Category Archives: Game Criticism

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).

Feminist Illuminati: Academia, Feminism, and Gaming Mix Poorly

Today an article by Shira Chess and Adrienne Shaw – “A Conspiracy of Fishes, or How We Learned to Stop Worrying about #GamerGate and Embrace Hegemonic Masculinity,” published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 59.1 (2015) – came to my attention. Sadly, it lives behind a paywall at Taylor & Francis, so unless you’re an academic or willing to cough up some money, it will remain inaccessible. (If you do have access to an academic library, you can likely find a copy, however, and I would encourage you to do so.)

In some ways, the fact that Chess and Shaw’s article is locked within the Ivory Tower is deeply ironic, given that one of their points is that “The opacity of what we do, how we do it, and the language we use is often so far removed from the publics we are discussing that academia, itself, becomes part of the problem” (209). This is not a problem exclusive to games – any field into which academia dips its proverbial big toe encounters this barrier constructed of jargon, elitism, and paternalism which we call “academe.” Sadly, what this generally means is that normal, everyday people dismiss academics as being out of touch; we are, but not typically in the ways in which people think we are. Most academics are discussing subjects that are immediately relevant and significant to the sociopolitical world, just in terms and forms which are completely impenetrable to the uninitiated.

And this leads to an inherent distrust of the very people who are likely among the most equipped in the world to deal with the problems in those fields. It isn’t a good situation. When one combines this aversion to the academy with the typical response to “feminism,” as Chess and Shaw observe, things only get worse. And when this is compounded within game studies and, more frightening yet, games more broadly (fans and industry), it turns into the stuff of nightmares.

Some months ago, DiGRA (the Digital Games Research Association), an academic organization supporting the study of all aspects of games and gaming, became the subject of inquiry for a spin-off group of GamerGaters referring to themselves as #OperationDiggingDiGRA (more on them here and here). The Twitter hashtag, with a repeated group of individuals asking questions and making comments about the “feminist conspiracy” underpinning DiGRA, spawned, apparently, by a Fishbowl panel hosted by Chess and Shaw at DiGRA’s 2014 conference.

What happened, explain Chess and Shaw, is that their open symposium-style panel (“Fishbowl”) and its attendant public Google Document designed for the audience to take notes and make comments had somehow come to the attention of GamerGate, who began to doctor and comment upon said document:

On September 1, 2014 we began getting emails that indicated someone was commenting on our Google Doc. The one that caught our eye was a comment that read: ‘‘guys, use the comments thingy, leave the thing unedited please. It won’t look credible to anyone outside of 4chan if doctored around.’’ Reviewing the edits, it had apparently been edited and commented on since late at night on August 31. One edit simply replaced ‘‘identity and diversity in game culture’’ with the word ‘‘penis.’’ Another deleted the title entirely and replaced it with ‘‘I fuck kids- op.’’ That version also altered nearly every paraphrasing of participants’ comments to include something about ‘‘sucking cock.’’ Finally, someone reverted it back to the original added a note stating: ‘‘It’s impossible for us to mess with it too much, because it can always be restored to a later version, like what I just did.’’ Another comment encouraged everyone to make a copy of the document, just in case. Being busy and uninterested in following the sophomoric edits via the log we made a copy of the original version and deleted the shared doc. We wondered, however, how anyone came upon our notes from an academic conference in the first place—or, for that matter, why anyone would find them interesting. (211-212)

The very fact that GamerGaters felt entitled to change a document in order to present it as evidence is itself evidence of a very different kind. Obviously, many of the original “edits” were simply there as trollish pranks – one assumes no one would believe that the spontaneous appearance of the word “penis” in a document was evidence of a feminist conspiracy in the academic ranks.

Naturally, this document alone was not the basis for such a claim. Instead, the document – discussing identity politics and gender-related issues – was mixed with journalists’ reports of harassment against Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian, blogs and thinkpieces about women in gaming, and Tropes vs. Women in Video Games and presented as “undeniable” evidence of a conspiracy within feminism (as though “feminists” are all members of a unified secret cabal) to destroy videogames.

When mixed with the fact that many academics – including those in game studies – receive federal grants for their research, this supposed feminist conspiracy took on a new level of nefariousness. After all, federal money funding a secret feminist cabal has to be insidious, right?

