Game Bloggy: Separating the Art from the Artist in Gaming

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of GAMEBUOY.ORG as a whole.

Earlier today on Twitter, I saw the following retweeted on my timeline:

Anyone who listens to Game Buoy knows that I’m a strong supporter of inclusion in games – I’ve spoken extensively about the issue both on the show and at venues such as GaymerX – and it’d be safe to say I could be considered a Social Justice Warrior. Such a dirty word on the internet these days, it seems. (As someone who typically plays magic casting classes, I’d rather be a Social Justice Wizard – but that’s aside the point).

Taken at face value, the screencapped thread suggests that Mike Mearls, lead designer of Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, implies that dealing with GG is not as bad as dealing with “the other side” – that is, SJWs. This seems to go against what Mearls has said in the past; in a July 2014 interview with The Mary Sue’s Michael Trice, he mindfully spoke of 5th edition’s efforts to be inclusive and allow players to create characters anywhere on the spectrum of gender and sexuality. “Tabletop roleplaying is all about thinking of the world from a different point of view, so I think that the hobby as a whole wants to be inclusive,” Mearls stated. “It’s really just a matter of making that clear, of consciously speaking in inclusive terms rather than assuming that what’s in our hearts will filter into our work.” He went on to continue that he was “not worried about offending bigots – quite the opposite, in fact. The value lies simply in acknowledgement, and realizing that it’s better to put something out there than remain quiet out of a misplaced bout of sensitivity.”

As such, it’s surprising to see that Mearls seems to be attacking SJWs. @MCSerf, I am certain, had nothing but positive intentions in making this tweet, and discussed in replies the pros and cons of starting a petition or protesting by not supporting D&D. With a D&D 5th edition campaign starting soon (DM’d by Game Buoy superfan, Dan!), I thought, “Well, shit…does this mean I’m a bad person if I play 5th edition?”

This got me thinking about some recent issues in gaming, in which there seems to be no middle ground – or if there is, you’re at risk of supporting the other side. The folks over at GaymerX faced this last summer when they initially remained mum on GG, before clarifying that they were not in support of it.

As gamers, can we separate the art from the artist? First, let’s examine some other situations in recent popular culture where this issue came up.

When Horrible People Make Great Art

Let me start with the caveat that not every artist mentioned might be universally regarded as horrible,  or their works of art great. But, suffice it to say, this is not a new phenomenon. In February 2014, Maria Puente wrote for USA Today on the issue of Woody Allen having, at that time, recently been honored by the Golden Globes for lifetime achievement. The issue being, of course, that Allen has a shady string of sexual abuse allegations that aren’t helped by the fact that he married his much younger stepdaughter. In her article, Puente asked the same question – is it possible to separate the art from the artist? She states:

History is replete with tales of artists behaving badly. Composer Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite. Novelist Charles Dickens trashed his wife and secretly shacked up with a teen actress. Painter Michelangelo Caravaggio was a murderer. Movie star/filmmaker Charlie Chaplin was investigated by the FBI and banned from the USA in the 1950s, as much for eloping with an 18-year-old as for his leftist political views.

And yet, Wagner’s operas are still heard (even in Israel). Great Expectations is still read in high schools across the land. Most art museums would kill to get a Caravaggio. And Chaplin’s movies are still considered comic masterpieces worthy of his honorary Oscar in 1972.

She also cites a quote by Peggy Drexler, psychology professor at Cornell University. “Chances are good that if we delved into the private lives of every single artist whose work we admire, surely we’d find plenty not to like, and even to be disgusted by,” says Drexler. “It’s possible we’d never see a movie, look at a work of art or read a book again.”

This is certainly not a new topic. Allen’s award at the Golden Globes sparked a lot of conversation on the topic of separating the art and the artist around this time last year. Comparisons were, of course, made to the similarly shady but largely lauded Roman Polanski. Let’s also not forget the beloved magic maker and father of family friendly films, Walt Disney! Everybody loves Disney, right? Jake Flanigan, writing for Pacific Standard in February 2014, reminds us by way of Meryl Streep that “the man made great movies that brought happiness to billions of people…but he was—inarguably—a racist, an anti-Semite, a misogynist, a corporatist, and a raging McCarthyist (which is pretty much a catch-all, with the added bonus of blacklisting your friends and colleagues).”

