Author Archives: Bezio

TLF: You Can Call Me Flower if You Want To

Many years ago, thatgamecompany released a game called Flower, in which the player plays… a flower. Their first game, FlOw, was available free on the web (and still is, here), although when they were picked up by PlayStation, they added several new levels. I like FlOw, and I highly recommend it on many levels.

Well, our household finally decided it was time to purchase a PlayStation product (PS4), so I now have access to other thatgamecompany games, like Journey (soon) and Flower. So I finally played Flower, and here’s why I thought.

Insert Quarter Here: Materialist Schilling and Pop Culture Writing

This post is going to address the question of ethics in games writing. Really address it, though, not sealion my way around true problems by waving flags or pointing fingers. This is a problem that isn’t specific to games journalism, but impacts games writing across the board in different ways. And, truth be told, it isn’t even specific to games writing, but is a more broad problem with popular culture criticism, particularly online.

The question of “ethics” at issue here has to do with social, cultural, and economic pressures faced by every person who wants to do the most basic human things a person can do – eat, find shelter, support themselves and their families. For most people, economics end up deciding a lot of things – whether a person gets paid or not often determines whether they have the luxury (the privilege) to take a stand on an issue, whether they are able to express their true opinions, and whether they even take a chance at being able to try.

As an academic, I have the privilege to be able to publicly say a lot of things that many people simply cannot if they want to keep earning a paycheck. I have the support of an institution that permits me to voice my opinions without threatening me with the withdrawal of my paycheck, and that makes me a very privileged person. There are a lot of writers out there–freelancers, independent bloggers, and writers working for professional on- and off-line presses–who do not have that luxury.

What this means is that there are a lot of pieces of “games writing” (popular culture writing) that are little more than materialist schilling for major publishers like EA, Microsoft, or Sony. These writers produce “stories” about how much they love a product in order to encourage consumers to spend more on it–take, for instance, Polygon’s piece about mystery figurines from Fallout 4. There is nothing (to my knowledge) false about the information contained in this piece, and so, in that sense, it is an accurate piece of writing. However, the purpose of this piece can only be to encourage people to buy the damn things.

(Side note: mystery figurines are themselves a horrible form of corporate coercion, since you have to keep buying the little bastards in order to collect all of them, and will end up spending more money on duplicates in order to obtain rare ones… like Magic: The Gathering or Pokemon cards. It’s a corporate tactic that forces people to spend money and I think it’s disgusting.)

There is nothing at all of critical value being added to the world when journalistic or cultural outlets (and I usually like what Polygon has to say) functionally produce advertising for corporations under the guise of journalism or cultural criticism. Sadly, these are the kinds of pieces that the games community has not only come to expect, but–sickly–to demand as “journalism,” although–sadly–it is not exclusive to games. More and more, we are seeing news outlets focusing on products rather than on social problems, which in turn contributes to what we now see being called “outrage culture.”

To a certain extent, I think our society needs more outrage, not less (although I understand that “outrage culture” itself is a problem of a different kind–it’s artificial, inflated egotism that presumes that Tweeting angrily is tantamount to effecting social change). But what we need is actual, critical outrage. We need to stop pandering to corporations and the status quo with pieces about the next thing we’re supposed to buy and start taking about the real issues that are impacting us on a human level.

As consumers, we need to take what we read seriously, and to demand media that are critical and thoughtful. When we read a piece designed only to make us spend more money buying another game or DLC or–worse–figurine, we need to turn away. We need to focus more on outlets that are doing actual, critical work, and support them.

Cultural criticism and journalism are shifting, not only because of digital technology (that’s a whole different kettle of very confused and weird fish), but because we have grown increasingly willing to accept schilling as critical writing in order to fill a cultural gap. It’s happening on both the production and consumption levels, and if we’re to have any hope for the future of critical thought, it has to stop.

The Future of Games (Kojo Nnamdi Show: Tech Tuesday recap)

Last year, I was lucky enough to be a call-in guest on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU out of DC, talking about diversity in games. Yesterday, I got to do it again, but since it’s summer, I was able to actually go up to DC to participate in the studio, talking with Bill Harlow and Dr. Lindsay Grace about pop culture and recent trends in gaming, including Serious Games, indie games, and where we think the market might go from here (link takes you to the show, where you can listen).

