Now with Improved Fem-Tech!

So one of the more recent pieces of news on the gaming front is that the upcoming Call of Duty Ghosts is going to have female characters in multiplayer.

My first thought: Good! It’s about damn time. After all, lots of games have had female characters in multiplayer mode for a long time (including Halo and Gears of War), sometimes even in the single-player campaign (Halo Reach, Mass Effect, Gears of War 3, Fable, Dragon Age, and others). Now perhaps it’s too bad that it was more important to them to announce new-and-improved realistic dogs at E3 than it was for them to announce the introduction of playable female soldiers (yup, the furry, tattooed German Shepard rated higher than women), but at least they are including women, right?

Right. Mostly.

And what inspired this inclusion? Well, I’d assumed – probably like many other gamers – that Activision or the development team had finally realized that women were not only people, but people capable of combat, even in a virtual, pixelated environment. (Yes, I know the snark is coming on strong today, but it’s August and I’m an academic, so just bear with me for a bit.) As Stephen Totillo notes in an article today, apparently not.

The reason (if you don’t want to click the link)? Technology. We now apparently have the technology to include women. Because clearly creating a single female model for a soldier is far too complicated for game consoles to handle… except that they’ve been doing it for years. Yes, I do understand that the actual point being made is about complex character customization – while it’s possible in Mass Effect or Skyrim to fully customize the appearance, color scheme, and other elements of the player-character, in a game like COD the memory required to display fully customized avatars for ALL the players in a game is significantly higher than what is needed for the player-character in a single-player campaign. I get that.

But here’s the thing. You don’t need full customization in order to have female characters. You can have three models of characters that aren’t at all customizable and one of them can be female. It’s pretty easy. Halo did it. Gears did it. Unreal Tournament did it (and that one was in the 1990s). But let’s say you only have one model in your game. Defaulting to male for COD is probably the better choice for a variety of reasons, including the fact that most soldiers are male and most COD players are male. Okay. I’m fine with that.

But what I’m not fine with is the deliberate effacing of the sociopolitical issue behind the decision to include women. It’s like Activision doesn’t want to admit that they were at one point excluding women, so they blame the absence of women on technology. They couldn’t admit that the culture fostered by COD was misogynist or at least sexist, so they said “Oh, we just didn’t have the capability,” instead of saying, “Hey, we think it’s time that we include women in COD and since we’re planning to include custom characters, we’re doing it now!”

I’m one of the first people on the bandwagon to defend COD against detractors who say it makes players violent or aggressive, but I’m also one of the first to say that the COD player community is about as far from welcoming as it gets (except maybe League of Legends). Don’t believe me? See these tweets in response to the alteration of a couple of guns. So when I see women being added to the roster of CODG, I’m pleased. But when Activision doesn’t have the courage to admit that part of why they’re including women is to be inclusive, I get annoyed. Because to have a major industry leader saying “Hey, guys, it’s time to include women in our games because that’s the right thing to do” would set an example. Saying “Oh, we’re doing it because now we can” dismisses the importance of including women and also sets an example, and not the good kind.

Once Upon a Time There was a Leader…

So I’ve recently started playing Fable III. There are many reasons I hate the game so far, although I’m going to give it the proverbial college try for a little while longer before I give up completely (also, probably going to appear on TLF in the future).

I’m writing this post because of a very particular leadership element I encountered today – that of “having greatness thrust upon me” as the player-character. First of all, my opening choice as a player was “Prince” or “Princess.” Second, I am apparently “chosen” to have magical powers that no one else has (except my father, possibly?). Third, I have been told to go out, gather followers (in those words), and lead a revolution.

Here’s my objection from a purely leadership studies standpoint. Leaders do not appear because someone hands them a magical object, good genetics, and a quest arrow. If they did, more patriarchal monarchs would have been better leaders.

