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Dream Game: The Underground

The following is a guest post from Sun Tzu:

Tzu is a mixed race gamer who has been involved in the gaming scene since Doom. He enjoys writing about social justice, feminism, a wide variety of game genres, and writing about himself in the third person. Any personal inquiries or comments can be sent to Tzuofthesun@gmail.com.

       Edutainment. Let’s all take a moment to look at that monstrosity of a word and let the horror of what it entails wash over us. It’s a Portmanteau that for many brings derisive laughter, dismissive sighs, or painful groans. I don’t know about you, but I’m having flashbacks of low quality elementary school programs that were employed by my parents to try to bridge the gap between my interest in gaming and lack of interest in school. However, despite my prior experiences, I believe that games can educate and enhance both intellect and social consciousness. All that is required is the right narrative to go along with the game itself. To that end, I believe that a game based around the underground railroad in the deep south would present an interesting opportunity for education about racial privilege and oppression.

       Let us start at the foundation: genre. While strong narratives are not bound to a particular genre of games, a Turn Based Strategy game (TBS) is what I had in mind for my theoretical game-let’s call it The Underground. A squad based TBS would allow for a diverse cast that the player could both interact with in game and watch within the context of the narrative (dialogue, cut scenes, etc.). The gameplay itself would be objective based, like many other squad based TBS’s, and task the player with freeing slaves, intercepting hunters, escorting VIPs, etc. Also typical of squad based games, the characters the player employs would be specialists in their own fields and bring a unique set of skills to the table. While all of this may seem rather unimportant when it comes to how race can be presented and explored, the truth is quite the contrary. Imagine this scenario: you, the player, are tasked with rescuing an important abolitionist from the clutches of a wealthy plantation owner. He/she is being held in the antagonist’s grand mansion during a lavish dinner party. What do you do? Send in your combat specialist, a recently freed slave with a sharp eye and a steady hand? No, there are too many guards for a loud operation. So, you look to your stealth character-a black woman who has lived like a hermit in the back country ever since her escape. Unfortunately, the mansion is well lit and the guests are packed in like sardines. The situation might seem insurmountable between the tight security and many prying civilian eyes-that is, until you look at one of the white characters in your squad. Dress him/her up, and they can easily blend in with the crowd. Situations such as those present racial oppression as it is: being white instantly unlocks a whole slew of options unavailable to people of color. In the context of a strategy game such as this, race becomes a constant tactical consideration. Some of your characters can walk around in broad daylight with their weapons at their sides, while others have to hide or disguise themselves just to walk down the street.

       This gameplay integration of a social message (such as: racism is bad) gets the point across better than a pop quiz (I’m looking at you, Jumpstart) and leaves breathing room in the narrative for plot where heavy handed messages might have resided. The big question remains, however, whether this could be an effective way to provoke serious thought and project a positive message. Let’s look at this from two extreme angles: great success and total bomb. The way I see it, a narrative like this could either be pathetically repetitive (Slavery was bad? No way!) or produce a stage for nuanced black and white characters.

       The easy way out would be to paint all abolitionists and black freedom fighters as saints, and while positively portrayed black characters are mildly progressive, they don’t break much ground. As action figures dukeing it out on a historical playset, they are hard to write realistically and flat-two factors that can lower sympathy and interest from players. A better approach would be to make the characters dramatic and conflicted. An example for a black character could be entertaining the notion of escaping to Canada and abandoning the struggle, while a white ally might not have the mental fortitude to take in the horrors of war and slavery on such a personal level. While this is all Literature 101, it is of particular concern for this topic and these characters, because black people in many creative mediums are often relegated to either despicable villains or immaculate saints and white allies placed on a pedestal of moral superiority because of their charitable spirit. In reality, however, people be people. A white person aligned with a minority cause make a very insensitive remark without even knowing it or hold racist misconceptions simply because they are “common knowledge” and people of color aren’t all bastions of righteous rebellion who have infinite understanding of the mechanisms of their own oppression. People, no matter how well intended, make mistakes and can be misguided. Putting these realistic traits into the narrative of The Underground lends gravitas to the story, the setting, and keeps the player interested in the characters as more than just chess pieces at their command. Without such investment in the characters and narrative, racism and slavery lose their social significance. The long lasting and deviously pervasive psychological damage that both systems inflict upon black and white people can only be expressed through characters that feel real and relatable.