One of the highlights of the show is the final caller, a boy named Oscar, who asks us what we think is the future of games, since they will be designed by people like him, who have grown up with games like Minecraft. Not only was Oscar adorable, but he was articulate and smart, asking one of the best questions of the day. He also represents a very positive future for games and gamers; while the show kept coming back to the idea of violent games (the producer’s idea) and how new games are either complicating or moving away from violent mechanics altogether, Oscar’s question really got to the heart of what’s happening in the industry.

Videogames are growing up, and I don’t just mean in terms of content. There will always be shooters, there will always be games that cater to a juvenile demographic–and that’s not a bad thing. All popular media have that, because popular media cater to everyone. What is happening in games is that they are expanding their demographic base to include everyone; games are entering a period in which they have become aware of and are trying to involve players of all ages, genders, races, and types, and the kids who grow up now playing games that make an effort to include this diversity will no longer think of it as “changing” how games “are meant to be” (*cough*), but as what games are.

They will see the failures and successes of current games in terms of narrative, graphics, artistry, and mechanics and will improve upon them, following the trajectory we have seen in every form of popular culture from music to poetry to novels to film and television. And now videogames. And we need to remember, sometimes, that change takes time, but that there is great promise not only in the industry as it currently stands, but in its future, when people like Oscar become old enough to not only study games in school, but to pursue degrees in games, to play games, to critique them, to think critically about them. And when kids like Oscar are old enough to make games of their own, those games will be above and beyond anything we can now imagine.

And that is unbelievably exciting.

Politics of Difference: Indie Development and Diversity

In the wake of E32015, it has become apparent to me–even moreso than it already was–that one of the fundamental shortcomings of the game industry lies in diversity and diversification. Yes, this means the inclusion of women and POC in games, but at least this year’s E3 shows (as I said earlier this week) progress on that front. But when it comes to the titles, mechanics, and types of games, the industry is still lacking.

What I mean by this is that games are now showing a decided lack of innovation when it comes to stories and mechanics. Most of the titles announced at E32015 were prequels or sequels (Dishonored 2, Gears of War, Halo 5, Metroid, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Deus Ex, Mass Effect Andromeda, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy 7, ANOTHER Mario game, and so on). There were, of course, some new games announced, and that’s great, but so many of the titles and DLC we see come out are now appended with subtitles and numbers that it’s becoming difficult to keep up with them all (much like the Marvel movie-tv-comic franchise monstrosity).

What this means is that the industry has found formulae that work, and is yet again playing it safe by sticking to those formulae with little-to-no deviation. Thankfully, this no longer includes quite so many straight-white-male narratives, but that’s only one of several components that goes into game development.

What this leads to is a lack of interesting new stories, of new types of protagonists, and–particularly important for gaming–new mechanics. What this means, practically speaking, is that most innovation is happening in independent development houses, with people who are struggling to find the funding and support to make new and interesting things because publishers are too afraid to invest in something that doesn’t fit their formulae. (Until recently, this was also the justification for we-can’t-have-female-protagonists-because-women-on-covers-don’t-sell, despite the fact that Tomb Raider was one of the most successful franchises of all time.)

Enter Kickstarter. Except that now the games showing up there are having the same problem, because major companies are taking advantage of a platform that used to be all about giving indie developers, artisans, craftspeople, and artists a non-corporate space in which to do market their work. But with people like Broken Lizard (Super Troopers), Penny Arcade, and now Sony taking over the platform, it’s becoming hard for actual indie companies to do their work, again.

Sony, in particular, bothers me, because they’ve used Kickstarter as an audience litmus test rather than as a platform to crowdfund a project that couldn’t otherwise get funded. Instead, they’re taking well over 2 million dollars (2 million!!!) from backers that they absolutely could afford to give themselves for a sequel (Shenmue 3). That is not innovation. It is not progress. It is manipulating a system put in place to help the little guys in order to feed the multi-billion-dollar monster that is AAA development.

