Thursday, August 7, 2014

How Video Games Make Me a Better Person

First, a disclaimer: I have a lot of privilege. I'm white. Male. Heterosexual. Middle class. Cisgendered. Able bodied. I have a few marginalized statuses, but you probably couldn't tell any of them by looking at me, so I pass, out in the world. These experiences are from my point of view, and they may be somewhat sophist to people who experience marginalization and systematic oppression every day.

I tend to be a bit outspoken when it comes to social justice issues. When I say "tend to" and "a bit" you understand that I mean most of my friends (even those who agree with me) have gone through at least one or two moments on Facebook where they said, "Chris, please shut up. Please for the love of God, just shut up. Just for a few minutes. Just this once. Please!"

From time to time, however, someone offers up some slightly more savvy discourse, and they often end up wondering, in particular, about how I came to care so much about the issues I have. Formative experiences about speaking out against injustice involve my mom, and no small amount of bravery can be attributed to my idolization of Luke Skywalker. But those experiences set a timber. They laid the foundation for wanting to do the right thing. They don't themselves help me parse the thicket of discourse to determine what the right thing is.

That comes from video games.

When I was young, video games were pretty simple. The first game I ever played involved a square picking up an arrow to go look for a chalice, and my favorite game required you to run to the right until you died three times. (You could run to the left, but the crocodiles were easier to jump going right.) And of course there was an inexplicable hostility that a certain airplane had for the river it was raiding.

Boss fight. Circa 1979.
Shit just got real, yo.
As I grew up, video games got better and their objectives improved. There was plenty of rescuing princesses, of course, and stopping alien brains, and terrorist organizations who apparently had the money to build giant fighting mecha but didn't think to put some motion detectors outside their death fortresses, but we also started to see more complex machinations. Villains didn't always just twirl their mustaches or go by names like Sinistar–some of them even thought they were the good guy.

As we reached the turn of the century, and video games began to come into their own as a complex and nuanced art form, we gamers began to take on the avatar mantle of heroes in much more complicated dramas. Sometimes we were on the wrong side when we started out. Sometimes the villains lied. Sometimes complicated political dramas were unfolding with no moral protagonist.
Of course these days in video games we can even choose to be complete dicks, adding a whole new layer of choice and complexity to the journey of the gamer.

Like, COMPLETE dicks.
All this nuance and flexibility has helped me to be a better person. We can all figure out how to be a good guy when evil aliens show up to destroy Earth. We can all make the "right" choice when some eight foot tall fucking BDSM turtle kidnaps a woman who's begging for help.  But as things get more complicated, and everyone is just looking out for their own interests, it becomes a little tougher to figure out whose side of the story to listen to. That's where video games come in.

Imagine you fired up a video game and entered in the starting city of a modern (yet steampunk because steampunk is awesome) town. You're probably going to talk to a bunch of people and find out what's going on. And you will start by talking to everyone. You won't just talk to one group or another. They've all got stories. You won't ignore someone who lives in the bad part of town. You know (as any good gamer knows) that there may be vital information in the hands of basically anyone. You don't value any stories more than any others.

Now imagine the first people you talk to are kind of bitter and mean. They treat you with some hostility but they do talk to you. They tell you of terrible things happening to them. They all have stories about how their experience isn't fair. They don't get enough steam for their punks in their part of town. They are powerless. Poor. They may even ask you to help them. They have definite perceptions about injustice in which they exist. They say it is all around and permeates their lives. Their ancestors were very badly treated, and even though things are better, they still aren't equal.

As you move on, you discover a second group. They are much nicer and friendlier. This group lives in a better part of town. They are, by and large, richer and much more powerful. They have all the steam they need and their punks are well stocked. Almost everyone on the TV shows is from the second group and they control the voice that comes over the city-wide PA system telling everyone what a fine equality-loving society they all live in. Almost everyone in political power is from the second group. Almost every notable person in this city's history seems to be from the second group.

The second group tell you that the first group is making things up. Sure, they were an unfair society one generation ago, but that's all ancient history (the ancient history of one generation ago). Certainly there aren't any deep seated inequalities to overcome. They tell you that the first group just wants to put them down. They say they are simply being a victim because of the benefits they hope to get from pity. In some cases they acknowledge that some injustice still exists in a detached and intellectual way, but they insist that it is self correcting, often dismiss specific claims by group one, and firmly believe that any attempts by the first group to right the injustice are "worse." They really discourage you from listening to the stories. Not overtly, of course, but by explaining that they are better able to see injustice than group one.

And Group Two is all played by Troy Baker, Nolan North and Sam Witwer - Ed
Laws exist that make it extremely difficult for the people in group one to advance themselves into the worlds of group two (though technically it is possible and a few have done it to much fanfare and are often touted as evidence of modern equality). Further, a few people in group two are quite overt about how they are superior and should be in a better position. They blame most of the group one's troubles on the actions of group one, often suggesting that if they would just be less hostile, they would probably be in a better situation. It is considered uncouth to voice the opinion directly that group one is inferior, but such opinions are merely considered impolite (and are not immediately censured in the same way as group one's cry of injustice). If these opinions are spoken of in double speak or abstractions, however, they are considered quite acceptable. There are many theories about why the first group is disadvantaged and they are all discussed by the second group with a sort of intellectual detachedness. Many in group two talk at length about what they would do to have better lives if they were in group one.

Group two has nothing to gain and everything to lose from even the acknowledgement of the injustice.

Would any gamer have any difficulty realizing what is going on in this scenario? Would anyone not know which group to support to get the "good" ending and which would get the "evil" ending?

Video games helped me to realize that most people look around our world from the inside. We've been here our whole lives. We're used to it. We're desensitized. WE ARE THE NPC'S! We are the status quo. But as soon as we look at our world from the perspective of someone who just turned the game on five minutes ago, it becomes shockingly, absurdly, spectacularly easy to realize what is really going on.

When we take the time to listen to the stories of different people, as we would if we were walking around a game world trying to figure out what was going on (and instead of listening to who was in power), we immediately get a sense that our world is not just haphazardly and randomly unfair, but is systematically oppressive. Instead of letting the group in charge tell us that it's fair or as fair as it can be or any unfairness is probably the fault of those suffering, we can go and get the stories from the people themselves and listen to them. The minute we listen to everyone as if they have something vital and important to tell us (and they do) about this world, the truth is laid bare. When we value all the stories around us as equal instead of letting those in power explain away inequality it is almost comical how apparent the injustices are.

In my world (as distressingly unsteampunk as it is) I have a choice to listen to one group–the group in power (a largely male, white, heterosexual, able bodied, cis group)–who insist that nothing is really wrong that couldn't be fixed if people would just try harder instead of complaining. Or I can seek out other voices and other narratives and let the people best equipped to describe their own situations describe it for themselves. Women who've experience harassment and sexism. People of color who've experience racism. Disabled people who've found difficulty accessing the same services as the able bodied. I can find those people and I can listen to their stories and see that they paint a very different picture than those overwhelming the mainstream. And once I have bothered to listen to the stories of those who are not in control of the narrative–and treated those stories as equal to the ones who are–it's only a matter of deciding whether I want to be Luke Skywalker or a complete dick.

Chris Brecheen writes his own blog at Writing About Writing. He wouldn't mind if you stopped by to take a look.

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