Some gamers complain about how critics are suddenly commenting about every game's political significance. And in a way, they're right. Some games criticism is indeed way more nuanced than it was in the nineties, when we had to hunt our cartridges with wooden spears. I want to write for a bit about the best interpretation of this phenomenon1.
The specific brand of gamer I'm talking about normally complain because they feel they can't enjoy games simply anymore: they long for the days when you could fire up Contra and nobody would mention what "Contra" actually means2. You'd get a graphics score, a sound score, a playability score, a few other grades, a total, and that was it.
Gaming can give a beautiful feeling of escaping current problems -bullying, lousy parents, inadequacy back then, the garbage fire of a world we live in today- into a simple world of shooting or punching or combining stuff in our inventory at things. On that level, I get those gamers. Things were simple and nice inside our games, ugly outside, and now suddenly things are not simple and nice anymore3.
On another basic level, this is the problem with People Saying Mean Things About Things We Like. I myself don't enjoy people saying the Argentine football team play like ass, even if it is kind of true. So I understand how people that are excited about something can be a bit angry about a review that paints that thing in an unfavorable light.. I am kind of baffled, though, at people with the ability to mow down countless mooks without a care in the world and suddenly having a problem because the mook mower is a Black man, or a woman, or, worse, a Black woman with purple hair.
Thing is, many of the instances where games or games criticism veer into the "political" are actually cases in which a group of people was not represented in games before, and is now. And some people don't like it. Other cases are due to critics and developers actually thinking, writing nuanced criticism and developing games with more nuanced plots. More people are playing, more people are making games, more people are making games criticism. Many of those people -many of the best of those people- are not like the archetypical gamer of 1987: we see women gamers, queer gamers, trans gamers, Black gamers, and each and every one of them has the same right to play. Every one of them has a right to code their game, tell their story, comment on a game they played, pen a critique.
The people I am talking about might -if we interpret their actions and words in the most charitative way possible- not be actively racist, or misogynist, or transphobic, or fatphobic, or anything. They simply haven't had to think about what they do or about what they consume, and now they feel forced to. And they don't like it.
I'll use Contra as an example: it was perfectly OK for a japanese developer in 1987 to code a game about two white dudes shooting the hell out of soldiers and aliens, and for game critics to write that it played like heaven and sounded awesome. Action movies of the time did the same thing. The problem with pretending that things go back to that blissful state is that we've grown up, and discovered that contras were actually "various U.S.-backed and funded right-wing rebel groups that were active from 1979 to the early 1990s in opposition to the socialist Sandinista Junta of National Reconstruction Government in Nicaragua" (From wikipedia). Now, glorifying US-funded guerrillas that fought to topple a sovereign socialist government might be OK for you, but it's not for me. The past is in the past, but if you make this game again today, expect that people will call you out. Even if you made it really slick and fun to play. And it will hurt to be called out for something that, up until yesterday, was completely OK for you to do.
You as a gamer are perfectly entitled to not care about this. Shoot away, my friend. Focus on the part of the review where it says how Contra 23 still handles perfectly, is hard as nails, sounds like an angelic choir of heavy metal, and pays perfect homage to 16-bit graphics. You do you. But I do I, and I like to read the other part of the review, and decide if I want a mindless afternoon or if I prefer something made with a bit more thought. And if you start harassing people on the internet about it... We as a world have mostly turned a page and decided that meddling with sovereign governments in this way sucks, and if you make this same game today, a games critic is perfectly entitled to write on how your game has an unimaginative plot full of problematic references, and you should think how other people -like, say, the Nicaraguans shot by contras- had it way worse than you, get over it, and carry on, because the alternative is to let the feeling fester inside you. And, let me reassure you: there will never be want for games where the main character is exactly what you'd like to be: strong, gruff, stoic, tall, white. You can sleep easy tonight. I swear.
Image by Mike Meyers
^1 Many, many people have already commented on the many, many ways in which gamers are wrong, or worse than wrong. Death threats and sexual harassment against critics. Gatekeeping women, people of color, queer and trans people. Etc.
^2 I was born in Argentina in 1980. I played Contra on the Family Game (Chinese knock-offs of the NES). I did not know what Contra meant, nor thought about it.
^3 This is not a phenomenon restricted to gaming: Tolkien wrote thousands of pages on how a simple life in the country is better than industrialization, and how its innocence should be preserved. He probably would not have enjoyed Contra, though.