Why we shouldn't dismiss non-gamers when they talk about games

We have to get beyond the classic derision of games as a waste of time and start critically examining their role culture.

"I had never read a book in my life. I’d barely even touched a page, except to confiscate my brother’s novels so he would hang out with me. That impenetrable realm where awkward poindexters escaped into ludicrous worlds of printed fantasy, books and I just never got along.

Naturally I was surprised when I was asked to judge a book prize. The judges were assembling a panel of illiterates and I agreed to join them: not because I actually cared about whether books contributed to culture, but because I wanted to reconnect with my family of unashamed bookworms.

The first book I received was Ulysses by James Joyce, an eccentric Irish alcoholic who neglected his wife for six years while writing the novel. After suffering a few pages of this unfathomable word soup, I moved onto to Golding’s Lord of the Flies, an action-adventure about schoolboys. I noted, “Surprisingly enjoyable. Nice adjectives. Like the allegorical dialogue,” but then ran out of things to say. Maybe that’s part of the reason there is so little cultural discussion of books: there simply isn’t much to talk about. Lord of the Flies is clever and snappy, but it’s not exactly Bioshock. It’s not even Call of Duty."

It is ridiculous to criticise video games by comparison to literature, film, music, or interpretative dance. Unfortunately, Lucy Kellaway recently chose to evaluate them through this narrow cultural lens. As a judge for the GameCity prize, she was tasked with playing some of the year’s most critically acclaimed titles including Journey, Fez and Proteus. To be fair, she gives them all a try, concluding: “This experiment has made me realise how bad I am at being bad at things”.

Dara O’Briain once quipped that video games were the only medium that actively withheld its contents from the beholder: you would never have a progress-impeding quiz at the end of a book chapter, or be denied access to the next track of an album until you fully understood the previous music. While I would never mock Kellaway for being bad at games, I question her motivation for taking part in the GameCity judging process. She openly admits she doesn’t care about games’ contribution to culture. Like any other art form, it’s just not fair to approach games with a bad attitude and a mind full of clichés.

Deriding a video game for its primitive narrative misses the point. You wouldn’t read a book and complain about its lack of interactivity or longevity. While some games do have an engrossing story, it’s not an essential prerequisite for greatness. I once wrote a satirical book review in the style of a game article to highlight the facile nature of video game criticism, but there’s another point to be made: we can’t criticise one medium for not living up to the expectations of another. This art gallery is boring; the pictures aren’t animated. This opera is awful; I can’t understand the plot. My girlfriend played Journey (voluntarily, I hasten to add) for the first time last weekend: she’s not a "gamer", and she enjoyed it so much she wants to play it again. The difference here is in the intention, not the emotional reaction.

But what’s most infuriating about Kellaway’s piece is its underlying truth: most video games really don’t have a lot to say. They generally have the lyrical nuance of a Eurodance song, and even a game like Spec Ops: The Line can’t properly critique the horrors of war when the player herself is actively creating those horrors. Kellaway’s favourite game from the selection was Journey, one of my favourites too. But I also love Hotline Miami, an ultra-violent and sadistically challenging title where you dress up in an animal mask and murder gangsters in a hallucinogenic world. I’m not even ashamed - it’s a brilliant game! - but I wouldn’t pretend it had reached a zenith of cultural significance. Video games were born as entertainment, and like cinema they have matured beyond this role, but the existence of the Cannes festival does not preclude the continued success of Hollywood. Games exist on a broad spectrum from the outrageous Borderlands 2 to the deeply personal dys4ia.

It’s sad that the most popular and heavily marketed titles are superficial junk food for the brain, like Call of Duty and FIFA. I loved The Raid, but I wouldn’t watch it with my granny, and likewise her only knowledge of games will be an advertisement awkwardly sandwiched into a break during Coronation Street. She has just broken her hip and a Nintendo DS would stave off the boredom of rehabilitation, but you can’t give a games console to someone who struggles with a television remote. I emphasise with Kellaway’s feelings of having inadequate dexterity: video games are often unashamedly elitist and obtuse, which makes the work of the charity Special Effect for users with disabilities even more praiseworthy.

Like many games, gaming culture itself is often tasteless and offensive. "Booth babes", casual sexism, homophobia, transphobia: you name it and it will be there, unveiled and unpleasant. In many ways 2012 has been a watershed year for gaming discourse where the community has openly challenged its worst elements, but there’s still a mountain of intolerance and cruelty to climb before gaming culture is a place where all feel welcome. Sometimes I feel like I’m defending the indefensible. Yet pointing at Call of Duty and saying “look at how worthless these games are” is like playing the new One Direction single as evidence for the death of music as art. Although maybe that’s true.

