Kings of Pain: On Gender and Power in Shadow of Mordor

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from veteran game reviewer and critic Carolyn Petit, formerly an editor at GameSpot and who currently writes game-crit at her blog A Game of Me, where this piece is crossposted from.

This post “spoils” the plot of Shadow of Mordor, insofar as it’s possible to spoil anything that is so tiresomely predictable.

***

This isn’t what I wanted to write about Shadow of Mordor. I bought the game because I have an interest in Tolkien’s world and because, while the game is clearly lifting ideas and mechanics wholesale right out of other games, it also appeared as if it might have a few neat ideas of its own. I would love to be celebrating the game right now. But I can’t.

It honestly never occurred to me when I started playing that it might be, in its treatment of women, the most exasperatingly cliche, troubling video game narrative I’ve encountered in some time. I assumed that women would be largely absent, which wouldn’t be great, of course. But instead I got a game that goes out of its way both to repeatedly use women as victims whose fates are really only tragic because they leave an enduring suffering in the hearts of men, and to suggest that those women who are foolish enough to think that they can play a part as leaders and people of action in realms that are largely the domain of men have another thing coming.  Continue reading

Posted in Console Games, General Gaming, PC Games | Tagged , , , , | 15 Comments

What Are You Playing Wednesday

Shoopuf station in Final Fantasy X.

Shoopuf station in Final Fantasy X.

Hi all. Mid-week is here again:

  • What games are you playing this week?
  • Would you recommend those games to other Border House readers?
  • What games have you ranting?
  • Are any of those games listed ones that you want to see covered on the site?

This week I again played the HD remaster of Final Fantasy X. I got to the adorable scene where Kimahri explains about Yuna and her previous shoopuf adventures.  I laughed a lot!

What have you been playing?

Posted in Off-Topic | Tagged | 5 Comments

What Are You Playing Wednesday

Yuna performing the sending in Final Fantasy X.

Yuna performing the sending in Final Fantasy X.

Welcome to this week’s what are you playing segment.

  • What games are you playing this week?
  • Would you recommend those games to other Border House readers?
  • What games have you ranting?
  • Are any of those games listed ones that you want to see covered on the site?

This week I played the HD remaster of Final Fantasy X. It has been nice to go back to that world and story (despite my dislike of Tidus).

What have you been playing?

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Violett – An artful adventure game

Violett is a PC adventure game from Forever Entertainment (available on Steam and as an Android or iOS app).

Art style: After finishing the game, this remained the most striking aspect. The surreal environments are beautiful to look at and feel like walking into an Alice in Wonderland environment.

Starting scene in Violett. She is trapped in a cage and needs to escape.

Starting scene in Violett. She is trapped in a cage and needs to escape.

Gameplay: Simple, logical puzzles dominate the gameplay. While exploring the world, the player also picks up little orbs of different colors. These orbs seem to serve no function as you collect them, but then become extremely important in the very last segment of the game.

Dialogue: The characters in the game speak in a gibberish language with images that appear above their head to give the player an indication of what they are saying.

Description of marmoles in Violett.

Description of marmoles in Violett.

Story: Most of the story is hinted at with a fast cut scene at the start of the game. You know that the main character is a disgruntled teenaged girl, who finds an amulet that teleports her into this fantastical world. Once there, she is imprisoned by a Spider Queen. The characters within the world are discussed in diary pages that give some flavor to the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the story has little depth. I wish that Violett’s relationship with her family had been examined in more detail. That relationship is hinted at, but never fully explored. Similarly, the player gets a hint of the surreal world but Violett’s reaction and interactions with it are not emphasized. The real heart of the game lies in the puzzles.

Boss battle: Of note, there is a boss battle at the very end of the game. It is very different than the gameplay anywhere else in the game. It requires the player to have collected many of the hidden orbs, but this fact is never explicitly stated until the battle begins. This one section feels at odds with the rest of the experience.

 

Overall, the strengths of Violett lie in the beautiful art and clear puzzles. If you are looking for a game with those highlights, then I would recommend it as a nice ~4 hour experience.

 

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What Are You Playing Wednesday

My arcanist in Final Fantasy XIV

My arcanist in Final Fantasy XIV

It is late on a Wednesday and time for What Are You Playing:

  • What games are you playing this week?
  • Would you recommend those games to other Border House readers?
  • What games have you ranting?
  • Are any of those games listed ones that you want to see covered on the site?

I have been playing a lot of RPGs recently. I played Final Fantasy XIV, Final Fantasy X (HD remaster), and Tales of the Abyss.

What have you been playing?

Posted in Off-Topic | Tagged | 16 Comments

What Are You Playing Thursday

The city of Chicago, as portrayed in Watch Dogs.

The city of Chicago, as portrayed in Watch Dogs.

Welcome back to our weekly question time (belated version):

  • What games are you playing this week?
  • Would you recommend those games to other Border House readers?
  • What games have you ranting?
  • Are any of those games listed ones that you want to see covered on the site?

