Pushing the Envelope


Video games often find themselves in a precarious position.  On the one hand, they are a genre with a fanbase that is open to many new ideas and mostly oppose censorship.  On the other hand, however, video games often find themselves under scrutiny from mass media, and often have fans that are the least likely to embrace main characters that do not meet certain ideals.

Often, in media, it is those that live on the fringe that find themselves most able to push envelopes.  In literature, we see ideas in science fiction that will not be openly discussed in most mainstream literature for years.  We see discussions of gender and race that simply weren’t acceptable in the mainstream media during their publication.  In television, it is much the same.  This is why the first interracial kiss on television was in Star Trek, and why the first relationship between Willow and Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was one of the first progressive, long term homosexual relationships on television.

Why is this?  Why are outlets that dabble in non-realities so able to touch on subjects that might otherwise be seen as taboo? The answer lies in the simple fact that the mainstream tends to dismiss such genres as nonsense.  And yet, when reading something like 1984, it is clear that there is a very serious current of reality running through all of those seemingly distant ideas.  In science fiction, authors were willing to discuss issues, especially in the early- and mid-twentieth century, that would never have been allowed in other genres.

This is why, in many ways, video games have a lot of freedom in what they discuss.  Much like those science fiction novels of the 1950s and 1960s, video games are largely only embraced by those on the edges of society.  As such, video games can address topics like gender, race, and government control in ways that much of our media still cannot.  Yet, when we look at the vast array of video games, it becomes apparent that, by and large, video games are not living up to this potential.  Most male main characters are still stereotypical, largely heterosexual and largely white.  Most female main characters are overly sexualized, and often simplified and made rather two-dimensional.  Rarely in video games do we see a complex, multilayered character, never mind a main character that is non-white or not straight.  So, with everything discussed above, why is this?

I am inclined to think that video games are having the same struggles as comic books when it comes to discussing difficult topics, due in part to their primary audience, but due also to the conservative nature of the publishing industry.  Like comics, the traditional (if that word can be applied to a medium that is less than 50 years old) audience for video games are young, heterosexual, caucasian males.  And just like comics, that audience has expanded rapidly in the last twenty years, as youths grow up and as more people embrace the medium.  Still, publishers and developers hesitate to do anything that might alienate that traditional fan base, for fear of losing sales.  Would a quiet, homosexual (and not flamboyant) lead character alienate the fan base?  Honestly, yes.  A lot of people would be turned off by that.  Would a conservatively-dressed, mission focused, yet family-oriented Hispanic female lead alienate the fan base?  Again, yes.  Some of the audience is, and always will be, those people that might find such things unappealing.  And yet, if video games were to delve into new realms, new audiences might begin to find them appealing, and I believe that mass media overall would begin to treat them with more respect.  Currently, when video games push the envelope, it tends to be with extreme violence or with graphic nudity or sexual content.  In many ways, this appeals to that traditional fan base, though it draws ire from many other groups, and understandably so.

Yet, imagine the possibilities inherent to complex, realistic characters, and non-traditional leads.  Rather than a constant discussion of “are video games too violent/sexual,” think of the impact that games with people of color or non-traditional lifestyles might have.  If the media had to ask “is it wrong to let our children take on the persona of a lesbian middle eastern woman fighting for her family’s welfare and not being overtly sexual?”  would the public still view video games in the same light?

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