Friday, May 23, 2014

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

The Cog in the Machine...

In February 1985, a film changed my life.

I was eighteen, and a boy asked me on a date. He posed a question:  if I could go and see one movie, what would I choose, and without a thought I told him I'd like to travel into London to see 'Brazil', and to my utter amazement he obliged, buying me train and what were, at that point, pretty expensive cinema tickets. I don't remember his name, or anything that happened between us. What I do remember with a vividness that still travels with me is the effect this film had on a very naive and impressionable teenager, and how it utterly altered my perception of the World around me. A photographic moment in my mind is me standing on the set of steps that used to lead down to the platforms at London's Liverpool Street station and grasping the awful truth Gilliam presented: nothing ever changes. You may think you've won, that you have a victory, but in the end it is often in your own mind and nowhere else.

It has taken me thirty years, but finally I realise that this isn't actually the way the World works. In fact, if you want a Revolution, this is probably a pretty good moment to be stepping on the Bandwagon. However, all the effort in the world isn't going to matter one jot if you can't see that individual perceptions are changed, because in the end that's how long-term acceptance becomes the norm. Winning the fights is all well and good, but only if everyone embraces the results. The problem that is becoming very apparent is that even as other victories are celebrated, it doesn't really mean much if the people in charge aren't listening. There is also another possibility, that I think some people simply fail to overlook but I can grasp because I've been there.

Some people simply don't grasp there's a Revolution needed to begin with.

There's a reason why Alternative Histories are so popular.

I covered Rob Pardo's talk at MIT in my blog a couple of weeks ago, and how it was received as an overridingly positive approach to using your Brand to change the World. It is rather ironic therefore that this article appeared yesterday (quoted below) which was conducted with Pardo immediately after said 'inspirational' session. You see, the thing is with success is that it is anything but relative for a section of society. Many, many very important people judge success simply in noughts after the first comma, the payroll and the rewards. It doesn't consider 'reward' in terms of freedom and equality. Once you get a winning formula, you become loathed to change it, because of all those dollars you'd lose, and because of the 'failure' you'd become in the eyes of so many. So when you ask someone a question that's relevant to the social rewards a game can present and not the monetary ones... well...

Blizzard make games people want to play, and they do, across a VAST demographic. However, if you want to know *why* they make them...? Well, in the end I'd wager they do that for the same reasons as most companies produce any product or service. They do it to make money. Socially progressive content in most visual media is dangerous, controversial and frankly pretty scary to people of a certain age in certain specific demographic groups with their eyes on the notion of success as how many units of something you shift. So, as a rule, you don't do it. What you DO do however is press as many buttons as possible using visual media because that's how things have pretty much always been in your world. Except it isn't your World any more, and real change IS coming, but probably not at a speed that many people will find acceptable and so, inevitably, people will begin to walk away. And they are. I watched at least one high-profile Blogger cancel his account because of Pardo's comments. This reasoning is pretty compelling too: if you stop buying the product, the company ultimately fails.

Except, in this case, it won't.

I genuinely believe Pardo doesn't think what his company is doing is a problem. Todd Harper may have done everyone in the revolutionary corner a favour here, especially as this was one guy asking another guy about his opinion. The thing is with affecting change is finding the right people to target. Fiction loves to think it's the lowly guy, the Everyman who is the catalyst for massive social change. It's why the Sam Lowry's of this world are so appealing in fiction, why you'd love to believe putting flowers in guns would stop a war. The truth is that, more often than not, your best source for change is in absolutely the last place you'd expect to find it. In this case, that might end up being the Guy at the Top. There's been controversy before over Blizzard's behaviour, but it has been localised and swiftly dealt with, and not widely reported in the general media. This Polygon story is the kind of thing that could easily do the major media rounds. The press love sticks to beat companies with, and this particular piece of ex-tree is very newsworthy. 'Blizzard Boss not interested in Socially Progressive Gaming' is a pretty damning headline if someone chose to write it who doesn't have a vested interest in the subject, and there are plenty of those around.

