Tag Archives: MMORPG

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)

The Deep Roads -- A beautiful concept painting depicting a figure walking through the dimly lit geometric stonework of a mighty tunnel.

Roll a Die by the Sword: An Engagement with Jennifer Hepler’s Ideas

The Deep Roads -- A beautiful concept painting depicting a figure walking through the dimly lit geometric stonework of a mighty tunnel.

 

There were many things wrong with the recent bacchanal of hate that surrounded Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler this past week, but one of the more critical ones was this: she was being savaged for merely offering an opinion in an ongoing discussion about gaming. One of the tragedies of cultural sexism is that we as women are not taken seriously as participants in our fields; even when robust defences against misogyny are mounted, lost in the shuffle is the renegotiation of the discussion that allows these women’s views to be folded back into the discourse where they belong.

In other words, one of the best ways we can honour Hepler as a community of gamers is to take her ideas seriously and discuss them rationally, whether or not we agree.

So let’s get down to it: what are the merits of her ideas surrounding issues like skipping combat?

I have often said that combat is the central idiom of progress in most video games; across every genre you can think of—encompassing a startlingly diverse canon—combat reigns supreme as the primary mechanism by which progress is both represented and assessed. This has been handled in a variety of ways that lend distinction to various games; there are many ways to do combat. However, could there be another way forward? I believe that dethroning combat as game’s central mode of progress is one of several ways games can begin telling a whole new tranche of stories.

In the furore surrounding the public airing of edited remarks by Hepler even some of the more sensible commentors routinely conflated “combat” with “gameplay.” Some said that Hepler was calling for the “game” part of video games to be extracted entirely. I feel that if fighting has become so central to our understanding of what gaming is, we have a problem. Needless to say, an entire genre of games that many gamers look back on with a measure of fondness—Adventure games—wouldn’t exist if combat was the bread and butter of every game.

But what about Hepler’s idea specifically? I think it merits a good deal more consideration. As Susana Polo on the Mary Sue has argued, one of the third rails that Hepler’s comments inadvertently touched on was the rampant fear in some sectors of the gaming community that games are becoming easier; “dumbed down” is a phrase that appears in every one of these conversations. The eschatology of it is all rather interesting: “casual players” are coming over the hills and threatening to destroy all we hold dear. They shall burninate the countryside and burninate the peasants, absconding with our rich, fulfilling gameplay, and our deep, involving games, all so that greedy developers can make a fast buck off a growing market.

The reality, however, is very different—as many here no doubt know, at least on some level.

You may not know it, but these sheep are responsible for the death of gaming, and everything else we hold dear. Damn you, sheep, damn you!

First of all, the hatred of “casuals” (a notoriously ill-defined group) is very often a dog whistle that is meant to antagonise people to whom gaming has not catered to in the past, women in particular. To look at any online “hardcore v. casual” debate one will immediately find lamentations about “bored housewives” playing games and what a terrible thing this must be. This invariably leads to the now ritualistic sneering about Farmville and discussions about how Farmville is killing our babies and making holes in the ozone layer.

So, misdirected anger. But what about the substance of the complaint: that games are getting easier? In some senses this is true. Games lack some of the obnoxious mechanics they had in the past. Reflexes are no longer as important as they once were during the golden age of platformers. But there is a deeper truth that few of these debates get at. Many gaming companies have not declared war on challenges, they’ve declared war on tedium.

A Common Ancestor?

When I played Dragon Age: Origins I found out quickly that the Deep Roads were a scary place- both the writing and the atmospheric design bent everything in that direction. Few things horrified me in a game as much as the approach to the Broodmother (it’s up there with the abandoned hotel in Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines in terms of being incredibly scary and chilling).

What pulled me out of that atmosphere? Killing endless waves of darkspawn every five seconds, if I’m to be honest. It’s arguable that’s part of the atmosphere. Darkspawn come from the Deep Roads. Where else would you put endless writhing masses of the things? But there is a balance to be found, in my opinion. Too much combat can be too much, and on subsequent playthroughs I loathed schlepping my party to Orzammar not because DwarfWorld wasn’t a ton of fun (it is, and it is exceedingly well written- many parts by Ms. Hepler, no less), but because I was thinking “Ugh… hours of killing darkspawn again. Weeeee.” It’s not because the Darkspawn were especially hard to fight, it’s because they were incredibly tedious to mow down due to sheer volume.

