Six years in: reflections on gaming culture and a revised mission statement Essay category

Screenshot from The Journeyman Project

About six years ago, I realized that I wanted to share my love for forgotten games with the rest of the world. A lot has happened since then, both personally and culturally. I have largely left the “core” gaming world and found some much-needed perspective that I would feel negligent not to discuss here. Put simply, the insularity, prejudice, and anger that surrounds video games is horrifying and, if left unchecked, will surely destroy this terrific and expressive medium.

More now than ever, I find it essential to celebrate the weird and out-of-the-way games of yesteryear. Serendipity and discovery are merits on their own, but they also promote a healthier, more fun, more vibrant, and more inclusive culture. I want to reaffirm my commitment to this site and to emphasize the good things that obscurities can bring about.

When I grew up, video game culture was very much the domain of adolescent boys. And as an adolescent boy, I loved that. Between the console wars and the shockingly juvenile ads, mainstream gaming was controlled by the angriest, loudest, and craziest voices. Video games were our territory, and in many ways, that was okay for a while. Gaming was going through its growing pains, and it had to start somewhere. Twenty years have passed since the release of the original PlayStation, and the umbrella of gaming has grown to include more people and styles of play than ever. And yet video game culture is still somehow in the same place.

Discussion in the video game community today is ruled by arguments about which console “wins,” whether liking a certain game makes you an inferior person, how “casuals” and new audiences are ruining games, how anything below a certain technical specification is garbage, who to vilify as “biased” or “corrupt” by nebulous and prejudiced standards, and in what way companies are intangibly betraying their fans. If you spend much of your life immersed in this culture, as I had, it can be difficult to notice this creeping resentment. It’s a painful realization to make, but contemporary “gamer” culture is insular and discriminatory.

There’s a part of me deep down that empathizes with people who react harshly to construed attacks on “their” culture. As a child, I certainly turned to gaming as an escape, and I recognize the urge to be overly protective of a cultural force that provided you positive experiences and some form of refuge. But understand that this impulse is negative and detrimental to gaming. At best, it arbitrarily cuts off outsiders and new people from experiencing the most exciting type of media in the world. At its most insidious, it is actively misogynistic and violent, encouraging harassment and rage as legitimate forms of communication and expression.

There will always be jerks and sociopaths, but in gaming, this sort of behavior is endemic. Anger and hatred are recurring traits among a vocal and sizable portion of the gaming audience. Visit the comments section – or even the main articles – of any video game site, and you will find them overrun with hostility, defensiveness, and divisiveness. When a critic like Anita Sarkeesian suggests that we reassess how video games portray violence and women, the core constituency of “gamers” erupts in impossible fury and death threats. That isn’t because it’s “just the Internet” or “the trolls” or “boys being boys.” Those are real people who feel that way. They are the outward face of video games. This should not be normal. It’s not okay. Some of this may be from antisocial and belligerent people, but I can attest first-hand that it’s largely from well-meaning people who don’t understand the social consequences of their actions. But regardless of intentions, the darkness and bitterness of the “gamer” community is inarguable, and it has never been more visibly on display.

Screenshot from The Labyrinth of Time

Everyone deserves to play and to talk about games in a positive and constructive environment. EVERYONE.

It is no longer possible for me to ignore this. Games are for everyone. We shouldn’t accept that the close-minded and cynical are the core audience of video games or that game developers should cater exclusively to this group. We should all celebrate the exciting variety of games out there and find ways to welcome new people into this amazing medium.

To be clear, this is not an indictment of video games. Even the crappy ones. Games are terrific, and we all culturally richer for having and playing them. But their community – either intentionally or by happenstance – is a liability that drives off the curious and discourages the enthusiastic. We should always work to make gaming a more welcoming place for different people, perspectives, and ideas.

So how does this affect The Obscuritory? It’s simple: I want this blog to bring more love, enjoyment, and acceptance to gaming.