What really bothers me about this “go be a leader” mentality in the game is the fact that it creates a false impression for players. Being a leader isn’t about just deciding “Hey, I’m going to be a leader! I have a pretty rock! People will follow me!” It’s about being willing to stand forward, to make sacrifices, to speak up, to set an example… in short, to be a positive agent in some way, shape, or form. Leadership is ultimately about agency, and my idiotic princess most certainly does not have agency. She is unequipped to be a leader in any way, and just because her weapons instructor and her butler and her dog seem to think she’s spiffy does not make her fit to lead a revolution in any capacity, nor should they suggest that it does.

If you’re going to make a game about developing leadership, then have your player-character actually develop leadership. Have them build loyalty. Have them naturally accrue followers (don’t just tell them to go find some) through actions and decisions. Have them act.

The real problem here is that Fable III is reflecting a potentially dangerous attitude that I see more and more often in real life – entitlement. My princess in Fable III is entitled to her leadership role because she was born to it, she’s magic, and someone told her she’s a leader. But in the real world we aren’t simply entitled to things like leadership – we have to earn them, just as we have to earn promotions, grades, and awards.

No one owes us anything more than basic human rights, and that’s a lesson that far too many people have not learned. They’ve been told all their lives that they’re Special, they can do anything they want, they can be anything they want to be. But they aren’t told that they have to work for it, sacrifice for it, make choices between two things that they want because they can’t have it all. And when they find that they can’t just have, they have to earn, some of those people decide they’re going to take it anyway, even if that means lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering to do so. Because they deserve it.

It would be nice, for once, to have stories and games that aren’t about princesses. That are about simple, ordinary people who don’t become princesses or kings or wizards through happenstance or accident or marriage. That are about ordinary people who work hard, make sacrifices, and become interesting, successful people by earning it. People who don’t have an inherent advantage of birth or magic, just people who become special because they have the motivation to do so. They study hard, they work hard, they sacrifice.

Really, it’s the same problem that’s feeding the weight-loss industry (to make what might appear to be a complete non sequitur). We don’t want to spend every day thinking about what we eat, counting calories, carefully monitoring our fruits and veggies. We don’t want to exercise an hour a day, three or more days a week. We want to sit on our couch in front of our tv and eat cheetos and pizza and somehow magically lose weight because of a pill or a belt or a cream. And just as cheetos and pizza and tv will not result in a fit, healthy physique, entitlement does not produce good leaders. Work does. Dedication does. Devotion does. Agency does. Responsibility does. I’d like our games to teach us that, instead.

“Girl” on Top

Today Gamers Against Bigotry shared a story by a male gamer about what it was like to log in to his wife’s multiplayer account. It contains most of what you’d expect – the male players identified the gamertag as female, discussed booting said supposed female, then got upset when said supposed female beat them, then insulted both that supposed female and the other actual female playing in their game.

The author – who had no idea what he was getting into when he logged on as his wife – found in this experience a catalyst to promote feminism in the gaming community and to point out that suggesting that a woman “get raped” because she’s defeated a male teammate (teammate!! This is a cooperative game!) is unacceptable and should never happen or be tolerated.

Okay. Great. But I do have a couple problems with this narrative. Namely, that it takes a male narrative about abuse of women for people to pay attention to it. I’ve been the identified female gamertag. I’ve been the only female voice on chat. I’ve also been one of several women in a game who defeated our male teammates and opponents. And, to be fair, not all of them have been misogynistic assholes. A lot of them remarked only “You’re a girl?” and then moved on with their lives (although the simple fact that my gender was surprising is problematic in and of itself). Few of them made rude or crude comments, but you can bet that I remember those much more vividly than I do the good ones.

But it doesn’t seem right for a man masquerading as a woman to become our voice, our advocate. Yes, I’m glad that Caldwell wrote what he did, and I’m glad he realizes that this is a problem and wanted to share his story, but what about the fact that there was an actual woman playing, a woman who felt utterly silenced for most of the game, whose actual gender was being maligned? Yes, it’s awful that Caldwell was insulted for being a girl (even though he isn’t), but what abouther?

I also think there something dangerous about “proving” that women can game by having a man masquerade (however innocently) as a woman because the woman whose tag he borrowed wasn’t a very good player. Certainly, even a bad player shouldn’t be subject to insults and misogyny, regardless of gender, but the fact that he was male somewhat detracts from the power of the story. It’s still about his experience – not about the experience of the woman actually playing, not about his wife’s experience of being a player maligned not only for  being a woman, but probably also for not being elite.