       Games that market their socially progressive values overtly have been met with lukewarm reception and, honestly, it’s not a big surprise. Would you rather play a game about a badass space marine escaping a military facility infested with aliens/demons (a la Doom) or a game about a socially conscious bureaucrat trying to penny pinch and micro manage a sluggish, ignorant world out of a climate change disaster (a la middle management)? Those types of games, while well intended, miss the entire point of being a game-that is, to be fun and interactive. And in losing the strength of their genre, their arguments and information fall before hands just itching to ALT F4.

      However, through engaging gameplay and (hopefully) well written characters, racism can be dissected, examined, and presented to the player in every minute of the game without resorting to giant walls of text that would be more at home in a sociological study. That is why, in the ideal game of my dreams, racism isn’t just seen in boring quotes on the loading screen, but experienced through gameplay and humanized through dialogue in a sublime wedding of what I would like to say and what I would like to play.

Lots of words.

The following is a guest post by Jenny Haniver, originally published at Not in the Kitchen Anymore:

Jenny Haniver is a stone-cold badass, and the founder of the website Not in the Kitchen Anymore. She hails from Wisconsin, and when she’s not gaming she can usually be found hunting or fishing with her husband, working in a glass studio, or drinking way too many IPAs in front of a bonfire with her friends.

Trigger warning for misogyny and threats of violence.

On July 26th, I was playing Black Ops 2 on my Xbox 360. Another player in the lobby took issue with me being there, and basically started attacking me over my gender. He kept asking if I was on my period, implying that I was fat or a lesbian, and making jokes like “Hey, ya’ll know why uh, women shouldn’t have drivers licenses? Cuz there’s no highway between the bedroom and the kitchen.” It’s all documented in this entry.

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Save Points

by Riley MacLeod

Riley MacLeod is a trans writer and activist based in Brooklyn, NY. He is an editor at Topside Press and co-editor of “The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard,” which won the 2012 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction.

Trigger warning for discussions of suicide.

Everything bad seems to happen to me when playing Spec Ops: The Line.

The last essay I wrote for this site was about playing Spec Ops during Hurricane Sandy and the surreal feeling of playing a disaster game during a corporeal disaster. Over the winter I read Brendan Keogh’s Killing is Harmless and re-downloaded Spec Ops, intending to dig up some of the intricacies he points out, but I never got around to it. Last week, tired of the vapid sexism of Splinter Cell: Conviction, picked up during a Steam sale, I went back to Captain Walker’s ruined Dubai. It was nice, in a weird way. I’d forgotten how beautiful and harsh the environments were, and new headphones wrapped me in the rich sound design, the gritty footsteps and rattling gear of my doomed Delta squad, the solid crunch of bodies hitting glass. I found some new things–the tree that dies when you turn around, the ghost of a dead woman in the windows of a skyscraper, the ending you get when you fight your way through to the very last man. Done with a playthrough, I found myself achievement hunting, which I was dubious about in my essay, and I investigated what I was doing as I played late into the night. I realized that I didn’t want to leave Walker, Adams, and Lugo alone in that fucked-up place, stuck with their demons and their failures. I felt bad for them and what I was urging them to do with a gentle digital hand on their backs. I couldn’t change what happened to them, but I could at least try to guide them, keep them for too long in the corridors and ledges between combat arenas, staring shiftily at each other before they had to learn what atrocity I knew was coming next.
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Heroines in Dota 2

The following is a guest post from Max Seidman:

Max Seidman is a game designer at Tiltfactor, a game design and research lab located at Dartmouth College dedicated to developing games for meaningful social change. He posts design philosophy and game concepts on his blog.  Max lives in New Hampshire with Clementine, the Crystal Maiden to his Lycanthrope.

I love DotA.  I’ve been playing for over eight years at this point, and over that time I’ve sunk an absurd and unspeakable number of hours on the game.  I played it as a custom map for the original Warcraft III, then in the expansion Frozen Throne, then on the Garena client, and now in Valve’s standalone Dota 2.  And while I love the game, there’s one think I don’t love about it: its representation of women.  These are my thoughts on the things Dota 2 is doing poorly on this front.

