Amidst industry crisis, important to remember why gamers play

In the past few months, the video game community has been set aflame by “#gamergate,” an industry-wide campaign surrounding journalistic integrity within the gaming journalism industry. The movement has remained a highly controversial issue, largely due increasing concerns with harassment, death threats and abuse apologism from users across all sides of the issue. As a result, the gaming community has been largely divided on GamerGate. In some cases, friendships have been driven apart, communities have been left largely damaged and major sponsors have pulled out of supporting Gamasutra, Gawker media and other publications.

When the video game industry is going through a crisis situation, gamers on all sides often forget why they began playing video games in the first place. We lose ourselves to the politics of the current moment. However, video games are a powerful medium, and the hobbyists who engage with gaming often come from a wide range of backgrounds, identities and political viewpoints. Indeed, gaming prides itself on a diverse spectrum of political and intersectional identities. And this platform gives us the opportunity to explore ourselves in ways no other medium can.

In late 2007, Canadian game development studio BioWare released “Mass Effect,” a science-fiction role-playing video game set in the distant future. The game draws heavily on a dynamic and immersive story, in which renowned human soldier Commander Shepard is tasked with protecting humanity from an oncoming invasion of world-ending alien invaders called the “Reapers.”

One of the highlights of BioWare’s science-fiction series is the player’s role in creating “Commander Shepard.” Like most contemporary role-playing game protagonists, Shepard is highly customizable from his or her appearance down to his or her leadership style, and Shepard’s characterization is left to the players themselves. Indeed, BioWare prides itself on player input, as the “Mass Effect” series primarily rests on dynamic choices while creating the protagonist. For instance, as players explore the trilogy, they can guide Shepard’s moral and ethical decisions: affecting the way Shepard interacts with others and, in some cases, who lives and perishes within the series. Likewise, BioWare also allows players to explore Shepard’s characterization on an intersectional level. Within each game, players are given the opportunity to guide Shepard’s sexuality — however, Shepard is not restricted to heterosexual relationships, as the player character can cultivate queer sexual relationships with other characters throughout the series. Essentially, BioWare’s video game gives players a large amount of autonomy in creating Commander Shepard, from the protagonist’s appearance to sexual desires (or lack thereof).

Commander Shepard might appear relatively standard to a non-gamer. However, Shepard represents something rather meaningful within the larger context of video gaming. The sheer range of dynamic choices BioWare gives players allows them to create their own “personal” Shepard. This allows players to create their own forms of representation in-game: Shepard can, essentially, look and behave any way the player chooses.

When developers create intersectional video games, this is extremely empowering. When I first began playing “Mass Effect” during my first year of college, for instance, I designed a Shepard based on a mixture of myself and my ideal heroine. I fused a part of myself into her — I gave her my blonde hair, developed her as a bisexual Commander and set her on the virtuous Paragon moral path (not unlike myself). As I continued the series, these choices bloomed into a character representative of me. I became deeply attached to her throughout my playthrough and felt, at last, she was the kind of protagonist I wanted in mass media.

We often forget how empowering video games can be. However, video games give players an enormous amount of autonomy and control. Role-playing video games like “Mass Effect” give players the opportunity to design the protagonists they want to see in our society and culture. This is not just empowering experience, but it is also a particularly unique one — no other artistic medium allows viewers to design their own representation within artwork. Video games stand alone in this regard, as a form of interactive narrative creation. And that’s something every gamer should be proud of. 

Yet, when our gaming communities are fighting with one another, we often forget how incredible this industry is. We put aside the hobby we love, in order to attack one another (often rather viciously and inappropriately). And, by doing so, we abandon the very same inspiring narratives that brought us into the gaming community in the first place.

As the GamerGate issue spreads beyond Twitter and bleeds into mainstream media coverage, it’s important not to forget why we came to this industry in the first place. Video games are not just innovative, but they are also empowering. They give us the opportunity to explore ourselves in a safe, interactive environment that no other medium truly accomplishes. While we must hold gamers and writers to higher ethical standards, we should also remember the core bond that brings the entire gaming community together: a deep, heartfelt love of video games. Lest we forget why so many gamers are passionate about their work and play in the first place.

Philip Wythe is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in English with a minor in political science. Their column, “Nothing, if Not Critical,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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