Which raises a point about women in multiplayer games – a lot of them don’t play (or don’t play visibly) precisely because of the abuse to which they are subject, which means they aren’t skilled, they aren’t good enough to “prove” themselves because they choose not to spend hours playing a game where they are daily attacked for appearing to be female. Because that’s another point here – perceived gender is much more important than actual gender.

The two idiots on Caldwell’s server perceived his tag as female. They perceived the final player’s tag as default male (for more on “default” see my earlier post), even though she was female, and didn’t attack her until she spoke up and identified herself as such. The very perception of gender is enough to get a player verbally assaulted, booted, neglected, and otherwise ostracized from a game – so no wonder more women don’t play or don’t speak up if they do.

And that’s the real problem here. Women still aren’t being given a voice – either because someone else is silencing them, or because they’re too damn sick of dealing with this kind of thing. Last night I got a comment notification from TLF on my last Anita Sarkeesian post that seems to echo some of this in a small way:

Well read half way though and stopped couldn’t take it this become go Anita go Anita rather fast her videos are crap, she bashes literally any game she loves playing DiD herself, oh poor me save me fund my project because I got trolled, video games are made for u to go play have fun and act like a child because guess what its fun to trash talk someone and 5mins later your chatting with them

Putting aside the small apoplectic fit being had by my inner grammarian, I was particularly irritated by this comment because said commenter didn’t actually read all the way through before deciding that I must agree with everything that Sarkeesian has to say (obviously not having read the post I made about it before that…). I think that there’s a lot wrong with Sarkeesian’s project, but I do think that there’s a lot right with it, and “russell” (the commenter) decided that since I didn’t immediately dismiss her as belonging in the kitchen, I must revere her as a feminist deity.

But here’s my biggest complaint, and it’s one that Caldwell addresses, too: “video games are made for u to go play have fun and act like a child because guess what its fun to trash talk someone and 5mins later your chatting with them.” Yes, games are made to play. Games are made for fun. BUT. You are not a child and many of these games are not designed for children – they’re designed for adults, with adult themes, with commentary and complex social problems and advanced cinematic and literary allusions (the husband is playing Condemned 2 right now, which is alluding to Gaston Leroux’s novel Phantom of the Opera, and Mass Effect has references to Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Eliot, among others). They are adult forms of entertainment that require complex adult thought to understand and fully engage with.

And, furthermore, there is a difference between “trash talk” and “verbal assault.” “I got you, you bastard” qualifies as “trash talk.” “Get raped” does not. So I would invite you, “russell,” to think about how you talk to men when you play with them and how you talk to women. If it doesn’t matter – if you say the same, non-sexual things, to both genders, then you’re engaging in “trash talk.” If you’re not, if you’re sexualizing your “trash talk” to women but not to men, if you’re demeaning gender or sexuality, then it isn’t “trash talk.” And if anyone ever tells you to stop, it isn’t “trash talk.”

Because it is a game, and it is supposed to be fun for everyone playing the game. And when you’re a female gamer, situations like the one in which Caldwell found himself aren’t fun anymore. When you’ve played game after game and all the women in it are two-dimensional or victims, it isn’t fun anymore. When you habitually don’t engage with the community of which you are a part because you no longer have the patience or the strength to deal with the comments and the disparagement, it isn’t fun anymore. As a player, you should have the right to have fun, but you absolutely do not have the right to take that fun away from anyone else because of their gender, sexuality, or ethnicity.

Gaming Lag

I’ve held off posting on E3 for the last couple of days because I’ve been struggling with my opinion, with what I feel I “should” say as a feminist, and fatigue with the whole debate on gender in games and the gaming community. Between Anita Sarkeesian, the trolls bombarding her twitter with insulting and idiotic comments, stories and snark about “Don’t worry, it’ll all be over soon,” and my own personal dislike of pushing political agendae on other people, I’m getting really, really sick of this whole thing.