Lack of Representation
A dearth of female characters is endemic to video games.  In games with a protagonist the argument is often made, “We’re marketing our game to men, so we’re going to make our main character male.”  While this is bullshit, I at least understand the argument.  However, not even this is a shield that games in the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre, games like DotA, can hide behind, as these games often have dozens of characters to choose from.

Dota 2 itself currently boasts over 100 heroes that players can play.  As you can see below, exactly 16 of them are female, identified either by their backstories, names or voices.  This is rather pathetic, and seems to imply that male players would be offended and turned off to the game by the mere presence of female characters, which I find fairly insulting.

Women: 51% of the U.S. population, 16% of the Dota 2 population. (Hero selection screen alternating all heroes, and just female ones.)

Women: 51% of the U.S. population, 16% of the Dota 2 population.
(Hero selection screen alternating all heroes, and just female ones.)

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White Hands

The following is a guest post from Sun Tzu:

Tzu is a mixed race gamer who has been involved in the gaming scene since Doom. He enjoys writing about social justice, feminism, a wide variety of game genres, and writing about himself in the third person. Any personal inquiries or comments can be sent to Tzuofthesun@gmail.com.

As an avid gamer and fan of the FPS genre, I’ve seen a great deal of hands. Hands pumping a shell into a shotgun, hands climbing ledges, and hands stacking crates to reach a window. Sometimes, I’m even treated to the rare incident of hands holding one another in a touching reunion. However, despite the great variety of actions that these hands take, there is comparatively less variance in their color. The vast majority of FPS games and first person perspective games, in my experience, feature white male characters as protagonists. As a gamer of color, I have found the lack of diversity rather irksome and problematic. While I have no aversion to playing white characters, the trend of white characters almost always taking the spotlight in such an intimate control scheme (after all, the first person perspective literally puts you inside the character) is indicative of some problematic norms that dominate the gaming industry. First and foremost, is that this trend is a form of white power.

First person shooters are meant to be power fantasies, or at the very least hero simulators. The character you control has a vast array of weaponry, tank-like durability, and in single-player shooters is destined by design to win. As such, having white characters in this role almost exclusively is a tacit, albeit often unintentional, way of expressing white supremacy. White characters are the powerful heroes that crush the demons invading Phobos or thwart the schemes of a conniving terrorist cell. Furthermore, putting these trends into an up close and personal perspective exacerbates these flaws. Since the game must be designed around camera close-ups on enemies (whether through close combat or a high power scope), a great deal of effort must be put into their appearance, which usually means making them “monstrous” or “other.” In the days of classic ID FPSs, this was relatively harmless: enemies were Nazis, demons, or hostile aliens. However, the taboo on featuring more human enemies in FPSs has somewhat lifted in recent years and some rather disturbing trends have surfaced as a result.

Far Cry 3, for example, features a white male protagonist whose primary goal in the game is to slaughter scores of black and brown pirates to save an island of functionally helpless natives and rescue his all-white friends. In that game, one mission in particular stands out as rather insensitive. The main character, tasked with burning down a field of marijuana to attract the ire of a local drug lord, jubilantly exclaims how much fun he’s having as he slaughters his way through the pirates guarding the plants. This mission features an unusually high volume of enemies, so the gameplay is very intense and the body count is very high. While I understand that this entire scenario was crafted as a huge weed joke (“Dude, I smoked like five fields of weed in Far Cry!”), I couldn’t help but feel offended that the white character was having so much fun killing these people of color – especially considering the fact that most of the story up until then associated violence with desperation and fear (especially with respect to white characters). While not all FPSs feature set ups as groan-inducing as Far Cry 3, it is a good example of how the white character trend can mar an otherwise impressive game.

An ugly smear on a great game is not the only harm that the white washed FPS genre does. The more subtle effect that it promotes is the idea that white is normal or “white is right.” In the world of FPSs, white people are the heroes and you, the FPS player, are encouraged to embrace that idea via inhabiting the body and mind of a series of white heroes and seeing various worlds over and over again through their eyes. I don’t believe that this is some conspiracy hatched by a cabal of geeky KKK members. I do, however, believe that this is the result of the gaming industry being lazy about diversity. Protagonists of color are, unfortunately, a risk. Anyone who has played games like Counter Strike, League of Legends, or any number of other multiplayer games that there are a lot of racist gamers out there. On top of that, characters of color are also subject to scrutiny from socially conscious gamers and stereotype slip ups could similarly besmirch a game’s reputation and sales. Challenges these may be, but insurmountable they are not; and in overcoming them, I believe that the gaming community as a whole can benefit greatly.

