Two articles last week made me stop and think about gaming in the context of my life – Mattie Brice’s article about her perspective on the violence in videogames and Jonas Kyratzes emotionally-charged response.  Please read both before continuing, otherwise this post won’t make any sense.

Brice’s article characterises a white heterosexual male who, in her analysis, is exclusively served by the particular violence of military shooters and other similar games and who refuses to engage with the violence of other experiences.  She gives the example of a former lover who refused to be seen in public with her.  Kyratzes’ response picks her up on this characterisation objecting to her alleged assumption that sexual/gender/racial identity is core to inequality and privilege.  He points out that oppression through war, economics or bigotry can impact on those of any identity, whether minority or majority, and that by tying oppression too closely to identity, rather than identifying the systems that foster that oppression, there is a risk of marginalising those who fall outside of the particular minority groups under discussion.

Their characterisations gave me pause because in almost all respects I fall exactly into the categories they each identify.  I am a white, English man, public (i.e. private) school education, married (to a woman), two children.  I work in the city of London and earn a relatively large amount of money.  I am, almost exactly, Mattie Brice’s bogeyman and I am also the beneficiary of the systems that Jonas Kyratzes sees bringing down his home society.  I can also confirm that Brice is right: if you fit into the right boxes and play the game – if you obey – then the system does work for you.  I am under no illusions that I have had an easier ride.

The second thought that struck me as I read Brice’s article – after recognising myself in her characterisation – was how right she is in identifying the unreal nature of the violence in military shooters.  She writes that that violence bears no relation to the violence that she experiences in her life and I found that her point rang totally true for me as well, despite the fact that I fall within the group allegedly served by these games.

Obviously I don’t face violence, or the threat of violence, in my own life.  In fact, I worry more about violence that I may be personally capable of: violence fuelled by inexorable stress and exhaustion after being ‘on duty’ for clients or family 24/7 for years at a time.  There’s no game about those dynamics, to be sure.  But Brice’s underlying point still rings true – there is very little in most of the games that I play that has any engagement with the reality of my life.

I find more to identify with in a game like Dys4ia than in the power fantasies of Far Cry 3 or DX:HR or Arkham City, much as I enjoy those games.  Dys4ia lets us glimpse what it might be like if the ‘fish out of water’ moments that we all face on occasion were a dominant and over-riding experience in our whole life, if reaching deeper water involved first dragging yourself yet further from the lagoon up and over the dry, unforgiving dunes to the open sea on the other side. Even if I haven’t had comparable experiences to those of Brice and Anthropy, I am still human and Dys4ia is, more than anything, a game about being human.  By contrast, Far Cry 3 – for all its fun – has about as much to say about the human condition as one if its conversationally challenged pirates.

I do play mainstream games, of course, and greatly enjoy the flashy escapism of sci-fi shooters and fantastical open worlds.  Since learning to read, I have always had a love of science fiction and fantasy.  During my early teens a regular and formative experience was raiding the school library for classic science fiction and ploughing through the stories of Clarke, Asimov and others.  My enjoyment of gaming twenty years later is in large part a continuing love of, and need for, that special brew of escapism and gentle intellectual stimulation.  However, as I grew older I also read more widely and recognised that while there is a lot of fun to be had in the Science Fiction & Fantasy section at Foyles or Waterstones, that is only one corner of a large and varied store.  In fact, of those books that truly illuminate the human condition, relatively few are found in that particular corner.

In gaming, the bookstore is not so varied.  Aside from that SF&F corner, which is stuffed to bursting with excellent (and not so excellent) material, we have bare shelves and a few scattered, non-commercial art projects.  Even games that appear superficially to reach for a grittier, more contemporary aesthetic, like the military shooters that Brice criticises, are mostly fantastical in their gameplay (do modern soldiers really kill that many people in a single outing?) and grow out of the sci-fi action tradition.  The CoD/Battlefield nexus of games is essentially Dark Forces in gun nut dress-up.  While we can expect a degree of enjoyable entertainment from these games, and possibly some intellectual engagement at the harder end of the spectrum, I think it is optimistic to hope for games from this DNA that significantly illuminate the human condition at an emotional level.

So where do we get the games which will fill up the empty shelves of our gaming bookstore?  This is where I think that Brice’s article has far wider applicability than Kyratzes wishes to read into it.  The ancient greek dramatists clearly understood that one route into the human soul was to explore the experiences of characters whose nature, fate or will has put them right at the edges of human experience: for example, Philoctetes faces over a decade of illness and isolation before being forced to confront those who previously abandoned him.

Kyratzes response suggests that it is mistaken to focus discussion of violence in gaming through the narrow lens of Brice’s ultra-minority experience as a transwoman of colour and that to do so diminishes the violence and oppression faced by many millions of people outside of that minority group.  He sees it as privileging the experience of that minority group over the experiences of others.

My response to Kyratzes is that it is because Brice’s experience is so far from that of the comfortable mainstream, that exploring that experience is likely to provide us all with greater understanding of our own humanity and the humanity of others.   This understanding not only enriches us as individuals, whatever our circumstances, but also undermines and shifts the systemic pressures that reinforce and perpetuate the divisions and inequalities that concern him. Furthermore, engaging with Brice’s experience complements rather than excludes engagement with the experience of others who who are pushed to the limits of human experience.  The insight gained from Dys4ia is not just an insight into the trans experience, it is also an insight into the transformative experience of the asylum seeker who has had to let go of her parents and siblings in order to try and find a safer life for her child overseas and vice versa.

I do not want to diminish the importance of identity politics, which Kyratzes considers disturbingly US-centric.  In the States, in particular, the political thrust of identity groups has worked miraculous social change over the last hundred years.  Social change which has permeated throughout huge parts of the globe and pushed back the tyranny of the majority more than any other force.  I am aware that by finding a wider applicability in Brice’s article in terms of how games can address the human condition, I run the risk of co-opting any identity political standpoint in Brice’s article – bringing it inside the establishment tent, as it were.  I am also aware that characterising Brice’s experience as being at the edges of human experience is in itself a marginalisation but I don’t see how I can make my point without doing so.  I absolutely do not want to offend and I apologise in advance if this post is read in that way.

My point is, I hope, compatible with any identity political standpoint.  Brice’s hypothetical unarmed, non-white, non-heterosexual, non-cis protagonist is important not only in terms of representing the experiences of her specific minority group, but also because it is through exploration and understanding of those who are nearer the edges of human experience that all of us, including those in the comfortable and privileged establishment, can gain deeper insight into our own shared humanity.  This is where the great literature of gaming will come from and this deeper insight into our shared humanity is also a powerful way in which gaming can contribute to the erosion of the wider structures and systems of division, privilege and oppression.