The Dadification of Video Games is Real

(Spoilers about The Last of Us, Bioshock: Infinite, and The Reapers Are the Angels)

I recently watched a Lets Play of The Last of Us, because god forbid I play a shooter ever again in my life. But I do like to keep up with what’s going on and what people are buzzing on about. Something super interesting to me was how similar it was to Bioshock: Infinite, which I also watched. I feel like they really succinctly capture the stage games are going through in reaction to contemporary ideals for the medium: both of the protagonists are older and fathers, both have daughter-role side-kicks, both had news stories about cover art about said daughters, both wanted to deal with mature topics, both had demonized non-white radical activists.

Where TLoU diverges from BS:I might be completely unintentional, but I feel like it stands as a ‘fuck you’ to this aging gamer/game developer population of men trying to keep their killing sprees and titillation while requesting to be taken seriously as creators and players.

The game might have been going for otherwise, but I found Joel to be a straight-up bad person. He’s not complicated, morally gray, or whatever. He’s just a selfish asshole much like many protagonists in video games, and everything that happens in the game is for his benefit. This is evidenced by the final scene, where it’s obvious Ellie wanted to give her life to the cause, and the only reason she is alive is because Joel finally came around to wanting to work on being a good human being who wanted a second chance at having a daughter. Unfortunately, that meant putting aside everyone else’s wants and needs for his own whims: aka an asshole. The audiologs that suggest there were other failed experiments were a weak attempt to complicate his stance; nothing’s complicated, Joel was looking for any excuse to get what he wanted, to the peril of many other people.

The thing is, we are shown time and time again that Ellie is more than capable of taking care of herself. In fact, she does a better job of taking care of them both because Joel can’t get over his pride and general asshattery. Viewing this entire game as a critique, it’s telling you play Ellie when Joel is out of commission and can’t see her be awesome. It’s also telling that her identity-specific drama is surrounded by rape imagery and the actual threat of rape, because right now that seems to be the main way developers get drama out of their women characters. We don’t end Ellie’s chapter with a new insight really, because we always knew she could take care of herself. This makes Joel’s intrusion to the scene even more bitter because you know the game is going back to focus on him just after a girl survived attempted rape.

There is a post-apocalyptic fiction story called The Reapers are the Angels, which has a girl protagonist in a zombie infected world. Like Ellie, she was born after the apocalypse, so this is the only world she knew. And I noticed many differences in how the narrative allowed them to exist, despite both being extremely capable people; Ellie still had a sense of the old world and seemed to be pretty informed of gender roles, when Temple (the main character of the book) occupies what we’d consider an ambiguous space, because traditional women’s gender roles directly impose with survival. Where Ellie was written in a way to inform players of game elements, it really infantilized her when she is pretty much more mature than Joel. Temple also faced attempted rape, but it was near the beginning of the book, and it itself didn’t phase her too much. What rape represented was something she was unfamiliar with; old patriarchal domination. And throughout the book, the brother of her rapist hunts her to avenge his murder, even though he knows it was wrong. Rape wasn’t used to show that Temple was weak and vulnerable, but to show how she differed from the old ways of our current contemporary society. Ellie, on the other hand, had an attempted rape scene just as we give up control of her to ultimately serve as a bonding moment to further Joel’s character arch. This is the same for his daughter in the beginning of the game; you are meant to feel vulnerable and scared as a little girl, innocent to everything going on, and have that emotional buy-in when she’s killed. But her death has little to do with her, rather, to explain why Joel is the way he is. It’s a dad’s version of fridging a girlfriend at the beginning of a game; the more ‘mature’ option is to kill a daughter.

Basically, our audience and developers are getting older, but are still not observant of how they make all other types of people serve them for their character growth. For some reason, we think making people assholes who might change to be nice one day morally complicated. All of this reminds me of when we talk about gun violence, and how much older men still sound like 18-year-olds with how much they still need video games to serve their specific purposes. TLoU was most likely not a comment on the dadification of games, but it stands as a great artifact to talk about it.

Would You Kindly

I thought his eyes were blue. But he reminded me they were the color of shit.

Sitting at the corner of my bed, I watched him dress. It was December, and we had argued again. It’s an argument that I have every relationship I’m in. The one when I ask if we could be seen together in public, for once. Hold hands if he’s feeling bold.

It’s a funny thing, dating a man who’s never known oppression in his life. Where he has nothing to prove and no barriers to entry, there are always open wounds on my body from the briars of American society. He was shaken, to the point of an anxiety attack, that someone would think he was gay if spotted with me. That, he said, was a selfish thing for me to demand.

I looked into his eyes as he imagined what discrimination was like. I wonder, as someone who’s experienced it since the moment they were conscious, how life must be to easily sidestep such terrible treatment by our culture. That isn’t an option I will ever have- his reality, assumed to be the template for which all others are based, is actually a niche phenomenon that doesn’t account for the rest of us. It took all of my effort to not call out “boo-hoo” to his retreating back.

