The wonderfully amusing thing about progressivist thought is how old and played-out it is. The #GamerGate controversy is a perfect example. On one side are the #GamerGate folks, video game enthusiasts like me. We basically just want to be left alone in our basements to blow up computerized helicopters. On the other side are militant feminists like Anita Sarkeesian. They think video games brainwash little boys into becoming the violent sociopaths that, according to “rape culture” theory, they already are anyway. Essentially, progressives want to sanitize stories about unsavory behavior for the good of society. That idea goes back at least 2300 years, to ancient Greece, where it was also a failure. For a movement that defines itself as the wave of the future, that’s a pretty hackneyed approach.
I’m talking here about #GamerGate in the broadest terms. I’m not talking about Chelsea Van Valkenburg, the mentally unstable pseudo-designer whose dysfunctional relationship somehow started this whole mess. I’m not talking about internecine squabbles over gaming journalism. I’m talking about the bigger fight, between gamers and the radicals who want to sterilize games.
Warning NSFW content in video:
Dave Thier summed up the progressive stance on video games in Forbes when he condemned the “vast sea of sexual violence” that saturates games like Bioshock and Assassin’s Creed. “It’s not a tremendous leap,” Thier writes, making a tremendous leap, to “assume” that gamers will “develop some intensely dysfunctional aggression and misogyny” from seeing that kind of content. That’s the general idea: violent video games make violent men. Boys raised on God of War will end up cornering women in back alleys (presumably so they can ravish them in a palace on Mount Olympus). Clean up the games, and you clean up the culture.
That theory is such old news. Plato already tried it out in the 4th century BC, in his Republic. In book 2, Socrates lays down the ground rules for art and poetry in his imaginary utopia. Violent myths, he says, “are absolutely not to be mentioned . . . in stories or painted in artwork.” The citizens of a perfect society have to be trained to hate disorder. So their bedtime stories have to be squeaky-clean. If they’re allowed to hear about domestic violence on Olympus or wars between the gods, little boys won’t ever grow up to be respectful and obedient adults. Violent myths make violent men.
It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now. As Christina Hoff Summers masterfully demonstrated, the evidence that video games cause violence against women is precisely zero. If anything, the opposite is true: the video game generation is apparently the least misogynistic one yet. There’s progress for you.
The thing is, you can’t edit the world by editing art. Hamlet knew that good theater has “to hold . . . the / mirror up to nature”: art is the imagination reflecting human experience in stories and images. Now, humans are broken creatures, and gamers are no different. Our experience includes horror and cruelty, and our imaginations represent that in ugly, even abhorrent ways. It’s a fallen world. But changing the stories we tell won’t fix the reality they represent. It’ll just divorce them from reality altogether. Activists like Sarkeesian think feminist video games can “subvert the dominant paradigm” and help create a just world. That’s like saying that if I’m hungry, I can make a hamburger appear by painting a picture of one. It just isn’t so.
Plato’s idea has never once succeeded. It didn’t catch on in ancient Greece, where people went right on telling gore-soaked stories about divine slaughter and godly incest. It fell apart once already in the U.S., when the Hays Office tried to discipline America by censoring Hollywood. And it won’t work now. “Progressive” feminists are on the march these days, but their ideas are nonsense for the same reason they’ve always been nonsense: they don’t work.
The video game world is the world of the imagination. It’s a colorful profusion of legends and landscapes that describe what it feels like to be alive. There are goofy plumbers who rescue princesses and gritty soldiers of fortune who mutilate alien invaders — they express our sense that fighting to protect the defenseless is noble and right, no matter who you are. And yes, there are also depraved killers who torture the innocent — they reflect the perverse, violent impulse in the human heart. But editing games isn’t going to erase that impulse. It’ll just turn video games from lush, vibrant art into dry, empty ideology. Like other progressive credos (socialism, environmentalism, cultural relativism), the idea that we can fix reality by telling nicer stories about it has been around for centuries. It has always fallen flat on its face. You wouldn’t think it would take 2000 years to figure that out.