Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Poverty, Privilege, and Gaming

This post is a response to Blog Action Day 2008, an event created to get on-line writers talking about substantial world issues in order to work towards solutions. This year's topic is "poverty." I highly recommend visiting the site for posts far more impressive than this modest submission. As always, Jorge and I encourage everyone to share their thoughts in the comments, via email, and through their own sites.

In this blog, Jorge and I talk a lot about trying to push for the creation and definition of a gaming culture. There are many different ideas about how to achieve this and what an ideal culture would look like, but we both desire to witness one basic development: the emergence of a mature, self-aware, and socially responsible culture of gamers.

Blogging Action Day 2008 asks writers to address the topic of poverty, ideally in an aspect that relates to their normal topics of interest. I believe poverty and games have a unique relationship, and one that gamers have a moral obligation to discuss. I offer no sweeping solutions about how to relieve human suffering in this post; it is a topic beyond my (andanybody's) singular capabilities. What I do suggest is that people who identify as gamers must at least try to tackle these issues. The first step is to recognize our privileges as gamers.

Privilege is a term that gets bandied about a lot in the academic and social circles I frequent. It has come to encompass a wide variety of explicitly and implicitly defined rights and behaviors unique to certain groups of people within society. Any identity trait comes with certain benefits, and gaming is no different.

The fact of the matter is that video games (like many other forms of art and entertainment) require disposable income. People who play video games have both the money and the time to expend on pursuits other than finding a way to pay for food shelter are privileged. Gamers complain about prices, and my friends and I joke about being "poor," but we are no where near the category. Being able to spend money on art and entertainment is something that differentiates us from the vast majority of people in the world. We enjoy unique, and most would say enviable, perks.

This does not mean gamers are spoiled, shallow, or bad people. Any discussion of privilege flirts with the danger of venturing into preachy, moralizing, and judgemental rhetoric. My point is not to make anybody feel bad for what they have or what they enjoy. What I urge is that people recognize the benefits they enjoy, in hopes that this recognition can lead to positive change for those less privileged than we.

Steps towards righting economic disparity can start within the gaming community. I am proud to watch the growth of organizations that assume philanthropic duties like Penny Arcade's Child's Play. In a more decentralized sense, we can make games more accessible to people of all incomes by democratizing the means of production through the support of open source software and independent games (like World of Goo!). Downloadable games are blossoming due to their innovation and their pricing, and this only serves to improve the medium as a whole. Even more broadly, supporting an open healthy atmosphere of education and discussion only serves to strengthen and spread video games' accessibility.

Of course, to truly attack poverty, gamers must not live with blinders on: immersing ourselves in games or even the academic pursuit of game analysis is both self defeating and ultimately immoral. In the end, we must act not as gamers, not even as citizens, but as human beings. Let us structure our governments to emphasize humanitarian policies, let us volunteer to make sacrifices of our money and time, and above all, let us empathize with (rather than scorn or even pity) those who struggle.

The issue of poverty is immense and any solution will take time and dedication. It is difficult to get started in the face of such a momentous task, but every project requires an initial step. As gamers, let our first step be our recognition of the privilege we enjoy. Instead of feeling guilty about it, let us help transmit this privilege and help them attain the opportunities we are fortunate enough to possess.

It is through self-awareness that we may develop a responsible culture; one aware of the world's inequities, and one focused on spreading the joy we derive from our games and from our privilege.

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