Category Archives: PC Games

Gone Home review

Samantha Greenbriar's room in Gone Home.

Samantha Greenbriar’s room in Gone Home.

Gone Home invites you to step into an empty house and uncover its stories. It isn’t a game that focuses on battle systems or outlandish weapons. Gone Home asks to player wander around, remain curious, and discover what they can about the lives of Greenbriar family.

 

Gameplay:

You enter the world of Gone Home as Kaitlin Greenbriar. After traveling abroad, she arrives to find that there is no one at the house to greet her. Your first task is to find the spare key and enter the dark home. Once inside you can turn on the lights and wander around, exploring every nook and cranny.

You discover intimate details about your family members by interacting with the environment and rummaging through the items in the house. One item will give you a hint where to look next. Interacting with an important item will open up a journal entry written by your sister. These journal entries are both voice acted and presented as text and can be accessed at any point after finding them. The main mechanic of the game is simple: explore by clicking on various items in the house.

 

Atmosphere:

There is a haunting tone to the game. When you enter the home it is dark, secluded, and silent aside from a thunderstorm raging outside. The game intersperses a quiet score with Riot Grrl songs (played via cassette tapes found within the house).

The place is littered with personal items from the Greenbriar family. Tapes of X-Files episodes, boxes full of copies of your father’s books, Nintendo cartridges, and other items serve to tell the story of the members in the house. The details are more than window dressing; they tell the story.

 

Characters:

While the player is controlling Kaitlin Greenbriar, she is not the focus. Gone Home is primarily the tale of the younger sister, a teenager whose tale you slowly learn through diary entries, letters, and scattered items. You are shown Samantha’s desires, flaws, insecurities, fears, struggles, and triumphs. The intricately designed details make her story feel real. Glow in the dark star stickers above the bed, a couch cushion fort in the living room, and boxes of short stories written in elementary school all inform the player about Samantha.

While Samantha’s life is the focus, the rest of the family is not ignored. You witness details of the parents’ marriage. You get a glimpse of a trauma haunting Kaitlin’s father (a man obsessed with writing stories where the main character changes the past). The details of these tales are fuzzier than that of Samantha’s. The player is left uncertain and making assumptions. But for players who explore the house in detail, those characters have a lot to say despite never being present within the home. The items that are hidden away in drawers act as evidence of the lives of their owners, painting  incomplete but striking pictures of Kaitlin’s parents and her great-uncle.

 

Emotional impact:

At the end of the day, Gone Home is a relatively short game. It can be completed in roughly 4 hours. But this focused experience is a gem. Months after completing this game I still think about the characters and the story. While the player never meets or interacts with Kaitlin’s family members in the house, the details of their lives are abundant. Their tales had me crying more than once.

Gone Home harnesses the power of a well written story. Developer The Fullbright Company created a game that I will not forget for quite some time.

Bunk Bed #2: Redshirt

Welcome to the Border House Bunk Bed, a feature in which Zoya and I respond to a game’s treatment of gender and sexuality with two short essays. Each half of Bunk Bed is written in isolation; we are forbidden from reading each other’s work until the feature is done. Bunk Bed is meant to capture the unedited, honest (and sometimes divergent) feelings of two queer games critics. Readers are invited to try the featured game and share their own responses in the comments section. 
 
A photo of a bunk bed.

Welcome to Border House Bunk Bed!

The Game:

Redshirt (The Tiniest Shark, PC and Mac, $19.95 USD) is a sci-fi social media simulator that transports the player to a Star Trek-inspired future while lampooning the Facebook of the present. By navigating social media website Spacebook (get it?), the player builds relationships, acquires skills, and climbs the career ladder. Redshirt will be available on November 13th, 2013 on Steam, GoG, and through direct download.

Top Bunk: Samantha

It’s my dream to be queer in outer space. Why? Queerness and outer space are the two coolest things ever, so they should be mind-blowing in combination, right? My partner and I would live on a homey little space station orbiting Jupiter, far away from all the straight people. We’d be so beautifully isolated and, in the stillness of space, I would perfect the art of the Barbarella-esque, zero-gravity striptease.

