I’m in the midst of doing research for an article on gender issues (since every video game website must have an article on sex and gender nowadays), and while reading through various articles on gender I find myself thinking about a related side issue: how do videogames reflect the state of society? Let’s explore this issue further.
Not too long ago, Jeremy Parish from 1Up ran an article on “perverted” Japanese games, describing how Japanese game developers, especially in harsh economic conditions, continue churning out such games because they are the most reliable source of income for them, due to the reliability of a segment of society known as the “otaku” to purchase such games.
[Quick side-note: As an Asian, and as someone who had been regularly consuming manga and anime ever since young (much more manga/anime had been translated to Chinese than English, and is much more mainstream in Chinese-speaking countries like Singapore/Taiwan/Hong Kong than in America), I have a great deal of empathy for otakus, but they also sadden me greatly. Perhaps this is worthwhile discussion for another article.]
Videogames, like any other economic product, is based on supply and demand, and if there were no demand for “perverted” games, there would be no supply. But why exactly do otakus demand such products? The sad truth is that as socially isolated people, these games are often the otaku’s only source of various felt needs: being in power, having a sense of achievement, belonging to a community, being loved and respected, and the feeling of being intimate (emotionally and sexually) with another. All of which they have difficulty getting access to, outside of videogames. But even beneath the surface sin of lust is the idol of pleasure: the point of my life is to enjoy myself. Deep down inside, otaku are unfulfilled hedonists, and as a recovering hedonist myself, I can understanding their urges and the desire for quick fixes available to them through videogames (and over the last decade or so, the internet).
I’m no expert on Japanese culture, but it appears to me that for Japanese there are largely two main philosophies for finding meaning in life: either you find it within the context of emotionally fulfilling relationships (in particular the family) or you find it in sheer out-and-out hedonism. This, I believe, is why Japanese games tend to have a greater focus on relationships between characters, and strong narratives which develop these relationships. This is also why I think some Japanese games tend to appeal to our basest (and in western eyes, uncivilized) instincts. Dead or Alive is the obvious example here.
But this isn’t really unique to “sexual perverted” games and otaku. Games everywhere shed light on what that particular segment of society want from their games (again, supply and demand). For the longest time, I had no idea why the Modern Warfare series sell like they do, until I saw the Extra Creditz episode on ‘the gun‘, which explained how FPSes appeal to the western gamer’s deep desire for empowerment. I guess this desire for empowerment is somewhat universal amongst all teenagers, but it must be particularly so for Americans and those influenced by the American ideals of freedom, autonomy and independence. (Culturally, we Asians aren’t so big on this, although we’ve no doubt been influenced by western ideals over the past few decades). But this desire for empowerment, to my Christian understanding, is but a clever disguise for the sins of pride, discontent and rebelliousness – the refusal to be obedient to any authority, even the authority which you should be obedient to (i.e. God).
Finally, let us briefly consider the use of gender and sex in western games, in particular how relationships work in Bioware franchises like Dragon Age and Mass Effect. As explained by Tom Dawson, sex with a romantic partner in these games are treated as a reward for courtship, a personal achievement for overcoming a series of obstacles. Such perceptions towards sex are not restricted to games alone (see also: The Game, American Pie), and perhaps, it is already the global contemporary zeitgeist towards sex. That said, from the Christian perspective, this view is fundamentally untrue and an extremely harmful attitude. Instead of being a beautiful expression of intimacy between two individuals whom have covenanted with each other, it becomes a individual-centred conquest for pleasure and/or fulfilment. Fundamentally, this is the idolatry of the self – even in our deepest most fulfilling relationships, we are primarily seeking self-benefit, and not the selfless love towards the other which we were supposed to display.
Honestly, we should not be surprised that society reveals such idols in what they desire in their videogames, because that is exactly what a fallen humankind is expected to look like. If we don’t worship God, we worship ourselves, and whatever else we feel we need to make ourselves feel “fulfilled”. Videogames, perhaps more so than any other kind of medium, are the most susceptible to the pandering of our idolatry (due to both it’s interactive nature as well as its relatively young history as an art medium). It is also important to remember that we are called to show grace and humility to all who are sinful and fallen, because we too were once sinful and fallen as well (and in many ways, still are). The only difference between us and them is that we have been rescued by the grace of God (and not by of our own works).