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Why I oppose "bro-shaming" for reasons of creative freedom, even though I dislike the "bro" games and culture

Neil Sorens

November 24, 2014

5 Min Read

Anyone else sick of #GamerGate? Yep, same here.  It's very easy to want to side with no one, especially when sticking out your neck can easily cost you either your customers or your job and reputation.  And the purity of gaming journalism? Yeah, right.  Only the most naive would expect integrity from any sector of entertainment media, when even "real" journalists and the government and industries they cover have such incestuous relationships.

If you're like me, the feminist critiques of the gaming industry ring true for you.  Long ago, I began to find the violence, quasi-sexual imagery, and power fantasies of the bulk of new games (especially on consoles) tiresome and unappealing.  For several years, now, I have dreaded walking the main floor at E3, where the sounds of combat echo from every corner and games featuring guns and swords all bleed into one dreary, derivative, cacaphonous mess.

Despite my personal preferences, though, it's important to stand up to bullies and defend the ability to create a wide range of games, whether the games actually are self-indulgent, prurient tripe, or whether vocal, moralistic critics merely want to label them as such in order to stop you from creating them (or to control your behavior generally).

Let's be clear: many video games have no socially redeeming face value.  The ones I'm talking about exist solely to entertain, to distract from real life, to fulfill fantasies, to provide gratification of the baser desires of human nature.  That's not to say that there is no value at all in these activities, especially if they prevent someone from, say, exercising their desire to commit violence in real life by providing an alternate outlet.  But by and large, sitting in front of your TV stealing virtual cars and gunning down virtual Nazis doesn't do a whole lot for you as a person or for society as whole.

And that's OK.  It's just as OK as watching porn, enjoying a summer blockbuster or a Harlequin romance novel, being sexually promiscuous, or partaking of any number of self-indulgent activities that neo-Puritans and other scolds of all stripes find to be transgressive.  It's not evil or misogynist or bigoted to enjoy these activities and to defend your enjoyment of them.  

And creating avenues for those activities - making games, movies, books, porn, etc., instead of the morally unobjectionable but less profitable stuff that your critics want you to make - is OK, too.

It's time to stop the bro-shaming.

As creators, we must be free to explore and to create - and to stand behind our creations and customers - without censorial moralists declaring us misogynists and various other de facto synonyms for "evil."  

We didn't roll over for Jack Thompson or Leland Yee, some of the original bro-shamers.  And just as a blanket ban on violence in games is an offensive and overbroad restriction in both legal and creative senses, so, too, the crusade against testosterone-infused interactive entertainment is repulsive to anyone who values artistic freedom.  

Just as slut-shaming is not about encouraging monogamy, bro-shaming is not about changing the nature of bro games or culture, or about making the gaming world more welcoming to women.  It's about acquiring power and status though moral superiority.  

Namely, it's about the power to have one's moral sensibilities be installed as gospel for the whole of society: to decide what is offensive expression and what is acceptable expression.

And it's about political power - the power to label one's opponents as bigots (or blacklist them as "harassers"), which by today's standards is worse than being labeled a Communist in the 1950s.  At least McCarthy was fighting an ideology that was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people and the imprisonment and impoverishment of countless more.  Here, it's for no greater cause than self-aggrandizement and the subjugation of political opposition through browbeating, demonization, and marginalization.

And when do you think the bro-shamers will stop? When you create a game with a strong female protagonist? When you pay protection money to some self-serving "non-profit" organization? Hardly. Most of them don't even care about games; games are simply a target-rich battlefield for their political and cultural objectives.  When have you ever heard of any of the various self-appointed enforcers of moral standards say, “Oh hey, we got this one thing we said we wanted; now we’re content”? No, you give them one thing, and they simply step up to their next demand or go after their next target.  As Orwell said, “the object of power is power.” 

The demands of these and other would-be censors may seem reasonable at first, as with every other attempt at repression in the history of man.  "Oh, we just want women to enjoy games, too!" And then all of a sudden you find yourself under attack because your game doesn't have a playable female character or is otherwise transparently designed to appeal to men.  Or you are shamed into a tearful apology on national TV because the tacky shirt you wore offended the Guardian Council.  

Bro-shaming isn't about inclusiveness and creating new things for wider audiences; you can support those goals without the nasty attacks and underhanded tactics we've seen.  Rather, it's about limiting what you are allowed to create or enjoy because someone else, whether it's Jack Thompson or Anita Sarkeesian, doesn't like it.  No matter what your opinion on the merits of bro gaming is, that's a dangerously slippery slope for creative freedom.

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About the Author(s)

Neil Sorens


Neil Sorens is Creative Director at Zen Studios. Neil has worked in the games industry for over ten years as a tester, producer, and designer. He blogs about game design on Gamasutra.

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