When I booted up Mitu Khandaker’s Redshirt, I was ready to live out my dreams of sultry space sex. I made a green-skinned Asrion character named Samantha, indicated an erotic interest in women on my profile and began my simulated space sojourn. But alas, the endlessness of space couldn’t shield me from the vagaries of love. Redshirt was not the queer getaway of my dreams but it did produce an unforgettable tale of love and heartbreak. Continue reading

An Impolite Conversation: The relationship between sex and politics in three games

I recently played a game called Agarest: Generations of War for review (Filipowich, Mark. “Review: Agarest: Generations of War.” PopMatters. Oct 28 2013.). It sucked. Many games are built from the ground up on a problematic premise; baggage is built into them. Many of the problems with Grand Theft Auto V, for instance, weren’t a surprise. But Agarest didn’t have to suck. It carefully crafted its own suckiness from a really good premise.

The game begins with the player-character, Leo—a real swell guy working for a real evil empire—attacking an impoverished country of ethnic minorities. When he sees what he’s been doing first hand, Leo refuses to participate any longer. Then a fellow officer kills him because that’s what happens to traitors. Leo is left to bleed to death in a field when an angel promises to revive him in exchange for his and his descendants’ aid against heaven’s enemies.

The Angel from Agarest, a woman with cyan hair wearing a tiara. She is thin and pale, her torso is exposed save for two strips of dark blue duct tape crossing over her nipples.

The angel from Agarest, an anime woman with cyan hair wearing a tiara. She is thin and pale, her torso is exposed save for two strips of dark blue duct tape crossing over her nipples.

From there, Leo must win the war, seduce a sexy she-human and plant a clone in her baby-sac so that his sacred duty can be passed onto the next generation. This process is repeated for all five generations of slightly differently haired Leos. All the player-characters are men, all possible relationships are heterosexual and monogamous and all the women are eerily infantile and/or battered on top of the usual erotic pandering character designs. Just as bad, all potential romance options claw over one another for the player’s love after the player has invested enough relationship points (Moss, Kim. “Y’know What’s Gross? We Often Play Nice Guys™ In Games With Romance Options.” Nightmare Mode. Dec 3 2012.). Women are just baby-making apparatuses, and to acquire one the player really only needs to ask politely at regular prompts. It’s not very difficult to spot the sexism here, but Agarest props itself up to be so much more by placing the personal and the sexual right at the center of the political.

A block of text from Agarest, explaining that the affection levels of two out of three of the potential lovers have increased while the third remains unchanged. A dialogue box beneath reads "What?" which was more or less the author's own reaction.

A block of text from Agarest, explaining that the affection levels of two out of three of the potential lovers have increased while the third remains unchanged. A dialogue box beneath reads “What?” which was more or less the author’s own reaction.

See, to maintain the order of the world, Leo mustn’t just smite the dragon-king, he has to be the kind of person that others would want to be in a sexual relationship with. The player-character doesn’t just need to seek out sex to satisfy the story, he needs to be a good boyfriend and eventual husband. Furthermore, the story demands that the player find someone willing to stick with them for the entire child-rearing process. It’s not enough to beat the bad guy, the hero must raise a good child with a good person to prevent evil from overtaking the world. If the player-character isn’t a decent, trustworthy, long-term lover and parent, the world will end. At the very least the player must be responsible enough to ensure his child will have a good upbringing; the kind of upbringing that will prepare a child emotionally and ethically for protecting the world in adulthood.