And that actually is starting to worry me, so I’m forcing myself to articulate an opinion so that I don’t become complacent and apathetic out of sheer ideological exhaustion.

Here’s the recap for those of you unfamiliar with what’s going on. In the midst of hundreds of discussions about female gamers, women in the tech industry, sexism in the media, and the need for more women’s voices, Microsoft launched its Xbox One at E3 with absolutely no new games with female protagonists. Sony, despite claiming it wanted to market to women, launched the PS4 with no new games with female protagonists. There are new games – Mirror’s Edge 2 – starring women, but they’re not exclusive launch titles (it will be available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC). Nintendo, however, announced that Princess Peach would be a playable character in the new Super Mario World 3D on the Wii U. Interestingly, this appears to have been a rather last minute change.

Okay, so we have two next-gen console releases, neither with a major exclusive title featuring a female protagonist, and one already-released console that shoe-horned Peach into the game at the last minute. And all this comes in the midst of one of the largest cultural pushes from women in the industry demanding equality and increased representation as players, characters, and professionals. So what does this tell us?

I don’t think that this means that the evil Men in charge of the industry are completely oblivious to the yelling and screaming going on outside their windows. I don’t think it means that they’re unaware of the female demographic that makes up 47% of their consumer base. I think what it tells us is that the gaming industry is suffering from lag.

Most major AAA titles take about five years to make. Five years. Some can get churned out in two or three if they’re sequels reusing the same engine. But next-gen consoles aren’t going to reuse the same engine, in all likelihood, so these games are probably already three (or more) years in the making, looking forward to release in another one to two years. They haven’t been “listening” to the demand because they’ve already been in production.

I do not believe this is an excuse for not including any women as protagonists, nor do I think that it means that women should “shut up” (to quote one of the anti-Sarkeesian tweets) about women being featured in games. I especially don’t think it excuses the absence of female presenters or developers on the E3 stage, or the recognition that women do make up 47% of gamers. But I do think that it explains what we’re seeing in terms of titles.

And that brings me to another point. Many of the anti-Sarkeesianites suggest that this is because women only want to play “cleaning and cooking” games. While I’m sure that such comments are intended as exemplars of masculine wit, I would like to point out that 47% of games are not cooking and cleaning games, which leads me to the induction that women are playing shooters, RPGs, and other “manly” games, some of which – like Tomb Raider or Remember Me – feature female leads, or at least include gender choice, as in BioWare and Bethesda games.

But many anti-Sarkeesianites make a point that, while based in a sexist code, is valid, and much more reasonably articulated by the Digital Changeling. The point is that many of the lead characters we see in games are physically strong – soldiers, assassins, etc. – and rely on brute strength to mele and/or shoot their way through obstacles. While there are games that do feature women in these positions – Halo Reach, Gears of War 3 – for the most part, these are roles filled in “real life” by men. Biologically speaking, men are physically stronger than women for the most part. Women can be and are capable and physically strong, and since games are fantasies anyway, there’s no reason why women shouldn’t be included in these positions.

However, I think that the anti-Sarkeesianites are missing (possibly deliberately) the point that videogame protagonists don’t have to be realistically physically strong. Especially if they’re in a puzzle-solving context, have a gun, wield magic, or… well… exist in a fictional world where they can do whatever they want. But, as the Digital Changeling suggests, strength isn’t the point. Women in real life may be at a physiological disadvantage in terms of brute strength (in extreme contexts… most women are indeed strong enough for daily activities), but that doesn’t make them any less capable or resilient, or intelligent. Female characters don’t have to be hulking brutes like Marcus Fenix or Master Chief.

In fact, males don’t either, so I’m not really sure what the point of saying that women aren’t “strong” has to do with being a protagonist. Mario and Luigi are not “strong,” although I’d bet anything Samus Aran is. Alan Wake doesn’t appear to be a physically superior specimen, and I’d put my money on Lara Croft being able to take him out in the combat department. But there’s no need for female characters to be any more or less strong than most of the male characters we see – and no reason they can’t be.

