TLF: Violence, Virtual Space, and “Serious Games”

Linking over to yesterday’s The Learned Fangirl post on “Violence, Virtual Space, and ‘Serious Games.’” It’s a more positive spin on my usual rants about why we shouldn’t blame games to talk a bit more about why games are a good thing. Coming off of PAX East (which was a blast), it’s a bit of a reminder about why gaming is both popular and healthy… and why as a form of entertainment media, it not only isn’t causing us active harm, but in fact has a great capacity to do good.

Can I Play?

So I was already annoyed today by the various reports (the linked one is from Gameranx) that Adam Lanza is a “deranged gamer” who was clearly attempting to rack up a “high score” because he used an excel spreadsheet to document “kills” for school shootings, but this is just so utterly silly that I can’t help but feel compelled to bash my head against something.

Apparently, the news tells us, that girls now play videogames. Yes, kids, girls play video games. Kotaku fortunately finds it as ridiculous as I do, and put together a mash-up of February 2013 news stories that tell us just this… and clearly also all borrowed from the same script. Yes, girls play games. In fact, about 42% of gamers these days come fully equipped with a female-oriented gender identity!

I guess I’m extra annoyed about the frivolousness of these reports because of the clear detachment that news agencies seem to have from the reality in which many of us live. And while I understand that as a female, a gamer, and an academic, my world is probably a good deal different from that of the average American, but I’d like to think that the people reporting the news to me aren’t really that… naive. And, frankly, I find it a bit upsetting when confronted with the fact that reporters, editors, and journalists take on stories they know absolutely nothing about.

I’m not asking them to become experts. I’m asking them to take five minutes to look something up on Google. Or even Bing. Just go ask the internet, because as unreliable as the internet can be, it at least provides more information than most people seem to have these days. I’ve written quite a bit about female gamers and games and violence in the past couple of months, and I’ve gotten questions from professionals like “But don’t you think young men don’t need more violence?” and “All the shooters have been young men… that’s who plays games.”

But with 42% of gamers being female, you’d think we’d then see 42% of violent shooters being female, right? Because I will guarantee you that most of those 42% of gamers are not just playing Cooking Mama (and yes, that is really a game). In fact, all the female gamers I know play Call of Duty, Gears of War, Dead Island, Resident Evil, Halo, Mass Effect, and so on. None of them play Cooking Mama (although clearly somebody does). Furthermore, the average age of gamers is 37. That  is also not the average age demographic of school shooters. It’s the age of young parents and professionals, people who play games to work out stress and relax after a long day at work or graduate school or being a stay-at-home-parent.

It’s also the age at which people are reaching complex conclusions about their personal ideologies, about their morals, and about where their lives have taken them. Gamers are sophisticated adults, mature people with mature conceptions of the world, and games are following suit.Sure, there are still kids who play games (plenty of them), and young men who enjoy shooters. But “gamers” can’t be pigeon-holed anymore, and seeing a news story that’s so far behind where the ball has come to rest that it’s just now announcing that “girls play games!” is disappointing and depressing. Because I want us to be at that stage of social acceptance where we no longer address activities as “male” or “female” oriented. I want to see us not only evaluating games as cultural artifacts responding to their social milieu, but as capable of moving beyond the basement-dwelling-young-male stereotype to recognize that “gamers” are really “people,” with as diverse backgrounds, interests, genders, sexualities, preferences, and politics as society at large.

And I want the industry to see this, too, and begin to reflect – outside of the indie market – the complexity of their consumer base. Just like films and books, games need to diversify their protagonists, their ideologies, and their mechanics to reflect what it is that all their players want, not just what the old stereotype is believed to want. And this is going to take more than just making women protagonists (although I’m in favor of that), because Lara Croft is still problematic, but it’s a first step that the industry desperately needs to take… or we’re going to have to keep hearing the shock in a newscaster’s voice when she says “GIRLS have now joined the gamer ranks!”

Think Like a Gamer

I was talking to a game designer I know the other day, and he said something interesting about violence in gaming: “The reason that we shoot people in games is because it’s the ultimate one-ups-man-ship….Ending someone’s life is the ultimate definition of power.” He went on to talk about how it would be really interesting to have a game where you as the player were incapable of killing your opponents, not because of ethical or mechanical considerations, but because – for instance – you were playing a race of beings (like angels, say) that simply couldn’t be killed.

What would our games be like if we were to face such constraints? What would the ultimate expression of our power, our victory, be like in the situation where we became incapable of permanently removing the (living) impediment to achieving our goal?

Our discussion seems to indicate that such a game would become more about stealth, about puzzle-solving, and about “traps” than it would about defeating enemies. It would – in many ways – become like the non-lethal tactics in Dishonored, Deus Ex, or the Thief series. More about brains and skill than brawn and hair-trigger reflexes.

