In the final dying moments of 2015, the human race seems like it might once again be on a collision course with mutually assured destruction. Glance at the news any day of the week and I fail to see how anybody could be proud to show the exploits of this planet to any passing extraterrestrial beings. Any intelligent race of aliens has no doubt warned off their neighbours from visiting this planet filled with psychopaths, demagogues and people who keep giving Adam Sandler money.
However, there’s something missing from the news reports. It used to be there. A consistent reminder of pure, hilarious ignorance.
I want you to cast your mind back to the last time you saw the mainstream media attack video games. You know the type. Headlines like “Violent Video Game Turns Kids Into Killers”. A panel of “experts” calling for politicians to ban these horrible games for fear of our children being instantly transformed into black-hearted murder-bots. Interviews with concerned parents who are shocked that these things don’t look like “The Mario Game” anymore. Fringe religious politicians who act like video games are worse than 9/11 and polio combined.
I’m not just talking about some regional newspaper reporting on local man Cousin Jim Bob who wants to sue “them Apple fellas” because he was blissfully unaware that his beloved toddler could spend $2,000 in Game Of War. What I mean is the primal, so-good-you-could-taste-it, widespread outrage of Fox News renaming Microsoft’s console to SEXBOX because there’s a six second PG-rated love scene in the first Mass Effect. The rib-tickling joy of disgraced attorney Jack Thompson claiming every violent young person was under the voodoo-like spell of Grand Theft Auto. The kind of red-faced directionless rage spouted by older, confused people that you could eat straight from the trough and ask for seconds. There was nothing else quite like it.
None of this happened in 2015. Not even close. Or in 2014, for that matter. Not a trace of outrage. In fact, the last blip on the ‘Games Are Evil’ radar was the low rumblings of disapproval made by one or two media outlets about the ‘No Russian’ level in Modern Warfare 2. That was 2009. Almost seven years. Seven years is a long time ago. Seven years ago was James Cameron’s Avatar and Susan Boyle. Donald Trump was just a rich celebrity on a reality show.
This was a period of time that if a new video game was preparing to release even the slightest whiff of mature content it also brought with it the expectation of media outrage. If you enjoyed video games, this was the world they lived in. The phrase “video game controversy” was met with tiresome groans. “Oh, not this again”, said the gaming enthusiast, reaching for their copy of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows. “Let’s see what nonsense they come up with this time”.
That time is gone. Video games, as a concept, aren’t the demon they once were. Maybe everybody got exhausted. Priorities shifted. This era of ignorant bleating by politicians, religious television personalities and concerned mothers simply died out. Barely anybody noticed its passing and certainly nobody mourned it. But as we look back over the debris of 2015, perhaps we should have. For it was a far more pleasant and amusing time in video games.
Games can reach superb heights by allowing us to be the heroes or monsters we don’t allow ourselves to be. We can plumb new emotional depths of love, sacrifice and courage or unleash the demon within us all to wade knee-deep into carnage with a big grin on our face. When games successfully achieve these goals, they typically end up on a lot of Game Of The Year lists. They burn themselves into our minds and hearts and we celebrate them with friends. Years later, we remember them with quiet disbelief at just how good they were. But there’s a truth hidden amongst this video game glory that some people never want to admit. 2015 saw the release of over six hundred games across all platforms. That’s not even counting $1 Steam games, App Store sludge and every Five Nights At Freddy’s sequel known to man. Add those onto the pile and you’d probably be in the thousands. Taking this into account, think for a moment how many you played this year? Ten? Maybe twenty or thirty at the absolute most? And how many of those would you consider to be the best of the bunch?
If you take that handful of games and compare them to every game in 2015, there’s a startling but obvious conclusion: a lot of video games aren’t good enough. In fact, the majority of them are forgettable, poorly designed or cheap money-hungry cash-ins. The odds are simply against them. Take away the epic role-playing masterpieces and the fantastic multiplayer experiences and what remains, if we’re being honest here, is just crap. For all the fist-pumping celebrations and pats-on-the-back we give ourselves about our favourite genres, the stench-ridden tsunami of bad games is bigger than ever.
