Why “if you don’t like it, make your own” is not a valid argument

Today, in response to critical outcry on a certain disgusting videogame trailer making rounds on the internet (relevant links here and here), Tycho of Penny Arcade fame responded saying that rather than complaining about it, people should instead be making their own art. As a creator of my own art for the last decade or so, this particular silencing tactic — because let’s face it, “silencing tactic” is exactly what it is — angers me on a very personal level, if only because I once bought into it completely.

Don’t get me wrong. I love creating my own art. It’s an activity out of which I get more joy than almost anything else. I love encouraging people to create their own art too, because the art I enjoy most is the kind that’s personal and intimate. I haven’t even so much as touched a big-budget videogame in quite some time, simply because none of them interest me very much, these days. The book Tycho linked to in his post, Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, is absolutely fantastic and empowering and I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone reading this. And yet… that’s not all there is to the story.

For one thing, not only are sexist and ultraviolent videogames still continuing to be made in spite of better alternatives, they also happen to have some of the highest development and marketing budgets in our industry, to the point that when laypeople think of “videogames”, they immediately think “immature adolescent male pastime”. To say that this doesn’t have any kind of effect on the medium as a whole is absolutely ignorant. When you’re an industry professional, like myself and others I know, trying to hold videogames to a more mature1 standard, it gets really frustrating when orders from above dictate that you produce for the lowest common denominator. These are, after all, the People Who Buy Videogames. Trying to appeal to underserved demographics? Well, that’s a risky proposition, isn’t it? We all need to make money so we can eat, you know, and look at all those other games that tried to do something risky and didn’t sell. We can’t have that!

And the more this happens, the more confirmation bias you get. The videogame industry believes that the only people who will buy games are straight white men with an immature adolescent mentality, and as a result, the only people who do buy games are straight white men with an immature adolescent mentality. This, then, extends to people who wind up driven to be creators in this medium, because people tend to want to make games because of the games they’ve played, and it becomes a feedback loop, shutting out those of us who don’t belong. Even the well-lauded “indie” scene isn’t immune from this fate, since almost all success stories on that front are, you guessed it, straight white men creating games about being straight, white, and male2 — pretty much the same thing you see in the more commercial segments of the game industry, except maybe slightly quirkier.

Those of us in the margins, making our own art through the medium of games… well, I can only speak for myself, but seeing all this happening around me can be overwhelming, disheartening, and exhausting at times. I create for myself, yes, but I also want to speak to the rest of the world, engage in a dialogue… otherwise, what’s the point? I need to be heard, but how can I be heard through all this noise? How can I compete with their budgets, their armies of talented technical craftspeople? How can I polish and hone my skills when so much of what I’m trying to do is practically uncharted territory and I have so few mentors? When I release a game and the response is crickets — or if I’m lucky, fifteen minutes of fame before the collective attention span of the internet gets diverted to the next “ooh, shiny” thing — it can often feel like I haven’t made any kind of a difference at all.

I’m still going to make my own games because I love doing it and it’s important to me, but to make any kind of real change to our industry, that’s not going to be enough. I don’t claim to have any concrete solutions — and if I did, I’d be filthy rich by now — but I do know that pointing out and calling attention to the things that are wrong with our industry, as opposed to sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring them is, if not necessarily a better approach, then at least a more honest one. And hey, who says you can’t critique and create more art, or even critique in the form of art? Satire is a pretty neat tool, if I do say so myself.

So, in short, in case it wasn’t absolutely clear, not only do I not mind critics of violent, sexist media, I welcome and encourage them. They aren’t impinging on my ability to create my own art; if anything, they’re helping it. Let’s put the “if you don’t like it, make your own” non-argument to rest, because all it does is shunts those of us who do make our own art back into the margins, where we can’t really do much of anything.

  1. Here, I mean actually mature as opposed to what I like to call “M for Mature”.
  2. Let’s not forget that our society sees stories about straight white men as “universal” stories that can appeal to everyone. Consequently, all other stories are about specific kinds of people, or “issues”, and therefore not “universal”.