Social responsibility in pop culture and video games

There is a great article today over on one of my favorite non-gaming blogs, This Ain’t Livin, about whether or not pop culture has social responsibility.  While the post itself isn’t about gaming, there are definitely some intriguing thoughts within that validate what we’re doing here.

One of the more common negative responses to what The Border House is all about is that we’re overreacting, that we’re deeply analyzing video games which are supposed to simply be whimsical entertainment.  That we’re “too sensitive”, that we’re wasting time doing critical analysis on games.  That video games don’t have an obligation to be socially responsible because they’re just art, or just entertainment.  Meloukhia responds to this with:

The ‘no obligation to be socially responsible’ argument is extremely boring and tired, and it’s usually utilized when people don’t actually want to engage with the content and substance of the discussion at all. They can avoid any responsibility as viewers and fans to consider the critique, simply by declaring the entire critique invalid and not of interest. It’s one of the tell-tale signs I look for in responses to criticisms, because of the embedded ideas presented in it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve linked on Twitter a wonderfully written article from one of our authors only to hear back that we’re wasting our time because the developers won’t read our content anyway.  That we could be spending our time being real activists instead of just writing.  That we’re taking games too seriously.  That there are “bigger fish to fry”.  That The Border House is too negative about games, and we should talk more about games we like.

The other thing that people seem to miss when they’re busy dismissing criticisms of their favourite pop culture is that most critics engage with work because they are care about it, possibly think it is interesting, and may even really enjoy it. There are, of course, a few exceptions—I am quite open about hatewatching Glee for example. But those cases are pretty rare. It’s easy to take pot shots at pop culture you don’t like. It’s harder to delve into works you really love to probe them and ask whether they are working not just as works of art, but also as works of messaging. It is one of the greatest acts of fanlove, to challenge the work you adore.

Every one of the authors here is a part of The Border House because we love games. It’s our deep passion for games that makes us want to be critical of them.  When we write about racial issues in Dragon Age, people state that we should be throwing BioWare a bone because they’re the most progressive mainstream game developer.  The problem is, we talk about Dragon Age and Mass Effect because we love those games so much.  We recognize that they did plenty right, and we also are capable of still critically analyzing them.  Meloukhia uses the example of Joss Whedon fans getting upset when feminists critique his work, because he does make so many strong female characters.  That doesn’t excuse him from critique, instead it makes feminists focus even more on his work.  The same goes for BioWare who are more inclusive than other developers but still struggle in some areas when it comes to representation of women and race.

Read the blog post!

About Tami Baribeau

Lead Editor and co-founder of The Border House, feminist, gamer, lover of social media, technology, and virtual worlds. Pansexual, equestrian, dog lover, social game studio director and producer. Email me here and follow me on Twitter!
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21 Responses to Social responsibility in pop culture and video games

  1. Patches says:


    You know you guys inspired me to make a blog about anime? FOR THE SAME REASONS.

  2. feministgamer says:

    Oh yes. This argument. Tired of it, too. And it’s funny, because it often comes from the mouths of people who claim to support the idea they’re dismissing. “I’m all for ____, but you’re wasting your time.” Recently someone claimed that complaining does nothing, because if it did, then there wouldn’t be rotten politicians in the world – so stop complaining. HubbabubbaWUT?

  3. Korva says:

    Thirded. IMO there is never such a thing as “just” art or entertainment, similarly to how bullying isn’t okay because it’s “just words”. Those things shape the minds of many, and probably are more likely to do so than a “boring” obligatory ethics class at school or diversity seminar at the workplace. Toxic crap remains toxic crap no matter what guise it wears.

  4. idvo says:

    I’ll never understand why so many people think that problems will just go away if no one ever talks about them. If a game has texture loading issues, or pop-up, or choppy frame rates, few people just say, “Well, the rest of the game is good, so why don’t you all just stop complaining about the textures and enjoy the game for what it is?” These problems can make it really hard for someone to enjoy a game. Well, -ist crap is the same to me as choppy frame rates. Sure, the game is still playable (if the -ism or frame rates aren’t too bad), but it still breaks immersion and makes for a less enjoyable experience.

    I’m able to deal with occasional glitches and bugs in my games; I don’t mind if a previously dead character suddenly appears, alive, stuck in the middle of a road in Skyrim (which has happened in my game). If this bothers someone else, and they mention it, am I going to tell them to stop caring so much and just play the game? No. It’s a problem, and the developers should hear about it so they can fix it. The same should go for pointing out problematic social aspects in games. Just like glitches, the developers won’t know that there’s a problem unless people point it out to them. I hate how the Asari are often turned into the “Green-Skinned Space Babe” of the ME universe. I understand that fixing that problem and others like it would take more that a patch, though, and that’s why we need to discuss it, in the hopes that in their next game(s) Bioware will do better. It worked in terms of getting a same-sex romance option for dude!Shep in ME3, and it will work for other things, too.

