Category Archives: Videogames

My Game!: The Problem with Fan “Ownership”

So a recent (completely civil, polite, and even productive) exchange got me thinking about one of the problems with videogame culture, and, indeed, fan culture more broadly. This is the problem of fan “ownership”–of a game, a franchise, an entire genre…

On the one hand, creators want fans to feel a sense of ownership over the games (or whatever) they play so that they become invested in them on both the emotional and (of course) financial levels. And investment of that sort is a good thing. It’s good when audiences connect on a deep level to the things they consume because it means that those things are reaching them, engaging with them, and helping them to sort through problems. All these are good things.

This kind of investment leads fans to hold creators accountable, not only for errors in fact or continuity, but for sloppy work, lazy plotlines, rehashed tropes that no one wants to see anymore. It keeps creators pushing the edge, striving to be better, working to make sure that their product is an accurate representation of their ideas and ideologies. Also good things.

But there is, sadly, also too much of a good thing.

There are those fans (and, by the way, the exchange above did not sway into this territory) who come to feel that they really do own content by virtue of their fandom. These are the fans who say that an all-female Ghostbusters remake (which, by the way, does not erase the previous Ghostbusters films) “ruins” the franchise. These are the fans who demand that their games not contain the option to create a female protagonist, the fans who think that all content needs to cater to their–and only their–point of view.

These are the fans whose critical voices are not actually critical, but demanding and entitled. There is a difference between criticism and childish temper-tantrums. The former engages thoughtfully (and often also lovingly) with the content. The latter pitches fits with little basis and less maturity, often loudly and without consideration for the effort made. The former is about improving content and genre. The latter is about making the content into a personal fantasy.

The latter is not a good thing.

It stifles instead of expands creativity. It causes paranoia and is–by and large–a conservative force that keeps content constrained to the status quo. These are not good things.

What I’d like to see in games is a sense that fans can be invested, but that they recognize that, ultimately, they do not own the content of the games. They are participants in the sense that games are participatory, but they are consumers, not creators. They are audience, not actors. Yes, fans have the ability (and right) to respond to the content, to applaud it or boo it, to critique it, to buy it or boycott it. But they do not own it. It is not theirs. It is work–usually a lot of long, hard work–done by others, their brain-child, and fans need to remember this.

Remember, and respect. Because at the end of it all, while fans do have the right to criticize, they ought to do so with respect, recognizing that this thing about which they are posting or speaking or writing a ten-page screed is someone else’s thing, someone else’s idea, someone else’s work. And that deserves respect.

 

Edit: Reposted on TLF.

Shameless (not-self) Promotion: Perception

So for those of you–if there are any–who read regularly, I’m taking advantage of this blog to promote the Kickstarter campaign for a new game being developed by a team of former Irrational Games developers (one of whom I happened to marry). The game is entitled Perception, and I like it for a variety of reasons unrelated to the fact that it is being worked-on by a person I live with.

First, Perception has a female protagonist (Cassie). First-person perspective means that her attractiveness, costume, and physique are irrelevant.

Also, she’s blind. Yes, the game is played first-person perspective with a blind protagonist. Which is also pretty damn cool. You should check out the trailer to see how that works. (Also, yet another reason why her physical attractiveness is irrelevant.)

Third, it’s not a shooter. It’s a survival-horror game in which the player does not shoot things–instead, Cassie uses her cane to sense the objects around her–and interacts with them based on sound and memory.

In other words, it’s a game featuring a differently-abled female protagonist of undetermined race (probably white, let’s be honest, but we can’t see her and SHE can’t see her) who isn’t engaged in shooting things and who is independent enough to be exploring a house on her own even though she’s blind.

Yes, please.

TLF/AIP Inquisition: Diplomacy, Conspiracy, & Necromancy (Part Seven)

Over at TLF things have been rather hectic, so there was a brief hiatus from my two As-I-Play series (Inquisition and Borderlands 2). But since things are getting put back together by the fabulous mistresses of the web-o-sphere, I have a new Inquisition As-I-Play up on my first trip to Halamshiral (amusingly, I just finished my second trip two nights ago) and Castle Adamant (which, by the way, is an allusion to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Princess,” which was turned into a musical by Gilbert and Sullivan entitled “Princess Ida”). And yes, I know it’s not actually “Castle” Adamant in Inquisition, but I’m calling it that anyway.

And yes, the fact that Inquisition contains a reference to an obscure Tennyson poem that was made into an even more obscure–and hilarious–musical involving cross-dressing men who break into an all-women’s college (Castle Adamant) to try to get some makes me very, very happy.

TLF: Into the Friendzone

I have a new post–on an old topic–up over at TLF that discusses the changing mechanics of friendship and rivalry (approval and disapproval) in BioWare’s Dragon Age series as a whole. I’ve written about this before, at length, but it seemed like something worth discussing now that I’ve played through Inquisition (and then went back and replayed ALL the Dragon Age, and am working my way through Inquisition again).