But really, what we (as feminists and gamers) are asking for isn’t women who defy the laws of biology and physics (although their breasts often do both). What we’re asking for is that protagonists who are complex, interesting, and capable sometimes be female. We’re asking that the industry not auto-default to male protagonists just because “that’s how it’s always been” with the lame excuse that “women won’t sell,” because both Tomb Raider and Metroid say otherwise, as does the popularity of the femShep option in Mass Effect. We’re asking that the women in games be just as complex as the men – not that they receive special privilege, but that they simply be treated as humans, just like the men.

I do think that this is inevitable, that as more and more women enter the industry as gamers, as professionals, as critics and journalists, that we will see more female protagonists, better female NPCs, and more complex narratives that don’t revolve around (almost exclusively) female victims. But I also think that it will cease to be inevitable if we don’t keep pushing, even though we’re tired of hearing about it, even though I’m sure Sarkeesian is getting as tired of saying it as I am (and she says it a lot more often), and even though it feels like a dead horse that we’re still beating.

The point is that E3 shows us that the battle isn’t over, that we’re still fighting not for supremacy, but for basic equality… and, really, not just for women. For gamers of color, for transpersons, for all marginalized populations. So what we want to see, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, is for you to look at the world around you and replicate it in your games. Include women with brains. Include all cultures and races and sexual orientations and people with disabilities. Make games more real by making them reflect reality.

TLF: Digital Damsels in Distress

After the debacle the other day in which the second installment in Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Videogames was taken down off YouTube due to flagrant abuse of the flagging system, I was quite pleased to note that YouTube got it back up quickly (which of course confirms the erroneous nature of the flagging… *sigh*).

Now that YouTube has restored Damsels in Distress Part 2, I do actually have something to say about it over at The Learned Fangirl. There are other voices out there, as well, including Destructoid, which labels the video “about as inoffensive as that last one,” which, while not a ringing endorsement, isn’t condemnatory, either. Jason Thibeault refers to it as “nonexistent” over on FreeThoughtBlogs, and then spends most of his post talking about its removal from YouTube (edit: To be fair to Jason, this term was used as a reference to continuous comments he received from trolls back when the Kickstarter got going that Sarkeesian was going to “take the money and run,” and isn’t a slur against the series in any way). In a slightly more positive (rather than apathetically neutral) spin, Andrew on GeekNative says that “it’s an intelligent commentary on the role of women in video games…from a feminist point of view,” and then pretty much leaves it at that.

And it should be telling that these are about the only things I found that weren’t simply reposts of the video saying “Here it is!” So while this post was really only going to link to my thoughts and those of others, when I tried to find others who had something interesting to say, I discovered that I had more to say about that.

So why aren’t we paying more attention to what Sarkeesian has to say than we are to the fact that her video was “down” for several hours? Why is it being termed “inoffensive” and “nonexistent”? And why are these the most negative terms appearing in media when there are clearly hordes of slathering trolls flagging the video to get it pulled?

Honestly, I find the lack of conversation almost more disappointing than I would if the trolls were setting fire to the internet, because if there are trolls bearing torches, then that means that the villagers have revolted, and in this context, that can’t be a bad thing. I want people to have things to say – positive, negative, whatever. What I don’t want to see is apathy, because apathy leads us to complacency, and that’s exactly where we were and why Sarkeesian started this whole thing.

So I’m going to do my little bloggy part to start a flame war, set fire to a few pairs of misogynist pants, and hope to set off a few sparks that will breed something bigger.

Why I’m Not Reviewing The Most Recent TvW…

Well, I was going to post a review on Anita Sarkeesian’s most recent Tropes vs. Women in Videogames in a followup to the last one, but I guess it’s going to have to wait. Possibly up to ten days.

Why? Because YouTube took it down. Sarkeesian posted on Facebook:

Looks like my harassers may have abused YouTube’s flag function to get my new Tropes vs Women video removed. Not the first time it’s happened. We are looking into the issue now and will update you all as soon as we know the full story and can get the video restored.

Official YouTube protocol requires some paperwork and up to 10 days’ wait to get a video restored that was flagged repeatedly (even if fraudulently), so it may end up taking that long before this one comes back, although hopefully the YouTube powers-that-be are aware that this was likely and are willing to move a little more quickly.

