Digital Longevity

Since today I was handed an article entitled saving games and then saw this article from IGN’s Mitch Dyer arguing that games can’t last, it seems that the universe is pushing me to address the seeming “issue” of videogame impermanence. Dyer says that his kids “will never know what Gears of War: Judgment is. They will never wonder what Killzone: Shadow Fall was like, they will never play The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, and they will never ask me about Grand Theft Auto V.” And that may be true. It also may not.

As my students (in my Games, Game Theory, and Leadership Studies class) could tell him, some games do last the test of time. Pac-Man, for instance, has been re-released, ported, and updated on every available console, computer, and phone, despite being originally released for arcade-only play by Namco in 1979. That’s pretty good longevity. Pong (found on phones, calculators, and computers world-wide) was released by Atari in 1972.

Sure, that’s forty-some years which pale in comparison to Shakespeare’s 400-some, but we’ve also lost some of Shakespeare’s plays (Love’s Labours Won and Cardenio, at least), and who knows how much literature from Chaucer’s and the Pearl Poet’s respective eras. We’ve kept Agatha Christie, but there are dozens if not hundreds of murder mystery authors who have fallen by the proverbial wayside, unremembered, unpublished (any more), and unread. Musical instruments and genres move into and out of fashion, some lost, some preserved, some remaining popular despite the steady march of chronology.

My point is really that we aren’t yet in any historical position to make claims about the permanence or impermanence of games, particularly – as Dyer does – in comparison to a genre (literature) that has been around since humans learned to string together words to form a narrative. And we don’t have any of THOSE stories, either. The earliest examples of a genre don’t last – in that, Dyer may have a point. Few people watch the first-ever film (made by Edison, it’s horribly fuzzy but can in fact be found on YouTube), comparatively speaking, and fewer still watch many of the early examples not preserved in “collections.” There are hundreds of rolls of cellulite film that dissolve into nothingness every day, just as there are books that disintegrate into dust.

Videogames are still a young genre, one that was invented in the lifetimes of all adults over the age of forty-five. Forty-five years is not nearly long enough to make an assertion like the one Dyer makes. It’s also fundamentally flawed in its comparison. Literature has been an established genre for centuries, and its one that has shaped our culture into its present form. Film is growing into a similarly powerful presence. As will – I would suggest – videogames. Mario, Zelda, Pac-Man, and Space Invaders will one day be introduced as the forerunners of the Tale of Two Cities of videogames (which, I would think, hasn’t yet been made). World of Warcraft and Call of Duty will appear on syllabi as games that reshaped digital culture and birthed massive online communities, breaking down national and cultural barriers by integrating people from around the world into guilds and teams all focused on a common goal.

We aren’t yet at the place in videogaming creation where we have the capacity to create a game-Hamlet (although there are some games out there about Hamlet) that will endure into future generations. We’re still learning about our technological capacity, learning about how to integrate narrative and ludology, still experimenting with form and function in a society that is adapting to the pervasiveness of digital media into what was, not so long ago, an analog world.

Yes, the technology become obsolete, the graphics “crude” in two or five or ten years. Yes, our technological capacity increases almost exponentially from year to year, console generation to console generation. But that doesn’t mean that games can’t hold our attention or critical capacity far into the future. Dyer’s point – that even Vice City has become “after just a few years, a messy, clunky thing.” But compare the most recent film version of Hamlet to the set-less, hastily memorized disaster area that Shakespeare’s first production of it must have been.

Videogames are no more transient than plays, than films, than television series, than poetry, than music. They are simply different, with different challenges, different media, different limitations. Yes, some of them will disappear, brought to uselessness by the deterioration of technology, storage media, or disuse. The same is true of all genres of art and culture. But some of them will endure, not because of their graphics, but because they speak to us about our culture, our society, our hopes and our dreams, our fantasies and fears.

Our children may not play GTAV (personally, I hope they don’t), but they might play Journey or Mass Effect or Gone Home. They might play World of Warcraft or Skyrim or Red Dead Redemption or Bioshock. They might not. Maybe our games – our early twenty-first century games – are not the games that will last, but I would bet that some of them are. They will persist, just as Hamlet or The Tale of Two Cities persist. Just as Casablanca or Psycho persist. They will persists because they present us as a complex society capable of both great kindness and great cruelty, they ask the difficult questions, force us (as players) to make the difficult choices. They will last because they are an essential part of our new digital culture. In other words, art.

