Archive for the ‘Video Games’ Category

Tropes vs Women: Women as Reward

November 27, 2015

Sarkeesian moves on to talking about Women as Reward, which she defines thusly:

We’ve coined the Women as Reward trope to describe a long-running pattern found in interactive media. It occurs when women (or more often women’s bodies) are employed as rewards for player actions in video games. The trope frames female bodies as collectible, as tractable or as consumable, and positions women as status symbols designed to validate the masculinity of presumed straight male players.

But if we delve into her examples, what we’ll find is that what she really means is “Women as Incentive”, or rather “Sex as Incentive”. These fall into two main categories. The first is where the game uses sex or the promise of sex — either actual in-game sex or sexual images and the like — as an incentive for the player to perform certain actions in the game. The second is where the game uses game mechanical incentives to encourage the player to engage in sexual actions in the game itself. What’s important to note here is that neither of these cases are cases where the player does something of their own volition and they happen to get, say, a sexual image at the end of it, which is them actually getting a reward even though they in no way did that action to get that reward. Sarkeesian, it seems to me, in order to make the link to her “entitlement” comments and for most of her examples to work has to argue that the game, at least, intends that to be the incentive for doing something, and not just some little bauble that the player looks at and says “Cool”, and moves on. It has to be important enough to the player that they strive for it, which makes it more than a mere reward. We often confuse the two because we use what we call rewards to “condition” people to do the actions that we want them to — we especially see this when dealing with children or animals, but this also occurs in business — but generally those are incentives for behaviour change, not merely rewards.

It’s also important to note from this, then, that Sarkeesian’s argument isn’t going to work if it can be boiled down to “It’d be okay to reward that behaviour, even with sexual content, but the reward is so sexualized that it ought not be in a game at all”. Sarkeesian claims to not be opposed to sex in games, and since rewarding someone involves giving them something they like, and we can presume that even Sarkeesian likes sex, then giving them that as a reward is not in and of itself a problem. If Sarkeesian’s only argument is that the depiction of sex is itself harmful and so, say, women ought not be depicted that way, then it doesn’t fall into the “Sex as Incentive” trope, or even “Women as Reward” trope, because for it to fit it must be the case that the problem with it is crucially that it is offered as incentive or as reward, and not its mere presence. So if she wants to make that argument, she needs to define the trope for it and discuss that specifically, and not let the idea of that trope colour our perceptions of this trope. So here I’ll focus on instances of “Sex as Incentive” as outlined above.

The result of this incentive structure is that access to women’s bodies, women’s affection or women’s sexuality is reduced to a simple equation that guarantees delivery as long as the correct set of inputs are entered into the system.

In this way the Women as Reward trope helps foster a sense of entitlement where players are encouraged to view women as something they’ve earned the right to by virtue of their gaming actions, skills or accomplishments.

So, then, the heart of the “Sex as Incentive” trope is that it reduces women to objects for the player to simply use. Of course, simply using sex as an incentive doesn’t in and of itself do that; it must be the case that the NPCs are already seen as objects, and then when the player engages in sex with them — or even views the images of them — that’s just continuing the objectification. The problem is that in a lot of games, the “correct set of inputs” is, essentially, talking to them, finding out what they like, giving them what they like, and solving problems for them. Thus, the correct set of inputs is to create a connection and a relationship with them, which likely isn’t what Sarkeesian is criticizing and, to her credit, doesn’t seem to be what most of her examples are criticizing, except potentially by implication. So it’s important to note that her definition cannot include these cases. This distinction is going to be important later when Sarkeesian talks about trophies and “entitlements”.

We run into a major problem when Sarkeesian talks about “Easter Eggs”, because these are examples that fit squarely into the “reward” category, and where the issue is the reward itself, not that it is being used as a reward:

Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4 included a secret unlockable character named Daisy, who bore the likeness of porn star Jenna Jameson. Daisy’s sexualized appearance and skateboard tricks are designed as a reward for those players who unlocked her. One way to do that is by entering this code… ( o ) ( o )

Probably one of the most famous Women as Reward easter eggs brings us back to Samus Aran. The original Metroid used a password system to save progress. By inputting the secret code “Justin Bailey” into this system, gamers would unlock a powered-up playable version of Samus wearing only her leotard-style bathing suit. Incidentally this is the same outfit we covered earlier as an end-game reward, only here she has the powers of the Varia Suit and its associated color pallete swap, which changes her hair color to green. Players can then play the entire game as Samus without her space armor. So she ends up exploring a hostile alien world and fighting off deadly monsters in her underwear.

I find the code for Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4 to be juvenile, but note that in both cases the problem is with the presentation itself, not with the fact that that is the reward. It should be clear by now and from the initial introduction to her video — alluded to in the quote — that Sarkeesian doesn’t want the player to have the ability to dress Samus in that way, or to have a sexualized character in the game. She focuses on this again later:

Many unlockable costumes are cool, wacky or bizarre. But when applied to female characters we see a distinct pattern of revealing, hypersexualized outfits.

Fetishized bunny, cat, maid or nurse costumes are commonly used by developers as a way to pander to an assumed straight male player base.

It’s important to remember that sexualization is not necessarily just about the amount of skin showing, but is instead connected to the question of whether or not a costume is eroticized for the express purpose of titillation.

These types of unlockable outfits can be especially pernicious since they often end up undermining women who are otherwise appropriately dressed for active or professional roles. The Resident Evil franchise has been particularly guilty of this over the years. Almost every major release in the series has included the Women as Reward trope.

The problem is not that these outfits are unlockable. If you could choose them from the beginning, it wouldn’t make Sarkeesian any happier, and I dare say it would make her far less happy. So these don’t apply even to “Women as Reward’, let alone to “Sex as Incentive”, unless she wants to argue that people will try to finish the game just to gain the ability to dress the character in those outfits. No, the issue is that she finds them inappropriate, not that they are inappropriate rewards.

Let me take a brief aside to talk about this. I see nothing wrong with giving players the choice to put characters in utterly inappropriate outfits for the role they’re in. Games are primarily about entertainment, and if a player wants to acknowledge that by doing utterly ridiculous things, more power to them; they’re absolutely aware of the disconnect there and are rolling with it. I also see absolutely nothing wrong with giving players the choice to put characters into outfits that they happen to find appealing, and that they think make the character look good. I also have no problem with that “looking good” part being sexual in nature, in short, dressing up a character in ways that make them look “hot”, in the mind of the player. So the only objection here can be about it being “sexualized”, whatever that means. But that, again, is another debate. What is relevant here, though, is that dressing a competent female character in an outfit even designed to make her look “hot” doesn’t suddenly take away her competence, or her strength, or her personality. It doesn’t in any way reduce her to a sexual object, but instead enhances her character as “strong, capable, competent and hot too”. So since it merely adds to the qualities of a character that the player already likes. In fact, typically the biggest calls for “sexying up” a character comes for characters that the players themselves like in other ways. In short, male players tend to really want to see female characters naked that they actually really like as characters.

Admittedly, typically most men will take naked pictures most of the time, as evidenced by the popularity of pornography. But if we’re going to get into talking about incentives, the more appealing a character is in general, the more likely a male player will be incentivized by seeing them in a sexual position. And the driving force for that is often what they think of the character as a character, and not just as an object.

Alternative costumes for men are rarely objectifying. They’re instead presented as “tough guy” power fantasies for other straight men to identify with. And when men are stripped down to their beachwear it’s most often meant as a lighthearted joke.

So, here’s a quick question: why do men find those outfits “appealing” in the first place? Could it be because those are the sort of men that are considered to be “successful”, which in our culture very much means “appeals to women”? Sarkeesian here is ignoring that women have traditionally found different things appealing than men have, and that the “tough guy power fantasies” reflect the traits that women find appealing. Whether or not that is also a reflection of patriarchy is an argument for another day, but Sarkeesian assumes that they can’t be objectifying because they reflect a power fantasy for men, ignoring that a big part of that is their appeal to women. Sure, it’s absolutely true that in most of these cases the outfits aren’t put there to appeal to women — because games still do aim to appeal to men more often, which I concede is an issue — but if they were, I suspect that those same, “non-objectifying” outfits would be the ones added if women were asked “What sorts of outfits would you like to outfit men in if you wanted to make them hot?”. So things are no where near as simple as Sarkeesian wants to make them out to be.

For the record, I’m totally in favour of asking that question for women and putting those sorts of outfits in the game, as long as no one is forced to use them … just as I’m in favour of the existing outfits for women that Sarkeesian criticizes as long as, again, no one is forced to use them.

Sarkeesian moves on to talking about the use of XP points for sexual encounters:

When women are used as sexualized experience point dispensers, the sexual scenarios are themselves a reward designed to validate the masculinity of presumed straight male players. But there’s a dual reward here: absorbing these expressions of female sexuality carries with it the ability for male characters to grow stronger, faster and more capable, reducing the women to points in a mathematical equation that directly links the flippant consumption of female sexuality to an increase in male power.

She actually links to both cases here, where the first seems to be aimed at “You are encouraged to do it because you get sex out of it” while the second is aimed at “The game gives you stuff for engaging in sex”. The problem is that the game giving XP for this doesn’t link all that well to the first point, because typically XP is really important, and the game wouldn’t have to give you XP to do something that you were going to do anyway.

Her GTA example only highlights a problem with her analysis:

In Grand Theft Auto 5, players are given additional encouragement to solicit prostitutes, in the form of an increase to their character’s stamina rating, which enables those characters to sprint, swim, or ride a bike faster for longer periods of time.

If that’s an action that a character wants to do — because they enjoy the sex parts so much — then this becomes merely — presumably — one way to raise those stats, and a way that they find more entertaining. But then it’s one way out of all of the others to raise those same stats, making it a mechanism, not an incentive (the incentive is still to raise those stats; you’re just doing it in the way that bores you the least). Thus, either players are doing what they wanted to do anyway and raising stats that way, or else they are doing it to simply get the increase in stats and this is the most efficient way to do so, at which point that it involves sex is not only irrelevant, but mostly ignored. It’s the equivalent of, say, being able to raise a specific stat in an Elder Scrolls game by running everywhere. If I want to run everywhere — and I often do, because I hate horses — that stat will go up … but that the stat goes up is in no way an incentive for me to run everywhere. And if I run everywhere just to increase that stat, then that while you can argue that the game incentivizes my running everywhere, there’s no link between the increases and the action; it won’t make me want to run everywhere in games, or even keep running everywhere once I max out that stat. So we can see that these kind of incentives either reward the player for doing things they already want to do, or else turn the reward into a gameplay element where the details of the interaction are generally ignored.