So why was it flagged? Possibly legitimately, as Sarkeesian’s original post stated that some of the content might be upsetting due to violence against women. It might be that the gaming companies whose products were featured wanted it removed for rights infringement (I don’t know which companies that might be). Or it might be what everyone seems to be assuming – that anti-Sarkeesianites have struck again with malicious intent.

Honestly, I hope it’s legitimate, not because I don’t want to see the video, but because at least then I can have some hope for human decency. But I highly doubt it. I’m sure it is what most people believe it to be, and that disgusts me. It disgusts me that women are still diminished, marginalized, and even attacked for speaking their minds.

Yes, in other places women have it far worse – institutionalized abuse and assault, unwanted circumcision and genital mutilation, cultural inferiority, and so on. And I think all those things should stop, too. But the fact that we are in a country that claims equality and still tacitly permits the silencing, ostracizing, and marginalizing of women should not be treated lightly (see Tudor Jones’s recent comments on women in finance or Fox news’s on-air treatment of women for non-gaming examples).

Permitting the smaller actions – like unfair flagging of Sarkeesian’s video – can produce a slippery slope: first flagging videos, then dismissing women’s voices from public forums, then excluding them from the workplace… As though all those things don’t already happen, to one degree or another. Refuse to allow them, and you (anyone) refuse to sanction the kind of actions that produce sexism and rape culture. Small steps, no matter how small, will eventually get us to where we need to be. Bigger steps move us faster, yes, but even the small ones move us forward.

Friends & Rivals

So I’ve been working on a book chapter over the last couple weeks on BioWare’s Dragon Age II, specifically examining the friendship-rivalry mechanic that the game employs. This is one of my favorite mechanics, not because it’s particularly fun (it isn’t… it isn’t un-fun, either, but it doesn’t substantively make the game more enjoyable in any measurable gameplay sense), but because it’s intellectually and academically interesting.

What I like about it is that it forecloses the idea of absolute morality. So many games – including BioWare games – place the player-character within a continuum of “good” and “evil” (“dark side” and “light side,” “paragon” and “renegade,” whatever). Now I know that this isn’t always as black and white as “good” and “evil,” per se, but it still uses a static continuum of behavioral evaluation for all the player’s actions. Did you kill this NPC outright? Yes? Dark side. No? Light side. And yes, some actions will gain more points to either direction than others, but such a system still evaluates the player-character’s actions as though there is a moral truth.

Not to start a philosophical debate about the (non)existence of Truth, but the real world doesn’t work that way. If there is a Truth (and I’m a skeptic on that), it’s very, very difficult for us to know what it is. A game continuum with clear parameters (and often an iconographic representation in the choice menu) is clear. We know, when we choose to hit the left or right trigger in Mass Effect, that we’re choosing Paragon or Renegade. But the world does not kindly provide us with flash events that are clearly color coded.

Instead, we have to decide for ourselves what we think about the issues of the day, and we are evaluated not by some omnipotent designer granting us points on a good-evil scale (at least that we’re aware of, which is a completely different philosophical debate that raises the issue of divine feedback, which I’m just not going to get into), but by the other people we live with, work with, and encounter on a daily basis.

Which is why I like this mechanic in Dragon Age. Because each of the player-character’s party companions comes fully equipped with his or her own evaluative continuum, ranging from friend to rival. And if you-as-the-player are going to maximize that slider (in either direction), then you have to consider what you say, what you do, and who you’re taking with you on your missions. Just as you wouldn’t invite a religious fundamentalist to a talk by Richard Dawkins unless you wanted them to become your rival.

This isn’t the most profound post ever, but I’ve been spending a lot of time with this game, and a lot of time thinking about the reasons a developer would choose to take away the security of a single evaluative continuum – because the choices in Dragon Age aren’t obvious, they’re not easy, and it’s sometimes deeply unsatisfying to make a choice just because Fenris or Anders or Varric will like it.

