Archive for the ‘Video Games’ Category

The List – Year 4 (and updated)

July 1, 2015

So, this year I’ve decided to change up my list of games to finish, by removing all of the games that I’ve decided that I just am not going to finish. Or, rather, I went through the list and removed any game that I didn’t think that I wanted to put a push on finishing. It’s still the case that if I finish a game I’ll add it to the list — like I did with Sam & Max — but this list will track the ones that I’m thinking about playing and that when I’m deciding what to play if I want to put a game on the list out of the games I want to finish, then that’s a game that I’d want to put there.

Of course, this messes with the percentages. After adding Sam & Max, my totals were 14 games finished out of 56, for a 25% percentage, which is a big boost from last year. Now, dropping games off the list would greatly improve the percentage, but that felt like cheating. So I kept the total games there which included any I dropped so that I and you can compare it year over year, but I’ve also updated the number of finish to only count the ones that, well, I’m trying to finish. After that update and adding a couple of new ones to the list, the percentage of games finished to the total only counting games finished and that I’m actively trying to finish is 33%, not as big as I’d thought, but still a substantial boost.

Going forward, I’ll keep counting both, and we’ll see if games added to the list overtake the games I actually finish, which hasn’t been the case for the past year or two.

Thoughts on Sam & Max

June 29, 2015

So, I recently updated my list of games to finish with the three seasons of the Telltale Sam & Max games, which I’ve just finished. I decided to add them there despite them not being on the list originally because I made a concerted effort to try to finish them, and decided to add them by season because each game is too short to really be counted as a game, but just putting all three seasons as one entry seemed wrong. Anyway, here are some thoughts on them.

I didn’t care for Season 3 as much as Season 1 and Season 2. The main reason for this is that it seemed, to me, that Season 3 was more like episodes of a TV show than it was like a game. Given my love of walkthroughs, the games tended to seem like “Do these actions, get a cutscene, do some more, get another cutscene” and so on and so on. Which is why the noir detective parts of “They Stole Max’s Brain” worked best for me, since that literally was what you were doing so it was more entertaining, but when it dived back into having to do multi-part puzzles where the pay off was another cutscene rather than known progress, and where most of the humour and plot was in the longer cutscenes and not just in the short reactions to what you did, then it really seemed like I was just clicking on things to get to the next cutscene. And the humour in the third season isn’t a good as it was in the previous two seasons, so much of the time I got a cutscene that wasn’t particularly interesting.

Admittedly, the fun in Sam & Max games is not in actually solving the puzzles, but is more in seeing the odd and funny asides that the game has to offer. This means that you should take actions that won’t further the plot and ask about everything you can just to see what they say. I did this for most of the first season, but didn’t in the second and third seasons. In the first season, I typically tried to solve the puzzles myself first and tried to find the hints for them, and only went to the walkthrough when I couldn’t think of anything to do. This meant that I got more actions and talked to the characters more, which was more entertaining. The fact that you could generally do things out of order and still have solve the puzzles helped to make this a safe option. But in season 2 I found that I was clueless a lot faster — almost immediately — and so ended up developing the habit of just going to the walkthrough right away instead of thinking about it. Considering how counter-intuitive and spread out some of the puzzles were in season 3, this was probably a good move. But it did mean that I didn’t explore as much as you really should in a Sam & Max game.

That being said, I enjoyed the games and am glad I finished them. If you like Sam & Max, they’re worth getting, and if you follow the walkthrough or are good with puzzles you can finish an episode in a couple of hours, making it a good game when you don’t have a lot of time to play.

The Damsel In Distress Role in Video Games

June 22, 2015

So, after promising to talk about the “Tropes vs Women” videos over two months ago, I’m finally going to sit down and start talking about them. Well, kinda. See, the main reason for the delay was that I thought I had a lot to say about the first video, but on re-reading it turned out that I actually didn’t have a lot to say about that video, as some of the points that I thought I wanted to talk about there were actually expressed or better expressed in later videos. But I still had a rather long introductory discussion to do about how the damsel in distress fits into games, which I think is a bit different than how it fits into other media. Thus, I decided to make a post just about that before going on to the video itself. And then as is my wont I put it off for a bit while posting about atheism.

I’d worry that this would leave me further behind in talking about her videos, except that she’s done only two videos since my introductory post, one of which I’ve talked about, so it’s not like her pace is that rapid either [grin].

Anyway, to understand the role of the damsel in distress in games beyond the simple general trope that’s ubiquitous in all media, you first have to understand what is different about the gaming experience from, say, reading a book or watching a movie. The key difference is that in a game, the “observer” is not really just an observer, but is instead an active participant in the story. This means, as Shamus Young once opined (in frustration at Travis in “Silent Hill: Homecoming”) that a game not only needs to provide reasons for the character to do something, but also — and, I think, primarily — has to provide reasons for the player to do something. In a movie, if the character is doing stupid things for stupid reasons that might not break immersion as long as that is portrayed consistently. Even in a game, in a cutscene you might be able to get away with having the PC do something stupid if that’s part of the portrayal of the character. But in the actual game itself, for the actions that the player does, if you try to force the player to take a knowingly stupid action you end up with Stupidity Is the Only Option combined with But Thou Must … which frustrates players to no end.

And even having the character do it in a cutscene doesn’t always work, because in a game — particularly customizable RPGs — the player can associate themselves with the character, and then be jarred when the character does something that they, personally, would never, ever do. From this, we can see that the difference is in how immersion works. In a movie, you are immersed in it if you are accepting what you are seeing as if it was real and a reflection of real life. In a game, you are immersed in it if you feel that you are actually doing those things and that those things are happening to you, or a reasonable facsimile of you. In a movie, you get jarred out of immersion when you realize that this isn’t or can’t actually be what’s happening, and are reminded that you are just watching a movie. In a game, you get jarred out of immersion when it stops being about you and starts being about the characters in the game. Good games can transition that to the sort of immersion that you get while watching a movie, but it’s still a shift from the sort of immersion that is unique to games.

