TLF: Girl-Game of the Year

By “Girl-Game,” I do not mean “game designed for girls”; I mean “game featuring a female protagonist which I’m calling ‘girl-game’ for the sake of alliteration.” I was asked to make a year-in-review post for The Learned Fangirl – so here it is.

Originally, I wanted to make it a top ten list. But then I discovered that I couldn’t find ten major releases with female protagonists. In fact, several of the games that make most lists of “female-protag” games don’t actually have female protagonists as the game’s central hero; they have females as secondary protagonists, such as Ellie from The Last of Us (which won Gamesradar’s Game of the Year this year) or Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite. It turned into a top five – but, really, the competition wasn’t that intense.

I guess this leads us back to the fundamental problem of games that have female protagonists… they very often just aren’t that good, OR they’re so concerned with the fact that they are games about female protagonists – like Gone Home – that they lose something in the way of larger narrative and/or mechanics. This has led, I think, to the misperception on the part of fans and publishers alike that games with female leads don’t sell. It isn’t that games with female leads don’t sell, it’s that weak games don’t sell, and many games with female leads are weak games. It’s correlation, not causation – after all, Metroid and Tomb Raider games sell and are good games. It just so happens that most games have male protagonists, so the percentage of good games with male protagonists is higher (because the percentage of GAMES with male protagonists is higher).

What I’d like to see in 2014 are good games that happen to have female leads, not games that force female leads just for the sake of feminism. I’d also like to see more games that allow for gender-choice, like Skyrim, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Saints Row, Fable, and Fallout, but I would also like more stories that feature women as heroes, as well as men. Really, I’d like to see a wider variety of stories, period, which (theoretically) would yield a wider variety of protagonists of all genders, ethnicities, ages, and cultures. Heroes that really reflect the vast diversity of the people who play them.

Gaming Criticism and Ms. Men

Yesterday, Anita Sarkeesian’s most recent video in the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series came out on the “Ms. Male Trope.” As is likely predictable by this point, the internet, in all its trollish glory, reacted with its usual backlash, including, but not limited to, death and rape threats, complaints of censorship, and howling about how feminists are going to ruin videogames.

Today, I submitted my reaction to The Learned Fangirl, so I’m not going to rehash it here. Suffice it to say that I think – as I have consistently thought – that there are good things and bad things about the video, but that for the most part, she has a point. I do think that this time she missed the most important part about this trope in an effort to take on BioWare’s Mass Effect series, which may have been a poor choice on her part for a variety of reasons (some of which my post at TLF goes into).

But that’s not actually the point of this post. Yesterday, a petition went up at Care2 concerning Sarkeesian’s series. My initial reaction – as I’m sure anyone familiar with the gaming community could probably guess – was a heavy sigh of “Aren’t we done with this yet?” But the petition isn’t quite what I expected. First of all, it’s articulate, and expresses concerns with the nature of internet debate that I think are eminently valid… even if I remain unconvinced of the overall conspiratorial tenor of this particular petition.

For the record, I do not think that Sarkeesian has “effectively silenced any genuine criticism of her often erroneous and intentionally misleading point of view by portraying all of her critics as a ‘cyber mob’ of misogynist internet harassers,” since 1) I criticize her work every time she puts out a video and have yet to be called either a misogynist or a cyber-harasser, and 2) I know someone who invited her to speak on a campus who had to deal with very real threats of physical harm against her. I think that there is a very vocal contingent of the gaming community who lack a certain level of basic human decency but who also don’t realize that what they say and do online can have very tangible emotional consequences – they believe that their “harassment” is funny and harmless, not that it causes psychological trauma. I don’t believe that most of the people who threaten Sarkeesian will ever do anything to her – but I also believe that their threats are a valid cause of upset for Sarkeesian, who is fully within her rights to protect herself and expose online harassment.

