Thursday, November 6, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Another Response to Video Game "Scholars"

I figured I'd post another response I have to what I consider to be unfair assessment of gaming from the eyes of cynical scholars.  Before going on, though, two things.  First, I link the article in question, which I warn you, is long

Second, I should note, my stance has changed a bit since writing the article.  I am now more vocally critical of the "gangsta" culture depicted in the games in question (mostly Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas); however, I still maintain my assertion in my pasted essay, that video games in particular are being unfairly singled out for what has become the accepted cultural norm, even among the race the writers claim are unfairly treated.  So there's a legitimate conversation to be had as to whether this set of values has sold society a brand of romanticized, commodified racism, but it supersedes video games to the point that they shouldn't even be part of it.  Now, my response, for those who read the original article:

Challenging the claims made in this article feels somewhat halfhearted to me, because I agree, on some level, that there is a legitimate point to be made here, and I believe that the writers were legitimately trying to make it.  There are some seedy aspects of our culture that manifest themselves emphatically in games, and that is regrettable—but I do take issue with the way Everett and Watkins classify it as “racist,” and I feel that some obviously pertinent points against that conclusion are being left out.
            That the label “racist” gets thrown around far too liberally in today’s culture is no secret to many observers.  Centuries of true racism have engendered an understandable resentment among minorities, but resentment can make people behave rashly, in this case by being too quick to hit anyone they perceive as mistreating them with a label that has become taboo.  Literally-defined, racism is the belief that certain races are inferior to others; the presence of racial stereotypes is not necessarily unrelated but also not necessarily related, as stereotypes can be positive.  While every person is an individual, races, nationalities, and groups in general have long taken pride in certain notable characteristics typical of them, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that.  Even so, the violent, thuggish nature depicted of black people in the “urban/street” games genre the article describes, would almost certainly qualify as negative, would it not?
            In fact, no it wouldn’t; not necessarily.  The article examines the aspects of these games on their own, compared to what they see as the white “norm” of video games, and from this angle, such games as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and NBA Ballers can seem to take a negative, reductive view of black culture, but the more important angle is being ignored: The chain of events that brought society to this point.
            With regards to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the writers try to prove a point about how blacks are stereotyped as brutal and violent in games, by comparing it to the subsequently released Bully (Also by Rockstar Games), which stars an upper-class white character in a private school, and is comparatively tame.  In the process, the writers make some ridiculously unprofessional errors when pointing to visual figures spliced into their text, but although such mistakes are blatant and laughable, the real problem is that only Bully is being compared to GTA:SA; all of the GTA titles released up to that point are being completely ignored, and should not be.  Even a cursory look at the prior titles in the GTA series would demonstrate that they starred white protagonists, and were just as criminal and violent as San Andreas would become (although they did become more graphically-so with the jump to close third-person 3-D in Grand Theft Auto III), giving lie to the notion that the series portrays blacks as especially vicious.  In fact (and here I recall Soraya Murray’s article), the white protagonists had the more sinister motives; those of crime for either its own sake or for the sake of mere profit; whereas San Andreas’s C.J. is driven to crime based on his desperate poverty and alienation by a corrupt society.  The black protagonist is one of the more sympathetic characters; yes, his minority society is awash in crime and grunge, but it isn’t through any fault of their own.  To be sure, all of the GTA games are stereotypical, hyperbolic, and satirical, but to call them racist for this is missing the point they’re actually trying to get across: Black society isn’t inherently criminal; it has become that way out of mistreatment by white racist institutions.  San Andreas is an anti-racist game.
            Further indicative of the writers’ “born yesterday” outlook is the way they ignore the cultural evolution that precipitated many of the tropes that they now see in urban/street games.  Black culture has, over the past (roughly forty) decades it has played a distinctive role in the media, become very ironic.  Long shunned and looked down upon by the white majority, it is a culture that has come to embrace what white culture has derided.  The word, “bad” has long served as slang roughly interchangeable with “cool,” the “n word” has become acceptable; even endearing when used by one black man to describe another, and now the whole hard-knock life in the ghettos has become romanticized as a quintessential part of African-American culture.  Now, such originally-negative terms as “gangster” (or “gangsta”), “thug,” “pimp,” and “dope” (as in, the detractor name for drugs) are looked upon with affection, and not just by the African-American community but by society as a whole.  The whole criminal lifestyle associated with such key words, too, has become fetishized.  We see it in movies, in TV shows, and in rap music videos, and when we aren’t seeing it we are hearing about it in lyrics and even in modern lexicon.  This is not racist stereotyping, as Everett and Watkins accuse it of being; it is the identity that a large part of black culture has chosen for itself.
            Does such a choice of identity come with its own problems?  Of course it does.  Romanticizing crime is always a controversial and potentially-detrimental practice.  The gripe with this article’s commentary on the situation, however, lies with its failure to consider such romanticism in its actual context.  Not for the first time, video games are getting singled out for containing controversial elements, when the reason the games contain said elements is because they are reflecting our own society, a society that objects less when such motifs are being piped in via older forms of media. 
That is not to say that there isn’t a problem with the representation of race in video games, but the limited representation actually doesn’t have much to do with racism, because games do not hate African-Americans or their culture; on a certain level, they love both.  Rather, the problem is, as with many things relating to popular culture, the pressure to conform to what is “cool,” and right now, it is apparent that “gangsta” culture is cool.  Time will tell if games stay in this mode, but I doubt they will ever lapse into actual racism at this point.

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