The Problem With That Line ‘It’s Just A Game’ — Are Our Games Our Fantasies?

Two weeks ago, a storm hit this blog.

We interviewed Newsweek reporter N’Gai Croal for a series about black professionals involved with video games, and we selected his comments on the “Resident Evil 5″ trailer for a standalone post.

We knew the post would be contentious. Last summer I had written about my own uneasiness with the trailer and the response to that piece had been spirited.

Croal talked to our writer Tracey John about racial imagery in the trailer. He made a cogent if not airtight argument. The line that drew the most reaction was the one that suggested his gut reflex to first seeing the trailer: “Wow, clearly no one black worked on this game.”

In response, some agreed. Some called him a racist. Some said he was ignoring the legitimate conventions of zombie horror. One person encouraged him to shut up, go to Africa and start overthrowing dictators. And some people produced an old chestnut: “It’s just a video game.”

“It’s just a video game.”


I don’t think that’s a valid response in 2008.

Not if you care about video games.

It implies that games have no cultural impact, that they are the entertainment field’s Las Vegas: What goes on in games stays in games. It’s a defense used to explain that “Manhunt” won’t turn people into murderers any more than “Pirates of The Caribbean” will turn anyone into a pirate.

And it’s a point to basically say, look, it doesn’t matter if you’re shooting virtual poor Africans who were turned into zombies. You shot virtual poor Spaniards in “Resident Evil 4.” You shot police in “Grand Theft Auto.” You shot Dr. Wily in “Mega Man.” You shoot characters in games. That’s just what you do. It doesn’t mean you have any hate in real life to any of those parties. Don’t sweat it. Have fun. Play to win.

This kind of reaction suggests that it doesn’t at all matter what characters in games look like, what they might represent. As long as the good guys are clearly the good guys and the bad guys are frothing at the mouth, then the lines are clear, skin tones and historical precedents be damned. There’s no more significance in the color of a zombie than there is in the color of a chess piece. Context means nothing.

But then I wrote a piece about playing as a woman in “Grand Theft Auto,” and suggested that it would be really interesting if Rockstar Games made a whole “GTA” that starred a woman.

It shouldn’t matter, right? Not anymore than it matters what color Chris Redfield and his zombie enemies are. Except… my post was shouted down. I was accused of spoiling things, of meddling. I was accused of feminism.

I was told that a woman lead in “GTA” would ruin things.

I saw a double-standard these past two weeks, a double-standard between people who said race is a non-factor in games and people who said gender is — between people who downplayed context and people who could only see context.

And I’m calling that out.

(If anyone out there wants to write a doctoral thesis about the difference between race and gender in video games, this is your cue.)

I can’t sift apart the reactions to the “RE5″ and “GTA” posts. I don’t think there’s one right take on either issue. The “RE5″ trailer may indeed be playing off of cultural fears of black people. It might also just be playing off fears of zombies. “GTA” might be awesome with a female protagonist. Or Rockstar Games might be incapable of writing a compelling female lead.

Who knows?

What I do know is that the response to the two posts kills any chance of my taking the “It’s just a game” line seriously ever again.

Clearly, to gamers, it does matter who you play as, who you shoot, who you have hot coffee with — at least some of the time.

This is what’s worth discussing: Who do we want to be or not be in games? How abstract or how real do we want these virtual worlds to be? What kind of emotional impact do we want them to have?

Games aren’t just games. Character-driven games (i.e. not “Tetris“) are roles that we adopt, as if we were actors. They are fantasies waiting to be fulfilled. As I said in my own “RE5″ post, a game trailer is an advertisement for a fantasy. It asks: Do you want to be this character and do these things? If so, buy our game and you’ll feel like you’re the one responsible for what you see here.

Let’s think about games as fantasies, then. And ask some of this again. For instance: Who do I want to shoot in a video game? That’s a real question.

To some people it’s a real question with an easy answer: Anyone. Video games are pure abstraction, such people would say. None of it’s real, so it’s all fine. These people respond to an essay like this by throwing their hands in the air and saying, “Get over it. It’s just a game.” And sometimes they’re right. Video games can be considered purely in the abstract — as just games — as vehicles for competition not dissimilar from freeze tag, football or a match of Battleship. Most people aren’t planning on sinking real battleships any more than they are preparing to use their “Ninja Gaiden” skills on the real enemy ninjas next door.

On the other hand, some people do take games literally. Consider the person who wonders how a “Grand Theft Auto” gamer can enjoy shooting virtual policemen. They might see such an act as a predictor of dangerous real-life behavior or as an exhibition of poor values. To such people, there can be no joy in killing a virtual police officer because it represents the killing of a real police officer.

I believe most gamers maintain a position in between these two extremes, that we adopt our roles with a mix of those sentiments and no one who plays games truly buys the “It’s just a game” argument in its pure form

Any of us who has razed a city in “Sim City” or killed retreating Covenant in “Halo” can claim the abstraction defense. We can say we were just playing and would never behave that way real life. Don’t take us literally. But always and in every game? Take “BioShock,” and the moment you might choose not to snuff out a character, just because she looks like a little girl. Or take the moment when you keep a unit in a real-time-strategy game alive out of sentimentality, or when you deviate from the renegade course in “Mass Effect” this one time because a charming conversationalist compels you to be nice. We often celebrate these moments when something in our games other than the rules matters.

My theory is that gamers don’t want their games to just be games. We relish the moments that our avatars and our enemies mean more than a pawn, a rook or a knight might.

Let’s not be afraid to break down what this means.

I think some gamers fear for the medium. They fear censorship. They fear another “Mass Effect” SeXbox fiasco. They certainly don’t want to see what non-gamers in the media would think of an honest discussion of running over bystanders in “Saints Row.” But to fear such things — and to therefore be unwilling to talk about what it means to play as the characters we do — would be to allow those who don’t care about video games to lead the discussion about them.

What does it mean if and when we take pleasure in our games from shooting a cop or a zombie that used to be a poor African or a Spanish farmer? What do the roles we play say about us — about what we find fun, what we take literally and what we don’t?

How much do we want games to connect with our desires and hopes and hates and emotions? How much do we want our games to just feel like games or feel like something more?

From “GTA” to “Half-Life” to “Call Of Duty” to “RE4″ and “RE5″ — What roles do we, as individuals, want to take? And what do we want to avoid?

Let’s talk, finally, about what that means.