Cuphead is a good game. Cuphead is a hard game. Cuphead is a Microsoft-backed indie game. Cuphead is meticulously drawn in the style of 1930s cartoons. Cuphead was first announced at E3 2013 as a boss rush game. Cuphead was released recently for Xbox One and PC. Cuphead excited me from announcement to sometime before release. Cuphead is a good game, the critics say. Cuphead is all anyone is talking about in games media this week.
Now I’m talking about Cuphead.
Mostly, I wanted to write this piece out of frustration. I have heard so much praise heaped on Cuphead that it sort of felt like something was wrong with me. I didn’t want to play Cuphead because it doesn’t sound fun to me. Games journalists espoused the games many qualities and I couldn’t get past the gateway to entry that was the difficulty. It was such a relief then, when I heard the opinions of two journalists I respect, Hex of Screenplay (formerly of Good Game) and Laura Dale of Kotaku (formerly of Let’s Play Video Games), noting that while they played the game and completed it for review, they didn’t enjoy it for the difficulty. It felt like a relief. People who had played the game felt what I would feel if I played the game. I could move on with my life. Cuphead was not for me.
So that’s the end of it, right? A really short piece this week? Not quite. I really want to dig into these feelings of inadequacy more. ‘Gamer’ culture is real toxic, guys. Some of you might be like ‘No shit, you might as well have said that water is wet’. The aspect I want to focus on is the aspect that in some circles on the Internet there’s a hierarchical culture that posits that you must be good at games to discuss them, review them, and so on. These communities have gatekeepers that believe seniority and skill give them a higher place in the culture. For example.
I’m sick of this ‘gamer’ culture. I play video games for fun. I do it to unwind when I’m feeling stressed. I don’t do it as some sort of RSI-inducing, culture-points-winning activity where you only get to speak once you’ve bashed your head against the game a million times. I don’t need to ‘git gud’. I just want to relax, man. I think the ‘gamer’ label is often co-opted as a core tenant of some people’s personalities and that’s unhealthy in a certain way. Defining yourself by the media consume means that any criticism of the medium feels like a personal attack. When criticising unhealthy games industry practices or critiquing aspects of games, such as how they represent marginalised groups, you always have to pre-empt the one person who won’t take your points in a considered context but will instead espouse that ‘It’s just games, don’t think too hard about it’, which stunts the growth of the medium by continuingly infantilising the medium.
So, what’s the mentality behind gatekeepers in pop culture? This gatekeeper mentality has been noted in comic book culture, music culture, gaming culture, and even fuckin’ grammar (lest we forget the grammar Nazis). Gatekeepers functionally try to box in their interest as only being one thing or being for one group. Often this is done to exclude women, as seen in the articles above, and minorities. Perhaps the fear is that introducing new voices will expose problematic elements of the established pillars of the community. ‘Great, now I can’t enjoy Super Mario Bros. because of the problematic objectification and representation of women in the game’. Now, here’s the thing that I think those individuals miss about problematic media. No-one is trying to erase the media and taint your memories. You can enjoy media while acknowledging it’s problematic. You can save Princess Peach and see the issue with the ‘Damsel in Distress’ trope.
I mean, I’m a guy, and I’ve experienced this toxic gatekeeping in gaming. I might describe myself as a casual gamer and a fan of ‘walking simulators’ (though I hate the term ‘walking simulators’). I like the Sims. I’m not a fan of Dark Souls. This is a perfectly acceptable way to enjoy games and yet, it’s met with derision. Too often, gaming culture means subscribing to the idea that gaming is a monolith that we must subscribe to as an identity. Mobile games aren’t ‘real’ games. ‘Walking simulators’ aren’t real games. We have to stop this unnecessary gaming subdivision. People who play games on their phone are gamers, people who enjoy indie games are gamers, people who only play games every now and then are gamers, people who only play CoD are gamers. This anxiety around who gets to be a gamer and who doesn’t is bloody exclusionary. I don’t want to play Cuphead because it’s too hard and I still get to be a gamer, because I play games. Cuphead is just not my cup of tea, and that’s ok.
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