Posts Tagged ‘Social Justice vs Games’

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.

Social Justice vs Games: Another Persona 5 Review

May 3, 2017

So, via the same thread that I talked about last week comes a review at Zam of Persona 5 by Kris Ligman that explicitly hits similar themes and aims at Social Justice ideas. Don’t believe me? Here’s the explicit quote from the review:

But suppose you are the kind of person who calls strangers on the internet “SJW cuck” and you don’t care whether a girl’s rape is referred to as such in a major game from a major publisher.

So, definitely, many of the negatives the reviewer has are informed by a push for Social Justice. Her main criticism of the localization is what she says above, which I’ll get into later, but she also hits a few more of these themes both in terms of what she finds positive about the game and what she finds negative about the game:

The criticisms printed above are nothing compared to the whole laundry list of issues I have with Persona 5. I didn’t even mention the trans woman who, though better than 99% of Atlus’s transgender representation, still gets called a drag queen. Or the sheer number of adult women in this game who seem ready to hop into bed with a 16-year-old. Or that you still can’t date your best friend, even though Ryuji is clearly just as in love with you as Yosuke was in Persona 4.

But I’ll spare you, because at the end of the day, it serves no one any good to only emphasize a game’s negatives. Inasmuch as Persona 5 can be cloyingly childish and it earned its biggest laugh from me during an inadvertent “clap for Tinkerbell” moment, there was a lot I really connected with in this game. Futaba and Makoto are two of the most relatable characters I’ve ever encountered. The “Confidant” social link with Yoshida, a downtrodden former politician whose speeches will remind you more than a little of the Democratic primaries, was another highlight. Persona 5 tackles social inequality much more directly than past entries in the series, and there are a few optional quests where you (say) get to take down somebody’s abusive boss or a controlling ex-boyfriend. It’s undeniably cathartic. And oh man, when you get to the dungeon critiquing the Japanese legal system, the game just shines.

A lot of her positives and negatives, here, are things that will appeal to you or bother you if you have a certain mindset. I have no issue with you not being able to have a gay relationship here, and don’t see it as a huge negative, especially since doing that can potentially open up a can of worms and make things more complicated. It wouldn’t offend me if it was available, but I’d rather be able to choose a female protagonist over that. Yoshida didn’t strike me as interesting in my first play through, and linking him to Bernie Sanders isn’t likely to do that as well. And the others are obviously even more attached to your own personal viewpoints. While I appreciate a reviewer giving their own opinions on things, there is a strong undercurrent of “These are problems with the game and story!” rather than “This is what didn’t really work for me!”.

But, as with Solid Snake, we again hit an issue of someone who is criticizing the game primarily for its Social Justice problems and claiming to have played and enjoyed previous games seems utterly unaware of what the previous games in the series actually did. She complains about the how short the dungeons seem:

As a result, Persona 5’s dungeon exploration differs in two fundamental ways from past Persona games: 1) each dungeon has its own distinct feel and internal logic; 2) almost all of the dungeons feel way too short. Party members exacerbate the problem, always urging the player to complete a dungeon as quickly as possible, despite the fact that the plot won’t advance till a deadline has passed on the in-game calendar — leaving the player with often huge “doldrums” periods in which there is little to do but go to school, work, and develop friendships with such colorful residents as Hot Dad Who Runs An Airsoft Gun Shop and Anime Bernie Sanders. While past games also had downtimes like these, the sense of urgency isn’t quite the same as it is here, nor does the story’s tension feel needlessly overextended the way Persona 5’s does

The “distinct feel” idea originated in Persona 4, where the dungeons, while still procedurally generated, where themed to the person who generated them. So the big difference is that Persona 5’s dungeons have a static format — which allows for more set puzzles — while Persona 4’s wasn’t. As much, actually, because Persona 4 itself had a number of puzzle floors with a static layout. So what Persona 5 really did was split those sorts of things off from the randomly generated floors, relying on set and puzzle-heavy dungeons for the story and putting the random generation in Mementos, which despite her claims isn’t really optional if you want to do anything in the game (including getting the true ending).

But it’s that comment about the “sense of urgency” that really misses the mark, because while that’s true for Persona 3, the sense of urgency was worse in Persona 4. There, the party members were pretty much just as pushy to get you to go into the TV, and also about as pushy as your teammates were in Persona 3 (it’s done primarily through pop-up events or messages at the times when you can go into the dungeons). Arguably, Persona 5’s system is less intrusive because it comes in the form of text messages on your cell phone that you can completely ignore if, say, you want to instead do an S-link. And while in Persona 5 you knew exactly how long you have to finish the dungeon, in Persona 4 all you had was “When it rains for a couple of days and we get fog, you’ll be out of time”. In Persona 5, your biggest worry is going to be how far in you are and if you are going to be able to push through the rest of the dungeon in time, which was also there in Persona 4 … and Persona 5 actually lets you talk to Morgana and find out about how far along you are in the dungeons, which was mostly missing in Persona 4. And on top of all of that, in Persona 4 the stakes were always at least arguably higher. You are constantly reminded that someone specific is going to die if you don’t complete the dungeon in time, and in a lot of cases the person in there is someone you know and care about. I dare anyone to not feel like they really need to rescue Nanako instead of working on S-links in her dungeon, for example. So the pressure to complete things quickly, contrary to Ligman’s assertions, is less in Persona 5 than in Persona 4. And objectively so (although your mileage may vary wrt to the last one).

