Tag Archives: rape culture

Breath of Fire 4's box art depicting a close up of Ryu, the protagonist holding katana upwards, the blade dividing the picture in half. Standing in the foreground is the game's anti-hero, Fou-Lu, whose long white hair is blowing in the wind.

Sexism and Power Dynamics in Breath of Fire 4

Recently, I’ve started replaying Breath of Fire 4, a game I remember affectionately. Like many, my video game diet growing up was rich in JRPGs and, while the genre tends to offer little more than empty carbs anymore, it’s fun and enlightening to go back to the apotheoses of the form. Breath of Fire 4 in particular seemed deserving of a revisit as there’s virtually no critical writing on it, which is disappointing because I remember that, as a game it was well above average and as a story it accomplished some interesting things. Furthermore, whenever it is written about, it’s mostly referred to as a game that’s been unjustly forgotten. So, I figured I would replay it and gladly contribute to a pool of criticism that was sorely lacking. It was a no-brainer. Until I met the character Marlok.

Breath of Fire 4′s box art depicting a close up of Ryu, the protagonist holding katana upwards, the blade dividing the picture in half. Standing in the foreground is the game’s anti-hero, Fou-Lu, whose long white hair is blowing in the wind.

I’ll back up for a moment. The premise of the game is that Princess Nina and her soon-to-be brother-in-law, Cray, are searching for the heir to the Wyndian throne, Princess Elina. Eventually, the party reaches the city where Elina was last seen and encounters Marlok, a greedy merchant who claims to be the last person that saw Elina. Before he’ll share any information with you, though, he insists that the party complete a handful of odd jobs for him while Nina stays behind.

After Nina is finished with some housework we never see her do, Marlok has her give him a shoulder, foot then back massage. The unnerving implication here is that Marlok has put Nina into the position of his sexy maid in exchange for information about her missing sister. The implication becomes more aggressive later on when Marlok relieves Nina and insists that he give her a massage. The screen blackens and the scene changes just as a gold flicker (which has before signified Marlok giving a duplicitous wink) sparks and Nina lets out a sharp, startled scream as he lays his hands on her.

Screenshot of Marlok at the prow of a “sandflier.” He’s wearing a burgundy dust jacket and a black tricorne. Belonging to the manillo tribe, he is fishlike with orange skin, he is accompanied by an unnamed member of the grassrunner tribe, an anthropomorphic dog.

The entire episode of the game has been chronicled on YouTube in two parts for those interested (the description of the video is particularly indicative of the tone the developers strove for). The game never expressly says that Marlok forces himself on Nina or even that anything sexual is exchanged between them. That isn’t the point. The point is that Nina is put in a position where her body is on loan to advance the plot while Nina herself never has any say in the matter.

She’s never seen brokering this deal and the player never gets any indication of what her thoughts are when it was made. In fact, the entire conversation that led to Nina staying behind is skipped. Nina could have volunteered to stay behind, she could even have intended to reach second base with Marlok for any number of her own reasons. It doesn’t matter that that’s unlikely, what matters is that she’s silenced in a situation that directly deals with her body. Marlok tells the party to track down a thief and in the next scene Nina is gone with Cray (not Nina) offering barely a sentence explaining why.

The most troubling thing about the Marlok chapter, however, is how funny the whole thing is supposed to be. Nina is unworldly and she puts too much faith in others (hell, she’s a princess in a JRPG, you probably already have a good idea of who she is) so to see her in a sleazy businessman’s office is ripe for sitcom hilarity. The joke is that she’s royalty and he’s a creep and she has no idea how to deal with it. Nina is put in this place because she’s young and she’s feminine: the dynamic would not work with another character. This scene would never play out with the silent protagonist Ryu, Cray, the archetypical brute of the team, or Ershin, who, though a woman, is never seen out of her heavy suit of armour; nor would it play out with as yet unrecruited party members Scias, a socially anxious mercenary or Ursula, another woman, but who is very professional and soldierly. Nina is the most feminine character in the central cast and that’s used against her.

