TLF: Out of the Background: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, Women as Background II

Yesterday, Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency released a new Tropes vs. Women in Video Games video – part two of “Women as Background Decoration.” As per usual, people seem to either love it or hate it (and I’m pretty sure most of them have come to their respective conclusions before ever clicking on the link or pushing play.

I did a write-up response over on TLF, also as per usual.

On a related but not-repeated-in-my-TLF-post note, I’m starting to become irritated by the people I think of as Sarkeesian cheerleaders (none of whom I know personally, by the way). Not anywhere near to the level with which I am disgusted by the trolls who attack her, mind you, but, I think, in large part because of them.

These are the people to whom Sarkessian can do or say no wrong. Every word, every clip, every tweet are sacrosanct nuggets of gold in the feminist fight against the ravening trollish hordes.

And, to be honest, I can sympathize with the impulse because she is fighting the proverbial good fight. She’s doing good work, or at least work for good (although arguably a little of each). I don’t want her to stop making her video series, nor do I want her to be subject to the harassment that characterizes (and escalates with) every release of another episode.

But I also think that to hold Sarkeesian up as the pillar of feminist criticism of videogames is problematic and does a disservice to criticism itself on a couple levels.

First – and most importantly as far as I’m concerned – it suggests that to engage with criticism (metacriticism, if you will) is to devalue it and render it meaningless. If that were the case, no academic ever would have a job. The purpose of criticism is to have a critical conversation, which includes discussion and dissent, that engages with both the primary material (here, videogames) and the other critics (Sarkeesian).

Second, the valorization of Sarkeesian as a paragon of feminist criticism creates a black-and-white template in which videogames are seen as either feminist or misogynist, with no room in the middle.

Finally, it polarizes the people surrounding the discussions. If I’m not with Sarkeesian 100%, then I must support the trolls. This is a false dichotomy that hurts feminists and intelligent criticism far more than it hurts the trolls.

Nuance is important. Critical conversations are important. If I take issue with Sarkeesian’s depiction of one game among many – Dishonored, for instance – then there should be no problem with me pointing that out. I’m not saying that her work is bad. I’m not saying that there is nothing of value in the episode. I am saying that I disagree with this one point – to criticize a single point is to engage her work in conversation, which, so long as it is done respectfully, ought to be the objective of any critic’s work.

So don’t wave your finger in my direction and say “But you only don’t like this one example” as a reason why my entire criticism is invalid. No, I don’t like that example, and that’s okay. As Sarkeesian herself says at the start of every episode, it is possible – even positive – for us to criticize the things we like. So instead of name-calling and accusations (from anyone), let’s have a conversation.

What did you like in this episode? What didn’t you like? Was there a game you thought was missing? A game you thought was misrepresented?

To Fix or Not To Fix

This week, Gamespot ran a piece on how Dontnod, the developer who made Remember Me and is currently working on Life is Strange, isn’t “trying to fix the industry” by featuring female leads. This struck me as odd on a couple of levels.

First, Dontnod is “trying to fix the industry” by having female leads, but not in a pushy kind of way, which is probably why they said what they did:

“That’s not us trying to be different for the sake of being different,” creative director Jean-Maxime Moris told Joystiq at Gamescom. “It’s not as if we’re trying to ‘fix the industry.’”

What this says to me is that Dontnod is trying to make games that are good, games that are unique or “fresh” (to use one of the buzzwords), games that aren’t the same cookie-cutter white-male-shooter games that everyone else seems to think is required for success. What that means, really, is that they are trying to be different, but not “for the sake of being different” – the idea is to make an original game because that’s a good thing, not just to shock people or stick out like a sore thumb.

I find it a little odd that people disparage the idea of being different “for the sake of being different” – that somehow wanting to make something original is not a legitimate goal in and of itself. But that is as it is. Certainly, if a company wants to be successful, they need to make a game that is fun, a game that is popular, but I’m not sure why Moris went out of his way to assure players that “being different” isn’t one of the goals.

Second, art director Michel Koch explains the presence of female leads by saying that

“We have women in the dev team–not that many because it’s still the video game industry and there are not that many women–but we have women working on the game,” Koch said. “And our writer, which is an American writer we’ve worked with before, he’s consulting with his nieces. He’s showing scripts to them, to read it and see if it feels genuine and fresh.”

There are women on the team. (Admittedly, having women on a development team is a thing that is sadly rare, but here seems more like an apology than a reasonable statement – but that could be the way it’s framed and not what Koch intended at all.) Women are a part of the development process, and the game has female leads. Sadly, this is as unusual and innovative as the article frames it – but it shouldn’t be.