So the only case that seems problematic here would be the case where the mechanism is boring, but players are encouraged to do it anyway to see the sex scene or image or whatever. But if they’re willing to be that bored to see sex, it’s not likely that the game giving that to them is going to change much. And note that underneath all of this lies the fact that many games do not have these sorts of mechanisms, or any explicit sex scenes at all, so it’s not like gamers aren’t already exposed to even relationships with female characters that don’t end in sex (even some of Sarkeesian’s examples have to substitute “a kiss” for that).

And speaking of relationships:

Note that, while the consumption of women makes male characters more powerful it has nothing to do with mutual relationship building. The “relationship,” such as it is, ends with sex, or rescuing the woman. At that point, she has served her purpose. Players have reaped the benefits and her value has been depleted. Like an empty energy drink container, she is simply cast aside after being consumed.

I have to presume that she’s talking about the cases where you can merely hire a prostitute or something, not the sex scenes that follow from explicit relationship building, like in the Personas, or most Bioware games, because there the relationship doesn’t end with the sex, and the relationship is built up massively over time. Which, again, since she talks about being able to show what she considers proper sexual relationships, it would have been really nice for her to have used one of the Bioware examples as relationships done right, and about being less about sex and more about a real relationship. As it is, as I said above, here she almost seems to be condemning them by implication as well. I’m going to be charitable and assume that she doesn’t include those relationships in this description (although in The Old Republic you get XP for pursuing sexual relationships. You also get it for pursuing friendship relationships as well. It’s about the relationship, not the sex).

When done well, collectibles inspire exploration and replayability. However, when they’re designed to function as an extension of the Women as Reward trope, players are encouraged to view women’s bodies as souvenirs of their adventures.

In the 2010 remake of Splatterhouse players are encouraged to collect ripped-up pieces of photographs of the protagonist’s girlfriend which are strewn around each level. Once the player pieces them together, the completed images consist mostly of private, personal sexual photos.

But, again, is this just giving a player something they like and then can look at later, or is it actually the incentive to collect these things? Again, if a player doesn’t care about looking at them, then they won’t collect them. If they really want the pictures, then they’ll go to potentially tremendous effort to get them. And if the collectibles provide something in game, then most players won’t be thinking “Hey, naked pic!” but instead “Okay, got that, so only X more to go!”. It’s no different in that case from my trying to get all of the Iron Man armour in X-Men Legends 2 so I could unlock Deadpool (I think). That it was Iron Man’s armour meant nothing to me.

So here, again, Sarkeesian has to be opposing having those sorts of images in the game at all, because she presumably wouldn’t have a problem with unlocking landscapes or bonus scenes or bonus characters (in fact, she out-and-out says that). So it’s that you can unlock things that are, in her mind, sexualized that’s the problem here. Keep that in mind as I’ll go into what her overall problem with this is later (as she holds it to the end as well).

Next, we turn to trophies, and achievements:

If collectibles in the player’s inventory work as a private trophy collection, then achievements serve as a public trophy case, on display for all to see. Achievements, or trophies, are meta-goal award systems built into most popular gaming platforms. Unlike collectibles, achievements are earned through in-game actions but awarded outside of the game environment itself and have no effect on gameplay. Some achievements are rewarded for skill or completion of tasks while others are arbitrary challenges set up by developers.

These systems encourage “replayability” and provide players with incentives to spend more time inside the game space experimenting with its environments and characters. By default, your achievements are visible to anyone who views your profile on a gaming platform and thus they allow players to show off their gaming skill or dedication to their friends. In other words, achievements are designed to function as status symbols for gamers.

Um, actually … no, not really. Or, at least, that’s not how most gamers, it seems to me, treat achievements. There are two reasons for this. First, the only real bragging rights you get are for achieving all of the achievements, not usually for completing specific ones (certain incredibly hard ones might get some props). Second, there are often in-game rewards for completing a specific achievement or all of them (a different difficulty level, new scenes, new options, etc). So while they are indeed shared, a specific achievement isn’t likely to generate much status for anyone. Sarkeesian describes it thusly:

Just so we’re clear on what’s happening here, players are receiving a literal trophy for “achieving sex” with a woman. When games such as these award players with achievements or trophies for sexual conquests they are directly reinforcing negative ways of thinking about the dynamics between men and women in our society. By presenting sex as an end goal of men’s interactions or relationships with women, these games frame sexual encounters as challenges to be overcome.

Let me emphasize that the problem here is not necessarily that sex is included in these games. By presenting sex as a goal and then presenting players with an award for accomplishing that goal, these achievements function as a form of trophyism. Simply put, trophyism is the tendency for men to view women as objects to be collected and displayed as status symbols of their sexual prowess or virility. These “trophy women” then serve as a way for men to assert their social status among and relative to other men.

The thing is … you pretty much get trophies for doing anything in the game. The trophies for Dungeon Travelers 2 include: leveling up to an intermediate class, eating at the ice cream shop, and a gold reward for leveling to an advanced class … which you’ll almost certainly have to do to get anywhere in the game. And these are likely going to be harder to achieve than most of the “get sex” options that Sarkeesian talks about. “Trophyism” in the real world only works when the thing you’ve achieved is hard to get. In the real world, the assumption is that the more attractive the woman, the harder she’d be to “get”, and so the better the man had to be to “get” her. This is not true of the sexual encounters in games that you get trophies for. The cheap, casual encounters are trivially easy to achieve in games; they’re literally the equivalent of hiring a prostitute, which confers no status on a man who had to do that to get sex. The ones that would be at all impressive would be the ones that require you to negotiate a long, drawn-out process of building a relationship with the person, and again what would be impressive is not that you got to the sex scene but instead that you spent that much time going through that character’s personal story to get to that point. The harder that is, the better.

She also talks about the 2004 Sid Meier’s Pirates! game:

The “fame points” system in the 2004 version of Sid Meier’s Pirates! provides us with a stark illustration of trophyism. In the game, romancing and then rescuing any of the game’s many governors’ daughters not only rewards your pirate with the option to marry her, but also wins him extra fame points. The daughters are largely interchangeable; they don’t even have names, and their value as a reward is tied directly to their appearance. Courting and marrying a “plain” daughter earns fewer fame points than marrying an “attractive” one, and marrying a “beautiful” daughter earns the most points of all. Fame points then directly contribute to the social status your character achieves at the end of the game. Depending on the amount of points accrued, you could end up as anything from a lowly pauper to a powerful governor. Other ways to earn fame points include acquiring wealth and defeating rivals. Like all your swashbuckling escapades, acquiring a woman becomes just another feather in your proverbial cap, functioning to elevate your prestige and renown in society. And since, in the game’s Xbox Live Arcade release, there are achievements for getting married, and for courting governors’ daughters from all four nations at once, these accomplishments also increase your gaming status.

The problem is this: the only difference in reward for attractiveness is precisely which one you marry. The spread is this: 1 for plain, 2 for attractive, and 3 for beautiful. There are a total of 10 points available based on what the wiki itself calls “Love”. So if you go for a plain daughter, you limit yourself to 8 out of 10 points maximum. The total number of points available in the game is 126. So you’d limit yourself to 124 points if you did everything else. If you get 124 points, you get … Governor. In fact, the range on that is 103 – 126, so you can still mess up a lot and still get the max retirement occupation even if you go for a plain daughter. And if you do nothing else and so only end up with 8 points, you get Bartender. Add the two extra points for a beautiful daughter and you get … Bartender. Huh. So much for her being beautiful really mattering.

And I think that finding someone to love — again, they call it that — is more than just a feather in your cap. After all, among those “feathers” is “Avenging your family earns you 10 points” and “You earn 32 points by finding all four cities and your entire family”. In fact, all of the fame achievements are things that are critically important to someone living the life of a pirate: achieving a certain amount of wealth is important to a pirate, since that’s their main measure of success; as a privateer, ranking with the nations is also important; defeating famous pirates is also a key factor; finding hidden treasure is what pirates do; and of course the three already mention. Knowing the series, this seems to be intentional; the fame achievements are likely designed to represent what an ideal pirate/privateer ought to be striving for. So rather than being an excellent example of what Sarkeesian is on about here, it is in fact a terrible one; the woman is not a feather in the pirate’s cap, but a key component of what a pirate/privateer would want to achieve before retiring. It’s thus important on a character level, not a gaming or “show off my status to others” level. I’d prefer it if the game had given them personalities to make it more interesting, but it’s not how Sarkeesian presents it.

So, finally, what is her problem with “Sex as Incentive”? Well, it comes down to male entitlement:

By extension, “male entitlement” is the conviction that men are owed something by virtue of their gender. It’s the belief structure that tells men they deserve to have their whims catered to, both culturally and interpersonally. One of the most harmful aspects of male entitlement is the false belief that men have a right to survey and use women’s bodies. This mentality carries with it a corresponding set of expectations about what women should provide for men. It’s a worldview that primarily defines women’s social role as vessels of sexuality, and men’s roles as consumers or patrons of that sexuality.

But then in the context of games she talks about it this way:

Players make the correct inputs into the game; a woman’s affection or her body is the corresponding output. Players go through the process of saving the princess, and the game’s algorithm dutifully rewards them with what they think they are rightfully owed for doing so: whether it be a kiss, a girlfriend, or sexual attention.

So, male entitlement is the idea that, because they’re men, they deserve something. In this case, it’s seen as access to women’s bodies for sex. And yet, the underlying mechanism is not “I’m a man, but give me sex” but instead “I’m a man and I’ve done all of the things that our society says I need to do to prove my worth and value to you, up to and including risking my life to save yours, and so I think I’ve earned the promised reward”. Sarkeesian’s misunderstanding of the damsel in distress trope rears its ugly head here again, because she misses that what the male character is doing in those cases is demonstrating their value to the woman as a hero and as a man. The man spends the entire game proving to the woman that he’s worthy of her. Assuming that he’s successful, it surely shouldn’t seem like such a stretch that doing that might, you know, prove that he’s worthy of her love, or even simply demonstrate to her his good qualities that she can fall in love with right?

