No one understands video games more than gamers. When a gamer picks up a game, he immediately knows how to play it—it’s what sets him apart from the social justice activist who sees the medium as a means to propagate an ideology.
A miserable, but “meaningful” game has more value to it than a game that’s only mindlessly fun—at least to the non-gamer.
Have I mentioned the word “gamer” enough times yet? The point cannot be overstated.
Final Fantasy 7 is the pinnacle of Japanese role-playing games; the ‘90s title defined video game storytelling for millennials, and it’s only a month away from release. Final Fantasy 7 is also a gamer’s game; it’s been on the mind of every gamer since the teaser was released almost a decade ago. It was designed by gamers, for gamers, and it’s just how gamers like it—fun.
To social-justice-in-games activists, however, games should be meaningful, games should be art, games should enact real-world change. Designing them to be pure, mindless “fun” is inimical to producing an overly-didactic experience. A miserable, but “meaningful” game has more value to it than a game that’s only mindlessly fun—at least to the non-gamer.
That’s likely why social justice activists like Carlos Maza and other journalists in the game industry are so keen to politicize Final Fantasy 7. In essence, they want to make it about something other than the game itself. Maza, a leftist activist and champion of deplatforming, described Avalanche (the terrorist organization that Cloud is a part of) as “Antifa.” “Cannot wait to rejoin Avalanche like a good lil antifa superSOLDIER,” he wrote.
For some context, the game is set to parody a showdown between an environmentally rapacious mega-corp and militant ecoterrorism. According to the game’s writers, “the evil Shinra corporation rules the world with an iron fist and continues to spin its web of lies. Have the rebels, known as Avalanche, bitten off more than they can chew?”
The evil Shinra corporation rules the world with an iron fist & continues to spin its web of lies. Have the rebels, known as Avalanche, bitten off more than they can chew?
— FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE (@finalfantasyvii) September 11, 2019
Activists like Carlos Maza and other journalists in the game industry want to focus exclusively on and pick apart the narrative elements of the game, politicize its plot, and appropriate tropes that they think validate their politics. Gamers, of course, couldn’t care either way.
This routine practice of social-justice-in-games types speaks to a broader problem of out-of-touch activists and the politicization of video games. Social justice activists want to turn games into something they’re not—in large part because they harbor a deep hatred of gamers themselves.
ACTIVISTS TAKE ISSUE WITH GAMES THAT SERVICE GAMEPLAY
Final Fantasy 7 is a hot topic for game journalists and social justice activists because it represents everything that defines video games—it’s technically challenging and has a gripping story set in a lived-in universe that players truly feel a part of. It’s a video game that speaks the language of gamers, and it’s one that non-gamers have difficulty parsing.
Partly to blame is how well a game like Final Fantasy 7 leverages gameplay.
Essentially, gameplay is an abstraction made up of loops and repetitions, delivered through the mechanics of a game (like shooting enemies or solving puzzles). In its most simple form, a video game can distribute gameplay in the form of a general loop: gameplay > cutscene > gameplay > cutscene.
On some level, the cutscenes are intended to serve as a reward mechanism, signaling to the player that they have achieved a desired outcome. More advanced games attempt to close the gap and minimize what game designer Clint Hocking calls “ludonarrative dissonance,” or the separation of gameplay from story. Criticizing the game Bioshock, Hocking writes that, “Bioshock seems to suffer from a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story. By throwing the narrative and ludic elements of the work into opposition, the game seems to openly mock the player for having believed in the fiction of the game at all.”
Generally speaking, however, gamers take very little issue with this dissonance because as a reward mechanism, cutscenes only matter in single-player campaigns. It’s like watching most movies—you’ll only really want to see it once. Gamers can spend thousands of hours in Call of Duty, without once giving a single thought as to whether the repeated rounds of battle on the same map is contextualized through a story.
But for those unfamiliar with video games, it’s a deal-breaker. For these players, their experience of the story in which the games are embedded takes primacy. To social-justice-in-games activists, what gamers call “gameplay” is an active hurdle to disseminating their message.
In other words, these people don’t want games to be games.
Chris Kohler, the features editor at the gaming website Kotaku, complained that Final Fantasy 7 was too difficult. “Wow, did that Final Fantasy VII Remake demo actually send my interest plummeting. I have basically zero idea how to play that first boss fight. A million interlocking systems all thrown at you at once,” he wrote.
“Wow, did that Final Fantasy VII Remake demo actually send my interest plummeting. I have basically zero idea how to play that first boss fight. A million interlocking systems all thrown at you at once.”
While at first glance, his remarks may seem innocuous, they are part of the ongoing problem with game journalists who complain about challenge in games, and how it’s a form of gatekeeping. The difficulty in the notoriously “difficult” (it’s really not that hard, I promise) Dark Souls and its spawn, Bloodborne and Sekiro, sparked numerous articles over the years about the lack of an easy mode—some even went as far as to characterize these games without an easy mode “ableist.”
To this crowd, challenging video games are seen as a way for the gaming industry to remain an elite club for people who identify as “gamers,” keeping out the so-called “casuals” who prefer to press the forward button on their gamepads to experience the story without the interruption of gameplay. It’s been a primary contention of game journalists and social-justice-in-games activists for years, who see video games as a potential medium for social justice.
For these activists, they see video games as another medium for narrative expression, and anything that frustrates that expression is an impediment to their political efforts.