Racial diversity amongst FPS protagonists can help sow the idea that diversity is normal and that heroes rise from many backgrounds. One recent game in particular, though not an FPS, impressed me with its diverse cast of characters. XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a turn based strategy game, features randomly generated soldiers from many different countries around the world. Since your core squad begins as a random mix of peoples and replacements move in and out of it to account for injuries and death, the race of people who you command changes regularly. Furthermore, because of the tense gameplay and level up system for your soldiers you, the commander, come to cherish your troops a great deal and – at least in my case characterize – them based on their accomplishments. With that in mind, I would say that XCOM represents the most racially progressive game of 2012; it presents people of all ethnicities as badass heroes fighting against the odds to save the Earth.

A coalition storyline such as that in XCOM could easily be fitted into an FPS and create a similar environment where diversity is simply the norm. Beyond that, the intimacy of the first person perspective can be used, in shooter or otherwise, to craft sympathetic stories about oppressed people. There is a great, unexplored expanse in these unmade characters that is worth discovering-one in which we can carve the hero’s journey with many different hands and in doing so join our own.

Lara Croft, Bravery, and Humanity

The following is a guest post from Daniel Bullard-Bates:

Daniel Bullard-Bates is a feminist and an ally with a degree in religious studies. He works at the American Civil Liberties Union and writes fiction when he isn’t playing video games and writing about them. He previously wrote and edited Press Pause to Reflect, and he can now be found on twitter

Lara Croft has become the most sympathetic, charismatic protagonist in action gaming. Admittedly the bar isn’t set very high – most first-person protagonists are ciphers, and the very nature of any gun-oriented franchise turns its hero into a mass murderer. A few of these sociopaths are made more charming by a talented writing staff: Nathan Drake of Uncharted springs to mind, and John Marston of Red Dead Redemption is charismatic and self-effacing enough to be in competition with Lara, but Lara Croft comes closer to being a real human being and a believable action hero.

An illustration of the new Lara Croft. She is shown in a gray tank top, wind blown brown hair.  She is staring at the viewer, standing in front of a rough looking sea with sinking ships.  She has a bow/arrow strapped to her.

One of the greatest successes of the new Tomb Raider is its redefinition of bravery. In most action games, bravery is depicted as either nonchalance or wrathful determination. Nathan Drake quips and snarks his way through armies of mercenaries and supernatural beings. Kratos of God of War fame just seethes and snarls, hurling himself into battle with no regard for his own life. But Lara responds more rationally: when she is being hunted, when she realizes the terrifying thing she has to do, she shows trepidation and fear. In the midst of a firefight, she breathes heavily and sounds appropriately stressed out. In other words, she responds more like any one of us might in similar situations.

Showing fear is not a sign of weakness, and Lara Croft is no less impressive for being emotionally affected by her dire circumstances. In A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin, young Bran witnesses his father executing a criminal, and the following conversation about the nature of bravery follows:

“Robb says the man died bravely, but Jon says he was afraid.”
“What do you think?” his father asked.
Bran thought about it. “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”
“That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him.

Obviously the same is true for a woman. By showing her fear, Lara shows herself to be human, to be rational, to be actually experiencing the traumatizing events of the game. Even better, she offers a model of bravery that can teach us something about ourselves and our lives: we may not have superpowers, we may not have trained since youth to fight crime or have adventures, but when we are afraid we can recognize that as an opportunity for bravery. This makes Lara a more impressive and realistic character than most action heroes, and it also makes her a better role model for women and men alike.

