When Game Critics Lack Moral/Scientific Consistency, They’re Looking for Hand Claps and Jeers

by Jed Pressgrove

If you saw someone publicly denigrate a woman then turn around and kill a little boy, you’d be morally inconsistent to decry one sin but dismiss the other. This is the kind of moral inconsistency that many video game critics sell in self-congratulatory arguments against sexism in violent games. And they’ll keep doing it as long as people keep clapping their hands and throwing tomatoes.

The most popular excuse for this moral inconsistency is agenda-setting for the circle jerk: some critics seem to believe that we already take violence seriously enough in real life, which means that violence in games is not a moral concern. Showing fear of game censorship (and perhaps fear of the possibility that games can influence violent behavior), these critics will trip over each other to cite scientific evidence that games can’t influence murder. They then turn around and preach against sexism in games, claiming or suggesting that games can or will affect real-world views about sexism (often with no scientific article in sight). They do this because they know “sexism in games” articles stir up both the angry liberals and angry conservatives in the gaming community, which translates into page views and perhaps money. These critics also know that if they come out strong against violence, they wouldn’t have the liberals or the conservatives on their side, endangering their overall “credibility” (but more in a political sense, not a journalistic sense). In short, anti-sexism, pro-violence arguments give game critics enough friends to keep their credibility and enough enemies to get even more page views and comments.

But an honest moral and scientific critique of games takes courage, not a business plan. The question of whether games influence or reinforce bad behavior is a question that scientists are still trying to answer, but many critics don’t care. They’re willing to limit the concern to sexism, then treat the scientific question of causation/reinforcement as an emotional concern — as if science is the same thing as morality — so that the cheers and jeers of the audience will be even louder.

Social scientists, however, continue to examine violence and sexism in games, sometimes in the same study (for example, see An Examination of Violence and Gender Role Behavior in Video Games: Implications for Gender Socialization and Aggressive Behavior). While pure science doesn’t make moral evaluations, the holistic approach of scientists can serve as an inspiration to people who want to share moral arguments that make sense. Moral consistency either questions both violence and sexism in games or isn’t concerned about either subject. Moral consistency will still lead to a debate — should we care about objectionable content in games? — but at least the debate is a debate that isn’t based on narrow political terms.

Only suckers believe polarizing critics like Ben Kuchera and Kat Bailey are going to change people’s perceptions about gender. Their unscientific, morally inconsistent arguments typically reinforce existing beliefs; they do not tend to revolutionize the system. As long as liberals don’t care about violence and as long as conservatives can point this out, we will have no middle ground. What we will have is an unending argument that never advances — idiocy.

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6 comments

  1. One of the things I hated during twitter gun / game debates was how some would have a knee-jerk reaction against the NRA and gun rights and defend games absolutely. It was also ridiculous for Wayne LaPierre to blame the games industry for violence. I can understand why both sides say such things. In our 24/7 news soundbite culture it’s more effective to be opposed to something, anything… rather than just accept the facts of life. We live in a violent world.
    I love my violent games but I don’t glory in gore. I wouldn’t avoid a game if it had a female protagonist, but I think aiming for 50/50 men/women equality in gaming is stupid.
    There’s a lot more nuance that could be had in discussions about both violence and sexism.

    1. The problem is that nuance may not make as much money as outrage, and nuance certainly doesn’t inflate the ego like outrage.

      It really is funny about the potential real-world effects of video games, though. When you listen to journalists, it’s always “Games will never cause violence!” or “Games make people sexist!” But when you read the research, scientists are like “Well, we haven’t quite figured all of this out yet.” I take that as an indictment of game journalism.

  2. Great points. While I tend to be in the camp of “I don’t really care about violence or sexism in games,” I do think that they may influence some impressionable individuals, but then again, we can blame that on poor parenting.

    Can we blame a Columbine or Sandy Hook on poor parenting? Maybe. Violent video games? Possibly.

    It raises the question of accountability, and I generally feel there needs to be more of it at all levels. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where the phrase, “I take full responsibility for my actions, and I will be held fully accountable for their consequences,” is uttered, especially amongst the highest ranking members of society.

    1. As far as sexism and violence are concerned, it depends on the case for me. For example, the way women are treated in The Wolf Among Us can get pretty bad; I’ve criticized the first two episodes for this. I also think games like Calm Time and the Grand Theft Auto series need to be criticized more for their idiotic, senseless violence.

      But I find Kat Bailey’s article about the Lords of Shadow 2 scene pretty ridiculous — she has the right to express her opinion, but the article is written to make people clap their hands, not to make a good argument (plus, I’ve watched the scene in question — very tame compared to other vampire imagery I’ve seen).

      Kuchera’s article about the overuse of brothels makes a fair point on the surface, but he doesn’t provide any scientific evidence to support his assumptions about the effects of video games on real life, and his dismissal of violence in the comments section is taking the easy way out. This all makes me believe that his article was written to hear the cheers and jeers.

      What critics like Bailey and Kuchera lack on this subject is genuine insight; at the moment, all they’re doing is adding to the grocery list of potential sexism in games while ignoring violence and science.

  3. I’ve found the positive reaction to South Park: The Stick of Truth is a great example of the inconsistency in the moral attitudes of the gaming press.
    A series that flies in the face of everything the gaming press had advocated for the last few years has received consistently high praise for not just gameplay but for content.
    There was outcry over a God of War’s Bros before Hos trophy, but insulting jokes about disability and rape get a free pass because its South Park?
    I found Kuchera’s analysis of it interesting: he claims that because its a fiction wrapped up in a fiction, we don’t take it seriously. As he says, “these are children playing at heroics, not heroes themselves.”
    It makes you wonder if Leisure Suit Larry is free from criticism because the protagonist is never intended to be a role-model.

    1. This reminds me: Indie Gamer Chick recently (and sarcastically) tweeted that she wanted a female protagonist in South Park.

      Hype creates some remarkable inconsistencies, doesn’t it?

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