But why she finds this problematic also reveals an inability to understand why many people actually love the Persona games. She describes the downtime between the dungeons as the “doldrums” where there is “little to do but go to school, work, and develop friendships with such colorful residents as Hot Dad Who Runs An Airsoft Gun Shop and Anime Bernie Sanders.” Or, you know, do the S-links. And the S-links are the gameplay mechanism that is arguably the modern Persona series’ most unique feature and what catapulted it into the position that is has in the JPRG world. There are, therefore, going to be a number of people who will feel that the dungeons are too long, and take up too much time that could be spent pursuing those S-links, building abilities, and exploring the outside world. I would, in fact, happen to be one of them. And Persona 5, in addition to the normal S-links aligning to the Arcana, has even more things to do than any of the other Persona games. Even in the S-links, you can go to other places and have unique scenes, often involving characters from other S-links. You can watch movies, rent DVDs, play video games, make coffee, make curry, wash things you get from the dungeons, hang out in the batting cage, work at a number of places, take a bath, and read books. One of my main issues is that there are far too many things that you can do, so that in one playthrough you aren’t even going to get close to doing everything you want to do. I didn’t even manage to max out the S-link of even one of my teammates, and only managed to get relationships with three of the four older women … and those were the only S-links I maxed out. I actually really want to replay the game again to at least get Makoto’s relationship, if not Futaba’s, and to max out Shojiro’s. There are entire S-links that I didn’t even start because I didn’t have the time that I really would like to see.

“Doldrums” indeed.

The odd thing is that she does acknowledge this later in the review:

For some, that’s fine. Like the day-to-day school and social life stuff that has become the hallmark of the series, sometimes the monotony is the point. If all you’re after is another Persona game, but more, this will scratch that exact itch.

While most people who really like those things won’t call it “monotony”, I’m not sure that it should be a surprise in any way that a large number of people really, really interested in a Persona game would be interested in the S-links. You know, the thing that the series is probably most known for (alongside interestingly tactical RPG fights)?

Look, I get it. She doesn’t care for those elements. Fine. But to list the prominence of those elements in a continuation of a series known for those elements as a negative isn’t what you want to push in a full review. Most of the existing audience will think it a plus, in general, and even those who are new to the series would want more of a description of how it actually works than a mere comment that the reviewer, personally, finds it boring.

But it seems to me that her big complaint is almost certainly the Social Justice angle — or lack thereof — than anything else:

But sometimes, “the same but more” just doesn’t satisfy. Atlus promised Persona 5 would be a return to the “dark” roots of the series, and while it’s definitely darker than Persona 4, what I played was a mish-mash of dissonant ideas plagued by awkward and inconsistent localization, hedging itself where it should go all in. A rape isn’t called a rape. Anonymous message board commenters can say “****,” but principal character Ryuji has to console himself with “eff.” Gay relationships with party members are still verboten, but a gay male NPC sexually harassing a teenager, that’s perfectly palatable, I guess. The game calls out the social inequalities screwing over an entire generation, and then says the solution is, what, positive thinking? Better civic engagement? I would call it a compromised vision, but compromised with whom, exactly?

She seemed to want it to align more with what she wanted than with what the series is about and is known for. That’s okay as just an opinion, but despite her somewhat denying that in the comments, her “No” here isn’t just about things like the length and the issues with Persona negotiation — both of which I agree with — and how that might impact older and more casual gamers (like me) but is instead a comment that she thinks the game is bad, or at least has some really bad elements, especially the story. That’s not a mere “I don’t like it” or “I wish they had done it differently”, but outright and full-on criticism.

So, let’s look at her biggest Social Justice issue: that they refer to Shiho’s situation as “sexual harassment” rather than as “rape”:

Remember what I said about the game’s first chapter, where a girl is raped and subsequently so traumatized she tries to kill herself? Persona 5 refers to this as “sexual harassment.” Not as “rape.” Not as the more nebulous “sexual abuse,” additionally confusing seeing as this chapter doesn’t shy away from calling out physical abuse. Just “sexual harassment,” as if the script were suggesting she was catcalled to death. This may be a literal translation of the Japanese portmanteau used, “seku-hara,” but using “harassment” in the localization when it is made abundantly clear the character was raped (“You took everything from her!” party member Ann screams) downplays the seriousness of the entire scene.

Worse, it doubles down on the cowardice of the original script, rather than seizing upon the opportunity to clarify and deliver maximum impact for the English-speaking player. Localization isn’t just about 1:1 translation; it’s about ensuring stories make sense for the intended audience. If it was “just” sexual harassment, and the guy who did this was Unequivocally Evil for doing so, then why are all the gross moments that come after it — the lewd comments Ryuji lobs at Ann, Yusuke’s stalking, the two camp gay men entreating the protagonist to strip, to name a few — just harmless fun? Where is the consistency there?

So, let’s look at what happened, shall we? (Yes, there are spoilers coming up).

The teacher, Kamoshida, was pursuing sex with Ann, saying that he would keep Shiho as a starter on the volleyball team if Ann did things for him, with the ultimate goal being that she would have sex with him. He was pushing her to come to his home after school for what Ann is certain is an attempt to have sex with her, and one that she was fairly certain that she would give in to his demands until she met with the protagonist, which gave her the strength to say no. After that, out of revenge, Kamoshida calls Shiho to his office and it’s strongly implied that they had sex. After that, Shiho attempts to commit suicide.

So, let’s look at what likely happened there. Since Shiho was so emotionally vulnerable that she felt like the only thing she had that she was good at was the volleyball team, and since we know that Kamoshida knew that because he was using that as a basis to get Ann to do things, it isn’t likely that Kamoshida grabbed Shiho and forced himself upon her. What he likely did was make the threat to her directly that he had been making to Ann: have sex with him or she was going to be off the team. And thus it is likely that she then “agreed” to have sex with him on that basis, and that one of the main drivers for her attempted suicide was the conflict and self-loathing Shiho had over giving in to his demands, but feeling that she had nothing else but the volleyball team, leaving her in a position where she had to do something that degraded her in order to keep the one thing that gave her any self-esteem at all. And Shiho’s weak self-esteem could not survive or support either option.