Thus, the gaming mechanisms that present the “Sex as Incentive” reward as being the result of long, tedious and often boring “correct inputs” actually oppose male entitlement, as they present the situation as being male being table stakes, but that a massive amount of effort has to be done to achieve the end goal, an effort that is done to her specifications. If any entitlement is on display here, it is female entitlement: the idea that being female is enough to get a man to go through hell to win her love, while she doesn’t have to demonstrate anything other than being female, and being attractive.

There is one aspect that might actually fit into a typical view of entitlement that she talks about:

For instance in Asura’s Wrath, when the player stares at a maiden’s breasts, she’ll try to cover herself up. But if the player keeps staring they will unlock an achievement called “View of the Valley”.

Similarly, in Lollipop Chainsaw the player can unlock the “I swear! I did it by mistake!” achievement for using the game-camera to look up Juliette’s skirt for an extended period of time despite her coy efforts to block players from doing so.

These achievements are directly rewarding players for in-game behavior that amounts to sexual harassment. Players are actively being encouraged to think of women’s bodies as something they are entitled to interact with.

So, let’s analyze the role of the achievements here. Again, either the player gets this for doing something they’d do anyway, or else they are doing it to get the achievement. If the former, then they’re doing it anyway and that they get an achievement for it is irrelevant. If the latter, then they are only doing it for the achievement and it’s no different than them clicking on a door five times, and so they don’t even really acknowledge that this is sexual harassment … because they aren’t even really paying attention to what’s going on. Sure, there’s a middle ground between the two, but for the most part you’ll side one way or the other.

Sarkeesian’s objection here, then, can’t be that you get an achievement for doing it. It has to be that you can do it. And I can see an argument for that, mostly because it does involve you having to be directly trying even as the character is trying to ensure that you can’t. But this has nothing to do with “Sex as Incentive”, “Women as Reward”, or male entitlement as it is defined in relation to those tropes.

Let me finish by talking a bit about how she thinks rage at frustrated male entitlement plays itself out in games:

In the gaming community, we see this entitlement-fueled outrage bubble to the surface when some gamers encounter indications that games aren’t made exclusively with their fantasies in mind. Angry public temper tantrums from straight male players have occurred when role-playing games have forced them to interact with gay male characters, or presented them with lesbian characters who were not available as romance options to male avatars.

Angry backlash from straight male players also materializes when Western releases of Japanese games place women in slightly less revealing outfits, or increase the age of young sexualized female characters to 18.

In the same vein, when presented with critical analyses of the poor representations of women in many popular games, this intense male entitlement manifests in aggression, abuse and threats.

There are no examples of this in the actual transcript, but let me start from one main principle: The Internet sucks. Many Internet commenters have ended up in flamewars for simply expressing criticism of a game in a way that wouldn’t in any way trigger any kind of male entitlement. For example, Shamus Young ended up in a bit of one for a post that criticized Windows by parodying criticisms of Linux, as if he was criticizing Linux for not doing the obviously stupid and annoying things that Windows did. Suffice it to say, if you’re on the Internet, and you criticize something people love — or are even seen to be criticizing something people love — you will get lots of nasty reactions and rage.

So a lot of the time, the reaction is not so much “male entitlement”, but instead anger that something that they love is going to be changed to appeal to an audience that has never bothered to support it before and has no real reason to support it now if the changes are made. When D&D 4.0 came out, I say lots of posts criticizing how it seemed to be aimed at “video gamers” and removed elements that real roleplayers wanted to see. No male entitlement there. The reaction gets even worse when the response is seen to be a reaction to complaints from that group that is at least seen as not being particularly interested in the genre in the first place. If you look at most of her examples, that seems to be the case. Again, she gives no specific examples, but it is easy to imagine that players would react badly to either having a female character that they would prefer to be their romance option be designated as “female only” simply to attempt to be more inclusive, or have a male character blatantly hit on their male character when most other cases the player has to initiate the interaction (I believe there’s a case of the latter in one of the Dragon Age games, and I know some people complained about one of the characters in Mass Effect 3 being female only because she was the character they were most interested in). In the case of the ports, again this is a reaction to having to change the game from how it was originally done to serve the interests of people who almost certainly aren’t going to play the game, and don’t care about it … and who could easily skip the game and/or the scenes if it bothered them that much.

I’m going to skip the part where she’s trying to use herself as an example without saying it, because I don’t want to get into the discussions of that specifically — suffice it to say that it’s more complicated than she seems to understand — but the specific examples of changes in games don’t follow from male entitlement, but from people being upset at people trying to change the things they love for a vague or nebulous goal that is never “Make the games better”. I wish that people didn’t react as stupidly on the Net when things like this happen, but unfortunately, they do, and ruin things for everyone. That doesn’t mean that Sarkeesian can reduce it all to “feminist theory du jour” without understanding the potentially real issues that people have with those changes.

My Adventures Building a Dragon Age World …

November 25, 2015

So, after finishing Dragon Age 2, and after having gone through the entire Mass Effect trilogy, I decided that I really wanted to do the same for Dragon Age and finish the entire series by playing Dragon Age: Inquisition. So I bought the PS4 version — I now have one and don’t really have anything to play on it, or much intention to play on it right now except for the games where it really, really matters — and figured I’d start to play it when time allowed. And then I remembered that I’d probably want to import a save, and then decided that the PS3 would be more convenient. So I ordered the PS3 version.

Now, anyone who has followed the development of DAI will already know what I discovered next: you can’t import saves from a previous version of the game on any console. So buying it for the PS3 wouldn’t help me at all. So, after some thought, I sent the PS3 version back (and grumbled a bit to myself for not waiting for the Game of the Year version to get more of the DLCs, but I haven’t really done any of the DLCs for any of the Dragon Age games), because if I wasn’t going to be able to just import a save, I might as well play the game the more powerful system, especially since I already owned the game for it. But, then, could I create the world the way I wanted?

Well, it turns out I can, through Dragon Age Keep, and thus create a world state that I could import into the game. Okay, it’s a bit annoying, and it looks like it won’t let me decide the looks or name for my main characters, which is annoying, but, hey, it’s better than nothing (of course, letting create all of this through the in-game engine like Mass Effect would have been far better than that), so I figured I’d give it a try. Eventually, I went to Dragon Age Keep … and it wanted me to log in with my EA account. Wait, did I have an EA account? Well, it turns out I did, from The Old Republic, so I was able to log in. While the site itself was odd and a bit balky, I managed to create my world relatively easily, and was even able to set the state of DLC-specific stories, which was kinda cool. Still a bit of a convoluted way to do it, but hey, maybe this won’t be that bad.

Then I decided to try to import that world.

Now, it’s important to note that since I don’t play multiplayer, I don’t have the Internet hooked up to my PS4 or PS3 regularly. So I don’t have any fancy routers or anything, and so if I want to actually do anything on-line on my consoles I have to move my set-up from a completely different room to where the consoles are. This is why I needed to dedicate some time to doing this … and it also means that if I need to go online with my PC at any point I have to physically move it back. Remember that.

So, first, I “installed” DAI on my PS4. That … took a surprisingly short amount of time. Then I tried to access the Keep from the handy-dandy menu item in “Extras” … and it said that I had to log in and go to the website. Now, I thought that that meant that I had to log in through the game and also through the site, and to tell you the truth as far as I know that is what you have to do. So, I first tried to log in to the EA servers. It complained that I had to be connected to PSN. Fine, I did that for ME3 to get the extended cut … aw, crap, what’s my password? I couldn’t figure it out, so I said that I had forgotten my password, and they sent an E-mail to the address … and then told me to log in to that using a PC.


So I moved the connection back — which involves moving the modem back — and logged in. Entered a password. It didn’t really say anything, but did stay on the page for changing a password, so I figured it had worked. Moved the connection back, tried it … and it didn’t work. Moved the connection back to the PC, tried it, and it didn’t work. Tried changing the password again from the open form, and it claimed the token had expired. Started from the E-mail again, tested it on the PC, moved the connection back, logged in to PSN, logged in to the EA servers … and it said that it needed to update. Went to downloads, triggered the download, and noticed that it would take almost two hours to finish. Sighed, and went to read for a bit (I read a chapter in Richard Carrier’s “Sense and Goodness Without God”, which so far is the absolute worst atheist book I’ve ever read. I got through that chapter but was simply not in the mood to get through his discussions on the nature of reality which made up the next two chapters), and finally it was updated. Tried to connect again. Consistently it went to a black screen and did absolutely nothing. Poked around with starting and stopping things and logging in and all sorts of things, and then at some point it just miraculously started working. Okay, fine, now I can import my world, right?

Well, wrong. It turns out that my account only had the PC registered, not the Playstation. Okay, so how do I register the Playstation? The instructions say that if you used the same E-mail address for Origin and PSN, all you need to do is log into your game from PSN and Origin will do it for you. Okay, considering that I don’t use PSN, how do I do that? I tried multiple things, and it didn’t work. Eventually, I decided that I’d try doing it the hard way, in case I was doing something wrong. Sure, I have to do that on the PC, which means moving the connection back, but, hey, let’s try it.

The hard way involves installing the Origin client, which since I don’t play Origin games at all on the PC I didn’t have. But there’s a link on how to do that, so let me go there. It’ll probably take me to a download site for it with some instructions. Well, in fact, that’s not what it does. Instead, it takes you to a video that tells you how to do that. A video. A video where the person spends the first part of it talking about how wonderful Origin is going to be and how great it is that you’re going to use it. I just want the download link you moron! But, hey, maybe it’s more complicated and I’ll get some good advice on how to do it!

Nope, it just tells you to go to the link and download it. Well, at least I finally got to the link, even if they never, ever, directly link you there, meaning that I had to enter it manually. Fine. Get it. Download it. Install it. Run it … oh, crap, now it needs to update. Why does it need to update? I just this minute downloaded it from you!. At least this only takes a couple of minutes, so run it, follow the procedure for linking the account, and notice that the above statement that the E-mail address is what counts is almost certainly a bald-faced lie, because the association is with the screen name … and I used different screen names for my EA account and for PSN, because they were two completely separate applications.

Okay, fine, move the connection again, go to the keep, note that they are associated, try to create a character … and it still won’t take the world. Check the export status, check the procedure, figure that maybe the running instance didn’t notice the association, restart the game, try to create a character … and notice that it did, in fact, finally work. Create my human mage, get through the intro, stop for the night.

For something that Bioware had to know that everyone was going to want to do, this was a remarkably convoluted process. It also demonstrates that as consoles get into these more complicated sort of interactions, things are going to be very tough, as the consoles aren’t built to do searching and the like as easily as PCs are.

