Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In War, There Are No Winners

It is the policy of this blog's editor that slurs against any group of people will not be displayed, unless part of a decidedly relevant quote. Accordingly, any potentially offensive language herein is presented for the sole purpose of cogent discussion. Any user comments that do not also meet this criterion will be deleted immediately.

Just over a week ago, the video game world found itself in an unfamiliar situation: Embroiled in criticism over social responsibility, not at the hands of an activist parents' group or an overzealous Florida attorney, but from within.

In an attempt to hype the imminent release of its Modern Warfare 2, developer, Infinity Ward released this promotional video:

What followed was widespread criticism in the video game press and extremely heated controversy among their readers, as evidenced by the comments sections in those respective links. (For those who did not notice, the acronym for the activist group at the end of the video happens to spell out a slur against homosexuals.) This entire incident has raised a number of questions about where the video game community stands in relation to the rest of our culture, when it comes to acceptance of gays. It is, obviously, a tough question to tackle, but comparing video games to the two other media that this blog covers – film and television – may, at least, provide some perspective.

Film typically enjoys more creative freedom than the other two media – a fact that can likely be attributed to it being the oldest of the three. The critical and popular success of Brokeback Mountain in 2005 said a lot about where the film industry stands on the gay rights issue. Despite the fact that I, too, consider the film to be quite good, it is difficult to be convinced of Hollywood's sincerity on an issue that is often wrapped up in petty political squabbles; Brokeback may have merely been embraced on grounds of single-minded political predilections.

Last year's Milk is a great example of this phenomenon. I never stopped wondering at all of the adulation such a mediocre film received, especially when two of its weaker aspects, its screenplay and its lead, were the objects of much of that praise. Anyone who has seen Rob Epstein's well-loved documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk knows how fascinating Harvey Milk's life was. I was astonished to find that Dustin Lance Black's screenplay for Milk, however, hit each bullet point in the man's history with only the most perfunctory concern for character or plot. Furthermore, anyone who has seen real-life footage of Harvey Milk knows that he did not display many stereotypically gay characteristics. Yet, Sean Penn, in his Oscar-winning role, saw fit to give the man limp wrists and a highly mannered style of speech.

If the Oscars' handling of high-profile gay films is any indication, the film industry's concern for gay rights remains rather superficial. Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore the industry's continued interest in tackling the gay rights issue head-on. Even if it is unintentional, such behavior prevents the industry from alienating the GLBT community. When even crude, inflammatory fare like "Bruno" is careful to make its pro-gay stance clear, it is apparent that Hollywood is making conscious efforts to this end.

Television networks have made equally conscious efforts in this area – in fact, many have called them contrived in certain instances. When a study by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) stated that SyFy was one of the lowest-rated networks, in terms of portraying homosexual characters, the network took swift action. It assured the public that it would make a conscious effort to include more gay characters in future programming. Many, like myself, found this concerning, as it implied that the network intended to intervene in the writing of their shows, in order to impose this initiative. Obviously, I fully advocate efforts to diversify a television landscape that is still ruled by rich, white, straight characters, but those efforts should really originate at the creative level, not the executive; forcing writers to comply will likely result in a proliferation of shallow, token characters – not to mention bad storylines.

Still, SyFy's approach is doubtlessly typical. It is difficult not to notice the sudden abundance of gay (supporting) characters on network television. Glee, FlashForward, Modern Family, Mercy and surely a number of other new, fall '09 shows featured gay characters in their casts – a phenomenon that did not seem to occur last year. It looks like the television industry's embracing of the gay community has happened even more abruptly than the film industry's.

There are, of course, exceptions. A recent episode of South Park tackled gay rights issues with predictable bravado. When an obnoxious gang of bikers begins plaguing the town, they are heckled with the word, "fag." It ultimately ignites a debate over the word's meaning, as the kids maintain that it is merely a pejorative for inconsiderate, obnoxious people, not gays. Ultimately, the town chooses to officially redefine the term, in order to line it up with the kids' understanding of it. A particularly interesting moment has the bikers list the etymological history of the word, exposing its constantly shifting meaning.

