Why “if you don’t like it, make your own” is not a valid argument

A cute beaver stands next to a sign saying "Support the Arts", along with a book, musical instruments, and theatre masks. A man stands on top of a paint canvas telling the beaver "You're artists. You're supposed to starve," while at the same time dropping a big bag of money into an outstreched palm labelled "Big Biz".

This entry was originally posted at Deirdra Kiai Productions.

Today, in response to critical outcry on a certain disgusting videogame trailer making rounds on the internet (relevant links here, here, and here), Tycho of Penny Arcade fame responded saying that rather than complaining about it, people should instead be making their own art. As a creator of my own art for the last decade or so, this particular silencing tactic — because let’s face it, “silencing tactic” is exactly what it is — angers me on a very personal level, if only because I once bought into it completely.

Don’t get me wrong. I love creating my own art. It’s an activity out of which I get more joy than almost anything else. I love encouraging people to create their own art too, because the art I enjoy most is the kind that’s personal and intimate. I haven’t even so much as touched a big-budget videogame in quite some time, simply because none of them interest me very much, these days. The book Tycho linked to in his post, Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, is absolutely fantastic and empowering and I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone reading this. And yet… that’s not all there is to the story.

For one thing, not only are sexist and ultraviolent videogames still continuing to be made in spite of better alternatives, they also happen to have some of the highest development and marketing budgets in our industry, to the point that when laypeople think of “videogames”, they immediately think “immature adolescent male pastime”. To say that this doesn’t have any kind of effect on the medium as a whole is absolutely ignorant. When you’re an industry professional, like myself and others I know, trying to hold videogames to a more mature* standard, it gets really frustrating when orders from above dictate that you produce for the lowest common denominator. These are, after all, the People Who Buy Videogames. Trying to appeal to underserved demographics? Well, that’s a risky proposition, isn’t it? We all need to make money so we can eat, you know, and look at all those other games that tried to do something risky and didn’t sell. We can’t have that!

And the more this happens, the more confirmation bias you get. The videogame industry believes that the only people who will buy games are straight white men with an immature adolescent mentality, and as a result, the only people who do buy games are straight white men with an immature adolescent mentality. This, then, extends to people who wind up driven to be creators in this medium, because people tend to want to make games because of the games they’ve played, and it becomes a feedback loop, shutting out those of us who don’t belong. Even the well-lauded “indie” scene isn’t immune from this fate, since almost all success stories on that front are, you guessed it, straight white men creating games about being straight, white, and male** — pretty much the same thing you see in the more commercial segments of the game industry, except maybe slightly quirkier.

Those of us in the margins, making our own art through the medium of games… well, I can only speak for myself, but seeing all this happening around me can be overwhelming, disheartening, and exhausting at times. I create for myself, yes, but I also want to speak to the rest of the world, engage in a dialogue… otherwise, what’s the point? I need to be heard, but how can I be heard through all this noise? How can I compete with their budgets, their armies of talented technical craftspeople? How can I polish and hone my skills when so much of what I’m trying to do is practically uncharted territory and I have so few mentors? When I release a game and the response is crickets — or if I’m lucky, fifteen minutes of fame before the collective attention span of the internet gets diverted to the next “ooh, shiny” thing — it can often feel like I haven’t made any kind of a difference at all.

I’m still going to make my own games because I love doing it and it’s important to me, but to make any kind of real change to our industry, that’s not going to be enough. I don’t claim to have any concrete solutions — and if I did, I’d be filthy rich by now — but I do know that pointing out and calling attention to the things that are wrong with our industry, as opposed to sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring them is, if not necessarily a better approach, then at least a more honest one. And hey, who says you can’t critique and create more art, or even critique in the form of art? Satire is a pretty neat tool, if I do say so myself.

So, in short, in case it wasn’t absolutely clear, not only do I not mind critics of violent, sexist media, I welcome and encourage them. They aren’t impinging on my ability to create my own art; if anything, they’re helping it. Let’s put the “if you don’t like it, make your own” non-argument to rest, because all it does is shunts those of us who do make our own art back into the margins, where we can’t really do much of anything.

* Here, I mean actually mature as opposed to what I like to call “M for Mature”
** Let’s not forget that our society sees stories about straight white men as “universal” stories that can appeal to everyone. Consequently, all other stories are about specific kinds of people, or “issues”, and therefore not “universal”.

