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Social justice in video games: what went wrong?

This post has not been edited by the GamesBeat staff. Opinions by GamesBeat community writers do not necessarily reflect those of the staff.

To an outsider, the video game community may appear to consist of childish and immature antics involving sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and the like. To a certain extent, that is true, and probably always will be, but for those who care to give their attention may notice how the gaming community has in fact matured over the years in regard to these subjects. While these various forms of unacceptance are still prominent within the community, they are not, by any means, widely accepted. Video game critics, Youtube commentators, and journalists alike have all stepped up to the plate to voice their concerns and defend those who are all too often targeted by those unwilling to accept people outside of their social comfort zones. Critiques of race and gender equality, as well as LGBT acceptance have since risen to prominence, not only in regards to gamers, but developers and other industry figures as well. This can be seen as one of the positive ways in which the video games industry has matured as a whole (or in the process of maturing, rather). However, these social justice viewpoints do not come without their negative aspects.

Back in March of this year, during his review of “God of War Ascension”, Adam Sessler pointed out something that he perceived to be harmfully sexist. Was he in the right?

A controversial statement in itself, isn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, race and gender equality, as well as acceptance towards the LGBT community are among the most important issues, not only in the video games industry, but in all of media. However, I feel as though these issues are often dealt with in a less than productive fashion, and often hinder progress in result rather than push it forward.

To put things plainly: standing up against instances of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia is needed in times where these issues are prominent, which unfortunately, is all too often. But if one were to enter a situation- any situation- with a social justice-type mindset already firmly in place, he or she may find themselves seeking these issues where they do not inherently exist.

Please allow me to specify, with what is probably the most relevant example of this for the time being: the recently released crime-based sandbox game from Rockstar Games: Grand Theft Auto V. While this title has received a substantial amount of praise from gamers and critics alike, as well as breaking records in sales numbers, the gaming press and community has not been without its complains towards the game’s content. The issues had with the title involve accusations, mostly of racism and sexism. Does GTAV include racism and sexism in its gameplay and narrative? Depending on how you look at it…yes it does. One of the main protagonists and player controlled characters of the game, Franklin, has often been criticized as a racial stereotype. Is Franklin a racial stereotype? He absolutely is. There’s no denying that, but what about the other characters of the game’s narrative? Is Michael (one of the other player controlled protagonists) a stereotypical portrayal of a rich, white male with a lacking amount of morale? Is Trevor (the third player character) a stereotypical, violent American “redneck”? What about the supporting characters and/or the random pedestrians of the game? Stereotypical, nerds, hipsters, gamers, and other social classes are also portrayed in the same exact manner.

gta5_5The three main protagonists and player characters of GTAV (from left to right): Trevor, Franklin, and Michael, can all be seen as some form of social stereotype, depending on a certain point of view.

The other most widespread complaint about GTAV is its portrayal of women. Various gamers, critics, and commentators have voiced their concerns regarding the fact that there is not a single strong, independent, positive female character in the entirety of the game. This is true. Almost every single female character in this game is either, a stripper, a prostitute, or in the case of the characters Amanda and Tracy De Santa (character Michael’s wife and daughter), unproductive burdens who accomplish little aside from making the protagonist’s life a living hell. Yes, these are stereotypical and negative portrayals of women, but let’s think about how male characters are portrayed in GTAV. Isn’t it also true that there is not a single male character is presented in this game as a positive archetype? In truth, pretty much every male character in this game is shown to be a hypocritical, murdering, criminal or corrupt authority figure with little to no moral values. All in all, there are no positive portrayals of any type of person in Grand Theft Auto 5 whatsoever, and why is that exactly? Because, GTAV is meant to be presented as a satire on the state the way human beings in general live their lives. Does this include racism and sexism? Of course it does, because these things exist in the real world. If anything, GTAV is simply poking fun at what the writers perceive in throughout their real lives.

gta-5-art

GTAV player character Michael’s children, Tracy and Jimmy, are both portrayed in the same negative manner, regardless of their gender.

Personally, I feel as though many have failed to see this. It really appears as though a good portion of the gaming community and press were focused on finding negativity in this title, which in turn, kept them from realizing the bigger picture. On another note, I managed to stumble across another article, which makes a separate but similar point regarding these subjects, which you can view by clicking here.

Now, of course the point I’m trying to convey does not just involve Grand Theft Auto 5, but a good majority of the gaming community and industry in recent years. I, in no way, shape, or form, will deny that racism, sexism, and acceptance of the LGBT community in any type of media are very important issues, if not the most important in these times. The problem I have is that when people are constantly maintaining a social justice attitude, and applying it to nearly every type of media they consume, they may often be finding themselves constantly digging for controversy rather than simply enjoying a video game. After all, enjoyment is what videogames are all about. Being able to take part in a unique narrative and accomplish goals and tasks outside of the constraints of everyday life.

Marcus Beer gives his (rather controversial, but honest) views on social justice attitudes in gaming. Do you agree with him?

So, while racism, sexism, and all forms of unacceptance still exist to this day, I could almost guarantee you that the majority of video game writers and developers do have any racist, sexist, or homophobic intentions while creating and manufacturing our games (with a few obvious exceptions, of course). Video games are consumable media. The creators of that media have their own creative visions and will portray them in whichever way they see fit. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to play it.

Personally, when faced with real life instances of racial, gender, and LGBT central issues, I do in fact feel that it is important to come to the defense of those being targeted, because all human beings should be entitled to the same rights, and same amount of respect as each other. These types of discrimination are not acceptable by any means in this day and age. Still, I think it’s important for people to choose their battles wisely and avoid making things more controversial than they really need to be.


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