Category Archives: Games as Art

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.

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.

Get Rid of the Black Marker: A Post Against Censorship

A recent conversation has reiterated one of the components of recent internet discussions of games – particularly those containing overt misogyny – that bothers me more than most of the others. It’s the conflation amongst many online of “criticism” with “censorship.” A few weeks ago, I made this post on the Australian censorship of Hotline Miami 2, which contains a passage I feel bears repeating (even though I feel a little odd about quoting myself):

Censorship of any kind is a detriment to culture. It stifles voices that can contribute to a discussion, and it also exposes places where a society needs work. This is one of the latter cases. If our art – and yes, videogames are art – contains the glorification of sexual violence, then we need to consider why, just as we need to consider why our art contains the glorification of racism, sexism, homophobia, and genocide.

Criticism is – or should be – the thoughtful consideration of and discussion about why our cultural artifacts (including videogames) contain things like racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and the other -isms of society. Criticism is not censorship.

Let me just repeat that one: Criticism is not censorship.

Yes, there are people on the internet who claim that certain games – probably including Hotline Miami 2 – should not have been made and certainly should not be sold. I am not among them. I will never buy it, never play it, and am, quite honestly, disgusted by it, but I will not say that it should not exist. I will say that it is harmful to women because it perpetuates a culture of misogyny and sexual violence that daily endangers real women in the real world, but I do not dispute its right to exist.

Let me also be very clear that I do not think that someone can become a misogynist by playing Hotline Miami 2. I do not think that any single piece of culture can change a person’s nature or predispositions. I do think that, en masse, popular culture devoted predominantly to particular ideological paradigms does inculcate its audience into those paradigms. In non-academic-ese, what we see all day, every day, does impact how we think about the world. It might not cause us to take action on those thoughts, not directly, but it does cause us to become accepting or permissive of certain behaviors we might not otherwise choose to permit.

It can also cause us to reject certain behaviors. Publish enough tracts and novels about the abolition of slavery – like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was progressive for its time – and society might just decide that slavery isn’t acceptable. Publish enough tracts and hold enough speeches on how women should vote, and you get women’s suffrage. Make enough television, movies, and videogames about how African Americans are all violent gangsters, and you get unarmed black teenagers being shot because white people feel genuine (albeit unjustified) fear of them.

That is the power of media, videogames included, and that is precisely why criticism (not censorship) is vitally important. Because if we kowtow to the sanctity of creators and the entertainment media, we stop questioning why we believe the things we believe. Censorship is just another form of refusing criticism, and it is through criticism – genuine, respectful dialogue – that culture moves forward.

[Redacted] – Games, Censorship, and Sexual Violence

One of the big news stories in gaming at the moment is about Australia’s refusal to issue classification to Devolver’s Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number due to sexual violence (link to Kotaku Australia). In Australia, media that “depict, express or otherwise deal with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults” may be denied classification, and would therefore be made unavailable to consumers.

The report from Australian Classification includes a description of the scene which caused the game to fail classification (**trigger warning for sexual violence** – highlight below to read scene description):

In the sequence of game play footage titled Midnight Animal, the protagonist character bursts into what appears to be a movie set and explicitly kills 4 people, who collapse to the floor in a pool of copious blood, often accompanied by blood splatter. After stomping on the head of a fifth male character, he strikes a female character wearing red underwear. She is knocked to the floor and is viewed lying face down in a pool of copious blood. The male character is viewed with his pants halfway down, partially exposing his buttocks. He is viewed pinning the female down by the arms and lying on top of her thrusting, implicitly raping her (either rear entry or anally) while her legs are viewed kicking as she struggles beneath him. This visual depiction of implied sexual violence is emphasised by it being mid-screen, with a red backdrop pulsating and the remainder of the screen being surrounded by black.

I don’t think I need to explain how the above scene might “offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults,” emphasis here on “reasonable.” I don’t think that there’s any question that this scene is distasteful, violent, misogynistic, and disturbing, made all the more so because this is the protagonist engaging in this behavior, rather than a villain or other NPC.