Popular music has its share of brilliant artists who have done unsavory things. Flanagin notes that “R. Kelly is a sexual predator, but ‘Bump and Grind’ is a great song!” As someone who is not a fan of the movie Space Jam or its soundtrack, I’ve also never been a big fan of Kelly, but I had to personally reflect on his work when he made a guest appearance on Lady Gaga’s recent single “Do What U Want.” Despite his poor life choices, he was perfectly suited for the track – and I’m pretty certain that Lady Gaga very deliberately sought him out because of his status as a “fallen angel” of sorts. “Do what u want, what u want with my body,” sings Gaga on the R&B jam, challenging the mainstream media that had body shamed her, before sexual predator R. Kelly sings a verse about what he’ll do to her body – totally missing her point.

Lady Gaga is subversive, y’all. Paws up. But in all seriousness, is Lady Gaga bad for having Kelly on her track? Am I supporting a sexual predator by liking “Do What U Want” and having purchased it on iTunes?

I can’t help but think of the struggles of Michael Jackson – I don’t even need to get into the details for you to know what I mean. It’s clear to everyone that Jackson was a troubled man with a very troubled life and many issues. This does not change the fact that Jackson was also a brilliant musician and dancer who helped shape popular music. It’s true that his name attached to a work was a definite risk – one needs to look no further than the fact that Sega refused to acknowledge Jackson’s involvement on the Sonic 3 soundtrack. However, as someone who tried to separate Jackson’s actions from his art, it was very odd for me to see people condemn him for years, only to suddenly praise him and his art after his untimely death. So, clearly people can separate the art from the artist – but is it only socially acceptable when everyone agrees to do it?

Playing the Orson Scott Card card

Taking things back into the nerd world, let’s revisit the controversy surrounding the recent film adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. In the wake of the movie’s release, Card continued to spout his hate filled, anti-gay rhetoric. Writing for The Dissolve in July 2013, Matt Singer notes that, “Card’s comments have restarted an old debate over the appropriate response to artists with objectionable views.” He asks, “Can we ever separate the artist from the art? And even if we can, should we?”

Singer continues:

Personally, I’m inclined not to support writers or directors whose views disagree with my own, but I also recognize that’s a slippery slope to go down. Once you start boycotting people for their beliefs, where do you draw the line? How many great artists throughout history denigrated other races or religions or sexual orientations? How many abused their spouses? How many were terrible parents?

Oscar Wilde said that “it is through art, and through art only, that we can realize our perfection.” The artists themselves? They’re generally pretty imperfect (admittedly, some are less perfect than others).

So what do we do? Lionsgate went on record publically rejecting Card’s views. Is it unfair to take money away from the people who worked on that film because its source material came from a horrific homophobe? Mark Harris for Entertainment Weekly wrote in July 2013:

I can’t get past the idea that my purchase of a ticket might put even an extra penny in the pocket of a man who thinks I should be treated as less than human; a hit film will increase sales of his books, and I want no part of it. Is that a boycott? It’s a personal choice, and a boycott is really nothing more than a network of people whose convictions lead them to the same personal choice. I understand the case that the art should be separated from the artist, and I have seen plenty of art by reprehensible people. But everybody gets to decide for themselves where they draw the line.

I find this totally reasonable. But it’s what Harris says afterwards that really struck me. What do you do if you’re in that uncomfortable middle ground? “I don’t believe that people who choose to see Ender’s Game are enemies of gay rights,” says Harris, “but if you’re on the fence, here’s a compromise: Write a check for the cost of a movie ticket to an organization that opposes Card’s views, and then go enjoy the film with a clear conscience.”

Getting S.T.E.A.M.ed at Nintendo

“That’s nice, First Mate Slagkick,” you say, but what does this have to do with video games?

I could use this opportunity to play devil’s advocate to games critics such as Anita Sarkeesian, but I generally support her views and find that she isn’t trying to guilt people who play the games she critiques, but rather, to be aware of the issues and to challenge the industry to subvert these tropes and, by becoming more inclusive, allow video games to affect positive social change in the way that Good Art has the potential to do.

What this all comes back around to, for me, is Nintendo.