And that’s exactly why I like the mechanic. Because it’s important for us as humans to think about why we’re making choices – if we play as paragon, do we do it because the game will reward us by telling us what good people we are? Because we get presents (as in Bioshock, where Tennenbaum sends you bears full of ADAM for saving her creepy girls)? Because we think that’s the better choice, even though there’s no appreciable advantage or disadvantage for choosing it? Or because we have to choose something, even though we aren’t certain of the consequences? The last two, for me, are the most compelling, and those are the kind of decisions in Dragon Age II.

Ultimately, I think a lot of my affection for the game (and the mechanic) springs for a growing distaste for the high fantasy conventions of pure good and pure evil. Even in Dragon Age: Origins, which also had the friendship-rivalry mechanic, there was a clear good and bad (darkspawn and archdemons, anyone?), but it just isn’t that simple in Dragon Age II, and I really appreciate the recognition that there aren’t always going to be clear sides – clear goods and bads – in the real world. Because I think that’s where our games (and our movies and books and television) should be taking us – back to the real world and the complexities of ethical evaluation that we have to make on a small scale (for most of us) every day.

Games are art now!

So I was going to wait until TLF put up my two-parter commentary on Bioshock Infinite (sometime in the next week or two) to post most of this, but today Gamasutra just posted a piece that essentially forced my typing hand. Adrian Chmielarz writes about “How Bioshock Infinite Revolutionized Video Games,” but the piece should have added “…and Game Criticism” to the end of its title. Because, really, it has.

First, I have seen more complex and thoughtful reviews and criticisms of this game than I have pretty much anything else to come out in the last few years (I’m not including the explosion surrounding the ending to Mass Effect 3, because, quite frankly, most of that wasn’t terribly thoughtful). Infinite has been garnering attention (and not all of it positive) even before its cover art debacle, but much of that attention has raised serious, critical questions about both the game industry and the gaming community, and has also gone a long way to decisively make the point that games are now art.

Chmielarz says that

I’ve played the game and felt the urge to write about its issues even when I was just five minutes in. Then I’ve played it to the end. The breathtaking finale helped a bit, but the game suffered from so many issues that the ending wasn’t able to wash away the bitter taste in my mouth. Let’s just say that instead of feeling like writing another blog post, I felt like writing a book.

But that’s the key here.

And he’s right. People are writing about Infinite because it is art. It’s complex, and flawed, and beautiful, and messy, and ART. Most good art garners both praise and rage. Most good art forces people to ask difficult questions and consider what it is about the piece that either makes them love it or hate it or feel (as in my case here) a mixture of awe and disappointment.

And there have been a lot of people who felt, like Chmielarz, compelled to write about the game. Patricia Hernandez wrote that “An Effin’ AI in Bioshock Infinite is More of a Human Than I Am”; Leigh Alexander wrote “‘Now is the Best Time’: A Critique of Bioshock Infinite; Kevin Wong wrote “Bioshock Infinite is a Metacommentary on Game Narrative”; and Todd Harper, a friend of mine in industry academia, wrote “Infinite Regress,” which responds to some of these.

Chmielarz has a longer list than I do, but his focuses mostly on the problems that people see with Infinite, many of which I happen to think are on to something:

But it wasn’t a question of finding some obscure, random nerd rage posts. Critical articles and posts were popping up in all kinds of high profile places: from NeoGAF through Kotaku to to Gamasutra. Hell, it was not longer just about the gaming scene: even the infamous Hulk Critic stepped in.

It was no longer a child crying out, “But the emperor isn’t wearing anything at all!”. It was a crowd.

Thomas Grip, the lead designer behind Amnesia performed an autopsy. Brainy Gamer has realized it’s the end of an era. Daniel Goldin disagreed with the message. There are three paragraph reviews, heck, even one paragraph ones that expose the core problems with the game. There’s even a short Interactive Fiction game that can teach us more game design than many books. And no, Elizabeth is not the best sidekick ever.

Chmielarz says that “Infinite has revolutionized games” because of this response, but it’s also revolutionized the way people are willing and able to talk about games. It’s a leader in the industry, along with the entire development team at Irrational games, because it refuses to be limited by things like time, space, or expectations. And all the criticism of the game is actually more of a testament to what it has done well than what it has failed to do, since if it really were a terrible game, no one would care about its flaws.