But, more importantly, our conversation revealed that gamers see games much differently than non-gamers. Non-gamers see the plot, the narrative, the characters, the “dressing,” to use this particular designer’s term. Gamers see through the “dressing” and play with the mechanics of the game. In that situation, the virtual “people” become like the little dots in Pac-Man, points to chew through in pursuit of leveling up or reaching an achievement goal. The game is about understanding the mechanics, the tactics, rather than character and narrative immersion.

This is not to say that narrative and “dressing” aren’t important. They are. There’s a reason that there are gamers who won’t play games with graphic cutscenes. Sure, some gamers ignore the graphic violence or even like watching it (after all, Quentin Tarantino’s movies are enormously popular), but others won’t. Nevertheless, there is still a difference between the way gamers play games and non-gamers perceive games. A non-gamer – like my mom, for instance – sees Bioshock as a game that asks us to decide whether we kill or don’t kill a little girl. Gamers see that theoretically ethical question as a mechanical choice – “Do I want this immediate reward now, or do I want to see what Tennenbaum means when she says she’ll ‘make it worth your while’?” – about resource management (one that ultimately rewards the player for making the “right” choice).

And there’s no faulting either side. I don’t understand a lot of what’s happening in ballet, for instance, because I don’t understand the level of technical skill it takes to execute certain moves that to me appear rather simple but could be incredibly difficult. On the other hand, I don’t try to tell ballet dancers what they should and should not do in their performances. And that’s what this whole debate on the validity of games comes down to.

As an outsider, a non-gamer, you don’t understand how the game is working on a gamer’s psychology. You only see the player shooting other “people” and assume that such a scene must be enabling or at least anesthetizing the player to violence. But the player does not perceive the game the same way you do. They see what Ian Bogost calls the “procedural rhetoric” of the game: the structure that underlies not only the gameplay, but even the narrative, leading the player along the trajectory that will culminate in “winning” the game.

And this is why it bothers me so much that people who aren’t gamers are trying to legislate gaming. Why I find it disheartening that people who have never played a game are getting louder voices than those who play or build those games. Why I really hope that the people who will study the influence of gaming as a science – psychologists, etc. – will be (or at least will include on their teams) gamers. Because they understand how gamers think, and understanding how gamers think is vital to understanding how they are being influenced by the games they play.

Damsel in Distress

I’m talking about me, not Peach, and my distress is the kind that will end with me punching my way through the prison wall and navigating my way out through a maze of guards all by myself, thanks. But seriously, this is about Anita Sarkeesian’s project, Tropes Vs. Women in Videogames. Given how much space I’ve devoted to it here, the fact that I’ve blogged about how I’m getting kind of sick of the project, and the (finally!) release of the first video in the series just a few days ago, I don’t think any of my readers are going to be surprised that I’m going to post about it. The first video – Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games: Damsel in Distress: Part I – looks at the history of the trope in games from the 1970s forward, with Part II promising to deal with contemporary games. Like VGW’s Jen Bosier, I have “some mixed reactions about it.”

As the video opens, Sarkeesian does remind us that we can be both critical and enjoyably engaged – something that a lot of detractors of criticism tend to forget. And this is very important to remember. I can like playing a game (or watching a movie or reading a book) even though I recognize the things about it that bother me from an ideological and/or a methodological standpoint. Criticism does not equal (at least not always) inherent dislike.

Okay, so the purple female fox was switched to Starfox, but while it may be true that Crystal’s outfit change was completely unnecessary, I think there was probably more to the change than just wanting to eliminate her as a hero. For instance, using a known and popular hero (Starfox) probably made the game more marketable, as it already had an audience. While I do agree with Sarkeesian that Crystal’s transformation into a literally “foxy” damsel in distress was both problematic and unnecessary, I don’t think that the choice to turn the game into a Starfox sequel was not necessarily the worst choice they could have made.

It is totally valid to point out that Nintendo seems to have, as Bosier notes, a trend of passing over or changing female-hero games in favor of male-hero ones, and she says that “the cause/effect of this would make for a great discussion. Unfortunately, this is abandoned to instead discuss the history of kidnapped females and how they worked their way into video games.” And here I have to agree with Bosier.

Perhaps it’s just me, but if we’re watching to hear about games, do we really need to hear the entire history of the phrase “damsel in distress”? Also, if we do, why did we skip the entire genre of chivalric romance, which, oh, invented the trope in its present form? But that’s just my academic side having completely unnecessary fits for the sake of largely irrelevant historical accuracy. But seriously, the whole “damsel in distress” segment should probably be its own video, rather than a part of a videogame critique.