Clearly I’m a Nintendo fan – if you listen to the show, I make no secret about it. We are called Game Buoy, for crying out loud. So, perhaps I have a pro-Nintendo bias here, but I can’t help but think of two recent instances where being queer and supporting Nintendo were at odds with each other.

The first instance, of course, is the #Miiquality campaign that arose in early 2014, when Nintendo patched out the “strange behavior” of same sex romance in Tomodachi Life. What really angered gamers was that Nintendo refused to change this for the game’s western release, stating that it would require largely rebuilding the game from the ground up. Gaymers were outraged and called for a boycott of Tomodachi Life – and they had every right to! But for myself and many of my queer friends, we found ourselves in the Ender’s Game situation that Harris described. Are we terrible gays for supporting a game that can be perceived as anti-gay?

For my part, I am proud of Nintendo for the statement they issued in response, showing that they are working towards inclusivity:

We apologize for disappointing many people by failing to include same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life. Unfortunately, it is not possible for us to change this game’s design, and such a significant development change can’t be accomplished with a post-ship patch. At Nintendo, dedication has always meant going beyond the games to promote a sense of community, and to share a spirit of fun and joy. We are committed to advancing our longtime company values of fun and entertainment for everyone. We pledge that if we create a next installment in the Tomodachi series, we will strive to design a game-play experience from the ground up that is more inclusive, and better represents all players.

Emphasis added by me for effect. Isn’t this exactly what we have wanted, those of us who push for more inclusivity in games? Of course, we now hold Nintendo to their word, and if they don’t keep it, we have every right to call them out. But for some people, a pledge isn’t enough.

Nintendo came under fire again just a matter of weeks ago when it was revealed that Adam Baldwin voiced the main character, Henry Fleming, of Intelligent System’s Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. for 3DS. Anyone following the political debate in gaming these days knows that Baldwin is the one who coined The Hashtag That Shall Not Be Named and has said some Card-level bullshit about gays in his time. He is, of course, one of the Based Gods of that group (P.S. can we please stop with the “based” thank you very much).

This hits a little closer to home for many gamers, as The Hashtag has been tied in with the harassment of many women in the gaming community. Baldwin is perhaps best known, prior to this mess, as an actor on Joss Whedon’s cult classic, the gone-too-soon Firefly. Lelan Mangrum, writing for Gay-Nerds.com, reflected on Baldwin a few weeks back:

Perhaps luckily, I found out just what kind of person Adam Baldwin was after Firefly and Chuck had ended, which are both fantastic shows.  However, it’s hard to recommend them now because I’m sure he gets residuals, which he might take and donate to an anti-gay organization.  It’s doubly hard because shows like Firefly are created by super gay-friendly folk like Joss Whedon.

Does this mean that Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. should be boycotted because Baldwin voiced the main character? Does it “balance it out” that LGBT ally Wil Wheaton voices Abraham Lincoln in the same game? Can we just play the game with the sound off and not acknowledge Baldwin’s contributions, or is that the same as stubborn children on the playground saying, “LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU,” while plugging their ears?

It’s that awkward middle ground again, I feel. I’ve sung the praises of Intelligent Systems many times – Fire Emblem: Awakening was a well-loved game! Many gaymers are calling for the public to not support Code Name: S.T.E.A.M., and as I’ve said, they have every right to. I am in no way judging them for doing so, the same way I didn’t during the #Miiquality campaign.

But let’s just take a moment to think: is it worth missing out on a potentially great game because one asshole was involved? If the game doesn’t sell well because of a boycott (and let’s be fair, it’s already set to be a pretty niche title), is it worth it to not see future games in the series?

Considering these games were worked on by a multitude of people, each of whom have their own individual beliefs, is not supporting them akin to punishing the whole class and taking away recess because one kid was acting up?

Mangrum offers a solution that echoes what Harris suggested to those on the line about supporting Ender’s Game:

Everyone should enjoy what they want and try not to worry about the politics of it so much. It’s entertainment, not congress. That being said, if you feel conflicted about an actor, or a writer’s work, do something about it. If you feel like your money spent might be going toward a homophobic cause, offset that balance by donating to a great cause like The Trevor Project.  Your conscience will thank you.

