Posts Tagged ‘philosophy of gaming’

The Prisoner’s Dilemma in Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward

December 15, 2017

So, I recently picked up the Vita version of “The Nonary Games”, which includes two games: Zero Escape: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward. I’ll talk about the games themselves a bit next week, probably. But today I want to talk about part of Virtue’s Last Reward. Since the game isn’t that old, I’ll put discussion of it below the fold because it will contain spoilers.

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You asked for it …

November 10, 2017

So, over at Feminist Frequency, Carolyn Petit has posted a commentary on Super Mario Odyssey. However, her really big complaint ends up being about something that the game pretty much did to subvert gender expectations and the damsel in distress trope in the way that Sarkeesian’s entire “Tropes vs Women” series seemed to call for. It’s no surprise that it wasn’t a good move, and only a slight surprise — presumably to people who haven’t been paying attention to how the Social Justice side generally engage in games — that Petit doesn’t like it.

Before I get into that, though, I want to talk about the Tiara and the Cap (and the thief of the night):

This time around, it’s not just Peach who needs rescuing. There’s also Tiara, the sentient crown Bowser has snatched to rest upon Peach’s head during the nuptials he’s rapidly arranging. Now, Tiara is not just a living hat. No, Tiara is a female hat, and with her in danger, her brother Cappy rides along on Mario’s mop, giving him the remarkable powers he needs to complete his quest.

I mean, look. In a series that has been relying on gendered tropes for decades, if we’re gonna go so far as to gender the hats, couldn’t we at least switch things up and have the female hat (Hattie, perhaps?) ride along with Mario on a quest to rescue her brother? But no, Odyssey does damseling twice over, delivering a one-two punch of reinforcing those good ol’-fashioned video game gender norms.

So, here’s the issue. They came up with the idea of using parts of the characters’ apparel as sentient beings that can help out the characters, or at least be confidants for them (I don’t know how much of a role the tiara plays in Princess Peach’s story, at least throughout the game). They chose their typical head wear … or, at least, what would be typical head wear for their occupations (cap for a plumber, tiara for a princess). Now, these clothes are in some sense gender-typed; while women can indeed wear caps, men don’t generally wear tiaras, and a cap would not go with a princess outfit, and a tiara would not go with a plumber’s outfit. With the tiara, at least, being strongly feminine, if they had tried to make the tiara male and the cap female, it would have turned into a joke, because of the incongruity of a tiara being masculine. This means that if they did that, it would have been seen as a joke and it would have lent itself to more and more jokes about the incongruity, which would have annoyed Petit to no end, I imagine. The only way around that would be to make the cap and the tiara both non-presenting trans, which would have introduced many complications and more serious content than a Mario game — primarily aimed at kids — would want to do. So they took the easy way out and made them match the impressions, in a way that really isn’t any more problematic than what they were doing with Princess Peach in the first place and in all of their other games … which Petit then gripes about as being a doubling of damseling.

Sorry, but that criticism seems both petty and ignorant of the potential consequences of the switch, including the idea that Peach might be controlled by a male character in some sense (depending on the role of the tiara in the game, which I haven’t played).

But now onto the scene that she really hates:

The final battle takes place as Mario literally crashes Bowser’s wedding ceremony. Once the battle with Bowser is at an end, Mario, Peach and the Koopa King are together on the surface of the moon. Bowser, not entirely out of steam, charges up to Peach with an offering of a piranha plant, still trying to win her over. And here’s where things really got weird for me. Mario also crowds Peach, holding a flower, engaging in a moment of “pick-me!” rivalry with the Koopa King. For a few seconds, the two dudes elbow and jostle each other, pushing their respective flowers in Peach’s face.

Now, this is a really messed-up thing for Mario to do, a vile position to put Peach in. Furthermore, until this point in the series, it’s remained plausible that Mario’s motives for rescuing the princess were mostly selfless. One could say that he simply objected to her freedom being infringed upon, and didn’t want a brute like Bowser getting away with his dastardly schemes.

However, this moment suggests that it’s not that at all, that the real reason he’s rescued Peach so many times is because he wants her for himself. I’ve made countless jokes with friends over the years about how the surprise plot twist of the Mario games will someday be that Mario was the villain all along, but this game was the first that kinda made me believe it. It was impossible for me not to think about the twist ending of the Mario-influenced game Braid, in which the protagonist Tim is revealed to be a stalker, not a hero. Peach has long served as a reward for players in these games, but this scene made me think that Mario, too, sees Peach more as a prize than a person.

To her credit, Peach doesn’t deign to give Mario so much as a kiss on the cheek, but instead gives both of these jerks the cold shoulder and walks off, at which point Mario and Bowser take some solace in their shared rejection. I guess at the end of the day, Bowser is really just another one of the Bros., and, well, you know what they say about Bros.

Yeah, and do you know why all of that is there? To set up that scene where Princess Peach rejects them both and storms off in a display of female empowerment, to later cruise around the world herself having adventures. This is clearly an attempt to subvert the damsel in distress trope — and, particularly, the “Women as Reward” trope — in precisely the way that Sarkeesian had talked about in the past. Yes, to do that you have to derail Mario into someone who presumably was at least seen as being in this for the reward of the love of the princess instead of just trying to do the right thing, but what’s derailing an entire male character when compared to making that obviously visible pro-feminist statement? Which Petit, of course, likes; it’s making Mario a, in her words, “creep” and that Princess Peach didn’t get to do more than she objects to. Um, despite the fact that Mario falling in love with her isn’t actually unreasonable, and that the only thing that, to me, makes his timing suspect is that Bowser isn’t actually real competition. If Bowser was seen as real competition that Peach might have chosen but only if she didn’t believe Mario felt that way about her, then the timing would be necessary, somewhat romantic, and fit into the normal trope that people really should express their feelings about each other if they have them.

Anyway, why did this scene flop for everyone? Because it put, it seems to me, the feminist message ahead of telling a good story. Petit can argue that it’s there just for a cheap joke, but with the final sequence where Peach goes off to be an independent woman having her own adventures that’s hardly likely. No, it seems obvious to me that they wanted to do the sort of subversion that people like Sarkeesian and Petit ask for and didn’t care if they derailed the existing characters to do it, and instead ended up getting complaints because they derailed Mario into someone who is non-feminist (ie a “creep”) with nary a mention that he was derailed in a terrible way specifically to promote a feminist message. Feminists didn’t like it because it wasn’t feminist enough, in that Peach got limited freedom and Mario fit their idea of a “creep” or “Bro”, and non-feminists — or, at least, those who pay attention to the underlying theme — won’t like it because it derails Mario for a ridiculous feminist subversion that even the feminists don’t care for. This is precisely what happens when you try to satisfy the vague and poorly thought out demands of much of the Social Justice line instead of looking at your games and your story and deciding what you want to do. In short, don’t listen to what they say they want, but look deeper to see if there’s a valid complaint and do the work to fix that complaint.

Of course, if you do that, shallow analysis might still have them up in arms. But shallow fixing of complaints brought about by shallow analysis won’t make anyone happy. Least of all you.

The Politicization of Games

October 16, 2017

So, in another video, Extra Credits talked about politics in gaming and, specifically, the calls to get politics out of gaming. This sentiment is opposed by the argument that it can’t be done because, as they put it, “All media is political”.

Unfortunately, there is a major problem with their argument. In an aside, they say that we shouldn’t get rid of politics in games whatever that means because of what politics in games brings to them and to other works, but by so saying they reveal that they don’t know or at least aren’t certain what those who want to get politics out of games mean when they say that. And yet they spend the entire video talking about politics in media and why it can’t be taken out of games, and making the bold statement that “All media is political”. This is an argument ripe for equivocation, where they spend their time arguing against people who don’t like politics in games by using their definition of politics, while ignoring the definition that those on the other side of the argument are using. Thus, they can insist that politics in media are good and that all media is political as if they are refuting those people, while never actually addressing the sense in which their opponents use the term to argue that politics in media are bad and that not all media are indeed political.

Which, if you watch the video, seems to pretty much be the case. They tend to argue that politics are the examination of real world issues, political concerns, philosophies, and ethical dilemmas, and that these things are part and parcel of what make up people and also provide some of the best conflicts in games, and that therefore games without politics would have to drop all of those sorts of examinations. The problem is that when most people argue against politics in a media, what they really mean is not examination of issues inspired by real life, but instead has as its primary intent an attempt to argue for a specific idea, with the aim of convincing the consumer of that media that their position is the correct one. It doesn’t examine the issue as much as it propagandizes it, setting up the world and the outcome so as to present the consumer with what they hope is a compelling argument to adopt their viewpoint. In general, such attempts are not subtle, and are often heavy-handed, because the message has to be received and understood by the consumer or else the work didn’t do what it was intended to do.

