Comment-ment Problems

So I’m starting to dread comment notifications on TLF. I guess I’m lucky that most people haven’t found this blog, since it means that I’m not inundated with depressing comments on a more regular basis.

Today’s featured comment is in response to a cross-post here about another comment from TLF. It suggests that by pointing out the problematic nature of the phrase “wom[e]n like…” I am thereby effacing any sort of distinction between men and women.

Well, in the case of criticism, yes, yes I am. I don’t think that the gender of a critic, an academic, a journalist, etc., is a relevant criterion when one is discussing – whether positively or negatively – their opinions. I did not say that Sarkeesian’s “female experience,” to borrow the most recent commenter’s phrase, was irrelevant to her viewpoint. Nor did I ever once suggest that “everyone is identical,” as the commenter concludes.

Instead, I said that one’s viability as a critic is not determined by one’s gender. Nor, for the record, is one’s viability as a critic determined by race or sexuality or religion. That does not mean that one’s experience as a member of any of those groups is invalid or not valuable. But it does mean that if I, as a white woman, wanted to criticize the racial depiction of a character in tv or a videogame that my race and gender are irrelevant to the quality of that criticism. I can’t personally speak to the “Black experience,” to quote the commenter, but I can suggest that, for instance, Bioshock Infinite contains a highly vexed depiction of race (and gender).

To reduce my disparaging of the phrase “women like…” in regards to the first commenter’s dismissal of Sarkeesian’s opinion as being intrinsically female to the statement that there is no distinction between male and female experiences of the world is being intentionally obtuse. Sarkeesian isn’t writing about the female experience. Neither am I. I’m talking about a critic’s perception, an academic’s observations.

Are they colored by whatever other components influence my life? Of course they are. But to say that my voice should be subsumed into the general category of all women before it should be considered academic or critical is both dismissive and reductionist.

For that matter, to suggest that there is a single “female” or “male” or “Black” experience that is shared by all people of that designation is equally reductionist and problematic (if that is in fact the intention of the commenter… which I hope it is not, as to assume so is to be guilty of the very crime of which I stand accused).

In the grand scheme of internet comments, this one is banal, even benign. Yet the perpetuation of the attitude that biology or genetics must inherently make us categorically unequal is infuriating. Of course every individual is skilled or unskilled, good or bad, at different things. I am not a construction worker or rocket scientist and do not pretend to be. But I am a trained carpenter and electrician, a gamer and an academic, an aerialist and a stage manager. Those things are not categorically part of the “female experience,” and my gender is irrelevant to all of them (with the exception of the kind of costumes I wear in aerials)

In fact, what the commenter calls the “female experience” is almost entirely socialized – the product of socialization far more powerful than biology. And anything that is socialized rather than inherent, any experience that is the result of a false inequality, although all too real to those who experience it, should not determine their competence or identity. Yes, women are treated differently than men, but aside from purely biological functions, they should not be, nor should Blacks be treated differently than Asians or Native Americans or Hispanics or Latinos or Arabs or Whites. They are – but they should not be.

So when I suggest that the phrase “women like…” is problematic, I don’t mean that women don’t experience sexism, but, rather, that they should not, and that the evaluation of their work should be on its own merits, on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin or the chromosomes in their DNA.

“Woman like Anita”: What’s (Not) Wrong with Critical Fandom

About a week or so ago, I received a new comment on an old TLF post on Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women in Videogames” project. The original post was written before Sarkeesian actually released any of her videos (there are subsequent posts on TLF that talk about each video once they were released), and has garnered more attention than any other post I’ve made at TLF, which bothers me a little if only because it’s since been dated by the release of Sarkeesian’s videos (Post #2, Post #3, Post #4)  and I’d like to see people follow the conversation, not react to the original post. But that little complaint aside…

This most recent comment bothers me quite a bit, and I was having trouble figuring out why, exactly, since it’s a far cry from the kind of internet troll harassment that people talking about Sarkeesian’s work usually get (i.e. no threats or demands for sandwiches). However, there are several things about it that bother me.