I’ve been both busy at work and sick recently so I haven’t been playing many games. But, I did get in some time with Watch Dogs. I am progressing faster now that I lowered the difficulty to Easy. The game was just not clicking well with me on Normal.

I am ready to get back into some RPGs so I anticipate that I’ll be playing some Tales of Vesperia this week.

What have you been playing?

Posted in Off-Topic | Tagged | 10 Comments

Gamer shame

This is an extract from Delay: paying attention to energy mechanics, which is currently available in a bundle alongside a book by Anna Anthropy and a collection of Five Out of Ten issues, and other things besides. You can pay what you want for that bundle until Wednesday 10th September.


Why do we feel ashamed of gaming? In a talk at Queerness and Games Conference in 2013, Samantha Allen suggested that at least part of the answer lies in “reproductive futurism”. The mother admonishing her children for spending all their time indoors playing games worries that this pursuit will prevent them from finding partners and having children of their own. In so many stories told in podcasts and on internet forums, the shameful gamer knows that they have redeemed themselves when they spend less time dungeon crawling and more time walking in the park with their romantic partner and/or children. Earlier I said that the idea of the ‘real world’ is normative rather than descriptive. Allen calls the ‘real world’ a ‘heteronormative social economy’ consisting of ‘socially sanitised forms of intimacy’.

That is to say, maybe gaming is shameful because it is counterproductive to childbearing. For all the misogyny in the boys’ club of gamer culture, and despite the ascendant social position of the geek in a capitalism increasingly dependent on the information economy, the geek is still a cultural symbol of failed masculinity: ‘Betas’, as the Amazon TV series puts it. Meanwhile, women in geek culture are dismissed and harassed, called ‘fake geek girls’ because their perceived success at feminine performance is considered incompatible with hobbies such as gaming, or anonymously derided as ‘fat, ugly or slutty’ because their participation in gamer culture indicates a failure to conform to normative femininity. Gaming too much makes us less desirable as heteronormative men and women. It’s little wonder that the games with energy mechanics, a built-in reminder to take us back to the real world and away from self-gratification, are often targeted at a stereotyped image of women as caregivers to children.

In psychology, shame is an example of ‘affect management’. It is a feeling we get in response to another feeling. When we enjoy something but we have been taught that it is wrong, we feel shame. Our drive toward something we need is halted by a complex that developed as we were growing up.

Queer theorist Eve Sedgwick wrote about shame in the context of the cybernetic. Shame is felt when a social circuit is broken between one person and another. Perhaps someone fails to mirror your excited smile as you tell them about a game you enjoy. In that moment, you realise that your enjoyment is not approved of, and you feel shame. Shame operates when a barrier comes down and prevents us from exploring further. Sedgwick highlighted this in the context of a break in the flow of nonverbal communication, but I would argue that we can see it at work in the cybernetic feedback loops between a player and game software. The paywall feels shaming: the game stops affirming your indulgence, and blocks you from exploring further.

Shame manages our consumption of pleasurable things. It tells us when to stop, or at least, when to conceal what we have been doing. Flipping the script on the narrative that told us that those things are shameful feels liberating. Consumerism is often about buying into the reclamation of something that was taken away from us when we were socialised to behave in acceptable ways, or buying our way into a social context where the rules don’t apply anymore.

The most obvious examples of shame-denying consumption relate to sex: not just strip clubs or hostess bars, but burlesque classes, and pretty much any nightclub. Pride events, which transmute shame into its opposite through ritualised solidarity and defiance, have been roundly criticised for their rampant consumerism. As Allen put it in her talk, they “try to sell our own identities back to us”, and they get to do that because those identities were taken from us when we were shamed by a society that repudiates us. Consumerism is used to heal other kinds of shame too: going out for a drink with friends is acceptable, but drinking alone is not; I pay extra for the social context that grants me permission to misbehave.

Shame is not just a private experience. It organises our social groupings: in Gay Shame, David Halperin calls it a “solvent of identities”. Sally Munt argues that specific patterns of ‘affect management’ — the processes by which we deal with our desires and fears — form the basis for our sense of cultural affinity with other people. Our friendships and alliances are built with people who have similar ideas about what is shameful.

Most gamers don’t agree with being shamed for playing a game for a long stretch of time. When a game stops affirming their indulgence, the shaming feels aggressive. Games are programmed with patterns of affect management, and the energy mechanic often represents a pattern that is incongruent with hard-core gamers’ values. If there are players who do not feel irritated by energy mechanics, it may be because the pattern of affect management that it represents is reflected in their own value system. They feel a sense of cultural affinity with the game.

References

Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank (1995) ‘Shame in the Cybernetic Fold’, Critical Enquiry 21
David Halperin (2009) Gay Shame, University of Chicago Press
Sally Munt (2008) Queer Attachments: the cultural politics of shame, Ashgate Publishing

Posted in General Gaming | 7 Comments

What Are You Playing Wednesday

Starting scene in Violett. She is trapped in a cage and needs to escape.

Starting scene in Violett. She is trapped in a cage and needs to escape.

