Rise of the Tomb Raider Follow-Up

In the last twenty-four hours or so (less, really), there have been a lot of interesting responses to Crystal Dynamics’ trailer for Rise of the Tomb Raider, some positive, some negative, some confused. Here’s something of a recap.

IGN‘s “live” response, which was mostly positive, focuses on the idea that yes, Lara is human and that it’s a good thing that we’re acknowledging that what happened to her in Tomb Raider is not normal. Ashelia’s reaction at HellMode is similar, suggesting that a quasi-realistic picture of PTSD makes Lara “video games’ first dynamic and realistic heroine” who actually feels emotions (although I would like to note that Lara has already felt emotions in Tomb Raider, so they aren’t “new” to Rise). One DeviantART fan is also excited, looking forward to what happens, as “SOON AS THE BLUE HOOD DROPPED MESS GETTIN REAL SON!!!!!” Whatever that means, although I think I can sympathize (maybe?).

I’m not completely sure what to make of the tone in the Destructoid recap of the trailer, which is very short and possibly snarky, but also possibly just a factual recount made by an overworked journalist:

Lara Croft had a rough time on her last archaeological expedition. It’s no wonder that she would suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or experience some other negative psychological effects. During Microsoft’s E3 press conference this morning, we see her in a session with a therapist who is working to help her through the tough time.

 I read some snark there, but that might be me being jaded, and is unintended by the writer, who also remarks that “old habits die hard, so she will still be performing death-defying jumps over enormous chasms soon enough.”

I am even less sure what the escapist‘s reaction is supposed to mean. Here it is in its entirety: “Rise of the Tomb Raider trailer shows that Lara has a new hobby after the last game.” Can one really consider therapy a “hobby”?

Patricia Hernandez’s response at Kotaku is similarly brief but less bizarre, and withholds taking a side in the “Rise of the Tomb Raider Trailer Debate,” simply remarking that the choice to show Lara in therapy is “Interesting!” I have the feeling that Hernandez is going to wait and see what happens with the game, which, really, is probably the best policy all around.

But there are also those of us who are skeptical. Ishaan at Siliconera says that Lara “looks rather disturbed,” and Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Adam Smith suggests that the whole thing is ill-conceived, from title to trailer:

The title really is Rise Of The Tomb Raider, which I suppose is better than Raid Of The Tomb Riser, or High Rise Raider, in which Croft and some other posh sorts wage violent class warfare in a south London estate. In the actual sequel, Lara has been left so emotionally damaged by her experiences on the gusty island of the first game that she has to wear a hoodie. And see a therapist who reminds me of a non-specific Fox News anchor.

 That doesn’t strike me as a positive response, although Smith does say that he enjoyed the most recent game and will likely enjoy this one, as he expects that “this probably isn’t a point and click adventure about rebuilding Lara’s shattered mind. She’s going to jog around exotic locations shooting arrows into peoples’ brainstems.”

Ultimately, although yesterday’s post did come across as a bit negative, I’m more in line, I think, with Hernandez than any of these other responses in that I’m waiting to see where Rise of the Tomb Raider ends up taking this therapy thread. I’d like to see something along the lines of what Ashelia suggests, a game that doesn’t dismiss the impact of PTSD while also enabling Lara to be an active agent in her own recovery. But… I’m skeptical. I’m skeptical that the therapist isn’t going to end up being a villain or a dithering idiot, which doesn’t do much for the idea that Lara is actually seeing a legitimate therapist and acknowledging that PDST is not something that makes a person weak. I’m also skeptical that the emphasis on feelings and emotions isn’t going to become about the fact that Lara is female. As @applecidermage tweets,


If this were to be Master Chief – or Shepard, or Marcus Fenix, or some other manly man – I’d have a lot more hope that the therapy angle was not going to be coded female. However, I’m afraid that the image is going to perpetuate the idea that women need therapy because they’re hysterical instead of showing therapy as a potentially valuable treatment, and it’s going to diminish Lara’s strength of character and reemphasize that therapy is not a “manly” thing to do. Which would be terrible.

Edit: TLF Crosspost 2

Rise of the Tomb Raider… I hope.

Following today’s announcement of the development of Rise of the Tomb Raider – the sequel to Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider (2013) reboot – I am… hopeful but skeptical. While I loved Tomb Raider for a wide variety of reasons, the whole premise of today’s E3 trailer (released by Microsoft, which suggests an Xbox One release, although it was not specified as such) seems to retract a lot of what I actually liked about the new Lara Croft.

