Sure, We've Got Problems

Video games are sexist. They encourage mindless violence. Video games are mindless escapism. The video game industry hurts customers, developers, and society.

Stop me if you’ve heard any of this.

Last Thursday, as floodwaters rose around Chicagoland, the New York Times put up a Sunday book review about Chicago.

The review took three books about Chicago and used them as a launching point to talk about the problems Chicago has.

“Poor Chicago,” a friend of mine recently said. Given the number of PR apocalypses here, I couldn’t tell which problem she was referring to.

The real problem according to the article, though, was that Chicagoans will still point out that the city has good qualities.

The article was not well received among Chicago bloggers.

It also was not untrue.

It also was not news to any of us.

So why am I writing about this in a space where we usually talk about video games? Because the way the conversation played out on the internet could almost be a find-and-replace version of a discussion about the games industry.

Social networks lit up around Chicago. Local news teams shared their opinions. There were some particularly smart and smarting responses. Blog posts were written in response to the responses, collecting and curating, pointing out which responses were the curator’s favorite. Upvotes, likes, +1s and RTs abounded. Harsh words were hurled into the data streams.

Those words were, of course, unlikely to ever reach the eyes of the original author, but they sure felt good to type, read, and share. We all had a grand time getting upset at someone who didn’t like what we like.

As I said, Chicago has its problems. Chicago definitely has a problem with gang violence. We know it. We worry about it. We discuss it among friends, blog about it, make faces at the morning news. And some people will leave Chicago due to its problems. Millions of other people still call it home — many of them on purpose.

The topic, and the response, was familiar. I don’t spend as much time blogging and Tweeting as I once did, in those heady days when I still had the time and energy to be frequently misunderstood by strangers. I keep my hand in by trying at the very least to pay attention to the regular cycles of games discussion.

Big games come out and are loved, then picked apart by those sharpening their analytical skills before being laid to rest. Games with lower marketing budgets are occasionally drawn out into the spotlight by a noble soul seeking to show off something refreshing. These occurrences are regular. Whether a game’s on the way up or the way out, there’s always something to talk about.

One of those things we talk about, though, is the problems of gaming. Game companies, taken as a whole, are kinda crappy about some things. They don’t all treat employees or consumers as well as we might hope, or manage their finances or production as well as you might expect.

Games end up treating some of their subjects badly, too. Games can be bad with gender, sexuality, relationships, ethnicity, ethics. (Sometimes the industry does, too.) Games can be truly, amazingly dumb. They have dozens of small problems, from DLC, to patchless bugs, to stories that don’t mesh with the mechanics. Games focus on things that maybe they shouldn’t, and they show and encourage things that maybe we’d prefer they didn’t.

Find-and-replacing Chicago:

“Poor video games,” a friend of mine recently said. Given the number of PR apocalypses here, I couldn’t tell which problem she was referring to.

Sounds about right, doesn’t it?

Actually, “poor” seems kind. And yet even as the catastrophes pile up, video games never cease to boast about itself. … The industry likes brags that could be read as indictments too, announcing the addition of higher-res gore and bigger, dumber guns.

I could go on like this. Actually, I did go on like that. I went through the whole article swapping in “video games” and changing specific examples to fit. I won’t force that on you, though. You’re smart; you get it.

Games, both the medium and the industry, have serious issues.

Yet there are throngs of video gamers out there. People who love the video game industry, the medium, the craft and the theory. Hundreds of millions of people play games — many of them on purpose. People even love the culture, despite all of its rather obvious problems.

I’m one of those people.

I love games and everything about them, and that’s why I’m still here, talking about games, encouraging discussion, pushing writers to think a little deeper, a little broader, and doing what I can to make games, game culture, and games writing better.

Because when you care about something, even criticism is an investment in that community.
Because when you love something, part of your happiness is tied to the success and growth of that which you love, be it a city, a person, or a medium. You want to see it improve, and so you invest in it. You help clean it up. You push it to grow and to learn.

Video games are my community, and I love that community. It hurts when someone else criticizes what you love — especially when they’re right — but it’s love that often drives us to criticise. And it’s love that drives us to work to better our communities, be they defined around geography or by pastime.

Comments

Yep. Concurred. Well said. Etc.

really nice piece.

As I grow older, I seems to have found myself enjoying reading and posting about games more than actually playing them.

There's the few AAA gems I look forward to; Arkham Origins, the yearly Assassin's Creed release, Bioshock Infinite when I actually get around to it.

