Let’s Be Critical

So I’ve recently started doing more research into what’s been written about games, and games and gender in specific. The answer, sadly, is “not much,” and I’m not only speaking about volume, but also depth. While there certainly are some worthy pieces out there in the aether, they are few and far between.

For one thing, some of the best criticism I’ve read about games and gender has been journalistic; this isn’t in and of itself a problem, but it does raise the question why academic works touching on the question aren’t doing as good a job as journalists – especially when academics generally pride themselves on critical rigor. Journalism also doesn’t rely on research and theory nearly as heavily as the academy, which means that even brilliant pieces of journalism lack some of the components academics look for simply by virtue of genre. And it’s great that there are good critical journalistic pieces out there – but they aren’t the kind of criticism I’m looking for (neither, by the way, is this blog – nor is it meant to be).

Nick Yee’s The Proteus Paradox (2013) has theory, research, and thoughtful criticism, but it isn’t focused on the parts of games that I, as an academic with training in literary criticism, am looking to find. It’s a good book, but I want to find more pieces that engage not only in social scientific inquiries, but also humanities-based research. In short, I want to see more of what I want to do: narratological (with or without ludological) analysis of games with regards to their impact on questions and discussions about gender and identity.

I’ve seen a couple of well-done pieces in the Approaches to Digital Game Studies series edited by Gerald A. Voorhees, Josh Call, and Katie Whitlock, although not generally focused on gender questions, and I was hoping to find (but didn’t) similar pieces in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat and Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat. Instead, I find repeats of the same, tired, and (I believe) misleading idea that women don’t play games because there’s something different about women and girls. Maybe it isn’t that we can’t play games, maybe it’s that we just don’t like them…yadda yadda.

It’s disappointing to find that even the critics to whom I would turn for a good critical feminist analysis are coming back with “Look, a damsel!” as the most complex example of criticism they can produce. Yes, there are a lot of damsels in games. Let’s move on now to something more interesting, like, say, examining the precise nature of how this particular damsel functions as social commentary, either positive or harmful.

I try to do some of this in my reviews, and do it moreso in the pieces I have published on Dragon Age (although not on gender, yet), but most places I look don’t have that kind of critical depth. Instead, most writers seem to feel obligated to defend their choice to write on games for at least the first three pages of their article. I think that by now we need to move past that defensiveness and start doing the kind of critical work that many of us have been trained to do – focus in on details and context, do the research, invoke the theory, and analyze the games.

And that means, for the love of all that is and is not holy, that you must play the games in order to write about them. As both a gamer and an academic who writes on games, there is nothing more infuriating than realizing someone is analyzing a game that they haven’t played. If you want to talk in general terms about it on your blog or in a catalog piece, then fine, but if you’re going to present yourself as a gaming academic and write on a game in academic circles, you had better have played that game. Repeatedly. Maybe even on legendary.

The point is, we can’t both complain that people don’t take our work seriously as feminist critics and then not play the very games that we set out to analyze. Our voices are dismissed because we become enmeshed in social justice projects to “get more girls to game” or “desexualize female characters” and lose our ability to explain why those things are problematic to begin with. We can’t criticize games for objectifying women without also demonstrating that those games do objectify women and that, in doing so, those games are doing harm to the social perspective of women. If we want to call ourselves feminist critics of games, then we need to go back to the games, analyze the games as texts, and play them with every bit as much attention as we would read our Butler or Foucault or Irigaray.

Comment-ment Problems

So I’m starting to dread comment notifications on TLF. I guess I’m lucky that most people haven’t found this blog, since it means that I’m not inundated with depressing comments on a more regular basis.

Today’s featured comment is in response to a cross-post here about another comment from TLF. It suggests that by pointing out the problematic nature of the phrase “wom[e]n like…” I am thereby effacing any sort of distinction between men and women.

