Category Archives: Videogames

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.

SVU Does GG

So this week one of the many things flying about on the feminist internet is the fact that Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has more or less decided to feature internet harassment against Anita Sarkeesian (with a little Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu thrown in) as the subject of its Feb. 11th episode, entitled “The Intimidation Game” (clever, SVU, I see what you did there). (Video link – SVU: The Intimidation Game)

The Washington Post did a write-up of some of the similarities and differences, conflating Sarkeesian’s experience over the last few years (yes, we’re at “years” now) with GamerGate, and suggesting that L&O is offering “the final word on GamerGate.”

My thought on that sentiment is “If only.” If only this were the last we would hear about GamerGate or harassment of women online. If only women in the games industry would now be able to blithely go about their lives and businesses without fear of repercussions in the form of threats, harassment, doxxing, and even violence. Because while none of the real women involved in GamerGate have been abducted or physically assaulted, that is the fear that has been created – intentionally – by those engaging in online threats and harassment.

Sure enough (and in its defense, the WP piece does talk about the “thoughtful” nature of the comments which appeared immediately after the episode aired), the episode is far from the “final word” on the subject, as Quinn’s twitter today contained the following:

And Sarkeesian had this to say:

So no, it wasn’t the “last word” on GamerGate, not by a long shot.

Ars Technica, on the other hand, characterized the episode with the phrase “everyone loses.” From where I’m sitting, that seems more accurate.

I watched it. And it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten this angry at a television show. And I mean legitimately angry, not “How could they do that to X character?!” but “That was irresponsible, disrespectful, and undermines progress” kind of angry.

That episode just eroded years of work being done by the games industry to see its products recognized as valuable contributions to culture that influence the way people think, it undermines the work being done by women and other minority voices for recognition and respect in the industry, and it completely negates the difficulty of the struggle many feminists and other activists face every day by turning it into nothing more than a headline. It trivializes the difficulty of daily harassment by transforming institutionalized misogyny and exclusivity into a fringe spectacle that impacts only the important or infamous.

It’s disgusting and depressing to sit at this keyboard and watch years of effort at recognition be disintegrated in forty-two minutes and change. Thanks for that, NBC. That’s the last Law & Order I will ever watch.

(Edit: See my TLF post for more details.)

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.