Facing Our Representation in Society

I was part of the 2010 battle against Brown v. EMA, the Supreme Court case that would have resulted in the loss of First Amendment rights for video games and interactive media if lost by criminalizing the sale of games deemed violent to minors, essentially equating them to alcohol and tobacco. From a semiotic perspective, this is obviously wrong, labeling creative works under the signifier “societally harmful” is idiotic in self-explanatory ways. I wrote petitions to Congress and AB 1179’s creator, California State Senator Leland Yee, canvassing signatures at my school and in the local neighborhood, telling passerby about the stakes of the case and what it would mean for the industry if lost. Over the course of a few days, I accrued well over 200 signatures. I received responses from the senator’s office and we met to discuss the issue some weeks later.

We didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye. My interest in the artistic and cultural value of games informed my justification for their protection and preservation. The Senator, a former child psychologist, was more concerned about the potential for psychological harm that games could do onto young players. In retrospect, it would have seemed that we conversed about two completely different things.

I think there’s a better way to face controversy than clumsily defend ourselves.

Months passed, and the Supreme Court ruled to support AB 1179’s revocation. Gamers represented by the Entertainment Consumers Association and developers represented by the Entertainment Software Association celebrated. The First Amendment’s protections now encompassed video games. At that time, we believed that the debate over game violence was over. By July 2011, when the court’s ruling was announced, I was tired of defending games. I had done extensive research and canvassing, wrote a biweekly series of articles on my previous blog, and proselytized the merits of games everywhere I went. “Great, its settled,” I thought to myself, “Time to move on.”

But it wasn’t time to move on.

As a participant in game culture, I don’t feel represented in mainstream news media. It would seem that whenever video games are brought up on the news networks, it is almost universally in a negative light. Go to Google News and type in the phrase “video games”, and count off the number of stories that frame games as negatively. It’s almost aggravating to think that these are the stories that inform much of the world’s thinking about video games. While more people than ever are playing games, the wider societal conversation about the medium has barely changed.

Whenever we see representatives from the industry brought onto the news networks, they are almost always put in a defensive position. Being asked to argue why games aren’t harmful to society, rather than how they do good. If the only message we can broadcast to the greater world is that “we’re not harmful”, what does that then say about our medium? If the only thing that society thinks of video games is “not harmful”, how can we count on society to defend the industry when its brought under scrutiny? If the only thing we bring to the talk shows is “there’s no conclusive proof”, how does that frame us in the eyes of the world?

The G4C Festival continues to do great things as it emerges from the fringes of academia.

Something needs to change about the conversation going around video games.

Instead of defending video games when they’re under fire, it’s time for us to move to the offensive. This is time for us to show the best we can do. It is time for us to tell the story of how we learned to read by playing Pokemon. The story of how a loosely-connected fandom united to create a sophisticated and renowned fighter. The story of how an elementary school in San Francisco taught Ancient Egyptian history and culture through Minecraft. Of how a high school theology program turned to Mass Effect and Fallout to describe the divide between moral deontology and teleology, as well as moral absolutism and relativism. Of how a first-person shooter inspired tangential learning about postmodern literature, aburdist theater, and quantum physics.

I can attest to these stories because I was, in one way or another, personally connected to each of them. To change the conversation, we must educate the public and politicians about the myriad merits of video games. This is especially important in light of the Sandy Hook tragedy: as a society, we must do far better to honor the young lives that were lost that day than scapegoat and bicker amongst ourselves. We cannot honor the lost by creating negativity in the world, we can only do so by creating good.

I’m not here to argue that we’re not beyond self-questioning or self-reform, especially given the conversation over gender at GDC, there’s a lot we need to move past as the limits of our medium rapidly expand. And I’m especially not here to defend violent games, one look at a violent combat segment out of context from recent games, and it becomes easy to understand why pundits paint the medium as a cesspool of puerile savagery. All I’m trying to say is that when the term “video games” come up in the media, they shouldn’t be associated with the bleak miasma of sadness and cynicism that we’ve come to expect, but rather shine a light of joy and levity to break continuous chains of consistently dark stories. We’ve been having the same conversations about gaming for forty years, its time to move on.

James Portnow, writer of Extra Credits, is attempting to lead the charge with his Games for Good project

To achieve this will take work.