But if we look at that, what we actually have is classic “quid pro quo” sexual harassment. There are only two ways to call it “rape” instead. The first is to call it “statutory rape”, which both gets us into issues of what the actual age of consent is and would minimize it since some of those cases are cases where the person legitimately agrees but is being taken advantage of. That’s not what’s happening here. The second way is to use the strict “She didn’t consent” line and note that, well, she didn’t because of the blackmail, which is an interpretation that could actually minimize it, with an idea that she didn’t “technically” consent so it’s rape. Ligman almost certainly prefers the last interpretation, but it isn’t clear that doing it that way is better than calling it sexual harassment.

Especially since her claim about how calling it that diminishes the impact is flat-out false. In a news report — which is where I think that most comes up — doing that might diminish the impact because how it is phrased is all we get, and so, yes, you could see it as something similar to the juvenile antics of some of the team towards Ann. But that’s not all we get. We get all of the details. We know exactly what happened and exactly why what he did to them — and to the other female students — wasn’t the same sort of thing, and was so much worse. By the time it gets called out as “sexual harassment”, we already know the details and have already formed our opinion of it … and Kamoshida. The translation here, therefore, is utterly irrelevant to the impact the events have on us. The impact has already happened; it is too late for the nitpickers over language to vote.

So the issue with calling that out as a major failing is that it invalidly puts too much pressure on calling something the right thing, where “the right thing” is in line with precisely how she wants it to be called. It ignores the context of the scene, the potential gray area in what happened, and the fact that the impact of the events is felt completely separately from the context in which the phrase appears to argue that they aren’t taking it seriously enough. So an excellent presentation that highlights how bad that was that receives callbacks throughout the entire game isn’t enough to get us to take it seriously if they don’t call it rape. Sure.

At the end of the day, this review is the reviewer being bugged by some things in the game that others might really like, not care about, or that is just her opinion and saying that the game is, at least in part, bad because of it. Well, I don’t care for a lot of the aspects of the dungeons, but I have to admit that if you like that sort of thing Persona 5 does them really well, and won’t claim it’s a bad game just because of that. Perhaps she can work on reviewing a game using more than just her own personal perspective, especially when she is supposedly writing for an audience that includes me and yet I couldn’t disagree with her more about her description of the game. No, this review is not aimed at an older audience, someone with a job and a family and not much free time (although the comments on length do resonate with me a bit with that). It’s aimed at someone like that who has strong Social Justice leanings and finds the S-links and “slice of life” aspects that the Persona series is known for boring. So if you are one of those people, you might find something of interest in the review. Otherwise, it’s not going to tell you what you want or need to know about Persona 5.

Social Justice vs Games: Ann Takamaki

April 28, 2017

So, let me finish with “Solid Snake’s” thesis: that Ann Takamaki’s presentation in the game represents the height of misogyny. Spoilers ahead!

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Social Justice vs Games: Persona as Wish-Fulfillment

April 26, 2017

So, continuing on from last time, “Solid Snake” talks in these two posts talks about the “agenda” of the Persona games:

Oh, the game is absolutely pushing an ‘agenda’ and that agenda is wish fulfillment fantasy for its presumed audience with a side helping of completely eroding the agency and independence of NPCs to ensure the wish fulfillment fantasy ‘succeeds.’ My objection is twofold: Atlus ignores the wishes of everyone outside the confines of its presumed target audience, and even then, Atlus misconstrues what its target audience actually wants. Either that or it’s pandering to a subset of immature boys it really shouldn’t bother pandering to; take your pick on the latter.

Now, you can argue that Atlus’ agenda here is harmless (I’d disagree), but it’s certainly the clear intent of three Persona titles and counting now to put the gamer in the shoes of a protagonist who, through some kind of combination of sheer willpower, the mechanics of the game world and the exigencies of the heroic narrative, lives some hyper-idealized life where all his desires (perfect grades, perfect relationships, perfect friends, even the existence of antagonists is necessary to provide heroic purpose) are within reach and require minimal effort or investment to achieve.

Huh? It might surprise him that I, personally, have never completed all of the S-links in any Persona game. I don’t even get all of the relationships with the women. This is because getting everything is flipping hard unless you follow a guide. To be the most efficient you can be in the game, you have enter the dungeons on the right days, meet with people on the right days, fuse Personas at the right time, grind the right way, bring the right Personas to the right meetings, say the right things at those meetings and increase your abilities in the right way and at the right time. Otherwise, you won’t be able to max out all of the S-links. This all takes an exceptional amount of effort that I can never be bothered to do. And this is despite the fact that, for example, I very much like Naoto as a character but she starts so late that you have to be perfect to actually finish her S-link, which I often fail to do. And I’ve never managed to finish Aegis’ S-link in Persona 3 FES.

So what the Persona series lets me do — and why, in fact, I like it — is not do everything, but instead to do only the things I want to do. There are entire S-links that I ignore because I don’t care for the characters and none of my characters would like to interact with (Hidetoshi from Persona 3, and the Gourmet King from Persona 4). And this all comes from the fact that the investment and effort to pursue S-links is not minimal, but is in fact significant. This carries over to Persona 5, as one S-link requires a significant outlay of money and I’m always cash-strapped. So you do what you want to do, and often have to choose between two S-links and hope that you can still finish the other one.

And even on NG+, where you have to grind less, have more money, and have likely maxed out your abilities, you still often have to choose which S-links to focus on unless you want to play by the guide. Which isn’t much fun.

He then talks about the relationships being shallow:

Furthermore, the very mechanics of the game that you laud are utilized to reinforce all these really nasty story themes. They’re not minor blips, as Arcanum alleges — they’re ingrained into the fabric of the game itself. Take for example your Social Stats — Knowledge, Charm, Proficiency, Guts and Kindness. The game encourages you to invest time into activities that presumably raise these stats, and raising the stats on their own unlocks additional relational content with the ladies. Hell, even Bioware for all its faults attempts to write their supporting cast in such a way that they’re not merely gatekeepers demanding you gain X points in Y attributes — and then immediately falling head over heels for you once you’ve pasted the litmus test. The game’s mechanics support and attempt to rationalize the idiotic Nice Guy fallacy that women are objects whose affections can be ‘earned’ through correct behaviors or responses.

