In the past couple of weeks, the launches of two major video games have once more been marred by a controversy that just won't leave our medium alone: they have had accusations of racism and sexism levelled at them. The incidents have led righteous observers to claim that the video games business is institutionally bigoted.
I'm not here to argue for or against that point. I certainly think it's got enough merit that it needs to be taken seriously, and that the burden of proof lies not with the accusers, but the accused. Why? Because when it comes to portraying human beings, video games - not all of them, but most of them, including many really great ones - are humiliatingly bad.
The incidents I'm referring to involve the two biggest-selling games of the moment, Dead Island and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. You're probably familiar with the discovery, in a line of code of an unfinished version of Dead Island, that one of its female characters' skills was once dubbed "Feminist Whore". This sparked a wave of discussion of sexism in video games, as well as an apology from Polish developer Techland.
It's an unpleasant turn of phrase to be sure, and a shameful mistake - but I don't see a reason to take it as evidence of deep-seated misogyny across the board at Techland, let alone a "naked, bald-faced, slavering hatred of women," as Arinn Dembo put it on Gamasutra.
It's all about context. I shudder to think of how it would look if some of the pitch-black, boundary-crossing humour in Eurogamer's internal emails or chat logs were made public (much of the worst of it perpetrated by one Ellie Gibson). But I know there's not a bigot among us.
"Lazy characterisation, rampant stereotyping and a lack of human empathy leave gaming defenceless and exposed when charges of bigotry are laid against it."
The fact that our offices are overwhelmingly male does distort our culture and cause its share of problems, of course, and I would imagine the same is true of Techland. But even that doesn't explain why the exposure of one man's nastiness should trigger an examination of the sexual politics of an entire industry - and a justified one at that.
Like I said, it's all about context. And the context for those two words is decades of sexualised and - crucially - shallow portrayals of female characters in games.
There are always exceptions, and you can list a few examples of female leads who aren't sexual objects - like Beyond Good & Evil's Jade - or even of overtly sexualised ladies who transcend stereotyping through the inherent strength of their character design, like Lara Croft. Lara has an identifiable personality and background; she is, even in her cartoonish way, a fleshed-out human being. Can you really say the same of Dead Island's "feminist", Purna, the bodyguard in a ripped cocktail dress who's "hired not just for her skills but her looks"?
I'd argue that what really sets Jade and Lara apart is simply that they're good characters: memorable, recognisably human, more to them than meets the eye. Characters like that are all too rare in games, male or female. Men are strong; women are sexy. It's lazy characterisation, rampant stereotyping and a lack of human empathy - on an industry-wide scale - that leaves gaming defenceless and exposed when charges of bigotry are laid against it.
That's painfully evident in the second, less widely discussed, but to my mind much more troubling case of recent weeks: racism in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
It began with an astonishing YouTube video showing a minor character you find in Detroit, a black vagrant and informant called Letitia. "Weeelll shee-yit, if it ain't the Cap'n hisself," she says on meeting the player. "Dayum!" Her speech is a crude caricature of an ancient stereotype of poor African Americans from the deep South - a stereotype that, taking Human Revolution's 2027 setting into account, is a century out of date, as well as being crass and inaccurate. It's so awful and jarring that it's briefly, appallingly, funny.
Evan Narcisse of Time pointed out that it wasn't really a laughing matter. "The horrible broken English Letitia speaks is so far removed from any actual slang that it renders the character practically extra-terrestrial. It's not from an alien planet, though. That slang harkens back to the worst blackface minstrelsy of the last century."
It does. But - at the risk of sounding like one of the apologists Narcisse invokes in his column - it's not the racism of the clip that shocks me so much as the fact that a game as highly regarded as Deus Ex could contain a scene so deeply, so irredeemably bad.
It is profoundly embarrassing to me that you can find such terrible writing, lazy characterisation and toe-curling acting in what will probably (and not without reason) be upheld as one of the best games of this year - even as an exemplar for the gaming form.
You wouldn't ever find a scene this bad in a Michael Bay movie. Or a Paul W. Anderson movie. Uwe Boll? Maybe, but maybe not, even. It would certainly be considered below acceptable professional standards in any mainstream film or TV. But strip away the racist overtones that brought it to our attention - make this miserable pantomime of exposition an all-white, all-male affair - and I'm afraid to say that it would appear quite normal content to find in a major modern video game.
Are the people at developer Eidos Montreal who wrote, cast, directed and performed this scene racist? Probably not. For all I know, the worst you could call them is culturally na´ve. But I know one thing for sure - they're talentless, and worse, thoughtless.
"It has never been our intention to represent any particular ethnic group in a negative light," said publisher Square Enix in a statement. I believe it, but intentions are neither here not there - the game has blundered into racist caricature through sheer creative ineptitude.
The problem with Letitia isn't the theory, it's the cack-handed practice. There's nothing inherently wrong with casting a character that lives on society's underbelly as black, and indeed it would be wonderful if games could begin to depict and even tackle social problems in their content the way a TV show like The Wire does.
There are even signs that we're getting there. Games like Portal 2 and Uncharted 2 exhibit characterisation, dialogue and human drama as nuanced and credible as their Hollywood counterparts, albeit in the realm of fairly fluffy and unchallenging light entertainment. LA Noire, meanwhile, for all its stodgy plotting and slight lack of charisma, demands respect for managing to document the social issues of mid-20th century Los Angeles in an open and serious manner without making any howling gaffes.
But, let's face it, these titles are the exception when they should be the rule. The medium seems to be intent on pursuing human storytelling, but the vast majority of games are, by the standards of the other art forms they so obviously aspire to, terrible at it.
Games ought to be able to deal with sex without being called sexist, race without being called racist. But until their writing improves to the extent that characters like Letitia cease to exist in bad games, never mind good ones - until the games industry's overall standards of what I can only think to call 'humanity' improve - they never will.