Historian Oliver Lee Bateman examines a console gaming industry bent on peddling the same old trash to willing buyers.
“Watch this E3 trailer for Scalebound,” my friend Erik Hinton urged me, “and try to guess the moment when I lost it.”
Scalebound – E3 2014 Trailer
Jump ahead to 1:05 and prepare yourself for something remarkable: the phenotypically Aryan hero with a big-ass sword and a tight-ass leather jacket puts on what appear to be Beats by Dre headphones, then proceeds to give a big-ass monster the assbeating of a lifetime. This, my friends, is the kind of asinine assholery that you get when a production budget in the millions meets a story that was apparently conceptualized after a series of focus groups with angry bro gamers who believed that casting Francis Underwood in the latest Call of Duty bloodbath was highbrow and alienating.
Given the renewed emphasis on innovative gameplay and design resulting from the successes of the indie gaming movement, I half-expected the 2014 installment of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (“E3”) to mark a watershed moment in gaming history. Surely console game manufacturers Sony and Microsoft realized that things couldn’t keep going like this, not with Steam Machines and goodness knows what else looming on the horizon. The time had come for them to stop playing it safe and to swing for the fences, because why not? What did they have to lose?
What we got, alas, was more of the same. Assassin’s Creed sequels, Battlefield: Hardline, Batman Arkham Knight, EA Sports UFC, FIFA 2015, Tom Clancy’s The Division, WWE 2k15, the aforementioned Scalebound, and loads of other expensive, pretty-looking, and idea-free blockbusters of the sort that teenage male gamers (many of whom are actually in their 30s, but still) will consume like so many McRibs at the height of McRib season.
These games, while not necessarily anti-woman (though Anita Sarkeesian at Feminist Frequency likely has something to say about that), most assuredly aren’t pro-good men. And the resulting bad PR for the industry seems endless, particularly as regards the geniuses over at Ubisoft, who announced recently that they were cutting the option to play as a female assassin in their upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Unity game:
A female character means that you have to redo a lot of animation, a lot of costumes [inaudible]. It would have doubled the work on those things. And I mean it’s something the team really wanted, but we had to make a decision… It’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality of game development.”
Bro, would-be Assassin’s Creed gamers don’t want to play as women*–they want to play as sheet-white men wielding big-ass swords and wearing big-ass Beats by Dre headphones! See the Scalebound demo, supra. QED.
Anita Sarkeesian discusses the use of women as background decoration in video games.
I’m being facetious, of course, but only a bit. The issue isn’t that there aren’t intricate, carefully-made games that appeal to all players–Cuphead, for one, looks fantastic, and how about that Candy Crush Saga?–but rather that vast sums of money are directed toward the production of the worst and least innovative games. To be sure, this is the case across the board in popular culture–how else to explain the spate of those dreadful PG-13 super-hero movies in which millions die, blue lasers take the place of bullets, and not a drop of blood is spilled? But it’s particularly appalling in th console gaming industry, where almost anything is possible and yet nearly everything that’s not merely profitable but mega-profitable is filtered through the same bullshit Grand Theft Auto/Call of Duty aesthetic.
In other words, the problem isn’t so much that there aren’t all-ages games or creative indie games or colorful Nintendo games or even games with strong female leads…these things exist, and they’ve got their proponents and their devoted followings. The problem is somewhat similar to the one that CrossFit faced with the way it appeared to be marketing its fit and rugged female competitors: capitalist pressures ensure that a certain amount of trashy media is always going to be forced on us, because a certain amount of trashy media is always going to sell.
Do I envision a future that doesn’t include these insipid big-gun shooters and annual $59.99 EA Sports roster updates (they don’t include a concussion litigation mode, alas)? No, at least not barring a rapid increase in the pace of the Flynn effect. The big-gun shooters, besides being generally quite misogynistic, are also grist for the mill for Tipper Gore/Lynne Cheney “think about the children!” types, whose outrage only serves to increase interest in these games. The EA Sports roster updates exist, much like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and SportsCenter, as mindless accompaniments to nights spent at home with a bag of endo, a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, and a 24-pack of regular strength Mountain Dew.
I imagine that several centuries hence, historians will reflect with fascination on how legions of bros whiled away their twilight hours partaking of the services of Grand Theft Auto prostitutes and levelling small towns with their bare hands. And though this generation of historians will be as reluctant as previous ones to make any moral judgments about the past, at least a few of them will stop and think, “damn, what a bunch of morons.”
*Though if gamers do wish to play as women, they can avail themselves of such classics as Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3, in which they can engage in steamy lesbian affairs with their companions.