They give examples of some works that did this, and one of them is Star Trek, which I think is a good example to use to demonstrate the difference. Star Trek TOS — which is what they pictured in the video — definitely reflects the political views of Gene Roddenberry, and deliberately invokes his ideas of diversity. However, what got it acclaim is that, for the most part, it explores and examines various issues without being overly obvious about its messaging. For most of the episodes, a case can and often is made for either side of the divide. For example, in “City on the Edge of Forever”, Edith Keeler is presented as someone who preaches the ideals of Roddenberry and of the Federation as presented, and yet those ideas being listened to at that time is presented as something that creates a disaster against the Nazis. The message of the episode is not that those ideals are wrong, nor that humans at the time, at least, were just too primitive to understand how right she was and that humanity is now more evolved, but instead the message is, as I believe is directly stated “She had the right ideas at the wrong time”. This allows everyone to enjoy the episode and the exploration even if they disagree with that specific message, or with any of the issues stated or explored in the episode. This can be contrasted with the more explicit messaging in Star Trek TNG, especially in the early seasons, where it was criticized for being so heavy-handed in its messaging that anyone who disagreed at all with it — and even some who did — found the Federation to be insufferably smug, constantly preaching their message and going on about how evolved they were now over those poor humans of roughly our time, as best exemplified by the first season episode “The Neutral Zone”. TOS explored issues, while TNG preached them.

Now, I personally don’t really mind if a creator wants to preach their worldviews and so makes a work of fiction specifically to try to promote them, as long as they are up front about that and, of course, that not all works try to do that, because works that aim for messaging tend to be less entertaining than those that aim for entertainment or to explore ideas. But another issue that we’re coming across here is the issue of politicization, where games and other media are being infested with strong politics with exploration of ideas and simple entertainment being pushed out. This happens in two ways:

1) Where various sources are pushing for games to insert more explicit political messages in order to become more mature or more relevant to the real world.

2) Where various sources push that games should only express certain specific political messages, usually ones that happen to align with their own personal views.

And this video, seemingly inadvertently, supports at least the first form of politicization, by saying that games are mature enough to handle politics and that politics are good and provide the conflict while conflating the exploring real world issues and views that people hold with political messaging. Because they don’t really examine in detail what the opponents of politics in gaming mean by that, they end up arguing by implication that any examination of a real world view or even anything inspired by that is at the same level as an explicit and direct attempt to arguing for a specific political or philosophical position, and thus justifying both equally. This is only made clear in their discussion of Missile Command as an example of politics in games, looking at nuclear proliferation … despite the fact that you could easily play and enjoy that game if you didn’t make that link at all. Their argument that all media is political is also undercut by games that were contemporaries of Missile Command that didn’t even have that subtle level of messaging and were at least as good as it, like Pac-Man, Defender and Asteroids. You don’t really need to have any kind of political message to make a good game.

Thus, they justify the proliferation of specific and deliberate political message by buying into the “All media are political” message which is also exemplified by the feminist “The personal is political” philosophical argument: if all media is political, then there really is no difference between a game that references real world messages or explores a real world political and philosophical issue, and a game that sets out to promote a specific political message. This idea is then used to deflect any criticism that the creator is really propagandizing their game or message by insisting that everyone does that, while ignoring that often they really aren’t, because they aren’t presenting any of those things as a conclusion, but are either simply copying them from society in order to relate better to their audience or that explore the issues without presenting either position on the issue to be necessarily right or better than anyone else’s. Thus, a game that happens to have a damsel in distress or engage in some fanservice is suddenly just as political as a game that tries to shame people for accepting or engaging in those tropes, and a game that explores the question of privacy concerns vs security against an enemy that could be anyone is just as political as a game that deliberately tries to show that privacy concerns should always trump security concerns.

What we are seeing in our increasingly polarized society is that more and more people want to use media not to produce a great creative work for people to enjoy but instead to promote their own specific ideas, and to criticize media that promote messages that they don’t agree with. This has, of course, been common throughout history. But what we’re seeing as society gets more polarized is that even not taking a side is seen by both sides as, in fact, taking the other side in the debate. So presenting both sides in a neutral way is political messaging, and simply referencing the ideas shallowly and building off of them to create the unrelated conflict in your work is also political messaging. Doing anything is a work is now, suddenly, political messaging.

Because, after all, “All media is political”.

Gaming and Power Fantasies

October 9, 2017

So, I came across a video by Extra Credits talking about the problem with power fantasies and subtitling it “We Aren’t Always Right”. Now, as it’s a video quoting directly from it is a bit difficult, so let me try to sum up what I think the main argument is:

Most games contain some kind of power fantasy element, but for true power fantasies to work we have to always be right. This can lead to bad and potentially dangerous ideas. They think it would be good if games stopped for self-reflection and asked if the player’s powerful actions really are right, and take on what they seem to think is the main argument against that that it would ruin the power fantasy by arguing that those looking for a power fantasy are not so fragile as to have their experience ruined by such a thing, and so more games should do it.

The problem is that the entire video is short and incredibly vague. It moves from talking about games having power fantasy elements to talking about a true power fantasy, but gives no way to determine what counts as a power fantasy element vs a true power fantasy, and so leaves us no way to distinguish the two. Which is incredibly important, it turns out, as we need to know that to determine how common true power fantasies are in gaming. If they aren’t very common, then this likely isn’t all that big a problem. From there, the video moves on to talk about power fantasies generally in the context of combat and killing people, and thus essentially carves out the FPS genre specifically, and thus makes it unclear whether or not RPGs, in general, count. It also seems to treat combat as being, in their own words, “rampaging”, which in and of itself isn’t a big theme in most games, which at least try to give you a self-defense motive to kill those enemies. The big example used is of Uncharted, a game that I have not played, asserting that the protagonist is killing lots and lots of people just to get to the treasure at the end. Even if that is true for Uncharted, how common is that in gaming in general?

And when we consider whether what they are suggesting is going to ruin the power fantasy experience, we need to know what that experience is and what goal they are really pursuing, which the video never really talks about. Sure, they might have an entire half-hour video sussing all of that out — I’m not a regular viewer of theirs — but we really needed more than “It makes you feel powerful!” for a topic this complex. So, my general definition of power fantasy is going to be someone doing something that makes them feel strong or skilled or competent in a way that they don’t feel in every day life. Thus, simply being powerful and killing things may or may not be a power fantasy, as some players might prefer feeling like their charismatic, competent, skilled, or even important in a way that they aren’t in their real-lives. To their credit, the video does hint at this in their brief definition of power fantasy, but they focus on overall strength for the entire rest of the video, and I think it is important to note that a power fantasy may merely be competence, not overwhelming power. Thus, for example, someone might get a power fantasy out of a dating sim because the game makes them feel like they can attract members of the appropriate sex, whereas in real life they don’t have anywhere near that success. They also might get a power fantasy out of playing Batman not because of the bodies he leaves behind, but instead because he is someone who is always prepared for any situation, whereas in real life they at least feel like they aren’t. And so on and so forth. Focusing on questions of whether things are right doesn’t really make sense for those sorts of situations, where either the morals are clear or there isn’t really a moral question involved.

And on top of that, it’s also clear that the same game — even one that they think is a pure power fantasy — might be played by different people for different reasons. Someone might play Uncharted, say, because they want that purported power fantasy. Someone else might want to experience the story. Someone else might enjoy the gameplay. So even the most power fantasy game may well draw players who aren’t really interested in following the power fantasy, who have to be taken into account when you do these sorts of things.

And this leads to their last great vagueness: they don’t really say what they mean when they want the game to stop for self-examination and ask the player, presumably, if what they’re doing is right. Sure, they have some hypotheticals, but none of them would, in general, work in a game without being a literal immersion breaking record scratch, to use the metaphor they themselves use in the video. Presumably, we don’t want it to be the game stepping that far outside of itself to make this point, so it’ll have to be integrated into the game somehow. They give examples of some games that have tried … but I haven’t played any of them and so have no idea what they mean, and they don’t even give one real example.

So, let’s talk about the problem with this, which starts from the fact that presumably this, in general, isn’t going to be strictly a story point and is going to be something aimed at the player, or at least that they want the player to think about along with the player’s character. This is problematic because of the nature of games, where the game sets up the rules of the game and the player has to accept those strictures in order to play the game. Those strictures can be strict or they can be loose, but in general the game sets up the structure and lets us in on the assumptions it wants us to make, and then if we want to play the game for whatever reason we have to accept those strictures and assumptions and, ultimately, that world. If you want to play the open world Grand Theft Auto games, for example, you have to accept that your character is, at the very least, going to be a shady character and is going to have to commit some crimes during the game, even if all you want to do is follow the story, or do the open world activities.