Response to the Australian Classification decision has been mingled approval and outrage, with responses that include “It’s a video game” (the implication being that it’s therefore somehow acceptable or “not real” violence); “there are movies that have rape scenes in them and they are given R18+ or AV15+”; “I’m 100% anti censorship, If any line is crossed the statement should be made with our wallets, Not by the fun police”; and this example of eloquence:

Then don’t buy the damn game. I am fed up with all you Fucktards who just beg for the opportunity to be offended. It is simple. You don’t like it then stay away from it. Jeez who are we now just a bunch of whiny fucking pricks who are not happy unless we are stating our useless fucking opinions. Pretty much just pissing on anyone who has the drive or guts to do something like make art be it games or film or whatever. SHUT YOUR STUPID FUCKING MOUTHS AND LET PEOPLE GET ON WITH THERE PASSIONS.

Grammatical and lexical issues aside, this final commenter strikes at the heart of much of the present discussions about gender and gaming. Said commenter clearly does not understand the implicit cultural valuation present in the creation and dissemination of cultural artifacts – the idea that what is contained within a work of culture (popular or otherwise) somehow impacts or reflects some aspect of that culture.

I do not think that Hotline Miami 2 has the same kind of cultural cache as Selma or The Imitation Game, or even Dragon Age: Inquisition orGTAV, so my guess is that there are far more people who haven’t heard of the game than have, thus minimizing the actual impact of its censorship. But at the same time, denial of classification to the game is censorship – plain and simple.

As horrified as I am by the content of the above quoted scene, I can’t support banning it.

Here’s why.

Censorship of any kind is a detriment to culture. It stifles voices that can contribute to a discussion, and it also exposes places where a society needs work. This is one of the latter cases. If our art – and yes, videogames are art – contains the glorification of sexual violence, then we need to consider why, just as we need to consider why our art contains the glorification of racism, sexism, homophobia, and genocide.

Would I prefer that this game did not exist? Absolutely. But since it does, it has every right to continue to do so, and to be available with clear warnings to the general (adult) public. And that’s one of the primary distinctions between my viewpoint – and that, I think, of many feminists speaking out in gaming – and that which is attempting to silence mine. While I might think that GGers shouldn’t hold the opinions they do, I believe they have the right to hold them. I believe they have the right to speak up about them, so long as that does not infringe upon the rights of others.

And that last point is the key to all of this, for me. Anything has the right to exist – any art, any speech, any opinion – so long as it does not bring harm to others. That might mean restricting the age of those eligible to purchase an item. It might mean putting warning labels on it. It might mean putting it in a special section of a store. But it does not mean refusing its right to exist.

Much of what has happened re: GG in recent months does bring harm to others. It has not only further marginalized the already outcast, but it has brought active harm to people for having opinions about games. People have lost homes, income, and health as a consequence of the actions of a few whose impetus for protesting is that they disagree with an opinion. That is not free speech – that is censorship of the worst kind.

So while I do not like Hotline Miami 2 and will never play it, while I will criticize its developer’s decision to include interactive rape and say that such a thing should not exist, I will never say that it must be silenced, eliminated, or censored. It should be treated carefully, but respectfully, as should any work of art or culture.

What I – and, I think, other so-called “social justice warriors” hope for is not the censorship of offensive and harmful material, but the decision to not make material that has little value other than offense and harm. We hope for a society that considers its impact and takes action to make sure that what it has to say is said to contribute to the world rather than to detract from it. We hope for artists and creators and, yes, fans and critics who consider a variety of viewpoints and take the initiative to “first, do no harm.”

How Homogeneity Happens

So today a friend drew my attention to this little game of Polygons. It’s cute. There are happy squares and triangles. And apathetic squares and triangles. And sad squares and triangles.

And the point is to teach us about how our “natural” inclination to hang out with people like us produces segregation. Because a triangle surrounded by squares isn’t happy, nor is a square surrounded by triangles happy. And the “easiest” way to make everybody happy appears to be to make all the squares and triangles sit next to each other.

But history – and Jim Crow – should have taught us that isn’t really a good solution. Because segregation by race, gender, creed, or sexuality never actually accomplishes the fallacy of separate-but-equal.

The game doesn’t tell us whether the triangles or the squares will end up being institutionally oppressed or whether they live in a happy geometric land where they can be separate but equal, but it does show us how we tend to congregate like with like – and how easily and simply that produces factionalism, in-groups and out-groups. Even just in terms of where we choose to live without ever really thinking about it.

