Monthly Archives: June 2014

Opinion – Talking About Tropes v. Women

Soooo…this went long.  Sorry!

 

Viewers of Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency videos on women-in-games generally fall into two categories.  The first is the ever present troglodyte internet trolls that plague so much of the community.  At their best, they object, often incoherently, to Sarkeesian’s videos based on a feeling of socially progressive intrusion into what was previously a safe space.  Gamers have often been a defense group, likely resulting from starting in a culture that didn’t take games seriously, and that has unfortunately turned into a sense of automatic offense whenever video games are challenged.  At their worst, this group engages in mindless attacks and threats that only prove Sarkeesian’s point that things need to change.  The second group are the more socially conscious critics who generally agree with Sarkeesian’s videos, but shy away from criticizing them, possibly due to a fear of being included in the first group.  This is a shame because the videos aren’t perfect and a stronger discussion surrounding them would both increase their exposure and help the gaming community move towards a more intelligent position on its depiction of women.  In that spirit, I’m going to discuss my concerns with the most recent video titled “Women as Background Decoration”.  Note: You should see the video before reading this article.

Cherry Picking

The strongest of the troll arguments is often that Sarkeesian cherry picks her clips from the most damning options or ones that misrepresent the game.  While this argument is often overstated, the naysayers do have a point.  “Women as Background Decoration” shows clips from gaming’s most violent franchises yet never explains why a particular game matters.  Some choices, like Grand Theft Auto or Saint’s Row, are obviously relevant, but I’m at a loss as to why Shellshock: Vietnam or The Darkness 2 were included.  Without an explanation as to why a particular game made the cut, it’s hard to judge the value of its inclusion.  Furthermore, Sarkeesian never provides the context for her choices.  How many copies did they sell?  Who bought them?  How do they match up against other games in the genre or generally?  The existence of objectionable video games does not mean that they represent a noteworthy problem.  Sarkeesian needs to do a better job explaining why the games she presents as evidence matter, not just that sexual objectification is wrong.

In addition to not justifying the clip selections, “Women as Background Decoration” consistently uses clips and arguments that are unrepresentative of the game in question.  In one particular section, Sarkeesian points out that a prostitute in Red Dead Redemption propositions the protagonist despite being hogtied and thrown on a horse.  The NPC has clearly reverted to its original programming and is not reacting to the event in question yet Sarkeesian uses this as evidence of abuse against women programmed into the game.  It’s obviously a bug, not an example of authorial intent.  She also uses prostitutes in Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea (which condemns the philosophy behind the prostitution), Fable hookers (the later games played the mechanic for laughs, not abuse), and the one instance in Mass Effect 2 where a fully clothed woman dances suggestively.  By combining this with the treatment of women in Saint’s Row or Metro: Last Light, Sarkeesian attempts to create the feeling of a much broader climate than she actually proves.  GTA’s prostitutes are nowhere close to the level of objectification as Mass Effects “exotic” dancers, yet she lumps them all together.  Sarkeesian would be better off selecting consistently extreme examples or, at a bare minimum, noting the vast gulf between her samples.

Prostitutes Exist

The mere existence of women as sex objects in game isn’t a problem.  Prostitutes do exist in real life and often work in situations where they are demeaned by men.  Furthermore, a game about crime and the underworld ought to include these kinds of situations as they are reflective of the reality of the setting.  It’s hard to argue that a mafia game should not include prostitution as that is a major industry in which mafia engage in.  In this kind of game, strippers, prostitutes, and exotic dancers can add authenticity and a sense of place that is required to depict them.  Unless we’re prepared to ban the idea of showing a port town (Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag was another cherry picked example), we have to accept that objectified women were and are real. Furthermore, we must accept that women depicted won’t move much beyond sex objects in certain situations, if only because that environment rarely treats the women as such.

That does not mean that all depictions of sexualized women are acceptable all the time.  If a developer is going to use a brothel as a backdrop, then it is incumbent upon them to show the reality of brothels.  They need to move beyond busty women who just love having sex all day and show the downsides like abuse and drug use.  Particularly in criminal settings, sexualized women ought not be glamourized outside of the showroom setting, but rather shown with the level of desperation that often accompanies such situations.  All this is to say that treating women as sex objects isn’t the problem, it’s the rest of the story that goes untold that’s the issue.