On September 9 ‘‘Sargon of Akkad’’ posted a YouTube video titled, ‘‘A Conspiracy Within Gaming.’’ The video promises that ‘‘The smoky-room Communist meetings in gaming actually exist, they’re just done in the brightly lit halls of academia’’ (Sargon of Akkad, September 9, 2014). (213)

Sorry. Secret Communist feminist cabal. But what is interesting – both to me and to Chess and Shaw – is that somehow the status of ‘academic,’ typically conflated with “egg-head” and “tweed-wearing” and often dismissed by our students as pedantic and arrogant (at best) or out-of-touch and meaningless (at worst) became, to GamerGate, a legitimate threat:

In part, what appears threatening about academia is an assumed social standing: ‘‘It’s going to be impossible to fight against, because academics are viewed as intelligent people with  authority in their particular disciplines’’ (Sargon of Akkad, September 9, 2014). Evident in the IRC chat log, comments on the video, and numerous sites where the information was circulated, is that academia simply does not make sense from the outside. More than that it is perceived as threatening. (214)

Chess and Shaw go on to say that the opacity of academic discourse (a phrase in-and-of-itself that illustrates the academic tendency toward unnecessary obfuscation) is inhibiting legitimate conversations between fans and academics, and I can’t say that I disagree. What I do think is more wishful thinking than truth, however, is the idea that by becoming more accessible in our language and criticism that we, as academics, will be any less subject to being blamed for participating in feminist conspiracies.

GamerGate, as a whole, is not a movement built on or persuaded by logic or fact. Attempts by dozens if not hundreds of academics (some of them on the DiGRA listserv) to explain game studies to #OperationDiggingDiGRA participants came to a messy and mutually frustrated end, with neither side convinced whatsoever by the other, and those of us with English degrees tearing out our hair at the plethora of grammatical errors on one half of that conversation.

That isn’t to say that conversations can’t or shouldn’t happen across the Ivory Fence; they can and should. My point is more that academic transparency isn’t going to solve or inhibit movements like GamerGate.

In-and-of-itself, academic transparency is a good thing, something for which more disciplines ought to strive. It enables the transmission of knowledge, something sadly lacking these days, as not only GamerGate, but climate change denial and utter ignorance about basic female anatomy proliferates among the more conservative portions of the political population.

One of the conclusions at which Shaw and Chess hint – and one with which I can’t disagree – is the idea that academia is trying to change the status quo, except that it isn’t so much a conspiracy as it is overtly and directly advocating for change. But we don’t all agree on the direction that change ought to take, or even whether change is what is necessary. That said, academics, as a whole, tend to be liberal-minded advocates of advancing knowledge, in any and all possible forms that knowledge might take.

And yes, some of us are feminists. Some of us are advocating for more diversity, more tolerance, less objectification of women and less oppression of minorities. We are the proverbial and hated “social justice warriors,” but it isn’t a conspiracy in the sense of being at all hidden. We may use difficult language that the untrained find hard to penetrate, but we aren’t doing it in order to hide anything; we just speak a different language.

Infinite Regression

At the moment, I’m replaying BioShock Infinite in order to teach it to my class (Games, Game Theory, and Leadership Studies). The first time I played through it, I had a lot of reactions, some of them positive, some negative. Often, when one plays through a game for the second time, one notices things that weren’t there before, things that either confirm or complicate one’s opinion about the game.

Well, for one thing, I completely forgot how to change vigors and must have missed the pop-up that told me how, so I went through for quite a while only using Possession and Shock Jockey, when I really wanted to use Murder of Crows. But then I figured it out and felt stupid, but that’s my deal, not the game’s.

Some of the differences I have noticed – in the last year and a half or so, I’ve gotten much better at shooters. I don’t really play all that many (and I’ve mostly played RPGs and strategy in the interim between when I first played Infinite and now), so that was a bit surprising, but okay. It’s made me die… not at all. So that’s helping in terms of gameplay.

As for the rest… this playthrough is confirming and compounding what I already thought. It’s gorgeous, the music is phenomenal, the gameplay is vintage BioShock, I hate Handymen, and the gender dynamics are stereotypically sexist despite trying not to be so. But the depictions of race in the game make me want to crawl out of my own skin, even more than they did a year and a half ago.

Maybe its watching news coverage of Ferguson and Madison and Southern fraternities, maybe its my increased awareness of violence against blacks and other minorities from an institutional standpoint, maybe its because I’ve spent more time researching intersectionality. Whatever it is, Infinite is even more horrific in its depiction of “diversity” than it was the last time I played it, and I was pretty horrified then:

But the late-game Vox turn on you, and their actions – especially Daisy’s, when she tries to murder a child (probably another throwback to Bioshock chiding the player for spending a game possibily [sic] killing children him/herself) – are the epitome of bigoted stereotypes. And yes, I do understand the logic that the Vox have only become violent and barbaric because they were treated by the citizens of Columbia as subhuman. However, the game never complicates this late-Vox image. It never returns us to humanity from barbarity.