Yet, Trey Parker and Matt Stone seem to be employing some willful ignorance here. Yes, younger people have rendered the word nigh-meaningless through constant use but the writers seem to believe that the gay rights debate is over. Gay marriage is still an extremely contentious debate and, while one could argue that younger generations use the word differently, that idea hardly applies to today's adults. After all, when the Westboro Baptist Church waves around signs proclaiming, "God Hates Fags," I doubt anyone thinks they are merely condemning inconsiderate jerks. Similarly, Parker and Stone seem to be forgetting that words like, "gay" "homo" and "queer" have also become all-purpose pejoratives. There is an obvious trend there – it is hard to ignore that, but Parker and Stone do. As usual, I admire their willingness to tackle controversial issues without being overly concerned with delicacy, but their opinions are really stretching with this one.

South Park is not the norm for television. In fact, Parker and Stone's ideas more closely resemble the thinking behind Infinity Ward's video than anything else I have discussed thus far; many of the commenters mentioned above, after all, hold up this episode in the ad's defense. While it is obvious that Hollywood's sympathy for gay rights can be forced and superficial, it still appears to be far ahead that of the video game industry.

The timing of the video's release was interesting, as it came a few days after Rockstar Games' release of Grand Theft Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony. Now, I have not been lucky enough to play this game yet, but the core GTA IV release already featured a couple of gay characters and it was likely indicative of the treatment such characters will receive in this release. Rockstar's franchise has always dealt in caricatures but, at the same time, featured unusually well-developed characters. It is true that the gay characters in GTA IV were decidedly stereotypical. Yet, one of them was an old friend of the main character's and he eventually gained a decent amount of depth. A later mission even has you protecting him from a gay basher that has been harassing him. Is it treating the issue with the same level of maturity that Hollywood attempts to? Not quite. But, hey, at least Rockstar tried.

The same cannot be said for the rest of the game industry. Gay characters are incredibly rare in video games (hell, female characters are still hard to come by); it is an understatement to say that homosexuals are underrepresented in the gaming world. So, when the first time in months that gays and games can be mentioned in the same breath is due to a punchline in an ad, things are already looking grim.

Many seem to believe that the joke may have been unintentional, since the word is never explicitly used. Yet, this is a non-issue, as Infinity Ward immediately conceded that it was part of their joke; according to their own Robert Bowling, "I think the core gag is great, the end is a bit too far from the intent of the joke & [I] can appreciate the concerns." This only leaves the question of Infinity Ward's intent in using the word. As argued above, this is largely irrelevant. There is no mistaking the root of this term's offensiveness. The word is used to insult a person's masculinity (this intent is apparent in the video, considering that those players are also called "pussies") and just about every synonym for the word "gay" is often used in the same, exact way.

Are Infinity Ward bigots? I seriously doubt it. Does that really change the fact that the word, however passively it may do so, denigrates homosexuals? No.

Gays are already pariahs in the gaming community – not merely because they are underrepresented in games, but because the online community throws around sexual slurs freely. Anyone who has ever played a competitive, online game knows what I am talking about. Obviously, there is little that we can expect Infinity Ward, or any other developers, to do about that. Yet, it is hardly a justification for Infinity Ward being complicit in it. To use an expression, Infinity Ward are mafia wives. They do nothing to perpetrate these misdeeds, but they are consciously and willfully enabling them.

I fully intend to play Modern Warfare 2; this post is not a call to action, or even an expression of outrage. Instead, my goal here is merely to convey my disappointment. In a popular culture that, at best, seems to acknowledge members of the LGBT community solely for their political value, any group that contributes to their alienation is, unequivocally, part of the problem. The video game community has exploded with diversity over the past few years and it is a damn shame that most developers remain so woefully out of touch that they still fail to recognize it (in all of its forms – not just homosexuality). Proof of this lies in the fact that all of the criticism leveled at this video came from within the community, not from outside groups.

Many gamers, Mr. Keeley and myself included, are proud to preach games' growth as a valuable pillar of our modern culture. Until game publishers and developers are able to recognize the value of our society's diversity and the responsibility for tolerance that comes with it, however, they can never hope for the same respect that other media receive.

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