  5. Laurentius says:

    “I’ll never understand why so many people think that problems will just go away if no one ever talks about them. If a game has texture loading issues, or pop-up, or choppy frame rates, few people just say, “Well, the rest of the game is good, so why don’t you all just stop complaining about the textures and enjoy the game for what it is?” ”

    Actually that’s exactly what happens if minority experience such problems, the same mechanic, same rethoric, to be honest exactly same thing happens everytime minority make dent at majority station on something, dismisivness and silencing.

    • idvo says:

      And that never fails to frustrate me, especially when these people talk about things that bother them, too. It’s like the only opinion that matters is theirs, so trying to talk to them about anything (be it a problematic game, law, business policy, etc.), feels like talking to a wall (usually a very rude wall). It’s not so much that we have different opinions, either; it’s their failure to even listen that ticks me off the most. I think David Gaider really got it when he said: “They don’t see anything wrong with having things set up to suit them, what’s everyone’s fuss all about? That’s the way it should be, any everyone else should be used to not getting what they want.”

  6. Panzeh says:

    I know in Dragon Age 2, there’s a tendency to magnify all of its faults in terms of portrayals of sex and women, because it’s considered a “bad” game while the community conveniently ignores all of the problematic aspects of say, Witcher 2 because they really want it to be good, and won’t criticize its portrayal of women and sexuality at all.

    I think the mainstream community is too interested in criticizing its Duke Nukem Forevers, because it’s so easy to do, it’s so obvious that we just put blinders on things we consider “good”, and the fact that fans of a game can’t or won’t criticize it saddens me.

    • Korva says:

      Are many of them even interested in criticizing DNF instead of wallowing in its degradation of women? :/ I recall way back when its prequal was released and I was still reading gaming mags, there wasn’t a single word about the sexism …

      It’s a good point, how much more are we willing to overlook or even excuse in a game that we really enjoy otherwise?

      • SleekitSicarian says:

        Honestly, of the bigger gaming websites I only saw RPS address any potentially problematic issues in the Witcher 2 (And dismiss it as unimportant. Mind, everyone else just went “They got rid of the cards and now there’s just gratuitous sex scenes as a non-optional part of the game which makes it mature!”) or, say, Arkham City or Saints Row the Third, and it was instantly met with hissyfits from the commenters.
        (“This isn’t a gender studies class!” was my favorite. I like to imagine them throwing fits during all their mundane social interactions. At the cashier all “This ain’t a math class!”)

    • Alex says:

      Really good point about Duke Nukem Forever, I hadn’t thought about it that way. There were plenty of fans who leaped to defend it, but among game critics even Jim Sterling got in on criticizing the misogyny. It was an OK target because it was a bad game to begin with and they were tearing it apart already.

    • Laurentius says:

      I don’t like this argument, crticizing people when they defend or dismiss sexism and misogyny in games is right thing to do but criticizing them when they actually address it like in DNF case, even if it only this one time, not so much. I think generally people shouldn’t get a slack when they actually do something good even if their reasons are moot and do it only episodically.

  7. Rakaziel says:

    I can already see the stickers: “Warning! This game was made with not social responsibility in mind.”

  8. Trodamus says:

    Just out of curiousity, which do you find more irritating? The “you’re overreacting / overanalyzing” thing, or the “how can you complain about the unrealistic portrayal of women when you can out of your “?


    • Trodamus says:

      Wow, this ate half my post. Read that as:

      “How can you complain about the unrealistic portrayal of women when you can (impossible verb) out of your (improbable orifice) “?

      • feministgamer says:

        That second one still doesn’t make any sense. So I’mma go with #1.

        • Trodamus says:

          Okay, leaving what resembles my cleverness out of it, I meant the typical “complaining about the unrealistic portrayal of women in games is stupid when you’re playing an unrealistic game.”

          See also the comic book heroine argument.

          • feministgamer says:

            OH. That makes sense now, haha.
            Definitely the overreacting one, though, because it’s making a personal statement about you.

    • Nathan of Perth says:

      Caught by the angled brackets getting interpreted as markup trick again? :)

  9. distance88 says:

    Gah. Oh how I dread the “you’re too sensitive” argument in all of its forms. No one ever considers the “you’re too unfeeling” argument.

    P.S. Gamertag= SlowlyBackAway on XBL. Hit me up if you please.

  10. wererogue says:

    I’ll put my hand up as a developer in a major studio who not only reads social criticism of games critically, but will also use the opinions he forms from it when talking with other developers, including the designers of games that I’m working on. I’m not the only one, and we all exchange article links on a regular basis. So yeah, from my POV you aren’t “wasting your time” – and even if we weren’t reading the articles, there would be nothing wrong with trying to change the expectations of the player base, since we sure as hell pay attention to them from time to time.

  11. Grigory says:

    “people state that we should be throwing BioWare a bone because they’re the most progressive mainstream game developer”

    O RLY?

    Who started porting popular games to Mac OS X? Who understands that piracy is a service problem, not pricing problem? Who makes good non-sexualized black female characters?

    Or Valve isn’t mainstream?

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