But that aside, the headline – like the quote – also makes some basic assumptions about videogames and gamers that is still bothersome. It has become headline-worthy point when a developer makes not one, but two games in a row that feature female leads (that aren’t a series, like Tomb Raider). My god. I applaud Dontnod for doing it, mind you, but I’d rather see the headline be about the game instead of about a developer defending the choice to make two games in a row featuring female leads.

AIP/TLF: Managing the Team (XCOM)

My second as-I-play post on XCOM: Enemy Unknown has gone live on TLF. I’m a few more hours into the game now, and have started to see my soldiers carving out niches in terms of their tactical abilities (which really means that they’re advancing along their little tech trees in different directions). I’m also upgrading their armor and kits so that they’re less likely to get killed (or can at least take more shots).

I’m not in love with the game, though. It’s not a bad game, I don’t dislike it, but I find myself largely apathetic toward it – it is an engaging way to kill time, provided I’m looking to kill more than an hour (otherwise it isn’t really worth getting into it).

Here’s the first as-I-play, if you need to catch up.

Tired

So over the past week or so I’ve graduated to a new level of reaction to the rampant sexism that surrounds women in media and, especially, gaming. It’s getting to the point now where I’ve become exhausted just looking at the tweets, posts, articles, and videos. I’m tired of it being a topic of conversation, not because I think it isn’t worth remarking upon, but because I’m just tired of it being a problem.

And this worries me. It worries me because in the last month or so I’ve seen women driven out of the industry by harassment (Samantha Allen, in particular, who explains that “For Women on the Internet, It Doesn’t Get Better“), I’ve seen other women and gay men on the verge of giving up their passions and careers in games criticism and journalism, and yet the comments sections of articles just don’t stop.

Keeping up with the stories and tweets about sexism and harassment in games takes up at least three hours of my day – three hours that I could be spending working, but (because I write on gender and games) which I instead spend “keeping up with the conversation,” if a conversation it can be called. Three hours which leave me tired and depressed and wishing that either the world were a better place or I’d been instead interested in makeup and fashion or born a straight white male. (No, not really either of those last two things, but you get the idea.)

And I’ve been lucky enough not to suffer harassment beyond the occasional “You’re dumb and you don’t know what you’re talking about because you’re a woman.”

I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to write for The Learned Fangirl, where the writers are an amazing supportive group of women (and the occasional dude) of many walks and creeds and colors. Where most of the comments are civil, and even those that cross the line don’t leap across it wearing rocket boosters.

But something has been happening recently, in life and online, that strikes me as a little disturbing. I get comments that say things like “You aren’t like other women,” or “You’re not one of those feminists,” and I’ve been told that I “don’t count as a woman.” Apparently I possess the bizarre ability to “pass” as male without trying… and I’m not discussing transgender. I’m pretty much cisfemale with no effort put in (little/no makeup, jeans, tshirts), so there isn’t any confusion about my gender identity, either in person or online, where my name makes my gender pretty apparent.

And yet I “don’t count” as female. Whether this is because I don’t coo over pink things or because I don’t immediately begin to scream about the objectification of women in every game I play, I’m not sure, but it’s starting to bother me quite a bit. As much as I’m in favor of gender neutrality in terms of our valuation of skills, being told that I “don’t count as a woman” isn’t actually gender neutrality.

I’m being exempted from the gender paradigm – it still exists outside me, somehow, and is still problematic in that other women – people who “count” as women – are still being excluded or marginalized where I’m not. (I don’t WANT to be marginalized, mind you, I’m just pointing out that my exclusionary status is an indicator that sexism is very much alive and well for all I wish it weren’t.) And it’s an odd place to be. It’s odd to watch sexism and harassment from the outside, to have mansplainers talk to me as though I understand their perspective because I’m not “that kind” of woman or because I “don’t count” as the female enemy.

I wonder why I’m excluded even as I’m thankful not to be the target of threats and verbal assault, why my voice is somehow more palatable to those who would see women relegated to kitchens and bedrooms and stripclubs – and I wonder if that’s a problem. I don’t see the world as a dichotomy of “us” (women) versus “them” (men), nor do I see games as either “evil” (sexist) or “good” (feminist). I see them as products of our culture, which is deeply flawed and patriarchal, and I see some games doing good in the world, some for gender egalitarianism and acceptance, some protesting violence, some protesting racism or religious exclusion, and some not really contributing anything of quality to the cultural milieu.

