TLF: Digital Damsels in Distress

After the debacle the other day in which the second installment in Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Videogames was taken down off YouTube due to flagrant abuse of the flagging system, I was quite pleased to note that YouTube got it back up quickly (which of course confirms the erroneous nature of the flagging… *sigh*).

Now that YouTube has restored Damsels in Distress Part 2, I do actually have something to say about it over at The Learned Fangirl. There are other voices out there, as well, including Destructoid, which labels the video “about as inoffensive as that last one,” which, while not a ringing endorsement, isn’t condemnatory, either. Jason Thibeault refers to it as “nonexistent” over on FreeThoughtBlogs, and then spends most of his post talking about its removal from YouTube (edit: To be fair to Jason, this term was used as a reference to continuous comments he received from trolls back when the Kickstarter got going that Sarkeesian was going to “take the money and run,” and isn’t a slur against the series in any way). In a slightly more positive (rather than apathetically neutral) spin, Andrew on GeekNative says that “it’s an intelligent commentary on the role of women in video games…from a feminist point of view,” and then pretty much leaves it at that.

And it should be telling that these are about the only things I found that weren’t simply reposts of the video saying “Here it is!” So while this post was really only going to link to my thoughts and those of others, when I tried to find others who had something interesting to say, I discovered that I had more to say about that.

So why aren’t we paying more attention to what Sarkeesian has to say than we are to the fact that her video was “down” for several hours? Why is it being termed “inoffensive” and “nonexistent”? And why are these the most negative terms appearing in media when there are clearly hordes of slathering trolls flagging the video to get it pulled?

Honestly, I find the lack of conversation almost more disappointing than I would if the trolls were setting fire to the internet, because if there are trolls bearing torches, then that means that the villagers have revolted, and in this context, that can’t be a bad thing. I want people to have things to say – positive, negative, whatever. What I don’t want to see is apathy, because apathy leads us to complacency, and that’s exactly where we were and why Sarkeesian started this whole thing.

So I’m going to do my little bloggy part to start a flame war, set fire to a few pairs of misogynist pants, and hope to set off a few sparks that will breed something bigger.

Why I’m Not Reviewing The Most Recent TvW…

Well, I was going to post a review on Anita Sarkeesian’s most recent Tropes vs. Women in Videogames in a followup to the last one, but I guess it’s going to have to wait. Possibly up to ten days.

Why? Because YouTube took it down. Sarkeesian posted on Facebook:

Looks like my harassers may have abused YouTube’s flag function to get my new Tropes vs Women video removed. Not the first time it’s happened. We are looking into the issue now and will update you all as soon as we know the full story and can get the video restored.

Official YouTube protocol requires some paperwork and up to 10 days’ wait to get a video restored that was flagged repeatedly (even if fraudulently), so it may end up taking that long before this one comes back, although hopefully the YouTube powers-that-be are aware that this was likely and are willing to move a little more quickly.

So why was it flagged? Possibly legitimately, as Sarkeesian’s original post stated that some of the content might be upsetting due to violence against women. It might be that the gaming companies whose products were featured wanted it removed for rights infringement (I don’t know which companies that might be). Or it might be what everyone seems to be assuming – that anti-Sarkeesianites have struck again with malicious intent.

Honestly, I hope it’s legitimate, not because I don’t want to see the video, but because at least then I can have some hope for human decency. But I highly doubt it. I’m sure it is what most people believe it to be, and that disgusts me. It disgusts me that women are still diminished, marginalized, and even attacked for speaking their minds.

Yes, in other places women have it far worse – institutionalized abuse and assault, unwanted circumcision and genital mutilation, cultural inferiority, and so on. And I think all those things should stop, too. But the fact that we are in a country that claims equality and still tacitly permits the silencing, ostracizing, and marginalizing of women should not be treated lightly (see Tudor Jones’s recent comments on women in finance or Fox news’s on-air treatment of women for non-gaming examples).