Each generation could follow a child of a different gender and a different sexuality, the game could weigh the challenge of finding a partner against that of deserving a partner. It just doesn’t. Again, the real objective of each of the five player-characters is not just defeating the bad guy, but also falling in love, coping with unrequited love, actually being a romantic partner to an individual. In Agarest, the political is directly linked to sexual relationships: loving others and being worthy of love sustains the world. The player-character’s inability to love, according to the lore provided by the game, would destroy society; being untrustworthy as lover, let alone as a parent, ends the world. That’s powerful. However, Agarest’s “dating simulator” amounts picking out the best cut of meat as the next generation pops into the player’s control.

Aragest doesn’t present sex—it could, and it’d be infinitely better if it did—it presents a specific kind of pornography; where women look and behave according to an insecure, adolescent fantasy. But it does nonetheless stumble into the complex intersection of love, family, sex, relationships, power and politics, even if it never seems to appreciate its own subject matter. I bring up Agarest as a failed instance of what another game, Hate Plus, does so well.

Hate Plus expands on Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story and follows the first social collapse of the Mugunghwa, a lost generation space ship. Hate Plus chronicles the transformation of a flawed but functional society into one that is self-destructively conservative. But what makes the Mugunghwa’s tragedy so compelling is how it’s told through the many doomed love stories of its people.

New *Mute from Hate plus, with her hand to her chin. She wears a black officer's uniform with gold trim. In the dialogue box she expresses an understandable desire to explore space, solve mysteries and charm men with dialogue wheels.

New *Mute from Hate Plus against a gold background. She holds her hand to her chin. She wears a black officer’s uniform with gold trim. In the dialogue box she expresses an understandable desire to explore space, solve mysteries and charm men with dialogue wheels.

Though the plot is most immediately concerned with the fall of one government and the rise of another (and, ultimately, the fall of that government into extinction), the story is told by people developing crushes, exploring their own or another’s sexuality, committing adultery and betraying one another’s trust. It’s easy to understand how the Mugunghwa could destroy itself from a distance, but by seeing the effect of a new law, a changing fashion trend, a different standard of education through the eyes of the people living through them makes empathising with the Mugunghwa’s people natural.

For instance, a tax break for new mothers is instrumental in changing the Mugunghwa’s cultural view of women; it takes them out of the workplace and puts them in an increasingly domestic role, it makes them more desperate for work and it lowers their expectation of wage and prestige. Taking a detached and academic approach, one could see how a piece of legislation like that could undermine women’s rights, but Hate Plus emphasises the personal impact of these kinds of laws. More importantly, though, it emphasises how the changing zeitgeist dictates how characters are expected to satisfy their sexual needs.

Hate Plus is powerful because it shows how intimate something so sterile as tax reform can be. Kim So Yi, a brilliant engineer, is gradually marginalized by her government, her workplace and even by her well-meaning and otherwise decent husband. Her career is ruined the more her culture encroaches on her sexuality. Heterosexuality and motherhood become privileged and her career is significantly impacted by the sex she’s expected to have, enjoy and make public. The aforementioned tax break is passed by half a dozen rich people just trying to reach their lunch break, but it cages one of the ship’s greatest minds. Her culture silences her in the face of a sexually aggressive co-worker and it forces her to quit her work for children everybody but she wants to have. Depending on who gives or receives a blow job is immensely political and can mean the difference between a high five and prison sentence, Hate Plus shows how that distinction is arbitrated.

*Hyun-Ae and *Mute from Hate Plus wearing Korean hanbok, *Hyun-Ae's is white with red trim and *Mute's is black and purple. *Mute tells her colleague that she "will not be teased by a lovestruck girl with a fixation on hair fluffiness!"

*Hyun-Ae and *Mute from Hate Plus wearing Korean hanbok, *Hyun-Ae’s is white with red trim and *Mute’s is black and purple. *Mute tells her colleague that she “will not be teased by a lovestruck girl with a fixation on hair fluffiness!”

The beauty of Hate Plus is in how connected everything is. The game’s primary concern is how people relate and the player understand the relationships between the cast through their sex and their politics. The way people are allowed to love depends entirely on the Mugunghwa’s power structure, and sex is used to dictate the change of that structure. It’s important to note that the immortal space badass, Old *Mute, is not overthrown and killed because she is outmatched in arms—she isn’t—she is beaten by the slow erosion of her culture’s sex politics and her surrender is made absolute when she exploits her lieutenant’s love and trust.