I don’t think that she automatically dismisses “any legitimate criticism of factual inaccuracies in her statements, differences of opinion, or any other disagreeing response as part of a ‘misogynist hate campaign,’” rather, that her dismissal of criticism becomes overwhelmed by the tide of hate-filled misogyny she genuinely receives. Does that mean she doesn’t address all the valid points made about her work? Of course! As a functional internet celebrity, it would not physically be possible for her to do so. Should she attempt to address at least some of the reasonable critiques? It’s her choice whether she does or not, and petitioning her to do so is, quite frankly, childish and silly.

But here’s the one point that I think may actually have some validity: “both gaming and mainstream media outlets have extolled Ms. Sarkeesian’s viewpoint uncritically, we feel that it is time to demand that our voices be heard.” While I myself have been critical of what Sarkeesian has had to say, I am not a major media outlet and people do not flock to my blog (or even to TLF, more’s the pity) to read my opinions on games. I was surprised, however, when Wired featured her because, although she is doing critical work on gaming, she isn’t a part of the industry, either in games journalism, games criticism, or game development. Like the petitioner, I find it a little disturbing if, in fact, Sarkeesian was “likened Anita Sarkeesian to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Harvey Milk” by PBS, because – again – while she is engaging in a much-needed critical discussion, she isn’t facing anything like the level of hatred, bigotry, or violence that was faced by Parks, King, and Milk.

Sarkeesian has become something of a feminist darling (something I’m sure she would hate to read written about her… sorry) because, in part, she is young, female, and fairly attractive. She’s also articulate and knows how to put together a video that is straightforward and clear. What she isn’t is in the industry – yet. Maybe this series will springboard her into a career in games journalism or games criticism (she’s a pop culture critic, which is a lovely thing to be, but is much more general than a games critic because it encompasses tv, books, and movies, too, and typically engages them on a more surface level because it talks about so many things rather than in-depth in one thing).

Now I do have a problem with the impression that has been created around Sarkeesian that she is neigh-on-untouchable because she is standing up against gaming misogyny, either because she has been sanctified by taking on this impossible battle and/or because of the fear that maligning her will place a media outlet or journalist into the undesirable category of “misogynistic troll.”

But this isn’t a problem exclusive to Sarkeesian, nor is it worthy of a petition (although there are a good deal of things unworthy of petitions that end up with online petition sites… I remember a similar impulse among my third and fourth grade classes with notebook paper). In essence, the problem is that journalists, websites, Sarkeesian herself, and people in general have the inability to evaluate anything by degrees: we want things to be either good or bad, and attempt to shove anything into either the square or round hole, whether it is square, round, triangular, or rhomboid.

What we need to do, in games criticism, games journalism, and life in general, is recognize that all things are grey, composed of good and bad elements, and worthy of both praise and criticism (although not dolled out in equal measure). We should be able to criticize Sarkeesian, but we (and she) should also be able to criticize games for whatever we see fit, provided we do so with decorum and reason. And that’s really the problem here. We’ve abandoned logic for emotional impulse, gradation for extremity, and no conversation can be reasonably carried on about anything if every game either feminist or misogynist, every comment an attack or a defense, every participant a princess or a troll.

Digital Longevity

Since today I was handed an article entitled saving games and then saw this article from IGN’s Mitch Dyer arguing that games can’t last, it seems that the universe is pushing me to address the seeming “issue” of videogame impermanence. Dyer says that his kids “will never know what Gears of War: Judgment is. They will never wonder what Killzone: Shadow Fall was like, they will never play The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, and they will never ask me about Grand Theft Auto V.” And that may be true. It also may not.

As my students (in my Games, Game Theory, and Leadership Studies class) could tell him, some games do last the test of time. Pac-Man, for instance, has been re-released, ported, and updated on every available console, computer, and phone, despite being originally released for arcade-only play by Namco in 1979. That’s pretty good longevity. Pong (found on phones, calculators, and computers world-wide) was released by Atari in 1972.

Sure, that’s forty-some years which pale in comparison to Shakespeare’s 400-some, but we’ve also lost some of Shakespeare’s plays (Love’s Labours Won and Cardenio, at least), and who knows how much literature from Chaucer’s and the Pearl Poet’s respective eras. We’ve kept Agatha Christie, but there are dozens if not hundreds of murder mystery authors who have fallen by the proverbial wayside, unremembered, unpublished (any more), and unread. Musical instruments and genres move into and out of fashion, some lost, some preserved, some remaining popular despite the steady march of chronology.

