Chris Franklin’s ironically titled “Keep Your Politics Out of My Video Games” video has been making the rounds of the Internet recently, and I wanted to jot down a few thoughts about it. The basic message of Franklin’s video is that games are inherently political creations, like any other cultural objects, and as such, discussing them in a political context is a worthwhile endeavour that should not be prevented. On that point, I fully agree with him. But in making that point, he makes a couple of other points that I don’t think he intended to make, and they’re indicative of some problematic attitudes that I’ve noticed coming from the more progressive members of the gaming community.
In order to support his thesis, Franklin draws on a variety examples, including the backlash to Carolyn Petit’s review of Grand Theft Auto V, the supposed creationist or evolutionary views of Spore, and the debate over BioShock Infinite’s politics. The problem is that each of these three examples represents a different phenomenon in gaming discourse, and the end result is that Franklin ends up conflating at least three different (sometimes overlapping but definitely not identical) groups of people:
- trolls and bigots
- people who don’t want to discuss politics in the context of games
- people who disagree with him about his particular political interpretations of specific games
Group 1 is obviously the most problematic, as they poison discourse and turn it into a soul-sucking shouting match. I don’t support them, and I never will support them. But I don’t think that their contribution to gaming discourse, however noxious it is, is apolitical. Maybe it is for trolls who are deliberately trying to get a rise out of people by being inflammatory. But bigots genuinely believe the awful things they say; they’re just using discussions about video games for their reprehensible views.
Group 2 is really the one that lies at the heart of Franklin’s argument, but in talking about it, some nuance is required. It actually consists of two subgroups: those who merely have no interest in politics as it applies to gaming, and those who actively want to stop discussions about the politics of games from happening. The former subgroup can be problematic. Obviously, an actual sexist/racist/homophobe/what-have-you is worse than someone who fails to acknowledge that sexism/racism/homophobia/what-have-you are serious, continuing problems in society, but it’s a failure to acknowledge these problems that allows them to be perpetuated. However, the latter subgroup – the one that actively stifles discourse – is really the subgroup that Franklin should be addressing. They’re the people who tell others, “Keep your politics out of my video games.” They’re the ones who want to shut down valuable avenues of discourse.
And that brings me to Group 3, which is where I think Franklin is way off base. Look, it’s no secret that I completely disagree with his take on BioShock Infinite, but even if I did agree with him about that game, I’d still find what he’s doing here problematic. He’s implicitly equating people who disagree that the game’s portrayal of race is offensive with the bigots and angry apolitical folk of the previous two groups. (He does something similar when he discusses Grand Theft Auto V, but I haven’t played the game, so I can’t confirm if this is as serious an issue.) Two people can play a game, examine its politics, and come to different conclusions. It doesn’t mean that either of them is trying to keep politics out of video games. In fact, having a variety of interpretations of a game’s politics can enrich discourse.
This points to a problematic attitude that I’ve seen increasingly from the more progressive corners of gaming culture. It boils down to the reductive notion that there is a bunch of “intelligent” people who are participating in “good” video game discourse and that the “less intelligent” people who don’t share their exact views are participating in “bad” video game discourse; by purging those people, gaming discourse will improve. But as I’ve pointed out above, these “less intelligent” people are not all the same. Some are bigots, some are apathetic, some are annoying trolls, and some merely have different interpretations of various cultural objects. The reaction to each one can’t be the same. One can’t be equally dismissive of both bigots and the people who don’t necessarily hold the most progressive viewpoints about every video game. The latter type of people can be reasoned with and engaged in discourse.
We should never stop discussing video games, how they fit into our society, and how they reflect our culture. But it’s all too easy for this kind of discussion to turn into an echo chamber. Social progress is engendered by engaging with people who hold similar but slightly less progressive views, not by pushing them away to the margins to live with the bigots. If gaming discourse is to be a platform for such progress, then we would do well to make it as inclusive as possible.