To Fix or Not To Fix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calling Out (Non-Gaming)

To be perfectly clear, this is not a post about games or gaming or the gaming community, although it is something that happens in the gaming community and could therefore be applicable. Mostly, it’s about something that happens when I go to the grocery store, and when women in general walk down the street, go shopping, or pretty much do anything: catcalling.

Catcalling can be insulting, raunchy, or phrased in the words of compliment. But it isn’t. Claire Zulkey tries to explain this in “A Conversation About Friendly Catcalling With My Husband,” posted on Jezebel. Her main point in the piece is that being catcalled – even, as in the case she describes, with a compliment – is disconcerting and disruptive. She also points out that there’s a difference between commenting on someone’s person and commenting on their clothes – a point that I think she’s right about.

She says that women generally comment on one another’s clothing choices or style – and I’ve noticed that when strangers (male or female) comment on my clothes I’m always significantly less creeped out than when they comment on my body, body parts, or general attractiveness. If someone passing me on a hiking trail says they like my Aperture Science shirt, I know they’re a geek and they get the joke. If someone likes my crazy striped tights, I know they have a sense of whimsy. Those things aren’t creepy.

When someone calls out “Hey baby” or “Hey beautiful!” or “Work it baby!” (all things that have been yelled at me while walking to and from the grocery store, although the oddest may be “I like your truck – wanna go for a ride in it?” in the grocery store parking lot). And these comments apply whether the catcall is positive or negative – calling out something about a person’s weight or poor fashion sense or hair or body odor or presumed sexuality is equally unacceptable.

To me, it isn’t just that catcalling is disconcerting (although it is). It’s that it assumes that I personally care what you, a random stranger, think about my body. (What you think about my clothes is only slightly more relevant, as I dress deliberately, but still not really, and I’d prefer that people I don’t know keep their opinions about both to themselves.)

Catcalling, most of the time, is aimed at women and perpetrated by men (although not always), and therefore presumes a certain level of domination and ownership. People who catcall – usually men – assume that their opinion about someone else’s appearance or self-presentation is more valid than that person’s own.

Worse, commenting on my physicality presumes not only that I care what you think about my body, but that you have a right to judge my body. You don’t. The only people allowed to judge my body are me, my spouse, and my medical professionals (although they hold questionable status so long as they rely on BMI instead of fitness as a measure – long story).

If you’re ever in a position where you have the urge to say something to someone, try this staple: “Hi.” Or “Good morning/afternoon/evening.” Or “How’s it going?” (which in many parts of the country does not actually require an answer in the conventional sense, but a “How’re you?” in response). If the person you address smiles and replies, then you’ve maybe made their day brighter. If they introduce themselves or begin a conversation, maybe you’ll make a friend. If they look startled, they have the default “Hello” or “Fine, and you?” response to make back, but do not pursue the conversation. They aren’t interested – but at least you haven’t made them feel horribly self-conscious or objectified in the process.

Critics and Creators

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about how people who criticize games ought to just “make their own games” that say what they believe games should say. There are innumerable problems with this statement, some of them practical and some ideological.

Practical first. Maybe I can’t make games. Maybe I don’t have access to the resources necessary to make a game. If my vision is AAA quality, I might not have the millions of dollars it would take to produce that vision, and to make an “indie” version might undercut the game’s purpose. Maybe I don’t have the time to learn the skills I would need to program or animate or write the things I would like to see in a game. Maybe I would love to make the game, but I just can’t, whether for financial or personal reasons.

But let’s assume for a second that my problem isn’t actually practical. Let’s assume that I do have access to these things, but that I simply don’t want to make a game. I’m not interested in making a game, in designing mechanics, in doing art and animation and programming. I just don’t want to.

That does not, I repeat, does not mean that I am not qualified to criticize existing games any more than Roger Ebert was not qualified to criticize films (he didn’t make them), Emily Nussbaum is not qualified to criticize television (she doesn’t make tv shows), or Harold Bloom is not qualified to criticize literature (he doesn’t write it – although to be fair, I kind of wish Harold Bloom didn’t criticize literature, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the right or the qualifications to do so). In fact,almost all critics of a thing do not make that thingfor a living.

Why is it, then, that we have this hangup about games that says “if you don’t like it, make your own”?

It’s the same source, I think, as the idiotic adage “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” (Don’t get me started on that one.) There is this sense among the masses that someone can only participate in something if they are a part of it – if they are an expert, a genius, a creator. Such an attitude is profoundly dangerous and, frankly, lazy.

The most important part of a participatory community is not the creator(s); the most important part of any community is its audience. The consumers. The watchers. The commenters. Shakespeare knew this. His audience also knew this. The role of an audience is not simply to passively absorb what they are shown or told. The role of an audience is to receive, to assess, and to judge the media they consume. They can judge with the spending or withholding of money, certainly, but they can also judge with their words.