Concept art for Nina, she is tall, slender and blonde with pink wings protruding from her back. She’s wearing a long, light blue shirt and brown lights. She’s holding a golden rod loosely at her right side.

Why is this scene here? Either the veiled threat to Nina’s chastity is supposed to serve as impetus for the player to accomplish Marlok’s goals quickly or the developers have so little faith in their audience’s intelligence that they have to make this character a pervert on top of a rich, exploitative liar to convince them that he’s unlikable. It’s an incredibly “rapey” scene that’s unavoidable, set up awkwardly to silence the woman involved, it puts a minor male character in control of a major female character’s body, it and it does all this to be cute.

For what it’s worth, apparently in the manga adaptation, Cray returns in time to intervene, suggesting that Marlok is perhaps more aggressive on the page than he is in the game, but that changes nothing. In either case, the story carries on without any mention of what happened between Nina and Marlok: perhaps there was no assault, perhaps Nina and Marlok had consensual sex, a light lunch and carried on with their lives. It doesn’t matter because, again, the scene cuts away before Nina can reveal what her thoughts on the situation are. Marlok cops a feel, the player gets to snicker and the game continues. Nina reunites with the party and nothing is ever said of it ever again. It’s there and gone: making the entire exchange feel more superfluous and exploitative.

The player doesn’t ever have to see Marlok again unless they choose to, where he’ll teach the party some neat spells if you bring him treasure. It’s frankly a forgettable scene. At least, if you’re in the position to forget it.

I forgot it. I’ve completed Breath of Fire 4 at least three times before picking it up about a week ago and it was only after Marlok’s name was mentioned for the first time that I remembered the scene around him. During the first few phases of Marlok’s scene—before it became too creepy—I was tempted to ignore it. After all, Breath of Fire 4 has a lot of interesting things to say about the individual’s place in the state, the criteria for separating friends from enemies, the dangers of nationalism in a shrinking world, the frailty of a justice system that punishes the guilty at the expense of the innocent and forgives evil to protect good, among a few other things. As a critic looking to write about how good the game is, I really wanted to forgive it.

The main cast of Breath of Fire 4, excluding Ryu. Left to right they are: Cray, Ershin, Ursula, Scias and Nina. Each has a distinct non-human feature, respectively: tiger stripes and tail, heavy, stout armour, rodent ears and a fox tail, doglike features and bird wings.

Of course, I get to forgive it if I want to, I don’t have to feel threatened by Marlok’s scene. It isn’t targeting me, it isn’t representing someone like me and therefore it doesn’t imply that I lack agency, the scene’s dominant figure doesn’t loom over my virtual analogue and it isn’t exploiting characteristics of my identity for laughs. Breath of Fire 4 doesn’t suggest that my silence is something to make a joke of. I can shrug it off.

It’s important to remember that this scene serves no purpose other than to diminish Nina: it doesn’t do or say anything that hasn’t already been established. The scene with Marlok strikes me as the worst kind of sexism in video games because it’s insidious. It’s a totally unnecessary scene, probably written without the intention of meaning anything, that structurally exploits and disempowers femininity for its own sake.

Duke Nukem Forever is awful but it’s obvious why it’s awful. The game is indefensible and its only value is its status as a mark of shame for the art and industry. But it’s obvious. Something like Marlok’s scene in Breath of Fire 4 strikes me as far worse because it takes place over 20 minutes of a 20 to 30 hour game. It’s easy to overlook and it’s easy to apologize for because Breath of Fire 4 is a good game and there are plenty of, like, themes or whatever.

I think about carrying on with the game and writing about what it does well but that doesn’t seem possible with such a glaring instance of sexism. It doesn’t matter if the rest of the game is an emotional and intellectual tour de force: I don’t think I’ll be able to write about it without ignoring Marlok scene. That would be enabling more structural sexism in video games. I think about what’s being lost if I drop the game now because one arbitrary and stupid scene put a messy bullet hole in the developer’s foot and, honestly, it doesn’t seem like such a great tragedy.

