“It’s both possible, and even necessary, to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects”
This is Ria Jenkins’s phrasing (on The Guardian) of an idea that Anita Sarkeesian repeats at the beginning of most of the Tropes vs Women videos. Admittedly, Anita’s choice of words constitutes a slightly weaker claim. From Women as Background Decoration Part 1: “It’s entirely possible to be critical of some aspects of a piece of media while still finding other parts valuable or enjoyable.” But I’d like to go with the stronger assertion of the Guardian article, because it’s an idea that gets thrown around a lot without much examination.
One part at a time: is it possible to enjoy a work while being critical of its problematic aspects? Well, I’d say that it’s nearly impossible to argue the opposite. If one is to enjoy (or engage with) the vast majority of the history of art and thought, from Greek mythology to Romantic poetry and beyond, one must close an eye on all the practices that we’d now find morally repulsive: slavery, misogyny, violence and so much more are omnipresent in our cultural past.
It follows then, that it is also necessary: it is necessary to engage with those problematic works, and sift out the “pernicious aspects” in order to retain what is valuable about them. Otherwise we’d lose so many worthwhile ideas, so many sublime works.
But of course assuming this critical distance is easier when it comes to historical, rather than contemporary media. We more readily make concessions for older works: we know that their authors lived in different times, we get over it and enjoy what’s there to enjoy. With contemporary art and entertainment, a regressive attitude on certain themes is not so easily tolerated, even though the same principle applies: there often are nuggets of interesting and valuable content amidst a whole that we may want to discard. Grand Theft Auto, for instance, certainly has a lot to teach about designing a credible, immersive open world, even though its treatment of pretty much the whole of humanity is questionable, to say the least.
Actually, I’ll go one step further: engaging with problematic or offensive media is in itself valuable. After all, what we define as problematic, or offensive, is simply what goes against our worldview, what challenges our pre-existing moral and ethical values. At this point, one must judge case by case: a specific problematic work may have nothing interesting to say for itself, may not meaningfully challenge our present beliefs or may simply encourage hate, intolerance, violence. But as a ‘pure form’, so to speak, engaging with works that seem problematic or offensive is a healthy exercise, certainly more valuable than living in a bubble in which everyone thinks the same way and agrees with everyone else.
(There is an important difference between ‘problematic’ and ‘offensive’, the latter being personal and ultimately unimportant, and the former political. See here. I do believe in this specific case that difference can be conflated, but it’s important to acknowledge that it exists. ‘Offensive’ and ‘problematic’ are not synonyms.)
So far, so good. I agree with the idea.
But you’ll notice that at times I used the term ‘engage’ instead of ‘enjoy’. Enjoying denotes a certain purity and immediacy that is the polar opposite of critical distance. From a distance, one can engage, but hardly enjoy, unless one enjoys the engagement itself – and if you’re reading this article, you probably enjoy engaging critically with games. Enjoying refers to a process that comes more natural to children; a process through which, at its limit, we can even come to forget ourselves and immerse ourselves fully into the thing. The difference between enjoying and engaging is the difference between reading a book for pleasure and reading a book as a school assignment, knowing that you have to pay attention to certain things and that you will be asked questions about it. There is a level of self-awareness, of intellectual distance in engaging. (To an extent, this is an abstraction: enjoying and engaging rarely exist as absolutes, one without the other; more often than not there is a mix of the two)
My claim, then, is that engaging requires additional energy and effort compared to enjoying, and even then, the enjoyment that can exist in that engagement cannot ever be the same as ‘pure’, child-like enjoyment.
Allow me a short detour. Every day we compartmentalize, that is, we make compromises and ignore information we do have in order to get on with our lives, or because we cannot afford to do otherwise. We cannot afford it for practical reasons, or for psychological reasons, i.e. we may not be able to endure the guilt and stress that would come with constantly being aware. This compartmentalization requires energy, just like engaging, as opposed to enjoying, requires energy, since the process is the same. I’m talking about the fact that, every day, we make use of products that we know are problematic, on many different levels. We all do it, no exception. Those that try not to do it in one area are probably still doing it in another area. Just in tech, we use computers and smartphones made with conflict minerals, under terrible working conditions. We use software that disrespects us as consumers and as human beings. We use Microsoft (and Skype) and Google (and Youtube) and Facebook (and Instagram) and Amazon and Apple (and so on), companies that, when investigated, always turn out to be despicable in almost every way, and under every moral standard.
