NOTE: This was originally (and publically) posted to Facebook, January 31st, 2017. I am recording it here so it’s easier to link to for others.
We can and must do better.
I spend my days creating, studying, deploying and consuming digital media. I am intensely passionate about it, and it is intensely personal. That’s what it means to create art. But I also, we also, have a responsibility for the things we create, for the messages we convey and the stories we tell. We are responsible for their impact. And as educators, we are responsible for instilling these values in our students, for fostering the awareness that the creative act carries with it not just freedom but obligation.
It says something darkly profound that at this moment in our nation, this time of strife, of disagreement, of disparagement, of conflict, of insanity and chaos, that the best selling interactive digital media product of the last year was Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. Just let the words “Infinite Warfare” roll around in your head in this Trump filled era of hate and prejudice. Consider the phrase ‘Infinite Warfare’ as America continues a military strategy of a ‘war on terror’ — a war against being afraid, a war which can never be ‘won’ in any traditional sense. Consider the PC World review of the game, which slammed the faceless, fictitious SDF enemies and pined for the good old days when “Ye Olde Call of Duty didn’t have this problem. It pulled from your preconceived notions, from stereotypes. You’re shooting Russians, because Red Scare. You’re shooting Islamic fundamentalists, because terrorism. You’re shooting Nazis, because they’re literally Nazis. It wasn’t a very sophisticated view of war or global politics, but clearly it resonated with players.”
And that’s where we find ourselves: our media is simplistic, our engagements optimized to “resonate” with our stereotypes. We reinforce our hatred and our ignorance at every turn. And we wonder, then, why an ill-informed populace that has never even _met_ someone of a given religion, region, or culture might fear them. And fear makes human beings act irrationally. It is no accident and it is not false when a supporter says that the Trump “Muslim ban” makes them feel safer that is as true a statement as was ever spoken. Do I agree? No I emphatically and categorically do not. But in considering the narrative we’ve culturally fabricated, refined, packaged, and sold to the widest number of Americans, I can understand.
You’ll get no argument from me that artists don’t have the right to say whatever they want: anyone is free to make any game they want, talk about it how they want, make it available to whomever they want, with obvious exceptions as provided under the first amendment. As a matter of protected speech, art is expression and must be free of all forms of censorship if democracy is to flourish. If an artist or company needs to sustain themselves through art as a commercial activity, then the market will impress upon that work its own preferences and norms. You won’t find me arguing that games are directly responsible for gun violence (they aren’t), you won’t find me arguing that games are the downfall of modern civilization and/or childhood (they aren’t), and you _will_ find me arguing that games teach us many useful things, from communication to critical thinking to systems-oriented problem solving, to say nothing about their ability to inform players about particular subjects or fields. But we must pay attention to the messages and values encoded into our media, we must study, dissect, and understand their effect, their role in our thinking, their place in our lives both as individuals, as a community, and as a nation.
And so I say to all of us as creators of media, as storytellers, as educators: we can and must do better. We must put aside the notion that the only motivation of our craft is the dollar: selling games when there is no longer a country will be difficult. We must put aside the notion that we bear no responsibility: art both influences a culture as well as reflects it. We must put aside the notion that games are “just for fun” at a time when it is clear that the ways and means we communicate and engage with media is being manipulated. We must put aside the notion that creating games and digital media does not come with the responsibility to understand their effects, their uses, and their cultural impact. Or we must cease to pretend to value games as art, if we continue to pretend they have no place in our politics.
We can and must do better.
-A Phelps 2017
Professor & Director, RIT MAGIC Center