Alright, so I wasn’t planning on commenting on the latest sort-of controversy brought about by Polygon’s Arthur Gies’ review of the Witcher 3, but a particular response to it, written by The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s Adrian Chmielarz, frustrated me. Not only did it frustrate me, it kind of baffled me at the same time – but I’ll get to that in a bit.
For Gies, what reduced his assessment of the game (despite his overall positive review) – and ultimately his enjoyment of the game, which is important to discuss in a review, right?- was due to how he perceived racial and gender representations (or lack thereof) in The Witcher 3 and was critical of it throughout his review. As a video game reviewer, journalist, student and a person who games, I actively strive to be critical of what is presented to me. But first, let’s clear something up: to be critical doesn’t necessarily mean to view or perceive issues or things negatively. Critical thought simply means to be reflective, and engage in independent thought, rather than passively consume what is thrown at us on a daily basis. In spite of its negative connotation, being critical when reviewing a game is crucial; not only for those who read the review and decide whether or not to purchase it, but also for the video game industry in general. Though Gies was critical on those issues, he didn’t posit that the game should be banned, nor did he say that it shouldn’t be purchased (despite everything, it still garnered a score of “8”). He simply added to his critique what he thought may be pertinent to consumers. You ultimately have the power to choose whether or not this will affect your decision to drop $70.
Now, whether the Witcher 3 is misogynistic and racist is entirely subjective. Some will agree while others disagree. That’s fine. Context and experience shapes one’s views, for better or worse. And the same goes for me. I won’t comment on that, since I’ve yet to play the game. But I can comment on Chmielarz frankly abhorrent response. To Chmielarz, the review is “poisonous to the industry: to gamers, to game developers, to game journalists.” Wait… what? To critique a game on its lack of diversity and on its stereotypical (and might I add, tired) representation of women is poisonous? To open a dialogue on incredibly critical issues that have an effect on marginalized groups is… toxic? Chmielarz further argues that Gies’ assessment was both incompetent and akin to pushing an agenda. Really? Discussing real social issues (supposedly) found within the game and by large, within the industry, is considered… incompetent?
This isn’t a review of Pong. Gaming is no longer simply an 8 bit way of spending an hour or two. Video games are complex; gaming is a passion; and the industry produces art. And the minute you personify pixels and create stories that have an impact on the human imaginary, you cannot expect to be exempt from critique, especially when it involves biased or stereotypical portrayals. Though Chmielarz mocks Feminist Frequency’s usage of “normalizes, reinforces and perpetuates” to explain how women’s image in video games affects social relations, it’s entirely true. This kind of stuff really does normalize, reinforce and perpetuate. It’s not a lie. A quick look at media studies, gender studies and even in the social sciences will show that stereotypical and harmful representations do have an affect on how people are perceived and treated in real life. The same goes for racial representations and, in this case, their perceived omission. The media plays a crucial role in how we view ourselves, others, the world around us and ultimately affects our values. It can potentially be harmful, as Gies must have thought when he commented on it in his review of The Witcher 3.
I just want to repeat this one last time: I’m absolutely not saying that the Witcher 3 has problematic relations with race and gender. I’m simply arguing that social issues ARE relevant to video game reviews, and should be considered when assessing the overall quality of a game.
There’s a reason games like The Last of Us or Valiant Hearts have an effect on people. Video games have meaning, and with meaning comes influence. It’s not just a “game”. To ignore real problems within the industry, is obviously problematic. But to berate someone’s opinion because they have the courage to bring up issues that, for them, had an effect on their enjoyment of the game? Now that’s toxic. To shutdown a much needed dialogue? That’s poisonous to the industry.
Chmielarz also accuses Gies of allowing his biases to affect the review. The point is odd and in my opinion, moot. On the one hand, a video game review is not objective. It’s impossible to be objective in a review. There’s no scientific formula when assessing a game; there’s not a step-by-step guide in which you fill in the blanks with the information from the game in question. A reviewer will (subconsciously or not) let their own ideas and experiences affect what they think about the game. It’s not a problem of ethics in journalism- it’s a question of being human.
And on the other hand, Chmielarz is both a known GamerGate sympathizer as well as a critic of Anita Sarkeesian’s work. Which is fine. Again, critical thought is important – but to argue that someone’s biases affecting a review is wrong even though is his own argument hinges on his personal biases is just plain strange, and actually works against what he’s trying to argue. Admittedly, nowhere in this article does he specifically state that issues of race and gender should not be part of the dialogue. However, it wouldn’t be overreaching if it’s interpreted in that way either. What’s funny though, especially coming from a GamerGate sympathizer, is his rejection of Gies including social issues as part of his review . Had Gies held back the social issues aspect in his review in fear of rebuttals, wouldn’t it be a perfect example of bad ethics in journalism? Isn’t that a central tenet to good journalism? The basis of good argumentation (or in this case, reviewing) is to foster an exchange of ideas, opinions and different perspectives for people to make informed choices and decision. Gies’s criticism of The Witcher 3 wasn’t being forceful, nor was it part of an agenda. It was simply doing a service to people like us who want to know what they’re purchasing. Besides, Gies’s attempt to engage a discussion is ultimately what helps this wonderful industry grow, mature and to challenge itself to create more innovative content.
As gamers, we obviously want this industry to be taken seriously; and as a medium of art, it shouldn’t be immune to criticism. Gies felt that the game’s problematic dealings with race and gender ultimately impacted his experience. The discussion should focus on why Gies felt that way, not whether or not it should have been part of his review. And that certainly isn’t poisonous, toxic or biased. And the best part is, you can disagree with me, Gies and anyone else! That’s awesome- it’s part of being an active consumer of content, and being critical of what you read, not just being a passive recipient.
What’s poisonous and toxic is to abate these discussions, rather than encourage them.