And my parenthetical about the VtM:B hotel? That hotel was the scariest challenge I ever encountered in a game and it required zero combat on my part. That made it more, not less frightening. My weapons could do nothing. The final boss of the entire level was my own fear. I mean that literally, the biggest challenge was overcoming the sheer terror induced by the atmosphere. No darkspawn/orcs/zombies/skeletons/mutant rats required.

Some may say the Deep Roads aren’t the best example for reasons I’ve already mentioned—and fair enough. But be real with yourself: how many times has repetitive, grindy, bread and butter combat against hordes of forgettable enemies in an RPG where they’re clearly designed as filler actually been fun at all times? Sometimes it is fun, actually. Some days I want nothing more than to mindlessly grind (don’t read too much into that sentence). But would having the option to skip combat somehow be nice? Yes.

Why? Well, explaining this requires a bit of a detour.

On The Mary Sue, one critic in the comments, Tess27, argued the following:

This is because videogames derive from a completely different branch: board games; RPGs, and in particular Bioware RPGs, are even more associated to board games since their gameplay derives directly from Dungeons and Dragons rulesets. Now when you play a board game, you don’t do it for the story, you do it for the challenge of the gameplay.

I disagree rather strongly with this. But let’s assume it’s true and that board games are the common ancestor of all RPGs. Having a common ancestor still implies evolution and divergence. I don’t play Monopoly for the same reasons I play Dungeons & Dragons. What attracted me to the RPG Eclipse Phase was entirely about its story. The mechanical system was not a draw in the slightest. RPGs are distinguished by the meaning they create whose warp and weft are synthesised by the loom of narrative. Mechanics can be important: they are the measure of your character’s progress and the almighty arbiter of her interactions in the world. That neutral roll of the dice that can decide the fate of empires.

Pictured: a D20 basking in its profound metaphorical power. (See here for more: http://www.etsy.com/listing/60669433/chompd20)

But what makes the roll interesting? The context lent by the story. You’re rolling for initiative to accomplish something. Self-perfection in the context of a game does involve, yes, raising your Strength score from 12 to 18. But what makes it satisfying is that a Str score that high gives you a fighting chance against the evil warlock who’s been your character’s nemesis since level 1.

The fight itself can also be a satisfying nailbiter, but the that tension only comes from the story that gives purpose and meaning to the fight.

Another objection must be raised at the implications of Tess’ construction. It seems to say that whatever “story” is, it’s something that’s not gameplay. And whatever gameplay is, it’s something to do with combat. I find this both tautological and unhelpful. I prefer a much more holistic view of gameplay, and it’s one that includes story. After all, much like a stat increase, advancing the plot of a game is its own reward.

So what does this have to do with Hepler’s suggestion? Endless repetitive combat is only one way we might perfect our characters. We could, instead, be given alternatives that enable other forms of gameplay. A button that allowed us to skip combat as easily as we skip spoken dialogue might be nice, but also rather heavy handed. I’d prefer non-violent alternatives, in conjunction with combat that was more focused—instead of hordes of nobodies (so bland that they’ve garnered names like ‘mobs’ and ‘mooks’), let’s have a smaller number of more interesting enemies. Allowing routes around combat at least some of the time can help us deepen our characters in RPGs.

My favourite moments in RPGs are those where I’m given a very distinct choice in how I complete a quest, and those are often the most fun and meaningful moments for me. My favourite part of PnP RPGs is not dice-rolling-as-combat but that I get XP for being my character. Put another way, I get XP for talking, trading, seducing, strategising, praying, singing, philosophising, politicking, spying, cooking, parenting… perhaps now my point should be clear. (For a similar discussion, this episode of Extra Credits should provide a lot of food for thought.)

The idiom of progress needs a bit of complication and diversification.

Why do We Play?