But now I see even more than that. It isn’t just that the late-game Vox (world three version) are barbaric, it’s everything up to and including Daisy’s “dialect,” the black servants around Columbia, world one Mrs. Lin’s pigin English (replacing her with a white woman in worlds two/three also weirded me out a little), the dioramas of Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion, the abject filthiness and poverty of the Shantytown in comparison to Columbia proper. Yes, I know that Columbia itself is supposed to be racist, but there’s a difference between depicting radical racism (Hall of Heroes) as bad and unintentionally reinforcing institutionalized racism by having a black woman smear blood on her face and then attempt to murder a child only to have her killed by the most innocent person in the game (Elizabeth, a young white woman) as an act of goodness. The color of the Vox is red – blood, violence, Communism – and they wear demonic horned masks.

While Columbia’s police are your enemies from the start, the Vox turn on you, go from being your allies to your enemies in one quick cutscene. They betray you – traitors whose actions are unpredictable. You – Booker – go from being their savior (white savior, anyone?) to being their victim… while still remaining the white savior. Talk about a martyr complex.

As I play through the game, I know its intention is to make me reconsider racism, but all it manages to do is make me be painfully aware of how racist the game itself actually is. The equation of minorities with poverty, theft, filth, a lack of education, and menial labor (even though the fact that Fink is obviously exploiting them is made evident) only serves to confirm the kind of institutionalized racism that causes people today to expect that black men are more likely to commit crimes and justify shooting them when they are unarmed.

I do not want to say that the developers who worked on Infinite are themselves racist. I have met many of them, and I think they are good people with good intentions. I also think they are unaware of the problematic way in which they created the universe of Columbia. I firmly believe that the message they wanted to convey was one of anti-American Exceptionalism, one of equality in matters of race and gender and sexuality. They meant well, they really did, and the game they created does have a lot of good things in it.

But.

In essence, and I do not say this lightly, Infinite succumbs to the worst sort of Uncle Tom’s Cabin-esque racism – the kind that is well-intentioned, paternalistic, and unintentionally reinforcing of the status quo. It’s the problem with #alllivesmatter, #notallmen (#notallwhites?), and #notyourshield. It wants to be equitable, wants to show that it cares about social justice, and only manages to offer up a bandaid and a balloon to ease a gunshot wound.

TLF – Memory Lane: A Review of Gone Home

So I finally got around to playing Gone Home, mostly because I put it on my syllabus to force myself to play it (in that “I keep meaning to but just don’t” kind of way – not the “oh god don’t make me” kind of way). My review of it is up on TLF, and it’s mixed.

My students’ reaction was also a bit mixed. Some of them got very immersed in the atmosphere, so much so that I had a few afraid to finish it in the wee hours of the morning because it made them feel like something was going to jump out and get them. I had others who were just confused, since they didn’t really feel like they were actually playing anything. And others who were bored, wanting something interesting to happen or wanting some kind of specific choice to make that would matter in the long run.

But it keeps coming up in class. Today we started Portal, and they immediately compared the narrative and exploration mechanics in Gone Home to the (lack of obvious) narrative in the first 10 rooms of Portal – although we’ll see how that comparison continues as the game develops.

Hedging our Bets: Kotaku on Sarkeesian

So yesterday Stephen Totilo of Kotaku did a write-up of a talk given at NYU by Anita Sarkeesian. Twitter and the internet in general naturally have things to say about this, some good, some bad. But what drew my attention was specifically a tweet from Emily Nussbaum:

So I went and took a closer look, and she’s right. There is something wistful about the piece, something hesitant, which seems to be keeping Totilo from actually taking the plunge and saying what he really thinks.

I don’t know Totilo. I have no idea if he’s a fan of Sarkeesian, a skeptic, or if he wishes she would disappear into the earth. But his piece reads like something struggling desperately not to alienate two disparate and at-war audiences: those who all-but-canonize Sarkeesian, and those who’d rather see her burned at the proverbial stake.

And I don’t really blame him. Totilo took a lot of heat at the beginning of the debacle that is GamerGate, particularly concerning pieces published by Kotaku which were written by “feminist sympathizers.” People demanded that he fire some of his writers and/or that he himself be fired. He’s had first-hand experience of the horrors of getting involved in the gender-and-videogames discussion.

So the fact that he was willing to jump back into the shark-infested waters to begin with shows some courage (or stupidity, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt here, since he seems to be an intelligent man). Whether he likes what Sarkeesian has to say or not, he has to come at it with a very large dose of skepticism or risk alienating his readership. (Some people are okay taking that risk, but I get why he might not be.)

That said – and I do not blame him for hedging his bets – Totilo is somewhat dismissive of the fact that most of Sarkeesian’s points are art-based: “Sarkeesian’s emphasis on the critique of what players see, more than what they do.” He points out that because she doesn’t often talk mechanics or interactions, her “criticisms of gaming occupy a different spot than other people’s criticisms about, say, free-to-play game design, game length, or downloadable content. Those latter arguments clearly and directly pertain to whether a game would be more or less fun or engaging for any player, which for many gamers is the paramount gaming concern.” To me, this feels very much like a claim that “real critics talk about design and gameplay,” although that’s not explicitly what Totilo says.