Maybe we actually just needed the right person to ask the right question to start the ball rolling.

The problem when you blanket condemn a brand or an organisation is that you are, more often than not, failing to point a finger at the real problem. Blizzard has an unusually large number of people with immense loyalty to their cause, for good reason. Everyone is treated well, there are remarkably few instances of public complaint from employees. That says to me that people enjoy working for them, and believe what they do is important. I've seen staff react to how their bosses are treated by those who feel that the company has questions to answer on issues of social progression to boot. These don't appear to be people too scared to speak their mind, quite the opposite. The bottom line is simple: this company makes games. They do it very well, but what happens from time to time is that Blizzard remind us that the senior staff are of a certain age, and they come from an era where stuff was acceptable that now frankly isn't... except lots of people still believe it is. That's pretty much the crux of the issue, right there. It then comes down to how individuals deal with what for them isn't actually a problem. It's how their world has always been.

It is, in the end, if you are prepared to live in the fantasy version of that which Blizzard presents you with or not.

The Smoking Mountain.

If Blizzard were the minority in game company terms, this would be a hugely different argument. However, when Mr Harper quotes Nintendo as another example of a gaming company which clearly fails to grasp the concept of social progression, you realise that there is still a tipping point that needs to be reached before games companies begin to grasp that even if they are targeting for a specific audience, that's not necessarily how their product will ultimately be consumed. In the Internet Age, anything is possible, the only restriction is the player's imagination. A smart gaming company will listen to criticism about gender and identity and act accordingly. A sensible gaming company will target demographics it knows aren't being actively focussed on. EVERY Gaming company is going to need to have an opinion eventually on social progression, like it or not. It is the smoking volcano that sits under the surface of EVERY part of modern society. I could drag in politics and religion into this discussion at this point too, not simply gender, because that's how fast the world is changing.

I bet you if someone asks Pardo the same question about his position a year from now, he'll have a pre-prepared statement all ready to go, because if Blizzard weren't aware already, a storm is coming. The demographics they're failing to successfully target are extremely potent, and if Mr Pardo wants to keep those balance sheets strong, one day someone is going to tell him he'll need to consider that the World IS a different place from the one he grew up in, and he'll have to decide whether that matters to him or not. The Revolution, despite Mr Gil Scott Heron's assertions, is being televised. It's being blogged about and is all over social media.

What matters now is how Blizzard react to the inevitable.


Raymond Hafner II said...

While Blizzard has female employees they don't seem to be in positions where they can affect character or story development but instead in positions where they interact with the public.

This creates what seems at face value to be a company that values women and has lots of them, but when get past the surface you realize they have no power in the game itself, so the game is still mostly a boys only club when it comes to development of story and characters.

Qelric said...

You definitely summed up my feelings on the subject. These developers grew up in an era when female representation meant characters that were love interests, supporting characters, or over-sexualised women. Things will change with time.

marathalbt said...

I give them a lot of credit for not heading down the road taken by games such as Grand Theft Auto. They have created a game based around a world they created, they do not portray the evil Horde as raping and killing children. If anything they are trying to promote that doing the right thing, learning to work together to defeat the bad guy/dragon/king/demon evil doer, making friends, being social, to me are a very subtle influence making a statement. While they may not be portraying same sex relationships in the game, at least as far as we know. I am sure anyone with a decent grasp of Role play could create a back story revolving around a same NPC sex couple.

Trying to portray women as more powerful leaders, when we know the game is based around a medieval culture. They have incorporated many powerful women as warriors and leaders, could they do more? Certainly, but it has to fit into the overall world design.

It is not so much them not including things we may feel need to be included to promote diversity, it is more telling what they are not. If the game were like the world of Game of Thrones many would revolt, but too many would flock to it for the shock value.

In the end they have created a very successful video game. And they just want a game to be a game that can appeal to people age 6 to 60+