I look forward to a time when articles about video games will have matured along with the medium.
This is a great example of what I look forward to.

Picture caption: Erik risks stepping outside in April so that he can guerrilla garden to plant some flowers (that cost him 9.5% sales tax) that will later in the week be frozen solid and then washed away in a flood. Not pictured: The Cubs losing, food trucks, and Montalban paying $80/month to park his car in the lot across the street I MEAN SERIOUSLY!? $80??

Hear hear!

I love games. I have all my life. I want games to be better, and so sometimes I criticize them as well. I still love games.

and doing what I can to make games, game culture, and games writing better.

For me, that's the real focus, the essential point to convey. "Sure, we've got problems" but what are we doing about it? That's what's most important, that we all do our part to better ourselves, improve the medium. You chip in, and try to nudge it in the right direction, point out the flaws that should be addressed. In our own small way, we all contribute to make video games what they are, and looking back, I'm happy to see we've made progress in the last 25 years ([size=8]wait, what? 25 years, how/when did that happen?[/size]). We still have a lot to do, but we're getting there.
Great piece, wordsmythe, very well-put and thought provoking.

80$, Montalban?! That's just insane...

For me it comes down to caring. I care about the games I play or want to play, and I'd like to think that the people making the games I (want to) play do too, and that wherever I throw up my views about those games, might win a lottery somehow and perhaps through some long convoluted path become a tiny part of a feedback loop that makes that thing I care about better.

I don't like to think that I don't care about the games I play, that the people making them don't care about them either, and there's no way to exert a little bit of influence to make things better.

I was recently stayed a week in the Loop to attend a training class that my job sent me to. Was able to walk most everywhere although I did ride the 'L' once.

Nice place, but I wouldn't want to live there.

Thanks, all!

MacBrave wrote:

I was recently stayed a week in the Loop to attend a training class that my job sent me to. Was able to walk most everywhere although I did ride the 'L' once.

Nice place, but I wouldn't want to live there.

I walk and take CTA just about everywhere, too. The parking complaints are pretty foreign to me. I mean, it's not my fault Montalban lives in the suburbs and doesn't pay into funding the city via things like taxes.

I don't think there's a metaphor there. Games have moochers, but I wouldn't equate living in the suburbs with pirating the city's resources.

Anyway, if anyone finds themselves staying downtown in Chicago, be sure to drop me a line. As of May 1, I'm done with my masters classes.

wordsmythe wrote:

I don't think there's a metaphor there. Games have moochers, but I wouldn't equate living in the suburbs with pirating the city's resources.

Would that be like microtransactions, then? You pay extra for basically the same thing, right?

MacBrave wrote:

I was recently stayed a week in the Loop to attend a training class that my job sent me to. Was able to walk most everywhere although I did ride the 'L' once.

Nice place, but I wouldn't want to live there.

Other than the vicious Winters, I'd totally live there.

But the point is to move out of Boston somewhere WARM. And Chicago ain't it.

wordsmythe wrote:

Thanks, all!

The parking complaints are pretty foreign to me. I mean, it's not my fault Montalban lives in the suburbs and doesn't pay into funding the city via things like taxes.

I don't think there's a metaphor there. Games have moochers, but I wouldn't equate living in the suburbs with pirating the city's resources.

:p Living in the middle though, it actually does feel a bit unbalanced. People want lots of space and a low cost of living but still fast, immediate access to the jobs and culture downtown. I suppose prices are just a significant way those competing demands get worked out, as in any big city.

Getting myself away from the money issue, being a hobbyist rather than simply a consumer means you have some skin in the game more than just whether a game was "fun" or not. We occupy some closer place to the industry than simply the end point in a supply chain. Even if that place is mostly in our minds. Although with the internet and the connection between consumers, gaming press, and developers as porous as it (appears) to be, that place may be more real than it is something like Formula 1 racing or European football.

Montalban wrote:

...and Montalban paying $80/month to park his car in the lot across the street I MEAN SERIOUSLY!? $80??

$80 a month? Where do you get such a deal on parking? Average prices near me in Chicago are $200-300/month for a spot.

Really smart piece, Erik. I was wondering what you were doing when you started playing with that idea.

mmunley wrote:

Really smart piece, Erik. I was wondering what you were doing when you started playing with that idea.

There was a lot of idea playing.

Nobody messes with video games! You come down to my video games, you get shot!

Seriously, nice article wordy.

I prefer New York style video games to Chicago style.