But what does it mean that voices that struggle to be rational and reasonable, to acknowledge both the positives and negatives in the fight against the -isms (sexism, in my case), become co-opted by the dominant and oppressive paradigms? I don’t want to be irrational in my responses to games, but neither do I want to be aligned with misogyny simply because I won’t lambast games for their use of a damsel in distress…

And all of it makes me tired.

Next Project?

So one of the things I’ve been meaning to do for a while is play through XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Everything I have heard about said game is that it’s awesome, and I’m really hoping that all the hype (and the trailer that mentioned Heart of Darkness) isn’t going to leave me disappointed.

The purpose of this post is twofold. First, to make sure that I actually do start playing because I’ve said I would. Second, to query whether or not I should start making “as-I-play” posts about games to this blog, no matter what I’m playing. I’d give them their own tags, and people should feel more than free to ignore them as they wish, but a reader at TLF mentioned wanting to see one for this particular game. I’m not sure TLF is the place to do that (although if you want it Keidra, it’s yours), so I’m thinking of posting such a thing here, as a compromise.

I’m wondering what y’all think – please let me know in the comments, by FB comment, by private message or email, twitter, whatever ways you have of contacting me. Radio silence implies that you either don’t care, or that you think it’s a terrible idea.

Thanks!

Edit: Keidra has indeed claimed the series for TLF, so I guess it will be going up there! I’ll post a link here, as per usual.

I’ll also take suggestions for future games to do – XCOM is on the list, as is The Bureau, and in October I will be playing Inquisition, so that will also show up. Just remember that I have about two other lives on top of my gaming life, so the list will take me a long time to get through.

Fan Effect

So I was one of many people disappointed by the ending of Mass Effect 3. I was not, however, one of the people for whom the ending “ruined” the entire series. Nor was I one of the people calling for the death, destruction, or public flogging of any of the members of the BioWare staff. I did appreciate some of what they did with the new ending, even though I still think it fell far short of what people wanted from the series.

At PaxEast 2013, BioWare ran a panel at which they offered to answer fan questions about the series – and at which they presented a host of interesting demographic information about what players prefer – manShep vs. femShep, romance choices, etc. The ending of course came up.

All this serves to preface not another rant about Mass Effect 3, but as background for BioWare’s choice to ask fans for their input via survey on Mass Effect 4, which doesn’t yet have a release date (but will not include a Shep of any gender).

I’m not sure what I think of this. On the one hand, this seems like a way for the developer to get in touch with what their fanbase actually wants. On another, I know that the most vocal fans are often the hardcore fans, and do not accurately represent the desires of the majority of fans of any game. (Visiting fora for games, for instance, will give one a skewed perspective on what people like about that game.) On a third (this is an alien with more than two arms, go with it), as a cultural critic I don’t want to see developers giving up their creative freedom to the fickle and contradictory wishes of the unwashed (or even washed) masses. On a fourth, what I really don’t want to see is the inevitable internet backlash from those masses who believe that they were “ignored” by a highly experienced and decorated developer who really does probably know better than they do what makes a good game. Finally (yup, five-handed alien), I don’t want to see a game produced by crowdsourcing that is either schizophrenic or contains a lot of gestures toward things fans think they want.

What I want out of Mass Effect 4 is whatever BioWare wants the game to be. Despite the debacle of the Mass Effect 3 ending, I trust BioWare’s writers, designers, and artists to produce a high-quality game. Sure, it will have bugs. It will have things that I personally don’t like or contain narrative elements that I would not have chosen. But you know what? So does every other form of entertainment on the planet. That’s part of why BioWare games are good – they are crafted, designed, and produced by people who care deeply about the worlds and characters they contain.

This is not to say that the fans don’t care deeply, too. They do (some of us maybe too much…). But they are ultimately fans, not developers. They’re welcome, of course, to create fanart, fanfic, and whatever other fan-content they wish. They can rewrite the ending to Mass Effect 3 in their heads or on their blogs as many times and ways as they wish.But they are not the developer and they therefore don’t have – and, I would say, shouldn’t have – extensive creative input.

Of course the desires of fans are ultimately important – if a fan hates something, they won’t buy it. If they don’t buy it, the company might never make another game or will change their focus. And fans have every right to whine, complain, praise, or buy/not buy anything they wish. But what I don’t want to see is a sudden turn, especially in a company like BioWare, to a democratic system of production. Democracy is great for politics, but isn’t (usually) great in art.

Edit: xposted to TLF