That being said, the ability to set everything — except the look and name of your character — from the Keep is a nice idea. I just wish they’d done it in-game instead of outside of it.

Tropes vs Women: Woman as Background Decoration (Part 2)

November 20, 2015

Sarkeesian continues her look at Women as Background Decoration in Part 2, where she starts by talking about certain ad campaigns that link sex and death/violence, featuring women:

The marketing blitz surrounding the release of the 2006 game Hitman: Blood Money featured several advertisements depicting the murdered bodies of sexualized women with captions like “Beautifully executed”. Even in death these lingerie-clad women are posed provocatively in a way designed to sexually arouse straight male viewers.

She also comments on a similar usage in ads for “L.A. Noire”, and points out that male characters are generally not portrayed that way. For the latter, it seems to me that that follows from something that I have considered problematic in the past: the idea that the main audience for the game will be male. Or does it? Are female players more likely to find that sort of depiction more appealing than they would seeing a male character similarly sexualized? No matter what else we might say about these things, sex and violence has some appeal to some people. I don’t particularly understand it myself — if I find a mix of sex and violence appealing, it’s the sex part that’s doing the heavy lifting for me — but there do seem to be a significant percentage of people who find that mixture appealing. There’s been a long history of horror playing on this mix, and it can be argued that the success of vampires owes a lot to this mix … and that this is one of the reasons why women themselves find vampires appealing. Could it be the case that women find thinking of themselves in the victim role more appealing than of thinking of men in that role? Well, given patriarchy, men who are considered victims are typically unappealing to women, and feminism hasn’t really changed that attitude all that much, even as it somewhat works to move women away from perpetual victim status. So certainly even women wouldn’t want to see those sorts of depictions of men.

That being said, even given its appeal, I don’t think the use of the mix in these cases works. I think we ought to be more forgiving of L.A. Noire, because it seems to me that the noire and pulp fiction genre that it was trying to evoke relied heavily on those sorts of depictions, and so trying to maintain that sort of atmosphere in its ads only made sense. I can’t see any reason for the Hitman series to do that, because despite some of Sarkeesian’s suggestions I don’t think that game is trying to that sort of atmosphere or mix as a major theme of the work, meaning that its usage in the ads — and even at times in the game — would be gratuitous and sensationalizing, and so something that we’d like to limit the use of, for various reasons. So I don’t really support the use of that mix in the advertising for Hitman, but I’m not an expert on the game and so if it has any real purpose or link other than simply playing off of a rather lame pun, I’m open to hearing about it.

Moving on, Sarkeesian goes on to list a number of cases where sexualized female characters are killed in front of the player, although at one point them merely flirting with the player is enough to be problematic in Sarkeesian’s eyes. The issue is that she fails to distinguish between cases where they happen to be sexualized and cases where the sexualization is deliberately designed to be a major point of the depiction, which is the issue with the “Hitman: Absolution” example from Part 1. While I don’t have the full context for most of these games — since I don’t play them and right now am too lazy to bother looking them all up — looking at her depictions I’d agree with Prototype and disagree with the ones that happen to be set in a brothel. Now, some might — and have — argued that using the brothel setting ought to immediately invoke the “intend to sexualize” interpretation, but I disagree, and again the Hitman example is, to my mind, a good example of this, as setting a scene in a strip club was probably overdue for that series. If the game or the series heavily relies on these sorts of settings, then that’s another matter, but if instead it merely uses them on occasion, then I think the argument doesn’t work.

Ultimately, I’m not comfortable with deliberate attempts to mix sex and violence and to sexualize violence, but I don’t think that doing so makes a game bad or necessarily has a great social impact. It just means it’s probably a game that I’m not that interested in playing, and as long as there are games out there that don’t rely on that mix that heavily, then I’m fine with ignoring them and playing the games that don’t really do that. Sarkeesian does not seem to be as forgiving I am.

From here, though, we move away from the mix of sex and violence to more traditional simple violence. Sarkeesian says this about the victims:

The women who fulfill this trope in gaming universes are sometimes designed to occupy minor narrative roles but more often than not they’re just hollow shells, empty representations with little to no personality or individuality to speak of.

Which, again, is how all NPCs in a game are treated. They all serve their purpose in the overall narrative, and their personalities are developed only so far as necessary to fulfill that role. So, then, what role does Sarkeesian think these NPCs fill?

Developers regularly utilize the brutalization of women’s bodies, and especially the bodies of female prostitutes, as an indicator of just how harsh, cruel and unforgiving their game worlds are.

It’s a lazy shorthand for “evil” meant to further motivate the protagonist to take the villain down and help justify the excessive violence committed by the player in these games.

After all, if the random thugs or villains are so heartless and vile they attack helpless women, then the player can feel completely justified and even take pleasure in murdering them in ever more gruesome ways.

All of this is designed to convey that the protagonist is a ruthless, unfeeling, morally corrupt character who is capable of anything. Again, we see female bodies sacrificed as a way to justify the ever more gruesome and extreme violence the player must commit throughout the game.

Essentially, the usage is to portray that the world, well, sucks. When these female NPCs are killed, we’re supposed to see this as an example of just how violent and depraved the world, villain or protagonist really is. Therefore, we’re supposed to care about the violence done against women, and think it terrible and totally unjustified, and we’re supposed to see that not because it’s done against someone who really doesn’t deserve it, but because it’s done against a woman. This holds even if, as Sarkeesian notes, the woman has no personality to speak of, and so we have no reason to care about her as a person, and no more reason than we have for any of the male characters that we can kill. So, then we have to ask why women are placed in this role and men typically aren’t? And the reason is that the deaths of men aren’t considered to be an issue. Men — even under patriarchy — are considered disposable, that their lives are there to be sacrificed for the needs of society and, most often, specifically for that of women. The hero in the Damsel in Distress is expected to risk his life for the damsel often just because she is a damsel in distress. It is rare that a female character is expected to sacrifice her life even for the man she loves, let alone a man who is a stranger. So the reason why female characters are used here is because if you put a male character in the same roles, no one would bat an eye … but when it’s a woman, then it says something that they’re killing women.

Sarkeesian notes the issue with these depictions of helpless female characters:

Plot devices that capitalize on female trauma for shock value function in much the same way as the hitting a child, or kicking the dog, tropes do.

It’s casual cruelty implemented as an easy way to deliver a quick emotional punch to the player by presenting attacks on characters specifically designed to appear pitifully vulnerable.

But simply presenting depictions of women being abused, despondent or suicidal does nothing to make them less sexually objectified and does nothing to challenge patterns of perpetual victimhood.

So, the idea is that this supports the idea that women are simply helpless victims who need the protection of a man. Which is a fair comment. However, this can be fixed by doing what Sarkeesian constantly says will not solve the problem: depict women in a variety of lights, from helpless victim to strongly competent hero … or villain, even. It’s a lot harder to fix the attitude and depiction of men as being disposable.

Sarkeesian then tries to link the use of violence against women and domestic violence as a strongly negative trait to domestic violence as a whole, in an attempt to show that even though these things are depicted as being very negative and are condemned in the game that this is still causing harm:

So when games casually use sexualized violence as a ham-fisted form of character development for the “bad guys” it reinforces a popular misconception about gendered violence by framing it as something abnormal, as a cruelty only committed by the most transparently evil strangers. In reality, however, violence against women, and sexual violence in particular, is a common everyday occurrence often perpetrated by “normal men” known and trusted by those targeted.

The truth is that the vast majority of cases are committed by friends, colleagues, relatives, and intimate partners. The gendered violence epidemic is a deep-seated cultural problem present in the homes, communities and workplaces of many millions of women all over the world. It is not something that mostly happens in dark alleys at the hands of cartoon villains twisting nefarious-looking mustaches.

I should also note that the problem cannot be solved by simply finding the bad evil men and killing them all – as these game narratives invariably imply again and again.

But … how is this different from the depictions of games of any other crime? You aren’t going to solve, say, gang violence, by going out and shooting all the gang members, as games often imply. Taking out a gang or bunch of criminals isn’t going to stop crime. And all sorts of violence and evil actions can be taken by people who seem normal. Games, in and of themselves, are not meant to provide that sort of realistic take on the world. They aren’t supposed to teach lessons and be public service announcements. They’re supposed to be fun to play, and part of the fun is giving people a sense of power and an ability to change the world. Or, alternatively, to boil the narrative down to a simple and clear one so that players can ignore the complexities of the world for a while. Games, primarily, are escapist. People don’t typically play games because they’re exactly like their own life, but instead because they aren’t. So when Sarkeesian says this:

There is a clear difference between replicating something and critiquing it. It’s not enough to simply present misery as miserable and exploitation as exploitative. Reproduction is not, in and of itself, a critical commentary. A critique must actually center on characters exploring, challenging, changing or struggling with oppressive social systems.

The response is that most games aren’t, in fact, intended to be critiques of society in general or these situations specifically, and so challenging them for not doing so isn’t reasonable. What we need to note here is that the games rely on people seeing domestic and sexualized violence as bad things. If they didn’t, then the tropes would fall flat. Sure, people may have misconceptions about what that’s like in real life, but since games aren’t trying to teach people that it’s hard to fault them for not doing that. As long as people can tell the difference between imagination and reality, the depictions ought not do any harm, and so if people think that real life is like that it isn’t because games depict things that way, but instead because people don’t know what real life is like, and think that the games are reflecting reality instead of simplifying it.

Now, there is definitely room for games that do explore and critique these situations. And Sarkeesian is free to promote games like that being made. What I think it unreasonable to do is to expect that all games will do these sorts of critiques, and her comments here seem to suggest that that’s how she’s thinking of games.

I think it only fair here that I address her comments on realism, since it relates here:

This dominant narrative surrounding the inevitability of female objectification and victimhood is so powerful that it not only defines our concepts of reality but it even sets the parameters for how we think about entirely fictional worlds, even those taking place in the realms of fantasy and science fiction. It’s so normalized that when these elements are critiqued, the knee-jerk response I hear most often is that if these stories did not include the exploitation of women, then the game worlds would feel too “unrealistic” or “not historically accurate”.

What does it say about our culture when games routinely bend or break the laws of physics and no one bats an eye? When dragons, ogres and magic are inserted into historically influenced settings without objection. We are perfectly willing to suspend our disbelief when it comes to multiple lives, superpowers, health regeneration and the ability to carry dozens of weapons and items in a massive invisible backpack. But somehow the idea of a world without sexual violence and exploitation is deemed too strange and too bizarre to be believable.

