Craving Legitimacy: just shut up and play!

Do modern games require deeper meaning to be worthy? Leigh Alexander investigates...

Leigh Alexander is news director at Gamasutra. She authors the Sexy Videogameland weblog and freelances reviews and criticism to Slate, The AV Club, Variety, and others.

Leigh Alexander is news director at Gamasutra. She authors the Sexy Videogameland weblog and freelances reviews and criticism to Slate, The AV Club, Variety, and others.

Is Bayonetta sexist? Is Resident Evil 5 racist? Does Call of Duty have something relevant to say about global warfare? These are just a few of the recent debates that have cropped up in the games press and in fan communities online — an example of the passionate and intellectual discussion that has become increasingly possible as games have evolved.

Those raised on the original Super Mario Bros. never thought about who the Princess “was” or why the mushrooms made you big — back then, gamers would never have guessed they might one day discuss Randian Objectivism in BioShock.

Just think: If Super Mario Bros. was released for the first time in the current era, would gamers simply enjoy it at face value, or would we debate whether or not its portrayal of large-nosed Italian brothers was culturally insensitive? Would we be reading forum posts about whether the Princess is “real” or a metaphor?

Craving Legitimacy
A modern-day Mario could have been received quite differently...

Bigger than any of the controversies that have arisen in recent years’ games is the question: Do we need to be having these discussions at all?

Many would say that if games can act as touchpoints for discussions on social issues like gender, race, politics, and war, then it means they’ve finally gained a level of cultural relevance on par with film and television — media that people accept as “art” because they can make statements on the human condition. To many, these kinds of discussions can stand as proof that games are not toys, and that they’re worthy of respect.

But why do gamers care what other people think?

An old stigma still follows the gaming hobby: the perception that games are “for nerds;” excessively sexist or violent, dark, or dangerous; the province of the lazy or even the maladjusted. Modern video games gleam with art and narrative potential, and fans are eager to prove it to the uninitiated. After all, if games get more respect, so will gamers.

It’s a wholly understandable thing for which to wish.

Yet on the other side of the fence stand audiences who resent these discussions. Who cares, they say, whether Braid is really about the atom bomb or if there is a moral spectrumin Grand Theft Auto? It’s only a game, some argue, and this needy clutch after “cultural legitimacy” is ruining the fun.

The idea that games should be for fun is just as valid as the idea that they should mean something. But when we debate whether or not “cultural legitimacy” is important, we’re actually tackling one more subtle question: Do we want to share video games with “outsiders” or not? The very stigma that led many to desire “legitimacy” has led just as many others to wholly reject it. When gamers react negatively to attempts to elevate the discourse around video games, and when they try to shut it down with the “it’s just a game” protest, what they’re really saying is, “we don’t want to share.”

The diversification of video games has accelerated massively over just the last few years. Now casual games are an accepted part of most people’s daily lives, the Wii has created an avenue for games even grandmothers can enjoy, social networks like Facebook are promising to re-define the definition of “multiplayer,” and the iPhone is perhaps the fastest-growing gaming platform ever.

Craving Legitimacy
The current console generation has changed what it means to be a gamer

What was once a private club accessible only to those tough enough to succeed at it —- and devoted enough to carry the stigma -– is now for everyone. Some people hate that. Some people embrace it too eagerly. But neither position is constructive, suggests Persuasive Games co-founder, author and Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost: “The idea that games might re-figure legitimacy itself is hard and scary,” he says. “So it’s easier to ask how film, literature, or whatever has been judged legitimate, and to pretend that’s our goal. …Of course, this is a vicious circle, because the more we do that, the less we explore, adopt, accept, and naturalize what might make video games uniquely legitimate.”

In other words, we should let games be themselves — no more and no less. The old “it’s just a game” refrain that seeks to shut down discourse is just as useless as attempts to make games legitimate by demanding they be “more like” other entertainment. With so many different experiences and audiences now at play, the experience of “video game” is bound to mean different things to different people. Why not stop the circular arguments?

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