Real relationships are about chemistry and attraction and they’re complex and truly character-driven; driven by our faults, our flaws, our needs and wants, our hopes and dreams. We converse to know each other better, not just to soothingly whisper empty platitudes at each other. Go back and watch any of the Social Link scenes with the Protagonist and notice what the ‘correct’ answers sound like. Every romantic scene with a love interest boils down to women attempting a real conversation with the Protagonist and the ‘correct response’ boiling down to the Protagonist simply saying some iteration of “Believe in Yourself” and that, combined with his Stats, apparently justifies a degree of affection that’s downright irrational and harmful to the women the Protagonist is presumably helping.

And later, in the second comment:

I don’t have a problem with the game tying stat progression to actions, I have a problem with the game tying stat progression with an assumption of deepening intimacy with people. It’s a problem with guys too, insofar as it’s just as clunky and nonsensical when applied to the boys, but because there’s no SJ issues there insofar as I’m unconcerned with how Atlus chooses to portray platonic relationships among men. The issues I have with Atlus and sexism is how the Persona series portray romantic relationships, so it’s patently obvious that I’m criticizing the system from that comparatively narrow perspective.

The thing is that all of the things that he’s complaining about are gameplay abstractions of you deepening intimacy. The conversation choices you make can increase their feelings towards you, but you have to choose the options that make sense for them. It has often been the case in the Persona games that giving the empty platitude isn’t the option that they approve of. Sometimes, you need to kick them in the butt. Sometimes, you need to leave them do things themselves. Sometimes you need to help. And all of this is wrapped around a mechanism where if you are willing to be inefficient you can answer how you would answer and they, well, don’t like it much. What this means is that you actually have to spend more time with them to win them over, which involves arguably getting to know them better and what they want.

Even the fact that you get bonuses to affection for bringing the right Persona fit into this, as a Persona is a part of you and a part of your personality, and so if you have that Persona inside you you are better able to relate to them, because that’s who they are.

As for the stats, it seems odd to gripe about agency and about the women being more than mere objects and yet ignore that they would have certain things they like. Makoto, for example, is originally “gatekept” by intelligence: you have to be smart — or at least knowledgeable — enough. But she constantly, as the Student Council President, harangues the team to study and keep their grades up, and is very disappointed when Ryuji absolutely can’t. How likely is it that someone like that would want to spend time with someone when her first instinct would be to tell them to study more? And “Solid Snake” scoffs at what might well be a personality trait:

Technicality: You need either Rank 2 or 3 Knowledge (I forget which) very early on with Makoto’s link. I forget which one, but it’s a threshold before the Charm one that applies because she’s smart and likes smart people, I guess.

Yes, because it’s definitely unheard of to think that someone smart might, you know, prefer someone smarter, too, or see that they don’t have much in common with someone who isn’t as smart as she is, or at least doesn’t seem to be at all interested in academics, which she, at least, has been taught is important for all her life. Makoto is the Mitsuru ex-pat here — but not as interesting a character — and being good academically is important to her, and thus in a person that she’d fall in love with.

For the most part, the attribute restrictions are always used to either say something about the person or about the protagonist. Either you have to be intelligent or charming or skilled or whatever enough for them to find you interesting, or you need to have that level to be able to make the approach in the first place. And this applies to the relationships as well as to the friendships. While some of them might be able to be done better — Yukari, for example, can come across as shallow with her restriction — they do say things about the characters, and thus you need those abilities because of who they are. The biggest objection is that this is not an RPG like Torment where, arguably, focusing on one trait over another shapes the game and so you want to choose what you favour to suit your character, but instead you always benefit from and so always want to max out all attributes. But none of this is bad from a Social Justice viewpoint.

And one final point from these comments:

I know ‘gameplay first’ gamers who wouldn’t touch the Persona series with a ten-foot pole precisely because it’s Story first with a capital ‘S.’ That much is readily evident when you consider the length of playthroughs and the sheer amount of time Persona invests in telling its longwinded narrative. Hell, Persona 4 famously has like eight hours of pure exposition before you even enter a ‘real’ battle. Persona 5 follows that lead. And before Persona 5, gameplay was so secondary that dungeons themselves were completely generic and randomized.

Now, the Persona series executes its gameplay quite well, I’d agree with that. But, if anything, the mechanics of gameplay during the segments of the game where you grind your stats and your social links furthers the story and requires you to be invested in the characters and the town you live in.

Um, the random generation was the gameplay, as it made it so that you couldn’t memorize the layouts and so just know where the exit was. Persona 4 introduced the idea of personal dungeons and so tying the dungeons to the story in a significant way, while Persona 5 has designed dungeons for the personal dungeons. I wouldn’t claim this game is “Gameplay first”, but the gameplay is, in fact, a big draw for these games, particularly around battles, weakness, and Persona Fusion.

Social Justice vs Games: “Solid Snake” on Persona 5

April 24, 2017

So, I was looking around for some information on the details of Shiho’s interaction with Kamoshida in Persona 5, and came across this thread on the Nuklear Power forums by “Solid Snake” talking about the flaws in Persona 5 and, eventually, the Persona series in general. I couldn’t register to the forums to reply, and it looks like the thread is winding down anyway, but I wanted to talk a bit about it because to me it really comes across as a combination of Social Justice vs Games with a helping of personal interpretation mixed in.

There will be spoilers past this point.

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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: 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.