Tanglebones wrote:

I prefer New York style video games to Chicago style.

You probably put ketchup on your video games, too.

wordsmythe wrote:
Tanglebones wrote:

I prefer New York style video games to Chicago style.

You probably put ketchup on your video games, too.

Yes, but I often play them with relish!

I wonder if cities in general make great metaphors, as a couple weeks ago I told my friend New York City is a perfect metaphor for America as a whole (I'll let you decide on how and why), and reading this made me think of Philly sports fans and gamers.

I don't follow sports too closely, but as I've been able to watch Flyers games more often I've gotten to listen to some commentators and players discussing differences between fans. I've also had similar conversations with my friends that are Eagles fans.

Evidently the general idea of a Philly sports fan: We love our team. Our team is awesome. Even if our team is sucking, they're awesome. But if they're playing like sh*t, we're gonna let them know. But if YOU say anything bad about our team, we'll friggin' gut you like a fish.

Of course, this could just be sports fans in general, but I've never gotten quite the same vibe off of the NYC team fans I've been exposed to or the Buffalo fans I've been exposed to (the latter of which all sort of have a "Yeah, our team sucks, but we love 'em anyway" thing going).

Considering the outrage that happens when someone like Ebert claims games aren't art or another political talking head blames games for violence, I'd say it's pretty accurate a comparison to game enthusiasts.

Looks like this website has problems (this afternoon).

Great article.

I haven't read the Chicago article, which I will, but the racism in Chicago is ridiculous. The city is essentially:

North Side: White
South Side: Black
East Side: Lake
West Side: Hispanic

These clear boundaries colored almost every single interaction I ever had in public while living in Chicago.

It does have a clear parallel with video games as it would with any group of people where these subsections are encouraged to separate and they don't really relate or understand each other.

I was listening to Giant Bomb and they were lambasting the idea that someone would play Tomb Raider and skip cut scenes, or just skip cut scenes at all. To them, this indicated someone who couldn't even be someone interesting to talk to as a person about games or anything else.

I generally like Giant Bomb, but this idea is ridiculous. Some people enjoy getting into a story and some people aren't interested in it and can enjoy the other parts. I enjoyed Halo 1, 2, and 3 while completely skipping the story pieces. I didn't stop skipping cut scenes until I was about 20 years old. I play differently now, but I don't think I was a complete idiot with nothing interesting to say just because one part of something didn't appeal to me.

To bring it back around, I can't imagine ever wanting to live in Hyde Park or South Side Chicago again. I can understand why others do and their attempts to improve those places, but I couldn't live there. They aren't idiots.

PandaEskimo wrote:

North Side: White
South Side: Black
East Side: Lake
West Side: Hispanic

Curious, where is that Obama-speech park and how does it play into the city's racial dynamics?

Keithustus wrote:
PandaEskimo wrote:

North Side: White
South Side: Black
East Side: Lake
West Side: Hispanic

Curious, where is that Obama-speech park and how does it play into the city's racial dynamics?

I'm guessing you mean Grant Park, where he made his victory speech. That's downtown, next to the business, government and theater areas, and the central hub (the Loop) to and from which all major transit radiates.

Keithustus wrote:

Looks like this website has problems (this afternoon).

It hurts when someone else criticizes what you love — especially when they’re right

I never have gotten that, I never get upset if an insult is true.

This is great. One of those rare times I really want to add something, but you've already made the point so perfectly and succinctly I'd just be messily paraphrasing you.

I recently took a job for a company headquartered in Chicago; my boss lives there and I expect to be visiting occasionally. So I've become interested in the city. Which makes this article doubly relevant to my interests.

wordsmythe wrote:
Keithustus wrote:
PandaEskimo wrote:

North Side: White
South Side: Black
East Side: Lake
West Side: Hispanic

Curious, where is that Obama-speech park and how does it play into the city's racial dynamics?

I'm guessing you mean Grant Park, where he made his victory speech. That's downtown, next to the business, government and theater areas, and the central hub (the Loop) to and from which all major transit radiates.

Okay, so it falls into the "white area"? Or is it located centrally and intended to promote citywide social mixing? If so, it is accomplishing that?

Downtown used to be mostly commercial. In the past 10 - 20 years they've attempted to make it more residential. Because of that, most of it is businesses / shopping / bars. In that sense, a lot of the feel of downtown is wealthy / middle class working people and tourists. The housing is more expensive in the immediate downtown area as is the case with most cities.