So, at the heart of video games is the challenge to find reasons for the player to start playing the game and — more importantly — to find reasons for them to continue playing the game. The simplest ways to do this were, in fact, the first: either to achieve a new high score/complete more levels (eg Pac-Man, Asteroids) or to win the game against someone else (eg Pong, Combat). These are fine as they go, but they don’t easily foster any kind of emotional commitment to playing the game except for those who either really care about beating their last high score or who have friends that they really want to beat. There are a large number of people who are interested in playing games who don’t care that much about that. Also, this led to a notion of “beating the game”, as limits were built in to early games, and that was then added as a potential motivation.

But we can see in games like Defender and Missile Command that giving the player a reason to start the game and for their character to be doing things adds more to the game, and gives them an emotional and maybe even personal motive for trying to do better. In Defender, you can try to save more humans, or keep them alive longer, which essentially makes what would essentially be simply strategic assets have a personal meaning to you; these are actually people. In Missile Command, you’re saving cities. While at this point the personal aspects aren’t fully integrated into the games, we can see how there’s a push to get the player more personally involved in the game, beyond just trying to keep themselves alive.

This leads to another way to keep the player playing: build in a narrative, and a real ending to the game. If you add a story to the game, the player will keep playing to see how the story turns out. For arcade games, this is a wonderful add-on to the existing “beat the game” motivation, as now you aren’t just trying to beat the game, but are instead trying to resolve the story and see how it turns out. Adapting the original “Save the world” sort of story works well for this, but there are others as well.

From there, it’s only a short hop from taking “Save a loved one” as a motivation, as we see in games like Donkey Kong, where that’s the motivation. But just as we see in movies and novels, we get massive impact from combining the two, if for no other reason that what the Green Goblin espoused in one of the Spider-man movies: it lets you force the player into a sadistic choice, to either save the world … or save their loved one. This lets you build far deeper plots and conflicts into your game, which is critical for making RPGs and games with RPG elements.

Now, it’s true that adding the damsel in distress trope almost certainly followed on from how that trope was represented in other media that games adopted, as well as from the fact that at the time, at least, games were seen as a “guy thing”. But there are other reasons to think that the best relationship to exploit for these sorts of plots is indeed the “true love” relationship, given the unique nature of games. Remember, in a game you need to convince the player that they should care about the person they need to rescue, not just establish that the character cares about that person. So let’s look at the most obvious “loved one” relationships. We can have the loved one be the parent/mentor of the PC, the child, the sibling or the true love. But there are potentially issues with most of these that might reduce the emotional impact:

1) A parent/mentor might be seen as having lived a full life, and so when the PC is faced with the sadistic choice it may be very easy to choose to save the world instead. I suspect that a lot of the puzzlement over “One More Day” in Spider-man is because while the creators thought that it would be obvious that Peter would do anything to save Aunt May’s life, most of the fans thought that she didn’t have much longer to live anyway, so it made no sense to, essentially, give up the future for the past.

2) A child works well for parents, but not as well for people who are not parents and for children. Also, if the villain has to hurt or threaten the loved one in a strong way, violence against children is generally seen as being far more evil than it would be to an adult, so you might risk your villain turning into a far more evil villain than you wanted, which is especially important for more nuanced stories in games.

3) While in general siblings count as loved ones, there are enough rivalries between them both in real life and in stories that more of the audience might find it harder to make that emotional connection.

But the true love (mostly) avoids these problems. While children might not have been in love yet, the trope is so common that they’ll all pretty much get it if they’ve ever been exposed to fairy tales. The true love has as full a life ahead of them as the PC, and are seen as a key component to that happy life. Therefore, there’s lots you can do here, and it’s pretty easy to do. Now, of course, all of these have been done and done effectively in games, and will continue to be done and done effectively in games, but using the true love is just so much easier to do that it’s a natural choice when you want to set this up.

Now, if you’re going for true love, as most protagonists are male you’re definitely going to end up with predominantly female “distress objects”, let’s call them. The overall narrative in almost all other works of male hero and female damsel also feeds into this. But the good news is that as games move towards more female protagonists, the same pressures should lead to less female damsels (unless there are other issues, which we’ll look at when we look at “Dude in Distress”), despite Sarkeesian’s skepticism.

Essentially, the loved one in distress trope is a powerful tool in motivating players — and especially players that are immersed in the game — to continue on and try to win the game. The true love motivation is the most powerful of those. So it in and of itself doesn’t need to change and to try to eliminate or minimize it would greatly hurt games, in my opinion. So if there is an issue here, it’s going to have to be with how it is handled, not its mere presence.

If I only chose female protagonists when given the choice …

June 19, 2015

… what percentage of the games I play would have female protagonists?

That’s what Jason Thibeault opines, in an aside in a post that I’m not going to talk about. At all. So don’t ask me.

In this playthrough, I’m playing a female Courier (I’ve long said that if I always choose playing a woman in the games I get that give me the choice, I might come close to 40% female representation!).

This got me wondering if the same would be said about me. I don’t generally play FPSs, and so tend towards Western and JRPGs. Given that, could I come close to or even beat that 40%? Let’s find out.

(At the time of writing this, I don’t know what the percentage is. So we really will find out together).

Anyway, the first thing to do is to try to get a representative list of the games I play or have played. Given that I’ve been playing games for decades, trying to find all of them is likely to be a long process. So, for the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to rely on two things. First, my not-yet-updated List of Games to Finish, including the finished ones. And to supplement that, my Most Memorable Games. Between the two of them, we should get a long enough list of games to make analysis meaningful while being representative enough of the games I’m playing to have that work out. I’ll add a couple that I note missing as well.

So, then, what counts as a game with a female protagonist? For these purposes, it’s a game where you can play a significant amount of the time as a female protagonist. For example, Suikoden III would count because you play as Chris for a significant portion of the game, and can make her the main protagonist. A party-based game like X-Men: Madness in Murderworld would also count because Storm and Dazzler are main characters. But if you only have a small sequence as a female protagonist, then it wouldn’t count. I’ll give more details on odd cases as we go along.