Back in high school, I wrote an article for the school paper about Mass Effect. A non-game-playing friend of mine took great interest in it, but they seemed lost by the phrase “third-person squad-based shooter.” There are all sorts of little vocabulary tics and behavioral patterns that we don’t realize turn off the uninitiated. Since that article, I have always attempted to write in a straightforward, approachable style, but I will now recommit to writing in a style that’s approachable by anyone. You can read terrific articles about film and television without having to know the exact parlance and machinations of those industries, and it should be the same for games.

I’m also committing to a heightened awareness of some of the social elements presents in the games I review. The presumed straight-white-male audience of games often leads to some undesirable content and messages that make games uncomfortable to new players. If we want games to be more accessible, we should deal with their implied or explicit politics. This blog primarily looks at games from the 80s and 90s, so it’s impossible and exhausting to chronicle every time women or minorities are treated poorly. And that’s not the goal of this blog. But when games like Noctropolis treat women like foreign objects, it’s in the interest of diversity and inclusion that I call them out. I also find it important to spotlight the achievements of outside voices, and the world of obscure games is full of them.

But most importantly, I am doubling down on how much I want to write about the weird and the niche games of yesteryear. There is no better way to push back against intolerance and dismissiveness than sincere curiosity and excitement. I want to live in a world where people love talking about interesting and unusual games, where they share their experiences and open each others’ eyes to new ideas and perspectives. I started this blog because I wanted to explore oddball forgotten games, and I still think that digging up old gems is its own reward. But after six years, I now realize how much constructive and positive discussion can be generated through this uncharted territory. When we expand the discourse of gaming, it brings in new ideas, original voices, and intrigued audiences. It benefits everyone. Angst: Rahz’s Revenge is a very very very bad game, but I have hilarious, fond memories of discovering and playing it. I would gladly share a million Angst: Rahz’s Revenges rather than see gaming languish in a closed system of discontent, bitterness, and exclusion.

If you find yourself in that part of the gaming community that thrives on outrage and shoos off perceived outsiders, I implore you to step back and please think about the harmful impact that your words and behavior can have, intentionally or unintentionally. Nothing can be gained from hating games, game players, or developers. No good comes from closing games off with shibboleths and litmus tests. But if you truly believe that gaming is better off in a state of perpetual cynicism, that anger and entitlement are the best engines to power communities, and that women and other minorities do not have meaningful perspectives on the gaming discourse, then I do not want your readership. Gaming’s cultural echo chamber is toxic and, frankly, not reflective of how the world works. Every game has something to offer, and every person has unique viewpoints, perspectives, and experiences that should be celebrated. Having fun with unknown games is my way of saying yes to variety, inclusion, and positive spirits.


  • Jamie

    Nice article. Judging by the fact Mass effect (2007) came out while you were in high school, you’re about 10 years junior to me, but I feel the exact same way about old games. I think much of your opening is probably timeless in its appeal to anyone who loves video game culture, right back to ADVENT and SPACEWAR on mainframes.

    There’s been an obvious change in the last 15 years or so where games changed from a hit-and-miss art form to mass-produced big budget entertainment. Many of the truly great games of the 90s were written by studios who produced some truly rubbish (or at least mediocre) games inbetween. Back then that was seen as ok. You win some, you lose some, but you still made what you wanted. Most importantly, you didn’t have to ship minimum 50000 units before EA disbanded your team and made you all work on this year’s football/warfare game. I feel video games of those days were more varied and expressive. How many good games have we never seen because of this focus on mass-market and constant winners? The team who makes a flop one game, might well produce the next Diablo or Command & Conquer for their next game.

    To some extent, the independent developer scene fills this niche today, though some so-called “indie” titles snowball quickly and have massive budgets. In 1994, “indie” meant one kid on his own making Ken’s Labyrinth. In 2014, “indie” just seems to mean “hasn’t been acquired by EA yet”. How independent are you if you’re a team of a dozen people making a cross-platform game with exclusivity deals? Anyway I digress.

    I’ve wondered myself if this modern dilution of video games and intentional appeal to mass market or “casuals” or “bro gamers” has contributed to sexism in the genre. If we didn’t have AAA titles largely aimed at young boys and men who’ll often hurl “i fuked ur mom”-style abuse at inboxes as soon as they are bested, would the games industry be better off? As you say, the track record of variety, inclusion, and positivity wasn’t exactly stellar beforehand, but surely capturing and encouraging this market’s trash talk and derision isn’t doing video games any favors.

