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Friday, December 21, 2018

How Video Games Made Me A Better Person

First, a disclaimer: I have a lot of privilege. I code as white (ethnically I'm from a group that has had its whiteness revoked and been the target of genocides, but most people don't know that unless I tell them). I'm a guy (kinda). I'm not straight but I have spent most of my life under the umbrella of straight privilege. Raised middle class, although I'm now poor on paper. Able-bodied except for some neurodivergence. Those marginalized statuses I have, you probably couldn't tell by looking at me, so I pass, out in the world. These experiences are from my point of view, and they may be somewhat sophistic to people who experience marginalization and systematic oppression every day.

I tend to be a bit outspoken when it comes to social justice issues. When I say "tend to" and "a bit," you understand that I mean most of my friends (even those who agree with me) have gone through at least one or two moments on Facebook where they said, "Chris, please shut up. Please for the love of God, just stop posting. Just for a few minutes. Just this once. Please!"

From time to time, however, someone manages to pin me down for a lunch date or corners me at a party where I'm being reserved, shy, and not at all like my online persona, and they often end up wondering about how I came to care so much about the issues I talk so much about. Formative experiences about speaking out against injustice involve my mom, and no small amount of my bravery can be attributed to my idolization of Luke Skywalker. But those experiences set a tone. They laid the foundation for wanting to be morally good. They don't themselves help me parse the thicket of discourse to determine what the right thing is.

That comes from video games.

When I was young, video games were pretty simple. The first game I ever played involved a square picking up an arrow to go look for a chalice, and my favorite game required you to run to the right until you died three times. (You could run to the left, but the crocodiles were easier to jump going right.) And of course there was an inexplicable hostility that a certain airplane had for the river it was raiding.

Boss fight. Circa 1979.
Shit just got real, yo.

As I grew up, video games got better and their objectives improved. There was plenty of rescuing princesses, of course, and stopping alien brains, and terrorist organizations who apparently had the money to build giant fighting mecha but didn't think to put some motion detectors outside their death fortresses, but we also started to see more complex machinations. Villains didn't always just twirl their mustaches or go by names like Sinistar–some of them even thought they were the good guy.

As we reached the turn of the century, and video games began to come into their own as a complex and nuanced art form, we gamers began to take on the avatar mantle of heroes in much more complicated dramas. Sometimes we were on the wrong side when we started out. Sometimes the villains lied. Sometimes complicated political dramas were unfolding with no moral protagonist.
Of course, these days, in video games, we can even choose to be complete epic seepage dripping assholes, adding a whole new layer of choice and complexity to the journey of the gamer.

Like COMPLETE seepage dripping assholes.

And as weird as it might sound, all this nuance and flexibility has helped me to be a better person. We can all figure out how to be a good guy when evil aliens show up to destroy Earth. We can all make the "right" choice when some eight-foot-tall fucking BDSM turtle kidnaps a woman who's begging for help.  But as things get more complicated, and everyone is just looking out for their own interests, it becomes a little tougher to figure out whose side of the story to listen to.

That's where video games come in.

Imagine you fired up a video game and entered in the starting city of a modern (yet steampunk because steampunk is awesome) town. You're probably going to talk to a bunch of people and find out what's going on because you've played enough video games to know that's what you do. And unless you're very impatient, you will probably start by talking to everyone. You won't skip the "Falcons" group and only ever talk to the "Razorbacks." They've all got stories. You won't ignore someone who lives in the bad part of town. You know (as any good gamer knows) that there may be vital information in the hands of basically anyone.

You don't value any stories more than any others.

Now imagine the first people you talk to are kind of bitter and mean. They treat you with some hostility. They don't trust you. They don't like you. But they do talk to you, and when they do, they tell you of terrible things happening to them from the government. Every single one of them has a story about how their experience isn't fair. They don't get enough steam for their punks in their part of town. They are powerless. Poor. If any of them protest their unfair conditions, they are often the subjects of violence. This isn't just a coincidence either. They aren't randomly the poor people. They are HELD DOWN because of some immutable factor of their birth. They may even ask you to help them. They have definite perceptions about the injustice in which they exist. They say it is all around and permeates their lives. Their ancestors were very badly treated, and even though things are better, they still aren't equal.

As you move on, you discover a second group. They are much nicer and friendlier. They like you. They treat you well. They flirt with you (unlocking romance options far more easily). This group lives in a better part of town. They are, by and large, richer and much more powerful. They have all the steam they need and their punks are well stocked. Almost everyone on the TV shows is from the second group and they control the voice that comes over the city-wide PA system telling everyone what a fine equality-loving society they all live in. Almost everyone in political power is from the second group. Almost every notable person in this city's history seems to be from the second group.

