Unless you spend of all of your time in the basement of the rock you’d have to be living under – never emerging, except for the occasional food/water run – you’ve probably heard something about the recent Shadow Complex controversy. For those who aren’t in the know, though, the story goes like this: Shadow Complex, a Metroid-like game for the rough, tough, gray-loving modern gamer, recently released on Xbox Live Arcade to rave reviews. Trouble, however, soon reared its ugly head when famous – and sometimes infamous -- author Orson Scott Card parked his own float in the Shadow Complex promotional parade, licensing the videogame property from developer Chair Entertainment and writing a series of books that take place in the game’s universe.
So, where’s the problem? Why are gamers tossing their virtual copies of Shadow Complex into their equally virtual Xbox fireplaces? Well, let’s just say that Card didn’t settle down and clam up after he wrote “Ender’s Game.” In fact, these days, when he’s not penning best-selling sci-fi literature, Card puts his silver tongue to use in vocal opposition of gay rights. For example, he's written the following: “The first and greatest threat from court decisions in California and Massachusetts, giving legal recognition to ‘gay marriage,’ is that it marks the end of democracy in America” and "Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down."
However, as tempting as it might be to crank a patriotic orchestral soundtrack, stand behind a large, billowing USA flag, and rant about tolerance and love (both platonic and, well, you know) of your fellow man, that’s not what I’m here to do. If you’d like to read about that sort of thing, I consider thesetwo articles to be definitive discussions of Shadow Complex in relation to that subject.
No, since this column exists to discuss the Serious Business of videogames, I’m instead going to focus on a particular reaction to kooky old man Card being shuffled into Shadow Complex’s deck. See, as both of the aforelinked articles point out, many gamers already have a pre-programmed, hot-keyed response to the Card controversy: “It’s just a game.” In other words, why should Big Issues matter in a mindless medium like videogames?
Now then, let’s switch scenes for a moment. It’s 2005. You’ve just finished hunting buffalo in an open field with only a makeshift spear and a cell phone that can’t even access Facebook, so you decide to take a load off by booting up your PC and surfing that newfangled Internet thingy. Before long, though, you stumble across a headline that has you steaming. “Roger Ebert says games aren’t art?” you vent aloud. “What a lame-brained [primitive 2005 expletives censored]!” As you stalk away from your PC, the following quote can be seen on screen:
“But for most gamers, videogames represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”
Of course, you were upset with good reason; Ebert, in that short statement, undermined the significance of many a great game. But regardless of how misguided Ebert’s opinion was, this whole Shadow Complex business certainly provides people of his mindset with some extra ammo. After all, it’s one thing to defend your hobby when an “enemy” like Ebert is at the gates, spitting insults in your direction like hot fire, but when something like the Card controversey comes up -- something that’s actually a crossroads on gaming’s path to legitimacy -- and all many of us can muster is a mildly disinterested “It’s just a game,” well, why should so-called opponents of Games as a Legitimate Medium believe any differently? I mean, if gamers, the medium’s biggest backers, don’t even believe in the power of games to convey a message – be that a boycott-borne “cease and desist” to a Orson Scott Card, or some kind of wacky in-game zen philosophy ala Zeno Clash, or what have you – then why should anyone else care?
So, the question arises: What do you gamers actually want out of games? Do we want meaningful experiences, or do we just want to shout “Yeeeehaw” and shoot some dudes? Because, as film and literature have proven, there’s room in this medium for both. However, regardless of a game’s intended purpose – entertainment, high-art, or something in-between – it can make a major impact, and we need to keep that in mind. There’s no such thing as “just a game,” and we only jeopardize the potential power of our medium by bandying that phrase about.
If you need evidence, just take another hard look at Shadow Complex. The game itself is fairly mindless entertainment, but Orson Scott Card’s tangential attachment to the property has given rise to a number of interesting discussions, even with the shadow of “It’s just a game” looming heavy. The very fact that people are talking is proof enough that Shadow Complex isn’t “just a game.” So speak, people! Speak with your words, actions, or some mix of the two. If you disagree with Card’s stance on gay rights, let him know how that’s given you second thoughts about supporting the game he’s involved with. Boycott, write letters, tell your friends – whatever. Or don’t. It’s up to you.
Regardless, even with small actions like those, you’ll be helping videogames’ cause far more than you would be by telling off smug schmucks like Ebert. Your nerd rage-fueled sermons do nothing to sway these people’s opinions; they’ve all heard this stuff a thousand times before. But if we actually treat videogames as if they’re significant and legitimate – instead of just saying that they are with no real evidence to back up our claims – people will be forced to take notice. Actions, as it turns out, really do speak louder than words.
So then, you know what to do, and I’ve spoken my piece. Now get out there and do it.