THE GREAT REPLACEMENT: SEEKING THE END OF GAMERS
A persistent complaint among social-justice-in-games activists is how unintelligible video games are to non-gamers—i.e., those who don’t speak or wish to understand the language of games. It’s to that end that the video games designed to promote social justice tend to be shitty ones with nothing in the way of gameplay to get in the way of the messaging.
“These obtuse shitslingers, these wailing hyper-consumers, these childish internet-arguers—they are not my audience. They don’t have to be yours. There is no ‘side’ to be on, there is no ‘debate’ to be had.”
In her seminal piece—the one that launched GamerGate—journalist Leigh Alexander wrote: “‘Gamers’ are over, ‘gamers’ don’t have to be your audience.” Alexander’s treatise argued that it was high time game developers stopped catering to their traditional demographic, and instead, should shift their focus to the larger, non-gaming audience. “These obtuse shitslingers, these wailing hyper-consumers, these childish internet-arguers—they are not my audience. They don’t have to be yours. There is no ‘side’ to be on, there is no ‘debate’ to be had,” Alexander wrote.
Alexander would later take this philosophy on the road to consult on a game called Sunset (2015), in which players take on the position of an African-American housekeeper named Angela, who works in a fictional South American country during a socialist revolution. In Sunset, players read books, push buttons, and interact with items within the confines of an apartment to learn about the civil war against the capitalist dictator who runs the country.
I played it, and it was abysmal. Its best feature is that you can get a refund for it on Steam if you manage to beat it in under two hours.
Game journalists, however, disagreed with my assessment. It garnered critical praise from the Washington Post, IGN, and numerous other games media presses. “Sunset creates a beautiful and sometimes-unnervingly artificial platform for the alienating role-play bound up in employer-employee relationships, staged against a backdrop of historical revolution that threatens to spoil it,” wrote the Post’s Michael Thomsen.
Except, not really.
Despite an initial Kickstarter seed of $67,000, the game was later described by its creators at Tale of Tales, Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey, as a commercial failure. They ended up spending more money making the game than they earned. (The experience was such a disappointment, the creators announced they no longer make any games).
To be fair, their goal was never to make money; it was to promote social justice. “Our desire to reach a wider audience was not motivated by a need for money but by a feeling of moral obligation. We felt we had to at least try to reach as many people as possible. To make the world a better place through the sharing of art as videogames, you know,” they wrote.
They wanted to make a game, they explained, that didn’t follow video game conventions—but still wanted it to be a “game for gamers.”
“[E]ven within Sunset’s carefully constructed context of conventional controls, three-act story and well defined activities, we deeply enjoyed the exploration of themes, the creation of atmosphere, the development of characters, and so on. Abandoning some of our more extreme artistic ambitions actually made work easier and more enjoyable. And that’s when we should have realized that we were on the wrong path. Because whatever we enjoy is never, ever, what the gaming masses enjoy.”
In other words, who was to blame for Sunset’s colossal failure? Gamers.
THERE IS NO GAMING—WOKE OR OTHERWISE—WITHOUT GAMERS
Social justice, generally speaking, isn’t a bad thing, and many of these activist types can be extremely well-intentioned. But the fact of the matter is, you cannot simply walk into a medium you’re unfamiliar with and expect to leverage that medium effectively because your heart is in the right place.
Alexander’s ‘Gamers’ are Over’ treaties signaled more than just a desire to capture new and untapped audiences. It revealed a deep resentment for gamers themselves.
Video games have garnered an enormous amount of media cachet over the years–it’s an industry that’s surpassed both the film and music industries combined. It’s no wonder then that social-justice-in-games activists are keen on leveraging games to disseminate their messaging.
But Sunset demonstrates that the social-justice-in-games crowd wants to have their cake and eat it too: they want to create games that are either unintelligible or unavailing to gamers—and they want to then turn around and blame the failure of these projects on the ‘pedestrian tastes’ of gamers who refuse to buy them.
These types of games continue to fail; Sunset isn’t the only one. There are games like Gone Home, which is a “walking simulator,” and games like it usually in the horror genre. They aren’t so much video games as they’re interactive walkthroughs, and they’ll never be as popular with the gaming community as any video game that speaks the language of gamers.
They’re mind-numbingly boring. Sure, if they’re horror games, they can be decent. I even enjoy a few of them—like Moons of Madness, a sci-fi Lovecraftian horror game set on Mars, which follows the same story as At the Mountains of Madness. But take away the horror and the suspense, and all you’re left with is a walking simulator that tries to turn you into a lesbian anarcho-communist.
Sunset—no matter how conventional the controls—was not a game for gamers. From the get-go, the ill-conceived venture completely neglected gameplay, completely neglected gaming conventions, and completely neglected gamers.
Alexander’s ‘Gamers’ are Over’ treaties signaled more than just a desire to capture new and untapped audiences. It revealed a deep resentment for gamers themselves. She describes gamers as “a generation of lonely basement kids” who “don’t know how to dress or behave.”
But gaming as a medium did not take on the prominence it has without gamers—there is no gaming without gamers.
The smart move, of course, would be to leverage gameplay to promote a message, instead of trying to work against it. But with so much hostility towards gamers, it’s difficult to see how activists could reconcile their disdain towards traditional gameplay with their desire to promote social justice.