I have a terrible confession to make. Out of two recent international events—the Iranian election with its subsequent protests and government crackdowns, and the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in California where video-game makers showed off their new wares—guess which one I spent hours researching, watching videos and posting to online forums about?
Here’s a hint: it was the one where they announced an Italian plumber was going to ride a dinosaur in space.
During the three days of E3 I watched entire press conferences filled with corporate shills lauding their upcoming products with the subtlety of a ShamWow infomercial. I memorized release dates for new games. I argued with online strangers and real-life friends over which company had the strongest showing. I crashed my computer twice for downloading too many game trailers and screenshots simultaneously.
By contrast, my knowledge of the Iranian political situation, which could feasibly change the nature of the Middle East and global security, consists of a few headlines from CBC’s website and episodes of The Daily Show.
It’s embarrassing, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Videogamer culture is plagued with extreme tunnel vision. Gamers praise fun and entertainment above all else, enshrining escapism as their core value and sparing little time and attention for the problems of the real world.
Every videogame website with a messageboard or forum is guaranteed to host long threads where posters argue over which game system is best. Many gamers, particularly younger ones, take these debates very seriously, sticking up for their choices with the intensity one might expect from a discussion of politics or religion. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo fans react to criticism of their beloved Xboxes, PlayStations and Wiis with the type of indignation usually reserved for slurs against one’s mother (and often respond, ironically enough, with slurs against the original poster’s mother). The endless fanboy debates sparked by every major game announcement hint at the frightening idea that the gamer generation is more concerned with the success and failure of three international mega-corporations than anything else in the world.
Another quiz: guess which one of these two announcements sparked controversy and calls for a boycott among gamers?
1) In April, Greenpeace released its 12th tri-monthly Guide to Greener Electronics, which ranked 17 top electronics manufacturers on their environmental policies, and has included videogame console makers since December 2007. For the seventh straight time, Nintendo ranked last on the list with a score of one out of ten (up from zero in its first appearance). Microsoft has always scored less than three while Sony has dropped from a seven to a 4.5.
2) At June’s E3, game developer Valve announced it was releasing a sequel this winter to its popular 2008 multiplayer zombie game Left 4 Dead.
While news of the Greenpeace report was met with indifference or hostile messageboard comments equating the organization with terrorists or (possibly worse?) Al Gore, Left 4 Dead 2 was quickly the subject of a large boycott movement. Its crime? Not being free.
Valve had built a good reputation with gamers by releasing many additions to its games as free downloads. Many felt the content of Left 4 Dead 2 should have been similarly added to the existing game at no cost. A “Left 4 Dead 2 Boycott” group on Valve’s player-community service Steam rapidly grew to more than 38,000 members. It spawned a huge debate with an opposition group who vowed to boycott the boycott and numerous other groups whose names have now descended into Monty Python-esque madness (the “L4D2 Boycott Boycott Boycott Boycott Boycott," for example, whose motto is “Yeah, those boycotting boycotters boycotting the boycotter's boycotters are going to go down!”). Despite the apparent silliness, many gamers took serious offense to Valve’s decision and the company has had to scramble to try and appease its customers.
Nintendo, on the other hand, hasn’t even responded to Greenpeace’s report and no united group of gamers has emerged to force console manufacturers to be more responsible and informative about their environmental impact.
Is it too much to expect gamers to care? Sure, most videogames help us de-stress, take a break from reality and tune out. And that’s perfectly fine,. Everybody needs a getaway from the world. Any activist I’ve met who’s busy being active 24-7 has been miserable, on the verge of a coronary, or both. It seems like gamer culture is headed to the opposite extreme, though. More than 1990s-style slackerdom, 21st-century gamers have embraced an almost Matrix-like detachment from the real world. We’ve created a virtual bubble to hide in, and it feels to good to leave.
It’s more fun to shoot pixelated aliens than worry about the environment. It’s easier to build computer-generated rollercoasters than get involved with politics. It’s far less depressing to contemplate the future of motion-control technology than the fate of democracy-defending protesters in some far off land.
I understand. After years of being very politically involved, I slowly retreated. As the world’s sadness overwhelmed me, I started spending more time with the hobby that’s fascinated me since the childhood bliss of playing my family’s Intellivision. A session of Half-Life replaced time once spent reading the newspaper. As I became aware of my flight, though, I tried to urge myself back to the fight. I work with an environmental group now, but haven’t strengthened my stomach enough to follow national or international politics too closely.
I worry that gamers who are way more hardcore about gaming than I am will have no connection to the world to fall back on. I wonder what it would take to get them to notice and care about a world event not announced via a game company’s press release. I’m incredibly frightened that gamers worship their corporate benefactors so strongly that they’re willing to ignore or defend their poor environmental practices. What else are we willing to excuse?
I hope that gamers will eventually start to re-associate themselves with the world, to exist in it, help solve its problems and fight against its injustices. Gamers have shown they can be charitable with their contributions to the Child’s Play charity that provides games and toys to hospitals for sick children. Maybe their generosity can extend to causes that aren’t so photogenic, too.
Maybe games themselves can become a more vital part of our culture. Designers who are part of a growing Games For Change movement are using games to engage with society and politics, the way we’re used to authors, filmmakers and musicians involving themselves in the world. It’s mostly been academics and activists who’ve shown interest, but a slow trickle of their ideas have been mixing into the mainstream game industry.
Perhaps some kind of balance will be restored, so gamers can indulge themselves in E3’s three-day orgy of self-promotion while still remembering that the world will not, in fact, end if Microsoft doesn’t pump out another Halo sequel. Perhaps they’ll start getting more involved in causes dedicated to stopping those things that may actually cause the world to end. Maybe gamers like me will feel embarrassed enough by their culture of escapism that they’ll take another look at what they’re missing out there in the real world.