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