‘I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think it is unequal to me.’
VS Naipaul, upstanding citizen
Observing any sub-culture at work, especially one that you are not part of, can be a baffling experience. The language may be different, the priorities alien, and the historical context might seem totally insurmountable – especially considering how much of it there usually is, even in relatively young forms of entertainment. Sub-cultures are commonly misrepresented as a result, and usually factor into moral panics as scapegoats. One thinks of rap, hip-hop, emo music, death metal; and before that, comic books, rock’n’roll, jazz, the written word. The list is exhaustive; just about every new and disruptive system of communication or entertainment has been subjected to the moral panic treatment. But, at least in the last twenty years, no sub-culture has generated as much ire, or drawn as much criticism, as the gaming community.
Very little in the world of interactive entertainment is necessarily worse than anything that happens outside it. Sexual content is usually demure, and certainly not made interactive. Technological limitations also make it difficult for games to portray violence realistically. Most of the furore over this aspect of the medium comes from the fact of interactivity, not the scale of gore, which is typically low. But the limitations of technology have wrought other, more meaningful consequences on the medium. It has meant that, quite unlike any other form of art, video games tend to be at a clear disadvantage when telling a story. Interactivity is a blessing and a curse – making enough branching paths to make good on the promise of choice is an almost impossible burden. Because it is so difficult, most games shy away from it; and the most popular genres continue to be those that involve online, competitive play with other human beings.
Enter some of the most important games in the canon. And not just the most important games, but the most lucrative industries – the burgeoning eSports scene will be worth one and a half to two billion dollars by 2020. This is a staggering responsibility for a newly normalized part of the entertainment industry. Different titles may come and go, but the core interest remains the same – games that are visually interesting to watch, with huge amounts of potential divergence match to match, tend to be the most popular. This is no different to regular sport. Neither is the assembling of teams, the acquisition of sponsorship, the arenas, the spectacle, the commentary – this world is increasingly looking less and less like a basement community, and more and more like a mature format for general entertainment. After all, when two people have guns pointed at each other, what else is there to understand, really?
One franchise, however, has managed to avoid the eSports scene entirely, despite being one of the largest in the gaming world. It’s called Battlefield, and, although it is sixteen years old, has never managed to become a competitive title like its peers. For one, the matches require far too many players – as many as sixty four – which makes assembling professional teams fiscally impossible. It is certainly interesting to watch, but since the maps are so large, it would become a curator’s worst nightmare; having to dart from perspective to perspective ad nausea would quickly wear viewers out. The most popular eSports games tend to be five versus five or fewer, and play out on smaller maps which are better known to its fans. In catering for a certain type of experience, the Battlefield games have sacrificed a presence in the competitive world.
But there is one space in which the series has very recently taken centre stage. As with any large community in the 21st century, the vast reaches of the internet tend to be obsessed with identity politics. Politicized discussions are far more common than they used to be. The loudest and angriest voices, usually obsessed with the identity sphere, tend to be the most risible, and are almost always directed against women. This targeted abuse of women, in all its forms, from benign to horrifying, has found a strong platform in the sad men who would choose to propagate it. They bring the whole community down. Now, even the Battlefield franchise, venerable as it is, has found itself caught up in this dark mire – the latest victim in a long line of misplaced judgement.
The latest entry in the series, entitled Battlefield V, was revealed to the public this year ahead of its release, and was met with a withering barrage of criticism. Some of it was warranted. The publisher responsible, EA, did release a fairly poor trailer. And some core features of the title were badly misrepresented. Its setting, the Second World War, is the same as was used in the very first title in the series; so the expectations were high for a nostalgic return to form. Then, all of a sudden, and quite contrary to good taste, the conversation shifted from critique to mania, as a woman soldier in a British service uniform is revealed to the viewer, and is understood to factor into gameplay as an element. The developers intended that people should be able to choose the gender of their soldier at the outset. It was innocuous enough; certainly in line with the current thinking about representation, and an easy change to factor into their highly fictionalized depiction of war. But if you know anything about internet men, you know that things went somewhat south for the whole endeavour after that point.