Note that I’m also going to leave off generic strategy games, as those don’t really have a protagonist at all, so it wouldn’t be fair to assign them arbitrarily to male or female protagonist. For simplicity, let’s limit it to games that have a protagonist. Also note that I eliminated completely any games where it would be really, really hard to say whether it counted or not.

So, with that out of the way, onto the list:

Shadow Hearts: Covenant M
Fatal Frame II F
Fatal Frame III F
Final Fantasy X M
.hack (4 games) M
Suikoden M
Disgaea 2 M
Silent Hill 2 M
Silent Hill 3 F
Mana Khemia M
Mana Khemia 2 F
Growlanser: Generations M
Grim Grimoire F
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne M
Oblivion F
Dragon Age: Origins F
Catherine M
Record of Agarest War Zero M
Record of Agarest War 2 M
Skyrim F
Saints Row the Third F
Enchanted Arms M
Folklore F
Disgaea 3 M
Cross Edge M
Overlord M
Overlord 2 M
L.A. Noire M
Persona 4: Arena F (All fighting games where you can go through the whole fight as a female character will count for this)
Mass Effect F
Mass Effect 2 F
Mass Effect 3 F
X-Men: Destiny F
Baldur’s Gate 2 F
Icewind Dale F
Icewind Dale 2 F
Fallout F
Fallout 2 F
The Witcher 2 M
The Old Republic F
Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday F
Gold Box AD&D (9 games) F (You can create a full party of female characters in almost all of these).
Persona M
Persona 2: Innocent Sin M
Persona 3 F (The P3P version allows the choice of a female protagonist)
Persona 4 Golden M
Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time M
Conception II M
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love M
Space 1889 F (Party-based again)
Fatal Frame F
City of Heroes F
Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom M
Romance of the Three Kingdoms VIII F (Yes, you can create a female character to play as when you create your own)
Knights of the Old Republic F
Knights of the Old Republic 2: Sith Lords F
Suikoden III F
Wizardry 8 F
Defender of the Crown M
Dark Age of Camelot F
X-Men Legends: Rise of Apocalypse F (You could choose to use mainly or maybe even only the female characters)
Shadow Hearts M
The Sims F
Infiltrator M
Turrican M
Pirates! M
X-Men: Legends F
Marvel Ultimate Alliance F
Wizardry: Tales of the Forsaken Land M
Lord of the Rings: The Third Age M
X-Men: Next Dimension F (Fighting game again)
Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe F (Ditto)
Injustice: Gods Among Us F (Ditto)
Tropico M
Tropico 3 (I think) F (Now allows you to use a female avatar)

So that’s 86 games total, if I did the math right. I’ve marked with “F” for female protagonist (choice or sole) 49 games. That’s about 57% of the games. Even if you doubt some of my calculations, none of the games that I’ve marked as “F” would end up being games that should be considered as “M” games, where you can only play as a male protagonist. They’d be gray area games that I’d have to drop from the list.

This means two things:

1) It means that my personal assessment of the amount of female protagonists — even just as a choice — in the games I play is pretty accurate; in the games I play, I can or must play as a female protagonist for at least a significant portion of the game over half the time.

2) That if Thibeault is right in his rough, semi-joking self-assessment, then this highlights the differences in genres. Even on my list, most of the games that were marked as “M” were either JRPGs or older games, while most of the ones marked as “F” were either newer games or Western RPGs. There were vanishingly view FPSs. Most of the people who complain about the typical “dudebro” protagonist play FPSs. So maybe it has less to do with games and more to do with the genres of games that they play.

Anyway, it was an interesting exercise, even if I don’t think it really proved anything beyond “There are a lot more games out there where you can play as female characters than people think”.

I miss creating my party …

June 8, 2015

So, I’m sitting around looking at comments on piracy about the Witcher 3 and seeing a reference to the Kickstarter Bard’s Tale game, and something struck me about pretty much all of the RPGs that I’ve played or seen for the past long while:

You create the main character, but not your party members.

For me, though, the ability to create a full party to adventure with has always been something that I’ve greatly enjoyed. It’s pretty much why I like the Icewind Dale series of games and didn’t care much for Baldur’s Gate (yes, you can create a full party if you hack through the multiplayer system, but in the original that leaves the party greatly underpowered). For the most part, the old-style games that I played — Gold Box AD&D, Wizardry, etc — got you to create your own parties instead of picking up characters along the way. It wasn’t really until Knights of the Old Republic that I even really liked RPGs that only let you create the main character, which didn’t really take off for me until I started playing JRPGs … which to my mind is different because you don’t really create your character either, so you end up playing a role, which made it easier than imagining a role myself. Heck, for me I even played TBSes with 8 players, all created by me, all interacting the way I wanted them to interact.

To me, the difference between an RPG where you create the entire party and an RPG where you create one party member and then have others join you is the difference between getting all of your friends together to go out adventuring and going out solo adventuring and meeting up with people. I far prefer going out with a group that I know than with a group of strangers, or going out to look for and meet people, and that carries over to games for me. Now, given the depth of character interactions you can get in the more modern Western RPGs — like most of Bioware’s stuff — and in JRPGs, it’s easy to see the benefits of having the developers create characters that you can meet and interact with. That sort of thing is hard to do if you also have to give the player the ability to create any character that they want.

Still, that’s really what I want, to be able to go out with a group of characters of my own creation, of my own devising and who have the relationships I want them to have from the start, and where their development is completely under my control from start to finish. I don’t think I’ll ever get anything even close to that again.

The daily grind …

May 22, 2015

So, I recently revamped my gaming schedule. The most important change is that I dropped Conception II off for a while, because it was a bit too grindy for me. It worked when I was going to have something to watch while doing the grinding, but that’s kinda fading, and so I figured I’d just wait until I had more time or more interest again. And so I replaced it with … Record of Agarest War Zero, which is also a very grindy game. Huh?

Anyway, this and some discussions over at Shamus Young’s site got me thinking about what grinding really was. To me, grinding is when you do some repetitive task over and over again for the sole purpose of gaining some kind of specific reward. Generally, this is to get more experience so that you can gain levels, but you could also be doing it to gain a specific item or skill or advantage or whatever. The point is that you’re deliberately trying to do that behaviour while at the same time it’s not done because you want to do that behaviour, but instead to get you something else.