    Stepping away from video games, the fact that [Western] culture is increasingly aware of things like gender inequality is fantastic. We’ve talked about it for some time. We’re early in the “doing things about it” stage. In time, gender equality will become the norm. For some intelligent people it already is the norm. The same thing happened with slavery, is still in the middle stages with racism, and is in very early stages with sexual equality. In time, a long time, everyday people will reel with disgust about the way things are in our time now.

    Good on you for being someone who promotes forward thinking. I’m proud to say I’ll be an ongoing reader.

  • DoomRater

    There was a ZDoom thread recently about “Games that should be played”. I took it from it’s original focus and recommended some games I felt people should play just to be aware of them. Of course someone takes that to mean people should just go out and play Dr Jeckell and Mr Hyde… to which I responded, why not? If there’s something to be learned about video games from playing it, then it should be experienced. I think more can be gathered from something like the NES Turtles game, but I’m not going to say that a game, good or bad, shouldn’t be played just to know about it.

    It’s not much of a fight against the other rampant crap in the gaming community, but I’ll get there.

  • Phil "Shadsy" Salvador

    Little things like that do matter, DoomRater! 🙂 Anything that encourages a culture of positivity and curiosity matters a great deal towards making gaming a better place.

  • NewFlesh

    It seems like gaming culture today is all about simulation of real life things, you wouldn’t dare to do in your life. So it is only logical where games like Manhunt, or other things that encourage violence will be the dominant genre in the gaming industry. A lot of people have a lot of anger and violence suppressed in their personality, especially when you’re in your teenage years. Mainstream video games (as well as other types of media, such as Hollywood movies, or some sorts of sports) is a tool for them to channel their aggresive feelings in “the right way”, so they’ll not use it in real life.

    However, it still means our society has a lot of violence deep within. And all of the more creative and non-violent titles are either for kids, or occupy the niche of some indie culture, or 90’s adventures and quest genres (which becuase of the inferior technology, designers had to be way more creative and sometimes the outcome resulted in something rather obscure.)

    For my final opinion. I think there is a room for these violent types of media in our life, just for the sake of preventing from people being violent and criminals in real life. However, because most of the things we consume are violent, and death in cinema and games is trivial as eating your breakfast in real life, it says very sad thing about our culture having to channel these aggressions to games and sports. I’m affraid that some day these types of first world pleasures will just not suffice anymore, people will just want the real thing. I hope I’ll be wrong.

  • James

    I’m also concerned about the types of behaviour from those who want more inclusion. While the sentiment is good, it may not match the personality or actions of the people involved. Endorsing a good idea does not necessarily mean anyone endorsing the idea is also a good person.

    If there is to be changes to gaming, they should happen on their own, which is already in the process of happening. Misogynistic things in video games are reflections of society and of the typical (expected) gaming audience. Movies have been the same for years, but they are somewhat more balanced. I think gaming can withstand a similar balancing attempt.

    I don’t want to exclude anybody from gaming or suggesting games need improvement as a cultural mirror. They do need to improve, absolutely. But, realistically, I don’t think it will happen all at once.

    Ultimately, there are misogynistic things in games, but people still buy them. If they were less that way, would they sell as well? Whether or not these games *should* be different, they still sell.

    Should we have questioned the frequently androcentric culture view in gaming when choosing what we buy? Maybe so, but a good deal of us were children at the time we started gaming. We have attachments to this media the same way some feel nostalgia for movies. A lot of people resent the idea that their “childhood sweetheart” (gaming) could be anything other than perfect; I still feel that way, somewhat.

    But now that we’re adults (or at least near it), we’re always endorsing something with our wallets and/or lack of complaint. Either we accept that we didn’t/don’t have a problem with that, or fight it by complaining to dev companies, tell them what we like or dislike about the games they’re giving us. Maybe even make a game of our own, if no one else’s games are satisfying.

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