Permitting the smaller actions – like unfair flagging of Sarkeesian’s video – can produce a slippery slope: first flagging videos, then dismissing women’s voices from public forums, then excluding them from the workplace… As though all those things don’t already happen, to one degree or another. Refuse to allow them, and you (anyone) refuse to sanction the kind of actions that produce sexism and rape culture. Small steps, no matter how small, will eventually get us to where we need to be. Bigger steps move us faster, yes, but even the small ones move us forward.

Friends & Rivals

So I’ve been working on a book chapter over the last couple weeks on BioWare’s Dragon Age II, specifically examining the friendship-rivalry mechanic that the game employs. This is one of my favorite mechanics, not because it’s particularly fun (it isn’t… it isn’t un-fun, either, but it doesn’t substantively make the game more enjoyable in any measurable gameplay sense), but because it’s intellectually and academically interesting.

What I like about it is that it forecloses the idea of absolute morality. So many games – including BioWare games – place the player-character within a continuum of “good” and “evil” (“dark side” and “light side,” “paragon” and “renegade,” whatever). Now I know that this isn’t always as black and white as “good” and “evil,” per se, but it still uses a static continuum of behavioral evaluation for all the player’s actions. Did you kill this NPC outright? Yes? Dark side. No? Light side. And yes, some actions will gain more points to either direction than others, but such a system still evaluates the player-character’s actions as though there is a moral truth.

Not to start a philosophical debate about the (non)existence of Truth, but the real world doesn’t work that way. If there is a Truth (and I’m a skeptic on that), it’s very, very difficult for us to know what it is. A game continuum with clear parameters (and often an iconographic representation in the choice menu) is clear. We know, when we choose to hit the left or right trigger in Mass Effect, that we’re choosing Paragon or Renegade. But the world does not kindly provide us with flash events that are clearly color coded.

Instead, we have to decide for ourselves what we think about the issues of the day, and we are evaluated not by some omnipotent designer granting us points on a good-evil scale (at least that we’re aware of, which is a completely different philosophical debate that raises the issue of divine feedback, which I’m just not going to get into), but by the other people we live with, work with, and encounter on a daily basis.

Which is why I like this mechanic in Dragon Age. Because each of the player-character’s party companions comes fully equipped with his or her own evaluative continuum, ranging from friend to rival. And if you-as-the-player are going to maximize that slider (in either direction), then you have to consider what you say, what you do, and who you’re taking with you on your missions. Just as you wouldn’t invite a religious fundamentalist to a talk by Richard Dawkins unless you wanted them to become your rival.

This isn’t the most profound post ever, but I’ve been spending a lot of time with this game, and a lot of time thinking about the reasons a developer would choose to take away the security of a single evaluative continuum – because the choices in Dragon Age aren’t obvious, they’re not easy, and it’s sometimes deeply unsatisfying to make a choice just because Fenris or Anders or Varric will like it.

And that’s exactly why I like the mechanic. Because it’s important for us as humans to think about why we’re making choices – if we play as paragon, do we do it because the game will reward us by telling us what good people we are? Because we get presents (as in Bioshock, where Tennenbaum sends you bears full of ADAM for saving her creepy girls)? Because we think that’s the better choice, even though there’s no appreciable advantage or disadvantage for choosing it? Or because we have to choose something, even though we aren’t certain of the consequences? The last two, for me, are the most compelling, and those are the kind of decisions in Dragon Age II.

Ultimately, I think a lot of my affection for the game (and the mechanic) springs for a growing distaste for the high fantasy conventions of pure good and pure evil. Even in Dragon Age: Origins, which also had the friendship-rivalry mechanic, there was a clear good and bad (darkspawn and archdemons, anyone?), but it just isn’t that simple in Dragon Age II, and I really appreciate the recognition that there aren’t always going to be clear sides – clear goods and bads – in the real world. Because I think that’s where our games (and our movies and books and television) should be taking us – back to the real world and the complexities of ethical evaluation that we have to make on a small scale (for most of us) every day.

