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Thursday, 26 March 2015

Editorial: Gamers, Censorship, and the Invisible Lobster Claw of the Free Market.

Editorial: Gamers, Censorship
and the Invisible Lobster Claw of the Free Market.

Here are two memes that seem to pop up whenever someone dares to mention how poorly video games treat - or even acknowledge the existence of - women, LGBT people, or anyone who isn't white: Let the Free Market decide! and You want to censor games! 

They're two quite odd memes, actually (and we can chalk that up in large part due to the fact that they're evasive ways of saying Don't talk about this issue you're making me uncomfortable, but let's pretend for a spell that that's not the case), since they seem to be predicated on the idea that people complaining somehow constitutes interference from a political body.

But it doesn't. Let me address the first meme first: Let the Free Market decide! Well, yes. I am, because I'm part of that Free Market. I am a consumer, who spends money on these products, and by complaining I'm making my grievances with that product known - both to myself and to others, who can then make a more informed decision on whether they, as individuals acting within a Free Market system, want to purchase the product, not purchase it, or themselves make their grievances known.

It's not new. The idea of customers expressing their dissatisfaction with a product or a range of products did not pop into existence with gamers saying that maybe they'd like a little bit of variety in their games, nor did the idea that a company might then listen to them and adjust their future products to accommodate them - both because it enhances their reputation as a company, and because it shores up their sales, giving them an edge over the competition, both because those customers who complained are now less likely to be stolen away by another company who does listen to their complaints, and because those same customers will now tell people 'Hey, Company A actually listened to what we wanted.'

Note that at no point in this model of consumer-company relations is the company being forced to do anything. A company can choose not to take their consumers' views into account at all. No higher power is compelling them to do otherwise.

Let's take Mass Effect 3 as an example of this. After its release, fans across the globe complained, loudly, that the ending was unsatisfactory to them (for some reason, even though the GamerGate sorts seem to hate some complaints, complaints like this one seem to be considered fine, which I'm sure has absolutely nothing to do with GamerGaters just hating any mention of misogyny), and Bioware eventually responded by changing the ending. Not just altering their future releases, actually altering a finished product. 

They didn't have to. God knows, despite widespread dissatisfaction with it, Mass Effect 3 was not wanting for sales (which is another reason this meme doesn't make sense: It is possible for a product to be unsatisfactory to many people but still to sell well). Bioware wasn't doing this for money - if anything, putting together three altered endings and then making them available for download sliced into the massive profits they were enjoying. They were doing it because they recognised a desire amongst their consumers for this, and because responding to that desire was beneficial to them. The Free Market spoke, a company responded, and at no point was a boycott or 'voting with your wallet' ever a possibility, because a healthy Free Market has other tools available to them than just refusing to throw money at something.

Let's talk about the second meme, then: You just want to censor games! Well, no, that's not true, is it. When Bioware altered Mass Effect 3 - or, for that matter, when they included LGBT relationships for both genders in it, after fan demand - that wasn't censorship. No power had intervened to make cuts, to remove content, to stifle creativity. Nobody was compelled to do anything, in fact, and that's the core of censorship: Being forced.

One could argue quite easily that, say, threatening to kill women in the industry because they said things you didn't agree with is censorship, though. You are, after all, attempting to leverage the threat of violence to deny them their freedom of speech. 

Potentially, one could also say that censorship is publishers telling developers that they can't have a female main character in their game, or that she can't kiss a man, as happened to Remember Me developers Dontnod Entertainment. A more powerful entity is attempting to leverage its power to make a smaller entity remove content and alter their creative vision. Certainly, it's indicative of a problem in the industry, that a publisher would be so anxious about teenage boys - who do not compose a majority of the market, let's not kid ourselves here - that they would refuse to even consider something that might make that demographic uneasy.

And the thing is, these arguments - apart from showing a demonstrably false conception of what the Free Market and censorship are - also seem to presume that that market, teenage boys, are the majority of the market. They are not. According to the Guardian, 52% of gamers are women, outnumbering males altogether, let alone teenage boys. Of the remaining 48%, it's reasonable to assume that far from all of those are teenagers, and that an even smaller portion of that chunk of the market would be totally unwilling to play as a woman in a video game.

It's an easy mistake to make, to be sure, because Triple A gaming companies obsessively market their games towards that particular group, to the extent that anybody might think that that's their core market. It's not, it's their aspirational market. It's the market they desire. Crucially, it's the market that Call of Duty has, and as CoD's own dev pointed out, CoD players are often barely gamers: They don't buy video games, they buy that video game, loyally, with every new release, along with every DLC, regardless of cost or frequency. The teenage boy market is aggressively loyal to a brand and very deep-pocketed, and that's largely why they are so forcefully marketed to.

It's not a good marketing strategy, not when you've got a market already there, waiting for you to cater to them, and loudly telling you exactly what it is that they want. Some companies have already realised. Most indie developers certainly have. 

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