Well, it’s not, as we can see from games like the AD&D games that swept all of that under the rug, at least mostly. But as games get darker and grittier and present less happy and more crapsack worlds, all sorts of negative things have to bubble up to the surface. It is unreasonable to think that you have a world where people don’t have basic human rights, but that somehow it got feminism. So in any nasty world, women are going to be exploited, because if people are willing to kill people at the drop of a hat it’s not reasonable to think that they wouldn’t, say, rape or beat women. To do that would be to sweep the violence that women experience under the rug, insisting that, somehow, even these really nasty people wouldn’t hit a girl … even though in real life even less nasty people will do far worse on a regular basis. If a game is set in a historical setting where women were not equal to men, presenting them as such merely hides the actual sexism that took place in that setting. If a game is set in modern times ignoring the things that Sarkeesian herself talks about is hiding the fact that it happens and is bad. Sarkeesian seems to not want to see this at all, but this suggests that Sarkeesian really does see games as escapist entertainment, and wants to find games that let her escape from the things that she really hates. Given that, her frustration at many AAA games leaving in the things she hates is understandable, but the answer then is to push for the option of games that don’t have those things — and not insisting that all games leave those out — and playing games that don’t contain those elements, or where they can be optional or minimized. This interpretation also hurts her attempts to criticize the social impact of these games, because as escapist entertainment people ought to be able to realize that this is not how the world works … and Sarkeesian hasn’t actually proven that games really do have those impacts.

Tropes vs Women: Women as Background Decoration(Part 1)

November 13, 2015

So we move on to another topic, that of Women as Background Decoration. What she means here is not of female characters that are only in the background and are used to “decorate” a world, by presenting it as being one where women exist but are always secondary to a male narrative, but instead as decoration in a specifically sexual sense:

I define the Women as Background Decoration trope in video games as: The subset of largely insignificant non-playable female characters whose sexuality or victimhood is exploited as a way to infuse edgy, gritty or racy flavoring into game worlds. These sexually objectified female bodies are designed to function as environmental texture while titillating presumed straight male players.

So, essentially, NPCs in the game whose role is nothing more than to provide sex appeal to the presumably male player.

Now, starting from this and dropping the language that assumes the conclusion — such as “exploited” — is it a problem to have characters in the game, male or female, that are essentially there as fanservice? Is it really sexual objectification to have NPCs whose role is provide either sexual services — Sarkeesian talks a lot about the various sex workers in these games — or simply be something to look at that appeals sexually to the audience? I’m not sure it is. I find, in general, some of these depictions to be juvenile, but can see how it might appeal to some gamers. That games might have these is not, in my mind, an actual problem. That a game might be nothing more than this sort of appeal is not a problem in my mind either. The biggest concern I have about this is that the fanservice is, arguably, only one way. Again, it’s not a problem to have games aimed at a male audience, but if all games provide such benefits to male audiences and provide nothing for female audiences, then that would be excluding women from games. Now, is that in and of itself some kind of moral wrong? I don’t think so. I think that it’s stupid, though; the female audience is big enough and the things that they at least ought to want are not likely to lose that much of a male audience, so any business with half a brain ought to at least try to be neutral on the subject if they can. So I think that providing equal fanservice for women is a good thing in general, which means, for me, creating appealing romance options for female characters as well as for male characters. Or, for the most part, what Bioware is doing (they even typically provide male options for their brothels, which I have never actually frequented as none of my characters would do that).

Sarkeesian disagrees:

But even if sexualized male NPCs were more prevalent, equal opportunity sexual objectification is still not the solution to this problem, especially considering the existing power differential between men and women in our society. Women are constantly represented as primarily for sex. Men may be sexual too, but they can also be anything else, they are not defined by or reduced to their sexuality and their sexuality is not thought of as something existing chiefly for the pleasure of others. Which means the fundamentally dominant position of men in our culture is not in any way challenged or diminished by the rare male depiction as sex worker.

There is, again, a potential issue where if women and men are equally “objectified” in a game, then the history of women as being nothing more than sexual objects might mean that the female sex objects support that view which is not true for the male sex objects. But to me the solution to that is to have many female characters that are not just sex objects, clearly presenting the world as containing both sex objects — ie characters that you are thinking of primarily in sexual terms — and real and complete characters as well. As I don’t see anything actually wrong with thinking of people as primarily objects when that’s what their role is to you — as long as you always consider that in the background so that you still treat them morally, as per Kant — then this simply, to me, represents the real world as it should be. Yes, when I’m walking down the street and see an attractive woman walk by, I may think of her as nothing more than an attractive object. But when I’m dealing with my waitress, I may also see her as only a “food serving” object, and not in any sexual manner at all. And when I’m dealing with an intellectual collaborator, I am unlikely to think of them in a way that considers their sexual and food serving capacities. Unless one wants to insist that sex can never be simply casual but has to express some kind of deeper relationship — a view that comes across as pretty religious — one has to accept that sometimes thinking of someone only in terms of their sexual traits is no worse than thinking of them only as a shopkeeper or a quest giver or someone to provide answers. Either we always have to think of the whole person, or we can “reduce” them to certain traits at certain times.

Sarkeesian doesn’t agree with this either:

Incidentally this trope also exists in games that may allow players to pick a female avatar. But the presence of a woman inhabiting the role of protagonist, even if well developed, doesn’t do anything to negate the fact that non-playable sex objects are still specifically coded to pander to a presumed heterosexual male ego.

But what it does do is highlight the fact that not all women are, in fact, simply sex objects. At this point, Sarkeesian is reduced to saying that depicting female characters in a sexual manner is just bad in and of itself … but since her overall complaint is about the impact that has on the player’s ideas about women, that argument doesn’t seem to hold if women are being portrayed in a variety of roles, one of which is sexual.

Anyway, let’s move on to talking more about the overall trope. Sarkeesian discusses the difference between being an active participant and between being a passive observer, and argues that being the active participant is worse:

…but since video games are an interactive medium, players are allowed to move beyond the traditional role of voyeur or spectator. Because of its essential interactive nature, gaming occupies a unique and potentially more detrimental position vis-a-vis the portrayal and treatment of female characters.

A viewer of non-interactive media is restricted to gazing at what the media makers want them to see. Similar to what we might see in video game cutscenes, the audience is only afforded one fixed perspective. But since we’re talking about interactive gameplay within a three-dimensional environment, we need to consider the fact that players are encouraged to participate directly in the objectification of women through control of the player character, and by extension control of the game camera. In other words, games move the viewer from the position of spectator to that of participant in the media experience.

On a very basic level, we can think of non-interactive media as engaging audiences in forms of “passive looking”, while video games provide players the chance to partake in forms of “active looking” or “active observing”.

And, of course, the obvious answer here is that because games are interactive, the player has to choose to do so. This means that if they do look, they have to either want to look/participate, or have to be playing a character that would look/participate, or have to be thinking of it as a game mechanism and not something that reflects any sort of characterization at all (the characters are literally game objects). So, for example, my Shepard in Mass Effect stopped once or twice to watch the Asari dancers because, well, that’s what the character would do. My Grey Warden and my Champion of Kirkwall never frequently the brothels because they wouldn’t do that (my Champion was tempted at one point, being a bit more open than my Warden was). _I_ never stopped in because it didn’t interest me that much. And there were no reasons in terms of gameplay to do it, as you gained no advantage, unlike the Grand Theft Auto examples. So either the player is doing what they want to do, doing what their character would do, or is wrapped up in treating it all like a game. None of these mean that they are going to map this onto the real world in any way than they already do, unlike the “passive looking” cases where one can fall into treating that presentation as the real world. I’ve already talked about this in more detail.

Even Sarkeesian’s example can be treated differently in the mind of the player/character:

The opening moments in The Darkness 2, for instance, teaches players how to operate the game’s control scheme by instructing you to actively objectify women in the environment.

Clip: The Darkness 2
“Hey Jackie, check out the rack on the brunette to your right. No, no your other right.”

The player can react to that in ways ranging from “Where?!?” to “Rolling their eyes at how juvenile their compatriot is and looking out of a sense of ‘Let’s just deal with the crap'” to “None of these characters ought to act this way; the game screwed up”.

Sarkeesian, of course, doesn’t agree with this counter:

Now inevitably whenever these game mechanics are criticized, some gamers try to dismiss and distance themselves from the issue by insisting that they don’t personally partake in the provided options for exploiting virtual women. But whether or not an individual player chooses to use an object for its intended purpose is irrelevant, because that object was still designed and placed in the game environment to fulfill its function.

A toaster is still a toaster regardless of whether or not you choose to make toast with it. It’s still designed for the express purpose of toasting bread. And it still communicates that fact even while sitting unused on your kitchen counter.

Likewise a sex object is still a sex object regardless of whether or not you personally choose to use and abuse her. And that fact, in and of itself, still communicates extremely regressive ideas about women.

But then this falls back on the idea that simply presenting them as sexual is problematic, no matter how diverse the representations are. There’s a lot of risk here that simply having sex or hiring a prostitute is in and of itself exploitative, which is not what she wants. She talks about using games to, as she puts it “genuinely explore sex and sexuality”, but never really says how that will work. Outside of not including strippers and sex workers in games at all — or, at least, outside of refusing to include them doing their job — there’s really not much you can do here. Again, this is boiling down to Sarkeesian being opposed to fanservice, which extends far beyond these sorts of NPCs.

So, let’s look at more of the regressive attitudes that Sarkeesian thinks this promotes. As one should expect, the link between this and violence is a major concern of hers:

Of course, we can’t really talk about sexual objectification without also addressing the issue of violence against women, since the two are intimately connected. Once a person is reduced to the status of objecthood, violence against that object becomes intrinsically permitted.

Which has nothing to do with the sexualization, per se, as all NPCs are objectified in that manner, and so can be treated the same way. In fact, in most games it is male NPCs that the game explicitly encourages the player to commit violence against. Female sexualized NPCs aren’t usually put in the game in ways that encourage the player to commit violence against them. The player may indeed be able to do that, but the game is not encouraging them to do so. Which leads to her problematic summary of the issue while a clip from Hitman: Absolution plays in the background:

So in many of the titles we’ve been discussing, the game makers have set up a series of possible scenarios involving vulnerable, eroticized female characters. Players are then invited to explore and exploit those situations during their play-through.