First, the assumption that “No one has yet come to the realization that this anita sarkiseen woman has done it for the attention and the money? Thanks internet for giving this woman a free ride in cash and picks with universities” is irrelevant. Yes, Sarkeesian is making money with this series. So what? People make money doing what they do for a living. This is what she does for a living. The idea that somehow her publicizing her work and speaking about it in public is a sign of corruption is ludicrous. I talk about gender and games, I publish about games, I teach about games, and part of the reason I get paid is because of that. It’s my job. Sarkeesian may be self-employed, but talking about “Tropes vs. Women” is nevertheless her job and she should get paid for it, irrespective of whether or not anyone agrees with her opinions.

Second, this sentence: “Woman like Anita are a waste of time and nothing more than a media-eyelight eyesore forcing their way on how games should be.” Any sentence that contains the phrase “Wom[e]n like…” should immediately set off warning bells, since it presumes that the gender of the person doing something is relevant (hint: it usually isn’t). In addition, the idea that anyone‘s opinion on “how games should be” shouldn’t be made available to the general public is absurd. Anyone who plays games or wants to play games is allowed, by virtue of being human, to have an opinion about what they think “games should be.” That doesn’t mean the industry is going to listen to them, but they’re welcome to declare their opinion anyway.

Third, the commenter claims that “This is why innovation in games is getting more stale and less appealing to because of those like Anita, who believe the game world should be the real world and reflect their wants and needs.” Um. The game world does and should reflect the real world and reflect the “wants and needs” of the people who play in it. That doesn’t mean that all game worlds are going to reflect the “wants and needs” of Sarkeesian, but that there ought to be game worlds that do – as well as game worlds that do not. Gaming is a new medium in the grand scheme of media, so it’s still (slowly) playing catch-up on this one, but other forms of popular culture (tv, movies, books) already reflect multiple worlds and worldviews, and it’s not only appropriate and desirable, but inevitable that game worlds will, too. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

Finally, this:

Selfish americans are what is the true underline issues, not guppy-politics on how the smallest inch of mesh fabric on a female game model is a derangement to all the poor and unfortunate real-life woman out there. We waste so much of our money, time, and attention on things like optional video-games that don’t matter in the whole-run where us as a nation is actually going. Instead we’re like brainless sheep, following the face of random feminist women or anyone that tickles our ears with their ideas and agendas. We have become color-coded followers of the popular social “norms” of those who just want to ram their ideals quiet frankly, up our butts. I surely do miss old america, the new america is nothing more than a joke.

This commenter clearly has no concept of how popular culture reflects and shapes society, and I’m fairly certain I’m not going to be able to convince him (presumably) that it does, since he appears to be one of those people who doesn’t realize that his opinions about the universe have been constructed by his life-long exposure to media (including games) and society. Clearly his opinions were plopped into his brain by Truth Itself. That aside, the commenter claims to be above the rest of us who “waste” our time and money on games, yet has obviously decided to “waste” his time reading and then commenting on a post about gaming because he clearly does consider it important.

I am also curious what, exactly, “old america” is supposed to be. America in the 1950s when women were meant to stay in the kitchen providing for their husbands and children, and suffered from severe depression as a result of oppressive social norms? The 1850s, when slavery was still legal? Or maybe 1776, when the Founding Fathers chose to create a nation based on the very principles of free speech that the commenter seems to think apply only to him and not to me or to Sarkeesian?

Yes, it is true that people who are in extreme poverty should care more about food than videogames. But the vast majority of Americans are not – fortunately for us – in that category and do choose to dispose of our time by playing games (I’d imagine, the commenter included). And since we do, it is not only our right, but our responsibility as socially conscious and conscientious individuals to make sure that medium represents our viewpoints and does positive work toward the shaping of our sociopolitical ideals. Popular culture shapes our world in far more ways than we even realize, and taking responsibility for demanding that pop culture be accountable to its audience is a vital part of our society’s ideological formation. Yes, there are other very important concerns: education, poverty, crime, etc., but games (like any other popular media) impact the abstract ones: racism, sexism, homophobia. And if we can use games to change our society to become less bigoted, then that is a laudable and valuable goal.