Women are NPCs too

The biggest flaw in Sarkeesian’s argument is how completely she focuses on sexualized women NPCs to the detriment of the whole universe of NPCs that exist.  Sarkeesian uses Martha Nussbaum’s theory of objectification to show how women are objectified, yet fails to acknowledge that the same could be said of all NPCs anywhere.  Going down the list (Quotes are from Nussbuam):

  • Instrumentality – “The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.” NPCs exist for the enjoyment of the player. This can be negative, such as the abuse Sarkeesian mentions, but it can also be innocuous or positive such as a question to help someone. Even in the later situation, the player is often doing the quest for the reward, not the NPC.
  • Denial of Autonomy – “The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.” Literally true, in this case. Also, players rarely care about an individual NPC’s needs and often see them as a means to an end. Think shopkeeper.
  • Inertness – “The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.” Again, it is very rare that the player actually cares about what an NPC wants. Most players think of NPCs as automata without any desires of their own..
  • Fungibility – “The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type and/or (b) with objects of other types.” Most NPCs fulfill a function held by many other NPCs. Sexualized women NPCs are not special in this regard.
  • Violability – “The objectifier treats the object as lacking boundary-integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.” Just about every enemy in every RPG ever. Also, in open world games, every NPC, not just the sexualized ones, are available for abuse.
  • Ownership – “The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.” In the case of monster fighting games, this is quite literal, but you need not go that far. Any game that allows you to buy and use the services of an NPC, such as the thieves in Assassin’s Creed, would qualify.
  • Denial of Subjectivity – “The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.” It is very rare for a game to infuse one of its many hundreds of NPCs with personality. Even rarer that it does this well.

This failure to distinguish between sexualized women NPCs and NPCs in general continues throughout the video. In the most egregious example, Sarkeesian states that GTA and Saint’s Row incentivize the player to abuse women by having them drop money when they die, but completely fails to note that all NPCs do the same thing.  There are other examples, but they all speak to same problem in Sarkeesian’s argument.  Replace sexualized women NPCs with NPCs and you have an argument against violence in video games writ large.  Almost every lurid, brutal clip of a protagonist violating a women could have been, frame for frame, reenacted with any NPC passing by.  I do think there’s a compelling argument for singling out women NPCs and sex workers in particular, but Sarkeesian never makes it.

Conclusion

“Women as Background Decoration” is still a great addition to the Feminist Frequency series.  It makes great points about how some of gaming’s most cherished franchises approach sexualized female NPCs.  I hope the future entries will stop working so hard to make an extreme case for the mistreatment of women and will instead use the ample material that already exists.

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Opinion – OMG! Boobies!

Not the source I expected on this one

There are a couple of scenes in Wolfenstein: The New Order where the hero, BJ Blazkowicz, and his love interest, Anya, have sex.  What is shocking about this is not the act of sex in the historically sex shy video game scene, but rather that it was shown with a modicum of maturity that isn’t present in even gaming’s most mature franchises.  The act of showing two character engaging in sex as a normal function of their relationship and without gratuitous Playboy shots runs counter to the games industries typical depiction of sex from a 13 year old view point.  The games industry, as a whole, has trouble breaking free of the immature perspective of sex.  New Order gives us a glimpse of how easy it would be to move away from the youthful swamp in which most video games are mired.

The most common depiction of sex in games is the mindless titillation of big boobs, skimpy clothing, and prostitution.  It’s often done from a straight male point of view (a topic worthy of its own article) and captures the simplest conception of sex there is.  Off the top of my head, I can think of strippers in Saint’s Row, the giant breasted sex minigame of God of War, and just about every game that includes prostitution ever.  One of the many problems with this depiction of sex is that it represents the act as conceived by the average teenager, rather than by the many adults who both make and are the audience for these games.  Consider the strip club minigame I tried in GTA V.  I approached a busty stripper, got a lap dance, and, when we went back to her place, the screen bounced to an unshown good time and faded to black.  This is pretty much what your average teenager thinks of when they conceive sex.  Hot women, sensual moves, and some kind of black box that is supposed to be super cool.  In contrast, New Order has two individuals who, as part of their relationship, have sex.  No lurid strip club, no sex crazed prostitutes, just people who enjoy sex as part of a greater relationship.  This is how most adults approach sex, yet it is one of the few times a game has depicted it as such.

