Followup from FemFreq

Anita Sarkeesian posted a link to this article and interview with her on gamesindustry international by Dan Pearson. Pearson’s title, “Woman Vs. Internet: How Anita Sarkeesian beat the trolls,” is perhaps a bit optimistic and reductive, but the attitude he has about the whole thing is one that characterizes Sarkeesian as a hero willing to put up with the trolls in order to do something she views as crucial to the development of our culture in general and the culture surrounding videogames in particular.

Pearson notes several potential sources for what we perceive as misogyny in the industry: the low number of women in development, the original misogyny in the industry that perpetuates the alienation of female gamers, the misogyny of the community itself keeping women from speaking over headsets during online play, etc. He also notes that people – men and women alike – are working to change this. Developers are looking to hire more women. Depictions of women are getting better (overall, although there are specific instances of failure). And, as he says, “Online debate is helping.”

“But,” he also notes, “the problem persists.”

In the interview portion of the article, Pearson asks Sarkeesian not only about her Kickstarter and the backlash it generated, but also about what she actually thinks about the images of women in videogames. And for that I would like to give him a cookie, because, frankly, that’s what she wanted to talk about to begin with and what the trolls have been trying to stop her from talking about. After reading the interview, I, for one, am looking forward to what Sarkeesian’s Tropes Vs. Women in Videogames has to say.

So I want to address the issue here, very briefly and less eloquently than Sarkeesian. She talks about the false equivalency argument made about unrealistic characters (aka, “male characters are unrealistic, too”), the question of whether immorality is demeaning, and so on. And one of the points she makes at the end is worth repeating:

It’s important to remember however, that entertainment media doesn’t exist in a vacuum – that characters, stories and universes are an integral and growing part of our cultural landscape outside of the game. As such game developers should understand that their creations are always interacting with (and have an effect on) the widespread pre-existing stereotypes and negative perceptions about women in the real world.

Game characters and game narratives are powerful bits of culture and they can be employed to either reinforce harmful stereotypes about women or to actively challenge or subvert those regressive perceptions. Ultimately, I want complex, engaging and flawed yet heroic female characters with transformative story arcs instead of boring, marginalized, overly sexualized, cliched stereotypes.

In essence, the images of women presented in games – or any other media – are engaged in a critical dialogue with our understanding of what women should be, what they shouldn’t be, and how they should behave. And any depiction of women is a part of that dialogue, whether positive or negative, fat or thin, sexy or not. Sarkeesian’s point seems to be that we need to be aware that any image we create is going to become a part of that cultural milieu, and whether we really “mean” the image to be idealized or condemned, it will engage with and possibly help to shape our current standards.

And, really, that’s ultimately a good thing. Media of all kinds (literature, film, games, etc.) have been doing this for centuries. Games should be doing this, but they should also be aware that they’ve entered a stage in their development where the way they depict anyone and anything (not only women) has the potential to influence the direction of our social ideologies. Which is, I think, an overall good. But developers and artists need to remember that and take it into consideration.

So are images of women in games demeaning and objectifying? Some of them are, yes. Personally, though, I have more issues with Princess Peach than I do with Lara Croft, and not because Peach is a sexualized fetish object (although her name is Peach…). PP is helpless; Croft is most definitely not, and I would consider that a positive (even though I might wish she were a bit more proportional).

I would also argue that female protagonists are not the largest issue – female NPCs (non-player characters) are. When women are always the victims, when they are always helpless, always reliant upon the (usually male) player-character to rescue them, that is more destructive than when they are, say, Bayonetta (who has a whole host of issues, but can at least take care of herself). When the depiction of women is always as a victim, then women come to be viewed as victims, whether they are or not. And if women are always viewed as victims, then victimizing them becomes acceptable, because that is what they are “supposed” to be. And that is really where I have a problem with the way women often appear in games (and, truth be told, in many forms of media).

The New Ending (more ME3)

So I downloaded and played the Extended Cut for Mass Effect 3. Given my disappointment in the “original” ending, I wasn’t prepared to be thrilled by its extension. Nor was I. What I was not, however, was saddened, horrified, or made even more depressed by it.

I would take it as an improvement. I would not say that it “fixed” the problems with the original ending. In fact, it helped to clarify one of the more prominent disappointments I had with it. If you don’t want it spoiled, stop reading now.

The extension added in a logical explanation for how the heck my teammates got away from me and back on the Normandy (good!). It put in a final goodbye to the romance interest (also good!). It told me what happened to my squad and all the thousands of aliens that had joined the battle for earth… albeit a bit quickly and rushed (positive neutral).

It did not fix the big, gaping, logical flaws in the ending with the Catalyst. In fact, it made them more pronounced. Although you can now shoot the Catalyst (and I’m sure there were many players out there who wanted to), it makes you lose because the Reapers destroy everything. Nevertheless, there’s a little bit of catharsis there. However, the idea that what boils down to an AI is playing god by “deciding” that there is a cycle of life and death and it alone is responsible for arbitrating that cycle is just… not enough. While the core idea behind the Catalyst is really quite compelling, its execution as a petty godling taking the form of a dead child Shepard failed to save is… weak at best. When Shepard asks it (extended ending) about its creators and why it thought it had the right to destroy them, it says Shepard would not understand.

There is nothing I loathe more in fiction than a character who says, “Oh, I’m not going to tell you because you won’t understand.” What that says to me is that the author doesn’t actually know or is incapable of adequately explaining themselves… and doesn’t want to bother trying. Bad storytelling.

I also hate the now obvious implication that I’m supposed to embrace this thing that wants to annihilate all sentient life and meld my DNA with it… because it says so? I think not. And this visceral hate-filled reaction is really why I think Bioware did improve the ending. Because I’m feeling something against a figure in their game that my Shepard would feel. It caused me to weigh the consequences (the loss of some allies) against the fact that I was being told by this lordling-AI that it and I should bond, and I realized that I abhor what it stands for so much that I’m willing to destroy other AIs so that I can kill this one and all it represents. That’s good. I didn’t get that in the original.

Now, I’m not entirely sure that’s the reaction Bioware wanted to get out of me, but I’m willing to take it. Sure, the ending was cobbled-together out of artistic stills instead of game-engine footage, and I’m a little peeved by the fact that it looks and feels hackneyed. But at least my reaction went from “What the hell was that crap?” to something more fundamental. I cared about my choice. I wasn’t happy about it, but I cared enough to want to make it.