Tuesday, June 17, 2014

I Still Hate Bioshock: Infinite and Gamer Culture

Maybe it's because I had such a terrible commute this morning, but I can't get Bioshock: Infinite out of my head. More accurately, the response to it.

The end of last year was a rough time for gamers, because the inevitable "best of" lists came down the line like bullets from a gatling cannon. We discovered, to our horror, that the reviewers and critics we respected had listed some truly loathsome games as their favorites.

Bioshock: Infinite and Tomb Raider were the big ones for me. I hated both those games with a deep and abiding resentment that soured my opinion of anyone that liked them. Both were horrific.

Tomb Raider was openly horrific, like Hotline Miami. I could vaguely accept people liking those games, because ultraviolence, torture, and extremely boring depictions of human sadism are accepted parts of gamer culture. Getting upset with people liking Tomb Raider is like getting upset at people liking JRPGs or League of Legends. I can separate myself from that and say "well, it's just not a genre I like".

There are people who insist Tomb Raider is not an ultraviolent sadistic torturefest, but there are people who insist League of Legends is an inviting game and JRPGs are intense.

What I can't really get over, even now, is Bioshock: Infinite.

See, BI was created specifically to pander to straight white males ages 18-40, but it was created with a slightly new kind of pandering.

I grew up with games pandering to my demographic using violence and tits and manly-man growling. I was saturated in it, to the point where I didn't even really notice it any more.

BI tried to pander with obfuscated science-fiction storylines.

Sorry, Levine, I'm a connoisseur. I grew up on the very best science fiction. I remember my first viewings of Akira and Ghost in the Shell: both times I thought "oh, a good take on a standard story".

I was actively repulsed by the shallow plodding storyline in BI because it was so sub-par. When I read all the accolades about how amazing the story was, I was confused. The story was the weakest part of the game. Not just the big notes, but also the small ones. There were only a few story beats I liked, and even then they were usually screwed up in the last second by an overly heavy pandering hand.

Searching for other people who hated the story, I was struck that nearly all of them were not straight white males age 18-40.

They called out the story for a number of other problems. Racism, sexism, classism, and more. While the game attempted to make a racist, sexist, classist setting for the purpose of calling out those flaws, it ended up also BEING racist, sexist, and classist underneath that.

I thought this was all very interesting, and I learned a lot.

But that's because I had an "in". I already thought the game was crap, and I was hunting for people with the same opinion. When I found out that they had the same opinion for different reasons, I was able to sympathize and see their approach without feeling defensive, much like when you find someone likes the same band as you, but has a different favorite album.

Unfortunately, 99% of game reviewers and critics are straight while men age 18-40. And they were pandered to.

They loved this game because it touched them in all the spots they liked to be touched. It made them feel smart and mysterious and ruggedly awesome all at the same time. They loved it.

And when they heard these voices talking about how awful it was, they got defensive. They never actually listened to what the detractors were saying.

Many of them went into "full offensive defense" mode, like Jim Sterling. However, apparently Jim's first encounter with the detractors was with the people who hated the ultra-violent nature of the game, because he (and many others imitating him) defended themselves against that complaint with all the vigor they could muster. IE, they made fun of anyone who thought it was too violent.

Maybe it's because people who thought it was too violent were safe targets, as compared to women, people of color, and people struggling to earn enough to eat. Whether consciously or subconsciously, those targets were ignored like they didn't exist and had never said anything. Instead, it was "make fun of the namby-pambies that don't like violence" mode.

Any time I saw someone do this - and I saw it a lot - it really broke my heart. It showed just how exclusionary the gaming community was. Jim Sterling was probably the center of this, which is why I keep bringing him up.

See, Jim used to be a real toxic guy. However, when I started watching him last year I found he had really turned it around. He wasn't perfect, but he was a much better person and much more aware of misogyny and racism than before. I was sort of holding him up as an example of how "bro gamers" could become more culturally aware. He was a crack in the armor of exclusionary gaming culture, a path forward.

And then he held aloft a pandering example of exclusion as his best game of 2013. The crack in the armor was patched.

To me, the message was clear: gamer culture doesn't need to be inclusive. It can just get older.

I'm writing this so late not to dig up old wounds, but because I wasn't sure until now that I was really affected as deeply as I thought. But six months have passed, and I'm still upset.

Once I started pulling at these threads, my investment in "gamer culture" unraveled. For six months I've been completely unable to enjoy any major game, because all I can see is exclusionary bullshit. Even indie games often feel exclusionary.

I didn't make any conscious decision to not enjoy 99% of games any more. I just found that I could suddenly smell bullshit, and everything stank.

Although I can't speak for them, I can't help but think that this must be how basically everyone who isn't a straight white male age 18-40 feels about games. And I have to say: it's pretty bad. That there are gamers from outside that demographic amazes me. They have a level of tolerance and endurance I cannot even imagine, to enjoy something that stinks this badly.

I can't do it.

Games stink too much.

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