So if a game sets up a world where to play the game we have to do certain things or, at least, are very strongly encouraged to do certain things, and then stops the game to ask us, the player, if what we’re doing is right, no matter why we’re playing the game we are likely to exclaim “This is what you told me I had to do to play the game!”. If we want to play the game, we have to accept its rules, and if its rules said that we had to do certain things to advance in the game, it’s not particularly fair for the game to them ask us if what we are doing is in some sense right. As an example, in the Persona games starting from Persona 3 you can romance various people and enter into, at the end of their Social Link, a relationship. You can do this with more than one person, essentially entering into what is presented as a dedicated relationship and have more than one formal girlfriend at a time. In Persona 4 and Persona 5, however, if you do that there will be consequences when they find out about it. Persona 4’s involves you having to essentially reject all but one of them for Valentine’s Day, with them clearly heartbroken over it, and you have to do it to their face, which can be wrenching. This would be a nice, in-game example of the game asking you, the player, through the character, if what you did was right. (Interestingly, the Persona 5 version is less dark given that Persona 5 was a darker game than Persona 4). But in Persona 4 and Persona 5 you were allowed when finishing the S-links with the girls to choose whether the relationship was friends or boyfriend/girlfriend, and you got pretty much all of the benefits of the S-link whether you chose friend or girlfriend. Thus, at the end of the day you, the player, made the decision to pursue a relationship with more than one girl, and so it’s fair for the game to call you out for that choice.

However, you don’t have that choice in Persona 3. If you max out the S-link with a girl, you are entering into a relationship with them, and you want to max out S-links so that you can fuse powerful Personas. Thus, the game doesn’t give you the choice of friends or not and sets up the game that you’d be greatly impaired if you don’t max out S-links with more than one girl. If Persona 3 had done the strong call outs of this that we see in Persona 4 and Persona 5, players would, rightly, feel that they were being called out for doing something that the game essentially made them do, which is not going to seem at all fair. This is going to cause hard feelings towards the game and any point that the game tried to make doing that would be lost.

This seems to be a common reaction to Spec Ops: The Line, which tried to subvert the FPS genre this way. While a number of people — Shamus Young included — really liked the subversion, and while I suspect that it’s the sort of thing that they’d like to see in games, many people seemed to feel that the game was chiding them for doing the things that the game made them do in order to keep playing. What were they supposed to do, quite playing? So they felt — in my opinion, reasonably — that the game deliberately set up the game to make them think that it was following the standard FPS tropes and assumptions, gave no or little indication that they should or could do something else, and then chided them for accepting the game as they presented it to them. The risk of asking the player if what they are doing is right is precisely this sort of reaction: why are you asking me if what you made me do to play the game is right? I’m playing a game here, I’m following your rules, and so if there’s any right or wrong here you probably should have thought of that before you put those mechanisms into the game. Especially since for many players — even those interested in a power fantasy — the things you are questioning are nothing more than the things they have to put up with in order to get to the parts of the game that they actually are interested in.

They make a comment later about it being a good thing to do even if the answer is “Yes”, by there being a sufficient justification, which leads to the second problem with this: if you are asking the player this question, they are the only ones who can answer it. The game can’t answer it for them. Thus, you need to be prepared for them to answer “No” as well as to answer “Yes”. If they answer “No”, what options do they have? Is their only option to stop playing the game? That’s not really what you wanted. But the game can’t assume that they’ll answer “No” either. What do you do? If this is a story point, then you’re more likely to be able to get away with answering it for the character — although that can be risky as well if the player doesn’t feel their character would agree — but if you are asking the player this and want them to think hard about it and answer it you have to be prepared for their answer, and have the game react accordingly. That’s not easy to do, but if you don’t do it you will get players who simply quit the game because it assumes the answer they didn’t give.

So it’s not really fragility that’s the issue here. It’s that doing stuff like this is really hard to pull of without ruining the game for the player. Some will be bitter that the game is asking them to self-reflect on things that it made them to to play the game. Some will be bitter that the game assumes an answer that they didn’t give to that question. Story players will be annoyed that this is aimed at the player and not the character, and that it takes time out from the story to deliver this pointless message. Gameplay players will be annoyed that this message is taking them out of playing the game, and they weren’t even paying attention at all to the things it’s aiming at, since, for example, you could have replaced all the people with target dummies and they still would have played it because the gameplay would have been the same. Even those interested in a power fantasy might complain that the killing isn’t the sort of power that they’re interested in, and asking whether or not that’s right is again asking them to self-examine over something that they were only doing to get to the good parts.

It seems to me that the video presents power fantasies as being more common than they are, and doesn’t get why that sort of self-examination can cause issues for all players, no matter why they’re playing the game. So, yes, it can be an issue, and it’s not just “fragility” that’s the issue there.

The burning question of Persona 5 …

June 9, 2017

So, now that I’ve finished it and read around online a bit about it and talked a lot about Social Justice angles wrt Persona 5, seemingly the key question is this: should Persona 5 or Persona 6 have a female protagonist?

Note that there are two main ways to do a female protagonist in this series, and the Persona series has done both. First, you can give the player the choice of whether or not they want to play as a male or female protagonist, which is what they did with P3P. The other way is to create a game that only has a female protagonist, which they did with Maya in Persona 2: Eternal Punishment. So, since they’ve done both before, surely they could do at least one of them again, either in an extended Persona 5 — which given P3 FES and P4 Golden is almost certain to happen — or in Persona 6. So let’s look at how and if that might work.

In Persona 5, there are a lot of anime cinematics. If you wanted to give the player a choice of protagonist, you’d have to do scenes for both the male and female protagonist. Also, you’d have to make sure that any line that refers to “he” is also re-voiced to use “he” or “she” for the appropriate protagonist, or else try very hard to never actually do that like they do for the protagonist’s name, which is going to be a lot more work. And then you might have to rework a number of the S-links, including the dating ones, allowing pretty much any character to be romanceable — and thus have Christmas and Valentine’s Day scenes reflecting that — if you don’t go the better route of rewriting them to make sense for male and female protagonists. For example, Iwai is far less likely to involve a teenage girl in his conflicts with the Yakuza and Ohya is not all that likely to pretend that she is dating a female protagonist to hide the fact that she’s investigating her partner’s disappearance (even if she leaned that way). In short, making a dual protagonist is a lot of work, and some story elements won’t work as well if you do that. So, in general, I think that for the most part they should pick one and have that as the main for the entire series. While I enjoyed the option in P3P — and found that the female protagonist was a more interesting character than the male one — I can see that adding the option again would be too much work for what you’d get out of it.

Okay, so then should Persona 6 go with a female protagonist? At first blush, my first thought was that it wouldn’t be a problem at all, given how much I liked the female protagonist in P3P. But on reflection, I noted that it would cost me something that I really liked about the Persona series: the ability to react to it roughly like how _I_ would have reacted to it, including who I hang around with and, importantly, who I dated. Obviously, with a female protagonist I wouldn’t be able to do that, and so would have to base it entirely on what character I was playing at the time. Which isn’t generally a problem for me, but it would take something away from the Persona series that’s pretty unique for me.

Now, people can say — rightly — that at that point I’d know how female players feel wrt the series, since they don’t get that. And that’s a fair point. But the issue here is that, for me, the Persona series has been that way for me for so long that I wouldn’t quite get the feel from Persona 6 if they did this that I got from the other games, which can’t help but feel like a let down. While I’d almost certainly be okay with it, other fans might not. Thus, that might hurt sales or the impression people have of the game and the series, which will hurt the franchise. Are there going to be enough female gamers deciding to jump onto it now for their unique experience to make it worth the risk? I doubt it, personally.

And so I think the best advice here is to let Team Persona decide what they want to do with the series. If they want to tell a story that works best with a male protagonist, let them. If they want to tell a story that works best with a female protagonist, let them. And if people really want to see a Persona-like series with a female protagonist then starting a new series with that is the way to go. After all, we’ve seen a number of these “dating/life sim JRPGs” starting up since Persona 3 at least partly rode that to success, and so a game that takes the Persona elements but starts with a female protagonist from the start should be do-able, if there’s a sufficient market for it. And since if it is done well there’s a good chance that I’d buy it and play it, this would be the ultimate chance to prove that, yes, there’s a market for these kind of games.

I suspect that the typical “Social Justice” objector will bristle at this suggestion, but hopefully some company will think that maybe they can get some mileage out of this — if the market is really there.