Braaaaaaains: The New “Threat” of Videogames to our Minds

So today’s example of scare-mongering “science” comes to us from Canada (via the Telegraph in the UK), where someone has apparently “proven” that “Call of Duty increases risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” according to the headline. When added to a recent thread on the DiGRA list about Philip Zimbardo’s current speaking tour about how the “greatest threat” to young men today is videogame playing (because it turns them violent), this has me banging my head into the wall, the desk, and any other object in close proximity. (Maybe that’s why videogame playing is linked to brain damage… because articles like this make us give ourselves cranial trauma…)

Okay, so Zimbardo first. Zimbardo is a well-known psychologist with published books, one of which–The Lucifer Effect–I have taught to my class because it is an example of what not to do in psychology. Zimbardo, for those of you at home, is the man who came up with the Stanford Prison Experiment which traumatized several young men at Stanford in the 1970s (there’s even a documentary on it) because when it started to get out of control (the “guards” were psychologically torturing the “prisoners”), Zimbardo let it continue for a few days until someone else called him out on it.

Yes, that’s the man I want to trust to evaluate the psychological impact of anything. But even assuming that he learned from his experience and became a more ethical psychologist (which, to be honest, by all accounts he has), he has done no research into videogames whatsoever and is simply capitalizing on his fame in order to state opinions which people then trust as true, because that’s ethical.

Putting Zimbardo aside in favor of today’s article about Alzheimer’s, let’s take a look at the actual article, rather than the fear-mongering title. Nowhere in the article does it say that Call of Duty causes or increases a risk of Alzheimer’s. What it says is that videogame players–not Call of Duty players, either, mind you–use a different part of their brains to manage three-dimensional spatial interactions on screen than non-videogame players. This part of the brain is called the caudate nucleus and is used for voluntary movement and goal-directed actions, which means that gamers understand gaming as a goal-completion activity (as opposed to non-gamers, who don’t think about it the same way).

Apparently people who rely heavily on the caudate nucleus “normally” “have less grey matter.” Specifically, “The Canadian team said if action gamers have less grey matter, as people who rely on the caudate nucleus normally do, then they may be more prone to mental illness.”

Let’s parse that. People with an overdeveloped caudate nucleus “normally” have less grey matter than people who don’t. Gamers rely on their caudate nucleus. There is no statement in there that says that gamers actually have less grey matter; it says “If action gamers have less grey matter.” Which they apparently do not know whether gamers have or do not have.

Okay. Next step. People with less grey matter in the hippocampus (the site of spatial memory) have a higher correlation “with neurological and psychological disorders including dementia and depression.” That means that if someone has a reduced hippocampus, they might have an increased risk of a disorder (which could include Alzheimer’s). One of the researchers, Dr. Gregory West, summarizes: “This means people who play a lot of action video games could have reduced hippocampal integrity, which is associated with increased risk for neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.” Let’s repeat that–“Could have reduced hippocampal integrity.” Not “do have,” “could have.”

What the research does not show is whether or not gamers in fact do have “reduced hippocampal integrity,” which means that the study has not, in fact, suggested that gamers are at risk for anything. It has only “proven” (sort of) that gamers use the caudate nucleus when playing more than non-gamers.

West also says that “For more than a decade now, research has demonstrated action video game players display more efficient visual attention abilities. Our current study again confirms this notion.” So this means that there are benefits to gaming, as well. And yes, gamers have differently shaped brains from “normal” people:

Previous research has also shown brains of people who regularly play computer games differ from those of infrequent gamers.

A study in teenagers showed the “reward hub”, which is involved in addiction, was larger in regular players.

Brain scans showed a larger ventral striatum, which is the hub of the brain’s reward system, in regular gamers. Playing computer games has been linked to a range of effects from addiction to improved reasoning.

That’s not really all that surprising, since our brains are plastic (as in, they change, not made of petroleum-based material) and adjust to our regular behaviors. Our brains’ structure changes as our habits change, so that we adapt to what it is we do most. This is normal.

So at the end of the article, all we know is that gamers use their caudate nucleus more than non-gamers when playing a game, and that they have a larger ventral striatum. What we absolutely do not know is whether this is good, bad, or neutral information, and we absolutely do not know that gamers–Call of Duty or otherwise–are at increased risk for pretty much anything (Alzheimer’s included) except carpal tunnel.

What this all boils down to is that media reporting–and, apparently, popular psychology–needs to stop leaping to conclusions not at all based in the scientific evidence being proffered. Just like with climate change (which is real, no matter what congress says) and GMOs (which do not cause health risks, unlike pesticides and certain preservatives) and vaccines (which do not cause autism and might in fact contribute to fending off some forms of leukemia). Videogames are no more–or less–harmful than any other form of popular media, including movies, television, comic books, the internet at large, books, poetry, theater, murals, sculpture, and classical art.

Oh, and education. (Well, maybe education for standardized testing really is causing harm, so I take that one back…)

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).

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.