Redcoats and Petticoats

24 Oct

With the recent release of both the new Bioshock Infinite and Assassin’s Creed 3 trailers, coupled with the presidential campaign and debates, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about American exceptionalism (by which I mean the notion that Americans are somehow unique from and superior to other nations’ citizens). I expect that I will have more to say about this (and, indeed, I did, over at The Learned Fangirl) with relation to Bioshock Infinite‘s new trailer (and the game itself, come February), but for now I want to stick to Assassin’s Creed 3.

In part, this is spurred by Border House’s blog post yesterday. Jillian Scharr says that “my coworker and I both agreed that there was something ‘off’ about the trailer.” Which made me want to go watch it for myself.

The trailer is surprisingly… multicultural. There are Native Americans, colonists, several men who appear to be pirates (maybe Minutemen in tricorns?), in percentages that are radically unrealistic to the actual demographics of colonial America. Except for African Americans. They aren’t present (despite the fact that AC3 has already announced that the protagonist of the DLC Liberation will be both African American and female) at all, in fact, a point that Scharr notes:

while we’re on historical accuracy, maybe you thought you were dodging a bullet by apparently not including African Americans in AC3. I suppose it remains to be seen what you do with American slavery. But if the trailer’s line about playable multiplayer maps including “the blood-soaked cotton found on the Virginian plantation” is any indication, you’re going to milk that for every drop of exploitative “coolness-factor” as well.

In short, if you’re going to mention those “blood-soaked cotton” fields, you might as well make it clear whose blood soaked that cotton long before you decided to turn them into killing fields for assassins. (This, of course, doesn’t mean that the game itself won’t have African Americans in its Virginia setting… but it doesn’t show them here.)

But the absence of the obvious is only one of the trailer’s problems. The voice-over is less a “narration” and more a sales-pitch, which breaks the fourth wall nature of most contemporary trailers. It’s selling a game instead of telling a story – focusing on mechanics rather than ludo-narrative (the story told by the gameplay) or narrative (just story). While that make seem to make sense on the surface, it doesn’t mesh with what we’ve come to think a “trailer” is supposed to do. It ignores the potential narrative power of the setting – revolution, national identity, etc. – in favor of describing multiplayer maps. While players are interested in those maps and the multiplayer experience they signify, the list of information does not make for a very good trailer.

Finally, there is the point that really concerns Scharr: that the proportion of violence inflicted on men is much lower than the proportion of it inflicted on women:

The trailer shows a lot of men killing men, and quite a bit of men killing women. Only twice was a female assassin shown killing a male: once, at 0:38, where the Native American female assassin shares the screen with a white male assassin; and at 2:49, the last assassination of the trailer, when a white woman nails a white man in the head with the butt of her rifle, then shoots him as he lies on the ground. The other women in the trailer are either shown non-lethally striking a man, being non-lethally struck or thrown by a man, or being killed by a man. The worst is at 1:16, when a man in an overcoat and top hat grabs a woman in a low-cut green dress who is backing away from him, and plunges a dagger in her stomach. Then, for some reason, we get an instant replay.

This is not really what bothers me the most about the trailer, but I can understand why Scharr noticed it. The ratio is really quite poor. And – especially once you’ve had it pointed out – very obvious. Certainly, there are female assassins in the game, a point in its favor. However, there is no reason why the trailer needed to emphasize violence against women over violence against men (particularly given the fact that most players are like to be men, and therefore male-on-male violence would be a more accurate representation of the actual demographics of the gameplay).

While – in this trailer specifically – I find the voice-over more off-putting than the disproportionate violence against women over men, I take Scharr’s point that it is a problem. However, it isn’t just a problem with AC3. Violence against women – specifically, sensationalized violence against women – is a symptom of the larger issues that I’ve addressed here before (and which appear to be central to Anita Sarkeesian’s interest in producing “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games). I think Scharr is probably right to criticize the trailer for its imbalance, but that isn’t what struck me as “off” about the trailer.

What struck me as “off” is that it was less of a trailer about the game as art and more a focus on the game as product. And this bothers me, in part, because of Scharr’s point about violence – not because the game is violent (I happily play shooters on a fairly regular basis), but because the game commodifies that violence as the sole point of the game, which ultimately diminishes it to nothing more than a sequence of mechanics about mortality.

And a title like AC3 is about more than just its mechanics. Multiplayer is a bonus for games with deep and rich singleplayer campaigns, not the point of the game. It provides incentive to keep playing even when the campaign is over. It serves, to put it bluntly, to keep players playing long enough that they don’t immediately sell their copy back to GameStop. And I don’t really have a problem with this, when it comes down to it. But the explicit commodification of violence (especially with an emphasis on violence against women) as the ultimate raison d’etre of the game does it and its potential audience a profound disservice. Games are more than that, and gamers (most of them, at least, I would hope) are looking for more.

In short, the trailer assumes that its audience is not as sophisticated as I believe they are, in by focusing on the game as specifically commodified violence, it panders to those who disparage games as juvenile and unethical, and it reinforces its own reputation as inartistic and misogynist. I very much hope that the trailer is not a promise of a similarly shallow game that has little consideration for gender and racial politics. I hope – as I did when I first saw the announcement of Liberation – that AC3 lives up to its promise of gender and racial balance.