Why political engagement is critical to games journalism

Earlier tonight, someone tweeted at me, “Not to be rude, but you’re part of the problem. You’ve compromised your integrity as a journalist by being an activist.” 

There are always a few things that come to mind when I hear this viewpoint expressed. First of all, my role at GameSpot was not that of news reporter. I was a critic. And I believe that a critic’s role involves engaging with media on multiple levels, and that to not engage with media on a political level often results in a woefully incomplete appraisal of a work.

Games, like film and television and books and music, have political meanings. They reinforce or sometimes challenge certain ideologies and value systems. And I sometimes commented on this aspect of games in my reviews, always in the larger context of also talking about the game’s mechanics, visuals, world, or whatever other facets of it also seemed to me to warrant discussion in my attempt to offer some sort of evaluation of a complex, multifaceted work. And I think that to call me an activist for doing this is just silly. 

In her piece “The Trouble With Blue is the Warmest Color," New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis said this:

The truth is, if I were hung up about every predatory director or every degrading image of a woman, I couldn’t be a film critic. So I watch, loving movies that don’t necessarily love or even like women.

I feel much the same about games. Many games disrespect or insult or hate women, reinforcing patriarchal and sometimes deeply misogynistic ideas about the roles of women and the value of women relative to men. Yet rather than commenting on this in my reviews for every game that reinforced regressive views of women, I reserved criticism of the treatment of women for only those games that I felt were the most egregious, troubling, or absurd in this regard. The number of reviews I wrote that comment on representations of women is very few. Yet, both sadly and hilariously, the fact that I ever did it at all painted me as a feminist crusader in some readers’ eyes, and in the comments section of just about every review I wrote were suggestions that I actually gave game X whatever score I gave it based on its treatment of women, even when I didn’t raise such issues at all. 

Given those comments and the other critiques and harassment I’ve received for ever raising such issues, and the critiques and harassment I’ve seen other women (and, to a lesser extent, men) receive for raising such issues, it’s pretty clear to me that this quote, which I reblogged yesterday, hits the proverbial bull’s-eye: 

Gamer culture has pushed the argument about women’s roles so far to one side that most of them honestly believe the status quo of default objectification and women-as-rewards is the “neutral,” “nonpolitical” starting position.

Games are not politically neutral. Neither are mainstream romantic comedies, or action films, or any novel I’ve ever read. They may sometimes appear politically neutral if the values they reinforce mesh with the value systems of the larger culture, but our culture is not politically neutral, either, and it is not outside of the role of a critic to comment on or raise questions about the political meanings embedded in the works one evaluates. In fact, it is often impossible to review something apolitically, because to not comment on or challenge the political meanings in a work in your review is to give them your tacit endorsement. 

This teaser for Battlefield Hardline, for instance, seriously glorifies and fetishizes the militarization of police hardware and firepower. This has always been deeply political, and recent, tragic events have made it impossible to ignore the political nature of such imagery. 

Which brings me to the other thing that comes to mind when I hear this viewpoint expressed. Inherent in the statement that, by being an “activist”—which, here, I take to mean “someone who has attempted to raise certain questions and concerns about the meanings present in some games”—I’ve failed at being a “journalist,” is the idea that journalists don’t ever try to challenge existing power structures or political ideologies or give a voice to the voiceless or any such thing, that the role of journalists is always to simply dryly report the “facts” in such a way that never favors one “side” of an issue over another, but always presents both as equal, even when those sides are not equal at all. And I would never suggest in a million years that writing about video games is remotely in the same sphere of importance as covering the real news of the world, like, say, recent events in Ferguson, or Gaza. I don’t believe for a second that it is. Rather, this is just to make a point about what journalism is and isn’t. News coverage of Ferguson that offers a full and complex picture of events there should naturally raise questions about the abuse of authority, about institutionalized racism and oppression. That’s not activism; that’s part of what journalism should and must do.

Games aren’t the same sort of thing. Thank goodness. But, like film and books and TV, they are a meaningful medium that both shapes and is shaped by the culture at large. Games are worthy of being taken seriously, of being treated with respect, and part of that means that, like books and film and TV, they warrant serious coverage and criticism. To suggest that journalism about games shouldn’t ever raise questions about or challenge the politics of the games industry or of games themselves is dead wrong. Games journalism needs to do this. Any journalistic publication or writer covering games that never seriously engages with games politically is failing to do journalism.