Special conditions of outrage that apply to women and not to men are nothing new. But in the case of Battlefield V, and even before they had actually seen the game in action, the cause célèbre for the community was a feature that only had a cosmetic bearing on the game, and certainly wouldn’t be considered controversial by anyone looking in from the outside. As with any cause that attracts the ire of internet men, the gauntlet was not about to be retracted for any reason whatever. DICE, who developed the game, and EA, who publish the franchise, did not apologize, and even if they had, the torrent wouldn’t have stopped anyway. In this space, once thrown, the gauntlet is irretrievable, whether one intended to throw it or not.
The phenomenon isn’t anything new. Female game developers are frequently hounded for their efforts. Female games journalists are constantly second guessed in their reportage and opinions. And if you should, god forbid, introduce a feminist perspective into the mix, as Anita Sarkeesian did, then you’d better hope you’ve never posted your address online. Sarkeesian, a critic and essayist, became the centre of targeted abuse from the gaming community after a fundraising campaign for one of her projects proved extremely successful. No good attention goes unpunished on the internet, it seems.
Some time after, and as part of a separate scandal, she was again roped into controversy, when a broken down love affair caused abuse to be hurled at two women who were somehow part of a man’s scorned inner circle. Anita was dragged into that as well, probably because she was already a target, and at that point had become something of a shorthand. A shorthand for what, it is still unclear; but she is still producing excellent videos on the subject, so the campaign to shut her up seems to have failed.
Much like Helen’s escape to Troy, the lover’s jeer turned into a massive scandal, and to this day is known by the suffix -gate. I shan’t repeat its name, as it is far too stupid, and I’d like the reader to leave this essay with a shred of dignity intact. Precisely what the whole thing was about is a little hard to ascertain, especially if you are unfamiliar with internet men. There appears to be no real underlying cause for any controversy. A lover’s quarrel is hardly grounds for a public dispute, especially not one which explodes into sub-cultural, and eventually public, consciousness. But the message-board communities and YouTube commentators managed to confect a whirlwind of accusations, ranging from ethics in games journalism, to the relative professionalism of women as a consequence of them apparently being promiscuous, and who would summarily be unable to exercise restraint as a result. Arguments as old as time, really. It is just baffling that such a new, vital medium should reduce itself by using anti-suffrage arguments that are now well over a century old.
Those who are familiar with internet men, however, saw the wood for the trees fairly quickly; and the controversy was seen as worth mocking, even then, for the depth of its banality. A convenience, perhaps, that those women who were sent death and rape threats did not exactly share. The whole affair better resembled a witch hunt, or a mob out for the blood of an opposite religious faction. It was positively medieval in its ignorance. This latest controversy, provided by the backlash to the Battlefield reveal, has proven that the undercurrent of entitled rage has by no means subsided. It has merely lingered out of sight, festering like a boil, and has, unfortunately, morphed into a far more complex disease over time.
The varieties are manifold. Almost in response to those in the LGBTQ community, who have a huge spectrum of identifying markers and pronouns, the self-loathing internet men seem to have come up with their own, unique system – oppositionally reverse in both intention and intelligence. At the height of this system of categorization is the ‘incel’, a special classification intended for use by particularly enraged men, hell bent on gratifying their failures in the same way that genuinely vulnerable people attempt to secure political safety for themselves. The word is a contraction of ‘involuntary’ and ‘celibacy’, and means exactly that – that these men have identified as people who are actively denied sex. Not people who can’t find sexual partners, mind, but people who are apparently being starved it. For them, sex is seen as something of a right; one they are being denied by callous women who choose not to give it to them.