And that’s worth thinking about.

Fan Effect

So I was one of many people disappointed by the ending of Mass Effect 3. I was not, however, one of the people for whom the ending “ruined” the entire series. Nor was I one of the people calling for the death, destruction, or public flogging of any of the members of the BioWare staff. I did appreciate some of what they did with the new ending, even though I still think it fell far short of what people wanted from the series.

At PaxEast 2013, BioWare ran a panel at which they offered to answer fan questions about the series – and at which they presented a host of interesting demographic information about what players prefer – manShep vs. femShep, romance choices, etc. The ending of course came up.

All this serves to preface not another rant about Mass Effect 3, but as background for BioWare’s choice to ask fans for their input via survey on Mass Effect 4, which doesn’t yet have a release date (but will not include a Shep of any gender).

I’m not sure what I think of this. On the one hand, this seems like a way for the developer to get in touch with what their fanbase actually wants. On another, I know that the most vocal fans are often the hardcore fans, and do not accurately represent the desires of the majority of fans of any game. (Visiting fora for games, for instance, will give one a skewed perspective on what people like about that game.) On a third (this is an alien with more than two arms, go with it), as a cultural critic I don’t want to see developers giving up their creative freedom to the fickle and contradictory wishes of the unwashed (or even washed) masses. On a fourth, what I really don’t want to see is the inevitable internet backlash from those masses who believe that they were “ignored” by a highly experienced and decorated developer who really does probably know better than they do what makes a good game. Finally (yup, five-handed alien), I don’t want to see a game produced by crowdsourcing that is either schizophrenic or contains a lot of gestures toward things fans think they want.

What I want out of Mass Effect 4 is whatever BioWare wants the game to be. Despite the debacle of the Mass Effect 3 ending, I trust BioWare’s writers, designers, and artists to produce a high-quality game. Sure, it will have bugs. It will have things that I personally don’t like or contain narrative elements that I would not have chosen. But you know what? So does every other form of entertainment on the planet. That’s part of why BioWare games are good – they are crafted, designed, and produced by people who care deeply about the worlds and characters they contain.

This is not to say that the fans don’t care deeply, too. They do (some of us maybe too much…). But they are ultimately fans, not developers. They’re welcome, of course, to create fanart, fanfic, and whatever other fan-content they wish. They can rewrite the ending to Mass Effect 3 in their heads or on their blogs as many times and ways as they wish.But they are not the developer and they therefore don’t have – and, I would say, shouldn’t have – extensive creative input.

Of course the desires of fans are ultimately important – if a fan hates something, they won’t buy it. If they don’t buy it, the company might never make another game or will change their focus. And fans have every right to whine, complain, praise, or buy/not buy anything they wish. But what I don’t want to see is a sudden turn, especially in a company like BioWare, to a democratic system of production. Democracy is great for politics, but isn’t (usually) great in art.

Edit: xposted to TLF

Binders and Gills and Inches, Oh MY!

(Note: Please read the last two words of the title as though you are George Takei, if only for your own personal amusement.)

In what seems to be a followup to yesterday’s post about gender-customization and Ubisoft, today I get to talk about Ubisoft’s extremely questionable decision to announce that Far Cry 4 (which has already taken some heat for the blatant racism on its cover art) is, and I quote, “packed to the gills with women.” “Packed to the gills.”

First of all, I’m not terribly sure what that even means, except to correlate it with the equally bizarre and ambiguous Romney “Binders full of women” debacle from the 2012 election campaign. Really, “binders” presumably can hold more than “gills,” unless we’re talking about something like a whale shark, I suppose, which must have really large gills. (I’m not the only one making this connection, either.)

For once, the above forum thread is full of more mockery for Ubisoft than it is derision for those who find Ubisoft’s statement questionable, although I suspect largely for the ludicrous nature of the statement rather than the implied content. Continuing, “Hutchinson says the developer ‘tried very hard to make sure of the four main antagonists, half of them are women, which is cool. On your side, one of the main leaders of the rebel faction is a woman, half the rebels that fight with you are women. It’s packed to the gills with women. They’re everywhere, just like life.'”