The sad part is that even one of gaming’s greatest series has trouble with sex.  Mass Effect is well known for depicting the act in the exact opposite way.  Rather than showing sex as a dirty act between a man and oversized, throw away genitalia, Mass Effect sanctifies the act as the crowning achievement in a relationship.  Each romantic option climaxes when Sheppard and his partner having sex.  This is the pinnacle of the relationship when most adult relationships include sex well before some kind of mystical understanding is reached.  It is a fun part of the relationship that can start anywhere between the first date and the wedding day and is rarely considered an achievement.  Rather than be the sex mad teenager, Mass Effect chooses to be the virtuous abstainer whose refusal to have sex puts the act on a pedestal that it doesn’t deserve.  Again, New Order provides the more mature counterpoint.  BJ and Anya’s first time isn’t a vaunted relationship defining achievement nor does their subsequent encounter suggest anything more than stress relief and a good time.  Sex is neither glorified nor objectified in New Order, it’s just a healthy part of two character’s relationship.

I don’t want to oversell New Order’s achievement.  While BJ and Anya’s relationship is believable, it isn’t particularly well developed.  Condoms were never shown despite how important avoiding pregnancy would be while living in the heart of an insurgency.  Furthermore, most sex does not occur between a giant ball of muscles and a model with a fantastic rack.  Still, the general tone is something that few games have nailed.  New Order’s decision to depict sex in an adult way rather than as a 13 year old might is refreshing and laudable.  I can only hope other developers will follow suit.

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Opinion – Putting heart into a war shooter

Sorry Mr. Roboto, I don’t feel for you

It took Wolfenstein: New Order about one hour to create better, more interesting characters than Call of Duty: Ghosts could in seven.  This is odd because many of the things I lambasted Ghosts for are present in New Order.  New Order has a burly, white, and male protagonist joined by equally white and male comrades in arms (no one does burly quite like B.J.) defeating a straightforwardly evil foe.  Civilians, women, and minorities played no role in the story and the only diversity I’d seen was variations on Anglo-Saxon.  Yet, despite all of this, I actually cared a great deal more about B.J.’s pals than I did anyone in Ghosts.  The big question is: Why?

The difference of my feelings between the two game’s characters was made clear when New Order asked me to kill off one of my squad.  Despite having only played an hour, it was a tough choice.  I didn’t cry manly tears at the thought of losing my men, but I found that each character had their own merits and could make a compelling argument for survival. This is far more than I can say about the Ghosts squad.  At best, they were bland stereotypes.  At worst, their very existence was so trite and soulless that the difficulty wouldn’t be deciding who to save, but deciding who to kill.  When the player wants to answer the above choice with “both”, then you know you’ve got a problem.

The humanization of New Order began from the very beginning.  Fergus, your copilot, exhibits a sarcastic, pessimistic charm about the havoc surrounding the introductory invasion.  During the death and mayhem, Fergus acts as your resigned second who knows the terror surrounding him, but has a job to do.  This isn’t a particularly unique archetype, but it’s done well enough to establish Fergus as a human being.  B.J. and Fergus are soon joined by a squad of raw recruits whose human frailties are on display and reflective of what I’d imagine people actually go through in war.  The overall picture isn’t deep, but it does lend a sense of humanity to the proceedings.  People die, men make brave charges, and the general feel is that these are men facing a tough situation.