It is also a great relief to me that Lara never seems to enjoy killing. She doesn’t gloat when she shoots a man in the head, she doesn’t cheer when she sends an explosive into a group of enemies, and she rarely takes the time to speak or taunt enemies in the middle of combat. When she first kills someone, she has a violent physical reaction. There is a bit of a disconnect that comes from her swift transition into a killing machine, as this scene is followed by a series of deadly encounters, but she never stops sounding upset and stressed out as she is forced to fight for her life and kill over and over again. It’s still a very violent game, and the mechanics encourage a sense of pride in the player’s and Lara’s combat skills, but Lara herself is only doing what she has to do, and she never expresses excitement or joy that this is what her life has become.

While Tomb Raider is well ahead of its competition in the realm of video games, it still lags behind other forms of popular entertainment. The game humanizes Lara by showing her being injured repeatedly, taking a page out of 1988’s Die Hard playbook to show that an action hero isn’t just an invulnerable killing machine. And despite the advances made in her characterization, she is still an impossible superwoman – more human than most, certainly, but she has no clear flaws that are not universal to the human condition, and she seems to be capable of any incredible feat. And, unfortunately, she is largely defined by the men in her life: her father’s teachings, her mentor’s training.

In many ways, the game is a conventional action story, filled with gunfire, explosions, and set pieces. It shows an over-reliance and fascination with gore and extreme violence, especially in one scene that completely beggars belief. (How many people must have been on this island in the first place for such a vast quantity of fresh corpses to be lying around?) Most of the other characters are completely sidelined in favor of Lara’s story. There’s even a damsel in distress, subverted only by the fact that she is being rescued by a female friend instead of a male lover. But between the female lead and the advances in characterization, Tomb Raider feels fresh and exciting.

We’ve seen evidence that many mainstream video game publishers are afraid to release games with female protagonists. This seems to stem from an outdated idea of the audience for video games; publishers believe that video games are still predominantly a pastime for straight young men, and those same straight men will not be able to identify with a female avatar. But the video game audience just keeps getting broader, and I don’t think I’ve ever been able to identify with a character as much as I could with Lara Croft. Let Tomb Raider be a challenge to other game designers. While the majority of the industry is wallowing in adolescence, Lara Croft is growing up.

Privacy and the PS4

Christina González is a TAB bicultural Latina. Growing up as a poor gamer with a disabled mother, she naturally gravitates toward social justice and culture topics, as well as community-related issues. She may be found over at christinagonzalez.net or join the conversation on Twitter at @c_gonzalez

Sony kicked off the year of the new console generation (arguably, as the Wii U came out in the fall) with its splashy press presentation last month for the PlayStation 4’s unveiling. While there is much in common between the PS4 and my current PC, I’m still interested enough in the games and promised features to give Sony my attention this year. However, there were some questions raised in the presentation that don’t seem to have clear answers just yet, even weeks after the fact. With the emphasis on integration of our real information and social networks, onboard immediate sharing, and related experiences, there’s potential cause for concern too.

The PS4’s controller comes with a touchpad and a new button labeled “Share”. This will enable gamers to prepare and immediately send and upload short video clips from the games they are currently playing without having to leave the game or make any effort beyond enabling the function. Other features will let others be able to tune in and watch your gameplay or even step in and take over playing for you. Sony praises all of this and the other social features as being what gamers want as well as connecting people more closely, including the ability to help your friends out when they get stuck somewhere. While this is true and could work well among close friends, this and other features named during the presentation make me wonder if they also serve to open vulnerable groups of people up to harassment.

Whether or not you have been harassed in the past, this new emphasis on openness, connectedness, and abundant sharing all bring up privacy concerns at the very least, and danger at worst. Sony also mentioned the use of real names and photos on profiles, drawn from existing social networks (though likely including PS accounts too). I don’t always want to draw attention to my gender when playing. In some spaces it’s easier than others to encounter those who want to make the game (and what little time I have to play) an unpleasant experience. I think about other people who might not want to use real names and photos. Some of my LGBT friends come to mind, as well as fellow minorities. If you’ve ever been asked “What are you?” or taunted with gendered language, you will understand why I might just want to exist as “GamerX” sometimes rather than “Christina Gonzalez” online. It’s not that I am uncomfortable with myself; I’m not. I am strong in my identity, but sometimes you don’t want to be ‘on’ and wish to be taken as a username and never use voice chat.

On occasion, privacy and anonymity becomes a need more than a want. To a more urgent end, this applies to people that need protection from having their real names visible. Someone being bullied at school. Someone that just got away from an abusive partner. Someone who has escaped abuse or violence shouldn’t have to worry about relaxing on the PlayStation with some games and potentially being found and terrorized again.