Welcome back to Wednesday question time:

  • What games are you playing this week?
  • Would you recommend those games to other Border House readers?
  • What games have you ranting?
  • Are any of those games listed ones that you want to see covered on the site?

The last few weeks I’ve played Watch Dogs, Dark Souls 2, and I started and finished Violett (review coming soon).

What have you been playing?

Posted in Off-Topic | Tagged | 8 Comments

TotalBiscuit’s twisted barter economies

Youtuber TotalBiscuit doesn’t know what criticism means. He doesn’t know what it is for, and he doesn’t know what it does. Months ago, he took to video to claim that DMCA notices were preventing him from doing his job “informing consumers”, explicitly saying that the job of critics is to advise people on what they should and should not buy. More recently, he’s been issuing veiled threats to the indie developers who are criticising his misogynistic comments about a female developer, saying that he’s “spent 4+ years helping indies” and that by calling him out, “many have turned on [him]“.

I’m not going to name the developer in question here, because it’s already unfair how far this discussion of misogyny and ethics has been going on in her front yard. I don’t want to continue associating this person’s name with the awful things that have been said. Her abusers want to see her smeared, they want to see her work undermined in favour of a discussion about her moral character. I refuse to play into that, and this article isn’t about her. It’s about TotalBiscuit.

So, TotalBiscuit is both a consumer advocate and a helping hand to developers at the same time? What a saint he is! Juggling all those conflicting responsibilities. No wonder the world owes him so much loyalty. So sad for him that the double standards he feels he is owed are not being applied by this cold and unforgiving universe. People who criticise his work are “turning on” him, betraying him after all his years of loyal service. But when he criticises other people’s work, it’s important journalism and nobody should try to stand in his way. TotalBiscuit is a critic, you see, a consumer advocate and a voluntary PR mouthpiece for indies, and that affords him special treatment.

TotalBiscuit claims that he tries to stay away from “SJW topics”. “Honestly that whole debate is something I try and stay the hell away from because the people involved in it are fucking terrifying.” Evidently, he thinks that accusing a woman of “exploiting” people by sleeping with them isn’t wading into “SJW” territory. Perhaps he thinks it’s a totally “reasonable stance” to say that women use sex to bargain favours out of people.

TotalBiscuit doesn’t know that “fucking terrifying” means. What’s “fucking terrifying” is that in the hypothetical situation of a journalist exchanging sexual favours for game reviews, people like TotalBiscuit argue that it would be the journalist who is being exploited. What’s “fucking terrifying” is that women who are sexually harassed need a vast support network and a wellspring of inner resolve to even dare try and talk about what has happened to them, while hate-filled ex-boyfriends like Eron Gjoni can write ill-conceived screeds and have their word taken as gospel. What’s “fucking terrifying” is that women in games are subjected to abuse and harassment constantly, while TotalBiscuit’s biggest professional worry is DMCA notices.

TotalBiscuit takes at face value the idea that a woman’s sexuality is a threat to journalistic ethics (note: in an earlier version of this post I said he “suggests” this. It has been pointed out that he doesn’t do this directly. However, he does repeat the idea without challenging it). Nobody who says this should have any authority in this industry. It’s absolutely revolting. Sex is not a thing that women give men in exchange for something else. You don’t put kindness coins into women to get sex in return, no matter what video games might have told you. Sex is a thing that two (edit: or more) adults do together without coercion. Anything else is assault. I don’t know what TotalBiscuit has been through that makes him see sex as a barter economy, but he needs to unlearn that mess.

TotalBiscuit thinks that he has nothing to learn about his own misogyny. “Any right-thinking individual knows that hating women is bad, we don’t need libraries worth of articles to tell us that.” This week’s events seem to demonstrate that there is a huge subculture within games composed of men who desperately need to seek help, and instead just reinforce each other’s disordered views on women and relationships. The sick ideas that proliferate in this culture need to be called out: be it TotalBiscuit’s rapey interpretation of journalistic ethics, or Eron Gjoni’s destructive quest for revenge against his ex-girlfriend, or JonTron’s publicising pornographic cartoons that humiliate her. These men need to learn to do some goddamn self-care and stop spreading this toxic shit at women’s expense.

TotalBiscuit doesn’t know what criticism is. He can’t receive criticism on his own work. His criticism of other people’s work is primarily concerned with “value for money”, like a Which? guide but for art. His critical lens — if it can even be called that — is so dehumanising, it turns even relationships between people into a cold economic transaction. No wonder he and the people around him approach their relationships with women with such a sense of entitlement.

Posted in General Gaming | 11 Comments

What Are You Playing Wednesday

Aiden Pearce from Watch Dogs.

Aiden Pearce from Watch Dogs.

It is Wednesday question time:

  • What games are you playing this week?
  • Would you recommend those games to other Border House readers?
  • What games have you ranting?
  • Are any of those games listed ones that you want to see covered on the site?

The last few weeks I have been playing a lot of Watch Dogs. I am terrible at the criminal convoy and fixer missions, but I am slowly going through the main mission.

What have you been playing?

Posted in Off-Topic | Tagged | 24 Comments