Hate Plus is not ero—as the catchy credits song explains—but it ties the erotic to the political. It’s a story about conspiracy, intrigue and revolution told through sex stories, love poems and romantic confessions. It works because sociology and history are studies of sexual, lovesick people from a perspective too distant to see those details. Hate Plus shows how the personal and erotic, taken together, build and move a political engine. In that context, it’s interesting to look at another independent game invested in sex, Consensual Torture Simulator.

Merritt Kopas’s Consensual Torture Simulator is a game about two lovers consensually finding joy in one another’s bodies. It’s straightforward about the act and the objective: the player is in a sadomasochistic relationship with their girlfriend and the player’s goal is to strike their partner until they cry. Both the invisible player-character and the nameless girlfriend find joy in the interaction. There’s no twist that one of the lovers is a ghost or anything like that, it’s just two people who love each other being physically intimate with one another.

That’s where Consensual Torture Simulator, for me, becomes more interesting politically. Both the participating characters, even the title itself, are so honest. Moreover, though the player is performing the torture, not receiving it, the game monitors the player’s physical condition. Swinging a whip is tiring, and if the player doesn’t recognize their own limits they’re as likely to break as their partner. Topping is as demanding as bottoming for many of the same reasons. Performing the act successfully requires equal commitment, trust and exertion from the participants.

Promotional material for Consensual Torture Simulator showing a woman's hands bound by leather straps hanging from the ceiling. The photo is washed over in pink with the game's title along the right.

Promotional material for Consensual Torture Simulator showing a woman’s hands bound by leather straps hanging from the ceiling. The photo is washed over in pink with the game’s title along the right.

Patricia Hernandez interviewed Kopas for Kotaku about the game (“A Game Where You Torture Someone Because They Want You To.” Oct 29 2013.) and in the piece she cites some of the developer’s previous writing on violence from her personal blog (“keywords debrief: violence.” Oct 11 2012.). Kopas writes that the greatest problem with how games portray violence is in how “they conceal…structural violences.” It’s significant that Hernandez recalls that piece in a conversation about Consensual Torture Simulator because the structure of that game and the sexual act therein so honest and egalitarian. The player’s satisfaction depends on their partner’s satisfaction. If the player-character gets tired, their partner needs to have patience with them; if the partner’s threshold is reached, she trusts the player to recognize that; if either needs the stimulation to escalate than it must be on the terms of the other. Structurally speaking, neither partner holds power over the other.

Consensual Torture Simulator doesn’t present sex as a capitalist exchange between a purchaser and a provider, nor does it present violence as a colonial attack from an invader upon an underarmed, weaker “threat.” Violence—if it can be called that—is based on a structure of two, equal parties seeking the same, mutually beneficial end. Both player and partner commit to the act as best they’re able. If one needs a rest, the other recognizes it. It’s appropriate that Consensual Torture Simulator comes as a reaction to Grand Theft Auto V because it—like most triple A games—romanticizes violence as a pleasurable act to perform on an unwilling, nameless creature. The structure of triple A games, GTA V just being the most recent representative to take the floor, encourages a lopsided power structure. Consensual Torture Simulator is structurally based on two people that trust one another committed to pleasuring one another in different but equal ways.

Sex and politics may not be fair subject for polite conversation but they’re connected. Politics dictate the terms of how people may interact with their own bodies and most of the people that make up society really like getting off. The two are connected. It’s interesting to see how games—like politics, systems of rules that dictate behaviour—attempt to examine the connection of politics. Sex in games can present their players with a microcosm of power, whether through the failed but promising allusion in Agarest, the mutually dependant organism shown in Hate Plus or the reaction to a current understanding of violence in Consensual Torture Simulator. Sex is a reflection of how power influences people, and games are in a strong position to comment on how one impacts the other.