My point is really that we aren’t yet in any historical position to make claims about the permanence or impermanence of games, particularly – as Dyer does – in comparison to a genre (literature) that has been around since humans learned to string together words to form a narrative. And we don’t have any of THOSE stories, either. The earliest examples of a genre don’t last – in that, Dyer may have a point. Few people watch the first-ever film (made by Edison, it’s horribly fuzzy but can in fact be found on YouTube), comparatively speaking, and fewer still watch many of the early examples not preserved in “collections.” There are hundreds of rolls of cellulite film that dissolve into nothingness every day, just as there are books that disintegrate into dust.

Videogames are still a young genre, one that was invented in the lifetimes of all adults over the age of forty-five. Forty-five years is not nearly long enough to make an assertion like the one Dyer makes. It’s also fundamentally flawed in its comparison. Literature has been an established genre for centuries, and its one that has shaped our culture into its present form. Film is growing into a similarly powerful presence. As will – I would suggest – videogames. Mario, Zelda, Pac-Man, and Space Invaders will one day be introduced as the forerunners of the Tale of Two Cities of videogames (which, I would think, hasn’t yet been made). World of Warcraft and Call of Duty will appear on syllabi as games that reshaped digital culture and birthed massive online communities, breaking down national and cultural barriers by integrating people from around the world into guilds and teams all focused on a common goal.

We aren’t yet at the place in videogaming creation where we have the capacity to create a game-Hamlet (although there are some games out there about Hamlet) that will endure into future generations. We’re still learning about our technological capacity, learning about how to integrate narrative and ludology, still experimenting with form and function in a society that is adapting to the pervasiveness of digital media into what was, not so long ago, an analog world.

Yes, the technology become obsolete, the graphics “crude” in two or five or ten years. Yes, our technological capacity increases almost exponentially from year to year, console generation to console generation. But that doesn’t mean that games can’t hold our attention or critical capacity far into the future. Dyer’s point – that even Vice City has become “after just a few years, a messy, clunky thing.” But compare the most recent film version of Hamlet to the set-less, hastily memorized disaster area that Shakespeare’s first production of it must have been.

Videogames are no more transient than plays, than films, than television series, than poetry, than music. They are simply different, with different challenges, different media, different limitations. Yes, some of them will disappear, brought to uselessness by the deterioration of technology, storage media, or disuse. The same is true of all genres of art and culture. But some of them will endure, not because of their graphics, but because they speak to us about our culture, our society, our hopes and our dreams, our fantasies and fears.

Our children may not play GTAV (personally, I hope they don’t), but they might play Journey or Mass Effect or Gone Home. They might play World of Warcraft or Skyrim or Red Dead Redemption or Bioshock. They might not. Maybe our games – our early twenty-first century games – are not the games that will last, but I would bet that some of them are. They will persist, just as Hamlet or The Tale of Two Cities persist. Just as Casablanca or Psycho persist. They will persists because they present us as a complex society capable of both great kindness and great cruelty, they ask the difficult questions, force us (as players) to make the difficult choices. They will last because they are an essential part of our new digital culture. In other words, art.

You say Potato… I say Misogynist.

Gamers Against Bigotry posted a link to Wired piece about female soldier skins (character art, basically) in the online game Warface that struck a chord with me about a recurring problem in videogame – and fantasy – depiction of women.

The piece seems, at first, to be about the developer’s use of different female skins in different localizations (regional adaptations) of the game. But, as Wired‘s Philippa Warr says of the issue, “you say ‘cultural relativism’, I say ‘inherently problematic’.” That’s because no matter which way you look at it, the skins are not even remotely realistic. For instance:

The male versions of both characters appear to be fairly “normal.” They’re wearing armor, carrying weapons, etc. I’m sure there’s something unrealistic about them, but I would believe that those people were appropriately attired for a combat zone. The female rifleman, however, has a shocking lack of sleeves, and her decolletage has got to be getting in the way of her aim.