Tropes vs Women: The Lady Sidekick

May 10, 2017

So, here we are, finally, at the last “Tropes vs Women” episode, on “The Lady Sidekick”. Originally, Sarkeesian claimed she’d have it all done in a year; it took her five. Even the last season — which was far more shallow than the first one — was supposed to be done in a year and ended up taking her about a year and a half. So at least you can say that Sarkeesian did not know what she was getting into when she started the project. But, here we are, at the last one, which means that this is my last post on that series as well. So how does it work?

Well, not well. The main trust here is about how female sidekicks and companions are portrayed in games, with a segue or acknowledgement on how that’s how sidekicks and companions are portrayed in general, which she proceeds to criticize. The problem is that her extremely narrow focus means that she misses all of the games where what she seems to want to see has already been done, and at times contradicts herself in what she wants or things acceptable, and at the end of the day promotes an idea of making companions human that, in fact, would in general be more annoying than helpful, especially since there are other, less annoying ways to do that that are already being done.

So let’s start with her first example, that of Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite. The problem here seems to be that while Elizabeth is indeed a critical character to the plot and gets development, in gameplay her abilities are pretty much passive:

Elizabeth possesses the incredible ability to open portals to other timelines, an ability that plays a significant role in the plot as Booker and Elizabeth hop forward and backward and from side to side in time, leaping from one version of Columbia to another and sometimes thrusting Booker into the past or the future. So as a plot device which drives elements of the game’s narrative, she’s very significant. In gameplay terms, however, Elizabeth serves a different kind of role: that of a glorified door opener.

As with most shooters, Bioshock Infinite often puts you into situations where you can’t progress until you’ve cleared an area of enemies. The way it frequently does this is by blocking doors to the next area that can’t be opened by Booker. Only Elizabeth can do this, which she does only when all the enemies have been killed. For all of her tremendous powers, Elizabeth is reduced by the game’s mechanics to doing the most basic and menial of tasks, and waiting around for her to open a door becomes a significant aspect of how players experience her character.

Of course, she performs other actions as well, sometimes tossing Booker ammo, first aid or other useful items, or opening tears through which he can have her summon things like weapons or killer robots to help him in combat. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of characters who play a supporting role in combat situations. But Elizabeth is an example of a female sidekick who is reduced to a tool. There aren’t gameplay mechanics that allow you to have meaningful interactions with her. She just opens doors and dispenses useful things, and her tear-opening powers are not her own, but yours to call on and control with the press of a button.

So, on the one hand Sarkeesian claims that there’s nothing wrong with supporting characters, but then complains that these supporting characters — again, who are not combat characters — have a generally passive role in the gameplay. So, in the gameplay, you “order” them to do things and they, well, do them. What’s the alternative here? I mean, surely you’d want to be able to at least ask them to do things and have them do it, right? If you have them refuse to do those things, then if you need them to do it desperately in order to survive they could cause you to, well, die and have to load from a previous save. And at least any refusal is going to cost you time. If you make it follow from their personality — and not be random — then it could be seen as a story point … but Sarkeesian is talking pretty much about gameplay here. And the only other option is to simply have them open things automatically when the objective — in this case, clearing the area — is pretty much done. At best, that adds little to their character and at worst has them take actions that the player is not prepared for.

Thus, we can translate Sarkeesian’s complaint here as “Why doesn’t the gameplay do more to annoy the player?”. To which the answer is “Because it annoys the player!”. Giving the player control over their sidekicks and companions allows them to better plan their strategies and tailor the gameplay experience to their own abilities and how they like to play. Handing “agency” off to the companions can frustrate players unless those companions always do things the way the player wants them to, at which point you might as well just give the player direct control. As an example, in Persona 3 you couldn’t tell your companions what actions to take in combat, and so they acted on their own. You could tell them how to act in general — heal, conserve SP, etc — but you couldn’t give them direct commands. But when in Persona 3 FES, I believe, they gave you the ability to give direct commands, the change was universally welcomed. This was not because players wanted to or even did see the companions as primarily tools. The Persona series itself is built on the strengths of the personalities of your companions and how you feel about them, as well as those of your other S-links. No, the reason this was welcomed was because the AIs would quite often do incredibly stupid and even out-of-character actions in combat that could cause you to lose that battle. For example, the intelligent and capable tactician Mitsuru might cast Marin Karin — a charm spell — instead of attacking or healing … and, from what I understand, might do it on bosses that in general are immune to the ability. Wanting to be able to give her direct commands, then, isn’t a desire to order her around, but is instead a desire to be able to manage the combat the way you want to manage the combat.

And that’s the big issue with Sarkeesian’s thesis here: when players give these direct orders in gameplay, they are, in fact, thinking of these as gameplay mechanisms, and not story or character mechanisms. That the player leads the team in Persona 3 is an odd example of “Gameplay and Story Segregation” that is handwaved: Mitsuru should probably be the one giving orders, but as the PC has the ability to change Personas and is competent it can be argued that letting him decide what the others do makes sense, since his versatility means that what the others do will always depend on what he can do and what he can cover, which even extends to team selection (if the PC doesn’t have a Persona who can use fire spells, he’ll likely want to bring one along to trigger the weakness in those enemies. He’ll also want to pick which weaknesses get hit in a mix of enemies to ensure that they all get knocked down). But none of this means that the P3 PC is really the leader of SEES. That is indeed Mitsuru, and everyone acknowledges that. So even if in gameplay what Elizabeth is doing is what the PC tells her to, that doesn’t in any way invalidate what impression the players have of her throughout the game. Players can indeed note that things work differently in gameplay and in story, as that TV Tropes link above suggests.

Sarkeesian also goes on to talk about the “Damsel Escort Mission”:

Damsel escort missions occur when a female character joins the male player character, but is largely helpless, and rather than being a clear benefit to the player, she feels more like a burden. In ICO, players free Yorda from a cage early on. She then joins Ico on his journey, and much of the game consists of solving puzzles so that Yorda, who can’t make leaps or climb walls on her own, can traverse the environment. Meanwhile, players also need to protect her from the shadow monsters who sometimes try to whisk her away. Spoiler alert: yes, in the ending cutscene, Yorda carries Ico out of the crumbling castle, but what the narrative tells us or shows us in the end doesn’t undo the impact of how we experience a character through gameplay. Another classic damsel escort mission occurs in Resident Evil 4, where Ashley Graham, the president’s daughter, has caused players tremendous frustration over the years by burdening them with the need to protect and manage her.

Or, as most gamers call them, “Escort Missions”. The only distinction here is that Sarkeesian limits this to female characters being escorted, but all of the attributes are the same, as are the frustrations. Thus, what Sarkeesian is complaining about here is, at the end of day, that women are used in escort missions. She’d potentially have a complaint if she showed that women were used in that role more often — which is probably true — and in general she pushes the line that having that role fosters stereotypes in a way that it doesn’t for men, but this doesn’t really work. For one thing, as I have noted a few times, it’s easier to have a female character that needs to be protected, even at times, remain a sympathetic character than it is for a male character. And second, the way to overturn those stereotypes is to present other female characters that don’t fit that stereotype. Sure, you might have to escort a “damsel escort” in a couple of missions, but if your party includes your competent female companion that’s not likely to make you think that all women are like that, now is it?

And the issue is that you simply cannot do it right by Sarkeesian. She criticizes ICO for having Yorda be mostly an escort throughout the entire game and comments that even her saving Ico at the end can’t make up for that, but then she later criticizes Ellie in “The Last of Us” for having presumably a small number of scenes where she needs help across the water despite being in general an active character the rest of the time. So a character that was built up as being active and competent and thus breaking the stereotype but that sometimes needs help? Bad, if it’s female. But a character that was mostly passive but that has some character development at the end and so can be seen as being more active and subverting the stereotype? Also, bad, if it’s female. So one active scene can’t undo the experience, but one passive scene absolutely can. And to top it all off, Sarkeesian has no idea if most people really did experience the character that way. My bet is that most people didn’t.

Where this gets all the more ridiculous is when Sarkeesian tries to talk about companion mechanisms in general:

Companion dynamics in games almost never model what equal footing, cooperation and collaboration in a relationship might look like, but instead serve to make the player feel like the center of the world, the one in control, which is not at all a model for healthy relationships.

Of course they don’t. Sarkeesian can only find a couple of good examples:

When women function as competent companions whose skills are more-or-less equal to those of the player character, it can challenge these ideas. The Last of Us goes against the grain by giving us the character of Tess, a somewhat rare and refreshing example of a woman who fights alongside the male protagonist, and the later Gears of War games do a decent job of including female squad members who are on equal footing with their male counterparts. And thankfully, we are seeing more games that complicate and subvert the old patterns, providing players with relationships with supporting characters who don’t function as mere extensions of the player but who feel like separate, individual people.

