. Sure, many of the sites I read — who for the most part aren’t gaming focused, interestingly enough — take on that mindset so I see it more often than a Not-So-Casual Gamer should, but it’s still prevalent in the media and in the discourse. And thus when I see something like that appearing in a game or other work my first reaction is to think that it’s there only to appeal to that market, stifle those criticisms, or because the designers or studios are led by SJW-types who think it is important to make sure that’s in there. And that might be unfair, but more often than not, given the state we’re in, it’s also often right.

And I think this sort of backlash explains some of the public reactions to recent movies and games and the like. From what I can tell, “Wonder Woman” didn’t get the same sort of backlash that the revamped “Ghostbusters” did, and when it did it was more from the women who were going on about how “empowered” it made them feel and somehow knowing what men had been feeling all this time — when most men generally didn’t feel anything like that from the male-led movies — than criticism over it being a female-led movie. And the strongest reactions I’ve seen to “Ghost in the Shell” are from the Social Justice side criticizing it for “white-washing” a character that might well have been white originally, not from people complaining that it had a female lead. Besides Sony and the producers/directors doubling-down on the sexism claims, I think one of the main reasons for the difference in reaction is that neither of those could be seen as pandering. If DC was going to start up a DCCU and do a Justice League movie, Wonder Woman had to be there and had to get a movie of her own. And Ghost in the Shell had always had a female lead, so the adaptation doing that only made sense. But when Ghostbusters did it, there was no reason to think that it wasn’t just pandering, and given the context it seemed pretty likely that that was the reason for it … which may or may not have been the case originally. So the same thing applies to my reaction: I had no reason to think that it wasn’t pandering, so it immediately struck me as pandering given the context that pandering is seen as a good thing by so many people.

So, it seems to me that saturating the landscape with these comments and criticisms and demands is a bad thing, and so the people who actually want more diversity in games would do themselves a huge favour by being more selective when they talk about this. The problem is that if they don’t talk about these things, no one will hear about them and so no one will do anything about them. So they’d have to walk a fine line between mentioning it enough and loudly enough that people will pay attention to them and being so loud and constant that they annoy people. However, I can say that this quote from a review by Carolyn Petit of Tacoma at “Feminist Frequency” is absolutely not the way to go about it:

Tacoma feels bold not just in its speculation about technological advancements, but also in its assumption of a present in which stories with a cast of six people and nary a straight white man in sight can elevate everyone’s humanity. So often when I express the need for broader, better representations in games, I’m met with a response that’s some sarcastic variation on “Sure, why don’t we make a game about a queer black Muslim bisexual trans woman?” As if such a character is inherently less human, less deserving of being the center of a story than a straight white cis man.

Tacoma features a black woman, a Muslim woman, and a queer Asian man, among others, and the humanity of every character is incidental, fully assumed and fully granted by each of the others; the game is full of conflict but none of that conflict is rooted in the specifics of anyone’s gender, race, or sexuality. The game envisions a future in which discussions like the one I’m having right now no longer need to happen, because everyone’s humanity is fully recognized. I look forward to the day when we no longer need to praise a game, film, or TV show simply for who it dares to be about, but although Tacoma imagines such a day, and although we need visions of what that day might look like, we’re not there yet.

A review that is praising diversity in a game for deliberately excluding white men is not, in fact, going to help. First, it’s going to draw attention to that fact, which will lead people to think that it’s pandering. Second, it’s highlighting there not being any white males as a benefit, which strikes against diversity. And third, the over-the-top praise for doing gives an incentive for game companies to do it and thus pander to these interests, giving an inherent reason to think that the company really is just pandering. All in all, all this will do is get people to notice these things and roll their eyes at the shameless pandering.

And the sad thing is that I expect that if I had simply picked up and played Tacoma — which I haven’t — without reading the view I wouldn’t have noticed that there wasn’t a white male character, and if I had it wouldn’t have bothered me, and that that would hold true for a large number of gamers. After all, it didn’t bother me in Fatal Frame, or with the female characters I played in Mass Effect, Dragon Age, The Old Republic and, well, most games I play, and I don’t recall there being this reaction to those games or to Silent Hill 3, which had Heather as the main character. Outside of this context, if the game and/or characters are good few people will care if they are a white male or whatever. It’s when the context is poisoned by either the game or the media making a big deal out of it that it starts to look like pandering and the seams start to appear.

Even if they aren’t there.

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