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When Helping Harms

A look at recent events in the Swedish games industry, and how the consumer can be harmed when a content creator and an industry merely desire to do the right thing.

It is no secret that the video game culture and industry is aware of what it means to be over looked, forgotten, left behind and ignored by the greater society of which it for so long seemed to lurk in the shadow of, creating ghostly works whose very existence were whispered of around the playground or campus dorm, experimenting in darkness, with only the rare spark to leap forth and illuminate the deepest corners of gamerdom and to alight public awareness as to those strange, alien machines blinking out from the depths of arcades and pool halls and yes, sometimes even dank basements.

It is no surprise, then, that those who had for so long worked in darkness, or who had stood on the fringes of the great world spinning around them and whose only anchor may have been a screen and a few pixels would view awareness almost as a moral imperative in and of itself. As those in the industry and those whose only involvement with video games was in Saving the Princess after school navigated their culture and their careers towards merging with that greater society for which for so long shunned them it is no surprise, then, that they would say unto themselves standing atop ivory towers or Capitol Hills or atop the corporate ladder, No more shall anyone go unheeded, unheard, unrecognized under my watch.

Some would pen articles and papers and blogs; some would program and debug and spend sleepless nights fixated on lines of code racing by; others still would welcome the doors of their companies to those who had nowhere else to go with their talents and their idiosyncrasies. What once was a cottage industry of hobbyists, startups, and cramped foreign branches of far-away publishers and developers had come into its own as a global juggernaut. What affected on part would reverberate and affect the entire industry and culture. One fragile spark could still foment a mighty blaze.

Recently there has been an initiative in the Swedish gaming industry to include a label or certification on games as being gender inclusive. I don't think one can fault the Swedish gaming industry for only wanting to help, to include where so many gamers and developers were once outsiders. But sometimes helping harms. Sometimes the desire to rectify a wrong can create problems of its own.

Chief among these is the harm done to the consumer, to those who perhaps this initiative seeks to help. As a government-backed, and recognized, initiative, a labeling system for gender inclusivity in games means that those groups which have their own struggles with awareness may have further recognition in their greater society, fully backed by the weight and power of their government. And that is precisely where the potential for harm comes in.

The gaming industry is no stranger to having the full force of the government opposed to it. Not just in America, but globally video games do not enjoy the same privilege as other forms of entertainment: one example of this are games ratings and regulators themselves, as gamers repeatedly discuss in regard to more stringent ratings boards and regulations compared to other media. Consider, then, a game which faces not discrimination for gore or violence, but for not meeting what may be a narrow interpretation of gender inclusivity.

"Games are art", as some would argue, and with art comes experimentation and the search for new form and expression: nothing could perhaps be considered the antithesis of this more so than bureaucracy and state control. Yet by putting gender inclusivity and the question of gender identity itself beneath the decree of the state this is the result, of a narrow and unyielding proclamation as to what gender inclusivity and the question of gender identity is. It cannot be any other way, the nature of legislation and regulation is to have concrete, tenable language which defines the very thing it is presiding over.

And if a group finds itself excluded from what is decreed "gender inclusive", what then is their recourse? What then is their identity when it has been excluded by the full force and breadth of the State itself?

What of the unique expression of form found in a videogame that does not meet the confining rubric of what the State decrees?

Ultimately, the consumer is harmed not only by a rating system which may not properly represent the fullness of what the question of gender identity entails, but if they are a subculture of gamers and of gender by having their culture and identity shunned by the State itself. While the delcared goal of the initiative is to go about "reflecting society or the society we are hoping for", there is the real possibilty of those who may not find themselves, their work, or their customers included in this approach to inclusivity.

As a culture and industry which knows all too well what it means to be overlooked, forgotten, shunned, we should do well to make sure not to repeat such actions, to bring about harm in the name of helping.

Larry Carney is the author of Dreams of A Distant Planet: Chrono Trigger and the World Revolution of Video Games and can be reached on Twitter @JazzKatCritic

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