Accept Baptism and Enter Columbia

As I mentioned in my last post, there’s a lot to say about religion in Bioshock Infinite, and it can’t be surprising that people would have an interest in talking about it. But what’s perhaps more surprising is that not only are people discussing the religious elements in the game, but one gamer in fact demanded a refund because of the game’s “forced baptism.”

Kotaku’s Patricia Hernandez writes that Breen Malmburg felt spiritually unable to play the vast majority of the game because in order to enter Columbia – one of the very first things in the game – the player-qua-Booker must accept baptism. I have a two-fold reaction to this. First, surprise that someone would object that strongly to being digitally baptized as an avatar, and that Valve would then actually give him the refund. Second, I completely understood it.

This is where I make a personal admission that my discomfort has nothing to do with belief in a religion or doctrine. In fact, just the opposite. It bothered me enormously that Infinite wanted me to agree to a religious doctrine in the first place, even if in a digital fiction while playing a character who resembles me in almost no way (male, from 1912, with a gambling addiction…). I didn’t want to even superficially assume an oath to a god or religion I wanted nothing to do with.

And I do think that discomfort is deliberate. I think the developers want the player to consider why they believe what they believe, from where they have drawn those systems of belief, and what they would or would not be willing to do in the name of that belief. For instance, are you willing to accept digital baptism (twice, for what it’s worth) even if it goes against your real-world belief system? Would you be willing to undergo real baptism if it would allow you to do something you want to do? Would you be willing to undergo real baptism to save your own life?

At what point – the game asks – are we willing to compromise our beliefs in order to gain something else (money, career, health, life, love)?

While Malmburg felt unable to continue the game, pastor Ashley Dunsenbery felt the opposite. Dunsenbery believes that there is nothing offensive about questioning belief – and nothing offensive about suggesting that in order for people to deepen their faith, they need to be willing to examine it.

In Infinite, there is more to religion than just baptism. The whole foundational underpinning of the game is rooted in the Christian chthonic myth: the Father, the Child, the virginal Mother; death and redemption; the cleansing of the spirit through baptism; accepting rebirth into a new faith; being willing to sacrifice the self for the greater good of all people.

And the myth has great meaning to millions of people around the world, whether on a spiritual or a literary level. And it provides a rich, oft-mined depth to the game’s otherwise largely simple plot (with one very large and notable exception… the exception that involves theoretical physics). The real complexity of Infinite‘s myth is that it is combined with science: it unifies the two sides of our society that we typically place in diametric opposition.

Because there is no reason that beauty, art, and belief have to exist in contrast to or conflict with mathematics, technology, and scientific research. Just as there is no reason that videogames can’t present both art and combat gameplay, both fun and complex ideological commentary. Now that isn’t to say that Infinite doesn’t have its ideological problems (or its gameplay problems, which it most certainly does). But its decision to present both spirituality – and the spiritual components in the game were both aurally and visually gorgeous – and science together (both positive and negative, for both) was one of the best decisions in the game.

TLF: Songbird in the Cage

So here’s my Learned Fangirl rather lengthy, spoiler-filled critique of Bioshock Infinite, dealing with the things I loved, the things I didn’t love, and the things that rubbed me the wrong way.

Ultimately, I see a lot of good things and fantastic potential in Infinite, and if you haven’t played it yet, you really should (before you go over and see whether you agree with me in the review, as it has spoilers aplenty). There are some truly amazing things about Infinite, especially the music (I want to own that soundtrack!) and the art (gorgeous!). There are also some things that stand out as highly problematic – not bad, necessarily, but things that should make us stop and think about the ways in which we represent race, gender, and oppression.

One thing I didn’t talk about was religion – not because I don’t think it’s important (it is), but because that’s another whole post that would take up vast amounts of text. Maybe next week.