I’ve searched and paid special attention when reading about the PS4 to see if the privacy options for the console were detailed, but haven’t really found anything that addresses them. Although some are raising questions about how far the reach of streaming will go and whether it’s only to your friends or to the whole internet. I hope that similar privacy options that exist for sites like Facebook will carry over when accessed via the PS4. I know that I keep my Facebook profile pretty locked down for those I haven’t added. This isn’t because I post top secret information (in fact, you’re more likely to find a few corny jokes and pictures of vanity license plates). I have, however, been online before, hacked, and harassed. Thus I choose to be selective and only add people that I know in some capacity.

It’s a good idea for Sony to get in on social functionality. Brilliant, in fact, since that’s where a lot of gamers are going, especially younger ones who are open to a life lived less privately. The ability to easily connect with others online has been invaluable for many gamers in connecting with others who they may have never met otherwise. Hell, I met my boyfriend via online gaming. These services are part of many of our lives now, but that doesn’t mean caution isn’t needed. However, while it makes sense and is lucrative to market both consoles and information in this way, it is important that Sony’s considerations also include strong privacy options for those vulnerable to harassment, and frankly anyone who wishes to turn all of this off for whatever reason.

The Narrow-Mindedness of the ‘Accepted Wisdom’

Today’s guest post is by Sarah Argodale, a young student who is getting ready to start her Master’s degree in Public Policy/Administration. In her spare time, she likes to write about feminism and video games. You can follow her here.

A recent Rock Paper Shotgun interview with the lead writer of Dragon Age III tackles the issue of accepted sexism in the gaming industry. The whole interview is worth a read, but the crux of the argument is that the gaming industry makes excuses for not pursuing boarder gender representation, because it ‘doesn’t sell.’ I see this flawed argument come up a lot in the games industry and community; it’s absolutely infuriating. It is little more than an excuse to keep operating inside a very narrow and limiting idea of who buys and plays video games.

As a female gamer, it’s incredibly disheartening to see female characters being purposefully downplayed in the marketing of a video game, because developers fear that the presence of a woman might negatively impact their sales. It’s even more disheartening when the developers who are erasing women from their advertisements are ones you usually respect and admire. Bioshock Infinite provides a perfect example.

A well dressed white man with a gun slung over his shoulder, standing before a slowly burning American flag.

Bioshock Infinite’s cover.

Most people are probably already familiar with the dust up that occurred when Irrational Games released the cover art for their much-anticipated game that would, among many other things, feature a prominent female character named Elizabeth. Instead of alluding to any of the interesting aspects of the new Bioshock universe, the cover merely featured a generic picture of the male protagonist Booker DeWitt, with Elizabeth completely absent.

Ken Levine, the creative director of Irrational Games, defended the decision to choose a less than thrilling cover and, after some residual grumbling, the ‘controversy’ faded away. Even I wasn’t that bothered by it, and it was quickly forgotten.

Sadly, the issue of marketing video games and women came roaring back this year during the PAX East convention, when I attended Levine’s Bioshock panel. One of the female audience members directly questioned Irrational’s decision to not include Elizabeth—a female character that the Irrational panel had just spent an hour praising—on the game’s cover. Levine shared the same story I’ve seen him mention in other interviews: that he initially did not buy System Shock 1—a game that obviously had a huge impact on his life—because he was turned off by the cover, and that if fans of the Bioshock franchise wanted it to keep existing, they would have to accept that the game needed to sell. He ended by saying to not worry about the cover, but instead to just “play the fucking game,” which was met with raucous cheers from the crowd (mostly men) sitting around me. I sat there and listened as people happily applauded a woman being shot down for expressing her discomfort over how her gender is marginalized in a community she loves.