The player cannot help but treat these female bodies as things to be acted upon,because they were designed, constructed and placed in the environment for that singular purpose. Players are meant to derive a perverse pleasure from desecrating the bodies of unsuspecting virtual female characters.

It’s a rush streaming from a carefully concocted mix of sexual arousal connected to the act of controlling and punishing representations of female sexuality.

In-game consequences for these violations are trivial at best and rarely lead to any sort of “fail state” or “game over”. Sometimes areas may go on high-alert for a few minutes during which players have to lay low or hide before the game and its characters “forget” that you just murdered a sexualized woman in cold blood.

The first problem here is that it contradicts her other statement about them being in the game even if players can choose to not interact in that manner. As I’ve pointed out, most of the time games are not in fact encouraging players to kill sexualized characters. In fact, in most games it is rare to be able to actually kill female characters; they are usually not presented as valid targets. So not only can the player actually indeed help but treat these female bodies as things to be acted upon in a violent way, and avoid desecrating them, usually the game is in fact discouraging you from doing so. Sarkeesian scoffs at the purported penalties, but you would generally get points from killing the NPCs that come against you or might stop you from achieving your goal, even if you do so in a way that gives them no chance to fight back. In fact, in games with that sort of mechanism you often get rewarded for doing it that way — ie in a way where they are helpless — instead of making it a fair fight. That these characters penalize you in any way definitely counts as in-game consequences that are more than just trivial, comparatively speaking.

She also uses Hitman: Absolution as an example as the scene from it plays in the background over this speech … and it’s a really, really bad example. The game in no way encourages you to kill the women in that scene. You are penalized, there are other options, and doing so can even cost you a trophy. But even worse, the game does what Sarkeesian claims that games rarely do:

Indeed nothing about the design, behaviors or mechanics associated with female characters that serve as background decoration encourages or engenders any sort of human empathy. In fact, quite the opposite, the rudimentary algorithms governing interactions lead the player to interface with these characters in ways that can only be dehumanizing and exploitative. As sexual automata, they don’t have any individuality, they don’t have their own stories, players are never supposed to identify with them or care about them, outside of what they can offer either sexually or materially. They exist on the outskirts of humanity, placed beyond the reach of empathy by their creators.

Except if you listen to the conversation they are having, it is in fact designed to get you to feel empathy for them and think of them as persons instead of simply sexual objects. They comment on how what they have to do as strippers sucks for them. They comment on how much of a sleaze their boss is, and how he essentially pays the police off with their bodies. A player is clearly not meant to think that this is a good thing, or that they are enjoying the attention … which is a stark contrast to how they are presented out in the strip club. So the example that she plays in the background is in fact doing the exact opposite of what she claims the trope does. And I found this out by a) watching Thunderf00t’s criticism of her and listening to the conversation and b) doing a quick search to find out how they talk out in the strip club proper, so not a lot of research at all.

Why is this a problem? Mostly because there are pretty much only two reasonable possibilities here. Either Sarkeesian did not know that the game presented them that way, or she did and used it as her background example anyway. If it’s the former, then she didn’t actually do the limited research necessary to actually make her point, and is being unintentionally misleading as she implies that that game fits the trope. If it’s the latter, then for some reason she decided that that game — despite it not being a good example of her point — provided the best footage she could find to support her case, in this case the violence towards sexualized NPCs. But if that’s the case, then she’s being deliberately misleading, and it implies that all of the other options there didn’t provide the ability for that kind of brutal interaction, which means that none of the other games are as bad. That doesn’t really support her case well, either.

It’s also interesting to note what she says next:

Typically all the non-essential characters in sandbox style games are killable, but it’s the sexualized women whose instrumentality and brutalization is gendered and eroticized in ways that men never are. The visual language attached to male NPCs is very different since they are rarely designed to be sexually inviting or arousing, and they are not coded to interact with the player in ways meant to reaffirm a heterosexual fantasy about being a stud.

Translation: Yes, you can kill everyone in the game as if they were mere objects to be slaughtered, but at least they aren’t sexualized. But since many of them are created for the sole purpose of being killed, often brutally and creatively, which is not the case for the NPCs, by her own admission: by her argument, they are there to be thought of things to have sex with, not to be killed.

But Sarkeesian also doesn’t understand how the open world games work:

In order to understand how this works, let’s take a moment to examine how video game systems operate as playgrounds for player engagement. Games ask us to play with them. Now that may seem obvious, but bear with me. Game developers set up a series of rules and then within those rules we are invited to test the mechanics to see what we can do, and what we can’t do. We are encouraged to experiment with how the system will react or respond to our inputs and discover which of our actions are permitted and which are not. The play comes from figuring out the boundaries and possibilities within the gamespace.

Uh … no. The whole point of open worlds is that the game tries to remove as many rules and restrictions as they can from the game, and by that allow the player to play the game however they want. Ultimately, in all games the rules and restrictions are merely there to set up a context against which the player can play the game. Players in the most restrictive games are not encouraged to explore the rules at all. The closest we have to that are games that encourage the player to try to maximize their efficiency through learning and exploiting the rules, but in general games that bank on that are games that don’t have characters at all. When a player is engaging and exploring the rules, they are doing nothing more than simply playing a game, and all of the objects inside that game are game objects, where the player is encouraged to think of them as such. And in that case, the object of the game is not to explore the world, but instead to gain a high score or a faster completion time or to complete more levels. Characters are pretty much irrelevant to this.

In the open-world games, players are encouraged to explore the world as they see fit, not to find out what the boundaries actually are. The ideal in an open-world game is that the player never, ever notices the rules of the game, and never notices that they are in a game. The same thing applies to the story; in an open-world story, the player always has to feel like the action they are taking is their choice, even if they have to make that choice for the story to proceed. Thus, the game is trying to make things as consistent to expectations as they possibly can. Thus, if the game allows the player to kill NPCs, then all NPCs have to be killable, just in case the player tries. In terms of plot, especially in the grittier games, the player has to be free to be evil or to be good, to be the paragon or the villain, or else they feel railroaded. The game, then, is trying to discourage the player from figuring out what the boundaries in the game are by presenting the world as having all choices be open and never letting the player see behind the screen. If they do this successfully, the player is immersed in the world. When they fail, immersion is lost and the game becomes just a game again.

Thus, we can see in the GTA and Hitman examples that the behaviour that Sarkeesian derides is not behaviour that the game invites, but simply emergent behaviour from what the game allows. In Hitman, you can kill any NPC in the game. The setting is a strip club, which is perfectly reasonable given the overall setting of the game, and not one that they seem to overuse. Thus, you have strippers. Since this is the dressing area, it is reasonable that they’d be in their outfits. So, they are NPCs that fit the setting, the setting isn’t overused, and you can kill them just as you can all other NPCs. The actions that Sarkeesian performs are ones that follow from the mechanisms and what the game allows the player to do, and blocking that would break immersion. But we have to note the cases where someone would do this. Either a) the player wants to kill strippers (or all NPCs), at which point they are doing what they want to anyway and so the game isn’t having an impact on them, b) they are playing as their character would which is not the way they themselves would act (otherwise you had best lock up all D&D players who have ever played an evil character, and all players who choose to play as female characters are really trans) or c) they are doing it to get a gaming advantage by exploiting the rules of the game … but in this case, there is no such advantage. None of these seem at all problematic to me.

So let’s look at the GTA example. In this game, you can hire a prostitute to get a health recharge, and then kill her and loot the body to get your money back. Again, either this is something the player decides they want to do, something they think their character would do, or something they do as an exploit to the rules of the game. If it’s the first, then they already have problems. If it’s the second, then that doesn’t reflect anything about them and most of them will be able to keep their imagination separate from reality. Here it’s the third one that’s the most interesting, because you do have a gaming benefit from it. But if you do so, then it seems to me that you aren’t even thinking of them as a prostitute or even as a character. Instead, you are thinking of them as a vending machine that you can exploit by hitting the coin return as the can of soda is dropping. Or, to put it better, this situation is no different than selling a bunch of stuff to a vendor in an Elder Scrolls game and then pickpocketing it all back … and then selling it back to them until they run out of money. At this point, you are playing a game, and know you are playing a game, and aren’t thinking of it as a world anymore. And since you aren’t thinking of it as a world anymore, it can’t impact your view of this one.

In order for all of her comments on sexualization and its problems to matter, you have to be immersed in a work as a representation of a world not unlike this one. But for the three cases we have in games, that’s not the case. Either you already accepted that idea and so are acting on it of your own volition, you are playing as a character and do not think it represents the world, or you are playing it as a game and so aren’t relating it to any world at all (and you’re not immersed). Because Sarkeesian doesn’t understand the nature of games, she interprets the potential effects wrong, ending up making a similar argument to “Violence in video games makes people violent”, which at a minimum has not managed to provide its case. Sarkeesian needs to do better than that if she wants us to accept her conclusions here.

The New Rebellion …

November 11, 2015

So, everyone remembers my talking about this game, right, that I loved and was near the top of my favourite games list?

Well, guess what new board game comes out next year?

Yep, a Star Wars: Rebellion inspired game, even down to the name, but also seems to expand on it in a number of ways. The biggest difference is that the victory conditions are now radically different between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. The Empire still has the condition of destroying the Rebel HQ, while the Rebels no longer need to take and hold Coruscant to win the game. Instead, they need to inspire a galaxy-wide revolt. What this means, then, is that the military aspect of the game isn’t as important for the Rebels, which means that the game can give and leave them with a weaker military and be more thematic. It’ll be interesting to see how this actually plays out.

It also does the combat differently. In the original game, if you wanted to have a ground battle, you first had to destroy any ships and fighters in the space arena, blockade the planet, and then invade. Here, you first do one turn of the space battle, and then one turn of the ground battle, and then both sides get a chance to withdraw. If neither do, then you start over again. It’s actually closer to what we had in the actual movies, and so is again more thematic … if it works.

However, the core seems to be there. Planets give their resources on the basis of popular support, and characters are important to wooing systems to your side. The Rebels focus is on inciting rebellion and uprisings while the Empire’s is on conquest and subjugation. Empire at War was not the Star Wars: Rebellion replacement I was looking for, but this game just might.

Dragon Age 2: Final Thoughts

November 9, 2015

So, after having finished Dragon Age 2, I have to say that my overall impression of the game is: Meh

As I’m going to talk heavily about the story, the rest will be below the fold.