So, let me highlight this with some examples. In Conception II, the game is grindy because to get the right set of levels for your Star Children and your companions, you often need to run through the combats and dungeons again and again. Record of Agarest War Zero also has that to get all of your party members at an appropriate level for the combats. Persona 3 also had a grind where you explored Tartarus for no other reason than to get the levels you needed to face the full moon boss. In all of these, what you’re doing is engaging in combat for no other reason than to gain levels. If you gained enough levels through the normal mechanisms, you wouldn’t be forcing yourself into combat at all. You can contrast this with games like Suikoden III, Shadow Hearts: Covenant, and even TOR. You probably have as many combats in those games as you do in the grindy games, but because of their systems you generally aren’t fighting just to gain levels. In all of those games, you end up fighting a lot just to get from place to place, so your goal is to get to that location and the combat is just what you have to do to get there. It can still be incredibly annoying, but it isn’t grinding and so is a different experience from when you are fighting repetitive enemies over and over and over again just to get the XP boost.

In comments I read, people complained that grinding was used to extend the game and make it seem longer. Explicit grinding is an absolutely terrible way to do that, because players figure out very quickly that they are just doing this to get levels, and without another goal it’s very easy to get bored. The model of games like TOR works better, by extending the game by forcing more combat on you, but doing it in a way that it’s an impediment to what you want to do, which means that you always have some other goal in mind, and these are just the slightly boring things that are thrust upon you while you are trying to do that. In short, in TOR I end up — especially playing in the off-hours like I do — killing lots and lots and lots of enemies, and getting lots of experience and even overlevelling quite a bit. The only things that I do deliberately to do that are to use experience boosting items and to make sure that I do any bonus quests that I can do. I don’t try to farm areas to gain levels, or spend time fighting just for the sake of gaining levels. Instead, I fight and I fight and I fight and I fight just to get from place to place. While I’m not sure that TOR’s balance on that is right, it’s a heck of a lot better than games where I have to “street sweep” just to get to the next level so I can take on the next mission.

Ultimately, successful games make you forget that you’re playing a game. But grinding, as I define it, is done consciously with an eye on the gameplay elements; you do it because you know you need to hit some kind of explicit, gameplay number in order to advance properly. Hiding grinding behind in-game goals as the annoyance you have to get through to get that is still not particularly fun, but it’s a lot better than the alternative. Once you get me thinking that this is a game, you start getting me thinking that the game isn’t a fun game, and then I stop playing it … and don’t play the sequel.

The Avatar and the Ego

May 11, 2015

So, finally, for the first time, I’m going to cover one of the essays in “Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy”, mostly because it is based on video games and how gamers associate with their digital avatars. The essay is by Luke Cuddy and is called “The Avatar and the Ego”. It focuses on Freudian psychology, and in general treats games as a way for the ego to reconcile the demands of the id and the superego, by allowing us to do things that we couldn’t do in real life. This, Cuddy thinks, explains a great deal of the anger that we feel when we fail, and when we gripe that the game is somehow unfair or unreasonable in not allowing us to play out the role that we’re trying to play out. Cuddy does comment that, of course, sometimes it is because the game isn’t fair, but the basic idea is that if we are piloting our Vipers and we are suddenly shot down, we retract from the avatar. So he argues that this is an ability that we have in games, and which is what facilitates our using them to reconcile our id and our superego.

While Cuddy admits that different people play games for different reasons, ultimately they all come down to this sort of attempt to reconcile the id and the superego. The problem is that in a lot of ways what’s really happening is the same thing that happens when you watch a TV show: you lose the suspension of disbelief. When you’re piloting a Viper, you are trying to be one of the heroes of the show, not one of the “nuggets”. When you get shot down and you see the “Game Over” screen, you aren’t a hero anymore, not a main character, not the star of the show anymore. You’re a bit player at best. And so that anger and frustration you feel is the same sort of frustration that a character who thought they were a hero but died ignominiously feels (for an example of this, see the story of the Jedi with the great destiny told by Jolee Bindo in Knights of the Old Republic). Also, there may be cases where the game elements become clear. For example, recently I started playing “Record of Agarest War Zero” again and hadn’t been keeping track of my “Fragments of Life”. Due to a nasty combo, one of my characters went down … and I didn’t have one left to revive him, which meant that I would have had to finish the battle — which I might have been able to do — and then likely have to get him revived at the infirmary, and he wouldn’t have gotten the XP for the battle and … well, the long and short of it is that after being reminded of all of the gameplay hassles that I’d have to go through, I stopped for the day. This was not due to any clash of my id and superego, but more that I generally enjoy the game and mostly enjoy following the story, and the game issues just made that that much more difficult. So when the gameplay breaks the experience and reminds you that you’re playing a game, you can’t associate yourself with the avatar anymore.

In general, people play games to, well, have fun. I have no doubt that what often appeals to people playing games is the ability, in the game, to get something that they don’t get from other hobbies or in their every day life. So, for example, people who don’t have very challenging lives might be drawn to games in order to get a challenge. People might enjoy being able to participate in a dramatic environment. Or they might enjoy being able to participate in something fantastical or imaginative. But although games do feature more participation from the player than other media, often what they give us is pretty much the same thing that they do. And, in theory, those other media then also allow for us to reconcile the id and the superego, although with other media it’s far more vicarious than it is with games. That being said, much of the time even games will be played “just for fun”, just as a way to distract us from the world and give ourselves and our minds something to do, without any deep psychological purpose at all. And it seems to me that the most anger is reserved for the times when the game ruins my fun, not when it ruins my id/superego combat.

So Why Are You Acting Like You Haven’t?

May 8, 2015

Stephanie Zvan recently wrote a post titled “We Have Always Been Here”. While she meanders a bit through what would be called “purple prose” if informative essays could have such things, the gist of the first part of it is essentially that women have been part of things like video games, Science Fiction and Fantasy, computer programming and the atheist movement for a long, long time. She then asks this key question:

So what the hell happened? How did we end up in a world where men get paid to write whiny, ahistorical media pieces about how women are presumptuously beating at the doors to their clubhouses?