Ghosts takes the opposite approach.  Everyone is a badass.  They are unstoppable killing machines whose day consists of Wheaties, murder, vengeance, and bandanas.  They don’t fear, and they don’t ever consider the danger of their situation.  This is not how actual people act.  Even the most well trained veteran is motivated by more than patriotism and awesomeness.  They have hopes, dreams, and ideals that extend beyond their immediate occupation and situation.  These hopes, dreams, and ideals extend beyond mom, apple pie, and the flag, because very few people are so entirely consumed by the thought of generic patriotism and war that they don’t pick up a detective novel now and then.  This is not only what makes them human, it’s what makes them relatable.  To the average player at home who will never charge into battle with guns a-blazing, they cannot sympathize with a stars-and-stripes robot.  If they were in a similar situation, they would certainly feel patriotism, but they would also feel all the gamut of emotions that comes with being in a dangerous situation.

It should go without saying that creating relatable characters means creating relatable humans.  The godlike paragon may be the person everyone wants to be, but they are not a person that people can connect with.  Creating interesting and sympathetic characters means moving beyond the generic badass into the squishy territory of emotions.  New Order isn’t exactly the most emotionally evocative work, but the basic humanity it instills in its characters moves it well beyond anything Ghosts did.  Having heroes that the player can relate to goes a long way towards forging a connection between the player and the game.

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Opinion – Consistency in a Fictional World

How to not look like your major plot point was pulled out of your ass

You remember when it happens. You’re watching a movie or playing a game about superheroes or wizards and they do something that doesn’t make sense. They reveal a power or bend a rule that seems off with what came before. The incongruence seems odd, if only because the basic plot deals with topics that violate the rules of reality in the first place. The situation raises a basic question: Why does Wolverine shooting lasers from his hands seem wrong when he’s spent his comic history doing equally impossible things like healing major wounds and slashing things with giant metal claws?

The justification for most reality bending aspects of stories is usually flimsy. Consider Bioshock’s plasmids. Yes, the reason everyone can possess machines or set each other on fire is because they drank a tonic that grants these powers. Take the explanation one step back and plasmids make no sense. There is no scientifically justifiable reason that plasmids can grant magic powers. They just do. The same can be said of mutants in the Marvel world or wizards in just about any universe where they exist. The basic underlying principle for all of these concepts is a small justification and, well, because that’s just how it is. These are decisions not made to be consistent with the universe as we know it, but rather to make an interesting world that people will want to hear about.

As flimsy as the justifications are, they are still the basic building blocks of the world that the player/reader/listener/viewer accepts as a barrier to entry. The justifications create a rule that the audience needs to acknowledge if they are going to enjoy the work. When a piece of media establishes a rule in its world, that media is effectively telling its audience that this is an area to suspend disbelief. It is a contract between the creator and the audience where both acknowledge that, to achieve the desired effect, the audience must accept some oddity. This creates a special space where the artist can suspend the rules, but it also creates a limitation. By asking the audience to make exceptions to the current rules, the artist must then stick to those rules or risk undermining the contract. Allowing someone to fly as a result of their genetic code means that they can’t then summon lightening using magic. The rules need to be consistent.

The goal of suspending disbelief is to create flexibility, but the system can buckle under the strain of too many exceptions. The audience must have some grounding in the world to understand the ramifications of actions. Change a few rules, and the audience can still relate to the work as the world still largely resembles their own. Constantly change the rules or change too many of them and the audience feels adrift. It’s hard to understand a world that constantly changes as it is hard to place an action in the appropriate context. If Superman dies and stays dead, then the reader knows this is an event of importance and can react appropriately. If Superman dies and revives, then it’s hard for the reader to take any subsequent death or danger seriously. The writer can really mean for him to die and stay dead in a given issue, but the readers, having seen his death before, don’t know that this time is different.

The new rules can also feel cheap. If the new rules are introduced as answers to a problem that was previously insurmountable, then the answer feels alien to the context of the universe. It raises the possibility that every answer is a miraculous, unknown power that will just happen to show up at the moment it is necessary. As the answer is not woven into the story line, the answer feels like what it is: a way to resolve a problem that the artist couldn’t think out. It would be far better to build the solution into the narrative so the audience knows that it’s there and can accept it as part of the world sometime before the last possible moment.