And while Trico in 2016’s The Last Guardian may not be a human character, he does possess some of the characteristics we’d like to see more of in human companions in games. Asking Trico to do things isn’t a simple matter of pushing a button and watching him immediately obey. He’s not a simple tool, not just an extension of the player. Sometimes he’s hesitant, reluctant, even frustrating. But this makes it feel more like he’s a living, breathing creature, with thoughts and feelings of his own, and by taking time to pet him, you can sometimes express your connection to him in ways that fall outside the requirements of the gameplay and the story. And crucially, Trico is often the one protecting the player, rather than the other way around. He does not exist to fuel a power fantasy, but to allow for gameplay mechanics that focus on cooperation, care, and helping each other.

So, let’s start with Trico. I’ve already commented that companions refusing orders is annoying unless it’s story or character based, and Sarkeesian does not limit Trico’s “frustrating” part to those cases. But we’ve had a long history of companions that protect the player already. In Persona 3, Persona 4 and Persona 5, if you get their S-links up to a high enough level, your companions — male or female — will take a blow for you in battle that would kill you otherwise. Persona 4 uses this as a major — and heartbreaking and horrifying — plot point in the final battle. In Suikoden V, Lyon is the protector of the PC explicitly, and fights alongside him throughout the entire game. The combat system of the Suikoden games involve combinations, which thus involve two or more characters cooperating and working together. Even the passive “Mission Controls” in the Persona series — Fuuka, Rise and Futaba — have special powers and abilities that sometimes can be triggered and sometimes trigger randomly to help the player, often accompanied by text that really reflects the character. In fact, even when you order around the characters, they tend to attack in ways that reflect their character, with catchphrases and even attack styles that make them distinct and show them to be a character that is doing something, and not just a tool to be used.

And companions, male and female, that fight alongside the main character and are equal participants are not exactly now. Baldur’s Gate had companions that did so, like Jaheira. Wizardry 8 had Vi. Knights of the Old Republic had Bastilla and Juhani. Sith Lord has Mira, Visas Marr, Handmaiden (Brianna) and the character that we know Sarkeesian knows about: Kreia. This trend continues into games like Neverwinter Nights, and into the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series, with Tali, Liara, Morrigan, Leliana, Wynne and then a host of others in the later games. TOR had female and male companions for every character class. The Persona series has always had female party members that fought alongside the main character, all the way back to the first one. So has the Suikoden series. Shadow Hearts has Alice — who ends up sacrificing herself for Yuri, the MC — and Margarete, while Shadow Hearts Covenant has Karin, Lucia and Anastasia. This is not new. And Sarkeesian criticizes the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games enough that she really ought to know that those characters exist. And yet … there is no mention of them. There isn’t even mention of one of her favourite characters, at least as evidenced by the other videos in the series. Maybe someone finally told her that Kreia is actually the villain of the game.

So these examples aren’t as uncommon as Sarkeesian thinks they are.

The last thing to comment on is about having companions who just do whatever you say and go along with whatever you do regardless of their own views on the matter. And, of course, games are already working on that as well. In Sith Lords, for example, Visas Marr will not wear the slave girl outfit no matter what you say, and Mira flat-out refuses to date you. In the series as a whole, companions will comment on your actions before and after you do them (Carth, at one point, comments that you are being incredibly petty if you take a specific Dark Side action). This carries forward into The Old Republic, where you will lose or gain affection based on how you respond to characters and situations in the game, and the reaction depends on your personality. This was also present in Dragon Age. In Mass Effect, the commentaries are also there, and in ME2 how you interact with your companions and which ones you choose to do certain missions have a critical impact on how the mission turns out, and who lives and who dies. In Persona 5, at boss fights there is an opportunity to send companions to do something, and who you send is at least claimed to matter. So what we can see is that games, for the longest time, have been trying to insert the specific details and traits of characters into the gameplay for a long time, from having them have different skills and abilities that follow from their character traits to having the personality show up in various ways. That Sarkeesian thinks this is new just reveals how little she actually knows about games.

Ultimately, again, this is a shallow analysis, and seems to come down to Sarkeesian griping about things she doesn’t like, especially since here there’s no real clear trend or set of traits that we can look at. Gaming is already pretty much doing all of the things that she seems to want it to do, except for the ones that are really annoying. It’s easy to stand on a soapbox talking about “cooperation” and “healthy relationships”, but her narrow focus leaves us very thin on examples and again we have no idea if Sarkeesian isn’t referencing the other games because she thinks they’re bad or because she doesn’t know they exist. At the end of the day, maybe Sarkeesian can leave games behind and move to areas where she actually knows something about the media she is examining.

Or maybe not.

Tropes vs Women: Not Your Exotic Fantasy.

April 12, 2017

So, in this video, Sarkeesian is trying to discuss the exotification of female characters, where they are portrayed as being sexy and/or sexual on the basis of the exotic ethnicity. As she herself describes it:

For instance, when certain white men falsely view Asian women as inherently more obedient or submissive than women from other cultures, and sexually fetishize them as a result of these false notions, those women are being exotified, and their race is falsely depicted as the defining aspect of their character and personality.

And if you are going to talk about this sort of thing, Asian women are indeed the typical example, as they are often used in various works to add an exotic sexual appeal just from the fact that they are Asian.

So, then, why does Sarkeesian focus on examples of blacks and indeed have hardly any examples of Asians?

The problem is that Sarkeesian has gone on and on about how women are sexualized in video games. Thus, the implication we are to take from her works is that women, in general, are sexualized and treated as sex objects. Thus, in order to make this video work, she’s going to have to find examples where the women in the games are being treated as sex objects just because of their race and thus it can’t be the case that if you put any woman in that position she’d be equally sexualized. This, of course, is potentially very hard to do. So what Sarkeesian is going to try to do here is instead focus on another use of “exotic”, this time in terms of locale, and thus focus on the idea of a stereotypical idea of a foreign and strange culture. In doing so, she can use games that either are set in an exotic locale or that stereotype a “strange” culture and then take the examples of sexualization from those games to make her overall point about the women being an exotic fantasy.

There would be issues with focusing on Asian cases for this. First, Sarkeesian is likely far less familiar with those stereotypical representations due to the odd relationship Asians have to Social Justice; often being seen as an oppressed class but not being placed front and centre as often due to their relative success when compared to other oppressed groups. Second, Asians wouldn’t fit into the current focus of the Social Justice movement, which is definitely focusing on blacks and Latios due to the political climate. And finally — and most importantly from an argument standpoint — this would run into a real issue since a lot of the most stereotypical presentations might well be presented in Japanese games, which would make the “cultural appropriation” line Sarkeesian wants to pull at a minimum problematic and at worst ridiculous. Thus, Sarkeesian will focus on black characters — who are best known for not being considered attractive because of their race, and so those black women who best fit into the white model being considered the most attractive — instead of focusing on the group that is best known for being considered attractive because of their exotic looks.

And we can see why we have the problem in looking at her first example, that of Far Cry 3:

Ubisoft’s 2012 game Far Cry 3 casts players as Jason Brody, a young white American man vacationing in Bangkok with his brother and their white friends. But their carefree fun comes to an end when a skydiving trip goes wrong and they all end up being kidnapped by evil pirates–who, you guessed it, are not white. Jason escapes and encounters a group of island natives called the Rakyat, who enlist his help to rid their island of the pirates. Ushering Jason into his exotic and exciting new role as a tribal warrior and white savior is Citra, a young woman who is viewed among her people as a “warrior goddess.” Under her guidance, Jason’s adventure rapidly becomes an absurd hodgepodge of racist stereotypes about tribal cultures and Brown women.

At one point, Citra gives Jason a hallucination-inducing drink which leads him into battle with an imagined giant; after he defeats the monster, he’s rewarded with a topless Citra telling him that he is now part of the tribe. Citra’s strange mystical powers return later in the game when she blows a glowing dust into Jason’s face, triggering another hallucinatory sequence that culminates in the game-ending choice: to save Jason’s friends and leave the island, or to do Citra’s bidding: to savagely kill his friends, and stay on the island with her. If players choose to murder Jason’s friends and stay with Citra, a scene plays in which the two of them have sex, then she stabs him while stating that their child will become the new leader of the tribe. I guess those mystical tribal powers of hers just immediately let her know that she’s already pregnant.

Citra is, in fact, pretty much the stereotype of “Sinister Seductress”. So in order to get to “exotic fantasy”, she has to do more than that. And she tries:

On one hand, Citra is yet another example of a female character whose sexuality is presented as a motivator and reward for the presumed straight male player. But there’s something more insidious happening with Citra: Her body paint and magical powers which suggest she practices some sort of tribal mysticism, which also root her in a longstanding tradition of racist stereotypes. These elements of sexism and racism intersect, turning Citra into a stereotype of an exotic, primitive, mystical, savage, sexualized woman of color.

