As a few of our readings explained, the notion that videogames should be fun (and form of escape) is why some gamers are so resistant to games being critiqued for being racist or sexist, or why they’re so resistant to games addressing social issues. When I read last week’s readings, and when folks in class shared that games allowed them to escape from reality and forget it for a while, a one question popped into mind—who gets to escape in gameplay?
One student, sharing that videogames can indeed tackle serious issues such as racism and sexism, discussed the South Park game. He suggested this game engaged in serious conversation while being fun at the same time, but Professor shared that for her, this game wouldn’t be fun. I don’t know if it’d be fun for me either—the student shared that you could pick your character’s skin color and if you chose black, a text box would pop up that said your life would X times harder. For me, a videogame that makes an easily digestible joke about that isn’t necessarily offensive, but it’s also something that doesn’t enable me to escape my reality of living in a racist society. For very different reasons, what’s escapist fun for this student isn’t escapist fun for me or Professor. A game that provides one player’s possibility for escape doesn’t mean the same thing for another player, then. How can we talk about these different player’s experiences in relation to the same game if they both played with the intention to escape?
I’m reminded of a reading I did in my course Digital Africas last semester. In Invisible Users, Jenna Burrell discusses the urban youth in Ghana who frequent internet cafes. She describes the ways in which this population use the internet as a way to develop relationships with people in different countries. She discusses how young Ghanaians navigate a virtual space that was not designed with them in mind, thus making them “invisible users.” When describing the chat rooms that many Ghanaians use to talk with people abroad, she notes that early technology/internet studies argued that the internet would be a place of freedom, as the body and its implications would be irrelevant in the virtual world. Early scholars thought that nationalism and sexism, for example, would no longer be relevant in the online space. Aside from addressing explicit forms of racism and sexism present on the internet, Burrell also argues that the internet can be a Western, culturally hegemonic space. She describes that many young Ghanaians, after months of chatting with people online, would ask for money, leading the foreigners to end the friendship. According the Burrell, in Ghana, friends give each other money all the time. Because these young Ghanaians were operating under these sets of values in the online space, they were ignored or labelled as scammers, thus ostracized from the online space. Chat room users in the West found the internet to be operating under the same cultural norms that they did. They knew how to navigate the space that was made with them in mind. Perhaps they could forget their bodies and nationalities since the virtual world was operating on their terms. How can we think about the above in relation to videogames and escapism? Who has the luxury of forgetting (their bodies, the world) and escaping? Is the option to escape always equal?