In Levine’s defense, he quickly apologized on Twitter after the panel. I know that he’d been fielding variations on this same question for months at this point, and a PAX panel was probably not the best forum to restart this discussion. I don’t want to lay all the blame for how women marketed in games at Levine and Irrational’s feet—that would be unfair. But, his defense props up the ‘accepted wisdom’ that so many other game devs tout when they explain why they can’t put their female characters in any prominent advertising. It’s an incredibly insulting idea that women in games mean the game won’t sell; not only to women, but to men as well. Because, seriously, what kind of troglodyte is incapable of enjoying something because it has a female protagonist? Who are these people and why does the gaming industry continue to defer to them? If the success of your game depends on appealing to a group whose worldview will not allow them to accept a prominent female presence in their media, then maybe you should develop a more nuanced, less regressive marketing strategy.

How a game is marketed is incredibly important, because it heavily influences what types of games get made. If devs unquestioningly accept that a female character is unmarketable, then why would they even try and diverge from the homogenous male character standard that exists in most games? It’s clear that considerations like this do happen and have an actual impact on what games are developed. Just look at the development history of Remember Me—a game that features a female protagonist; publishers rejected it out of hand because they did not believe that a female character could sell. Irrational may have not have gone as far as to completely cut their female character from the game, but by not including Elizabeth on the cover, they certainly helped to perpetuate the same status quo that almost stopped Remember Me from even getting made.

I’m glad that people like the Dragon Age team are standing up to the conventional wisdom and refusing to submit to marketing canards that may have been true 15 years ago, but have absolutely no place today, when half of the games community is made up of women. I really believe that the industry is heading in a better, more egalitarian direction and that in ten years this hesitation over marketing female characters will be laughable. But for now, it’s important that men and women in the industry and the community continue to vocally and financially support the idea that a female presence is not going to completely tank sales. That’s the only way we’ll ever be able to prove how utterly wrong this ‘accepted wisdom’ really is.

Looking Forward and Backwards to BioShock Infinite: Nostalgia and Memory in Video Games

The following is a guest post from Kaitlin Tremblay:

Kaitlin Tremblay has a Master’s in English and Film, with a specialization in gender and genre, and is currently living the fabulous life of a publishing intern. She spends most of her time playing games, painting, reading (mostly comics nowadays), watching old B-horror films, and writing a nerd-culture/feminist blog.

Nostalgia is a word that gets pandered around quite bit by everyone in almost every industry. In the winter I had the opportunity to work closely with various indie game developers in a program designed to help people get their projects up and running. During one of our workshop sessions, we got to talking about the word “nostalgia” and how it’s overused, but an extremely effective word and quality to infuse your product with. Every one is chasing the “nostalgia-factor” because we all like reminiscing about an idealized time. That is, in a large part, what nostalgia is all about: feeling a connection to a past event, object, period et cetera that is irretrievable and heavily idealized.

But it’s not actually about the past. Nostalgia is addictive and rewarding because it speaks more to our current state than it does the past event that is being remembered. According to film theorist Pam Cook, when we idealize something from the past, it’s a reflection of a longing we are currently feeling and trying to abate. This is why nostalgic films are so powerful as satires. Makes a lot of sense, right? I feel nostalgic for childhood when I’m overwrought and exhausted working multiple freelance gigs and internships and feeling generally cranky and angry at my present life-situation. It’s relaxing because it allows us to project.

On that note, I want to talk about nostalgia in video games, specifically in BioShock, which resembles pretty closely what Cook refers to as nostalgic films: they are works of art that recreate/(re)present a past society. BioShock is nostalgic because it imitates a specific period in American history that represents idealism itself: the pursuit of happiness and the American Dream. But nostalgia isn’t selective: when Rapture epitomizes 1950s culture, all the problems inherent rise to the top — that with the American Dream and capitalism comes with it the power for one man to take complete control, as well. The choices we think we have in BioShock are actually fabricated and a part of a system that we cannot beat through our own hard work: we’re controlled by Fontaine until we’re saved by Tennebaum. We can see this as a critique of a capitalist/Objectivist society because our current cultural climate allows for us to take our existing knowledge and see how it stacks up in a recreated past society.

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Games Imitating Life: Rape Culture In MMORPGs?

The following is a guest post from J.E. Keep:

J.E. Keep, and his partner M. Keep, write romance and erotica, administer their adult forum Darknest (a fantasy erotica site for gamers) and read simply everything. All while playing games and leading a guild. They can be found at The Keep and their blog, Keep It Up where they write about all of the above.