James Portnow, writer of the Extra Credits web series, is running a crowdfunded campaign on Rockethub to change the memetics around games through education and information. The campaign is called Games for Good, and if successful, Portnow will spend the next year lobbying in Washington to stop anti-game legislation and change the way grants are provided for game projects that do social good. A major stretch goal, set at $75,000, will allow the project to hire a PR firm to promote the idea and make sure the industry is consistently sending off a positive message to the world.

I’m certain I’m not the only one who cringes every time I see biased or misleading information about games appear in the mainstream media, nor am I the only one who has had their moral upworthiness questioned when introduced to new people. So, if you believe its time to move past negativity and bring genuine smiles to peoples’ days, check out Portnow’s Rockethub campaign. Rockethub works much like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, so if you find yourself unable to contribute financially, you can still help the project by sharing it with your friends. Games for Good is a matter of memetics, and it posits that we can change the predominant ideas around games and celebrate them as an important facet of our culture. Together, maybe we can.

Here’s the link again: http://www.rockethub.com/projects/25243

Thoughts on Surgeon Simulator 2013 and The Future

So if you haven’t heard, there’s been this weird little indie game that has been going around Steam recently called Surgeon Simulator 2013. It originated as a project made at the 2013 Global Game Jam, and currently, its one of the most talked about games online, and received critical acclaim, numerically beating out recently released AAA titles like God of War: Ascension, Gears of War: Judgement, and Crysis 3.


Let’s take a look at what I just said there. This was a game made at a Global Game Jam, a series of relatively underground 48-hour game making competitions. Most games that get created at these events get played only by the friends and family of participants (at least in my brief time partaking in these events). The game defies any notion of what we’d think would merit commercial success and critical acclaim: Surgeon Simulator 2013 is an interactive joke, much like QWOP, it utilizes frustrating controls and silly physics to create hilarity. The game is short, cheap, and deliberately makes counterintuitive game design decisions. By previous measures of rationality, the game should have everything working against it, I can’t think of any Global Game Jam project that received substantial coverage on Kotaku.

And critics are reviewing the game higher than Crysis 3 and Gears of War: Judgement. Mainstream ones too, not the alt-indie leaning sites like Polygon and Destructoid, sites like IGN and Gamespot are doling out these surprising scores. I’m against Metacritic, but color me legitimately surprised and impressed.

Maybe this is a sign of what’s happening with mainstream tastes in games. 2012, a banner year for indie games with the dominance of games like Journey, FEZ, and FTL signified that with the right attention and funding, oddball experimental games can achieve riotous success, even going so far as to sweep the GDC and BAFTA award shows. Maybe the success of Surgeon Simulator is going to push the indie games movement even further.

Surgeon Simulator is an interactive joke. A really good one.

Journey and The Unfinished Swan owed their success to an aggressive experimental gameplay push by Sony, FEZ got its start with a grant by the Canadian government, and FTL jumped into the hearts of gamers with a successful Kickstarter campaign. Surgeon Simulator 2013 got off as a game jam project developed in a span of 48 hours. Kotaku took notice and shared it with their gleeful audience. Someone posted it on Reddit, and the game went viral. Motivated by the reception, the developers decided to push the game further by spending another two months in development.

Think about that for a while. Think about how crazy that would have sounded only three years ago.

Here, we have a game produced without the funding of anyone, not even a Kickstarter campaign. Only the developer’s own funding goes into creating the game, the game is completed over the course of two months. Gamespot, of all sources, goes crazy over the game and rates it higher than the loud, expensive AAA games that people used to get hyped up about.

Cart Life: A Poverty Simulator

Things have changed.

This is the bold new world that gaming is about to enter. The mainstream success of a humble game-jam game, the expansion of mainstream tastes to encompass things like interactive jokes and empathy games, the kind of stuff that Ian Bogost describes better in How to Do Things With Videogames, the fatigue consumers express towards contemporary AAA games, the rise of alternative distribution methods, Ouya, Indie Bundles, Dys4ia and Cart Life at the IGF, and an art-game’s dominance at the DICE awards all point towards one thing.

Ludus Florentis, the movement that James Portnow predicted in his 2009 Gamasutra post. An unprecedented flowering of games characterized by a newfound diversity of developers, genres, subject matters, and development scales. While this movement has already been going on for a while, what Surgeon Simulator proves is that consumers are welcoming, even embracing, this change. In the new world that we’re entering, there will be room for expressive metaphors for life, economic simulations of impoverished people, and yes, even interactive jokes about butterfingered surgeons.