This blog, Verboten Games, has long been an advocate of games as an interactive medium over a being vehicle for narrative. Story-driven games bring their own set of problems; when modeling games after older forms of media, there is the danger of inheriting their problems too.
Popular culture commentator Anita Sarkeesian does a series of videos, Tropes vs Women in Video Games. Although research is spotty (and America-centric) and examples are cherry-picked for confirmation bias over more balanced evidence analysis, it is very noble in its intentions.
However, the fact that it is patterned after Sarkeesian’s earlier Tropes vs Women series, exemplifies the problem outlined above – like the video series, games are generally produced as a ‘child’ entertainment medium to more-established media, and have therefore been bequeathed a multitude of those media’s representational problems, not just for gender but for race, mental illness, trans-visibility… the list goes on.
These problems, however, are inherited rather than being inherent. Games, in and of themselves, are not intolerant.
Games, when abstracted and deconstructed to their base elements, are predominantly activities with defined rules which explore and manipulate space to an end, or win condition. Sarkeesian makes a great case for the misrepresentation of women in the Damsel in Distress series of Tropes vs… videos, but in themselves they do not fairly represent the early years of digital gaming; especially in the West.
When game pieces are abstract representations of a player avatar; as in Marble Madness, Robotron 2084, Asteroids or Centipede; there is no gender to represent or misrepresent. Male, female or other gender, if a player rolls the Marble Madness arcade machine’s trackball, they are the marble. Such is the sublime escapist joy of the interactive form. These player avatars, as were a great many from the early ’80s arcade library, are genderless and therefore free from the potential risk of mis-representing either gender.
One of the main reasons Verboten Games champions ludological content over narrative, is the belief that ludology; the ‘play’ or interactive component of video games; is the medium’s strength, which it should play to. Better to do that, than to instead poach wholesale the weaknesses of other forms of entertainment.
Narrative, or story, has been likened by many authors to “writing what you know”. When there is equality and intolerance in the world at large, then their writing will reflect that they know this – for better or worse. Sarkeesian states that ‘video games do not exist in a bubble’, and this is true. Perhaps when such problems are gone from the wider world, they will be gone from video game stories, too. But also, perhaps video games should be an abstract escape from such problems.