Do I think that Anita Sarkeesian is the best person to do that? Probably not. But she is doing it, or at least trying to, and the very fact that her voice is out there and public has perhaps done more in the last few years for starting the conversation about gender equality in the gaming industry than a lot of other, less controversial and less public voices. Ultimately, I guess my stance has changed since that first TLF post: I’m a feminist gamer, and I’m all about Anita Sarkeesian.

Edit: Cross-posted on TLF.

Flapping at Windmills

So today’s internet explosion of quasi-idiotic behavior has sent me running back to my feminist soapbox, lance firmly in hand and plumed helmet fastened. Today’s rant is brought to you by Flappy Bird and unmitigated internet rage.

I remember seeing the first tweet that Kotaku sent out about their article on how Flappy Bird is imitating Mario art. The original headline said “ripped-off” art, specifically, and has since been updated to say ”Mario-like art” instead, along with a couple of updates on Dong Nguyen’s (the creator) tweeted response and their own later apology to him. In short, someone at Kotaku noticed the striking similarities between Nguyen’s pipes and bird and the pipes and creatures from Mario in terms of appearance, as well as the nearly-identical sounds in both games. Their point was not only that Nguyen had “ripped off” these sprites and sounds from Mario, but that there was something inherently unfair that he was able to make $50,000 a day from ad revenue on the game.

The internet subsequently exploded, cataloged on a page entitled “Flappy Birders not Happy.” This has prompted a few other things to happen. First, speculation that the subsequent removal of Flappy Bird from the App Store is the product of legal action (it isn’t), embarrassment over being called-out for “ripping off” Nintendo, and/or the result of harassment from internet trolls, as on Eurogamer and the EscapistSecond, this has set off a series of pro- and anti-Flappy Bird blog posts, including one from Robert Yang, called “An Alternate History of Flappy Bird.”

There are several things about this whole fiasco that bother me. First and foremost, it’s never acceptable to threaten a game developer with death, dismemberment, or other bodily harm whether or not their work is derivative. Not cool, should not have happened.

Second, it irritates me to no end that there is so much coverage of Nguyen’s harassment and comparatively little about that leveled at female designers. Bryce Mainville makes this point on twitter:

Yes, the comments leveled at Nguyen are inappropriate and should not have happened, but he is not the only developer (not even the only male developer) to be so targeted by rabid fans and anti-fans. But it’s frustrating to see the kind of attention that this case receives when comments aimed at women online (developers or not) are just as bad or worse.

Second, I’m unconvinced by Yang’s argument that this has exploded primarily because Nguyen is Vietnamese:

Dong Nguyen committed the crime of being from Vietnam, where Electronic Arts or Valve or Nintendo do not have a development office. The reasoning is that no one “outside of games” can become so successful, except through deceit. The derivative nature of Flappy Bird’s assets and mechanics was taken as confirmation that technologically-backward Southeast Asians were “at it again” — stealing and cloning hard-won “innovation in games” invented by more-beloved developers.

None of the articles I read and most of the hate-filled tweets mentioned Nguyen’s ethnicity as a point of contention. Nor do I think that, as Yang suggests, “if Nguyen were a white American, this would’ve been the story of a scrappy indie who managed to best Zynga with his loving homage to Nintendo’s apparent patent on green pixel pipes and the classic ‘helicopter cave’ game genre.” I think that perhaps some of the comments he received would not have borne a racial tenor, but I do think that they would have been just as vitriolic.

Why?

Because my final point is that his game’s graphics and sounds are far too close to Mario‘s to be anything but intentionally derivative. If the same percentage of similarity were present in a student’s paper in comparison to Spark Notes as Nguyen’s graphics are to Nintendo’s, I’d haul them in front of the Honor Council for plagiarism. Do I think that Nguyen’s act merits his harassment? No, of course not. But neither do I see any merit in defending his “artistic choices” when those choices reflect artistic laziness rather than originality. Flappy Bird‘s green pipes and style are about as original as Ms. Pacman.