You say Potato… I say Misogynist.

Gamers Against Bigotry posted a link to Wired piece about female soldier skins (character art, basically) in the online game Warface that struck a chord with me about a recurring problem in videogame – and fantasy – depiction of women.

The piece seems, at first, to be about the developer’s use of different female skins in different localizations (regional adaptations) of the game. But, as Wired‘s Philippa Warr says of the issue, “you say ‘cultural relativism’, I say ‘inherently problematic’.” That’s because no matter which way you look at it, the skins are not even remotely realistic. For instance:

The male versions of both characters appear to be fairly “normal.” They’re wearing armor, carrying weapons, etc. I’m sure there’s something unrealistic about them, but I would believe that those people were appropriately attired for a combat zone. The female rifleman, however, has a shocking lack of sleeves, and her decolletage has got to be getting in the way of her aim.

And I haven’t even said anything about the female sniper. Warr says that she is “likely to get extreme nettle rash all over her bosom as she lies down to line up her shot,” and that’s being quite kind, all things considered. After all, why have a hood if you’re going to expose the brilliant whiteness of your heaving bosoms to the sky?

Now here’s the thing. Warr is talking to developer Joshua Howard about the localization of the game, and Howard has a lot of really interesting things to say about the conflict created in cross-regional competition by the fact that different areas – he mentions China and Russia – have different spec preferences for their weapons in terms of damage and kickback. And that is really interesting.

But the sniper’s cleavage is just too prominent for me to allow the piece to stay there. Howard tries – valiantly – to excuse the female models by arguing that they’re “better” than what the fans expected: the fans, he says, “were very comfortable with the fact we have these very realistic-looking men but they wanted the women to be not what we would think of as realistic at all. Up to and including running round in high heels which is just silly, right?” In short, Crytek is trying to respond to fan requests for the kinds of skins they want, and, Howard says, “They’re not what our players at first requested in the Russian region. They tended to be considerably more extreme that what we ended up shipping with.”

So Crytek tried to make these models more realistic. I don’t think I want to see what they started with, especially considering that sniper apparently also began by wearing high heels. But here’s the thing. Catering to a fanbase is all well and good – and is generally a good strategic marketing choice – but at what expense? Does anyone seriously believe that a more realistic female model is going to cause Warface‘s fans to stop playing the game? Because I don’t.

Any more than I think that putting some clothes on the sniper (what is it with female snipers, anyway?) in the new Metal Gear Solid V is going to make fewer people play that game. The Metal Gear series has had buxom female snipers before, but at least Sniper Wolf wore a body suit. Sheesh. (Kotaku has some theories about this.)

I think that if either Konami or Crytek wanted to include realistic models of women in their games, they would have just as many players as before. At least, I suppose, Crytek put a few more articles of clothing on their sniper than Konami.

Both companies could easily include female models that are attractive and reasonably clad, as in Tomb Raider or Bioshock Infinite or Gears of War. Instead, by pandering to the input of the fans who are asking for admittedly ludicrous models, Crytek is enabling the misogyny that’s already rampant in the industry by perpetuating an unrealistic image of women that is not only highly sexualized, but designed explicitly for the viewing pleasure of (straight) male gamers. And this last is really why I have a problem with it – because images of women in games should not be designed as sex objects; rather, they should be created as characters serving a purpose – as soldiers, medics, explorers – first and foremost, the exact same way their male counter-models are created.

And that’s really my point. We aren’t going to see equality in gender-representation in games until characters are created as characters, rather than as sex objects. I’ve heard the argument that female gamers won’t ever be happy with female characters unless they’re “ugly” or “fat” or “completely covered,” which is silly, and I’ve heard the argument that “if you want good female characters, then they have to be designed by women.” Sure, women could design good female characters, but to suggest that only women can design women is just as silly. All that needs to happen is that characters need to be designed as characters, as their purpose (soldier, healer, mage, adventurer) rather than as proverbial “eye-candy,” no matter what their gender.

TLF: Don’t Judge Too Harshly

My review of Gears of War: Judgment is up over at TLF!

I’m afraid that at this juncture in the semester, I’m lucky to have even that much to say about games and gaming, although I am learning quite a bit about using games in the classroom.

For instance: Trivial Pursuit does not make for a good classroom game. We learned from it that trivia games that are not specific to an audience are enormously frustrating for that audience.