As an self-professed adventurer of digital fictions, it hurts to admit that much is rotten about the state of video games. But the way to improve this cannot be to dismiss games as “not all evil”, which suggests that most games are evil as if Satan himself was distributing the software. Is that why you can’t play a game backwards? Even if Kellaway doesn’t care about their place in the cultural conversation, I do, because they are as much a reflection of culture as anything else. GameCity is important: quite frankly, games deserve a better discourse than what is currently on offer. We need more criticism that is intelligent, personally reflective and nuanced; treating games more like experiences and less like gadgets. We need to critically examine the role of games in culture, because we can only demand more from our media when we understand where they fall short. Sure, video games are fun, but they’re serious fun.

Kellaway’s final insult is the classic derision of games as a waste of time: she has no time to play them when “there is life to be lived and books to be read and emails to be written”. But even if you lived in a cave with only books for cultural sustenance, you could never read them all. There will always be a choice of indulgences, and I find that quite thrilling. As a good friend puts it: “time you spend doing something you enjoy is never wasted”. And to be honest, if I miss out on reading a few books because I’m playing Journey, that’s a life well wasted.

Alan Williamson is editor of Split Screen. He tweets as @agbear.

A still from "Journey"
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"The land of Gandhi can never be racist": is India in denial about its attitude to skin colour?

“If we were indeed racist, why would we live with the South Indians?" was how one politician addressed the debate. 

When we were kids, my younger brother and I would spend much of our time thinking up new and innovative ways to get under each other’s skin, as siblings often do. One of the most reliable weapons in my brother’s arsenal was a taunt about skin colour - he was quite fair even by Punjabi standards, a fact that he was inordinately proud of. I on the other hand, had a permanent tan. This is now politely referred to as a "dusky" complexion, but back then was just "kaala" (black).

Being older, I generally had the upper hand in this cold war of insults and condescension, but my brother employed this particular tactic to great success for a couple of years. Because it rankled, it really did. No amount of explanation about melanin and sun exposure, or the fact that we were both "brown" in the eyes of the world made a difference. He was fair, I was not, and that was that. We didn’t have the context or the vocabulary to articulate why that minor difference in skin tone was important, but we knew instinctively that it was. It took us years to realise how problematic these little exchanges were. By then, we had  recognised how racism and prejudice about skin colour had wormed its way into our psyches at a young age, even growing up in a fairly liberal household. We laugh about it now, and my brother is more than a little embarrassed about that short phase during his pre-adolescent years. But as recent events have reminded us, for many people in India, racism and colourism is no laughing matter.

Two weeks ago, a video posted on Facebook by the African Students Association of India (AASI) went viral. It showed a mob of 40-odd Indians armed with snooker cues, dustbins and chairs brutally assaulting two Nigerian students inside a mall in Greater Noida, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, just 40km from the national capital, and home to hundreds of students from Africa who study in the city’s many private colleges and universities. This was part of a wave of violence unleashed by residents of the city that saw at least four Nigerian students admitted to the hospital with serious injuries, and countless others being treated for minor injuries. The details of what transpired over that week are as familiar as they are sordid - a missing Indian student, who was later found, and died in the hospital of a suspected drug overdose. Rumours of Africans being "cannibals", a new addition to the long, long list of racist stereotypes about black Africans that are bandied about to justify such violence. Demands that all African residents of the area be kicked out. And eventually, inevitably, mob violence.

The response by the government and the police followed the general SOP for when such attacks happen - and they do, with alarming frequency. There were promises of swift action (which rarely materialises), brazen denials that the violence was motivated by racism or xenophobia (“Criminal not racial” is how External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj described one attack in 2016) and victim-blaming (“Africans are involved in drug-dealing, Africans don’t assimilate”).

Then there is the Gandhi factor. “India is the land of Gandhi and Buddha…we can never have a racist mindset,” declared a pompous Swaraj, conveniently ignoring the fact that Gandhi himself was a proponent of anti-blackness in his early years, separating the South African Indian community’s struggle for freedom from that of the Zulus and writing that “about the mixing of the Kaffirs (blacks) with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.” The truth is that, despite three centuries of experiencing racial discrimination at the hands of British colonisers, India’s unrequited love affair with whiteness has remained undimmed. We - specifically the North Indians who dominate so much of our national political and cultural discourse - take pride in our "Aryan" heritage, thereby aligning ourselves with global white hegemony. We have internalised the pseudo-scientific European racial theories that were in vogue in the 19th and early 20th century, but have lingered on in our school textbooks long after they were debunked. Indeed, when black Africans in India talk about being treated like a caged animal in a zoo, it’s hard not to make connections with 19th century Europe’s infamous "human zoos".