I’d rather see a group of students make a board game, or a single parent sell their art, or a group of people without a massive publisher (like Sony) get their game funded. Sure, I’m biased, since I’ve been pushing the Kickstarter for Deep End Games’ Perception, and it’s frustrating as all get out to see Shenmue 3–which has an established audience and the backing of a huge industry company–taking backers while Perception is pushing hard just to make its first goal. But I’m not the only one upset by Sony’s use of Kickstarter–Dave Thier at Forbes also thinks that what Sony is doing is unethical, and that people should stop backing the project.

This doesn’t mean I think sequels are bad. I don’t–and I will be purchasing several of them when they’re released. But I also think it’s important to support indie development, because that’s where the new ideas (blind protagonists who use echolocation as a gameplay mechanic!) come from. Without indie development we would not have Braid, Minecraft, Bastion, Elsinore, Gone Home, or any number of other innovating and game-changing (literally and figuratively) titles.

Indie development makes games better and makes us–as players–better because that’s where the big questions are coming from. Indie developers aren’t afraid to put politics into games, to do the things that the AAA companies are afraid to do, to show us that innovation is what makes games fun. Indie games were the first to push for character diversity, to push for the inclusion of women, POC, and the differently-abled (Perception will be playable by the visually impaired!). Indie games break the formulae and make new ones. And that’s why we need to give them our support, both vocally and financially.

Times Are A-changin': Bringing Diversity into the Spotlight at E32015

Sometimes, after a lot of yelling, typing, hand-waving, and crying, sometimes the powers-that-be actually listen. Even more rarely, they listen and then act. And when that happens, it becomes clear that speaking out and speaking up really do matter.

That happened today at E3. (E3, for the un-game-initiated, is the biggest industry conference in gaming.) During today’s XBox presentation, Microsoft–arguably one of the whitest and most male companies out there–not only put women and people of color up on their stage to speak, but they showed off a full slate of games that included female protagonists (Rise of the Tomb Raider, Dishonored 2, and Recore are the three I’m really excited about) and characters of color (Gears 4, Tomb Raider), customizable protagonists (Fallout 4 and Mass Effect 4) and dogs (Recore and Fallout 4). And those are just the big titles.

Twitter–my feed anyway–began commenting about halfway through at the abundance of women and POC (and dogs), and getting more and more excited as the XBox presentation continued. Knowing that, in addition to Microsoft’s games, Mirror’s Edge will also have a new (still with a female protagonist) game, makes me generally optimistic–for once!–about the future state of the industry.

After a couple of years during which I was seriously beginning to reconsider whether I even wanted to continue following games media out of a mixture of exhaustion and despair, this has brought back a lot of hope. Does this mean that the industry is now a paradise of female and POC empowerment (and employment)? Of course not. Women and POC in tech still face discrimination and harassment on a daily basis. They are underrepresented in employment statistics and on screen. But at least the on-screen part is getting better.

Baby steps. But even baby steps are steps. Sometimes it’s worth being thankful for what progress we get… before getting back in the ring and continuing the fight.

Don’t Fear the Weeper: Trauma, Triggers, and Feelings

Recently, a couple of prominent think-pieces on academia and feelings have been circulating, at least amongst those in academia (I’m not sure what the rest of the world thinks of them). The first has grown in popularity and infamy: “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me” on Vox. The premise of the piece is that the professor–Edward Schlosser, by pseudonym–is too afraid of the feelings of his students to engage them in controversial topics. He fears not causing them to feel things, but of “hurting their feelings,” since students–he claims–are so oversensitive that hurting their feelings causes them to lodge formal complaints against their faculty. For a non-tenured faculty member, such complaints could mean termination or a failure to secure tenure.

My gut reaction to this piece was to scoff. As a non-tenured faculty member, it never once occurred to me that I needed to be considerate of my students’ hurt feelings beyond basic human decency. What that means, to me, anyway, is being aware of things that might be triggering for students who have undergone trauma (so that when I teach Othello, for instance, I will tell students if they are uncomfortable discussing act five, they don’t have to come to class). It means that in my syllabus there is a section that tells students if they are not comfortable speaking about a topic, they can write up a private email–not to explain why, but to send their thoughts in private when they have time to consider them… or not. Their choice. It means that sensitive topics need to be handled sensitively–but not ignored. It means, sometimes, talking about using appropriate terms and discouraging the use of terms which are hurtful, and talking about why. It means allowing students to leave the room if they feel they need to, or allowing them not to come to class (with or without an explanation–my students get three “free” days away from class, for any reason they wish).