And I haven’t even said anything about the female sniper. Warr says that she is “likely to get extreme nettle rash all over her bosom as she lies down to line up her shot,” and that’s being quite kind, all things considered. After all, why have a hood if you’re going to expose the brilliant whiteness of your heaving bosoms to the sky?

Now here’s the thing. Warr is talking to developer Joshua Howard about the localization of the game, and Howard has a lot of really interesting things to say about the conflict created in cross-regional competition by the fact that different areas – he mentions China and Russia – have different spec preferences for their weapons in terms of damage and kickback. And that is really interesting.

But the sniper’s cleavage is just too prominent for me to allow the piece to stay there. Howard tries – valiantly – to excuse the female models by arguing that they’re “better” than what the fans expected: the fans, he says, “were very comfortable with the fact we have these very realistic-looking men but they wanted the women to be not what we would think of as realistic at all. Up to and including running round in high heels which is just silly, right?” In short, Crytek is trying to respond to fan requests for the kinds of skins they want, and, Howard says, “They’re not what our players at first requested in the Russian region. They tended to be considerably more extreme that what we ended up shipping with.”

So Crytek tried to make these models more realistic. I don’t think I want to see what they started with, especially considering that sniper apparently also began by wearing high heels. But here’s the thing. Catering to a fanbase is all well and good – and is generally a good strategic marketing choice – but at what expense? Does anyone seriously believe that a more realistic female model is going to cause Warface‘s fans to stop playing the game? Because I don’t.

Any more than I think that putting some clothes on the sniper (what is it with female snipers, anyway?) in the new Metal Gear Solid V is going to make fewer people play that game. The Metal Gear series has had buxom female snipers before, but at least Sniper Wolf wore a body suit. Sheesh. (Kotaku has some theories about this.)

I think that if either Konami or Crytek wanted to include realistic models of women in their games, they would have just as many players as before. At least, I suppose, Crytek put a few more articles of clothing on their sniper than Konami.

Both companies could easily include female models that are attractive and reasonably clad, as in Tomb Raider or Bioshock Infinite or Gears of War. Instead, by pandering to the input of the fans who are asking for admittedly ludicrous models, Crytek is enabling the misogyny that’s already rampant in the industry by perpetuating an unrealistic image of women that is not only highly sexualized, but designed explicitly for the viewing pleasure of (straight) male gamers. And this last is really why I have a problem with it – because images of women in games should not be designed as sex objects; rather, they should be created as characters serving a purpose – as soldiers, medics, explorers – first and foremost, the exact same way their male counter-models are created.

And that’s really my point. We aren’t going to see equality in gender-representation in games until characters are created as characters, rather than as sex objects. I’ve heard the argument that female gamers won’t ever be happy with female characters unless they’re “ugly” or “fat” or “completely covered,” which is silly, and I’ve heard the argument that “if you want good female characters, then they have to be designed by women.” Sure, women could design good female characters, but to suggest that only women can design women is just as silly. All that needs to happen is that characters need to be designed as characters, as their purpose (soldier, healer, mage, adventurer) rather than as proverbial “eye-candy,” no matter what their gender.

TLF: Don’t Judge Too Harshly

My review of Gears of War: Judgment is up over at TLF!

I’m afraid that at this juncture in the semester, I’m lucky to have even that much to say about games and gaming, although I am learning quite a bit about using games in the classroom.

For instance: Trivial Pursuit does not make for a good classroom game. We learned from it that trivia games that are not specific to an audience are enormously frustrating for that audience.

Games Are Not Weapons

Yesterday’s tragic events in DC – near somewhere I go on a weekly basis where people I know and care about work – once again have people in the US considering the problems of violence in our society, its causes, and its solutions. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this has not only produced the usual gun control debate, but yet again brought up the argument that violent videogames were some part of the cause of Alexis’s actions, as Stephen Daly notes in a Gameranx piece today.