Group Two will tell you at length about how the first group is making things up. Sure, they were an unfair society long ago in the before time, but that's all ancient history (the ancient history of one generation ago). Now it's laughable that things aren't totally equitable. Certainly there aren't any deep-seated inequalities to overcome.

They tell you that the first group just wants to put them down. The first group is lazy. The first group won't work to pull themselves up. They say the first group is simply playing the victim because of the benefits they hope to get from pity. In some cases they acknowledge that some *VERY MINOR* injustice still exists, in a detached and intellectual way, but they insist that it is self correcting, often dismiss specific claims of Group One, and firmly believe that any attempts by the first group to right the injustice are "far far worse than the inequity itself." They really discourage you from listening to the first group's stories. Not overtly, of course––at least not at first––but by explaining that they are better able to see injustice than group one, and there isn't any. Of course, if you keep talking to group one, they'll stop being so nice, stop flirting with you. Stop treating you so well...

Laws exist that make it extremely difficult for the people in Group One to advance themselves into the worlds of Group Two (though technically it is possible and a few have done it to much fanfare and are often touted as evidence that everything is better now). Further, a few people in Group Two are quite overt about how they are superior and should be in a better position. They blame most of the Group One's troubles on the actions, culture, behaviors of Group One, often suggesting that if they would just be less hostile, work harder, and accept their lot, they would probably be in a better situation. There are many theories about why the first group is disadvantaged and they are all discussed by the second group with a sort of intellectual detachedness. Many in Group Two talk at length about what they would do to have better lives if they were in Group One.

It is considered uncouth to voice the opinion openly and directly that Group One is inferior, but when it happens (and it seems to strangely often), such opinions are merely considered impolite and part of living in a free society where people can say what they want. They are not immediately censured and aggressively repudiated in the same way as Group One's cries of injustice are....always. Still, it seems that in whispers and through double speak, Group Two is really allowed to speak as horribly as they want about Group One.

Group Two has nothing to gain and everything to lose from even the acknowledgement of the injustice. Group Two's elite enjoy a vast and inexhaustible supply of cheap labor from Group One. And you even discover that there are actual laws and regulations (on top of social consequence and effect) that make it much much harder for anyone from Group One to rise up. Plus Group One is secretly treated worse in virtually every situation––financing, employment, payment...you name it. And Group Two is blaming them for bad things that have begun to happen and looking to make life even worse for them.

Now here is my question to you as a gamer.

Would you, playing this game, have even the SLIGHTEST difficulty realizing what was going on in this scenario? Would anyone not know which group to support to get the "good" ending and which would get the "evil" ending?

Video games helped me to realize that most people look around our world from the inside. We've been here our whole lives. We're used to it. We're desensitized. WE ARE THE NPC's! We are the status quo. But as soon as we look at our world from the perspective of someone who just turned the game on five minutes ago, it becomes shockingly, absurdly, spectacularly easy to realize what is really going on.

When we take the time to listen to the stories of different people, as we would if we were walking around a game world trying to figure out what was going on (and instead of listening to who was in power), we immediately get a sense that our world is not just haphazardly and randomly unfair, but is systematically oppressive. Instead of letting the group in charge tell us that it's fair or as fair as it can be or any unfairness is probably the fault of those suffering, we can go and get the stories from the people themselves and listen to them. The minute we listen to everyone as if they have something vital and important to tell us (and they do) about this world, the truth is laid bare. When we value all the stories around us as equal instead of letting those in power explain away inequality it is almost comical how apparent the injustices are.

In my world (as distressingly unsteampunk as it is) I have a choice to listen to one group–the group in power (a largely male, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cis group)–who insists that nothing is really wrong that couldn't be fixed if people would just try harder instead of complaining. Or I can seek out other voices and other narratives and let the people best equipped to describe their own situations describe it for themselves. Women who've experienced harassment and sexism. People of color who've experienced racism and xenophobia. Disabled people who've found difficulty accessing the same services as the able-bodied. Gender-variant folks who have a world of difficulties that cis folks do not. I can find those folks and I can listen to their stories and see that they paint a very VERY different picture than those overwhelming the mainstream. And once I have bothered to listen to the stories of those who are not in control of the narrative–and treated those stories as equal to the ones who are–it's only a matter of deciding whether I want to be Luke Skywalker or a seeping asshole.

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