The follow-up that this is “just like life” is almost face-smackingly stupid, given that feminist gamers have been asking for years for the demographics of games to emulate “life,” the fact that Ubisoft has actually listened for once does not merit giving them a virtual cookie, especially because in spite of the claim that Far Cry 4 is “teeming with women,” that it is “just like life,” they aren’t going to create any female protagonists. Because women can be antagonists, but not, apparently, protagonists, because that’s too much work. Also, I guess, not “just like life.” Because women aren’t heroes. (They’re not even people on the same level as corporations – but that’s another debate I’m not having here.)

But here’s the best part. As Polygon notes, “Far Cary 4 devs were ‘inches away’ from women as playable characters.” Inches. (5-8 inches, might we say?) So now we’re supposed to give Ubisoft some credit because it almost did what we wanted it to do? They almost had gender-customization for their protagonist? And the reason they didn’t?

Well, per yesterday’s post, it wasn’t because having a female protagonist would in some way derail the story. Nope. Because “When asked if he thought a woman protagonist would work in Ubisoft’s brazen and oftentimes violent open-world shooter series, Hutchinson said that yes, it could work – and it should already be working.” What happened, then?

They didn’t have a “female reading for the character.” That’s right, they just didn’t hire a female voice actor. Sure, that’s time and expense, but really? Even that soon (the article is from June 11) after what happened with the Unity announcement at E3, Ubisoft still decided to play the “animating women is hard and we’d need a female voice actor” card? (Yup, they did.)

So here’s what I don’t get. If you see how upset a significant portion of the fanbase gets when you don’t offer gender-customization for Unity and you were originally intending to provide it as an option inFar Cry 4, why on earth would you not delay release long enough to put it back in? This is not a case of “the story needs the protagonist to be a man,” as the developer states explicitly that the story not only can but should support gender-customization, but a case of corporate cost-cutting at the expense of inclusivity and creativity. This is a case where Ubisoft should look at the developer and say, “The fans want it, you want it, let’s make it happen” instead of forcing the developer to regurgitate a tired, weak, and half-assed argument that it’s “too hard” to include what he wanted to include from the beginning.

We’ve been calling for more diversity in games for a few years now – and now we’re seeing developers (yes, even white male developers) try to do it, so let’s get the publishers on board with the fact that games not only can but sometimes should include that diversity, even at a modest financial cost.

Games in the Classroom

So I’ve been percolating on something about teaching games that has been bothering me for a while, and it’s been difficult to articulate precisely why it bothers me. The issue is this: whenever people talk about games in the classroom, it is almost always assumed that the games must therefore be “educational” in the most cheesy, trite, or bland sort of ways. By implication, this means that the games that enter the classroom cannot be games first and educational tools second; “education” must come first, and thereby – usually speaking – render the game less fun.

I’ve recently purchased and implemented a prime example of such a game: Lucid, a card game designed to teach fallacies. Now it has its uses – I have used it in class to greater effect than I would have been able to use worksheets or quizzes or something more conventional. But it isn’t a game that anyone outside of a classroom would pick up just to play. It’s an educational game.

But it’s also a fluke in my classroom, whether I happen to be teaching my games course or one of my other classes. I teach with games, but I also teach games – games as texts, as works of art worth study in and of themselves. I teach Settlers of Catan, Werewolves, Clue, Pandemic, Portal, and Bioshock. I use them to talk about cooperation, trust, in- and out-group psychology, tragedy of the commons, systems theory, mechanics training, and sociopolitical theory.

I was first introduced to games as education – rather than educational games – with the first Civilization in seventh grade. One of the best teachers I ever had used it to teach us about how societies were founded, expanded, succeeded, and failed. It served as a foundation for a project in which we had to establish a city in the Brazilian rainforest for 5,000 people – plan its economy, entertainment, environment, and infrastructure (and for which we were allowed to use SimCity as a test).

When I talk to people about teaching with games, it is assumed that the games must be meant as teaching tools – not that they could act as teaching tools or even be the focus of critical inquiries. I’d like to see that change. I’d like to see games come into their own as objects of value rather than being dismissed as something we do when we aren’t thinking – like movies or television. In fact, like pop culture in general. All elements of pop culture influence our society in both positive and negative ways, and all of them tell us about ourselves, whether or not we want to listen.