But all she’s doing here is linking the character to the stereotypes. She isn’t in any way establishing that we are supposed to see her as being more attractive because she’s “tribal”, just that we are supposed to find her attractive and she is stereotypically tribal. For Sarkeesian’s point to work, it can’t merely be the case that we have a black woman who happens to be sexually attractive and portrayed that way, but has to be the case that the attraction comes from their race and/or stereotypical presentation of their race and racial traits. And since Sarkeesian can’t do that, she’s hoping that simply pointing out that “intersection” will be enough. And it’s not.

This follows on from her other examples. She talks about an alternate costume in the Resident Evil games that is definitely fetishy … after talking about how all of the alternative outfits for the women in those games are fetishy. She also talks about the sexy stereotypical presentation of a character in Street Fighter … which is a game where all presentations are stereotypical and where she has commented that many of the female models are inappropriately sexualized. The examples don’t establish that the characters are being sexualized because of their race or the racial stereotypes because they are being presented in the same way as all characters are. Thus, all she has to complain about are the stereotypes, but if she just wanted to talk about that, she could, instead of trying to stuff that justification into a potentially related but in reality quite different topic.

The problem with this becomes clear as she discusses Diablo III:

In Diablo 3, there are six–soon to be seven–classes to choose from, but only one of them is represented by Black characters–the witch doctor. Employing just about every visual stereotype about tribal warriors in the book: elaborate piercings, skull masks and body paint, and carrying voodoo dolls and shrunken heads as items of power, the witch doctor is a caricature of tribal identity rooted in centuries-old racist imagery that has no place being perpetuated in the 21st century.

So, given the nature of the game, all of the characters are very stereotypical — or even archetypical — representations of their classes, as far as I can tell (I haven’t played any of the Diablo games). Given the sitting, a Witch Doctor/Shaman class seems like a good fit, and a way to provide a different style of gameplay or even of presentation in a way that everyone will get. Given that, that they’d load up on the visual stereotypes makes sense, and fits in with how the other classes are presented (they load up on the stereotypes for the others, too). So, given that they wanted to add that sort of class, would Sarkeesian have preferred that the character not be black? Would that have helped? Or is it more that Sarkeesian simply doesn’t want to see that sort of character in a game at all, whether it is black or not?

I suspect the latter, given how Sarkeesian ends with examples of non-stereotypical uses of other cultures, and ends with this:

This kind of respectful treatment of cultural history and traditions should be the norm, but instead games more often just plunder marginalized cultures with no sense of respect and no concern whatsoever about accurately reflecting the people and traditions they’re appropriating from. To put it simply, it’s not okay for games to reduce these cultures to stereotypical costumes and personality traits in an effort to add a bit of exotic flair to their worlds. It should not be too much to ask for and expect representations of people of color whose cultural backgrounds are acknowledged and woven into their characters in ways that are thoughtful, validating, and humanizing.

And so, at this point, it’s worth looking at how a lot of games tend to use “exotic” locales and characters. See, another way of looking at “exotic”, as I’ve highlighted above, is simply as “different”. A lot of games don’t delve into their settings much at all, using them as backdrops to the action and drawing on some shallow elements of them to drive things forward. This holds even for Western games in Western cultures. However, for various reasons a particular game might not want to use the typical settings of, say, a standard Western city, but instead might want to try something different, to at least give the player something new to look at. They still don’t want to go into detail on the culture and cultural details, but want some different background cultural elements to mess with player expectations and want some different landmarks to players to look at. They might, for example, want to set a horror game in someplace like, say, Canada and shallowly adopt some of the Canadian myths and legends as the background for the story. And, speaking as a Canadian, I think I’m okay with that as long as they aren’t exceedingly offensive about Canadian stereotypes (and I admit that there will be games that do that for the cultures Sarkeesian is focusing on). But Sarkeesian wants — as her examples show — a deep examination of the culture, which is what the games explicitly didn’t want to do. If they get called out for being merely shallow examinations even if they aren’t egregiously offensive — and even Sarkeesian doesn’t argue that the Far Cry 3 case, for example, is egregiously offensive, just overly and overtly sexual and stereotypical — game companies will be forced into a dilemma: do they add time and money to do this deeper research and examination of the culture for a game where no one in their expected audience really cares and where they only wanted to do something different, or do they instead simply not bother including any culture that might be problematic? I expect them to pick the latter, and I’m pretty sure that them choosing that one more of the time will reduced the “representation” of minority characters in their games, which Sarkeesian also doesn’t like.

There’s nothing wrong with games that deeply explore their cultures, even if that culture is, indeed, the Western culture that we are all immersed in. But not all games are going to want to do that, and Sarkeesian needs to find a way to allow games to set themselves in different cultures without having to make a game that a) they don’t want to make and b) most of the audience doesn’t want to play at the moment. So, in this video, Sarkeesian fails to establish her stated main point, and also fails to make clear how to achieve her actual main point in the context of games in general. That seems like a double failure to me.

Tropes vs Women: Sinister Seductress

February 1, 2017

The next video of Anita Sarkeesian’s that I’d like to examine is the one on the “Sinister Seductress”. To be honest, on re-reading it to post about it it seems to me that Sarkeesian kinda mailed this one in. It bridges different topics on the matter as if they could easily be subsumed under the same topic, but doesn’t really work to do that. Sure, there’s potentially a link between using sexual elements in a disturbing way to bring horror and using a sexually seductive exterior to hide an inner horror, which you can link to female characters and particularly villains using sexuality to achieve their ends, but the main problem is that using sexuality to generate horror is quite different than using it as a tactic and plot element to show how a female villain achieves her ends, and even the horror cases rely on radically different elements in order to achieve their end. Getting from those disparate tropes to one overwhelming case is going to be tough …

With all of these character types, their femaleness or sexuality is an intrinsic part of what is intended to make them dangerous or repulsive. As a result, when male heroes defeat them, their victory is often explicitly gendered, emphasizing that the male protagonist has overcome the female threat and reasserted his dominance and control.

Of course, it’s entirely possible to have female villains who don’t reinforce the idea that female sexuality or femaleness itself is threatening or repulsive.

… unless, of course, you simply assert that the main thrust behind these disparate elements is an attempt to make femaleness or female sexuality repulsive or dangerous. Then you can do it without, well, really arguing for or understanding why these elements are used.

Let’s look at how Sarkeesian talks about the first element, in talking about Doom 3’s Vagary:

One of those new monsters was the Vagary, a monstrosity with the upper half of a naked woman and the lower half of a giant spider, who also happens to be pregnant with a demon fetus in her abdomen.

It’s no mistake that the Vagary blends female sexuality and fertility with elements designed to be unsettling or horrifying. The book The Making of Doom 3 reveals that the game’s creative team summed up the driving concept for the Vagary with the equation, “sexy + gross = creepy.” What the makers of Doom 3 may not have realized is that this equation was in no way new, original, or innovative. On the contrary, by singling out the Vagary, the only female enemy in the game, for her gender and using this to make her uniquely repulsive, the designers were participating in a very long tradition of creating female creatures who function to demonize femaleness itself.

Well, chances are that they already realized the link between sexual attraction and disgust that can be an important element in horror. If you take something that the viewer or player would normally find sexually attractive and pervert it in such a way that it is, in fact, disgusting, that can engender a specific horror reaction; one reacts stronger to the disgust than one would to something that is just merely disgusting. But the main reason for this is that it is the juxtaposition of the highly appealing and desirable sexual elements with the gross ones; normally, one would find it incredibly appealing, but not in the way it has been presented. In that sense it doesn’t serve to demonize femaleness because it relies on us, in fact, revering it. It can be argued that this works better for female sexuality than for male because in general neither men nor women find female sexuality — at least sexual presentations — inherently disgusting, but both men and women find male sexuality itself inherently disgusting and/or something to be feared. It’s only if you wouldn’t normally find, for example, naked breasts on your screen something disgusting, to be feared, or to be looked away from that your urge to look away now strikes you as particularly horrifying. Thus, it relies on female sexuality not being demonized.

And this carries on to the second category, which is the externally sexually desirable exterior hiding the monster inside. If people — men particularly — spend a lot of time and effort to try to get sex from them, it ends up changing from someone getting something wonderful to having that all utterly dashed by evil, which then feeds into the horror. However, the link between this and female sexuality in particular is a little weak. Sarkeesian lists some examples:

Among the most famous female mythological creatures are the Sirens, whose voices were irresistibly alluring to men who sailed near their island and heard their songs. But the music of the Sirens was as dangerous as it was captivating, and the sailors who were seduced by the sound soon found themselves shipwrecked and stranded. Some interpretations characterize the Sirens as cannibals who murdered the shipwrecked men and feasted on their flesh.