But while much of India's anti-blackness can be traced back to a colonial hangover, it is also fuelled by our own indigenous strain of "colourism", one that predates European theories of racial superiority. Last week, former Bharatiya Janata Party MP Tarun Vijay went on an Al Jazeera programme to talk about the recent spate of attacks. “If we were indeed racist, why would all the entire south – you know Kerala, Tamil, Andhra, Karnataka – why do we live with them?,” he said. “We have blacks…black people around us.” In his attempt to defend India from charges of anti-blackness, Vijay inadvertently laid bare the full extent of India’s problem with skin colour-based bigotry - our othering of not just black Africans but also of the darker-skinned citizens from our own country. It’s not hard to guess who the "we" in that statement is - the fairer, upper caste North Indian Hindus that form the BJP’s core constituency, and who have for ages thought of themselves as the template for the "true Indian". Everyone else, whether it’s Dalits and lower caste citizens from across the country, or the Dravidian residents of the southern parts of the country (both associated, though not entirely accurately, with darker skin colour), are merely tolerated. These two strains of bigotry - race and caste - combine to create a society where darkness is, at best, treated as a personal failing, something that you must strive to overcome. At its worst, it leads to dehumanisation and, eventually, violence.

Much of the blame for the persistence of such toxic attitudes towards skin colour rest with India’s pop culture and mass media industries. Bollywood, as always, has been a pioneer. For decades, people of darker skin colour have been pushed to the margins, relegated to the role of caricature or villain. Take for example the still iconic song from the 1965 film Gumnaam, in which comedian Mehmood tries to win the attention of Anglo-Indian actress Helen. “Hum kaale hue to kya hua dilwale hain (so what if I’m black, I still love you),” he sings, reinforcing the improbability of a beautiful (read fair-skinned) woman like Helen falling in love with a dark-skinned man. More recently, there was the 2008 film Fashion, in which Priyanka Chopra plays a model whose descent into drugs and depravity finally hits rock bottom when she wakes up one morning next to a black man. There’s also a long history of Indian films featuring "blackface" and racist stereotypes of black Africans, best exemplified by a horrifying scene from 2000 film Hadh Kar Di Aapne, in which… actually, just watch it yourself because I can’t figure out a way to put it into words without throwing my laptop out the window.

Indian television is no different, with dark-skinned actors - especially women - so rarely seen on programmes or advertising, that any advertisement that dares to break the norm is celebrated as groundbreakingly progressive. And then there’s the fairness cream industry, endorsed by a host of top film and television celebrities, with advertisements that inextricably link fairness not just to beauty but also to employability, self-confidence and suitability for marriage. Just take a look at this epic five part tele-commercial by Ponds, appropriately titled White Beauty. The focus on whiteness is relentless, and this colourism runs rampant even as Indian movies and television borrow and steal from black culture at will, even bringing in rap artists like Snoop Dogg and T-Pain to perform on Bollywood songs. It’s another thing that Snoop Dogg - or anyone with the same skin colour - has as much chance of playing the lead in Bollywood as I have of becoming Potus.

In recent years, as Indians outrage about racist attacks against non-resident Indians (NRIs) in the US and Europe and get involved in global conversations about racism and cultural appropriation, many of us have also started turning a spotlight on racism back home. The fairness cream industry is facing increasing criticism, even from high profile actors like Abhay Deol who would otherwise earn big money by appearing in their ads. Explicit racism in film and in advertising no longer goes unchallenged. When former Miss World and current Bollywood royalty Aishwarya Rai appeared in a print ad for a jewellery brand that alluded to 17th century European paintings of noblewomen, complete with emaciated black child servant holding up a red parasol, she was met with a barrage of criticism and outrage that forced the company to withdraw the ad. But as last month’s attacks make clear, this is not nearly enough.

First, the Indian government and our political class needs to acknowledge that racism and anti-blackness are a real problem, instead of trying to brush it under the carpet. Step one would be to bring in a long overdue law against racial discrimination. But as the persistence of caste despite the legal abolition of caste distinctions 70 year ago shows, having laws on the books is not enough. We need massive programmes to sensitise police, bureaucrats and the public at large about the toxic effects of racism and how to counter it. Racist stereotypes in media and public discourse should be shut down, not tolerated or even reproduced by political leaders as they are now. Anti-racist and anti-caste discourse should be an integral part of the school curriculum. Celebrities, activists and civil society needs to be much more vocal in their critique of racist and colourist speech and actions. There are more than enough policy prescriptions out there, if we can find the political will to put them into action. And we must find it soon. Or our kids will continue to grow up with the notion that social worth is tied to where you are on the Fitzpatrick scale, they will continue to weaponise skin colour in schools and in playgrounds. And for those of us with darker skin, whether black Africans or "black" Indians, the possibility of sudden, explosive violence will always lurk around the corner.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. 

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