Nguyen made an app that used the background style of Mario. He didn’t copy it directly, but used the earlier images as the basis for his own. It’s lazy, but it isn’t worthy of death threats. However, responses like Yang’s suggests that there is a certain level of martyrdom that accompanies being the target of trolling. Yang seems to go out of his way to find a socially acceptable reason for Nguyen to become a poster-child for internet harassment victims (because he’s not white) in order to legitimize the reaction against said harassment and the removal of Flappy Bird from the App Store.

Here’s the thing, though. Even if the harassment aimed at Nguyen has no racial valence whatsoever, it’s inappropriate and unacceptable. Even if Nguyen did directly copy the pipes – he didn’t directly copy them, a point he makes on his own twitter

- he wouldn’t deserve the anger directed at him, first for imitating Mario and second for taking down his game. There doesn’t have to be an ulterior racial element to the harassment to “justify” reacting against it. It’s unconscionable no matter what.

Ultimately, though, I think that what bothers me the most about this is that Nguyen is being valorized as a heroic champion of indie developers, and I find that highly problematic (not as problematic as the harassment he’s faced, but I’ve said plenty about that before). My concern is not that he’s male and therefore in the “dominant” majority of developers, but that he’s being held up as a paragon of “scrappiness” for what is, ultimately, “ripped-off” in the sense of “derived from” or “based on” (not copied directly). The art in Flappy Bird is unoriginal and relies entirely upon Mario-esque nostalgia for its attractiveness. It isn’t just that the game has pipes - Pipe Dream has pipes, too, but they don’t look almost identical to those in Mario. The pipes in Flappy Bird do, so much so that when I saw a student playing it before class on her phone, I thought it was Mario.

The gameplay may be addictive and the overall concept unique enough to say that Flappy Bird is an original game – and it probably is (I haven’t played it). But the artistic concept just isn’t. It’s derivative and lazy from an artistic perspective. Does that mean it shouldn’t exist? Of course that’s not what it means. But it does mean that journalists, critics, and gaming sites should fully be able to criticize it because of that. I’d hate to think that the reaction of ill-behaved trolls might result in the fear of critical voices to speak out about games that are derivative or ill-made in some way because they don’t want to be included in the bridge-dwelling label. I’m afraid that now, because Nguyen is being lifted up (by some) as a “scrappy” hero, other developers will feel justified in similar artistic laziness. I’m also afraid that genuine criticism will be lumped in with trollish rage and dismissed.

Ultimately, though, I’m concerned about our inability as members of the gaming community to keep our discussions civil. I’m concerned that instead of saying “Hey, guys, this is derivative and that doesn’t seem fair,” we have to over-hyperbolize our headlines and incite one another to death threats. I’m concerned that anyone considers death threats to be an appropriate response to pretty much anything. And I’m concerned that we’ll allow ourselves to degrade a burgeoning art form in the name of making quick money.

I don’t have a solution. I wish I did.

TLF: Free is Never Free

Although I know the title makes it sound like I’m about to start spouting platitudes about freedom and serving one’s country, this post over at TLF is actually about free-to-play games and why I find them so infuriating and problematic.

I am curious, though, about those of you who not only play free-to-play (as I do, too), but who pay for the upgrades. At what point do you “cave in” and give them money? What’s worth paying for and what isn’t? I’m also horribly nosy and want to know how much you’ve ended up paying for them, but I know that’s probably more personal than most people want to share on some random person’s blog.

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.

TLF: Shadow Game

My review of Compulsion’s new game Contrast is up over at TLF!

Short version – worth playing, even if it is a bit short. Available on PSN, XBL Arcade, and Steam (probably most worth buying on Steam, honestly, but if you’re an achievement-monger go ahead and get it for XBox, but only 360).

Contrast not only has cool mechanics – you can be a person or a shadow! – but is a rare example of a game that features not one, but two! female protagonists who aren’t damseled in any way, shape, or form. In fact, they’re the absolute antithesis of damsels, which is pretty rare, and pretty darn cool.

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.

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.