I also consider it part of my responsibility as an educator to not avoid topics that cause heightened emotion. We need to talk about the isms of the world–sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, agism, elitism–and talking about those things is going to be upsetting to some students, often for wildly different reasons. But that is precisely why we need to talk about them. Not talking about them is far worse.

This is why I was happy to see Vox publish a follow-up: “I was a liberal adjunct professor. My liberal students didn’t scare me at all” by Amanda Taub, not a pseudonym. Taub does exactly what I wanted her to do–explains that students need to feel some discomfort in order to learn, and that it’s her job to do that. She’s also willing to take risks that the pseudonymous Schlosser is not: she uses her real name, and she speaks up even though she’s a woman in a still-male-dominated field (either internet journalism or academia, take your pick).

But at the same time, I can’t help but think of Dr. Laura Kipnis, a female professor at Northwestern who was accused of violating Title IX for suggesting that some female students at Northwestern were taking victimization too far. Kipnis wrote a piece on faculty dating or married to former students, specifically criticizing a new ban on such relationships when they occur between consenting adults and in which there is no coercion (relationships with current students are almost always a problem because of this coercive power).

In the piece, she mentions other prohibitions, which she terms “draconian,” such as sexual jokes, advances made to co-workers or former students (which may or may not be reciprocated), and similar behaviors. She notes that if unwanted, such actions ought not to be engaged in, but also points out that some things–like asking someone on a date–might not be obviously unwanted until attempted. Kipnis states that “Students were being encouraged to regard themselves as such exquisitely sensitive creatures that an errant classroom remark could impede their education, as such hothouse flowers that an unfunny joke was likely to create lasting trauma.” It is this idea–that even an extremely minor misunderstanding was grounds for “lasting trauma”–that Kipnis finds particularly problematic, since it tacitly (she suggests) permits students to claim trauma where there realistically is none.

A refrain familiar from Schlosser’s Vox piece–hurt feelings leading to potentially career-ending repercussions for a faculty member who is largely innocent of wrongdoing, and certainly not on the level of the punishments with which he or she might be threatened.

Where Kipnis got into trouble was in bringing up a current case at Northwestern–she does not mention names, but she does talk about the case (she is not the first to do so publicly, it is worth noting). That led to protests on campus (some of which involved mattress-carrying) and two students accusing her of a Title IX violation in making female students feel “unsafe” on campus. (Kipnis’s description of her reaction here.)

Kipnis’s experience is precisely the thing which Schlosser fears, and I have to say, I sympathize with them both on some level. I don’t really understand the harm in Kipnis’s blog post (I don’t agree with it, but disagreement is not grounds for a Title IX suit), and find it disturbing that faculty around the nation are being cautioned against speaking their minds in print, online, and on social media, lest someone at their institution (administration or student) disagree and find in it grounds for reprimand or dismissal.

I get that. Particularly as I watch the disintegration of my undergraduate alma mater (University of Wisconsin-Madison) at the hands of Scott Walker, I can only feel horror at the curtailing of academic freedom running rampant throughout the academy. And–particularly in Kipnis’s case–I see echoes of what I saw in GamerGate and continue to see in movements like #AllLivesMatter: the idea that somehow, to quote Laurie Penny, “speaking about prejudice is itself prejudice” (Unspeakable Things, 65).

[Note: I know this is also complicated by one’s own social position–whether one is tenured or not, certainly, but also what department one is in; whether one is a POC, a woman, a queer person; one’s age or marital status; and so on. Some people have a greater ability to speak out than others simply because they are able to risk less in order to do so. This piece does not judge individual choices to speak out (or not), nor one’s choice to use (or not) a pseudonym in order to avoid backlash.]

What bothers me is the idea that we either have to avoid controversy entirely (Schlosser’s suggestion) or be censored in the worst possible way. There must be a middle line, a space in between offensiveness and complete banality in which we can continue to do what Taub does and what I hope I do–challenge our students to question the things they read, see, and experience, to question the status quo not in order to destroy it, but to discover which parts of it serve society and which parts hold it back; to embrace just enough discomfort to make necessary a willingness to strive for change.