Tropes vs Women: Ms Male Character

November 6, 2015

So, now we move on to a new topic, that of the Ms. Male Character, and the related trope The Smurfette Principle. The Ms. Male Character trope is where a male character is “reskinned” into a female character, with very similar mechanics and a feminized — sometimes hyper-feminized — set of visual characteristics. So a character is turned/wears pink, wears a bow, wears high heels, and so on, but there’s not much difference between them and the usually original male character. The Smurfette Principle is where there is one female character in the group of main characters, and her role and personality is essentially defined around being a female character, which ties into its associated trope The Chick. It’s these tropes that Sarkeesian is mostly taking on this time, falling into the standard idea that men are seen as the default and women are not, so women have to be marked visually while men don’t.

While this may or may not be true, I don’t think that this is what gives rise to these tropes in games. It seems to me that these tropes get invoked when game designers — and producers of all other media, for that matter — get the idea into their heads that they need to have a female character in their work, whether that is to appeal to the female audience or appease those who complain about the lack of female characters in games. No matter what the origin, what they do is create a character whose main defining trait is that they are female. That defines their character design, personality, backstory, goals and, well, pretty much everything about them. Small wonder, then, that as characters they end up being nothing more than a female character.

This explains all of the uses and tropes we see above. Why is it that their main role in the story is to be the female? Because they were created that way. Why is it that they don’t actually have any sort of personality beyond the stereotypical female personality traits? Because they have to represent all girls and women, and so can’t have more personality than that. Why is their character design so stereotypically and often hyper-feminine? Because again it has to represent all women, and as a character meant to represent and appeal to the female audience it has to be obvious that they’re a female character. At the end of the day, then, the push for inclusion from people like Sarkeesian risks producing exactly these sorts of tokenized representations that she argues against here.

This also shows why her example of a good way to do female characters doesn’t work:

Claire is a simple blue cube and one of the more memorable characters from the indie game Thomas Was Alone. We know she is female because of her name, her narrative and the pronouns used during gameplay. Claire’s gender presentation doesn’t reduce her to her gender or separate her from the rest of the cast.

Sarkeesian has talked in a number of places about how one should only distinguish male from female with names and pronouns. The problem with doing it by name is that it stops you from using gender-neutral names. So, no “Chris Lightfellow” from Suikoden III. I also know a man and a woman named “Darcy”, and “Blair” is a name that can be used for both men and women. This, then, illegitimately restricts the names you can use if you want the audience to know that a character is female. This also causes problems for works that span cultures, or are inspired by other cultures. I used to work with a lot of contractors in India, and when meeting people for the first time — usually through E-mail — I had no idea what gender was associated with what name. So a game based on Indian culture would not be able to distinguish by name. But the worst problem is that games are, in fact, critically a visual medium. The reason that game designers hyper-feminize these characters is to make it obvious from the outset that these are, indeed, female characters. In line with Sarkeesian’s comments, if they can’t tell by sight whether or not the character is a female character, then there is no point in putting in the female character at all because the players are likely to consider it a male character. Since their goal is to get female representation into the game, this rather defeats the purpose.

And getting female representations into games is pretty much what Sarkeesian wants, so that means that she’s going to have to accept some sort of visual cues that make it clear which characters are male and which are female. Fortunately, with the increase in graphics ability — even on small, hand-held gaming systems and phones — it’s easier to make a more defined character image that then can show the relevant … attributes clearly, without having to overemphasize them. This should eliminate the need to “go big” on the feminine qualities, so you won’t have to have female characters with very long hair or wearing bright pink to signal that, hey, this is a female character.

But what we really need to do is stop putting female characters into games as female characters, but instead on adding characters into games that happen to be female. I think that Bioware typically does this well, and I think part of why it does it is because it adds romance options. Even if you start from a male default, if you are going to add more than one romance options — and RPG gamers really want more than one romance option — then you have to start thinking about creating romance options characters as characters. Not only do they have to be a character that the main character can fall in love with given the wide variety of personalities that players can foist upon it, the romance options also have to be significantly different as characters so that the player feels that there’s actually a choice there. So it can’t be just a choice between the hot blonde, the hot brunette, and the hot redhead, but instead between the aggressive and evil woman, the paragon of purity, and the shy, bookish woman. The more complex you make the main character, then, the more complicated the romance options have to be so that you can find someone who can appeal to the character the player is creating, from evil vs good, to lawful vs chaotic, to intelligent vs stupid, to intellectual vs physical, etc, etc, etc. Starting from that point gets you creating characters that happen to be female — and in this case, have to be female — but who are defined as being characters.

But Bioware goes further than this by building a team of “companions”, not all of which are going to be romanced or romanceable. This means that they have to fit roles in combat, as well as roles as even just “friends” to the main character, where the main character is a diverse character defined pretty much by the player, and can be male or female. So the characters have to be ones that can be romanced by the appropriate characters, but also ones that characters that don’t want to romance them can like or dislike, and given the complexity of companion backstories that Bioware loves have to be characters that the player wants to find out more about. Essentially, by creating interesting characters and then fitting them into a gender, Bioware dodges these issues and ends up creating characters that are always more than just “The Chick”, which also allows them to subvert the expectations as well.

Now, people have criticized Sarkeesian for complaining about gendered presentation while herself presenting in a gendered way, with her earrings and hair and other ways in which she dresses, calling her a hypocrite. I don’t think calling her a hypocrite is valid, but I do think that it highlights a problem with her argument: a lot of the things that are considered gendered are, in fact, things that women in the real world actually wear. You can criticize their inclusion as being inappropriate in some cases, but some of her examples — the bows on the armour, for example — are unfair because women are allowed to and often do add such feminine touches as she herself does. The solution to this is to, again, create more female characters so that we can have a diversity of such representations, so that we don’t see female characters as “the ones who wear pink/high heels” but instead see them as female characters who happen to wear pink or high heels or whatever … or not.

Ultimately, it is people like Sarkeesian herself who drive the Ms. Male Character and Smurfette Principle tropes, by counting female characters and pushing for female representation without making a push for quality over quantity, and instead arguing that the representation is lacking based solely on the numbers. What we need to push for are better characters in general, and thus female characters instead of characters that are female.

Dragon Age 2: First Impressions

November 4, 2015

So, I’ve started playing Dragon Age 2 on the PS3. Now, I had my problems with Dragon Age: Origins, but still found it worth playing. This is an attempt to play through the entire series like I did for the Mass Effect series (I already have Inquisition for the PS4 lined up). That being said, many people found the game disappointing.

The game is radically different from Origins. Origins started you in a sweeping and epic story, where from the start you knew that the fate of all of Ferelden is in your inexperienced but hopefully competent hands. Dragon Age 2 is not like that at all. It in fact is going for a much more personal story, where your story is a sidebar to the main action, although there are hints at the beginning that ultimately you’re going to do something important and that will matter. As such, it kinda feels more like an expansion than a full game, as the areas are smaller and you spend most of your time around Kirkwall, the city your mother comes from, doing things for people and your family.

This, however, also simplifies the questing. Dragon Age 2’s small number of areas means that they can list which quests belong to which area. So you have “Kirkwall during the day”, “Kirkwall at night”, and “The Outskirts”. You can do quests in pretty much any order, and so I spent a lot of time doing all of the companion and sidequests and only advancing the main quest when I ran out of other quests to do. In that sense, it’s a bit like an Elder Scrolls game, except much, much less confusing.

Playing as a mage, I’m finding the combat to be relatively uneventful on casual. It’s less chaotic for me to handle and I haven’t had any real problem with boss fights left, even though I keep forgetting to heal my party members. I’m also finding money to be less of a problem for me because the item drops are usually good enough to get me through most fights. The biggest issue I’ve had so far is that Aveline’s tactics made her stand around doing nothing after a while, which annoyed me since I actually really did like that character and wanted to have her in my party. I think I’ve fixed that now.

The companions and companion stories are a bit disconnected and shallow. The only character that I think has any depth is Varric, but he’s very integral to the main plot. I haven’t bothered talking much to Merril or Anders, and while I like Isabella it’s still a very shallow plot. I just don’t care about any of them like I did in Origins, even though they’re perfectly serviceable characters. I’m not sure what explains the difference.

Anyway, I’m just starting Act 2, and so far I enjoy playing it. Hopefully, I’ll manage to finish it.

Anita Sarkeesian on Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

October 30, 2015

Anita Sarkeesian has written a “review” of Assassan’s Creed Syndicate. I put the word “review” in quotes because it isn’t really a review; it’s more in line with the commentaries I tend to do of games. That being said, this is exactly the sort of thing that I’ve been calling for Sarkeesian and other people pushing for more inclusive and, perhaps, Social Justice-aware games to do: take games that try to do it well, broadcast that in ways that emphasizes what they do well so as to promote those games that actually try to do that. As such, after first reading it, I so wanted to be mostly positive about it and only highlight one of the big issues for discussion, but after re-reading it I have to be a little more negative. So, first I’ll outline what’s good about it, then point out a couple of nitpicks that unfortunately highlight the inexperience Sarkeesian seems to have with games and the inconsistencies she has between how she looks at games, and then finally raise the big issue for discussion that arises from Sarkeesian’s post and what seems to be her overall mindset.

First, the positive. Sarkeesian highlights what she likes about the game and its inclusiveness relatively clearly. She also doesn’t fall into the trap of praising it for its inclusiveness only to undercut that by spending much more time highlighting the negatives, or taking a game that tries to be inclusive and nitpicking it to death so that it ends up looking like it’s just as bad as the alternatives. She praises the personality and outfit of the main female protagonist and the inclusion and aggressiveness of female antagonists and opponents, even as she notes that the female protagonist is underused despite being more interesting than her male twin. She praises the inclusion of the trans character even while noting that they could have done something similar with black characters. Overall, she shows how the game gives her a lot of what she wants in a game, which is not only useful for people who think like her to decide that this might be the game for them, but also for others who really do want to see what she wants to see in a game. She could go into things in a bit more depth — which is why I won’t call it a review — but, overall, this is something that we needed to see from her and from others who want to change gaming culture.

Now, onto the nitpicks:

Syndicate is a clear response to gamers’ increased desire for more capable and powerful female options. Promotional materials for the game emphasized Jacob as the primary protagonist, leaving some wondering just how big a role Evie would play.

