“The following is a contributor column by the Infernal Accountant Mage.”
I play a lot of video games. In fact, I’d guess I play more than anybody I know. If I’m not playing, I’m watching YouTube or reading guides. I’m steeped in the hobby and have been for my entire life. I write about games so much that it might as well be a part-time job; in fact, writing about games led me to become a professional writer in the first place. I’ve attended E3 twice and intend to attend for a third time this year.
Despite all this, I wouldn’t call myself a “gamer.” In fact, I bristle a little at the term when it’s applied to me. “Someone who plays a lot of video games” is fine, if you absolutely must.
Why is that? We’ll go into two reasons over the course of this series. The first is that there’s a strong and enduring societal stigma against video gaming as a hobby and against people who play a lot of video games. We’ll talk about the second (nearly every aspect of the video game community is horrible and I’d rather not be associated with any of it) in a future entry. Today, we’re going to look at stigma, particularly in relation to 1992’s Night Trap, the drama surrounding it and censorship in games at large.
Contemporary hobbyist discussion about video games tends to operate under the assumption that they’re an art form. We actually spoke about whether or not that’s actually the case on The Well-Red Mage some time ago; it’s somewhat relevant to the subject matter we typically discuss in this column that an attempt by Well-Red to broach the subject on Twitter was met with toxicity and an attempt to shut the discussion down. Today we’re going to revisit the topic, since it’s not really possible to talk about Night Trap and the stigma surrounding video games without talking about censorship.
In the early 90s there was a big push toward more cinematic games, which at that point was realized by making movies interactive rather than making games more like movies. This led to the rise of the FMV game, essentially a pre-recorded movie where you’d sometimes push buttons. Night Trap, then, was this concept applied to a slasher film. The player was tasked with watching over the security cameras in a manor and keeping a cast of young women safe from vampires by remotely activating traps. By today’s standards it’s goofy schlock; really, I can’t imagine Night Trap was especially scary or provocative even back in 1992, and when I played 2017’s remaster I couldn’t help but laugh at the most “terrifying” scenes. Night Trap isn’t an especially great game, boiling down to what is essentially a trial-and-error exercise, and the plot ranges from awkward to comedic in its efforts at suspense. At its most scandalous the game features young women in modest nightgowns being allegedly terrorized by the vampiric equivalent of the Three Stooges.
Of course, if you’re familiar with video game history you know the real reason Night Trap is notable: we can directly link it to the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board after a series of Congressional hearings used it as an example of the depravity of video games in 1993. 7-year-old me was just barely old enough to comprehend the circumstances here at the time: a group of old people with no investment in my interests were making decisions that would directly affect me and I had no say in the matter. I’d like to say I was a precocious little scamp, but that’s an apt summary of much of a child’s life (and a theme that continues to this day as an adult, really) so it was more of a shrug, accept that old people were dumb and move on kind of thing. The decisions made about video games have rarely been made by the people who care about them.
While I will openly rail against many of the usual gamer talking points, I share with the hobby at large a deep distaste for the censorship of video games. Make no mistake: censorship is a political act, a statement to the governed that they are believed to be incapable of handling certain content. It implies ignorance, it portrays the consumer as infantile; you cannot be trusted to consume this material without being adversely affected by it so it must be kept from you. To any free-thinking individual it is an insult, and when applied to Night Trap the insult becomes a bit much to bear – the game is, after all, pure schlock.
Young me was lucky to have relatively understanding parents when it came to games. I was able to argue as well as a child could that attempting to censor games because of their rating was an accusation that I wasn’t intelligent enough to handle their content; I think that argument was taken about as well as any argument from a child would be, but the fact remains that Grand Theft Auto was never a problem, for instance. The only real attempt at censorship that I can recall was a push against Blizzard’s Diablo due to its Satanic imagery and even that didn’t last for more than a couple of years once it became clear that I wasn’t going to spend a lot of time in church in the first place. In other words, the ESRB and game ratings themselves were never much of an issue; they proved to be more of an annoyance later when checking IDs for game purchases became a common practice, since I’ve always looked fairly young.
