Category Archives: Game Criticism

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.

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.

TLF/AIP Inquisition: Diplomacy, Conspiracy, & Necromancy (Part Seven)

Over at TLF things have been rather hectic, so there was a brief hiatus from my two As-I-Play series (Inquisition and Borderlands 2). But since things are getting put back together by the fabulous mistresses of the web-o-sphere, I have a new Inquisition As-I-Play up on my first trip to Halamshiral (amusingly, I just finished my second trip two nights ago) and Castle Adamant (which, by the way, is an allusion to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Princess,” which was turned into a musical by Gilbert and Sullivan entitled “Princess Ida”). And yes, I know it’s not actually “Castle” Adamant in Inquisition, but I’m calling it that anyway.

And yes, the fact that Inquisition contains a reference to an obscure Tennyson poem that was made into an even more obscure–and hilarious–musical involving cross-dressing men who break into an all-women’s college (Castle Adamant) to try to get some makes me very, very happy.

TLF: Into the Friendzone

I have a new post–on an old topic–up over at TLF that discusses the changing mechanics of friendship and rivalry (approval and disapproval) in BioWare’s Dragon Age series as a whole. I’ve written about this before, at length, but it seemed like something worth discussing now that I’ve played through Inquisition (and then went back and replayed ALL the Dragon Age, and am working my way through Inquisition again).

Oppression Matters: Intersectionality, Feminism, and the Importance of Diversity as a Practice

On my way to a conference the other day, I was sitting on the plane reading Estelle Freedman’s No Turning Back, a history of feminism. The young woman in the seat next to me interrupted: “Excuse me, is that a book on feminism?” (There’s a cartoon superhero akin to Wonder Woman on the cover.)

“Yes,” I replied.

“Oh,” she said. “Not to be rude, but I took a couple classes last year on gender and women’s studies, and they changed my life. I think everyone should have to take classes like that. It really changes how you think about things, you know? I didn’t used to consider myself a feminist, but I really am. It’s important.”

That is not what I expected. As a (somewhat militant) feminist, I have had people ask me if it’s rude to ask if I’m feminist, I’ve had people tell me they can’t call themselves feminists because they like men, and been called a “feminazi” and a “social justice warrior” as pejorative terms. The young woman in the seat next to me (who, by the way, was a woman of color) gave me hope, not simply because she was proud of being a feminist, but because of the half-hour conversation that ensued in which we talked about popular culture, feminism, intersectionality (when identities–like gender, sexuality, race, religion, etc.–overlap), and misunderstandings of what all these things mean. And she got it. She understood the importance not only of feminism, but of understanding it in a larger context–cultural, social, and political.

In the book, Freedman defines feminism as follows:

Feminism is a belief that women and men are inherently of equal worth. Because most societies privilege men as a group, social movements are necessary to achieve equality between women and men, with the understanding that gender always intersects with other social hierarchies…I use “equal worth” rather than equality because the latter term often assumes that men’s historical experience—whether economic, political, or sexual—is the standard to which women should aspire. (p. 7)

What’s most important about this definition is that Freedman acknowledges the significance of politics of oppression–that feminism isn’t about making women equivalent to men, but of giving them equal value. It’s also important to recognize that there is agency in oppression; women have historically been oppressed by men, as well as by other women. Feminism–as opposed to “humanism” (already a thing, by the way, that has nothing to do with gender: “humanism” is a secular system of religious non-belief)–recognizes that the purpose of eliminating oppression is elevating the oppressed (here, women, hence, “feminism”).

This is as true of other forms of oppression: against homosexuals, transsexuals, bisexuals, asexuals, pansexuals, etc.; against people of color; against religious minorities; against national minorities. It is also true that we cannot focus on just one to the exclusion of all others; feminism cannot trump any other kind of anti-oppression movement. We are all strung together; equality is equality.

But that is not to say that we can simply erase the markers of difference which have caused this oppression. We can’t turn to #alllivesmatter because ALL lives have not been threatened; it must be #Blacklivesmatter because the lives which have not heretofore mattered are black. It can’t be humanism (not just because it’s already a term), because women have not been treated as full humans. It can’t be about straight pride, because straight people have always been able to stand in the open.

Oppression matters.

And, to turn it back to games (because, after all, that’s the point of this blog), it’s important to acknowledge the lack of women, LGBTQ, and people of color in the industry as fans, content creators, and in the content itself. And it’s important to deliberately include diversity in games because it has been so long absent. The status quo is no longer acceptable, it’s oppressive.

And now that we see it, it’s even more important to make a point of changing it.

Perspective Shift: Talking Games in the Midst of Violence

Today a friend asked a very good question, and one that I think is valuable to try to answer for cultural critics and academics the world over.

He teaches in Baltimore, where, as anyone who doesn’t live under a rock knows, yet another protest has been sparked by police violence resulting in the death of a person of color. Given the context – not only Baltimore and Ferguson and North Carolina… but the earthquake in Nepal, the annexation of the Crimea, and so on – how can we keep talking about games? How can we ask our students to put aside everything they see going on outside their doors (sometimes literally) to talk about games? And, perhaps most importantly, given all this, should we keep talking about games?

My answer is yes – but also no. Yes, in the sense that talking about games is talking about culture and society and politics. Yes, because in talking about games we are (hopefully) talking about the issues that have led to the problems outside our doors. No, in the sense that we should absolutely not shut out what is happening outside. No, in the sense that it is vital that we talk literally about what is happening outside.

