There’s a lot of debate right now about diversity and inclusivity in games. The fact that there is a lot of debate is good, the nature of a lot of the debate less so. Today I want to talk about a specific facet of one argument; the idea that feminism, or more broadly the general diversity movement, is out to ‘censor the artistic creativity‘ of games designers.
The idea is that by criticising sexist or exclusionist elements in videogames, proponents of diversity are actually seeking to control and censor the work of the artists designing these videogames by forcing them to adopt more inclusive, more ‘PC’ elements.
Now a lot of this argument can be boiled down to ‘actually I like chainmail bikinis, so everyone else should shut up’ which is simple enough to write off, but then I remembered the debate around the game Dragon’s Crown and thought that it might actually be worth having a discussion about artistic freedom, criticism, censorship, and the difference between those last two words.
Dragon’s Crown is a game by Vanillaware designed as a homage to the old Golden Axe style of scrolling beat-em-up. The game features hand dawn art by George Kamitani, and drew ire at the time, particularly from Kotaku writer Jason Schreier, for its portrayal of its female characters. The who don’t know their meme can get a quick rundown here, view the original article by Schreier here, and a response by Penny Arcade’s Jerry Holkins, which represents the common opposition to Schreier’s view at the time.
I remember being conflicted. On the one hand, I can see why people would see the art as distasteful – at first glance it looks exactly like the sort of bad-anime oversexualisation designed to appeal to adolescent boys at the exclusion of everyone else. One the other hand though, I really like Kamitani’s art, grotesque sexualisation included, and respect his right to draw whatever the hell he likes.
The argument – at least initially – seemed to be that for games to become more progressive then we need to see less art like Kamitani’s, which I disagree with on personal grounds – because I like his art – but also because this smacks of censorship. Progressiveness should never call for less artistic expression, regardless of whether that artistic expression is deemed tasteful or not.
This seems to be the argument wielded by a lot of those against the social justice movement – that progressives are seeking to censor art and homogenise entertainment by forcing designers to cater to every possible point of view with each of their products. Art that caters to the male gaze is still art, after all, so surely decrying the overabundance of it is also a cry for censorship?
In fact, the progressive movement is actually about criticism, rather than censorship, and there’s a big difference between the two. It’s the difference between designers making informed artistic decisions and falling unwittingly into using tropes without knowing any better. This is actually the point of projects like Tropes vs. Women in Video Games – not to highlight every moderately sexist element in games and declare you should not do this, but to bring these tropes to people’s attention so we can address them critically and constructively.
This article by Kameron Hurley does a wonderful job of illuminating how a trope works – that if an inherently sexist trope is used repeatedly in media, then creatives will start using this trope without thinking about it. The trope becomes just ‘the way things are done’, used as a crutch for creativity without ever being apparent. It’s only when the trope is identified through criticism do we become aware of it, and through this awareness we can stop falling back on tropes and start owning our creative decisions. Ultimately, we make better art.
A personal example: in my first novel Answer I damseled two of my female characters to provide inspiration for my protagonist. One character spent more than half the book literally trapped in a tower, and another was eventually killed off to provide emotional incentive for a turning point in the plot.
Now I didn’t do this because I’m a terrible chauvinist and enjoy putting my female characters in terrible positions. I did it because I’ve absorbed enough pieces of media where a damsel provides plot propulsion that it just seemed the natural thing to do. It’s narrative shorthand – everyone gets that if main guy’s girlfriend gets killed, he’s gonna be pissed; so pissed he might be willing to do something extreme to avenge her. It’s an easy way of effortlessly injecting emotional drive into a plot. It’s lazy, it’s a trope, and I fell into without thinking.
I was criticised for it, and rightly so. And once I’d calmed down and stopped shouting about how my book is a masterpiece and how dare anyone question my artistic choices, I realised it was criticism I needed. Because I hadn’t made an artistic choice, not really, I’d just thoughtlessly followed the path of least resistance as laid out by a ton of lazily-designed media that came before.
Note that this realisation does not mean I’ll never write a damsel character again. Criticism of tropes does not mean we should never use these tropes again. But now when I use a trope like this, I use it with awareness, and I can take creative control over it. Maybe I can use a trope to set up audience expectations and then reverse them by turning the trope on its head. Maybe I can create an anti-trope by completely subverting the accepted formula. Or I could just write a straight damsel character for all the reasons the trope exists; at least I’m doing it with awareness of what using that trope will say about my work.
It is my opinion that the difference between art and trash is intention. Art is intentional – it is reactionary, deliberate, purposeful. Trash thoughtlessly duplicates an existing paradigm hoping to replicate its success. To create art requires knowledge, and gaining knowledge requires criticism. It is only when we criticise the status quo that we can begin to understand it and begin to react to it.
Criticism is not censorship. It’s criticism that is at the heart of the diversity movement within games. The call for more varied voices in the games space is not a call for every game to cater to every one of these voices. It is not about arbitrarily changing the lead character to a girl, or turning the cast list of every game into a multi-racial checklist. It’s about a varied audience offering varied criticism, and about creatives using this criticism to better understand their work and, ultimately, to create better work. The more different voices we have in gaming, the better future games will be. It’s that simple.
The chainmail bikini is not really the issue, not in and of itself. The issue is using the chainmail bikini as a shortcut to appeal to a specific audience without considering the broader outlook. This isn’t creativity, it’s just following the default. It’s a lazy stand-in for genuine sex appeal. It’s trashy.
But if you consider using a chainmail bikini, consider all the possible views of your entire audience and everything that decision will say about your game and your intentions, then you decide to use it anyway, now you are making an artistic choice. You will face criticism, of course – every artist does – but you’ll be able to take that criticism confident in the fact that you made an informed choice, and that your choice has a purpose.
The purpose of art is not to avoid criticism, and the purpose of criticism is not to censor art. Criticism informs art, and in the long term improves art. If you are facing criticism for something you’ve made, then you’re doing good. Listen to that criticism, assess it, work out which parts of it are worthwhile, and let it inform your future work. It’s the only way to improve as an artist.
This is not about censoring the games industry – it’s about criticising the games industry, and through that criticism creating an industry that’s better for everyone; better for women, better for minorities, better for trans people and people with fluid genders, better for homosexuals, asexuals, heterosexuals – and better for straight white males, too.