Hepler is not wrong to suggest that this may appeal to new markets. Some people criticised her for making essentialist statements about women’s taste in gaming when she said:

“The biggest objection is usually that skipping the fight scenes would make the game so much shorter, but to me, that’s the biggest perk. If you’re a woman, especially a mother, with dinner to prepare, kids’ homework to help with, and a lot of other demands on your time, you don’t need a game to be 100 hours long to hold your interest — especially if those 100 hours are primarily doing things you don’t enjoy. A fast forward button would give all players — not just women — the same options that we have with books or DVDs — to skim past the parts we don’t like and savor the ones we do. Over and over, women complain that they don’t like violence, or they don’t enjoy difficult and vertigo-inducing gameplay, yet this simple feature hasn’t been tried on any game I know of.”

This is a complex discussion that deserves more than the bookend I’m consigning it to. My view on the matter is that there is truth to the idea that mothers in particular are overworked and have demands placed on them that fathers or non-parents are less likely to experience. A cursory survey of the sociology literature reveals this (Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Second Shift remains the most accessible example). I don’t think it’s essentialist to point out that mothers in particular may have a harder time making room in their schedule.

That said I think she could have chosen her words more carefully when she talked about what she feels women want; certainly a lot of us like violent and vertigo-inducing gameplay. I do not feel that antipathy to violence per se is something especially invested in women, and it may be more reasonable to suggest that what we (and a lot of men, for that matter) are really pushing back against is time wasting tedium whose sole purpose appears to be to win a highly contrived contest.

One of Hepler’s points, however, was that she finds it hard to convey to outsiders that games are more than that, and she feels that allowing options to gloss over or skip combat entirely may help emphasise another side of games entirely. I suspect that’s what she meant when she said:

“I really believe that there is a large group of women who enjoy other genre products (from fantasy romance novels, to anime, to the Lord of the Rings movies), who would enjoy an interactive RPG story with some of the more logistical challenges removed, but I honestly don’t know how to let them know it’s out there.”

Part of what made World of Warcraft so appealing was that it transcended the masochistic gameplay of games like Everquest which seemed to revel in tedium-as-challenge. This was not just offputting to, say, working mums with busy schedules (after all, a lot other of women did play EQ), but to everyone. Plenty of men wouldn’t play either simply because they had too much else to do. WoW changed this by allowing MMO game play to be progressively reduced to bite sized chunks that you could add up to a massive whole at your own pace.

Now Hepler and others have pondered how we can take this to the next level by allowing players to not only take things in chunks (after all, in single player games Save and Reload do that for you) but how to have more input on the nature of the content itself. That’s a worthy discussion.

WoW not only allowed you to take content in bites, but it reduced overall tedium. The death system was dramatically relaxed, rest XP was introduced (remember the fury when that was first announced?), the amount of crap you had to kill was scaled back, and it got better and better as time went on. Quests began to reliably drift away from the Kill 10 X schema and towards various modalities of questing that made places more memorable and interesting. In Wrath of the Lich King, what could’ve been a boring quest to gather lumber turned into an interesting micro adventure wherein I got to commandeer a Goblin shredder.

Not to be trite about it but creativity yields more fun.

Instead of taking Hepler’s comments at purely face value, we should see her words as a starting point that invites us to think more deeply about why we play. We won’t all agree on a “skip combat button” but her idea raises a welter of issues that we do need to consider as a community, for both the sake of inclusion and the sake of artistic originality. Already with Deus Ex’s “conversation bosses” and Mirror’s Edge “Pacifist” achievement, we see some glimmering examples of possibility. My hope is that the adults in the room can continue talking about Hepler’s comments and those like them, and see where they lead. Hepler’s proposition should not be seen as a binary yes/no question, but an invitation to think more deeply about why we play and where we’re going with it.

Edit: Rock, Paper, Shotgun posted an article today which also takes on the argument surrounding skippable combat. Worth a read for sure!

The dilemma of character versus gameplay

The character sheet for Caprice Nisei from the board game Android, showing her light side and dark side pictures

The character sheet for Caprice Nisei from the board game Android, showing her light side and dark side pictures

Last week on the blog we ran a cool piece by Jadelyn on playing female characters in games and it got me thinking.  I ended up going on a thinking trip about Zoey, then to Lilith from Borderlands, and then to one of my favorite board games — Android.

What had ended up focusing my thoughts and feeling was how Jadelyn’s ex had said to her when he asked her to switch to another character besides Zoey.  He wasn’t focusing on the gender of the character or the character at all — he was focusing on the AI and how he perceived it handled.