We know these things; but, in part because we feel powerless or because we cannot afford to do anything about them, most of the time we decide to ignore that information. It’s a simple defence mechanism: no one would be able to bear feeling guilty every time they watched a video on Youtube, and most of us cannot afford not to use Youtube, for one reason or another. That requires considerable mental effort.
In games it’s the same, but with one additional dimension: people have grown up with games, way before critical engagement was possible for them, if only because of their age. As such they’re also invested in games with part of their identities. And I don’t think it’s controversial to say that most people who play games do not seek critical engagement, they seek pure enjoyment, escapist entertainment. Expressing value judgements around this behaviour is a task for another day.
But when one’s hobby, one’s means of relaxing and winding down, also turns out to be problematic (because other people point it out), just like everything else in their lives, that may constitute a considerable additional mental cost that one may not be ready to pay.
There’s a telling quote in that Guardian piece: “people infer from that new discussion that they aren’t allowed to like those [games] anymore.” In the article this is ironic: it implies that of course people are allowed to enjoy those games. But the issue is not whether they’re ‘officially’ allowed to: the issue is that they may not want to like certain games anymore, especially if they agree with the claim that those games are problematic; and again, the issue is only exacerbated by the fact that a part of their identity is also at stake. Do you want to be the guy who likes, who enjoys the misogynistic GTA?
No, you don’t want to, not by the definition of enjoyment we gave earlier. And let’s be clear: this will only happen if the person agrees, on some level, that there is something problematic about that work. It’s a healthy moral response, really: ‘now I see that this work is too problematic for me to enjoy it uncritically. I can enjoy some parts, but not others, not the whole.’ There is a distance now that wasn’t there before, and that’s where engagement comes in, to replace enjoyment. Enjoyment, in a sense, is still possible, but its nature has changed dramatically. Even if one tries not to think about it, one cannot unsee, or unlearn: at best, there will be a residue of guilt that won’t go away, at the expense of considerable mental energy.
In this perspective, it’s easy to see why Anita Sarkeesian becomes the bogeyman, the Grinch who stole Christmas, the mean person who tells ‘little you’ that Santa never existed after all. By bringing a critical approach to games to the mainstream, she has brought what, to many, felt like a loss: a loss of that child-like wonder and rapture. That immediate, unmediated, enthusiastic, totalizing immersion into games is not possible anymore, when the Super-Ego keeps bothering us about their problematic nature. At this point, that healthy response of moral disgust turns outwards: from examining what is problematic and why, from reflecting about oneself and one’s enjoyment of those elements, the target shifts to the one who pointed it all out, as if Anita, in the very act of describing some of gaming’s most questionable aspects, actually created them.
(Far from me to justify or even excuse the harassment she and others have received. I’m only trying to understand, hypothesizing what kind of mental process may be going on – not in the GG ideologues but in the average person who plays games.)
What does this narrative amount to, then? For many, the sacred realm of pure play has been shattered, the apple has been bitten, innocence has been lost forever. Perhaps this is the sign of a maturing medium, but perhaps many gamers didn’t want to grow up. Perhaps videogames were the only space in which they could still feel like children in a world that asks them to compromise and compartmentalize all the time, and now it’s harder for them to be children once again. There is more and more information, and it’s harder and harder to ignore it. But this need not be seen as a loss. The narrative can be reframed: there’s much to be gained in growing up. And that sense of guilt that just won’t go away need not be a negative: it can be a helpful guide. Instead of ignoring the information we have, maybe we should start acting on it more often.
But one thing we should absolutely be more honest about is this: enjoying media while being critical of its problematic aspects is certainly possible and necessary, but it’s also difficult, tiring, and even painful.
For some more background and context on this post, check out the Patreon thread.