Agarest: Generations of War is available on Steam for $19.99, it’s also available under the name Record of Agarest War for the same price on the Playstation Network or for $29.99 on Xbox Live Arcade. Hate Plus is available on Steam for $9.99 and Consnsual Torture Simulator can be purchased for a minimum of $2.00 on either Gumroad or itch.io.

Wrath of the Gods: Teaching Intersectionality through Bastion

My class awash in the colors of Bastion.

My class awash in the colors of Bastion.

Special thanks to Greg Kasavin, creative director of Supergiant Games for supplying my classroom with educational copies of Bastion. Thanks as well to Damien Prystay who shared his save game data and to Christopher Sawula who graciously reprised his role as my classroom aide.
 

If you’re a Border House regular, you know that last semester I taught my students about the feminist theory of intersectionality using Halo. Intersectionality is the theory that systems of oppression like racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia interact and overlap, compounding each other’s effects in unique ways. If you think about each of these systems separately, you’ll miss forms of oppression that folks experience at particular intersections of identity.

A few examples? Imagine being a gay, lesbian or bisexual person with a disability in the United States and not being able to marry your same-sex partner in order to receive essential health benefits. Imagine being fired for coming out as transgender (which is still legal in thirty-three states) and not having the resources to survive because you are working class. Imagine being an African-American woman shopping for a sharp business suit in order to counteract hiring prejudice and getting followed by security at the department store.

If you’re just thinking about any single system of oppression, you won’t be able to understand any of the above experiences. And you can’t just add systems like racism and sexism together, either. Intersectionality isn’t additive; it’s multiplicative. If you want to practice an intersectional politics, you have to focus on the ways in which all systems of oppression interact with each other.

Video games are uniquely equipped to teach students about oppression because they are likewise composed of interacting systems, systems that can often be challenging and unforgiving. As Ian Bogost notes in a recent blog post, games might be “the best medium for expressing certain things—say, the operation and experience of systems.” But most games don’t allow you to alter the behavior of individual game systems to a truly intersectional level of detail. Continue reading

Kickstarting Gameplay Anew: Ambrov X’s Promise

A capacious chamber that appears open to the stars, with a woman levitating in its centre surrounded by elegant minimalist semicircles of machinery while a man looks on.

The Astrogation Resonance Chamber aboard the Beacon Ship, Unity One from Loreful’s Ambrov X, a new RPG they are currently crowdfunding.

Despite spirited opposition that has come to dominate the year’s headlines, there remains ample reason to be hopeful that games will evolve to tell new, more diverse stories, with pathbreaking mechanics undergirding it all. Consider Cincinnati-based game developer Loreful and their new game Ambrov X which was kickstarted just this past Tuesday. Under the direction of Lead Designer Ben Steel, and based on the classic feminist sci-fi Sime-Gen universe series, by Jacqueline Lichtenberg and Jean Lorrah, Ambrov X promises an involving story premised on an abiding, mortally dangerous relationship between two members of the eponymous Sime and Gen species. Through the lens of this fraught partnership, the larger political story of an action-adventure plot set in deep space is told. The bond between your protagonist and their companion seems to be the beating heart of this story; Jennifer Helper minces no words:

“How much more intense could your relationship be with your followers if they were more than friends, more than romances – if they were both a part of your soul and the greatest threat to it?”

And yes you did read correctly; this project is erstwhile Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler’s next act, cheerfully announced in a Loreful press release. She is consulting for the company at present and, provided they reach the first stretch goal on their Kickstarter project, Loreful intends to bring her on board full-time as their Lead Writer and Narrative Designer for Ambrov X. Her ability to tell a challenging story will hold her in good stead here, I think. Hepler has long been an advocate of probing personal relationships for narrative grist, up to and including romance irrespective of gender; I could certainly see why this project would appeal to her. “The setting allows you to play with the difference between romance and sexuality,” she said when I asked her about Ambrov X and its source material, “and [it lets you] ask questions like: Can you be in an intense and physical relationship with someone without it being sexual? Can love help someone overcome the desire for violence, even if it is a basic part of his nature? and How much of yourself can you give up to another while still remaining you?” Continue reading

On The Border: An interview with Emily Short

 

Interactive fiction author Emily Short.