Games come down to one universal truth — we want to have fun.  Fun for one person is not fun for another person and we all perceive fun in different manners.  For some of us, fun is being able to represent yourself accurately.  For others, fun may be found in overcoming difficult obstacles, exploring different mindsets, or setting your own goals in the game that are outside of the game design.

But sometimes the search for fun leads to conflicts and problems.  One of those problems is what happens when games assign specific styles of gameplay or attributes to the characters involved.  Now we have a choice: Is it more fun to play a character you feel best represents you (Zoey, Lilith, Caprice Nisei, etc.) or is it more fun to play a character that accurately reflects how you play as a player (DPS, Stealth, Psychic, etc.)?

Let me digress for a moment and tell you a little story about why I thought of Android, of all things.  Over at one of my board game clubs, I was setting up Android and collecting interested players so we could get the full five person game going.  One of the players was a girl, and her first act was to grab Caprice’s character card and set it down in front of her.

I looked over at her choice and politely explained, “You may not want to play Caprice.  She’s very hard for a new player.  Have you played a Fantasy Flight game before?”  (Fantasy Flight is kind of known for having disgustingly complex board games, Android is no exception.)

She had not played an FF game before, but she insisted on playing Caprice because she wanted to play one of the girls.  The two female characters in the game, Rachel and Caprice, each run on extremely difficult sets of rules that can be complicated for even veteran players.  I tried to persuade her to play Louis or Raymond, two characters with easier rules so she might have an easier time with the game and have some fun with it, but she didn’t want to even look at them.  I nodded, accepted her decision, and finished setting up the game and explaining the rules.  (Rules explanation took 1 hour, just to give you an idea on how difficult this game is.)

4 hours later the game was over our girl looked saddened.  She didn’t have a good time with the game and swore to never play it again.  Why?  Well, to put it nicely, she got steamrolled.  She didn’t know how to balance Caprice’s psychic abilities and it ended up costing her.  Which character got her the most?  The person playing Louis, the character who’s based on a “I beat it with my fists” philosophy.  A philosophy she tried to apply to Caprice, and failed.  She found that Caprice didn’t really match her play style, but instead of looking to another character, she decided to call it quits right then and there.

Caprice may have represented her in the way she would like to be perceived, but Caprice’s rules/style didn’t represent her as a player.  This disconnect may have lead her to have a poor experience with the game because the game didn’t reward her for how she likes to play.  Instead, the game penalized her, as Caprice just doesn’t work the way this girl wanted to play her.  Fun?  Not in the least, if you ask me (and her, probably.)

But this conundrum isn’t just something a female can face.  Pretty much anyone can be faced with this problem.  A guy who wants to be sneaky and stealthy has to play Lilith in Borderlands.  An African American who wants to play as a hard-boiled detective has to play the white Raymond Flint in Android.

But are these disconnects bad for the player?  If you ask me, absolutely not.  These disconnects are great in two respects:

1. The player chooses a character who they believe represents them appearance-wise but not gameplay-wise.  The player now has to learn to make decisions and and play their character differently than their use to.  It may not be the most fun because it will feel awkward, but the player will hopefully begin to think differently and learn something from this new style of play.  They’re going to attempt to derive fun from something that they may find completely unfun, but in trying to overcome that obstacle they will learn more about themselves.

2.  The player chooses a character who doesn’t represent them appearance-wise but does represent them gameplay-wise.  They have a good time playing the character because they’re doing what they find to be fun, but it may feel a little hollow at first because they can’t relate to the character.  But, over time, if they stick with it, they’ll learn more about the character and begin to develop an understanding.  They’ll learn something about the character which they may never have known before, and they’ll be thrust into different shoes and see things from a brand new perspective.

The bottom line: these disconnects give the player a safe-haven to learn something new.  There’s something they understand and something they don’t and without even realizing it they will begin to learn.  They will think differently, have a new perspective, and find fun in places that they never thought could be fun before.

And that, my friends, is completely awesome and something you can only find in gaming.  Oh, and as for Caprice… um… I totally did what that girl did the first time I played,  and I got steamrolled too.  But when you stick with her and learn how to play her… well… she’s so awesome.  =^_^=