The problem is that in the “Ms. Male Character” series, the biggest complaint against the Mass Effect series was that the marketing still made it to be about the male Shepard, making the female Shepard seem like an afterthought. This game does that, and as Sarkeesian admits ends up with the male character’s narrative dominating, and yet somehow this can be overlooked. You almost have to ask what Sarkeesian has against Bioware, a gaming company that has been one of the more inclusive gaming companies for quite some time now. The other explanation is that Sarkeesian likes this game, and so is more willing to forgive it its flaws. Either way, this seems puzzling, unless it is accompanied by an overall change in attitude, where she is less harsh to games who make an effort in general. We’ll have to see.

The other nitpick is this:

And like some other Assassin’s Creed games, Syndicate is plagued with plenty of wonkiness. Enemy AI often behaves in erratic ways, NPCs sometimes become unable to fulfill mission-specific functions, and occasionally things just break entirely.

Um, that’s not wonkiness. Those are bugs. Potentially game breaking ones. I assume that by “things just break entirely”, she means that the game crashes … but it speaks to her knowledge of gaming that she wouldn’t know the term “crash”, or expect people reading her to know what that means, and instead would substitute an actually less clear term for it. You certainly can’t call it a “review” if it crashing and potentially forcing you to reload is mentioned only in a small paragraph at the end of the post, and it strikes to her lack of knowledge of gaming in general for her to talk about it the way she does.

But those are relatively minor nitpicks. This last point isn’t necessarily something bad, but is something that raises comment from, I think, both sides of the divide, as Sarkeesian goes on to talk about what the game does well and reveals what she wants games to do:

… Evie and Jacob’s allies also include Henry Green, a British Indian Assassin, and Ned Wynert, a successful thief who just happens to be a trans man and no one in the world thinks anything of it. These characters play supporting or minor roles but their inclusion is notable. While it might seem “unrealistic” to imagine women, people of colour and trans folks who are treated and respected as full human beings in 1868, realism is not really the goal in a game where Assassins and Templars have been waging a centuries’ old war over artifacts created by an ancient civilization, and where you can leap from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral into a pile of leaves and walk away unharmed. The inclusion of these characters works not because of realism but because of believability and internal consistency. That believability is a result of the developers’ conscious decision to make the presence of these characters normalized and respected by everyone else in the game.

Women may be present as soldiers and leaders throughout the criminal ranks of Syndicate’s London, but the same cannot be said for people of colour. Despite the presence of Henry Green, this is an overwhelmingly white game. It’s a huge missed opportunity for Syndicate, which could have taken the same approach to people of colour that it took to women, making their presence in gangs and throughout the factories and palaces of London just a normalized, internally consistent aspect of the game’s world.

To really put this in context, let’s start by examining the Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode “Badda Bing Badda Bang”. In this episode, a hidden virus in Vic Fontaine’s holo program activates, putting him at risk. What’s notable about this episode — at least for our purposes here — is that we find out why Sisko won’t go to Vic’s, as Vic’s is based on a 1962 Vegas casino, a time when racism was fairly rampant. Sisko’s significant other, Cassidy Yates, points out that both herself and his son Jake have never experienced racism there, and Sisko replies that that’s rather the point, pointing out, as he says himself, that “That’s the lie!”: Vic’s essentially sanitizes history by creating a world that’s inside the 1962 time frame but sweeps the racial strife of the period under the rug. He even insists that he’s not going to pretend that that was an easy time for black people.

This, then, is an objection to what Sarkeesian likes about Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and wants to see more from a Social Justice perspective: what she wants game designers to do is sanitize history so that she can get her dream game that is entirely inclusive, and where everyone of all races, genders, sexual orientations, etc, etc are treated with the same potential and without distinction based on those categories (which makes one wonder why she doesn’t like more RPGs, but I digress). But the issue is that if in a period piece trans people or women wouldn’t have been treated that way, and the game doesn’t acknowledge that they wouldn’t be treated that way, then the game is essentially ignoring and hiding the struggles that people of that grouping had in history. And the argument that you can use against Sisko — that they’re there for Vic and that ignoring that can have no impact on anything at the societal level — is not one that Sarkeesian can use because she herself is all about talking about how the little choices that are made in games can impact society overall. And her comments about the other things that aren’t quite accurate doesn’t help because there’s not likely to be any meaningful social impact from those inaccuracies, but minimizing the struggles of groups that were discriminated against in the past is not likely to be anywhere near as benign.

From the other side, there is the issue of verisimilitude. If you set a game — or any work, really — in a specific time period, if people know anything about that period any deviations you make from how the period was either have to be explained or things that can be ignored (generally because most people either don’t really know it or that it’s utterly unimportant to the time). So if we know that trans people would not have been treated that well in 1860s London — and given the discussions that they are not treated that well now, most would be aware of that — then for that person to be simply accepted seems odd. Sure, we can build the personalities of the main characters that they simply don’t care — which was almost certainly true even then — but if the entire society is okay with that, then we’re going to wonder why. This, then, would lead to charges of appealing more to Social Justice norms than to a good and accurate representation of the times, and thus preferring to make a statement about equality rather than providing a narrative that makes sense in the time. While Sarkeesian claims that the writing makes the characters “believable”, note that Sarkeesian herself is indeed aware that the trans person is being treated much more equitably than normal, and it’s hard to see how most people wouldn’t notice that as well. So they risk breaking immersion to make a Social Justice point while passing up an opportunity to actually drive home the point by making a sympathetic character whose race or gender or transness does impact them, perhaps through a personal side quest or a side cut scene showing it. Thus, we may not want, at least right now, what Sarkeesian really seems to want in her games.

The obvious way to go is to treat historical settings roughly historically, but ask that fantastical and invented settings be more inclusive unless they are using that lack of inclusiveness to make a point. It has always seemed to me that the big complaint about this has been the worry that game designers would choose the settings in order to avoid being inclusive, which seems to be unwarranted and contradicts the idea that sexism and racism are often subconscious and not conscious. There’s really no other argument that holds water, though, especially given the large number of games that are set in invented settings. In this way, we avoid sanitizing history while at the same time providing games that are inclusive in the way Sarkeesian wants. It seems that everyone wins if this is what we strive for.

At any rate, this is definitely what Sarkeesian and others need to start doing more, and hopefully if they do so we can get into productive discussions of how games can, should, and ought to be.

Valhalla Knights 3: First Impressions

October 26, 2015

Like Conception II. this was a game that I picked up without knowing anything about it. I was looking to build up my Vita library and found a used copy cheap, and decided to pick it up. And I didn’t play it for a while. Looking for something to play after finishing Lost Dimension and Persona 4: Dancing All Night, I gave it a shot.

The game is set in a big castle that’s been turned into a prison, and you are a spy for a great Empire that wants to find a great treasure that’s supposedly hidden there. So far, that’s about as much of the story as I’ve gotten, except that your past is hidden from you and gets revealed as you go along. For all I know, all of it has been revealed already. At any rate, the story isn’t exactly thrilling me; there’s enough there for me to sit through the cutscenes, but not enough there to make me, you know, actually want to play through the game just to see how it turns out. So it’s middling, at best.

The gameplay is rather simple, a real time battle system with a full — and pretty large — party that’s called a “clan”. You can get clan members in two ways. First, you can create them through the same character creation mechanism that you created your character with, or alternatively you can recruit fully created characters from the Talent Agency, who are also mostly leveled up. Taking this party out into the world, you get to kill a number of creatures and enemies in order to gain XP and take their stuff. The interesting part is that if you sneak up behind them, you can hit them without triggering the combat and so can take sometimes take them out without them ever hitting back. This works best for creatures and worst for actual human enemies (generally, other clans). The best part is that you get double the XP for killing them this way, but for human enemies that means that you don’t get the XP for killing the rest of the party.

The combat can be difficult at times. The game loves to toss you into battles — and ones that have repeated enemies — without any warning, which means that you’ll probably party-wipe if you’re underleveled, under-equipped or unprepared … which is pretty much me most of the time. One fight went from “party-wipe” to “You mean that’s it?!?” simply by my actually equipping my party with the best available weapons and armour. Who knew? The party AI is also incredibly bad. I took on another quest to kill some slimes, which turned into a multi-battle swarm of slimes. All of my party was wiped out except my mage, and once I took control of her I … wiped out the last two swarms myself, single-handed, by spamming “Wind”. If she’d done that just a little more often in the first fight we might not have all died.

If you die, they let you start over from this point with only the items you consumed in the battle lost … oh, and the party dead, meaning that you need to pay to revive them. As someone who is always cash strapped in games like this, that doesn’t work that well for me, meaning that I have to be careful how I take on battles, and so I run old quests over and over again to build cash, and generally take my time leveling. Fortunately, grinding in the game doesn’t feel as grindy as it does in other games, although I can’t think of any reason why it shouldn’t, other than that you generally do it to complete quests and so always have a goal, and so break up the monotony with returning to town to turn the quest in, take it again, and then head back out.

One thing to note about this game is that it’s the most fanservicey game I’ve played in recent memory. While fanservice was a big part of Conception II and overblown in Dungeon Travelers 2, here it’s really a deliberate and large part of the game. Pretty much every shopkeeper you meet is an attractive and scantily clad woman that you can give gifts to, which increase their affection. If you do enough business with them, you get “Sexy Time”, where you have to rub the screen in the right places to turn them on, and if you manage to get through all of the stages in time you get a ranking and, if your affection with them is high enough, an item. Once. While you could ignore it in the other games, this game really puts the fanservice, er, front and centre. I don’t mind it myself, but find that the “Sexy Time” mechanic is too difficult for what you generally get out of it — an increase in affection — for it to be a good mechanism. Supposedly, after you manage to “date” one of them — which is a small quest that you go on alone with her — there’s some kind of inn scene, but I haven’t seen one of those yet. Personally, I’m hoping to complete that with Martina because I want to recruit her into my clan, which you can supposedly do if you max out their affection.

If you don’t like fanservice, this is not the game for you. You’d be better off with Dungeon Travelers 2.

That being said, in line with my comments on Sarkeesian’s videos, this is a game that lets you play as and create female characters, and in general there’s no difference. Even the “Sexy Time” stuff is the same, as the game and the shopkeepers presume that you’re interested in women as well. That being said, this does give you the ability to create an entirely female clan, which is, in fact, what I’m planning on doing. But I don’t really think this game counts as a feminist game [grin].

Ultimately, so far the game is entertaining enough to play while, say, watching baseball, and so has been worth the money. I think I’ll try to finish it, but Dragon Age 2 might have something to say about that. That being said, there are definitely better games in this space.


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