I believe that there are issues, concerns, and events that require us to put our planned classes and lives on hold because it is imperative that we stop to take a good, long look at what kind of society we have created, what acts we permit and what acts we condemn. I believe that what is happening now in Baltimore, what happened in Madison and North Carolina and Ferguson, is one of those events. Racism is a real, institutional problem that urgently demands our attention, and we need to not only allow, but encourage our students (friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues) to talk about.

And I also believe that these issues, concerns, and events appear in our popular culture media, including games. I believe that the problem of institutionalized racism appeared in Grand Theft Auto V and BioShock Infinite and Dragon Age and Fallout 3, and that each of those games attempted to address the problems of institutionalized racism through different lenses, to force their players to consider the ramifications of permitting the status quo to continue unchecked.

I also believe that institutionalized racism is a problem in many of these games, GTAV and Infinite in particular, because those games don’t fully understand or respect the ramifications of their privileged assumptions about race, class, and gender. And it is important for us to keep talking about them in order to make those problems visible, not only in the games industry, but in the world which these games reflect.

So yes, we need to keep talking about games. We need to talk about the good games can do if they seek to encourage social change. We need to talk about the harm games can do if they perpetuate social injustices without taking a critical stance. We also need to talk about the very real, very upsetting, very harmful things happening to real people in the real world, and remember that games matter because of the real world.

Fantastic Believability: Diversity and the Fallacy of “Historical Accuracy”

There have been a lot of discussions lately – in interviews with developers, online, and in my classroom – about the notion of “historical accuracy” or “believability” and issues of diversity and representation. Among them are Golden Glitch’s in-progress game Elsinore, featuring a dark-skinned Ophelia, and an interview of BioShock developer Ken Levine with GameInformer,which has occasioned both praise and condemnation for its discussion of religion and autism. I’m not going to talk about this article specifically, but, rather, I want to address more broadly some of the notions we seem to have about “historical accuracy” and “believability” regarding media (tv and movies, as well as games).

People often make the argument that certain films, tv shows, and games include sexist or racist images for the sake of “historical accuracy” or “believability.” Assassin’s Creed, for instance, excuses its lack of female characters (particularly in Unity) with the remark that it wouldn’t be accurate. GTA games have often been excused for their sexism on account of the “believability” of their stories – because clearly crime must also contain prostitution and sexual violence. Even fans of Game of Thrones excuse its sexual violence with the assertion that sexism was a part of medieval life (to be fair, GoT also has some of the most kick-ass women on television, Brienne of Tarth and Arya Stark). My students accepted the racism and stereotypical dialects in BioShock Infinite as “historically accurate” to the game’s setting of 1912.

The argument is common. Sometimes it even makes sense. But more often, intentionally or not, it is simply an excuse for lazy storytelling that falls back on stereotypes and tired tropes that perpetuate racist and sexist ideologies.

More importantly, the suggestion that a game or show must contain racism and sexism because of “historical accuracy” or “believability” when it contains other obviously fantastical elements (flying cities, dragons, functionally immortal criminals, the Illuminati, aliens, superheroes, or any other number of imaginary things) is even more specious.

It’s vital that we remember that all of these depictions are choices, not facts. None of the stories I listed above are real. They all exist in fantasy worlds that never existed or have not yet come into being. In each case, someone – or more than one someone – decided that this prostitute would be beaten to death or that Circe would be raped or that Daisy Fitzroy would speak in uneducated dialect and threaten to kill a child or that the Vox Populi would wear demon horns. All those things were choices.

The danger of these choices comes in the fact that not all of them were made deliberately. What I mean is not that someone held a gun to the creator’s head, but, rather, that creators often don’t think about the ramifications or implications of their choices. They don’t think “Oh, hey, Daisy’s pigin English might be offensive or seem racist.” They think “Oh, Mark Twain did it,” or, worse, “This is how black people talked back then.” They don’t consider the implications that choice might have in terms of the present-day social acceptability of racism or sexism or the demonization of a religion or nation.

This becomes difficult to explain when we get to the idea of causality. Just one game with sexism or racism doesn’t make its players sexist or racist. Two games won’t. Three or four or even ten won’t. But when certain tropes and assumptions become commonplace across all media and in conversations had in the news, in classrooms, and around dinner tables, they do become harmful. But just one game, or two games, or ten games which explode those tropes, question the racist assumptions inherent in the American institutions of education, capitalism, and justice, then they can make a difference. Voices questioning the status quo stand out and have a greater impact than those which follow the well-worn path.

I am not arguing that all games should seek to become vehicles of social justice (although that would be pretty cool). I am arguing that creators of all media – print, television, film, games, etc. – should take it upon themselves to do research into other viewpoints and other ideologies. Creators should assume the responsibility for making educated decisions about each race and gender and religion and sexuality they depict. Creators, in short, should choose deliberately.

TLF: Feminist Frequency’s Positive Female Characters in Video Games, “The Scythian”

So yesterday, Anita Sarkeesian and Feminist Frequency released a new video in a new series on videogames focused on positive depictions of women in games. It seems that these will be much shorter than those found in Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, and will focus specifically on a single character, rather than a laundry-list format.

On the one hand, this suggests that Sarkeesian is listening to some of her (rational) critics, who dislike the laundry-list format. And I think this is a good move – it allows for more focus, more nuance, and avoids the problem of rapid-fire lists. My write-up for TLF is here (includes links to video and transcript).