By beginning with a discussion of how Sarkeesian doesn’t really identify as a gamer (sort of) how she plays mostly Nintendo games of her own volition, and how she enjoys casual games (like Angry Birds) most, Totilo has set her up as a non-gamer (or at least, not as a hardcore gamer) whose criticisms are about the “fluff” of games, rather than the core component – “the paramount gaming concern.”

Furthermore, he concludes with the following statement:

As easy as she had suggested some of the changes in gaming could be, so much of this is likely to be controversial—and not just because someone might be sexist. How do you balance creators’ freedom with the need or desire to open a game up to a broader audience? How do you assess which portrayals of women in games attract or repel male or female gamers? How do we truly determine the impact of the characters we see or control on how we relate to those characters or view the world?

The implication, of course, is that what Sarkeesian suggests is restrictive to developers’ freedoms, that female characters are somehow repellent to gamers, and that it shouldn’t matter what our gaming avatars look like because in the end ‘it’s just a game’ (my words, not his).

And that’s where he lost me for good. I get wanting to make the article as palatable to his readers (many of whom are hardcore gamers) as possible, but to dismiss Sarkeesian’s criticisms as functionally fluff that ultimately doesn’t matter is to take a political side. Sarkeesian’s requests are not about restricting the freedom of developers any more than a critique of a film is designed to restrict the freedom of its director or actors. It’s about making the medium better for everyone – about opening up options, not closing them off.

Furthermore, even bringing up the idea that adding gender balance and reducing sexism (and racism) in games might be infringing on someone’s “freedom” is to borrow a tired trope from the privileged class: someone else pointing out oppression is not censorship. Bigotry, racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. are not freedoms; they are themselves restrictive and oppressive, and exercising them is not a right. No one has the “right” to harass others, objectify others, or oppress others. Asking someone to stop even unintentional oppression is not stifling creativity – it’s allowing for more voices to contribute, more perspectives to be considered, more to be created.

So, in the end, while I understand Totilo’s hesitancy to really take a stance – and he tries very hard not to – he ends up falling back into the same hedge-maze of games criticism and journalism, walking in circles rather than finding the way out.

Does Anita Sarkeesian have the answers to the problems of sexism and racism in games? Probably not – or at least, not exclusively or perfectly. Are her eight points really as “easy” as she thinks? Almost certainly not, nor are they going to “fix” things the way she seems to imply. But considering them – and the intentions behind them – would probably make games better, not because they would restrict the “freedoms” of developers, but because they would cause those developers to think about and then intentionally choose specific characters, motions, and mechanics instead of defaulting to the same old, tired sexist tropes without any consideration given to why they’re being employed.

A Tiger Can’t Change

So today it was brought to my attention that there is a fan mod for Dragon Age Inquisition that allows players to modify the sexual preferences of the companion characters in the game. Some people are thrilled by this. Some people are really angry about this.

Let’s look at why.

Only two of the companions are bisexual (Bull and Josephine), and several of them have species preferences (Solas can only be romanced by a female elf, Cullen by a female elf or human). This means that some of the most popular characters are not available for romance with all Inquisitors (Cassandra and Dorian are only available to male Inquisitors; Sera and Blackwall to female Inquisitors; Cole, Vivienne, and Varric to no one).

Those who are thrilled are those who wanted to romance a particular character in the game, but whose Inquisitor was not oriented in that direction.There are accounts online from multiple fans about how they attempted to romance a companion only to be heartbroken because Cassandra or Dorian wouldn’t date their female Inquisitor, or Cullen or Sera wouldn’t date their male Inquisitor. This fan mod gives them the opportunity to experience that.

Then there’s the other side. This side falls into two camps. First, the camp that’s already horrified that some characters are homosexual or bisexual. They think it’s disgusting that Cassandra could now be a lesbian, or that Cullen might be gay. I’m essentially going to dismiss that opinion as bigoted.

Then there’s my viewpoint, which is that this mod goes against one of the major points being made by the game: people are what they are. They can’t, and shouldn’t, be forced to change. In the game, Dorian talks specifically about how his father betrayed him by using blood magic to try to make him straight. That is – in essence – what this mod does. It changes the politics (yes, I know, “politics” is a dirty word in games right now) and the purpose of part of the game, and I don’t approve in general of things that change the developers’ intentions (fixing failures is fine – changing intentions bothers me). It also implies that we can change people to be what we want because it suits us, something that is both false and harmful.

Do I think the person who created the mod should be shamed and harassed? Of course not. But I think it’s important to remember that even if you can now romance Cassandra or Dorian as a woman, that it goes against one of the most powerful points in the game – we are what we are, we love who we love, and that can’t be changed.