TLF: “Jade for Beauty: Positive Female Characters in Video Games,” ep. 2

My TLF review of Anita Sarkeesian’s second video in the Positive Female Characters in Video Games series (on Jade from Beyond Good & Evil).

A lot of my frustrations with this episode are less to do with the specifics about what Sarkeesian says than a lot of the assumptions and implications of what she says. Overall, I actually think her video is a decent review of why she likes the game, which is actually pretty informative (and made me consider playing the game). However, there are a lot of “feminist pitfalls” to it that I find problematic (as a fairly militant feminist myself), such as the assumption that any game with violence subscribes to hegemonic male militarism (although I don’t think she uses that exact phrase).

My Game!: The Problem with Fan “Ownership”

So a recent (completely civil, polite, and even productive) exchange got me thinking about one of the problems with videogame culture, and, indeed, fan culture more broadly. This is the problem of fan “ownership”–of a game, a franchise, an entire genre…

On the one hand, creators want fans to feel a sense of ownership over the games (or whatever) they play so that they become invested in them on both the emotional and (of course) financial levels. And investment of that sort is a good thing. It’s good when audiences connect on a deep level to the things they consume because it means that those things are reaching them, engaging with them, and helping them to sort through problems. All these are good things.

This kind of investment leads fans to hold creators accountable, not only for errors in fact or continuity, but for sloppy work, lazy plotlines, rehashed tropes that no one wants to see anymore. It keeps creators pushing the edge, striving to be better, working to make sure that their product is an accurate representation of their ideas and ideologies. Also good things.

But there is, sadly, also too much of a good thing.

There are those fans (and, by the way, the exchange above did not sway into this territory) who come to feel that they really do own content by virtue of their fandom. These are the fans who say that an all-female Ghostbusters remake (which, by the way, does not erase the previous Ghostbusters films) “ruins” the franchise. These are the fans who demand that their games not contain the option to create a female protagonist, the fans who think that all content needs to cater to their–and only their–point of view.

These are the fans whose critical voices are not actually critical, but demanding and entitled. There is a difference between criticism and childish temper-tantrums. The former engages thoughtfully (and often also lovingly) with the content. The latter pitches fits with little basis and less maturity, often loudly and without consideration for the effort made. The former is about improving content and genre. The latter is about making the content into a personal fantasy.

The latter is not a good thing.

It stifles instead of expands creativity. It causes paranoia and is–by and large–a conservative force that keeps content constrained to the status quo. These are not good things.

What I’d like to see in games is a sense that fans can be invested, but that they recognize that, ultimately, they do not own the content of the games. They are participants in the sense that games are participatory, but they are consumers, not creators. They are audience, not actors. Yes, fans have the ability (and right) to respond to the content, to applaud it or boo it, to critique it, to buy it or boycott it. But they do not own it. It is not theirs. It is work–usually a lot of long, hard work–done by others, their brain-child, and fans need to remember this.

Remember, and respect. Because at the end of it all, while fans do have the right to criticize, they ought to do so with respect, recognizing that this thing about which they are posting or speaking or writing a ten-page screed is someone else’s thing, someone else’s idea, someone else’s work. And that deserves respect.

 

Edit: Reposted on TLF.

Shameless (not-self) Promotion: Perception

So for those of you–if there are any–who read regularly, I’m taking advantage of this blog to promote the Kickstarter campaign for a new game being developed by a team of former Irrational Games developers (one of whom I happened to marry). The game is entitled Perception, and I like it for a variety of reasons unrelated to the fact that it is being worked-on by a person I live with.

First, Perception has a female protagonist (Cassie). First-person perspective means that her attractiveness, costume, and physique are irrelevant.

Also, she’s blind. Yes, the game is played first-person perspective with a blind protagonist. Which is also pretty damn cool. You should check out the trailer to see how that works. (Also, yet another reason why her physical attractiveness is irrelevant.)

Third, it’s not a shooter. It’s a survival-horror game in which the player does not shoot things–instead, Cassie uses her cane to sense the objects around her–and interacts with them based on sound and memory.

In other words, it’s a game featuring a differently-abled female protagonist of undetermined race (probably white, let’s be honest, but we can’t see her and SHE can’t see her) who isn’t engaged in shooting things and who is independent enough to be exploring a house on her own even though she’s blind.

Yes, please.