Critics are more sensitive to sexism and racism in games than ever before, but why don’t these issues reflect in the reviews?
In the current zeitgeist, video games are more culturally relevant than ever before. As a result, they are viewed through a much more focused lens by critics and passionate gamers. The audience, ‘professional’ or otherwise, is now far more sensitive to sociological issues such as sexism, racism and other forms of prejudice that appear in games.
Most gaming news outlets feature stories like the recent lack of female characters in Assassin’s Creed with increasing frequency, which is good – raising awareness is the first step toward change. However, even though awareness for issues like the fact that nearly every mainstream video game protagonist is a white dude with stubble is at an all-time high, there still seems to be a disconnect when factoring this knowledge into judging a games worth.
Take for instance 2012’s Far Cry 3, arguably the best ‘AAA’ game of that year, which received some justified heat for its insensitive portrayal of race – leading some people (me) to dub it ‘White Saviour Simulator 3’ and others to take more drastic action like boycotting it entirely. Even so, Far Cry 3 is still rocking an average meta-score of 88. How can a game that morally offended some people to such an extent that they wouldn’t buy it be worthy of such critical acclaim? Well, it was mechanically proficient, had a cool progression system and it certainly looked good, but surely racism, intentional or otherwise is reason enough to knock a few points off a games score? But that’s the problem – numbers – how exactly do you quantify the impact of offensive or insensitive content in a game by using numbers?
As sad as it is to say, numbers are the language that critics have to use to communicate. Most readers are inclined to skim read a review and then look at the final score – it’s a quick and easy way to establish if a game is worth playing. However, you can’t describe socially unacceptable content like racism and sexism with a scale of one to ten, at least not with how the numbers are used in today’s game reviews. Words are the only weapon suitable for such a task.
This is where things get murky, if words are used to describe offensive content and they don’t factor into the number score, but words and numbers are used to critique the mechanical aspects of a game a split, or disconnect occurs. For instance, there is a mixed message in raising issues such as sexism and racism in a game and then still giving it a score of 9/10. Is that not the same as saying ‘this game features some horrific examples of outdated and offensive thinking, but mechanically it’s amazing so it’s a wash – 9/10’? The score at the end completely overrides the issues at hand and is effectively saying that they don’t matter.
That’s a hypothetical example, but this review of Watch Dogs and this one of GTA V from Polygon by Arthur Gies and Chris Plante respectively are good examples of this in practice. In both, the writers speak openly and intelligently about the issues at hand, in this case the portrayal and treatment of women and people of colour. However, in the conclusions at the foot of the reviews, which also feature the final score, there is no mention of these issues. It’s unclear how or if they even did factor these issues into the final scoring of the game. In the instance of Chris Plante’s GTA V review it’s safe to assume it didn’t, as the final score clocked in at 9.5 and he speaks far too passionately about the sexism to warrant a mere half-point deduction to the games score.
There is a definite separation between the criticism pertaining to social issues in games and what makes them ‘fun’. In some instances this separation is so vast that talking about the potentially inflammatory content is considered too taboo to mention in a games review and is instead discussed in follow up features or, heaven forbid, opinion pieces. In another review of GTA V, written by Tom Hoggins of The Telegraph, there is literally no mention of sexism. Yet two weeks later a follow up article was published, also written by Tom Hoggins, dedicated entirely to the deconstruction of the uncomfortable misogynistic elements of the game’s narrative. If there is enough of a story in GTA V’s misogynistic elements to warrant a whole second article then why is it not mentioned at all in the game review? Is this information not relevant in giving an informed opinion on whether or not someone should purchase a game? It seems to bury the issue somewhat – it’s likely that less people will read the second article than the initial review where Hoggins doesn’t even mention the times the game made him feel “wretched as the game often coerced him into actions that degraded women”. The second article is understanding and well written, and in fairness Hoggins elaborates on his belief that the misogyny is an intentional creative choice by Rockstar, but I can’t help but feel the hypocrisy as these genuine issues he points out are completely absent from the main review. These things should factor into how a game is received just as much as the vastness of the world or the deftness of the gunplay.
Hoggins says it himself that a vast majority of the audience is not ready to engage in such discussions – and he’s right, to an extent – but to not force the issue more openly because of that seems wrong. As a mediator of sorts between a developer and gamers, a critic has a responsibility to effectively communicate all aspects of a games worth to the audience, but they also have a responsibility to scrutinise unacceptable creative choices made by a developer. Video games are designed and crafted, and that includes the parts of them that are offensive and tone-deaf to real social issues. If the only way that a critic can comment on this in the current climate of video game reviews is with numbers, then so be it, but these issues are important and they should carry more weight when scoring a game.
How can it be expected of developers to really take the time to look at what they are creating and be more aware if, when the release date hits, they score highly in reviews and sell like gangbusters. Just as the audience needs to vote with their wallet, the critics need to do it with words – or as most publications would have it – numbers. It would be easier with words, and leaves choice to the reader, to be able to say mechanically a game is ambitious but tone-deaf in regards to the treatment of gender or race. It is ultimately up to them to decide if these issues bother them enough to stop them purchasing a game, but by raising these issues and then slapping a high number score at the end undermines the argument. It’s still a choice, but the voice of the person giving an educated opinion on a games worth is telling the reader that while these issues exist, they don’t matter.
As silly personally as I think number scores are, they are a necessary part of modern criticism. If the majority of readers are more receptive to numbers than words then use it, for goodness sake. When a game presents a white upper-middle class protagonist as the saviour of an indigenous people, when women are maligned and victimised, or when ‘brown people’ are just bad guys and cannon fodder, mark that game down by three, four, or even five points and call it hateful, because it is. It’s 2014 and mainstream video games need to grow up, even if the audience isn’t ready to grow up with them. If you aren’t part of the solution then you’re part of the problem. AAA games can’t be given a pass because they look pretty, or because that game mechanic is rad – some things are more important.
Images; Ubisoft, Rockstar Games