When Escapism Is Not Okay

We need to make better games.

I was at PAX Dev last week, the almost-new game developers conference that runs just before the Penny Arcade Expo. We were told not to tweet or blog about the content of the conference to allow developers to feel safe talking about strategies and stats, so I’m going to attempt to talk in more general terms — because what I want to talk about it extremely important.

One of the panels at PAX Dev — and in fact the reason I went in the first place — was on Ending Harassment in Gaming, a topic very much in the public eye in the last little while.

One of the points brought up at this panel, and the roundtable on the subject I attended after, was the line between harassment and escapism –that direct attacks against real people are harassment, but that acts in-game against non-player characters — such as, say, beating a prostitute in Grand Theft Auto — are escapism, and that escapism is a separate issue more likely to be “okay.”

The problem is, we as gamers have long internalized that, say, violent video games are not the cause of real-world shootings, and so it’s easy to believe that escapism-based crimes are harmless.

Or in my case, my gut feeling was that they shouldn’t be okay, but I couldn’t for a moment justify it in the face of the shooting-things-in-games-doesn’t-lead-to-shooting-things-in-life argument.

But, I think there’s a major — and extremely important — difference between connecting war games and real-life shootings, and connecting other forms of so-called escapism with a subtler and more insidious misogyny, homophobia, and racism.

Picking up a gun in a game and shooting people is not going to make me pick up a gun in real life. But consistently being allowed — even encouraged? — to make hateful choices and take hateful actions, and being consistently faced with misogynistic, homophobic, and racist depictions of people in games can cause a shift in my perceptions and a lowering of the barrier that normally prevents me from acting in accordance with such perceptions (ie, harassment).

Therefore, while funding solutions to prevent active harassment in games is extremely important, I think it is equally important to, as game developers, make better games. Games that don’t promote hate. Games that actively work to promote acceptance, understanding, and empathy. Games that expand our audiences.

Games with strong female characters.

Games with female characters that aren’t just boobs and butts.

Games with characters who aren’t white.

Games with LGBT characters — yes, all letters of the initialism, and more.

Games with LGBT characters who aren’t stereotypes, or defined by their sexuality.

Games with female, non-white, and/or LGBT characters in leading roles.

Games that reward more accepting choices.

Games that really show what it’s like to be all of the above.

This will help our communities. It will better us, it will welcome new audiences, it will help lower harassment in-game and out. On top of which, it makes economic sense — welcome new gamers, make them feel safe, find more audience, keep them around, make more money.

Entertainment is a reflection of culture, but it also defines culture. It’s our duty as game developers, as creators of entertainment, to improve our culture. To do better.

Thanks to Scott Dodson for putting the panel together and inviting the majority of the few female speakers at PAX Dev, and for George Skleres for running the roundtable. This post is mirrored at my transmedia/business site, Silverstring Media.

3 comments on this post.
  1. Rear:

    Wonderful discussion.

  2. George Skleres:

    Nice write up! The panel was a lot of fun and had a turn out way larger than I expected. It’s good to know that there are a lot of game devs out there who take this issue seriously. We can make a lot of progress together as an industry! :)

  3. Lucas J.W. Johnson:

    Thanks for the comment, George, and for putting together such a great discussion! I definitely think there’s a lot of promise. =)
    Now I must go continue my mod-enabled doomed romance with Alistair and simultaneous love affair with Zev…

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