Perhaps the greatest problem is when a rules change violates the exceptions created before. When the artist asks the audience to make an exception to a rule and then violates it, they are breaking the contract they have made. The audience then disengages with the world because they notice the disagreement with what camp before. It’s a bit like noticing a gun in a game set in medieval times. The end result is something that looks cheap or, in the worst case, doesn’t make sense at all. Consider the end of Final Fantasy XIII. The game sets up an impossible scenario where the player must kill the god that is levitating the city that the player is trying to save. If the god dies, the city comes crashing down. When the player finally defeats the god, one of the party members conjures a crystal tower to hold the city aloft. This power had never been mentioned before and contradicts everything we’ve seen about this characters abilities. No explanation is given. The end result is not a satisfying conclusion, but instead it feels like the player has been robbed of an ending that didn’t need a totally made up power. Final Fantasy XIII asks the player to invest themselves in a world and then undermines it at the last moment.

This is all to say that the rules of a universe, however fantastical, must be handled with care. Don’t ask too much from your audience and don’t expect them to hang in there for every twist you can think of. Think through the necessary changes and work them into the narrative. A well written story will establish all the necessary elements before they are needed. Only by treating the universe with care can an artist convince others to accept it.

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Opinion – When art is empty

So pretty! So meaningless.

More than a few times, I’ve complained about the vacuous nature of a number of very pretty games. Whereas AAA titles tend to eschew artistic merit in favor of big explosions, story, and everything else they can throw tons of staff at, indie titles are uniquely afflicted by both embracing art and failing at it. A number of indie titles clearly have strong visual direction, but they often fail to provide much meaning behind it. The end result is an empty box wrapped in very pretty paper.

The poster child for this kind of problem is Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery. To spend 10 minutes in the lovingly crafted world is to fall in love with the evocative visual aesthetic that turns pixel art into something more real than the product of the finest graphics engine. The wind rustles through the digital trees and the light spills across lush forests creating a feeling of a living world. The music too is a massive achievement. Composer Jim Guthrie matches the tone of the graphics perfectly. The combined efforts of both the sound and visual design result in an unsettling, yet serene world that I loved to explore. At least, until Superbrothers opened its mouth. Then we are introduced to characters all named “fella” (dogfella, logfella) with dialogue that seems afraid to embrace any semblance of seriousness. Dialogue consists of corny jokes and detached phrases that distanced me from a world I wanted to embrace. The artistic merits of the non-written components withered every time they had to interact with the words. It’s a shame to see such beauty undermined by a lack of commitment to meaning.

There are plenty of games that follow this pattern. Off the top of my head, I can think of Limbo, Anodyne, Antichamber, and Transistor. All sport some level of visual or aural creativity and are undermined by a deficiency of intellectual heft to back them up. This degrades the overall experience in a couple of ways. The first is, as mentioned above, the aspects of a game that show well are undermined by a story or meaning that can’t hold its weight. The contrast between a beautifully realized world and a pointless narrative only seem to highlight how terrible the latter is. Instead of hiding the games weaker elements, the differences expose the flaws and make the player wonder what went wrong. The second is the destruction of motivation. The story often drives a player forward. If it’s a poorly conceived mess, then it’s hard for a player to remain engaged. The player shouldn’t go hours without any development in plot line or thought.   It’s hard to remain motivated without some sense of progress.

Games that do embrace meaning often build their design around the meaning they are trying to create. Gone Home could never have succeeded as a FPS or RPG. It needed a game space that played up its feelings of intrusion and voyeurism in a way that few game styles allowed it to. The same can be said of Dys4ria or Papers, Please. By starting with the meaning and branching out, these games are better able to design an experience that showcases the underlying thoughts behind the games. Meaning isn’t an afterthought that feels shoehorned in. By contrast, the Bioshock series has the opposite feeling. The run-and-gun gameplay feels jarring when compared to the living breathing societies that the game is supposed to reflect. The necessary game compromises, such as magic powers and instant health packs, jive poorly with the nature of the societies as they are presented. The game still draws value from its intellectual underpinnings, but eating garbage from a trashcan to cure bullet wounds still breaks immersion.

The solution to this problem is simple: know what you want to say, before you start saying it. Craft characters, dialogue, and meaning well before inventing the gameplay mechanics that should support that effort. Don’t leave your game with an empty ending because you didn’t bother to figure out where it was all going. I know I’d appreciate it.

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