First of all, the trailer is structured as a visit payed by Lara to an older, white male psychologist, whose patronizing dismissal of Lara’s experiences (contained in flashbacks to running, shooting, falling, and running from a large bear) as generalized “trauma” is disturbingly paternalistic, both in the “you poor girl, daddy will protect you” sense and the “trauma is something we can fix” senses, neither of which bodes well for the new game’s ability to continue some of the more feminist “I may be terrified and female, but I can still kick your ass and outthink you at the same time” attitude that Lara had in the 2013 reboot.

The Lara – under a hood and ostensibly unidentifiable to the viewer just yet, grows increasingly agitated by the psychologist (as do I) as the trailer progresses, cracking her scraped knuckles and tapping an iconically booted foot. The psychologist discusses how it would be good for her to go outside, to “take walks,” etc. He says that many people lock themselves up as a result of trauma, but that there is “another type of person.”

“Do you know what happens to them, Ms. Croft?”

“They become who they were meant to be,” her voice answers, in a flashback, rather than in the office, and the trailer ends with Lara holding a torch in the midst of a vast cavern.

Okay, so she’s certainly claiming agency at the end in asserting her identity as “who [she was] meant to be” rather than as a passive victim afraid to leave the house, but the fact remains that she’s still seeing a psychologist about the experience of trauma – which runs almost completely counter to the image of Lara cultivated both in the original series and in the reboot. Although real people certainly often need professional help with their lives, Lara Croft is not a real people, and the placement of the trailer in a psychologist’s office increases the air of victimization (which is so often read as weakness) surrounding her.

Perhaps this was meant as a way to make her more real, more (as my students would say) “relatable” to the real people who play the game. I hope so. But I’m afraid that it in fact augurs a new vision of Lara in which her strength is stripped down (much like Metroid: The Other M did to Samus Aran) or even stripped away in order to present her as a damsel in need of assistance, rather than a woman who staunchly refuses to be damselled no matter what happens to her.

That’s certainly what Polygon seems to think, given the following tweet:

As much as I hope they’re right, I’m skeptical. After all, in far too many circles, making a female protagonist “hurting” and “human” mean making her into a victim with little-to-no agency, a weepy puddle of “female feelings,” because everyone knows that “real” women are fragile, emotionally delicate flowers. I can only imagine what Pratchett’s Lara would do if someone called her a “delicate flower.” I hope this one is the same.

I really hope that my trepidation regarding Rise of the Tomb Raider (to be released late 2015) is unfounded and that perhaps they’ve even brought writer Rhiannon Pratchett back to continue crafting the Lara she started. I hope that this is more of what I loved about Tomb Raider (2013), and not a shift back to the staid misogyny of older games in which women can’t kick ass, take names, and talk intellectual circles around their opponents and companions. I hope it does more of what it promised in 2013, rather than less. I’m willing to hope, I’m just not going to hold my breath.

Oh, and one more thing. He calls her “Ms. Croft.” She’s an archaeologist. She has a goddamn Ph.D. and found the historical remains of a city that most people didn’t believe existed (Yamatai). She deserves the “doctor” that goes with her name. Use it.

Edit: TLF Crosspost

Pink and Purple Unicorns

Several recent things have come together to spur this post, including the always-unfortunate reading of internet comments, my Twitter feed, and my academic research. First, I’ve recently read From Barbie to Mortal Combat, published in 1998, and have started working my way through Beyond Barbie and Mortal Combat, published in 2008. Second, I recently read a news story about how women are no longer to be permitted to teach Bible classes at some Christian colleges. Third, the following tweet:

What they all have in common is the assumption – or, in Todd’s case, challenging the assumption – that women must somehow want something inherently different than men, or, as the next sequence of tweets suggests, that women are somehow biologically deficient when compared to men:

Maddy’s tweets (and I did skip several intervening ones that illustrate rather colorfully just how angry this concept makes her) show another fundamental problem facing not only women, but all minorities in most situations (not just gaming). It’s the kind of warped Darwinian logic that was used in prior centuries to explain why people from Africa were intellectually inferior to people from Europe – and, like that argument, the claim that women have poor reflexes is the consequence not of genetics, but socialization.

Men have better game-playing reflexes in general because more men than women play games from an earlier age. More boys are expected to play videogames than women. More boys are taught to play sports. All of which hone coordination and reflexes. Mythbusters recently did an experiment about the myth of “throwing like a girl” in which they learned that men and women throw exactly the same with their off hand – meaning that men’s supposed natural ability is conditioned by their expectations, both taught (in playing) and observed (watching men play professional baseball, for instance).

That aside, the notion – which seemed to be accepted without much problematization in From Barbie to Mortal Combat – that women must necessarily want something different than men (physical abilities aside) is equally ludicrous. While it is true that women are socialized to like pink sparkly things, unicorns, and rainbows, women and girls are not genetically programmed to like them. In fact, a few centuries ago, blue was considered feminine (one of the reasons the British Army wore red).