15 thoughts on “Why “if you don’t like it, make your own” is not a valid argument”

  1. Shouldn’t this be a valid argument though? When similar things are brought up about MRA groups or Feminist groups not supporting men the answer is often to get out there and do something about it themselves and not rely on others. Creating video games can be very cheap in the world we live in other than in terms of time and advertising and it’s not like feminist sites lack the capability to advertise or support projects to get advertisement out there. As Kickstarter has shown it is easily possible to get money together for projects and advertising, you might not hold the interest of the world for more than 15 minutes – but you only need to hold it long enough for others to start believing they can also hold it for their own 15 minutes. Telling the world it has to change to meet our view of it is never going to be terribly successful unless you hold power, wealth, and influence so is out of the reach of most of us – making it change though is possible and we have the power to do that.

    1. … Really? Your first sentence is “isn’t it, though?” after reading an entire article titled “no, it isn’t”?

      1. Just because an article is written doesn’t necessarily mean it is correct in its premise or argument; if that were so wouldn’t we all be happy in the kryiarchy? There isn’t really any evidence in the article to support the points it made that this is a bad thing when the author herself is a data point suggesting that it is possible to make changes in this field. Deidra has achieved recognition, has made games and has had the 15 minutes of fame as described in the article showing that it is possible to do so.

        The programming world levels a lot of barriers because it really is possible to create the next major thing in your garage and to learn on almost zero resources bar time. Ten years ago Facebook was a start-up made by a small team in a dorm room, sure they got lucky but it seems a lot of these small start-ups do. What these kind of things show us is that it really isn’t impossible to roll your own and make it successful.

        Thank you for the informative and useful rebuttal though, http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Tone_argument might be worthwhile reading as an introduction to why attacking someone’s post in that way isn’t really a helpful technique.

        1. Sorry, I did read your post a certain way and it rubbed me the wrong way. It’s eerily similar to people who only read the title of an article before responding or those who glaze through it knowing they already disagree, ready to tell them off. I don’t engage those people in good faith.

          And as you can obviously see, silencing tactics, such as the Tone Argument, are so useless and unhelpful. So you should be able to understand why the silencing tactic of telling people to “make your own if you don’t like it” is just as useless and unhelpful.

          Does denying validity to that mumbojumbo mean that means marginalized/oppressed people shouldn’t actively create representative media as well? Absolutely not. That’s still as important as before. But telling those people that they don’t deserve representation or consideration outside of only what they make is actually rather counter-productive.

          1. I think Ermoss below has said it in many ways quite succinctly – it is not easy for any group to understand the lived experiences of another group and to represent them in a way which is reflective of that experience and also understandable to others. You see the argument come up a lot that the ‘cis-hetero-white-male’ (CHWM) is pushed onto everyone and therefore can be understood however even that belies the fact that the experience of those CHWMs is affected by their social status, financial status, upbringing, friends, etc. It’s not to say that CHWMs shouldn’t attempt to write in those characters but we need to get other people involved to represent and provide perspective for these stories. The only solution to this lack of experience is to introduce it – and until we gain the ability to trade bodies or minds for a while the only solution is to get those groups involved directly.

          1. Tndor, please reread the exchange between us – I didn’t silence feministgamer given that zir comment didn’t add any information other than to attack my phraseology as I read it or premise as you did. I will restate simply stating something isn’t good / advisable when you are an immediate counter example to it is not generally a good way to open a discussion, if Deidre wanted an echo chamber I don’t think zie would have posted on this forum. Spurring discussion where the participants are going to try and discuss things is surely a good idea?

            I also can’t see where I played the CHWM card other than possibly on pointing out that ‘go change the world yourself and don’t rely on us’ is a stock phrase in the Feminist lexicon as much as it is in many others. They don’t play it as broadly but denying it is used again doesn’t feel helpful. For once I’m not trolling – this is a field where individuals can make a difference so either I’m missing something or we do need to get people coding as well as trying to alter those big studios.