Swallow that bitter pill for a moment. I know it doesn’t taste very nice but we need to take it. Most video games are a waste of time and money. You might be able to ignore them every year but they are there. They don’t function properly or are a clone of something else or highly embarrassing to show to family and friends.
That’s why the good ones leave such an impact. After sifting through the mountains of trash, these nuggets of well-designed gold stand out. And they help us see what can be done to reduce the overwhelming piles of garbage. There is always room for improvement. All we have to do is admit it.
That doesn’t mean video games are doomed, of course. There’s an endless supply of terrible movies out there and they will be around for quite some time to come. However, there’s a difference: there are no barbarians at those gates. In 2015, a selection of gamers are still standing between this industry and any criticism or change. Like online vikings, they will defend the most insignificant corner of video games with the most violent of retribution. Without the slightest hesitation, they will line up to defend digital boobs or implied rape scenes. They will let fly the dogs of war if a video game tells an emotional, personal story that hasn’t been told a thousand times before. They will link someone to a real-world terrorist act if they think that someone doesn’t like what they like. And then laugh when the world’s media treat it as fact.
Standing proud in front of piles of garbage. Defending the outflow of toilets as if they are generals on the battlefield of some twisted war. The sense of unreality held by these soldiers in 2015 was fascinatingly powerful. Napoleon Bonaparte never had an angry Youtube channel and a collection of busty anime statues.
Fox News and its “experts” seem hilariously ineffectual in retrospect. Oh, how uncontrollably mad we were when they got their facts wrong or were pushing an obvious agenda to demonise blah blah blah who the hell cares. Fox News never sent SWAT teams to someone’s house or published an individual’s private address for the sole purpose of targeted harassment. They never thought it valid to risk people’s lives over something as ridiculous as a video game. All they ever did was look silly and tell their viewers what they wanted to hear. And now, at least in terms of blaming games for the world’s problems, they’re gone. I wish we had them back. They were fun.
Now the enemy is everywhere. They’re inside the goddamn walls. And for what? What’s the endgame? Decades from now, will you sit your children down and wow them with tales about how you remained steadfast against the hordes so you could hold on to the 2-3 seconds of R.Mika slapping her bare ass in Street Fighter V? Will you shudder at the memory of fighting in the trenches of the Great Dead Or Alive Xtreme 3 Wars? Or will you actually never mention these things to your teenage children for fear of them calling the authorities?
This tiny planet we live on has been hanging around in our solar system for about 4.5 billion years. The modern version of Homo sapiens have only been around for about 200,000 years. But oh boy, we’ve sure left a mark on Earth haven’t we? Despite whatever the future may bring and whatever horrors we inflict on each other, this planet will live on. Human beings might believe that one day somebody will “push the button” and destroy this wondrous world but the odds are low. The more likely scenario is that we will somehow wipe ourselves out, Earth will remain and keep ticking along like it always has. Human beings will be barely a memory to the blue planet.
The same can be said for video games. Despite irrational fears of change or critique, they’re not going anywhere. They’re far too popular now. Too many genres, too many platforms. They’re going to be just fine no matter how much we argue or complain or act like ugly, reprehensible bigots. Just like movies, TV shows, music or books. We no longer need to blindly defend video games as if they were one single entity. You might argue about how to interpret the emotional impact of an adventure game or discuss cool reload animations but video games as a whole don’t need anybody to hold their hand or fight for them anymore. This isn’t the late-eighties. They can take the criticism.
History will determine how many bad video games are remembered. History will decide how many developers pushed boundaries. How many barriers were broken. How many people pushed back against complacency, racism, sexism and intolerance and how much we wanted it to happen. And history will definitely put people who complain about “political correctness gone mad” in the same place as white folks who didn’t want their slaves taken away.
We don’t need to defend video games anymore. We need to start being human beings instead.
This post was originally published on Kotaku Australia on 18 December 2015