Social Justice vs Games: FIFA 16

August 12, 2016

So, Anita Sarkeesian has put out her latest video, and I do intend to comment on it. But, as has happened before, I need to comment on something else first, because it needs to be addressed and if I tried to do it as part of my commentary on the video itself it would kinda overwhelm it. So, let me talk about one of Sarkeesian’s examples of a company finally adding women into the game:

The FIFA soccer game series, which had its first entry in 1993, took over 20 years before finally introducing female teams in FIFA 16.

Now, I knew that FIFA 16 had done this, because it was a key part of the advertising here in Canada, highlighting Christine Sinclair. However, I have never been a huge fan of soccer sims — particularly the more realistic ones; “Superstar Soccer” was fun, though — and don’t particularly enjoy the latest sports sims in general, so I didn’t bother to look up how they did the player ratings in a game that mixes male and female players. Are you going to give the female players ratings measured against the men, and so have even their superstars at about 50 – 60 ratings at best? Or are you going to give them high ratings but then it be the case that, say, Carli Lloyd is considered, under that ranking, to be a better player than Luis Suarez. It’s a tough issue, so what did they do?

Q: How do player ratings work for women in comparison to men?

A: The player ratings will be relative for each gender. We will be assessing female athletes against other female athletes which may mean that an 85 rated female player may not perform the same as an 85 rated male player.

They ranked them relative to other women — thus Carli Lloyd is a 91 and Suarez is a 90 — but if you actually play them Lloyd won’t play as well or pull off the same tricks as Suarez does. This could be problematic except that they also don’t let the women’s teams play against the men’s teams, so essentially the women are boxed off in their own little area, and so their rankings don’t really matter when compared to men. Thus, an 85 woman plays as well as an 85 woman would, which is not as good as an 85 man would.

And here’s where we get into the “Social Justice vs Games” part, because while EA says that this was a requested feature — and I have no doubt that it was — the push for Social Justice and inclusion is probably a major factor in why they decided to do it after 20 years, and why they decided to implement this awkward system to get around the obvious issues. But I don’t think that it will satisfy Social Justice advocates for women to simply be in the game, but that you can’t play as women players in male leagues, or run female teams against men’s teams at all. So, now, if they want to actually allow mixes, how do they get from there given this starting point?

Well, they can leave things as is and just move the women’s teams over. The problem with this is that then Lloyd would have a higher ranking than Suarez, but play a lot worse, and the Canadian national women’s team despite almost certainly having a higher ranking than the Canadian men’s team would lose to them almost every time they played, probably badly. That’s bad.

So, they could redo all of the rankings to make a mixed ranking, where you take all players into account, male and female. This means that Lloyd’s ranking would drop to somewhere in the 60s at best. That’s probably not going to satisfy the Social Justice crowd, and would also mean that female players won’t get selected for men’s teams and women’s teams won’t be put into leagues with men’s tames. So that’s bad, too.

Okay, well then they could leave the rankings alone and just make the rankings “objective”, so that an 85 woman plays the same as an 85 man. This creates the inverse problems of the existing method, as Suarez is now a worse player than Lloyd is in the game despite actually being better in real-life, and the Canadian men’s team would always lose badly to the women’s team despite the fact that they’d almost certainly beat them handily in real-life. As these games at least bill themselves as serious simulations, that’s bad, too.

Or they could just give up and insist that women can’t play against men, which is bad because, well, people will probably want to do that.

If I had been designing it, the first focus would have been on allowing female players to be created in the “Create-A-Player” modes, and then assigned to any team that that mode can assign players to. Then the rating would depend on the person playing the game. If people wanted to create them accurately, they’d do that. If they wanted to create them as being equal or better than men … well, that’s no worse than my putting myself and my co-workers, friends and acquaintances into the game with really high scores when none of us are going anywhere near a playing field. If the player wants some fantasy in their sports sim, who am I to complain?

If they had to put the women’s national teams in, then I’d rank them objectively in relation to the men’s teams … but add an option to allow the player of the game to “convert” them to a men’s team, which would be done by adding whatever rough score you’d need to treat, say, the best women’s player as if she was a man, and the best women’s team as if it was a women’s team. So, when adding a female player to a men’s team or a women’s team to a men’s league, you have an option to say “add 30 to the score to make it competitive”. Again, as this is an explicit option if the player of the game wants to fake it that way, what does it matter?

As it is now, though, it’ll be a rough road to get women players into the men’s teams and leagues.

Atlus and Dungeon Travellers 2

September 4, 2015

So, Atlus has recently brought over a new game called “Dungeon Travelers 2”, which from every review I’ve read (see this one for an example) is essentially a good dungeon crawler type adventure with some interesting twists around combat that is pretty much shameless in its use of fanservice. I think the summary from the linked review sums it up nicely:

Dungeon Travelers 2: The Royal Library and the Monster Seal is a perfectly fun dungeon crawler. It doesn’t do anything exceptional, but it does everything it needs to do. The game is utterly shameless, and it’s likely to drive away potential players due to the amount of almost-not-M-rated content that it contains. If that doesn’t scare you off, DT2 is one of the more accessible dungeon crawlers on the Vita because it balances difficulty and ease of play. The heavy sexual content is the only barrier, so it’s unfortunate that’s it’s rather significant, especially given some of the subject matter.

Now, I’ve actually just ordered this game (by the time this post goes up, I’ll have it and might have played it; yes, I actually am getting a bit ahead in my blog posting!). I was originally just browsing, saw “Lost Dimension” and thought that the traitor mechanism was a wonderful addition — I mean, it’s like the Battlestar Galactica board game in an RPG! — and took a look through the recommended or related games, saw Dungeon Travelers 2, sought out a review (it might have been that one for all I remember) and saw pretty much that line: you’ll like the game if you don’t mind the fanservice. And since I don’t mind the fanservice, I bought it.