Well, in the case of criticism, yes, yes I am. I don’t think that the gender of a critic, an academic, a journalist, etc., is a relevant criterion when one is discussing – whether positively or negatively – their opinions. I did not say that Sarkeesian’s “female experience,” to borrow the most recent commenter’s phrase, was irrelevant to her viewpoint. Nor did I ever once suggest that “everyone is identical,” as the commenter concludes.

Instead, I said that one’s viability as a critic is not determined by one’s gender. Nor, for the record, is one’s viability as a critic determined by race or sexuality or religion. That does not mean that one’s experience as a member of any of those groups is invalid or not valuable. But it does mean that if I, as a white woman, wanted to criticize the racial depiction of a character in tv or a videogame that my race and gender are irrelevant to the quality of that criticism. I can’t personally speak to the “Black experience,” to quote the commenter, but I can suggest that, for instance, Bioshock Infinite contains a highly vexed depiction of race (and gender).

To reduce my disparaging of the phrase “women like…” in regards to the first commenter’s dismissal of Sarkeesian’s opinion as being intrinsically female to the statement that there is no distinction between male and female experiences of the world is being intentionally obtuse. Sarkeesian isn’t writing about the female experience. Neither am I. I’m talking about a critic’s perception, an academic’s observations.

Are they colored by whatever other components influence my life? Of course they are. But to say that my voice should be subsumed into the general category of all women before it should be considered academic or critical is both dismissive and reductionist.

For that matter, to suggest that there is a single “female” or “male” or “Black” experience that is shared by all people of that designation is equally reductionist and problematic (if that is in fact the intention of the commenter… which I hope it is not, as to assume so is to be guilty of the very crime of which I stand accused).

In the grand scheme of internet comments, this one is banal, even benign. Yet the perpetuation of the attitude that biology or genetics must inherently make us categorically unequal is infuriating. Of course every individual is skilled or unskilled, good or bad, at different things. I am not a construction worker or rocket scientist and do not pretend to be. But I am a trained carpenter and electrician, a gamer and an academic, an aerialist and a stage manager. Those things are not categorically part of the “female experience,” and my gender is irrelevant to all of them (with the exception of the kind of costumes I wear in aerials)

In fact, what the commenter calls the “female experience” is almost entirely socialized – the product of socialization far more powerful than biology. And anything that is socialized rather than inherent, any experience that is the result of a false inequality, although all too real to those who experience it, should not determine their competence or identity. Yes, women are treated differently than men, but aside from purely biological functions, they should not be, nor should Blacks be treated differently than Asians or Native Americans or Hispanics or Latinos or Arabs or Whites. They are – but they should not be.

So when I suggest that the phrase “women like…” is problematic, I don’t mean that women don’t experience sexism, but, rather, that they should not, and that the evaluation of their work should be on its own merits, on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin or the chromosomes in their DNA.

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.

“Woman like Anita”: What’s (Not) Wrong with Critical Fandom

About a week or so ago, I received a new comment on an old TLF post on Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women in Videogames” project. The original post was written before Sarkeesian actually released any of her videos (there are subsequent posts on TLF that talk about each video once they were released), and has garnered more attention than any other post I’ve made at TLF, which bothers me a little if only because it’s since been dated by the release of Sarkeesian’s videos (Post #2, Post #3, Post #4)  and I’d like to see people follow the conversation, not react to the original post. But that little complaint aside…

This most recent comment bothers me quite a bit, and I was having trouble figuring out why, exactly, since it’s a far cry from the kind of internet troll harassment that people talking about Sarkeesian’s work usually get (i.e. no threats or demands for sandwiches). However, there are several things about it that bother me.

First, the assumption that “No one has yet come to the realization that this anita sarkiseen woman has done it for the attention and the money? Thanks internet for giving this woman a free ride in cash and picks with universities” is irrelevant. Yes, Sarkeesian is making money with this series. So what? People make money doing what they do for a living. This is what she does for a living. The idea that somehow her publicizing her work and speaking about it in public is a sign of corruption is ludicrous. I talk about gender and games, I publish about games, I teach about games, and part of the reason I get paid is because of that. It’s my job. Sarkeesian may be self-employed, but talking about “Tropes vs. Women” is nevertheless her job and she should get paid for it, irrespective of whether or not anyone agrees with her opinions.

