Games, class, and "literary merit"

This post over at GameSetWatch lays out some of the basic arguments we can expect to hear from the EMA side of the table (i.e., in context, the good guys). One of the “vagueness problems” Smith mentions is that the law in question “limits restrictions to games that ‘as a whole … lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.’”1

This is an epic assertion. Count ‘em, folks: there are four good reasons for a videogame. As I’ve blogged before, there’s not even uniform agreement as to whether games are capable of being artistic or literary, though my own views on the matter are more certain.2 To me, the problem extends well beyond “vagueness.” Questions about “art” and gaming run into the same problems that all questions about “art” do—problems of canon, which are problems of audience, which are problems of race and class.

From the article:

Who’s to say, Smith asked, “that a video game about D-Day where everybody is being shot at constantly… would have value, but a game about car theft in L.A. doesn’t have value? … Is it because you can be an American soldier killing Nazis in the D-Day game but you’re a ‘bad guy’ in the Grand Theft Auto game? … How do you decide which of those games has redeeming value?” Smith’s scare quotes (which I’ll return to) notwithstanding, things are rather more complicated than that.

Consider a game set during the Detroit race riots. Or a game where the protagonist is a Black Panther. Or a game where the main conflict is between Hmong street gangs. Contrast with a game set during the American Revolution, wherein the protagonist is shooting British Regulars, rather than regular Americans.

For the first three, we can’t count “political” value—the relevant parties are extinct or nonexistent. We can probably safely dismiss “scientific” value. So literary and artistic merit are the only ways we can get this game sold. (Historical value, remember, doesn’t count. NO HISTORY FOR YOU. Learn some other way.)

Historically speaking, the deciders of artistic and literary merit have been white men. I see no reason to think that this problem will not affect video games as much as anything else. I worry that the arbiters of merit for videogames will be like that, as well, and see the Black Panther as a violent participator in a violent revolt, and the early American as a revolutionary patriot.5 The Hmong gang member, most likely, will receive credit for being neither, just a violent thug.

I worry, too, even about games like Hey Baby, which is clearly political. “Certainly it’s political,” I can hear someone6 say, “but is it meritorious?

What Smith is either alluding to or avoiding with his comment about Nazis is this: questions of what kind of violence are justified, which kinds are acceptable, and which kinds are reprehensible, are decided by the moral majority. That phrase has a particular (if lapsed) meaning in the States, and its weight is no less heavy even with the loss of Jerry Falwell. As a result, the question of what violence can be meritorious will be necessarily tied to the reality of middle America, which is not the whole of reality, or even the whole of American reality.7 This means that voices from other classes, races, sexes, and experiences from the dominant will likely seem less meritorious to the arbiters of value than those like their own—which means in turn that the diversity of experiences we can share with our gaming younglings will be limited to those not wholly unlike the ones they may ultimately have.

This, my friends and friendlies, is eminently crappy.8


  1. I suppose we should be grateful that games with moments that are less than meritorious are still permissible. 

  2. Yes.3  

  3. Guillermo Del Toro4 agrees

  4. I realize this is not even a good translation, but every time I hear his name, I hope his friends call him “Billy the Bull.” 

  5. To my mind, for the record, both are both. 

  6. He looks suspiciously like Uncle Pennybags. 

  7. Disclosure: I say this as a middle American. 

  8. The only thing crappier is the fact that, by and large, we’re already not making these games; there’s an extant problematic of class, race, and gender in the gaming world that needs worked on, sure. But there’s a big difference between an established bias in an industry and a bias in a legislatevely- and judicially-mandated government entity responsible for governing culture.