So, most of the reviews essentially say that the fanservice is a bit much, but that if you like that sort of thing then it’d be a good purchase for you. However, Philip Kolar at Polygon has a different opinion. Before the game even reached North American shores, he decided to essentially argue that a company like Atlus — known for localizing many different kinds of Japanese games, including games like the Persona and Shadow Hearts series’ — were doing something wrong to localize this and a few other games:

But for as many refreshing, charming and obscure Japanese titles as Atlus brings to our shores, every once in a while it tosses out something a bit more disturbing. For example, there was last year’s Conception 2: Children of the Seven Stars, a role-playing game where the main character creates allies to fight for him by “classmating” with various, lightly-clothed female co-stars.

Or there’s 2013’s Dragon’s Crown, a beautifully hand-drawn and relatively deep action-RPG dragged down by its obsession with sexualizing every woman character in the game, playable or not.

I have Conception 2, as readers of this blog know, and I think it’s in no way a bad thing to have brought that game over, even though I think the fanservice is a bit juvenile. I actually don’t own Dragon’s Crown, but that’s mostly because I don’t think the gameplay appeals to me. I’m not sure why it would be “disturbing” that Atlus would bring these over, but Kollar will helpfully, in the next section, explain the problem:

Let’s start with the cast: Dungeon Travelers 2 is that rare RPG that mostly stars women. 16 of them to be precise. Cool! However, like Conception 2, the main character is a dude, and the women are primarily presented as things for him to interact with; they’re in the game to be rescued, fought or used in combat rather than acting on their own.

I’m not sure why that’s a problem. I suppose we could fix it by not letting the MC be a character, or making it a female character, but this isn’t any kind of reason to find the localization of the game disturbing. Kollar might find the game itself at least annoying because of that, but that doesn’t mean that the game’s existence itself or it being localized is a problem, right?

And above all else, they’re in the game to be ogled. As you can see in the trailer below, Dungeon Travelers 2 presents its hand-drawn female leads in various states of undress and, beyond that, in full-on sexual situations.

Yep, that’s the over-the-top fanservice. We all agree on that, so, again, what does this mean to the existence of the game or it being brought over to North America? Some of the images had to be censored to keep an “M” rating — instead of “AO” — as he mentions but, again, the fanservice is over-the-top. We all agree on that. To be absolutely clear, even without playing it myself, from all I’ve heard I agree that the fanservice is over-the-top and that a number of people will not like the game and will not play the game and ought not play the game for that reason. Having that heavy fanservice will cost them customers. But what does that have to do with whether Atlus should have localized the game … or the other two, for that matter?

I don’t think sex is bad. I don’t think games about sex are bad. If anything, I think there should be more games featuring sex! What distresses me about Dungeon Travelers 2 is the way it treats sexuality — i.e. if you do well and progress in the game, you’re rewarded with naughty images.

The goal is not to get one of the game’s many women to fight alongside you or to forge a deep relationship with them; it’s to eventually see them naked and probably doing something demeaning. Game design shouldn’t be a matter of putting Pokémon into the bodies of playmates in order to appeal to gaming’s worst instincts. That’s lazy and insulting.

It is, for all intents and purposes, a porn game, or the closest you can get to a porn game on the PlayStation Vita.

So, it’s that it’s the closest you can get to a porn game, but it being about sex isn’t the problem, but instead of how it shows sex? But, even given that, what does that have to do with Conception 2, which is indeed about getting them to fight alongside you and forge a deep relationship with them (even though the stories are, admittedly, shallow)? What does that have to with Dragon’s Crown, which doesn’t have that mechanism or view of sex at all (as far as I know)?

So we have to return to the beginning: it’s that it promotes what he feels is sexualization that’s the problem. Which, you know, might be true; I’d have to play it to see if the game encourages you to think of them as people as well. I suspect it does, but not to the extent of, say, the Personas (but, really, nothing does that). But then the question is: given that this is a good game outside of the fanservice, and that it seems to at least have a market in Japan and might have one here, again is that enough to say that Atlus shouldn’t have brought it over to North America?

Of course there’s one important way that Dungeon Travelers 2 sets itself apart from a game like The Witcher or even something like Dragon’s Crown: the age of its subjects. While we can’t say for sure what Dungeon Travelers 2’s protagonists are aged, many of them sure look disturbingly young.

Sure, this might be something that someone might find disturbing, and even something that might mean that the game ought not be localized, as it might be promoting underage sexual activity, which is not something to promote. I completely believe that the publishers and the game developers are doing the old “whistle in the air” in response to those questions by saying that, hey, they don’t say how old they are, so you can’t assume that they’re young as opposed to, say, young-looking. You can easily think that they’re all over 18 and avoid the squicky feeling. Again, it’d be a valid complaint to say that they should have made them look more obviously older … but, then, since Kollar specifically excludes Dragon’s Crown, at least, from this, how does he justify lumping it into the same criticisms? And how does he justify making this the big complaint when the entire rest of the article is about the sexualization, not the age of those sexualized? This starts to look like him finding a valid complaint and using it to try to justify his less valid arguments.

If the game really does promote pedophilia, then maybe it shouldn’t have been brought over. But that has no relation to the rest of his points, and can be challenged with the argument that the girls seem to be too, er, well-developed to actually be that young.

It’s not one issue here, it’s a combination of all of this wrapped into one very sleazy package. It’s the promotional materials winking at the fact that the players are supposed to find sexual representations of young women, uncomfortably young women, irresistible.

Or, rather, appealing. Which, um, isn’t untrue and isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I wouldn’t have bought this game or Conception 2 if I hadn’t found the gameplay appealing, and I think that’s true of most of the people who buy it. The fanservice is at best a bonus; in my case it’s more something that I don’t mind and might even enjoy if the gameplay works for me. There are a number of people for whom it would be a major issue, and they will not play this game. And that’s fine, and Atlus and the creating company have to consider that when considering whether it’s worth bringing it over. So why shouldn’t they bring it over?

