In the endless think pieces bloggers regurgitate after every major game release, I’ve noticed a recent trend to criticize games’ “power fantasies” and “toxic masculinity” more than anything else.
After the release of “Far Cry 5,” games journalists quickly decried the game as just another “power fantasy,” as if that was an inherently bad thing for a video game to be. When “God of War” came out, even more websites criticized main character Kratos as being guilty of “toxic masculinity.”
I find it funny that video game critics take offense at two of the things that make most action video games great: violence, and players being placed in chaotic settings to take control of them. These both help make games what they are, and for critics to take issue with them means they have a problem with video games as a whole.
It’s difficult to find a real definition for power fantasies, but they’re generally thought of as games where the protagonist has the ability to rise against his or her enemies and make a difference in the world. In other words, they’re games where you play as a strong, influential hero you’re cheering for.
Almost every good video game is a power fantasy. Who wants to play a game where you’re a weak nobody? Games are escapism, and they give each player the ability to be someone and do something that person could not in real life. That’s a huge part of the appeal of these games.
In “Far Cry 5,” the power fantasy involves you being a deputy who saves lives and deals major blows to an evil cult. Without that “power fantasy,” “Far Cry 5” wouldn’t exist. Most video games wouldn’t, in fact.
So why then do major video game websites deride this common and necessary trope?
The writer of a Kotaku piece titled “The ‘Far Cry’ series needs to let things break again” references power fantasies several times, even saying, “The ability to drop into an intentionally unnamed African country and sow chaos without censure (in ‘Far Cry 2’) is no less insipid a power fantasy than becoming a magical tribal warrior on a tropical island in ‘Far Cry 3’ or dispensing justice on the American frontier in ‘Far Cry 5.’”
I’m not sure what the author expects here. Does she want a “Far Cry” game where there’s no hero, no conflict, no shooting, no story, no game? If you’re playing a “Far Cry” game—or any other action game, for that matter—where your character is no more powerful or significant than anyone else, you might as well not be playing the game at all.
This brings me to my next point: toxic masculinity.
Another largely pointless buzzword used in games criticism, toxic masculinity is defined by Wikipedia as “adherence to traditional male gender roles that restrict the kinds of emotions allowable for boys and men to express, including social expectations that men seek to be dominant and limit their emotional range primarily to expressions of anger.”
Of course, by this definition, everyone has been quick to peg “God of War’s” Kratos as guilty of toxic masculinity.
From the outside, Kratos is your textbook angry, dominant male character. Anyone who has played through the game (which I’d bet many criticizing it for its toxic masculinity have not) know there’s much more depth to Kratos’ character, but it’s apparently much easier to simply write him and the game off as problematic because Kratos is violent and yells sometimes.
Again, if you’re playing a power fantasy, which most games are, it makes sense for your hero to be violent. To justify that violence, it makes sense to make him angry. If the hero is male, it takes no effort for games critics to simply claim the game is a toxic masculinity power fantasy and wipe their hands clean of it.
It alarms me how many games critics regurgitate the same progressive talking points when an action game comes out. It’s become so predictable that I said on Twitter before “God of War’s” release that critics would slam the game for its toxic masculinity, and I’ve since seen no fewer than a half-dozen examples proving me right.
When games journalists regularly criticize the very foundation of what makes video games video games, wherein lies the criticism’s value? Violent action games deserve far more credit than being a scapegoat for complaining about perceived societal ills, and I wish critics realized that rather than recycling the same talking points with every new game’s release.