Category Archives: Console Games

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

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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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.

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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.

Dragon’s Crown — Basically ‘Boobs & Butts: The Game’

Sometimes, you see an artistic interpretation of anatomy that just defies all expectations.  One that makes you wish that everyone else on the internet could experience it along with you.  Today that title is Dragon’s Crown, an upcoming 2D “multiplayer action beat ‘em up” game for Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita. I will try to find words while I write this post.

Let’s start out with the Sorceress character.  According to the game’s website, they are “bewitching women….weak of body” but have great knowledge.

The sorceress character is show.  She has a large witch hat, is wearing a black corset with basically her entire chest showing, has long red hair, and is wearing a long purple skirt with slits in it that show most of her legs.  The image to the right shows her chest and backside in the common Escher Girls pose.

Certainly not “weak of boob”.  A shot of the Sorceress in gameplay shows that she’s clothed just the same while actually being played in game, and watching the video on the website shows quite a bit of jiggle while she’s casting spells.  Umm…yeah.

A shot of the gameplay of Dragon's Crown.  Sorceress is wearing the same outfit from above.

And now, the Amazon.

The Amazon in Dragon's Crown.  She is shown with a large axe, henna tattooed legs, a tiny head, and an enormous body.  Her butt and boobs are giant compared to her waist (which sports chiseled abs).

Where do I even begin here? Those proportions!  I’m not sure how she manages to have such large boobs and a gigantic rear end without her waist being wide at all.  But even more  fascinating is how small her head is.  One of her boobs will quite literally cover her face and then some.  It’s amazing that Atlus attempted to make a strong muscular woman character who still remains completely sexualized with her Escher Girls pose, her complete lack of any armor, and her stereotypically feminine face and hair.

Dragon’s Crown will be out this summer, in case you actually want to give this company money.  I won’t hold it against you, but you better send me some ridiculous screenshots.

(h/t to Nush B on Twitter for the tip)

Edit: We need to add a link to this awesome set of revisions that turns the table around on the male characters of Dragon’s Crown.  Thanks to @gygaxis for the tip.

In Medias Res

Six months in.

Six months in.

[Author's note: This is a follow-up to my first post on The Border House. There are many ways to transition and not all of them involve hormones.  While I want to share my journey, I don't want my transition to be read as an archetype for others.]

Transitioning legally, hormonally and socially is like playing a classic Japanese role-playing game. At the start, you “gain experience” and “level up” at an exhilarating pace. Last August, I came out to my friends: Level 2! Last October, I came out at work: Level 3!

In November, I reached the bottom of the dungeon (the endocrinology department at the Emory University Hospital), beat the big boss (my long-awaited doctor’s appointment) and obtained some sweet loot: a prescription for spironolactone (a testosterone-blocker) and estradiol (a form of estrogen). This single victory merited a massive experience boost: Level 3 to Level 7 all at once!

As time wore on, however, these monumental moments spread further and further apart. This February, I legally changed my name: Level 8, I suppose. I got an F on my passport last month: Level 8 and a half? I changed the name on my car title. Hooray? How exciting…

It feels like I’m grinding now. About six months into hormone replacement therapy (HRT), physical progress is frustratingly incremental. Everyday, twice a day, I pop that same pair of pills. Everyday, I brush my hair out to see how long it’s gotten, tugging my bangs down over the tip of my nose. Everyday, I examine my body in the mirror hoping that I will be surprised by what I see.

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All Skulls On: Teaching Intersectionality through Halo

From left to right: Matt, Carl, Samantha (the author), and Cody at the Halo Station.

From left to right: Matt, Carl, Samantha (the author), and Cody at the Halo Station.

“Let me just close the door so the other instructors don’t find out I’m letting you play Halo,” I joked to my Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies 100 class. I knew I was taking a risk on this teaching activity. I was worried that it would come across as a shameless, gimmicky attempt to glam up the difficult topic of intersectional oppression.

My friend and fellow WGSS 100 instructor Lauran planted the seed of the idea for this activity when she, citing my proclivity for video games, recommended that I read John Scalzi’s blog post “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.” I liked it. The article was clear, accessible and completely on point. Scalzi’s argument is that being a straight white man is like playing a video game on easy mode: some challenges remain but the player is at an automatic advantage.

As I tried to think about how I would incorporate Scalzi’s article into a lesson on feminist theories of intersectionality, however, I realized that it couldn’t do as much work as I would need it to. Scalzi’s article is a fantastic thought experiment revolving around a brilliant metaphor. While I couldn’t fault it for its simplicity, then, I realized that I would need a more complex metaphor that could capture the way in which systems of oppression interlock and compound each other’s effects.

That’s when Halo came to mind. I wrote an article for First Person Scholar describing how the “skull system” in Halo virtually models the way in which systems of oppression, as Kimberlé Crenshaw observes,  “interact” and “overlap.” In a Halo game, skulls are elective difficulty modifiers that affect particular game systems. For example, activating one skull halves the player’s ammo while activating another removes the on-screen radar. As I wrote on First Person Scholar, “Activating multiple skulls in a Halo game effectively models intersectional forms of oppression. The individual effects of each of these skulls do not simply run in parallel; rather, they intersect, overlap and interlock, just like systems of oppression.” For example, one skull will make enemies throw grenades more frequently while another skull increases the explosion radius of those same grenades.

When we came to our unit on intersectionality, I assigned students to read both Scalzi’s article and my First Person Scholar essay alongside some foundational feminist texts on intersectionality and privilege. And, as they did their reading over the weekend, I was at home devising an elaborate activity with a staggering number of moving parts. Given the complexity of the activity, it’s understandable that I would try to hide the proceedings of my class. It could have gone horribly awry. But did it? Here’s what happened and what we learned from the activity. Continue reading

First Impressions: Transistor and Remember Me

Last month, I had the chance to check out a few upcoming games at PAX East. Since the lines for everything were quite long, I prioritized two that featured playable female characters: Supergiant Games’ recently announced Transistor, and Dontnod’s Remember Me. Both games are futuristic sci-fi adventures starring women, but beyond that, they have little in common.

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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.

What I Saw at PAX East 2013: Female Protagonists!

Pax east logo

At PAX East 2012, the only game I played with a female character was Borderlands 2. I did play a couple of games with a first-person POV with no emphasis on gender, but I encountered a serious lack of female characters last year. This year, I found six games with female leads, and three games with the option of playing female characters.
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