And there are endless other mythological creatures created explicitly to demonize women such as the succubus: a female demon who sexually lures and seduces men; the harpy: a screeching bird creature with the face of a woman; and of course the classic witch, a dangerous myth that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of real women across Europe and the American colonies in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Well, first, I’d like to point out the oddity of listing “witches” here, when later Sarkeesian again talks about how great and non-stereotypical Kreia from KotOR 2 is … despite her being old, unattractive, harsh, and someone who relies heavily on magic and, in fact, often “black” magic (Dark Side powers). Sure, she’s arguably Grey, but her powers lean more Dark Side than Light Side, as you’d expect from, well, the main villain of the piece. How is it that Kreia is non-stereotypical, while someone like Morinth from Mass Effect 2 is, and how does Kreia escape critical analysis as the main villain — and, for a long time, a party member — while Morinth, an option side character gets called out as being particularly problematic? Even when, as Shamus Young says her potential introduction is clearly a major plot point for the character you’re really supposed to recruit, recruiting her is something that almost no characters have any reason to do — good characters won’t want to recruit a psychopath over a space paladin, and evil characters have no reason to trust to want to put up with Morinth’s tendencies — and the main victim — given much empathy through dialogue with various characters — and the only one that has to be involved is a woman. Sarkeesian would have much more reason to complain about Samara’s outfit than about Morinth (which, yes, Shamus complains about as well).

Second, there are no shortage of male monsters that fulfill similar lines. For example, we have a direct link from succubi to incubi, which is the male version and works in pretty much the same way. And mixes of human and monster are often seen as, well, monstrous, and so are often used in horror. You can’t get from harpies to demonization of femaleness.

And finally, while she mentions the Sirens, she ignores the long standing ur-example of the “monster behind the incredibly attractive mask”: vampires. Despite being a self-identified Buffy the Vampire Slayer enthusiast. At any rate, the prototypical vampire is a strangely attractive man who seduces women and kills or turns them into his servants. While I’m sure that Sarkeesian can find some misogyny there, what she can’t find is demonization of female sexuality in the vampire itself. It is more reasonable to think of vampires as representing what was the worst view of male sexuality: the outwardly charming exterior that hides the demon inside that defiles the innocent women who fall for it.

Now, I’m not going to argue that vampires demonize male sexuality, because that would be a stupid argument. What I am going to argue is that the mix of sex and monsters, titillation and horror, is a long standing and effective on in horror, that has nothing to do with demonizing sexuality. Like the first case, it relies on sexuality being desirable to be the bait in the trap, and the horror often comes from the conflicting feelings of attraction and fear. There’s a reason why a lot of vampire seduction scenes are, in fact, so seductive.

So, we have to turn then to the final category and the one that is most related to the title of the video: female villains that use their sexuality to their advantage in order to get what they want:

This tradition of sexualized, evil women in the temptress mold includes characters ranging from the Dark Queen of the Battletoads games to Elizebet from Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2. In Hitman: Absolution, if players track the target, Layla, to a secret room in the penthouse, she strips for Agent 47 in an attempt to distract him before drawing a gun and trying to kill him.

The problem with these representations is not that they depict female characters who are sexual. It’s the way that sexuality is presented, as a threat or a weapon rather than as something to be enjoyed by these women and those they choose to consensually share it with. It’s a false notion of female sexuality rooted in ancient misogynistic ideas about women as deceptive and evil.

Um, except that these women are aware that they are attractive, are aware that they can use that to get what they want, and are not averse to using it to get what they want. Morinth is a bad example because she wasn’t a psychopath just using sex to get what she wanted — killing people — but instead was someone who needed to feed on people. She’s definitely more in the “vampire” camp than the “vamp” camp. But all of these women villains are, in fact, comfortable with their sex and sexuality, so much so that they are willing to use it to their advantage whenever it would do so. The standard criticism of this dynamic is actually the opposite, that it presents the world as “bad girls” are comfortable with — and enjoy — their sexuality in any way they can while “good girls” save it for marriage or for “the right man”. But these “bad girls” in fact treat their sexuality more the way Sarkeesian would want them to, despite her protests otherwise.

Once again, Sarkeesian misunderstands the tropes she is criticizing, to the point of criticizing one trope for the things that she ought to like instead of the things she ought not to like. Given this, it is unlikely that she could change these tropes to something that would maintain the purpose of the tropes and thus the unique elements they provide while removing the things that she finds problematic, because she finds the use of any aspect of the trope itself problematic, not the problematic elements themselves. But these tropes exist and are popular for reasons, and I am not convinced that the reasons Sarkeesian asserts for their popularity are the right ones, to say the least.

Tropes vs Women: All the Slender Ladies

January 25, 2017

After a few months off because I was really busy, let me return to my discussions of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs Women” series. In this one, Sarkeesian takes on body diversity and laments that it seems that there are a variety of male body types represented but that the women are all slender and arguably traditionally attractive.

Now, I’m not going to argue against body diversity. I really like the fact that when creating a character you can create using a wide variety of body types, faces, costumes, and so on and so forth. This was one of the best things about “City of Heroes”, as allowing that allowed for various superheroes and superheroines, with various powers and backstories, and even allowed you to emulate more heroes that you would otherwise. So while I’m not going to agree with Sarkeesian’s standard tough line about it all being so that they can be sexually appealing to straight male players, I think that having the choice of a wide variety of body types is good, whether that be for your male, female, or invited transgender species characters.

So there might not be much to talk about … oh:

When female characters’ bodies are liberated from the need to uphold narrow, limiting cultural beauty standards, the resulting range of representations can not only make games themselves more interesting; it can encourage us to see all women as the desirable, autonomous, fully human individuals that we are.

So this is about more than just allowing people to build their characters as they see fit, and in some sense being able to see people like themselves in games. We’re supposed to see women of all body types as desirable. This means that we aren’t going to give people the choice when building their characters, but are instead going to create characters with those body types and put them in those roles regardless of what the player — or society — really thinks someone in that role should be like.

To highlight the potential problem with this, let’s look at her examples of male body diversity. Specifically, let’s look at Street Fighter:

In Ultra Street Fighter IV, characters such as Dhalsim, Hakan, E. Honda, Rufus and Vega represent a significant range of male body types.

Except … these were pretty much all cultural or racial stereotypes. E. Honda is heavy because he’s the stereotypical sumo wrestler. Dhalsim, down to his powers, is a stereotype of India, and likely Hindu mysticism. Vega is a stereotypical Spaniard. Arguing that these represent a good example of a range of male body types is a rather odd argument to make since they are only that way because of racial stereotypes.

Which is a point that Sarkeesian misses. While she argues that male body diversity exists to allow male characters to show off their personalities, the problem is that it’s usually the other way around: the developers pick a personality and then pick a body type to emphasize that purported personality. This is usually based around a stereotypical idea of what body types go with those personalities. More importantly, this is often used to mock those body types and personalities, or to take a stereotypical idea of them in culture to do the emotional work for the writers … which is exactly the sort of thing she criticizes the character Jo Slade for doing.

Additionally, this reveals something that you can do for women that you can’t do as easily for men. The reason that they change the body types for men is that it’s harder — though not impossible — to represent differing personalities in any other way for men. For women, a lot of the visual difference in personality comes down strictly to clothing and hairstyle, but for men clothing doesn’t vary that much, and so it’s a lot harder to indicate personality that way. So it’s not unreasonable for them to stick with the same rough body type that most people find attractive in some way for women and use varying styles to reflect varying personality types. Note that in games that do rely heavily on costume and style to differentiate the personalities of male characters — the Persona games, for example — the body types don’t vary that much.

At any rate, in order to treat female characters the same as male characters here means treating female characters as stereotypically as male characters are treated. It’s interesting to note, then, that one of Sarkeesian’s examples here is of Kreia, who is presented in personality and appearance as a stereotypical witch. Note that we can contrast that with another Bioware character that fills the same “mentor” role — Wynne from Dragon Age — and note that that stereotype is not used. Flemeth and Morrigan are the witches … and don’t conform to the stereotype in appearance (Morrigan rather, ahem, visibly so). Again, Sarkeesian’s analysis seems to be based on shallow personal preference rather than real, detailed analysis, since she doesn’t mention Wynne at all and talks about how great Kreia is in multiple videos.

So, Sarkeesian is certainly not going to want women of differing body types presented as simple stereotypes nor as objects of ridicule. In order to have them be seen as, for example, desirable, she’s not going to want to give characters the option to skip them, either as playable characters or as romance options. If she goes as far as she usually wants to, this would mean creating, say, heavy women as the main character or as the main — if not only — romance option. This clashes with player choice. How many players really want to play as a heavier character? Do even heavier players, in fact, really want to play as a heavier character? Or would they rather play as someone who is at least more conventionally attractive than they are? If games are power fantasy — as so many of those criticizing games suggest — then even the audience Sarkeesian would want to appeal to here might not actually want to be forced into that role. Ironically, it might be the traditional straight male audience that might find that option surprisingly refreshing.