Which essentially translates to “Why are we being treated as if we haven’t been a part of these things and are instead newcomers and interlopers?”. To which my answer is the title of this post: because you are, in fact, acting like you are trying to push your way into these things instead of acknowledging that, yes, you’ve been a part of it for a long time now … and just as much a part of it as those whiny men that you complain about.

So when Leigh Alexander talks about how “gamers” are dead, you should react with the same mix of anger and confusion that I reacted with, because you should see yourself as just as much of a “gamer” as the people she complains about are. When people talk about a toxic gamer culture, you should see yourself as, in fact, part of that culture as well, and just as representative of gamers as the average gamer is. And more importantly, you should see yourself as just as responsible for that culture as the gamers that they complain about. Either you’re a gamer or you aren’t. If you aren’t, then it is reasonable to treat you like someone outside the “gamer” culture who is wandering in and trying to change it to suit your own personal preferences. If you are, then you have to accept just as much responsibility for it as the gamers that you treat as somehow not at all related to you.

The same thing applies to Sarkeesian’s gripes about tropes. These are tropes that have been in video games from the beginning. If you’re a part of this, then these are tropes that you at least didn’t mind when you voraciously consumed that media, and might have even liked. You voted with your dollars to support games that, in fact, did these things, because these things have been around for ages. And there isn’t much evidence that you supported games that didn’t do these things any more than you supported the ones that did. You, then, are just as responsible for the state of games today and for the popularity of these tropes as anyone else is.

Most importantly, you can’t complain that people protesting these changes are getting upset at “being asked to share”. Because by this reasoning they’ve been sharing it with you for a long, long time, and you’ve been relatively content with the sharing. So now, all of a sudden, the same things that didn’t push you away from the area are now the things that have to be changed or else we are somehow excluded … the very groups of people who have been there from the beginning. You don’t get to start from a position where you insist that the areas are pushing away certain groups and then claim that it’s the other side making it be about those groups when they ask why they have to pander to those groups. And in this case if you insist that those groups have always been a part of that area then you simply kill your own argument, as you end up supporting the idea that the new people who are bothered by what has always been there are just too sensitive, because those groups have always been there, too, and were able to move beyond those elements to enjoy the media or enjoy the work they’re doing. Given that, then, is it really too much to ask, especially for things like video games, that if they don’t like those elements and if they dislike them so much that they won’t play the games that, well, maybe then video games are not for them?

If you consider yourself a part of the area, a “gamer” for example, then yes, you do get to advocate for things that you’d like to see changed, and there are some things that maybe could be improved. But if you want to start as an insider, you don’t want to base your argument on what outsiders would think or want, or from an outsider’s perspective, or from an argument that makes you seem like an outsider. Instead of attacking gamers, represent yourselves as just as much gamers as everyone else. Don’t advocate for the changes on the basis that outsiders don’t like the way things are now, but instead on the basis that games will be better for the insiders if these things change, even if that argument is only “More people means more money for better things”. If you want to claim to be an insider, appeal to insiders as insiders and don’t segment yourself off in an attempt to define yourself as the morally superior group. But if you as if you are not insiders or are putting outsiders ahead of insiders, don’t be surprised if people treat you like outsiders.

So, if you’ve always been here, act like it. And then you’ll be treated far more often as if you have, indeed, always been here.

Talk to the (Invisible) Hand

May 4, 2015

So, in response to Vox Day’s comment on Gamergate, over at Butterflies and Wheels Ophelia turned a comment by Marcus Ranum into a guest post, a post that, along with a pair of comments strikes me as far, far less of a good, solid argument for how gaming is working and will work in the future and far more as an example of someone who really, really doesn’t know anything about the media that he’s talking about. Thus, to me it provides an excellent example of why even gamers who aren’t particularly “Gamergatery” will often roll their eyes at the “Gamers are dead” articles.

Ranum’s main thrust in the post is that Gamergaters are fighting against the invisible hand of the market, which is changing on them, and that they, being libertarians, ought to support that. Well, okay, maybe he’s only talking about people like Vox Day. I’ll forgive him for that since it started as a comment and comments aren’t always clear. But his first big misstep is to compare the situation to that of pornography:

Sure, there is a smaller market for ‘hard core’ (i.e.: guy) gamers but it risks being marginalized out of the mainstream, which will mean that those games won’t be very well-funded or good. Sort of like how cis porn split off from the Hollywood mainstream and maintained its ‘independence’ in return for acquiring an unenviable cachet.

Okay, first, in terms of market … pornography is massively successful. I mean, the reason you can’t search for anything on the Internet without finding it is because of how massively commercially successful it is. Sure, it’s not “mainstream” like regular movies are, but considering that it can only appeal to a smaller market — adults who are willing to consume it — it’s massively successful. If “guy” games end up as relatively successful as porn, I think they’ll take that. Second, he has the causation completely backwards. It is not the case that pornography was pushed out of the mainstream and so gained an unenviable cachet, but instead it is the case that because pornography was considered to, in fact, be sleazy and shady that it was pushed out of the mainstream, pretty much solely because it had to do with unvarnished sexual content, which offended the prudish sensibilities of the time. Thus, it wasn’t the invisible hand of the market that pushed it out of the mainstream, but instead social pressures that said that talking about and showing sex was a bad thing, something that is lessened today but still exists. And it’s hard to say how well-funded or good pornography is, because it doesn’t have to be well-funded or good to sell, and what it would mean for pornography to be good is debatable anyway. You certainly won’t get A-list actors and writers working on them, but then how many people really want that in their pornography? That’s not how that is judged. For these “guy” games, more is probably going to be required, as it certainly is now. Oh, and note that the complaints against “guy” games are not, in fact, over the gameplay, but over the representations of the characters in them, and so is based more on specific plots, costumes, and so on and so forth. So the games, at least in terms of gameplay, are probably good now and will continue to be good later. So there is no evidence that if the anti-Gamergaters or Social Justice Gamers or whatever they should be called get their way that games, as games, will improve in quality. Heck, even if we just take Hollywood as an example, you might well be able to argue that in terms of quality Hollywood movies are declining while pornography is increasing, and in general that’s probably actually because of the invisible hand of the market, as since there’s more competition in pornography there is room for new approaches and you have to step up your game to bring in the bucks, which is not true for Hollywood.