Another thing to note is that there are a few very wealthy suburbs near Chicago from which people commute.

A lot of this is anecdotal or the feeling I got, but some of it is rooted in segregation laws that prevented blacks from owning businesses north of a certain street at some point.

I realize segregation and racism do not always fall side by side, but I've seen too many anecdotal cases where it's made me feel bad.

One interesting point in that article is that Lake Shore Drive and 90 / 94 are on either side of "the city" and allow people from some places to bypass everything in between when going to others and therefore kind of ignore the fact that those neighborhoods and their problems exist.

Thanks for this article wordsmythe. I like the comparison. Having recently left Chicago after 10 years living in the city, it was easy to relate to your point: how a mixture of pride and disappointment blend together in the things closest to us, and become almost a third feeling that is both at once.

I'm learning to love Boston now, and tolerating the impression most Bostonites have of my old home. Many things are better here, some things I really miss. Every place, just like every person, is intrinsically valuable and also has unique problems. I welcome the discussion about how this or that place is different- but I don't love it when people try to rank cities, or forget that inside each city is every imaginable variation of its overall character, and on any given day you can only see a fraction of its total face. It takes an investment to truly know a place, and to find your place in it, and to pontificate on it from a distance just doesn't mean much to me: I might as well claim Mars is too dry in the summer.

Maybe a similar vein of thought applies to video games- until you have unlocked the feeling of flow in a fighting game, cleared a room with elegance in Halo, constructed the perfect Magic deck, or built the most efficient 4x empire, its easy to be distracted by the trappings of the genre and to lose sight of the truly stunning examples. The best criticism comes from the inside, or something like that. Anyway, thanks for the article, it really gets you thinking.

To keep with the city/game bashing motif, I don't have a problem when people make genuine critiques or want to change things for the better. What I DO have a problem with is writers/pundits jumping to conclusions based on limited information, or focusing on the worst aspects of a place/game just to feel superior. I think the NY Times ran some snippy story about how Seattle drivers can't handle heavy snow, with the not-so-subtle hint being that all Seattle citizens are limp-wristed wimps. Likewise, the NY Post ran a pretty nasty story that all but accused gaming as driving the Newton shooter insane.

Come to think of it, maybe it's a NY has to bash everywhere else thing?

One more thing to add: Having read the nytimes article, I dislike the authors flippant tone. I lived in one of those neighborhoods 'bypassed' by the highway and I got married by one of those 'burnt out projects'. I think the author, comparing Chicago to NY, is really comparing Chicago to an idealized Manhattan and is forgetting that parallel neighborhoods exist in the boroughs- you know, where people just get on the best they can. He claims 13 years in the city and still hasn't found much he likes? Its so unbelievable, it makes me wonder if something like prejudice prevented him from leaving his comfort zone.

Its the difference between MMOs on Law and Order SVU and that South Park MMO episode- both are critical of their subject, only one is familiar with it. Guess which is the better critique?

I love Chicago. I've only ever been there as a visitor, and in moderate temperatures, but I love that place. If I were fabulously wealthy, and had multiple homes, one of them would be in Chicago.

I'm in the Dallas area. I can't escape. I've tried. So have my friends. We all end up back here somehow. We've decided that Dallas is a giant sucking vortex from which one cannot escape, and therefore, one should just learn to live with it. Nobody "loves" Dallas. There is damn near nobody in Dallas who feels the way about their town that compares to loyalists in other cities of comparable size; Chicago, Boston, even NYC. Even folks in Dallas who like Dallas are like me...they mostly "don't mind" Dallas; but you don't see a lot of boosterism from anyone but the Chamber of Commerce types.

How does that relate to the post? Simply this; I think there are a lot of gamers who are the same way. There are folks who are rabid about their games/genre. They know everything about it, they know who designed it, they know what engine it uses, they know tips and secrets and easter eggs, and have min/max characters, and they are all up in that game. They evangelize the game to anyone who will listen. Their love for the game/genre is broad and wide and they want to share it with everyone, so that everyone can see HOW COOL THIS IS. They are like the citizens of places like Chicago.

Then there's casual gamers. They really enjoy playing, but they've never read a website about it unless someone sends them a link, they don't spend hours researching how to spec a character or build a town or whatever...they just wander in, play with some shiny stuff, nod appreciatively, and wander back out. These gamers; they're like the folks in Dallas.

I think from now on, when anyone asks me why I've done something stupid with a character or a town or whatever, I'm just gonna say "Sorry, I'm from Dallas."