One might think of the developed world as a settled place for all colours and creeds. It is not, of course, but the point at which we have arrived is the result of a centuries long fight for equity and justice. The predominantly white, male, well educated people who lead these crusades are the same sorts of people who have not once had their existence politically threatened by anyone. One needn’t look too far back to find LGBTQ people bashed, murdered and arrested for their trouble; their sex criminalized; their lifestyles caste into the lowest possible rung, even beneath dirt and animals. The slippery slope argument against gay marriage – that it could lead to human-animal marriage – is one that was being deployed as recently as the Australian plebiscite on the issue. Its implications are fairly clear, and a sign that, much like the undercurrent in the gaming community, the attitudes from some people towards the LGBTQ inclined had not really changed, either – but had lingered, bubbling out of sight. When they were ready to cause harm, it was in the most vicious possible way; and, much like the gaming community, the Australian nation did not emerge from its debate looking like a particularly dignified place for a political conversation.
Historical accuracy was a large part of the argument against the inclusion of women soldiers in Battlefield V. But it is worth noting that the historical accuracy of Battlefield is usually cosmetic, and extreme liberties were taken during their last outing, set during the First World War. It is hardly a touchstone for the series. These cries for historical accuracy masked a far more sinister current. The real thrust of the argument comes from the same place that all such arguments come from – fear – and in this case, a particularly intense fear of the political movements that are currently coalescing to protect women and the vulnerable in all walks of public life. Gamers sometimes refer to these people in blanket terms, and call them ‘social justice warriors’. Fear that these people are taking over the discourse, and therefore changing the narrative, are particularly intense for male gamers, who have always enjoyed a sheltered representation of the world at large. Most of them have been made by men, and usually in their own image, for the better part of thirty years. If it is changing, it is slowly but surely; and not necessarily at the detriment of seeing themselves represented on screen.
The developer of a game, or an author, or director, has liberty to do with a setting whatever he or she will. Impressionism is part of that liberty. A basic creative decision, like gender, is also a part of that liberty, and one that can have an extremely positive effect on the people experiencing a creative work. For the developers, the realization that the reality of war mattered far less than the agency of their players was one that led to the decision they made.
If the game were claiming to be historically accurate, then no, it would not be at liberty to include women British soldiers. It would still be at liberty to include women Soviet soldiers, however; of whom some eight hundred thousand took part in frontline combat. And it would be at liberty to include woman partisan soldiers, and woman German reserve soldiers, and people of every colour imaginable, who all actually fought during the war – Indian, Nepalese, African, Chinese, Vietnamese et al. – but who have not factored into representations of the war, because they were not memorialized in the same way as their comrades. Including these people would not be pandering to a current political ideal. It would just be a more nuanced lens on the reality of the situation.
Most memories of the war, and most of the history from which these fragile men draw, has been inimitably coloured by the prejudiced reflections of those whose job it was to catalogue the conflict in the first place. To look at their archives would be to think that women and subject races never participated in it at all. Much like the historians and archivists of their day, who were concerned with protecting a certain legacy of national pride, the modern men in these inane quarrels better resemble orthodox conservatives; lamenting a changing world that still does, and shall continue to, overwhelmingly benefit them.
There was a time when the cover of just about every major game released in a single year would feature a solitary white man holding a gun. If it is possible to go a year without this being the case, it might be a sure sign that the medium had advanced beyond its childhood, and into a realm where it would be possible to develop into great art. Until such a time as its fans also choose to grow up, it seems unlikely. It will certainly make eSports less palatable, if women feel like they are not welcome in the stadiums, or on the teams, or could not say a word edgewise.
The net benefit of complex representation, empathy, and a broad-ranging well of stories from which to draw is not to the diminishment of their favourite medium. It is the sign of a medium finding a new era of maturity; one that will advance the art, and benefit more of its participants and viewers. It is already happening in film. It is especially happening in literature; and when it is fully integrated into gaming, will make for more complex narratives, different ways of seeing, and many more multifarious colours and creeds. It will be a wonderful splintering of variety and perspective. It might even make better people out of those angry, lonely men, who claim to speak for the gamers whose sole wish is to enjoy the experience of immersion, and not be constantly reminded of the world of silence and secondment that their attitudes once made possible.
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