Above all else, I believe that Atlus specifically not only can but should do better. This is a publisher that, at its best, creates experiences that have incredibly enriched peoples’ lives.

In 2012, I praised Persona 4 Golden as a rare game that focuses on empathy and forging a connection between characters above all else. It’s a game I’ve played multiple times through and adored every time. This year, the same year that Dungeon Travelers 2 is released in North America, a Persona 4 sequel is finally coming. One of these things is sure not like the other.

So? If Atlus wanted to stay as a company that brings over deep RPGs, with interesting characters and deep stories, then that would be fine, and I’d still love them for it. But that’s not what they want to do. They want to localize obscure Japanese games that they think the market in North America will enjoy. That means bringing over the deep, enriching games like the Personas and the shallower games like Conception II. This means that if they think that they can make money bringing over a game like Dungeon Travelers 2, they will. Doing that doesn’t stop then from doing the deeper games too, so what’s the problem? Does every single game that everyone publishes have to provide the deep experiences that you think games ought to have?

“When it comes down to it, we still have our roots as a niche publisher,” Atlus PR manager John Hardin told me. “It’s a good thing — there’s a new resurgence in Japanese-developed games, and we want as many of them to come over as possible.”

I will always be thankful that Atlus exists and continues bringing things to North America that we’d never see otherwise. However, I think it’s time the publisher starts giving much more serious consideration to what it brings over, instead of just thinking about what they can sell.

Why? If the game will sell, and they’re trying to bring more and even more diverse Japanese-developed games over, why in the world shouldn’t they bring over any game that they think will sell? Why is it the case that they should exclude games and potentially even genres of games that would sell because you personally don’t like them? Why should people who wouldn’t be bothered by the fanservice not get a localization of a game that they’d like, at least, to play, and maybe even love to play because you don’t like it and are bothered by it?

Ultimately, this is a prime example of how the concerns of those interested in Social Justice can oppose the interests of people who just want to play games. Kollar here is essentially taking the standard line that a game that they find problematic or disturbing has no right to exist. It’s not like they can even claim that the problem is that most games are like this because if we look at what Atlus has done for the Vita even if we put Dragon’s Crown and Conception 2 in the list of “games that aren’t right” we still have Lost Dimension, Persona 4 Golden and Persona 4: Dancing All Night that presumably aren’t on that list. It’s not like it’ll be the case that Atlus doing this will mean that they won’t localize those deep and interesting RPGs. They are doing Persona 5 already, as Kollar notes. So what Kollar is saying wrt these games is that he dislikes the fanservice in the games and he wouldn’t want to play them, so no one else should be able to play them either. Alternatively, he thinks that these games are so harmful that allowing anyone to play them will derail the cause of Social Justice, despite them still being a minority of the available games. Alternatively, he thinks that he can shame Atlus into only publishing what he wants to see despite how many other gamers want to see other games, too. Really, I’m out of options at this point. His article doesn’t insist that Dungeon Travelers 2 promotes pedophilia and so is bad for that reason, and instead links it to other games when all they have in common is over-the-top fanservice, so I think it reasonable to suggest that that’s his real problem with the game … but he’s never shown why that, in and of itself, is good enough reason for Atlus to think about the games they’re publishing beyond “There’s a market for that”.

Social Justice vs Games: Sarkeesian on E3 …

August 14, 2015

Well, when I introduced my “Social Justice vs Games” category, it was pretty much certain that eventually one of those posts would talk about Anita Sarkeesian, and her post discussing the games showcased at a recent E3 is a pretty good example how Social Justice concerns and gaming concerns can clash.

Let me start with probably the mildest example:

These numbers also reflect the fact that a purely binary understanding of gender was on display in the games featured at E3, with no options featured that might allow players to pick from a wider spectrum of gender identities or presentations.

Presumably, this is asking for consideration of trans* issues. The problem is that the estimates of trans* people is something like 1 – 2%, from what I’ve seen around. So, at best, you’re looking at an audience of 1 – 2% at base for these sorts of options. Now, there may be other players who might want to take those options — after all, my DA:O and Mass Effect characters are, in fact, homosexual females, despite my not being one — but it’s still likely to be a pretty low percentage of the audience that would want that, and so it’s not likely to be a big selling point (at least female protagonists can claim to appeal to a large base audience). And in the fact that, again, people who are trans* are going to be exceptionally rare in the video game design world — and not because of discrimination — and it’s going to be hard to pull this off in a convincing and reasonable way that doesn’t feel like mockery. So what the game designers are being asked to add is an option that only appeals to a small percentage of their potential audience, is hard to implement properly, and one that if they get it wrong they will receive far worse criticism than leaving it out. What reason could they have for even doing it? So it seems to me that, given this, it’s perfectly reasonable for game developers to continue to ignore these options and instead focus their time and effort on things that will improve the game for more potential players … and given the way games are these days, there are plenty.

Sarkeesian also, in a post that’s entitled “Gender Breakdown of Games Showcased at E3 2015”, talks about violence:

Rather, these numbers are presented here only to demonstrate how prevalent violence as a mechanic is in all sorts of games, because it is worth considering how, in relying so heavily on violence as a core component of game design, developers and publishers are not exploring opportunities to tell other kinds of stories and create other kinds of games. When game narratives consistently take place in inescapably hostile antagonistic environments, it severely limits the kinds of stories that can be told.

The medium has near-limitless potential, and in indie games like Tacoma, Firewatch and Beyond Eyes, we get a glimpse of what’s possible when games approach human experience through a lens of empathy rather than one of violence. Games have only begun to scratch the surface of what can be done, the stories that can be told and the experiences that can be illuminated when combat isn’t employed as a lynchpin of game design. Fully realizing this potential requires that game creators continue exploring the possibilities, investing in innovative mechanics and storytelling techniques to push the medium forward.