    2. I agree with your contention, but I’ve arrived at this conclusion in a somewhat different way. One argument that always comes up in situations like this one is that developer culture is dominated by straight white cisgender men who can’t adequately represent people of other genders, cultures, or sexualities very well. (Indeed, whenever a problematic element is discovered in a game it is always violently assumed to be the work of one such designer.) Assuming that the straight white cis-male game designers do not cease to be any of these things, there is literally no other solution for this problem than for more people of other genders, sexualities, or cultures to join in game development. A bit more community pressure to that effect certainly couldn’t be harmful.

      1. I think they can represent those people well, they just don’t bother to (For reference, I suggest: http://io9.com/5912366/why-i-write-strong-female-characters ) I mean, it’s a lot of work and vastly inferior to actually having a diverse creative class, but until they bother trying the diverse creative class can not happen.

        See, as long as privileged straight white men make games talking to other straight white men and just throw up their hands and give up on the other 65%+ of America those are the games that get money and resources. Game publishers won’t hire women or people of color or even men who write different games because they won’t write, draw or design the sexist drivel that get to be big-budget games. White privileged straight men are probably often the best at making games built on the premise of mocking and oppressing other people for fun and entertainment! So, so as long as those are the games the money gets spent to make and those men continue to be willing to make them, the creators will remain homologous.

        Those men can write other games, though, and in doing so open up the act of “game making” to people who aren’t making games about how much it rocks being a privileged white straight dude. It is on their heads to stop making messed up games, and their current willingness and even eagerness to do so drowns out the diversity of voices that could otherwise be making and selling cool games.

      2. Sure, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that much of the time, the issue isn’t JUST that women/POC/LGBTQI are underrepresented — it’s that games are ACTIVELY MISOGYNIST/RACIST/HOMOPHOBIC.

        Straight white cis-gendered men are perfectly capable of creating games that demonstrate respect for other humans.

    3. Creating your own work is a good thing, as is supporting independent projects you like, and as far back as the home computer surge in the 80s people were writing software in their bedrooms because they thought their ideas were better than what the big companies put out. Some of my favourite games from that era (like Imogen *) are bedroom-made.

      That doesn’t mean that criticism of bad, disturbing or disagreeable art should be silenced though. Yeah, it’s great to have a vivid, diverse indie scene, but why can’t consumers and critics say what they want to see in the big-budget AAA titles too?

      The Penny Arcade guys have repeatedly shown (in my opinion) that they don’t get the difference between censorship and criticism. It’s not censorship to say something’s nasty, or hateful, or that you don’t want it and would rather have something better. Grassroots creativity and mainstream criticism are not antithetical.

      (* Seriously, look up Imogen some time – there’s a great creator-approved PC remake available for free too at http://imogen.ovine.net/ – so much shapeshifting fun!)

    4. “When similar things are brought up about MRA groups or Feminist groups not supporting men the answer is often to get out there and do something about it themselves and not rely on others.” “Others” referring to feminists, here.

      Bad analogy. When marginalized groups organize to address an issue that also affects privileged groups, members of the privileged group should use their own (far greater) resources to address that problem on their own behalf rather than demanding that the less privileged group use their (far lesser) resources to solve more privileged people’s problems.

  2. There’s a broader and simpler counterargument to the ‘why don’t you make your own instead of criticising us?’ argument. Which is this: it only applies to the extent that the original thing isn’t actively *harmful*. If your objection to it is just a matter of personal taste, then yes, by all means leave it to those who enjoy it and go make stuff that appeals to you instead. But if your objection is not just ‘I don’t like it’ or ‘it’s crap’ but ‘it might actually have damaging consequences for society’, ‘make your own’ is no counterargument. In that case, you’re *morally obligated* to speak out against this thing and criticise those behind it. And it’s quite arguable that the Hitman trailer falls into that category. The harms it causes may be indirect, but they’re worth raising a fuss about nonetheless.

    1. Fair.

      Of course, the developer can just as easily say ‘I respect your opinion and politely disagree. I’m going to continue making my awesome, stylish game now.’

      People better be prepared to make that argument and have some studies or stats to back up the idea, otherwise it’s just ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children!’ and easy to shrug off.

  3. Isn’t this just a variation of the ‘You want to criticize my work? Can YOU do better?’ canard?

    What difference will it make if people create their own art? That Hitman trailer will still be a brain-dead, sexist piece of garbage.

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