Daly remarks that the Telegraph reported Alexis was “obsessed with violent video games”  and “carried a .45 handgun ‘everywhere he went.’” The Telegraph piece also says that “The darker side to Alexis’s character saw him playing violent ‘zombie’ video games in his room, sometimes from 12.30pm until 4.30am.”

What is particularly infuriating about the Telegraph‘s take on this is that they spend a considerable amount of time contrasting Alexis’s playing of violent videogames with his dedication to Buddhism, suggesting that this is a bizarre paradox. What they don’t spend enough time on is the fact that Alexis seemed paranoid – he carried a gun everywhere out of fear that someone would steal his belongings, even into restaurants and his workplace. But instead of pulling out the idea – put forth by someone he knew – that he was traumatized by 9/11 and may have been suffering from PTSD, the author (Nick Allen) instead gives the piece this title: “Aaron Alexis: Washington navy yard gunman ‘obsessed with violent video games.’”

I’ve talked about this before. At length. And in the Christian Science Monitor. The scientific evidence just doesn’t bear out what fear and ignorance want to repeatedly claim: playing violent videogames doesn’t make us more violent. It doesn’t even really make us more aggressive beyond the extreme short-term, in which case its level of elevation is akin to that of a sports fan (possibly less), an athlete, or someone playing Risk around a table (which produces a lot of aggression, let me tell you).

But we’re not banning sports or board games. We aren’t even talking about it (even though sports fans can be and often are much more violent as a demographic than videogame players, as the horrific incident involving the referee in Brazil tragically shows). We are, for some reason that still escapes me, talking about how violent videogames (might) cause shootings.

As a society, we are violent. We are aggressive. It’s built into our genetics by the evolutionary flight-or-fight response, which triggers adrenaline and causes us to become hostile or fearful (or both). We react negatively to stressors and become less likely – as in one psychology experiment – to pick up someone else’s dropped pencil. But the failure to pick up a pencil in a post-Call of Duty period of cool-down does not equate on any level to homicide.

Games do not kill people. Weapons kill people. People kill people. Games provide an escapist outlet. Yes, violent people and disturbed people play videogames. So do pacifists, academics, moms, dads, college students, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, writers, filmmakers, ministers, and millions more. Violent and disturbed people also breathe air, drink water, and eat french fries. Yes, violent and disturbed people will be drawn to violent videogames, but to suggest that the games make them violent is to fail to understand the causal relationship at work.

If we’re going to talk about what caused Alexis to do what he did, we shouldn’t be talking about videogames any more than we’re talking about television, books, or movies (and we’re not).  We should be talking about PTSD. We should be talking about the stigma in our society against seeking psychological help (especially among men). We should be talking about how this country under-serves its veterans. We should be talking about the ease with which an individual can carry a loaded weapon into public places. We should be talking about what we can do as a society to support our veterans, our victims, and each other. We should be talking about change, not blame.

On the “Concept of Being Masculine”

So today’s grand internet explosion related to gender and gaming has to do with a comment made by the lead developer of the Grand Theft Auto series Dan Houser at Rockstar games and printed in The Guardian, and picked up by Polygon:

Despite Rockstar’s sometimes secretive aura, Houser is very direct and has strong views on GTAV’s relationship with the movies (“We don’t need to hark back to film when technology allows us to produce our own response to real places”), on the lack of playable female characters (“The concept of being masculine was so key to this story”) and on game conferences like E3 and Gamescom, which he no longer attends (“You don’t play a videogame in a room with 20,000 people doing the same thing unless you’re a lunatic”).

The reason there aren’t playable female characters in GTA is that “The concept of being masculine was so key to this story” that having a playable female avatar seemed inappropriate. I am a staunch advocate for more playable female protagonists. I think a lot of games could be improved – and reach a broader fan base – by making gender one of several customizable options in character creation.

But I don’t care that GTA wants all their protagonists to be men. (And not just because I have no personal interest in playing it – I played Braid and I think that needed to be a male protagonist, too.) The reason I’m entirely unconcerned by Houser’s comment is because I think that telling a story about masculinity is the only reasonable explanation for having only male protagonists. Could they talk about masculinity from a female protagonist’s perspective? I’m sure they could, but that’s not the point. The point is that this is a story about masculinity, machismo, and its relationship to an urban environment replete with vice and crime. It’s a very particular story and it actually has a legitimate claim to a specifically-gendered protagonist.