Really? What specifically are the “stories” that can’t be told with a combat mechanism inside of their gameplay? Why can’t you have empathy and combat? Now, I’m all for variations in gameplay — one of the things I liked about Catherine was it’s unique twist on the traditional RPG dungeon gameplay (I wonder if Sarkeesian would consider it “violent”) — and I accept that there might be stories that work better with a non-violent overall mechanic, I don’t see this as being as critical as Sarkeesian says. Taking even the examples she gives, “Beyond Eyes” is probably the only game whose story is hard to tell with a combat mechanic, but mostly, in my opinion, because it would be far too hard to do, or else in lowering the difficulty you’d lose the ability to understand how hard being blind in the world can be. But “Tacoma” seems to be built around a similar exploration mechanism to “System Shock 2”, which had combat out the wazoo. And “Firewatch” could easily have combat as well, like, say, Silent Hill 2 does, to fill in the spaces around the exploration. What she thinks is key in those two games, it seems — the interaction between the lead and Odin, and the interaction between Henry and Delilah — could be done in a game with combat mechanisms. Now, I’m not saying that it would be better; suspense based games, for example, can be done better with less combat. Fatal Frame is an example where the meat is the exploration and the combat is mostly there to establish that Miku’s life is in danger. But there is no reason for her to count the number of games that use combat mechanisms, say that it’s only 15 or 24% (depending on whether you count sports games or not), and say that that’s a bad thing because having a combat mechanism means that it simply can’t tell a specific story that she, well, gives no examples of.

Again, from a gaming perspective unique and creative forms of gameplay are, in fact, good things. But Sarkeesian here comes across as being more anti-violence than pro-creative gameplay.

And, finally, we turn to the heart of the issue here: representation of women:

There were 7 games with exclusively playable female protagonists or 9% of a total 76 titles

There were 24 games with exclusively playable male protagonists or 32% of a total 76 titles

There were also 35 games in which players appear to be able to choose either a man or a woman. It’s always great to see more games with gender choice and this year we saw a few blockbuster franchises like FIFA and Call of Duty finally add playable women. Still, of those 35, titles only Dishonored 2 used its marketing and promotional space at E3 to predominantly focus on the female character option.

To start, let me highlight how very, very important that last sentence is. Note that it doesn’t distinguish between which games featured the male character option predominantly and games where they were given roughly equal presentation. No, for Sarkeesian it is important that the female character dominate. So, no, not equality, but dominance. She couldn’t do a better job arguing that feminism is really about female dominance if she tried.

Am I reading too much into this? Well, let’s look at the numbers above not in terms of “male dominant vs female dominant”, but instead in terms of “Can play as a male vs can play as a female”. For “Can play as a male”, we have 78%. For “Can play as a female”, we have 55%. I’d personally like that number to be higher, because from a gameplay perspective having more control over your character is generally a good thing. But over half of the games showcased allowing you to play as a female protagonist is pretty good, I’d think. And yet Sarkeesian, while saying that it’s great, mostly gripes about the marketing and then goes on to say this about it:

Some may ask why it is important that there be games led exclusively by women, and why we make a distinction between those games in which the sole protagonist is a woman (such as Mirror’s Edge) and those games in which you have the option to play as either a male or female character (such as Fallout 4).

One reason why we need more games that are fronted exclusively by female characters is that it works to counter the long-established, long-reinforced cultural notion that heroes are male by default. By and large girls and women are expected to project themselves onto male characters, but boys and men are not encouraged to project themselves onto or identify with female characters.

When players are given the opportunity to see a game universe exclusively through the eyes of a female character with her own unique story, it helps challenge the idea that men can’t or shouldn’t identify with women, their lives, and their struggles.

As long as games continue to give us significantly more stories centered on men than on women, they will continue to reinforce the idea that female experiences are secondary to male ones. Stories have the power to influence our understanding of the world around us and when we can virtually embody the lives and experiences of people different from ourselves it opens up greater possibilities for empathy and understanding.

Translation: Society is screwed, so we want games to fix that for us by forcing the choice of gender onto gamers playing the games instead of doing what is generally better for games and giving the choice and allowing the player to customize their character to their liking. It’s “Rust” all over again.

This is also a move that is likely to backfire on game designers because in order to achieve what Sarkeesian wants, they have to do more than simply stick a female avatar onto a game whose story was designed with a male protagonist in mind. So, they’d have to write stories from the female perspective. “And what’s wrong with that?” Sarkeesian will cry. You mean, aside from the fact that there isn’t really a female perspective? Well, the fact that any such attempt with either make a big deal about the character being female, rely on stereotypes, or end up reducing her to a generic character where they could just as easily have given the choice because there’s no character to project onto. The problems with the last one have already been given and the problems with the second option should be obvious, at least from the Social Justice perspective. The problem with the first one is that unless it’s done right it can be seen as insulting and patronizing, where the game goes out of its way to say “Look at me! I’m doing a female-centric story!”. To those who weren’t really interested in that sort of story, that will get annoying very quickly, and to those who were it can in fact ruin the story by how hard it’s trying to be that sort of story.

Thus, the right approach from a gaming perspective is this: if the story works best with a defined male protagonist, make one. If it works best with a defined female protagonist — I personally think survival horror games work best with a female protagonist — then make one. If you need a defined protagonist but neither gender is better for the role, flip a coin. Otherwise, give the choice. This achieves everything that Sarkeesian could want … except for changing society by forcing identification. But it’s not the job of video games to change society, even if they can have an impact on it.

Sarkeesian is less interested, it seems, in making good games than in making games that will help her achieve her Social Justice goals. But when the needs of the games and the needs of Social Justice clash, it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that gamers ought to consider the needs of games first. Games are not the only way to promote Social Justice and don’t need to turn themselves completely over to that movement to be legitimate, or art, or fun, or valuable, or even not harmful. Let games be games, not necessarily treatises.