To be fair, maybe donating to charity isn’t enough, or maybe some of us can’t afford to do so – or have the time to volunteer to support charitable causes or anything of the sort. But if it’s one way to separate art from the artist while still holding strong to your views, then I can’t find anything hurtful about that.

As Harris stated, “Everyone gets to decide for themselves where they draw the line.” If you draw the line at supporting Tomodachi Life or Code Name: S.T.E.A.M., I fully respect and honor your decision. Hopefully, for those of us who choose to play those games, you’ll understand that we’re on your side, and we have to draw the line for ourselves, as well.

Filip Nonkovik, writing for EQHammer in July 2014, asked if we could separate the art from the artist in gaming. Referring to examples such as Orson Scott Card, Roman Polanski, and Woody Allen – as well as The Mists of Avalon author and sexual predator Marion Zimmer Bradley. He established this context to ask if John Smedley could be redeemed for his missteps with Star Wars Galaxies and EverQuest should EverQuest Next deliver on its promises. And it’s with a quote from Nonkovik that I want to leave you on, that seems to perfectly describe the feeling for those of us in that uncomfortable middle ground:

Good art speaks to the human condition – it makes us feel, it teaches us something about who and what we are. It is uncomfortable to find that the ones holding up the mirror, the ones orchestrating such moving and impactful works, are occasionally more flawed, even more evil (if you don’t object to the term) than we are.

Works Cited

Flanigan, Jake. “Culture Creep: How and Why We Separate the Artist From the Art.” Pacific Standard. 4 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2015. <http://www.psmag.com/books-and-culture/culture-creep-artist-art-woody-allen-73343>.

Harris, Mark. “‘Ender’s Game’ and Spider-Man: Pop Culture’s Big Gay Panic.” Entertainment Weekly’s EW.com. 19 July 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2015. <http://www.ew.com/article/2013/07/19/enders-game-spider-man-big-gay-panic-mark-harris>.

Mangrum, Lelan. “Homophobia: Can You Separate the Art from the Artist? | Gay-nerds.com.” Gay-Nerds.com. 2 Feb. 2015. Web. 28 Mar. 2015. <http://gay-nerds.com/site/comics/homophobia-can-you-separate-the-art-from-the-artist/>.

Nonkovic, Filip. “Beyond the Game – Can We Separate the Artist from the Art?” EQHammer. 1 July 2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2015. <http://www.eqhammer.com/column/beyond-game-can-we-separate-artist-art>.

Puente, Maria. “When Should We Separate the Art from the Artist?” USA Today. Gannett, 6 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2015. <http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/people/2014/02/06/when-should-we-separate-the-art-from-the-artist/5228631/>.

Singer, Matt. “Op-ed: Ender’s Dilemma: Should We Separate the Artist from the Art?” The Dissolve. 19 July 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2015. <https://thedissolve.com/news/70-enders-dilemma/>.

Trice, Michael. “The Mary Sue Exclusive Interview: Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford on Acknowledging Sexuality and Gender Diversity In D&D.” The Mary Sue. 24 July 2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2015. <http://www.themarysue.com/sexuality-and-gender-diversity-dungeons-and-dragons-next/>.

“We Are Committed to Fun and Entertainment for Everyone – Nintendo Official Site.” Nintendo.com. 9 May 2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nintendo.com/whatsnew/detail/c4FWbi-Uave2T9R1h7SFzX0aoa-d4pgx>.

One thought on “Game Bloggy: Separating the Art from the Artist in Gaming

  1. Dan Dias

    Well written and researched, Slaggy. Excellent work!

    I can appreciate the conclusion of everyone has to draw their own line. As you know, I’m supportive of everyone being able to enjoy their lives as the person they are. The problem is taking that statement to the letter also makes me prone to a certain amount of “live and let live” feelings. Of course, the exception is when it starts to actually infringe on other’s living their lives as who they are. That’s when it bothers me.

    This is where the split between art and artist is for me. If their “art” is causing people distress and making them feel they can’t live their lives properly, that’s the problem. If their political views are the ones causing the problem, that’s the problem. Fight the fight where it is.

    That might mean for you, doing a charitable karmic offset. It might mean for you, actually participating in striking down laws or practices that prevent people from living their lives properly. It might mean for you, sitting quietly and supporting people when it matters.

Leave a Reply