Candy Crush has 93 million people playing it every day – a bit more than half of which are women. 8 million people play Farmville. Those are big numbers. They’re right up there with big ‘hard core gamer’ franchises like Call of Duty (100 million) and then there are the mega-game franchises like World of Warcraft that held 12-20 million gamers for 12 years paying $15/month. The point is that it doesn’t matter at all what the gamergaters think: the market is going to change in spite of them; they are nothing but the sound of defeat.

This is a standard talking point, but it’s relevance to the discussion isn’t that clear. As an example, when in a comment someone says that they don’t want to play Candy Crush, Ranum replies:

Don’t, then. I don’t, either.

Presuming that both parties are gamers, and that I’m a gamer and don’t want to play that either, how can they know that the numbers from those games will carry over from the mobile market to regular consoles? It actually isn’t very likely that if you simply ported Farmville or Candy Crush to a console or to the PC that it will have the success that it’s having on mobile platforms. It seems to me that those sorts of games work best on a mobile platform, which has differing requirements and, I’d say, audiences. Mobile games, it seems to me, are similar to Sudoku and crossword puzzles and surfing the web on your mobile phone: they’re something that you do to keep yourself occupied while you’re sitting around doing nothing, like taking the bus to work in the morning or waiting for your car to get out of the shop. These games are, however, highly addictive, and will indeed creep into every spare moment you have … but it doesn’t seem like something that people will deliberately plan into their schedule. So, these games won’t, at least in the minds of the players, be a hobby to them. But gaming is, in fact, a hobby, and that applies to casual and hardcore gamers alike. The main difference is the amount of time the two sorts of gamers allocate to that hobby, not their attitude that games are an important and specific passtime or hobby for them. If this is correct, then mobile “gamers” aren’t gamers, and what they do there isn’t going to have that much impact on gaming as a hobby, because no matter how the companies try to drag them away from their mobiles and into the world of dedicated gaming, it won’t work. They aren’t interested in games as a hobby, but instead as games as something to do while they’re waiting or bored.

As an example, you know those games that you typically find in every Windows installation, like Solitaire and Minesweeper? They’re massively popular and played at least at times by, well, pretty much everyone with a Windows system, right? Now, how much impact have they had on dedicated gaming? Not a whole heck of a lot, right? In my opinion, these mobile games are far more like those games than they are like Call of Duty or World of Warcraft.

Moving into the first comment:

In gaming that customer-base exists but it’s moving away from violent misogynistic shoot-em-ups. There’s not likely to be an effort to prevent people from making crappy games – any more than there will be an effort to stop Vox Day and John Wright from churning out turgid prose – it’s just going to appeal to a proportionately smaller part of the market.

Okay, and on what grounds are you claiming that those “violent misogynistic shoot-em-ups” are bad games. Sarkeesian called out as problematic games like Dragon Age: Origins (which is certainly violent) and the Hitman series. Others have criticized Bayonetta for its over-sexualized content while even conceding that the gameplay is, in fact, good. For the most part, the criticisms are not leveled against games that, well, just plain suck. They are, in fact, leveled against good games, with good gameplay and good graphics and the whole nine yards. Which actually should be obvious, as there’s no reason to complain about elements that turn you off of certain games if you didn’t want to play them in the first place. The games that are “crappy” from the perspective of production values and gameplay, and what are definitely the niche market right now, are ironically the games that the Social Justice Gamers push: Gone Home, Depression Quest, Papers, Please, and so on. And the reason for that is that they are done by independent studios who don’t have the budget for really high production values, and right now the “violent misogynistic shoot-em-ups” are done by the big studios who have that budget. And they make those sorts of games because that’s what the market, at least right now, seems to want.

At which point we can again see that the Social Justice Gamers’ method is not to let the invisible hand of the market deal with this. What they want to do is exactly what happened with pornography: push it out of the mainstream not through market forces, but through social forces. Make those sorts of games be seen as sleazy, shady, icky, or bad from a social perspective so that people will feel ashamed for wanting to make or play them, even if they still want to. So, instead of letting the market drive the evolution of games, use social shaming to push the market to what you want it to be, regardless of what everyone else wants. If this succeeds, then, yes, the “guy” games will be the indie games that thus have lower production values and so aren’t as good … but if the market is there for those games, then they’ll still exist, and might be more successful at the indie level than the Social Justice Gamer games are.

That being said, it’s hard to see how this can, in fact, work, because the Social Justice Gamer complaints aren’t generally about specific genres of games, but about specific tropes or elements of those games. FPSs, RPGs, RTSs and the traditional genres of games are not, in fact, likely to go away, especially since their gameplay is, as stated above, a lot of fun. Social Justice Gamers are not going to get rid of games like Star Wars: Battlefront or Call of Duty or whatever, and they don’t want to. Nor will they get rid of games like Grand Theft Auto or Hitman or Saint’s Row, where you play as, essentially, the “bad guy”, and again nor will they want to. So, those games will not be replaced by Social Justice Games like Depression Quest or Gone Home. The best they can hope for on that score is that more of those sorts of games will be made … but that definitely seems like a niche market if I’ve ever seen one. So, the best that they can hope for is that some of the most annoying — to them — tropes are toned down or stop being the dominant paradigms. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But that’s hardly going to be some kind of major revolution that will push “gamers” out of the picture.