Because, when you get down to it, Infinite has done well. It received a 95 on Metacritic. It’s visually gorgeous. People love it, and people love to hate it. And all this is happening because Infinite very quietly but very firmly has just demonstrated, beyond anyone’s ability to doubt it, that videogames are art. No one can watch or play Infinite, love it or hate it, and think that it isn’t art.

TLF: Violence, Virtual Space, and “Serious Games”

Linking over to yesterday’s The Learned Fangirl post on “Violence, Virtual Space, and ‘Serious Games.’” It’s a more positive spin on my usual rants about why we shouldn’t blame games to talk a bit more about why games are a good thing. Coming off of PAX East (which was a blast), it’s a bit of a reminder about why gaming is both popular and healthy… and why as a form of entertainment media, it not only isn’t causing us active harm, but in fact has a great capacity to do good.

Think Like a Gamer

I was talking to a game designer I know the other day, and he said something interesting about violence in gaming: “The reason that we shoot people in games is because it’s the ultimate one-ups-man-ship….Ending someone’s life is the ultimate definition of power.” He went on to talk about how it would be really interesting to have a game where you as the player were incapable of killing your opponents, not because of ethical or mechanical considerations, but because – for instance – you were playing a race of beings (like angels, say) that simply couldn’t be killed.

What would our games be like if we were to face such constraints? What would the ultimate expression of our power, our victory, be like in the situation where we became incapable of permanently removing the (living) impediment to achieving our goal?

Our discussion seems to indicate that such a game would become more about stealth, about puzzle-solving, and about “traps” than it would about defeating enemies. It would – in many ways – become like the non-lethal tactics in Dishonored, Deus Ex, or the Thief series. More about brains and skill than brawn and hair-trigger reflexes.

But, more importantly, our conversation revealed that gamers see games much differently than non-gamers. Non-gamers see the plot, the narrative, the characters, the “dressing,” to use this particular designer’s term. Gamers see through the “dressing” and play with the mechanics of the game. In that situation, the virtual “people” become like the little dots in Pac-Man, points to chew through in pursuit of leveling up or reaching an achievement goal. The game is about understanding the mechanics, the tactics, rather than character and narrative immersion.

This is not to say that narrative and “dressing” aren’t important. They are. There’s a reason that there are gamers who won’t play games with graphic cutscenes. Sure, some gamers ignore the graphic violence or even like watching it (after all, Quentin Tarantino’s movies are enormously popular), but others won’t. Nevertheless, there is still a difference between the way gamers play games and non-gamers perceive games. A non-gamer – like my mom, for instance – sees Bioshock as a game that asks us to decide whether we kill or don’t kill a little girl. Gamers see that theoretically ethical question as a mechanical choice – “Do I want this immediate reward now, or do I want to see what Tennenbaum means when she says she’ll ‘make it worth your while’?” – about resource management (one that ultimately rewards the player for making the “right” choice).

And there’s no faulting either side. I don’t understand a lot of what’s happening in ballet, for instance, because I don’t understand the level of technical skill it takes to execute certain moves that to me appear rather simple but could be incredibly difficult. On the other hand, I don’t try to tell ballet dancers what they should and should not do in their performances. And that’s what this whole debate on the validity of games comes down to.

As an outsider, a non-gamer, you don’t understand how the game is working on a gamer’s psychology. You only see the player shooting other “people” and assume that such a scene must be enabling or at least anesthetizing the player to violence. But the player does not perceive the game the same way you do. They see what Ian Bogost calls the “procedural rhetoric” of the game: the structure that underlies not only the gameplay, but even the narrative, leading the player along the trajectory that will culminate in “winning” the game.

And this is why it bothers me so much that people who aren’t gamers are trying to legislate gaming. Why I find it disheartening that people who have never played a game are getting louder voices than those who play or build those games. Why I really hope that the people who will study the influence of gaming as a science – psychologists, etc. – will be (or at least will include on their teams) gamers. Because they understand how gamers think, and understanding how gamers think is vital to understanding how they are being influenced by the games they play.