Posts Tagged ‘Social Justice vs Games’

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.


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.

Social Justice Vs Games: Rust

August 3, 2015

So, I’ve decided to create a new tag for a new series, called “Social Justice vs Games”. The purpose of this tag is not to argue that Social Justice concepts and ideas are inherently opposed to games in some way, either by opposing the concept of what a game is or by opposing some kind of gamer culture or to argue that adding any of the things that those who argue in the name of “Social Justice” want added to games will make games worse, as that’s patently untrue. No, the purpose of this is to oppose the assumption made both by Social Justice advocates and by some of the media that support them that there is, in fact, no possible conflict between the demands of Social Justice and the demands of games themselves, and that therefore all good gamers ought to accept and support the demands of Social Justice. In short, it is to oppose the idea that there is never any kind of forced choice between a “Socially Just” game and a good game. Sometimes, trying to bring Social Justice ideals to a game clashes with the elements that make it a good game, and so sometimes a maximally Socially Just game will just be an inferior game than if it instead focused on just being a really, really good game.

And so, to start with, let me use as my first example a game that I’ve talked about tangentially before, “Rust”. Essentially, this game is being lauded in the media as a grand social experiment, in what I’d say is the grand Social Justice tradition. They started out with only having white male avatars, and then added black male avatars … but the players couldn’t choose which race they were assigned, and since it was based on their Steam accounts every single character they created would have that race. And people protested, and the responses were met with essentially glee from those on the “Social Justice” end, talking about how it was nice to see “bigots” made uncomfortable and that this was a great experiment that would prove … something, I guess. Anyway, they later added gender, and again had that be assigned randomly and tied to your Steam identity. And there were protests. And people responded. P.Z. Myers said in the title to this post that “It’s good to have your identity shaken up sometimes”, and comments in that thread again relate it to being a great experiment and chortle at how good it is for them to tick off the misogynists. To be fair, some of the ones who are crying about it probably are, but they make no distinction between those people and the people who are reasonably annoyed at it because, well, it forces the race and gender of your character on you. (Which is, in fact, the main reason why right now I have absolutely no interest in that game).

They’ll reply to that with “But it doesn’t matter when they force you to play as a white male, does it? That’s okay, isn’t it? And that’s the whole problem: the default is white male. This changes that!”. And to reply to that, let me get into what character customization means to games and why it’s been a consistent demand from gamers for quite some time to allow for it. The general idea is this: a game is much more fun and entertaining the more you can make the character the way you want that character to be. If you want the character to be like yourself, you can. If you want it to be completely different from you, you can. If you want to model it on your favourite TV character, you can. Even in a linear story where your choices have little impact, just this switch in perspective can make the game seem fresh and new, or make it seem like you yourself are really in the game. Given this, the argument is that a game ought to let players customize their characters as much as they can unless they have a really good reason. For a lot of games, that really good reason was technical (which is likely and I hope the reason that “Rust” started with only white male avatars). For other games, the reason is the detailed story built around that specific character (JRPGs tend to follow this model) which means that you can’t really let the player customize who they are too much, although JRPGs like the Persona games with a silent protagonist are trying to do that a bit.

So, does “Rust” have such a good reason? Well, since they now allow for different races and genders, it can’t be a technical limitation anymore. And “Rust” does not have a strong and detailed, character-driven story that justifies removing character customization. So all it has is an appeal to realism — ie that you wouldn’t get to choose your race and gender in the real world — or an appeal to the experiment, that it’d be an interesting way to experience what people of other races and genders experience.

Now, if I oppose the former on the basis that games aren’t supposed to be about the real world, people will protest that that is an argument used to justify sexism and racism in games, and so my argument would be invalid. Fortunately, my appeal on that score will always be to what makes a better game, not to what works for a Social Justice viewpoint, and so I won’t be trying to justice keeping those things in on the basis of “That’s the way the world is” because games have as at least one of if not their primary purposes the ability to escape from the real world. Nobody plays games to experience exactly what they do in real life; even the closest games to this like “The Sims” are typically used for more than that. So since I want to escape from my life, giving me the ability to do that makes the game better. But this also has to be under the control of the player, so that they can decide how different they want it to be and how similar they want it to be to their real life. They can do that by choosing their genre, style of game and, yes, their character. So the argument for “realism” is clearly one that simply hides what is really happening: the removal of control from the player. But the more control you give a player to shape their own experience with a game, the more fun it is and the better game. So taking away control that they could give because it is more “realistic” makes it a worse game.

So the only argument left is the social experiment angle, which might produce results that Social Justice advocates will find useful and interesting. Unfortunately I — and, I think, most people — don’t play games to participate in social experiments. We play games to have fun. And being able to create and control my own character is more fun than not being able to, unless you provide something that provides sufficient “fun” to compensate. The ability for me to experience what it might be like to be treated as someone who is black or is a woman isn’t, in fact, sufficient compensation because if the game offered the choice of race and gender I’d be able to do that if I wanted to. If I found it less fun or wasn’t in the mood for that, I could just hop onto another character that didn’t have that quality and come back to it later. So, for these purposes, offering the choice works better for me at an individual level. It’s only if there’s some benefit from forcing the choice on people can you justify not allowing the choice, but then it’s hard to see how that make the game more fun for individual players.

From that angle, this isn’t even a very good social experiment, as people who are black, say, might be pushed into playing white characters which the Social Justice side says happens far too often as it is and those that the Social Justice side says need to be pushed into playing as characters that are not them — typically, white males — might still roll up a white male. No, about the only use for this experiment is not in it being in the game itself, but instead in saying that it’s being done and seeing what the reactions are, and who sides with them and who opposes it, and using what arguments. Which is what it’s doing, I suppose, but that doesn’t really say anything about the game. And the lack of customization makes it an inferior game.

“Rust” and its system may be valuable to Social Justice advocates, but it’s hard to see what it adds to games as either an entertainment medium or even as a work of art. If its system was adopted broadly, it would produce inferior games … which is precisely the reason why it won’t be.