In the last comment, he starts to take credit for market forces that existed long before Social Justice Gamers made a real impact and were made for reasons totally unrelated to their concerns:

At Blizzcon last year I had a chance to ask one of the panelists from Blizzard’s design team about representation of body self-image in Blizzard games and he replied that it’s a thing they are extremely aware of and generally try hard to represent a wide range of body types and skin colors, etc (hey, you can be green if you want!) and genders in their games. Blizzard Gets This. It probably isn’t sheer coindence that World of Warcraft caters to wide ranges of looks and roles, as well as having roles that are not purely violent (as well as roles that are) — there is a lot of space for players to find identity and – ta-da! A lot of players do, in fact, find identity. Blizzard’s revenues speak for themselves. Meanwhile, Duke Nukem games are .. “unspecified date” Even heavy shoot-em-ups like Bungie’s Destiny are gender-neutral and steer completely away from gendered violence. Blizzard, Bungie, … et tu, Rockstar. Wait for GTA 6 and I bet you’ll find an interesting female protagonist and a lot fewer women in throwaway roles as strippers and punching bags. The gamergaters have actually done a service to gaming by pitching their little shit-fit and putting Sarkeesian (in particular) in the role of the adult voice at the table.

So, where to start? First, the only “unspecified date” for a Duke Nukem game is “Duke Begins”, which was announced as a reboot that they would start after “Aliens: Colonial Marines” completed … which was in 2013. And it had a negative reception. And, oddly enough, what was it praised for?

The few positive reviews praised the single-player game setting, the game’s soundtrack, the level designs, the weaponry and character customization options as well as the multiplayer versus mode of the game

So, it wasn’t criticized for any of the things that Social Justice Gamers complain about, and was praised for doing the things that Ranum says are responsible for Blizzard’s success. So, somehow, the reason that the same company might not have a reboot of a franchise with a due date out for two years after their last game that presumably would have been a model for the basic gameplay, when that model was poorly received and problematic, must be something related to Social Justice Gamer principles instead of those, well, obvious problems. Hey, how long did it take Atlus to say when Persona 5 was going to be out, which was a follow-up to two massively popular and well-received games that they therefore knew that they were going to make a sequel to?

Also, it’s not reasonable to compare Blizzard and Gearbox because they work in completely different genres, and Blizzard hit the jackpot with World of Warcraft. And the body type and gender customization in Blizzard games, in fact, follow from that … or, at least, it follows from the RPG games like World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft is an MMORPG. MMORPGs got their start from RPGs. Western RPGs have always adopted a more sandbox style of game, where the real fun of the game is in customizing your character and making that character the character you want rather than focusing on you playing as a specific character with a set history and story, which is a sharp contrast to JRPGs. This is because they started from the D&D PnP model, which focused on that sort of thing and so had the choice of gender from, oh, pretty much the beginning. Which is not how FPSs went, for contrast. So, when MMOs came out, they always had the choice of gender, and a fair amount of customization of appearance, because that’s what RPGs did, and that’s the model they followed. WoW is actually, from my understanding, a bit constrained with respect to that when compared to games like “City of Heroes” or “Champions Online”. It’s not even clear that they’re that much better than Dark Age of Camelot was, which had multiple races inside each realm and even had a female-avatar-only class (at least Bainshee) which was appropriate. This was not done to appeal to female gamers or to allow people to better play as themselves, but rather to make it easier for them to play as other people. So when Ranum crows that game publishers “get it” … what does he think they’re getting? Social Justice Gamer ideals? At that point, he’s taking credit for the work that gamers — you know, those people that are claimed to be “dead”, outdated and are going to be marginalized and go away — actually did and pushed for long before these guys stuck their noses in. Whether they do it for the same reasons, many gamers want the same things as the Social Justice Gamers want and work for that. Gamers want more customization because it makes for a better game for them. Gamers want better female characters because better characters in general are more fun for them. Gamers want more diversity among protagonists because playing as the exact same sort of character all the time gets boring after a while. Gamers can even understand the idea that at least some elements in games might have to change to get more women involved in them. So why has the assault been against gamers or hardcore gamers … many of whom aren’t opposed to the changes?

Also, note that Destiny is “gender-neutral” in precisely the same way as MMOs are: you can decide your gender but it doesn’t matter mechanically. Which means that it isn’t “gender-neutral” at all when compared to FPSs, since most of them don’t let you create a gender, and so force you to one. Destiny actually allows you to define and work with your gender, and it does this because of the influence of MMORPGs, which as I’ve already pointed out have done that for decades. So, again, what are they “getting” by doing that? They’re using standard gaming tropes where you’d expect them to use them. Oh, the revolution.

Which carries on into the last part of the comment:

No, not all games will look like Candy Crush. They’ll probably look more like Destiny and Mass Effect. You can play a female avatar or a male avatar. And you can wear a ton of armor that covers your body, or a pink lame bikini, regardless of your gender.

Um … that’s how games are now, and have been for years and years, outside of the cross-dressing part (which has existed in a number of games already, most notably Fable. I don’t expect this to be common until/unless it’s easier to just apply all armours and outfits to all avatars than it is to restrict it to certain types). Knights of the Old Republic II: Sith Lords in fact literally had the option of the slave girl costume or various sets of robes for a female protagonist … and the protagonist is canonically female in Sith Lords. Mass Effect is done by the same people, and they essentially just stuck with the model that worked for them starting way back in Baldur’s Gate, and that model started from long before that. As I’ve said before the future is now!. Games are already doing as standards the very things you want them to do. Get your head out of your narrow, FPS-inspired box and immerse yourself in the world of what games really are.

It’s no wonder that gamers roll their eyes so much at the Social Justice Gamers when they reveal the depth of their ignorance of what games are like and yet see fit to pronounce on what games ought to be and what they’re doing wrong. Sarkeesian is not the adult voice at the table, but is the person loudly complaining about how bad the rules are while not knowing what the rules actually are, which means that she hits on some good points, but they are points that others already have complained about, while she presents her ideas as ideas that no one else has thought of before. Well, okay, to be fair to Sarkeesian she herself doesn’t present herself as being original as much as her supporters do, but that doesn’t change the fact that, in general, Social Justice Gamers tend to advocate for things that gamers in general have long advocated for and tend to take credit for their “influence” in getting the things that gamers already managed to get without them. If Social Justice Gamers would work with and listen to gamers more instead of trying to shame them for things they don’t do, things would probably go a lot better for them.

Criticism and Criticism

May 1, 2015

So, Vox Day did an interview where, among other things, he talked about Gamergate. Dave Futrelle at “We Hunted the Mammoth” talked about a key part in it, at least to Futrelle. Day said:

… what Gamergate is fundamentally about is the right of people to design, develop and play games that they want to design, develop and play without being criticized for it.