That is the role of the critic. To be an active and engaged member of the audience who has passion for the focus of that community, be it games, film, television, literature, soccer, graphic novels, football, portraiture, figure skating, performance art, theater, dance, music… the list goes on. The critic stands in as a voice from the audience, which has many voices, some of them discordant, some harmonious. The critic’s purpose is not to create anew the genre which she or he criticizes; it is to help to shape that genre from the point of view of the audience.

The audience – and the audience’s criticism – is what shapes every artistic genre that has ever existed or will ever exist. In that sense, the critic’s voice has just as much power as the creator’s over the afterlife of a product – Ebert’s reviews have made and broken films. Of course, not all critics are or ever will be Ebert. But the collection of voices that are critical raise issues to prominence that need discussion – irrespective of the eventual outcome of that discussion.

All of this comes down to the fallacy that critics do what they do because they lack the capacity to create. It is not that critics cannot create any more than teachers cannot “do.” Teachers teach, a thing that must be “done” with finesse, skill, and dedication. Critics critique (or “criticize,” if you wish), which requires extensive knowledge of the genre, culture, history, and other criticism within that field.

So when I criticize a game, don’t tell me to go “make my own game.” I did not choose to become a game designer. I chose to become a critic, and my criticism is the way in which I choose to shape the genre that I, too, love.

AIP/TLF: Managing the Team (XCOM)

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

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

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

Girl Gamer Identity

Earlier this week I talked to Elizabeth Ballou of Bustle about sexism in gaming (and found a fellow BioWare fangirl – always great). The resulting article, which discusses gender representation in games and talks to several other gamers, both male and female, made me think about what it means for women to identify as gamers.

One of the gamers Ballou interviewed presents a sad-but-true perspective that echoes the problem of the “fake geek girl”: “’I know I’m afraid to call myself a gamer,’ said my friend Mackenzie. ‘The moment I do will inevitably result in a guy or two calling me out, scoffing at my puny list of favorite games or lack of shooters among them. I’ve had someone say I play video games to get attention from boys. I’ve had someone say that I’m a fake. Honestly, I just love playing games.’”

The “fake gamer girl” is a subset of the “fake geek girl,” that mysterious female who appears at cons or game nights and who is automatically accused of using games or cosplay or a geek tshirt as a way to gain male attention. Nevermind that the kind of attention female gamers often garner is crude, abusive, sexist, dismissive, and demeaning. Nevermind that women might actually attend such events because they like gaming or comics or anime.

Last fall, I spoke to a class of seniors in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program at UR about gaming and gender, and about fandom and gender in the gaming community. They were appalled at the kinds of treatment women received as gamers, but they weren’t really all that surprised. What surprised me was that at the start of the conversation, they all said they weren’t gamers. By the end of it, two of them admitted that they probably actually were gamers, they just didn’t want to identify as gamers because of what that meant – both within and without the gaming community.

There is still a perception outside of gaming that it’s a waste of time – and that it’s primarily done by teenage and college-age males. Within gaming, I think the community is aware of the age spread (from very young to the very old, with an average age in the late 30s), but I think there is still a misperception that “gaming” is still predominantly male. The male gamers asked about it often admit that women play games, but they play Angry Birds or Flappy Bird or Candy Crush or Wii Fit – that they’re casual gamers rather than “real” or hardcore gamers.

When I was talking with Ballou, she identified as a “casual gamer.” And then we proceeded to spend a lot of time talking about Mass Effect and Dragon Age, about Jennifer Hale’s amazing voice acting, and about whether we’d played through as both manShep and femShep (I have, she couldn’t make herself do it). We talked about the weakness of level design in Dragon Age II (seriously, all the caves are exactly the same), and she talked about how much better the narrative complexity was in Dragon Age: Origins.

This is not a conversation one has with a “casual gamer.” “Casual gamers” don’t know the names of the voice actors, they don’t talk level design, and they can’t pick apart the narrative versus gameplay nuance of an RPG series that takes 40+ hours to play. And yet women are far more likely than men to identify themselves as “casual” players as a kind of defense mechanism – particularly if they don’t play FPSs.

It’s safer to say “I’m a casual gamer” to avoid the kind of harassment or disdain that is so often targeted at gamers, particularly female gamers, so that it becomes something we often say without even thinking about it. We think about what kind of person is usually labeled as “hardcore” and we say “No, that’s not me,” and default to “casual.” But there’s so much in the middle – and so many genres of games. I’m an RPG gamer, but I also enjoy shooters and casual games (like Angry Birds or Peggle). I’ve played RTSs (Starcraft II, Age of Mythology) and tower defense and puzzle games. I’m not a stereotypical “hardcore” player – I don’t devote endless hours to Call of Duty (at least not anymore), and I’d rather play single-player than multiplayer almost any day.

I’d encourage more women to start identifying as gamers – and not as “casual” gamers, unless that’s what they really are – in large part because the more we embrace that identity, the more others will recognize it as legitimate.

Tired

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And all of it makes me tired.

Next Project?

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

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

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

Thanks!

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

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