Women and girls are no more genetically predisposed to like Barbie Fashion Designer than they are anything else; their supposed preferences are entirely socialized. Socialization doesn’t make those desires any less real, of course, or any less valid, but the point I’m making here is that there is no intrinsically “feminine” way that games must be in order to attract female players.

The answer to Todd’s question above shouldn’t be “What can games do to be more attractive to women?” but “How can games be less hostile to women?” Really, that’s the point where we (still) are in games; games objectify women, they victimize women, they place women in positions of little to no agency or control. And the gaming community is no better – perhaps even worse.

If you are a developer who wants more female gamers, then make your community and your game inclusive of women, rather than exclusively for women. Men and women don’t have to be dichotomized, and in fact shouldn’t be. Instead, games – any component of a modern and egalitarian society – should include everyone, catering not to a generic player (who is by default white, male, and straight), but to all players.

Keep Your Kinect to Yourself, Thank You

This week, Xbox announced that they would be offering an XBox One (not-so-affectionately known as the Xbone) without the Kinect system, something they had originally said would not be an option. This is the only way I will ever be convinced to purchase one, so the news makes me rather happy, since I expect that sooner or later my Xbox 360 is going to go the proverbial way of all electronic devices and flesh.

Here’s why I abhor the Kinect. It isn’t that I don’t want to play games involving wildly flailing limbs (although I’m not really big on that idea), nor is it that I don’t want to give my Xbox voice commands (although, again, given its propensity for misunderstanding things, that also isn’t really a big thing for me), it’s really more that I find it profoundly creepy that any of my electronic devices that aren’t also medical devices (and, really, I don’t own any of those) might be interested in my basic vital statistics.

The Kinect can tell my body temperature, my heart rate, the distribution of heat on my body, and the difference between me, my husband, my cats, and any friends we might have over (and if they have Xbones with Kinect, it might even be able to tell who they are). Since it is not a certified medical professional, I don’t want it knowing that much about my person, thank you. I don’t want to be able to walk into someone else’s house (with a Kinect), and have their Xbone recognize me based on biometrics. That’s just a little too far in the direction of an Orwellian Big Brother to make me at all comfortable, and when the original Xbone announcement was made, I remember thinking, “No, thank you. I guess I’ll be buying a PS4 when my 360 dies.”

Well, although I am most likely going to purchase a PS3 in the next year or so, Microsoft just managed to make it 100 times more likely that when my 360 dies (or when developers stop making games for the 360, whichever happens first) I will bite the proverbial Kool-Aid bullet and buy an Xbone instead of a PS4. And it won’t be able to tell me when I have a temperature or suggest that perhaps I need to cool down and take a drink of water. I guess I’ll just have to figure that out all on my own.

Life Choices

A few days ago, Border House writer Gunthera1 posted a review of the new Nintendo 3DS Tomodachi Life that highlights one rather glaring absence, the ability of players to choose to “marry” someone of the same gender in the game. The premise behind Tomodachi Life is life simulation; the Miis in the game interact with the other players’ Miis as friends, enemies, and even romantic partners, as long as both Miis are straight, of course. Same-sex couples – or even bicurious Miis – need not apply.

In response to a fan outcry and hashtag #Miiquality campaign (started by Tye Marini), Nintendo released the following statement:

Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of ‘Tomodachi Life’. The relationship options in the game represent a playful alternate world rather than a real-life simulation. We hope that all of our fans will see that ‘Tomodachi Life’ was intended to be a whimsical and quirky game, and that we were absolutely not trying to provide social commentary.

Aside from the at-best-privileged-ignorance-and-at-worst-bigoted assumption that the vast majority of their players would have no interest in pursuing virtual same-sex relationships (which is a strange assumption), Nintendo’s insistence that “we were absolutely not trying to provide social commentary” does a couple of highly problematic things. First, it assumes that games do not inherently contain “social commentary” simply by virtue of being cultural artifacts. They do. (So do tv shows, movies, books, and every other form of popular culture in existence.)

Second, it assumes that their audience isn’t smart enough to realize that someone had to code in heterosexuality as not only the default, but as required. Including a “romance” mechanic between Miis without gender distinction seems to me (and I’m admittedly not a programmer) to be a simpler thing to code than a “romance” mechanic with prohibitors based on the gender identity of a Mii. In other words, somebody made the choice to make all the Miis straight. Somebody (maybe the same somebody, maybe a different somebody) approved that choice, or even demanded it. Which means that even if the company at large didn’t mean “to provide social commentary,” somebody did.