Overall, though, I think this series – which is hard to judge from Part I of a segment alone – might ultimately prove to be a good thing, even though I think that it’s overly simplistic in its approach. There were a lot of things I liked about it, and I think that she’s trying to take on a subject that’s enormously complex and reduce it to something she can put into small, 30-minute-or-less segments. And that’s no easy task.

I liked her point that Peach (from Super Mario Brothers) was once briefly playable, but that she hasn’t been since (outside of some of the multiplayer versions). This is a valid point – as is her remark that female characters tend to occupy the object-position to the male subject-position within a lot of games. Yes, this is true, but everybody – up to and including my proverbial uncle – knows these games exploit this trope to the level of the ridiculous: as Bosier says, “I don’t know a single gamer who would point to Peach or Zelda as accurate or compelling video game portrayals of women.”

But – again – I want to hear about what we can do now, how games are creating a problematic ideology now, rather than what happened in 1970s and 1980s arcade games (like Donkey Kong’s cutscenes of DK carrying the blonde up the ladders). While Peach is the proverbial “damsel-ball” between Mario and Bowser, and many games have picked up on and perpetuated the formula through the 1990s, I want to see how this trope has been changed – or, more frighteningly – if it hasn’t. And, as Bosier says, Sarkeesian doesn’t mention the positives: “Also, as an aside, for as much time as she spends discussing the damsels of the 80s, I noticed she didn’t mention that it was the same time period that also birthed Samus Aran.”

When we get down to it, what I really want to hear about is not a catalogue of games that use a trope that predates their creation by several thousand years. Yes, the damsel-in-distress trope is enormously problematic and rests on a cultural tradition of misogyny. But videogames are not to blame for its existence. They are also not the only medium to employ and perpetuate it – films, television, books, and so on are also horrible culprits. Yes, she acknowledges this, and I agree with Sarkeesian that appeal to tradition is no reason to perpetuate the trope, but I’m not sure I find as much value in the historical analysis that she’s doing here as I would be in seeing her critique current games that are still exploiting the damsel-in-distress trope (what she’s doing in Part II).

Now don’t get me wrong – I think there’s a lot of inherent value to doing a historical reading of this trope in games from the 1970s-1990s. In fact, the academic in me thinks that it would be a great way to examine the way in which our social practices with relation to the job-market and career-choices in the real world are being reflected by the frequency and type of damsel-trope exploitation in videogames. In other words, do these games accurately reflect the ideological conceptions of gender of their decades, or do they attempt to cling to outdated tropes… and why?

Sarkeesian does begin to approach the question of contemporary games, as when she discusses Nintendo’s 2007 Ocarina of Time – which, I have to say, has one of the more sexist commercials I’ve seen in a while… I mean, really? “Wilst thou get the girl? Or wilst thou play like one?” Not exactly a shining example of gender equality. Sarkeesian says that the use of the trope actively disempowers women in the games in which they are damsels in distress… and that it creates a dichotomy in which male characters can only be empowered when women are disempowered. She also says that male characters are allowed to escape their imprisonment – while women are expected to passively wait for rescue (usually by a male). And she’s absolutely right that this strips them, in the world of these games, of agency and even personality in most cases.

(Can I just say, in a side note, that Dragon’s Lair is awful? And Princess Daphne… I… I’m just not going to say anything, but did you see her [lack of] outfit?!)

Sarkeesian’s closing becomes a little too political, I think, for the kind of project she’s working on. Yes, she’s absolutely right that games are a reflection of our social practices, and that they can perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Absolutely. And she’s also right that developers can choose to have female heroes in their games. But I think that just making women protagonists isn’t the answer to the “problem” of the damsel-in-distress trope. The “problem” is in large part that it isn’t as simple as just making the hero female. For instance, Tomb Raider as a series doesn’t do a lot to remove the labels of either misogyny or objectification from videogames, and it has a female protagonist.

Like Bosier, I was left with “the burning question in my mind was simply, ‘What’s the point?’” Okay, yes, this trope exists, it’s a problem, but what do you want me to do with that? It’s the same question I ask my students when they present me with a catalogue of “look at this thing in this novel!” So what? What’s the actionable part of your thesis? Why is this relevant? Why should I care? As Bosier says, “My concern is that I really, really wanted this video to start a serious conversation. Not only start a conversation, but advance the conversation. This video merely states facts that are already known and with her constant referencing Peach and Zelda, it feels like we’re spinning our wheels.”