A curious event happened to me recently while roleplaying, and I’ll use direct quotes whenever appropriate. For those of you not familiar, I’ll explain things. Roleplaying, being the act of taking on the role of a character that’s not yourself, is traditionally done through tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons. With the rise in popularity of massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) it’s taken on a different turn in the online space with people playing out scenes as their avatars (their usually three-dimensional computer generated character) in an online world.

These days I play Guild Wars 2 (GW2), a recent and fairly popular MMORPG set in the fantasy world of Tyria. GW2 has the trappings of traditional magical fantasy, mixed with some steampunk elements. It has rather medieval humans facing off with curious beast people, short little goblinoids from beneath the earth, faerie-like plant beings, and giant nordic people of the mountains.

I bring all this up because of a scene that was roleplayed out one day in a tavern. I, playing a human woman named Sylvia, happened to observe a curious sight at the bar. A human male giving a single drink to a female character, who then promptly passed out.

Out of character (OOC), as the player, I recognized what they were doing. The player behind the unconscious woman had to drop out of the game and used a convenient ‘out’ as an excuse to take off from an in-character (IC) perspective.

From my in character perspective though, it looked highly dubious at best, and out of character I saw it as a great opportunity to pursue some roleplay. My character, who was already standing near the exit, questioned him on his way out about the woman over his shoulder. She wasn’t even aggressive about it then, it was casual. Mild.

His mutterings were nervous and dubious at best. He spoke about how he had “papers” to allow for such a thing, and he just had to get her back to his place. While my character found this all terribly suspicious, he continued to murmur about how this “wasn’t how [he] saw the evening turning out at all”.

My character, Sylvia, was quite alarmed by this. So with a growing suspicion she insisted the man either leave the woman with her or be escorted to a healers to see her taken care of. The man refused, and immediately got defensive about how these implications were “libellous” and insulting.

Troubled by his agitation, Sylvia then called for one of the local guards. You understand, in these sorts of roleplay environments there are usually one or two RPers about who take on the role of the Seraph, one of the local guards. This time, however, there was no such luck.

Left to her own devices and ignored by other players nearby, Sylvia got more forceful. She demanded he not leave with her and that she would see to it that this unconscious woman was taken care of. Things grew more heated, and she took to trying to enlist some aid from other patrons of the bar.

Instead of support, however, she was met with incredulous stares and mutterings about what a “nuisance” she was, and how much of a “loud mouth” she was “making such a fuss” about “nothing”.

As the encounter drew out, the irritation with Sylvia’s insistence that the man not “abscond with an unconscious woman” grew. Instead of muttering about her being a “loud mouth”, they were now actively interfering. The other characters were showing support for the nervous man, one going so far as to call Sylvia a “bitch” and several offering to distract her while the man got away. One even went so far as to try and physically restrain Sylvia while ushering the nervous man out the door.

All throughout it only one person offered even momentary support for Sylvia’s suspicions. A character playing a priestess wandered by and showed concern at Sylvia’s distress. However, once the man stated that the woman passed out from a drink so he was taking her home, she shrugged it off and informed Sylvia that her accusation was “very serious” and she shouldn’t say such things so lightly without hard proof because of the consequences it could have for the man.

I had initiated RP with the other player for the sake of fun, but I had increasingly become more and more unnerved by the turn. It’s only a game and it’s fantasy and roleplay and silliness, of course. The other players undoubtedly took cues from the out of character nature of things. It’s not, after all, as if anyone could force another player to RP out something they don’t wish.

However through the time spent playing this scene out, the manner in which it mirrored real life behaviour that I’ve either seen or read about in such detail was unpleasant, to say the least. Not only in the casual disregard for the unconscious woman’s well-being from an IC perspective, but OOC the things that were said were so jarringly similar to the sexist and harmful things you hear in real life.

My female character, showing concern, was deemed a “loud mouth”, a “nuisance,” a “bitch”. While every ounce of understanding was given to the nervous, muttering man. Sylvia was informed of “how serious an accusation” such things were, and how damaging such things could be to the man, though not a single one seemed concerned for the seriousness of the accusation if true.

I’m not making any real case to argue how much of it was based upon real sexism of the players behind the characters, or how much the players were aware of in their actions.

It’s noteworthy because of how unnervingly true to life it was.

(Originally posted at Keep it Up)