Futrelle replied to that:

Which is an. er, interesting perspective, as there is in fact no “right” to be immune from criticism.

If you write a book, if you make a movie, if you post a comment on the internet — you should be ready for it to be criticized. Because that’s how free speech works. That’s how art works. And that’s how ideas work.

Criticism — whether it is positive or negative — helps to sharpen ideas and make art less self-indulgent; it pushes creators to hone their craft and expand their vision of the world. And it helps the consumers of art not only to look at art with a more critical eye but also to appreciate it more fully, by helping to draw out the more subtle meanings of this art and to put it in a broader cultural (social, political) perspective.

Of course, neither the artists nor the consumers of art are required to listen to this criticism, but they have no right to demand that such criticism be eliminated.

I think there’s a bit of equivocation on the term “criticism” going on here, because there’s a difference between being criticized for your project and being criticized for how you execute your project, and while the criticism that Futrelle defends here is the latter, I suspect that Day is complaining about the former … and that a lot of the people criticizing games, particularly from a social justice perspective, are doing the former, and not the latter.

So, then … what is the difference between the two? The kind of constructive criticism is the one that takes what your goal was into account and what you were trying to do, and analyzes and criticizes how that was implemented. So, if you were setting out to make a hard-boiled, noir-style detective piece, it would take that as a given, take the tropes as given, and look at how well you managed to achieve that. Knowing that you were aiming at that sort of work, it wouldn’t criticize the work for including the very elements that would make that sort of work, well, what you were trying to make it. It wouldn’t say that these sorts of works are terrible and so you should have done something else instead. It would look at how well you managed to do what you were trying to do, and how well that worked. Criticizing the project, on the other hand, would be arguing that the goal you yourself had and the work you were trying to create was not worthy of being created; you should not have set out to produce a work of that type. That’s generally not helpful in any way; it almost always comes across as someone complaining about a genre or sub-genre that they don’t like and saying that the creator should have, instead, made the sort of work that the critic likes instead … no matter how many people like that sort of work and regardless of the sort of work that the creator, you know, actually wanted to do.

Now, there are, of course, some gray areas here. It is a perfectly valid and useful criticism to say that the work should have been done in a different genre because it wasn’t effective at one of its primary goals. So, for example, I might be able to say that “Atlas Shrugged” should not have been written as a fictional/sci-fi work, because the philosophical elements make it not very entertaining fiction and the need to shoe-horn the philosophy into a fictional world makes it hard to really see how the philosophy works (note that I’ve never read the book and my only experience with it is through Adam Lee’s series on it, with is not exactly unbiased), but even there the main criticism is that the stated and known main goal of the creator isn’t being effectively met by the chosen medium and that they could have achieved that better with a different approach. What is isn’t saying is that a book advocating Objectivism is not something that any author ought to create because that project, in and of itself, isn’t one worth doing.

Which, then, gets into the Social Justice driven criticisms of many things, including gaming: they really often do come across as criticizing the project itself and not its implementation. From Futrelle:

Indeed, that’s what most #Gamergaters mean when they talk about fighting “corruption in game journalism” — shutting down those writers and publications that have dared to critique the prejudices of a backward portion of the gaming universe that is hostile to any challenges to the status quo ante — particularly from women with opinions different from theirs. That’s what drove the outrage over the “death of gamer” articles last Fall. And that’s what has driven “critics” of Anita Sarkeesian from the start.

The key here is that line about “a backward portion of the gaming universe”, and then to remember what the criticisms actually are. Sarkeesian’s biggest complaints so far have been about the “Damsel in Distress” trope, and a couple of other ones. These are criticisms of the trope in general, not about specific instances. The “death of gamer” articles were all about how these backward sorts of games were going to all go away, without ever really saying what they were going to be replaced with, or what was actually going to go away. For the most part, the criticisms seemed to be about specific elements and genres and sub-genres that they wanted to go away, not about the implementation of those elements. And what I think Day is saying is that if someone, say, wants to create a standard and traditional damsel-in-distress, male-empowerment-fantasy sort of game, they should a) be able to be honest about that and b) if they are honest about that, shouldn’t be criticized for making that sort of game and not making some kind of Social Justice Approved ™ sort of game. If they say that they want to appeal to male gamers and not female gamers, that should, in fact, be okay, and they should not be criticized for making that audience their focus, beyond business reasons like “You’re ignoring a big market” or “You claim to be doing it because that’s what the audience is but, well, it isn’t”.

Now, of course, there is a gray area in here as well, because this touches on how people are represented in the work, and that can be a comment on presentation. For example, you could criticize differences in how a female Shepard is treated when compared to a male Shepard in Mass Effect — if there are any interesting differences — or in how men and women are, in general treated as a way to show how a different implementation could be more effective. And for any game that’s claiming to be general, talking about how the representations might look to women and how that might turn them away from the game is a perfectly valid criticism. But I think the key is how you respond to the game Scarlet Blade, which I think is obviously aimed at providing massive fanservice wrapped around a game. If you say that such a game is bad and should never, ever be made, and that the people who would make it are bad people, then I definitely think that Day will have a problem with you … and so will I. There is nothing inherently wrong with that sort of game, and it isn’t the case that such games should never be made. Scarlet Blade may or may not be a good game and it may not really achieve its goals, but someone saying “I want to make an explicitly fanservice game” is not grounds, in and of itself, for criticism. Or take Conception II. It’s a valid criticism to say that it is too risque for fans of Persona-style games and too tame for fans of adult dating sims and so won’t have a market, but it isn’t a valid criticism to say that the latter sort of games aren’t worth making.

So, criticizing someone because they want to do something you don’t like or don’t want them to do isn’t valid criticism of the sort that Futrelle defends. It might be what I called “Activism Criticism” … but I’m skeptical of the worth of that sort of criticism, and it certainly isn’t general, helpful criticism of the sort that Futrelle talks about. So, then, the question is still open: should one be immune from “Activism Criticism”?


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