Interactive fiction author Emily Short.

For this installment of On the Border, we have an interview with prolific and renowned interactive fiction author Emily Short. Known for her signature pieces like Galatea and Alabaster that blazed the trail for interactive fiction as a serious modern form of literature, Short has had an interesting trip on her road to becoming an IF legend.

As a child, Short was always interested in the possibility space of interactive narratives, noting her early forays into parser technologies and text adventures. As she grew up, she learned of the amateur IF scene and such technologies as Inform 5 and 6, along with other tools that made crafting IF easier, she jumped at the chance to make her own things, though not necessarily for a career. She went on to study Classics in graduate school- all the while creating interactive fiction on the side- and when her IF and critical writing began to gain traction and her teaching aspirations began to contract, she decided to make the choice so switch careers and pursue IF, freelancing on multiple projects until ending up on the Versu project with Richard Evans and Linden.

 

The Border House: How and when did you get started in writing?

Emily Short: I was trying to write IF at an early age, even though I wasn’t really succeeding at it. I was an early reader, my parents taught me to read before I went to kindergarten, so that kind of naturally flowed into me wanting to write my own initially very little-kid sorts of stories; I always saw myself as partly a writer as a kid, and I did a lot of that kind of thing. A lot of fantasy and science fiction when I was a teenager; I don’t read as much anymore, but that was where my mind was at the time.

Continue reading

This Memory Which is Not One

Nilin standing before the Eiffel Tower on a rainy night, looking out onto a futuristic city scape with the Memorize corporate HQ in the foreground, a holographic advert proclaiming "Trust Us; We Won't Forget You"

Of opera libretti—the text that lays out the spoken dialogue and lyrics of opera—cultural critic Bryan Magee once wrote, “A good opera libretto… must not itself aim to be the finished work of art. A libretto that stood on the printed page as a fully achieved drama, and whose poetry filled out the expressive potential of the characters, would already be a successfully brought-off verse play, and would not need music; indeed, there would be nothing for the music to do,” …and I have come to realise that much the same may be profitably said of video game writing as well.

The text is never the finished product, but rather the matrix of scaffolding that holds up the ludic experience of a game. In other words, the writing must always undergird what you do, for it is this interactive element that distinguishes the medium. It is here that the experience of Remember Me ultimately fails to live up to its potential. The writing, already weak, is comprised of gestures to a larger, more complex world which the game’s fantastically beautiful and creative artwork relentlessly teases us with; the writing hints at a more intriguing philosophical universe lurking just beyond the game’s digital haze—and yet the game’s immersion fails to surround us with that potential world.

It is a tour past the basic elements of complex philosophy, intriguing characters, vicissitudinal subplots, and a magnificent dystopia to hold them all—yet the experience is resolutely “look, don’t touch.” We pass by complex philosophical questions and intricate characters, hungry for more, helpless as we watch the opportunity for depth discarded all too soon like so much tissue paper.

Nilin’s story—that of a peerlessly gifted ‘memory hunter’ who’s had her own memory wiped—could have been so much more. Her quest to reclaim her memory, with the help of old radical comrades in the “Errorist” resistance, at first seems to promise not only a winding journey through the dystopian future of 2084’s Neo Paris, and the corporate republic that rules it, but an all too needful exploration of the limits of revolutionary politics and the stresses it imposes on the most gifted servants of a movement. Instead, the game’s writing makes a gesture that the gameplay fails to complete, letting these filaments of plot dissipate into endless rounds of punch-em-ups that bring us no closer to genuine depth.

Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

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.)

Continue reading

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.