And the romance option becomes more problematic, because it might run into the issue that the player is forced into romancing an option that neither they nor their character would find appealing. We’ve already run into this in RPGs, which is one reason for the increasing diversity of romance options. But even doing that has its issues. If you don’t match the body type to its “stereotype” (personality), the character might be off-putting. If you do, then that’s stereotyping and not what Sarkeesian ought to want. It also runs the risk of a problem experienced with Samantha Traynor from Mass Effect 3, where male players found her the most appealing option — and, in some cases, the only appealing option — but couldn’t romance her because she was same-sex only (in my case, my Shepard was a lesbian female and so didn’t have that problem). The best way to do what Sarkeesian wants is to give the least physically attractive characters the most appealing personalities, but this could leave players with no reasonable romance option … an issue that happened to me a couple of times in “The Old Republic”. While this sometimes can’t be avoided, it hurts the game and the game playing experience if it happens. Since romance options are almost always determined by a combination of physical attractiveness and personality — like real-life romance options — this approach would make that more likely to occur.

At the end of the day, in general more player choice is good and less is bad. Sarkeesian’s attempt to insert Social Justice goals into games, however, works against player choice, or else all her desired gains vanish as most people holding the views she wants to change simply ignore all of the content … unless she forces it on them. But then it might ruin the experience even for those people she wants to help with her changes. I’m not sure a clearer example of Social Justice vs Games can be found.

Tropes vs Women: Are Women Too Hard To Animate?

September 9, 2016

So, the not-quite-latest video in the Tropes vs Women series is Are Women Too Hard To Animate? Female Combatants. It starts off by looking at the controversy over “Assassin’s Creed Unity” where Ubisoft claimed that they couldn’t add playable female characters to the multiplayer portion of the game because doing the animations and models would be too expensive. Sarkeesian notes this about it:

A number of experienced game developers joined the chorus of voices calling out the absurdity of Ubisoft’s claims. Animator Jonathan Cooper, who had previously worked on Assassin’s Creed III for Ubisoft, tweeted, “I would estimate this to be a day or two’s work. Not a replacement of 8000 animations.” And Manveer Heir of Bioware summed up what Ubisoft was actually saying: “We don’t really care to put the effort in to make a woman assassin.”

This … is pretty much the extent of her research into what it would take to do. She references another case, that of Far Cry 4:

Ubisoft’s disregard for female character options didn’t stop with Unity. Also at E3 2014, the director of Far Cry 4 admitted to a similar issue with that game’s online co-op mode, saying, “We were inches away from having you be able to select a girl or a guy as your co-op buddy.” Again, the excuse for why this option wasn’t available was that it would just be too much work. And yet again, what they were really saying was that they just couldn’t be bothered to do the work it would have taken to provide that option.

The thing is … Anita Sarkeesian, whether you think she deserves it or not, has a name presence in games at the moment, which comes from having made Time’s 100 most influential people list. If she actually wanted to answer the question that she titles the video with, she could easily have contacted Ubisoft and asked them to explain just what it was that would make it be so much work or be so expensive. Given her name recognition, they’d be far more likely to accommodate her than they would be most other people. And yet it seems that Sarkeesian is uninterested in doing the research to find out what was really the case, instead pretty much implying that it wouldn’t have been that hard and that they couldn’t be bothered to do the work. Which is indeed technically true, but obviously it would be more reasonable for them to take that position if it would require re-doing 8000 animations than it would be if it was only a day or two of work.

Now, I’m not an expert by any means, but I have read a fair bit around the issue and I work in software design, so I’m going to take a stab at thinking out what might have happened here, without insisting that anyone is lying. In software, there are usually multiple ways to do something. Some of them are faster but don’t work as well — or don’t cover as many cases — and some take longer but really work. I’d imagine that Cooper’s solution is simply to re-do the skins and re-use all of the existing animations. And this can indeed work. But the risk you take is that if you take detailed motion captures of men and then put female skins on them you’ll end up with female characters that, well, move like men. This can run into a number of issues, from it resulting in characters that no female would want to play to interaction issues as the skin is based on, say, a bigger or differently shaped frame and so it might mess up hit boxes and the like.

Now, if something really will only take one or two days to do but you aren’t sure if it will work, in software the usual practice is to prototype it: implement a quick and dirty version of it and hand it over the testers to see how it works. So it’s quite possible that they actually tried Cooper’s idea and noted that, yes indeed, it looked stupid and didn’t work. Then, left with only the longer option that would take too much work and time for the effort, they decided to not include the option of female characters in multiplayer.

Now, I can’t say for certain that this is what happened. But that they felt the need to mention it at all suggests that they were considering it — and knew that they’d get some push back on not including it. Given that, it’s not all that likely that it would have only taken them a couple of days to do that and yet they still decided not to.

However, this is mostly an aside — despite it being pretty much the title of the video — because the real question here is spawned by Sarkeesian’s conclusion. She says that they couldn’t be bothered to do it, and the question is: Should they be?

Now, up until now what Sarkeesian has been advocating for are things that don’t inherently or necessarily increase the actual costs of a game, and thus don’t inherently impact the profits of the game. Sure, there might be extra work to create female protagonists or to avoid the damsel in distress plot, but for it’s not necessarily the case. Most RPGs, for example, only need to do different skins for the characters to add female protagonists, which is why RPGs have constantly and consistently done that for ages now. So the only risk to the profits of the company are that some players may not buy a game that has a female protagonist or uses a different story. But here we have a case where, indeed, the claim is that it will cost significantly more to add female characters to the game. So while in the previous cases getting more sales by appealing to female gamers would be a nice boost and a reason to maybe give it a shot, here, those extra sales would be required to avoid taking a loss on that specific feature.

This actually hurts the companies that are more likely to want to appeal to new audiences — including the female audience — in order to expand their profile: indie games. Shamus Young recently created a new game called “Good Robot” with Pyrodactyl, and as it turns out it didn’t make as much money as expected. From the comments in that linked post, it seems that this has put the company on a far more shaky financial position than Arvind — the guy who runs it — is comfortable with. So, a company like Pyrodactyl might, indeed, want to try to increase their audience by appealing to female gamers. But, as outlined in the post, every feature that takes time both delays time to market — which can be critical — and the cost of the product, which directly impacts profits. So they assess every feature to see if the effort to implement it will increase sales enough to increase their profits. Thus, the question to ask is: does it actually do that?

I talked about FIFA 16 in another post, as a game that deliberately added female players. What has happened to its sales since the introduction of female players? Well, FIFA 2015, up until this point, has sales of almost 19 million units. FIFA 16 has sales of about 16 million units. While FIFA 15 has had another year to make sales, that doesn’t look like a huge boost in sales. Also, in at least the UK — a very big and important market for soccer — sales were down in the first week. So it doesn’t look like adding female players to the game added to its sales.

So, pretty much every company is going to — quite reasonably — be wary of taking the time to add female characters if they aren’t likely to see increased sales because of it. If Sarkeesian et al can’t appeal to the idea that it will increase profits to add female characters, then all they have to fall back on is the Social Justice argument: game companies need to be fair and need to promote the Social Justice issues that they think are important. But doing so might reduce their profits, and might actually drive indie studios and even studios in big companies out of business. Are they to be required to drive themselves out of business to satisfy an agenda that is not theirs?

This only gets worse if attempting to address those issues can be a no-win situation. The rest of Sarkeesian’s video discusses whether or not they should include female combatants. The reason she has to address it is that it is a feminist question of whether including them is perpetrating and promoting violence against women or not. Sarkeesian argues that it isn’t as long as they are not sexualized and are capable of fighting back, but the issue here is that a company that tries to address feminist issues risks getting it wrong no matter what they do, as some feminists deride them for not having women combatants in the game, and some deride them for having women combatants in the game, which might mean that they don’t even pick up the limited gains they hoped to see by attempting to address those issues.

Assuming that anyone even pays attention to their attempts. Sarkeesian has been better at highlighting games that do things reasonably lately, but it is still the case that games get far more attention for doing it wrong than for doing it right.

So, should gaming companies put in the extra effort to allow female characters if their framework doesn’t really support it? From a strict profit and loss standpoint, they probably shouldn’t. As a long-time RPG player, I really do want to see the choice … but I’d understand if they don’t want to, and instead want to play it safe. The video games industry is too tight right now to afford to guess at what might benefit, and female characters don’t seem to be a benefit.