Second, this sentence: “Woman like Anita are a waste of time and nothing more than a media-eyelight eyesore forcing their way on how games should be.” Any sentence that contains the phrase “Wom[e]n like…” should immediately set off warning bells, since it presumes that the gender of the person doing something is relevant (hint: it usually isn’t). In addition, the idea that anyone‘s opinion on “how games should be” shouldn’t be made available to the general public is absurd. Anyone who plays games or wants to play games is allowed, by virtue of being human, to have an opinion about what they think “games should be.” That doesn’t mean the industry is going to listen to them, but they’re welcome to declare their opinion anyway.

Third, the commenter claims that “This is why innovation in games is getting more stale and less appealing to because of those like Anita, who believe the game world should be the real world and reflect their wants and needs.” Um. The game world does and should reflect the real world and reflect the “wants and needs” of the people who play in it. That doesn’t mean that all game worlds are going to reflect the “wants and needs” of Sarkeesian, but that there ought to be game worlds that do – as well as game worlds that do not. Gaming is a new medium in the grand scheme of media, so it’s still (slowly) playing catch-up on this one, but other forms of popular culture (tv, movies, books) already reflect multiple worlds and worldviews, and it’s not only appropriate and desirable, but inevitable that game worlds will, too. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

Finally, this:

Selfish americans are what is the true underline issues, not guppy-politics on how the smallest inch of mesh fabric on a female game model is a derangement to all the poor and unfortunate real-life woman out there. We waste so much of our money, time, and attention on things like optional video-games that don’t matter in the whole-run where us as a nation is actually going. Instead we’re like brainless sheep, following the face of random feminist women or anyone that tickles our ears with their ideas and agendas. We have become color-coded followers of the popular social “norms” of those who just want to ram their ideals quiet frankly, up our butts. I surely do miss old america, the new america is nothing more than a joke.

This commenter clearly has no concept of how popular culture reflects and shapes society, and I’m fairly certain I’m not going to be able to convince him (presumably) that it does, since he appears to be one of those people who doesn’t realize that his opinions about the universe have been constructed by his life-long exposure to media (including games) and society. Clearly his opinions were plopped into his brain by Truth Itself. That aside, the commenter claims to be above the rest of us who “waste” our time and money on games, yet has obviously decided to “waste” his time reading and then commenting on a post about gaming because he clearly does consider it important.

I am also curious what, exactly, “old america” is supposed to be. America in the 1950s when women were meant to stay in the kitchen providing for their husbands and children, and suffered from severe depression as a result of oppressive social norms? The 1850s, when slavery was still legal? Or maybe 1776, when the Founding Fathers chose to create a nation based on the very principles of free speech that the commenter seems to think apply only to him and not to me or to Sarkeesian?

Yes, it is true that people who are in extreme poverty should care more about food than videogames. But the vast majority of Americans are not – fortunately for us – in that category and do choose to dispose of our time by playing games (I’d imagine, the commenter included). And since we do, it is not only our right, but our responsibility as socially conscious and conscientious individuals to make sure that medium represents our viewpoints and does positive work toward the shaping of our sociopolitical ideals. Popular culture shapes our world in far more ways than we even realize, and taking responsibility for demanding that pop culture be accountable to its audience is a vital part of our society’s ideological formation. Yes, there are other very important concerns: education, poverty, crime, etc., but games (like any other popular media) impact the abstract ones: racism, sexism, homophobia. And if we can use games to change our society to become less bigoted, then that is a laudable and valuable goal.

Do I think that Anita Sarkeesian is the best person to do that? Probably not. But she is doing it, or at least trying to, and the very fact that her voice is out there and public has perhaps done more in the last few years for starting the conversation about gender equality in the gaming industry than a lot of other, less controversial and less public voices. Ultimately, I guess my stance has changed since that first TLF post: I’m a feminist gamer, and I’m all about Anita Sarkeesian.