Gunthera1 rightly suggests that this is an obvious, glaring, and even deliberate oversight on the part of Nintendo’s design team: “They decided who is included and who is excluded.” Games writer Samantha Allen made a similar post on Polygon, saying that “The more words a company needs to use to justify its exclusionary choices, the more simple its motivations. Call it a queer version of Occam’s razor. Behind all the corporate jargon and flowery public-relations language lies hatred, pure and simple.”‘

Whether or not Nintendo’s exclusion of non-heteronormative couples is “hatred” or privileged ignorance or a horrific miscalculation of audience demographic may be debatable, but – no matter how you read Nintendo’s intentions – it nevertheless sends a harmful, hurtful, and even (yes) hateful message to players. Those whose preference for same-sex Mii romance is precluded are rejected from fully participating in the game. Those whose personal preference might include same-sex partnerships feel insulted and marginalized (even more so than they already are). And, perhaps worst of all, those whose paradigmatic view of the world suggests that anything outside of heteronormativity is condemnable have their warped ideological position ratified.

To be fair to Nintendo, following the posts from Gunthera1 and Allen, the #Miiquality campaign, their PR department issued a second statement on May 9, 2014:

We apologize for disappointing many people by failing to include same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life. Unfortunately, it is not possible for us to change this game’s design, and such a significant development change can’t be accomplished with a post-ship patch. At Nintendo, dedication has always meant going beyond the games to promote a sense of community, and to share a spirit of fun and joy. We are committed to advancing our longtime company values of fun and entertainment for everyone. We pledge that if we create a next installment in the Tomodachi series, we will strive to design a game-play experience from the ground up that is more inclusive, and better represents all players.

 Gunthera1 also posted a follow-up on Border House, stating that although

I am disappointed that this was not included in the original game. I am angry and hurt by the words of that first press release…I am hopeful for the future. This new statement shows that Nintendo realizes that lesbian, gay, and bisexual players ARE their fans and that their representation in games (or lack thereof) does matter. My hope is that this realization spreads within Nintendo and into the mindset of other companies. This is a matter that goes beyond Tomodachi Life and into all games.

I’m not sure that I feel the same sense of “hope” that Gunthera1 does, although perhaps that is simply a matter of my generally jaded response to PR statements that seek to shove dirt and grime under the rug by wailing “we didn’t mean it!” as loud as they possibly can. But I do see the point here; at least Nintendo did make a second statement that recognizes the diversity in their player-base. I’m skeptical of the claim that Tomodachi Life can’t be patched to permit non-heterosexual relationships, although I do understand that it may more be a matter of “we’ve already moved on to our next project” than it is “we can’t do it.” This is even more likely to be true of the company doesn’t expect Tomodachi Life to be particularly lucrative.

The May 9 follow-up is, as Gunthera1 suggests, better. It is more hopeful than a dismissal of diversity or a claim that – as we so often see in response to demands to include more women in games – “that’s not what fans want.” While I’m hesitant to call it a step forward, it at the very least is not a step back, and I suppose that’s something worth validating, even if not celebrating.

For now, I’ll wait to pass judgment until the next game is released, and will continue to look forward to games – like BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition due out in October – that deliberately embrace diversity instead of (deliberately or not) excluding it.

ARVA

It’s that time of the semester during which I functionally disappear from all areas of life outside my office or the conferences I’m obligated to attend, so I apologize for becoming a functional internet absentee. It’s also that time in the semester when my students put the finishing touches on their ARIS ARG (alternate reality game) projects.

Last semester, despite a good deal of effort, neither of my class development teams managed to put together anything functional. One team came very, very close. This semester, however, appears to be a very different story. If you happen to be in Richmond and own an iPhone, I’d love to have you come to the UR campus and try their games out.

Team Zed and Team Omega have both produced workable, functioning games on the ARIS platform (free download at the app store), and both are designed to encourage students to learn more about their campus. For instance, they take students to museums and galleries that most students wouldn’t go into while drawing on actual places, facts, and history from UR and the surrounding city (Omega learned that there is a real mummy on our campus in North Court, and Zed is capitalizing on the legend of the Richmond vampire connected to the Church Hill train tunnel collapse from 1921).

One of the things we study in class is the purpose of ARGs – to incorporate game components and games into the real world in order to fulfill a purpose. McGonigal’s Reality is Broken offers suggestions like Chore Wars, designed to give points for doing household chores, as a good example of this. My students’ task is to build GPS-based ARGs on the UR campus that can be used to guide new or prospective students around campus or to encourage students to go new places or learn new things about UR.

If you happen to come to campus and want to play, search for Omega or Zed using the ARIS app, and then explore! (Also, be sure to let me know how it goes!)

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.