Yes, you could have a woman or a gay man or a trans*person in the same setting, but then the story wouldn’t be about cis-masculinity. It would be a different story, and one probably worth telling, but that isn’t GTA‘s story, any more than the story of a young man coming of age is Tomb Raider‘s story.

So while I do think there should be more female protagonists in videogames, this isn’t another Call of Duty: Ghosts problem; where Activision proffered a lame excuse about ‘technology’ being the limiting factor for their lack of women in the COD series, GTA has an aesthetic, meaningful reason for their choice, and that, in my estimation, is actually a justification for the continued exclusion of female protagonists from the game.

This is not to say that I consider GTA to be a paragon of games. While its open-world layout has revolutionized the industry in many ways, I find its depiction of prostitutes and women in general to be rather heinous. I despise the fact that the player can beat women and is even praised for doing so. But in this – and possibly only this – case, I think they’ve given a justification for why their protagonists are and will remain (for the time being) men.

TLF: Dr. Croft, I Presume?

So in the wake of all the craziness in the gaming community last week, I offer up my review of Tomb Raider over at the Learned Fangirl as a ray of hope in a sea of misogyny and rape jokes.

Square Enix’s Tomb Raider is not only a fun game, but it’s a good game from a design standpoint. And it’s a game that features its female hero as a hero, not a damsel or a waif or a princess. She’s smart, resourceful, adaptive, and intellectual – as well as being physically capable of taking on either exploration or combat. And the new Lara Croft (unlike the old one from 1996) doesn’t have a bosom equivalent to twice the mass of her cranium, which I personally find to be an improvement.

But even the positive female hero aside, Tomb Raider is just a good game, and one that the husband enjoyed as much as I did… and he’s an industry professional. Short version – play the game. For the long version, follow the link to TLF.

Just Another World-Class Gamer

So I want to give a shout-out to professional Starcraft, both players and media coverage, today because of the way they handled this: a female gamer (handle: Scarlett, name: Sasha Hostyn) in the World Championship Series who almost won season 2.

Why do I think they did such a good job? Because the Penny Arcade report above and the live commentators (video links in the article) didn’t say a single word about her gender aside from using the female pronoun when referring to her. In fact, the lead story is that she’s Canadian (not South Korean).

We often spend a ton of time talking about how women in games need to be more visible and more vocal, so why am I so happy that when a woman wins second place in the Starcraft WCS, nobody says anything? Simple. Because they didn’t have to draw attention to the fact that she’s female. They just accepted it and treated her exactly the same as every other player in the tournament… aside from commenting that she’s Canadian. (In some ways, focusing on another difference does draw attention to her gender by virtue of it being the proverbial elephant in the room, but I still think silence was the best possible option here.) It’s a positive because they didn’t feel the need to praise her skill because she’s a girl, as though being female is a natural videogaming disadvantage. Positive, too, because there were no disparaging comments about her gender, either. No suggestions of kitchens or domestic activities or attractiveness.

Scarlett’s just another gamer, and a damn good one. And it’s about time that the gender of a gamer becomes irrelevant to their abilities and the way they’re treated from the other side of the console (or computer), so props to PA and to the WCS for allowing her to be a gender-neutral gamer instead of a “girl gamer.” Now let’s see more of that in games, in the gaming community, and in games journalism, where gender determines pronouns but not much else in terms of treatment, privilege, or assumptions of skill or even taste.

I hope this is the beginning of the end of sexism in gaming (community, development, journalism), but I know we still have a lot of work to do across the board. Nevertheless, this story is a beacon which I can come back to when I get depressed by the rest of it all, to remind myself that we are moving forward, even if slowly, and if we (as gamers who happen not to be straight white men) just keep going, just keep doing what we do, whether that’s designing, blogging, publishing, or just playing, the industry will respond and we will be able to stop hiding behind avatars and handles… if we want to.