I want to make it clear that I’m supportive – despite my being rather tired of the constant invoking of Sarkeesian like some sort of martyr to the feminist-online-cause (and I am still sick of it) – of her work. I didn’t support the Kickstarter financially, but I do support her project spiritually, even if I’m not 100% on board with her methods or conclusions. As she says in the opening of her video, we can criticize things and still like them. But because it’s Sarkeesian, there are any number of people who have crawled back out of the woodwork to once again raise a trollish-level stink, as Gameranx notes in its piece from yesterday, “Comments Aren’t Disabled.” Because clearly that was so effective last time.

Ultimately, I think that this series will do more good than harm. In fact, I don’t think that beyond prodding the proverbial hornet’s nest of internet trolls, it will do much harm at all. While I would like it to be more critical, more engaged with the nuances of the industry, and more reflective of its purpose behind a vehicle for complaint, I think it’s far better existing than it would have been never to have been made. And I applaud Sarkeesian for her desire to make it. I’d like to see someone more familiar with the industry, more academic (or at least, more trained in formal critical practices), add to the conversation, but I’m glad Sarkeesian is making them. I also hope that other people – men, women, cisgendered folks – will join in the conversation, because as much as I support Sarkeesian’s project, I don’t want her to speak for all feminist, female, or non-standard-white-male gamers. I want her voice to be heard, yes, but I don’t want it to be my voice. So while I’m going to work on my small chirping from this corner of the academic feminist-gamer side of the world, I hope other people aren’t deterred either by the content of Sarkeesian’s work or the backlash that she’s receiving. I hope she inspires others to speak up and make videos and posts of their own, or to hunt down places (like The Border House or Stay Classy) where others are already doing so.

Settlers of Critical Thinking

So today my class actually sat down and played Settlers of Catan to explore issues of resource management and game theory. At the end of class, one student actually borrowed the game from me to play with his roommates. They had a great time. They got into it. They worked in teams. They competed. They did all the things that they were supposed to do in terms of theory – sometimes they made the irrational choice to “robber” someone who had stolen from them rather than use strategy. Sometimes they made “nicer” trades to get on a team’s good side.

The down side? They didn’t seem to recognize that they were actually doing this. From time to time I would point it out to the table as I watched and helped, but for the most part, this exercise was largely for my – rather than their – benefit. I was the one who really had the distance from the intensity of the game to notice the significant differences in teams who had to carefully manage resources and those who had a shortage and did a lot more verbal manipulation.

I got to see the teams who had a clear leader, the teams that worked out strategy together, and the fact that the only solo player (in either class) won… certainly, one instance isn’t nearly enough to know that solo play is an advantage, but it was interesting to note. He didn’t have to fight with anyone, or compromise his strategy to make room for someone else’s suggestions.

The most predominant element of theory I saw at work, though, was definitely the competitive drive acting as a rational-behavior-reducing utility. Once the robber got used the first time (by rolling a seven, rather than drawing a soldier), then it became a weapon. When I play, my friends and I try to avoid penalizing each other most of the time (by putting the robber on an empty tile). That was definitely not the case in my classes. Once that first seven was rolled, they went out of their way to buy soldiers to get “back” at each other, or – in some cases – to steal particular resources. Without more specific research, it’s hard to say whether the teams more prone to using the robber were actually hurting themselves, but my guess would be that they spent far more resources on development cards than they needed to for revenge, instead of building up cities or settlements for the victory points. That said, my solo player won by buying a development card that gave him a victory point.

But for me the most interesting part was seeing how the layout of the board impacted the strategies of the teams. One table had a huge shortage of wood (and a plenitude of sheep to the point where they ran out of sheep cards), so they didn’t expand outward, but built cities and development cards almost from the start. Another table had so much hostility that they rarely traded with each other. And another had mostly wood and brick, so they spent most of the game on roads and settlements because they didn’t have as much ore or sheep.

And the dice – the randomness – also had a huge impact on these numbers. Random chance, as we know from game theory, helps to mitigate strategy and equalize the players, but it also emulates the seeming randomness of resource management in the environment. If there’s a drought, you won’t have as much wheat. Foot and mouth disease can cause a dearth of sheep. And when you need those resources, you face Tragedy of the Commons. These are real-world issues that manifest in the distribution of tiles and numbers, and in the rolls of the dice. In this idea, the robber acts as a Free Rider whose theft of the blocked resource keeps that resource out of the hands of those who have legitimately paid for it.

The biggest issue was time – we didn’t have the time to get all the way to 10 victory points, and we didn’t have the time to really sit down and talk about what the game was teaching us about game theory, cooperation and competition, or resource management. It’s something I want to come back to with them, to work on in relation to the larger problems of systems theory and leadership… to talk about the ways in which their decisions as individuals interacted with the elements of the game beyond their control as a team and as a whole.