Edit: Cross-posted on TLF.

Captain Obvious

So after a couple of completely insane weeks, I’m back to my playthrough of Dead Space. I’ve just begun Chapter 3, so please don’t tell me how stupid I am in the event that I’m wrong about my surmises at this point. Winks and smiles will be adequate.

So something that I think irritates me about a lot of games is the “Captain Obvious” nature of a lot of the narrative. I know that at some point there was a game where the “guide” you are working for really was meant to be your friend, but it seems that in most of the games I’ve played or replayed recently, that “guide” is full of crap: PortalBioshockDishonored… And yes, I know that there are characters in Bioshock who aren’t leading you astray (Tennenbaum, for instance), just as there are games where the friendly neighborhood guide isn’t an ass (Elizabeth in Infinite isn’t evil, for instance) and games where you know from the get-go that, to quote Ackbar, “It’s a trap,” like Arkham Asylum.

My proverbial spidey senses are telling me that Dead Space, though, is one of the former. I profoundly distrust Hammond. Every time he tells me to do something or go somewhere I want to tell him what he can go do with himself. And yet the game refuses to allow me to do that, so I merrily go along with the plan, fully expecting him to betray me or try to eat my brain at any moment.

All this leads me to the point that I profoundly dislike when the narrative of a story – movie, game, book – is extremely predictable. I find this odd, since I enjoy re-watching, re-reading, and re-playing things almost to the point of memorization (in some cases). I can enjoy something if I know the whole story, so why does it bother me when I can guess the outcome?

I guess the answer is that I feel like predictable stories are lazy. And when I say that, I don’t simply mean that a story’s ending or major plot arc is predictable. I say “predictable” when I not only know what’s happening in the major plotlines, but when the accoutrements that accompany it are just as banal. In Dead Space, for instance, I go into a room/hall and something jumps out of the wall or ceiling, I shoot it, the music stops, I go pick up some money or plasma, and then I proceed, knowing full well that sooner or later Hammond is going to try to kill me, and yet I have to keep going or stop playing.

In a game like Dragon Age I also can predict some of the end outcomes. I’m going to ultimately face the Archdemon and defeat it (although I didn’t see the exact choices coming, which was refreshing). But in Dragon Age, there are a thousand little things that I can choose from, quests at which I can succeed or fail along the way that change the narrative, if not the major plot arc. I can engage in conversations with some people and not others, reveal side stories, find weapons or artifacts. Dead Space? Not so much.

Now I haven’t given up on Dead Space. It has some core ideas that I still find worth pursuing, even if it does really feel like System Shock 2 every time I turn a corner. I also assume that some of the tropes that I find so tired would not be to someone who hasn’t played System Shock 2 or seen a million space-zombie movies, but then again, if you’re into games like Dead Space, you’ve probably seen at least a few.

I guess I’m just a little disappointed at the lack of sophistication in the game. I want it to tell me a story that I haven’t heard, or at least tell the old story in a new way, because, really, all stories (thanks, Northrop Frye) are old stories. Every time we tell a story, whether in a game, a novel, a play, a film, or a poem, it’s an old story repackaged and tied with a shiny new ribbon. I want more ribbon. I want sparkly paper, not the recycled wrapping from last Christmas.

And while Dead Space isn’t a shiny new game, I guess I feel like that shouldn’t matter when it comes to narrative. After all, there are a lot of old stories that still have their sparkle: Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolkien, Heinlein, Lewis, Carroll, Seuss, Austen, Eyre, Le Guin, Gaiman, Spielberg, Moore. Old stories that keep sparkling long after they’ve been told and retold. I’m not saying that I only like games with Dickensian-worthy stories, mind you. I’m a fan of summer blockbusters and pulp sci fi. But I am asking for more than as a way to get from one room full of monsters to the next. Also, after about ten rooms of monsters, that gets old, too. Mix it up. Give me a story covered in pretty paper with a bow on top, and let me guess what’s inside before you have me tear off the wrapping.