John Tabbernor // Columnist
The word “passion” gets thrown around a lot in video games culture, but it can be hard to pin down exactly what it means. At its best, it describes a sense of shared identity, a common love for games that unites people from all around the world. But it can also be used to excuse exploitative work practices in video game development. At its worst, “passion” is used as a euphemism to justify the toxic behaviour of fans. Language is a slippery thing. Working our way into 2019, I’d love for the word “passion” to be stricken from the lexicon of the games industry. It won’t happen, but one can dream.
Being a fan of the medium and being entrenched in games culture often leaves me with conflicting thoughts and emotions. There’s never been a better time to play games, and there’s something for everyone – huge blockbuster action games, independent experimental titles, dating simulators, introspective narratives on identity and sexuality and so much more. Yet at the same time the industry is constantly plagued with harassment against women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ folks and other vulnerable groups. Scandals pop up almost every week about workplace abuses in game development or transphobic posts from a major studio’s social media account.
Even the identity of “gamer” itself can seem incredibly fraught. It is a term that seems grossly outdated in 2018. As games are no longer seen as the purview of a small number of social outcasts, we’ve all come to realize that games are for everyone, whether that be Pokémon Go on your phone or World of Warcraft on your gaming PC. The idea that the title of “gamer” belongs to a select few is laughable. And to be frank, tying one’s identity so closely to consumer products is incredibly unhealthy. Publishers don’t care that their fans are “passionate.” They care that they spend money. They are not beholden to “gamers” but to their investors. Writers like Leigh Alexander and Brandon Sheffield have even argued that we ditch the term entirely and reevaluate what “games culture” has actually become. Consumption for consumption’s sake? Or is it a space for exploring and expanding a new medium?
I often find myself excited by the vast potential video games hold as a medium for shared experiences and storytelling. But I also find myself exasperated when they fail to live up to that ideal. Critiquing the aspects of games and games culture that are problematic is not some form of blanket condemnation. It’s only through being critical of the things we love that they will grow and become better. Blind “passion,” or as I like to think of it, obsession, can colour our opinions. Sometimes we just need distance to come to a better understanding of the things we love, warts and all.
Finding balance in our own lives is no easy thing. I find I get frustrated when other responsibilities take me away from games that I’m passionate about (read: obsess over). I honestly think that Dota 2 is one of the best games ever made. But you can’t trust my opinion – it’s coloured by that obsession. I have over 1,330 hours played in Dota 2. That’s almost two full calendar months straight. I think about it all the time. I watch YouTube videos breaking down complex maneuvers. I listen to podcasts that delve into gameplay strategy. I play when I can and get frustrated when I can’t. I’ve never loved a game like I love Dota 2. But when I take a step back, I can be one of its harshest critics. It utilizes a monetization model that preys on those susceptible to gambling mechanics. Its community consistently struggles with elitism, sexism, homophobia and racism. It has not done enough to promote women competing at the professional level. The game and its community are deeply flawed, and yet I want them to persist, learn from past mistakes and be better in the years to come.
Not all games have to be for me. And not all games have to be for you. There’s so much happening in the industry that we can all find something we love. What’s more, is that we can make space for everyone here. We can grow and learn from one another, call each other out when we make mistakes, and transform this medium into something truly special. We can leave “passion” and blind consumption by the wayside. And when that doesn’t work, we can take a step back, find our balance and return once again.