Video games are often like my past lover. They live in fantasy realm that can only reference reality, not participate in it. 2012 was a year of trying to become self-aware, employing satire and other forms of trickery in attempt to engage with social issues. Satire, it seems like the panacea for game developers, an avenue to have ‘fun’ while playing a ‘serious’ game.

An acquaintance of mine once said to me, “satire is for the bourgeois.” Often, the social perils they seek to critique turns into torture porn, and the high road they present is to simply look away and forget it all. The minorities involved are sacrificed for the passing interest of the privileged- video game developers and other satirists in the past just wanted to make people uncomfortable, not actually change anything. And it isn’t the oppressed who benefit from the bourgeois squirming in their seats before they go to sleep it off.

Spec Ops: The Line is one of many games to come out last year as an attempt to engage politics. It was the only one of these I could get through, and there are some relevant points friend and colleague Brendan Keogh makes about American interventionism in his book Killing is Harmless. However, much like Far Cry 3, Lollipop Chainsaw, and Hotline Miami, it only serves a particular audience for what it assumes to be a wide-reaching social issue. It is like that past fling of mine who flinched at the first sign of difficulty, and turned away.

I played Spec Ops having already sampled many games thought to make players aware of the violence they were committing in them, and couldn’t help but shrug my shoulders. For me, military shooters are fantastical, so far apart from what I actually experience that they couldn’t comment on my life. Which was when it hit me- the violence in games aren’t at all based on the violence that actually threatens me off-screen. If there was to be such a game, the character wouldn’t have a weapon, wouldn’t be able to do much damage, and would have to get from my house to the grocery store without being assaulted by men. I don’t know how to use a firearm, I don’t have the fortitude to withstand bullets, and I’ve never been in the military.

These games export violence to extreme situations such as war because it is pandering to the bourgeois of video games, people who don’t experience the threat of real life violence and oppression every day. They can’t make a meaningful connection to those who deal with violent oppression because they most likely have no idea what that is. They don’t put players in the shoes of a transgender woman getting cat-called on her way to get coffee. They aren’t there when a car follows her for blocks as she tries to get home from a party. The common retort is needing these games to still be fun; to that, I say “boo-hoo.”

I have to give Spec Ops credit though, as it clued me into why I couldn’t relate at all to what these games were trying to do. It was when I encountered a one-word mission objective: Obey. Do what you are told, and you will be rewarded. This is what the privileged class, men who are white, heterosexual, cisgender among many other things, is told to do. If you play your role, you will have a good life. When your role has you on top of the social food chain, there is little complaint to obey. But times are changing- social justice is pushing against the oppressive system that puts one identity over the other, and this privileged class is at a point of despair. They are doing what they are told, don’t they deserve their just reward?

Being a minority in many transparent ways, that option was never there for me. It was obvious from a young age I had to break out the system because it wasn’t for me. And not on an ideological level, not a taste preference, my literal identity that is often decided by men in bureaucracies and development studios. It’s an obvious choice to not obey, because to obey is to die.

Playing Spec Ops gave me a chance to glimpse at the psychology the privileged class. Design is commonly modeled around a player doing what the developers make them do; if the only option is to beat in a guy’s head with a golf club, we must take it. It is predicated on the plight of the heterosexual white man, moving in a system that favors them as long as they would, kindly, do what’s expected of them. The trick of the game, much like it’s ideological predecessor Bioshock, is the only way to ‘win’ or not do terrible things is to stop playing. Turn off the game. To look away. For some reason, people laud games like Spec Ops and Bioshock for not giving a solution, for not putting in a step forward. That is the appraisal of people whose well-being doesn’t ride on someone finding an answer to oppression. This isn’t to say either experience is solely enjoyed by or relatable to men, but that we’ve accepted that games constantly treat us as such.

This is why the recent public foray about video games and violence is rather laughable. Games are clearly overestimated when it comes to the kinds of topics and play is actually there. American society, at least, has identified guns and violence with boys and men for as long as I’ve been alive, and most likely before the first video game. It reminds me of an anecdote Brendan makes in his book, that cover shooters remind him of playing games of pretend as a child. Video games are currently a translation of that, a reincarnation of stereotypically boys’ activities that do impart cultural values, but do not simulate anything real. We can see this throughout all other media, and can attribute the homogeneity of both the artists and the audiences they target. This is why our Vice President calls a meeting to solve gun violence over the rare attack at a predominately white school and not the frequent, systematic murder of transgender women of color.

I know many developers and players are excited about the avenue of satire. The ‘gotchya!’ is easy to formulate and punctuate an otherwise typical game. But letting business as usual carry on until the final stages serves no one any good- it creates the illusion that these problems are outside of us, easily boxed away when we please. Indeed, challenging the player from the get-go with actual problems might not be fun and require the help of someone who isn’t white, heterosexual, nor a man.

Boo-hoo.

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