What is and has always been an issue is the pervasive stigma against video games and the people who play them. We discussed this a little in the post about Super Mario Bros. 3 and The Wizard, but to reiterate: the mainstream societal perception of the “gamer” is that they’re white, cis, straight, overweight, unemployed, lazy, angry and disconnected. To the mainstream, video games are explicitly toys for children, and if you’re still playing with toys past a certain age then there must be something wrong with you. One can call games “art” all one wants, but that doesn’t seem to be convincing the people who most need to be convinced.
I can think of no other art form that’s approached with such willful ignorance – really, I can think of few other hobbies that are treated in such a way. When one writes about mountain climbing, they perhaps take the time to learn what a crampon is or how to pronounce Everest. It’s expected that those who write about sports or cars at least somewhat know their stuff. When it comes to gaming, though, the spectrum between a complete lack of knowledge and a deep devotion to the hobby seems fairly minimal – and a complete lack of knowledge doesn’t necessarily exclude one from talking about games, even in hobbyist circles. That’s been relevant to the development of the hobby and the culture surrounding it over the years because, again, the decisions made about video games have rarely been made by the people who care about them.
Gaming is a hobby with markedly negative perceptions and an entrenched lack of understanding surrounding it. People aren’t just ignorant regarding video games, they actively don’t want to learn anything about them. I can suggest a movie I especially liked to a friend and expect that it will be well-received; to do the same with a game would be folly. I particularly enjoyed the period where Pokémon was taking off; media would run fluff pieces regarding the growing fad while refusing to learn how to correctly pronounce the name of the franchise.
It’s a minor thing, sure, but it smacks of disdain; the same disdain in people’s eyes if you pull out a handheld on public transportation, if you’re wearing blatantly game-related merchandise, if you walk around a city where a game convention is being held while making it clear that’s why you’re visiting. You aren’t supposed to be proud of playing with toys as a grown adult. You’re supposed to be ashamed.
Before I learned to navigate the turbulent seas of human interaction, I found my attempts at dating stunted by shame and a fear of revealing who I really was to the people I was trying to get close to. Authority figures never hesitated to let me know that they thought I was rotting my brain, that those games were ruining my life, that I’d never be successful or loved or happy if I spent all my time playing video games.
None of that came to pass, of course. Gaming is what led me to become a successful writer. It’s taken me to places that I never would have seen otherwise and let me experience things I might have never known. While the majority of the most insufferable people I’ve met have been gamers (the community surrounding the industry is a cesspool and best avoided) I’ve also met lifelong friends thanks to the hobby. Today this stigma is a motivator. Gaming without feeling bad about it has, in a way, become a tiny bite-sized act of rebellion. The world becomes a bit more cooperative when you make it clear that, frankly, you’ve had enough and you’re done taking its sh-t.
It’s still something I need to remind myself about from time to time. I’ve got a job. I live with a long-term partner. I pay my taxes. While I no longer allow myself to be mistreated as I once did, I try to avoid making other people’s lives worse on a regular basis by consciously attempting to avoid thoughtless and careless actions. All of these are things that can’t be said for many of my peers.
But I’m not the one who makes the decisions in this hobby. One last time: the decisions that are made about video games are rarely made by the people who care about them – and people who don’t care about games are going to be impacted by that omnipresent stigma. When a violent tragedy occurs, the public eye returns to video games. We are reminded that the mainstream believes that those who care about video games are incapable of handling their content without internalizing it to a dangerous degree.
To the mainstream, video games are not an art form – they are a toy. Who plays with toys past a certain age? Why, the Manchild, of course. He’s still here. He’s not going away. You can smell him.
We certainly don’t want him getting any dangerous thoughts in his head.
The Infernal Accountant Mage believes the pen is mightier than the sword…well, depending on how sharp the pen and sword are. A child of the ’90s and a prolific writer, he strews his work about like Legos made of words, just waiting for your brain to step on them. He enjoys a devilish challenge, so when it comes to talking about some of the more difficult games out there, you might just run into the Infernal Accountant Mage. Some advice: hold on to your soul around this guy, and don’t sign anything. Read more at popzara.com
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Categories: Wednesday Column