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)

Oh look, it’s time to talk about gamer culture and rape culture again.

The following is a guest post from Scott Madin:

Scott Madin is a software engineer and yeller-on-the-internet. He lives in the Boston area with his partner and two cats, and on rare occasions blogs at Fineness & Accuracy. He also spends too much time on Twitter, as @ScottMadin.

(Originally posted at Fineness & Accuracy.)

I guess I don’t need to elaborate here on how I feel these days about Penny Arcade and their bicoastal, twice-yearly paean to conspicuous consumption, PAX Prime/PAX East. They represent some of the worst of gamer culture, they gleefully profit from misogyny and rape jokes, and their convention (increasingly, it seems) disregards its own “no booth babes” rule, making women feel less welcome and encouraging (presumed male) attendees to see all women, booth babe, cosplayer, developer, PR, or “regular” attendee, as sexualized objects there for men’s pleasure.

It’s distressing, then, but hardly surprising to hear that, at a party thrown by Mojang’s Markus “Notch” Persson, noted fedora enthusiast, indie-game-scene darling, and creator of the wildly successful Minecraft, a female game blogger seeking some relative solitude in a corner was accosted, harassed, and sexually assaulted by a male party-goer. Understandably upset, she fled the party, and when her friends sought out security, they were greeted with shrugs.

Some salient points:

  • The party was paid for by Persson himself, not by Mojang. It’s not entirely clear to what extent he organized it, and to what extent the party venue handled those details.
  • The party took place during PAX Prime, but was not an official PAX event, nor was it at the PAX venue. However, as it was a party thrown during PAX by a video game celebrity; it’s reasonable to assume that the majority of attendees were PAX-goers.
  • A notable exception: some attendees, distinguished (according to Ky, the blogger who was assaulted) by red wristbands, were women hired from a modeling agency.
  • Lydia Winters, Minecraft’s “Director of Fun” commented on Ky’s blog post clarifying that Persson, not Mojang, had thrown the party and that the models were hired by “the production company” to “have more girls there to up the girl to guy ratio. It’s a pretty typical club procedure.” (Winters confirmed via twitter that it was in fact her who posted that comment.)
  • It’s not clear, then whether hiring the models was in fact Persson’s idea, or whether he knew about/approved it. (One would imagine that, if planning were left to the venue or some other third party, given that Persson was paying, he’d at least have been asked to sign off on the expenses.)
  • Persson himself, about three hours ago, tweeted:

  • In an update at the top of her post, Ky emphasizes that she doesn’t feel PAX or Mojang is responsible in any way for what happened, and that in her view “The ONLY person who should be held accountable for what happened is the asshole himself.” She also states, “Also this post isn’t about nerd or gamer culture or blaming those cultures at all, this could happen in any community, at any party, to anyone.”

There are a few points I want to make about this.

[Author's note: I added a few sentences and split the next paragraph into two, because I wasn't entirely comfortable with its original tone.]

Perhaps predictably, I disagree with Ky that this has nothing to do with PAX or with nerd/gamer culture. She is obviously the final authority on her own experience, and just as obviously the man who attacked her is the only one who bears direct (let alone legal) responsibility for that crime. But from my perspective, one shouldn’t be too quick to discount cultural and environmental factors that make predators feel they’re free to operate in a given situation — and that make bystanders more likely to shrug, to see the warning signs of predatory behavior as “normal”.

It’s certainly true that things like this can and do happen “in any community, at any party, to anyone” — rape culture is endemic, and no subcultural niche is entirely free of it. However, gamer culture — fueled by Nice Guy (often shading into MRA) bitterness over high-school bullying and lack of “success” with girls (an historical injustice elevated to mythic proportions in nerdism) — clings to especially overt misogyny and objectification. One need only look at the vitriolic response to Anita Sarkeesian‘s proposed (now underway) “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” video series, the myriad examples at Fat, Ugly, or Slutty?, or of course the Dickwolves debacle, to see this in action.

Continue reading

A screenshot of the new Lara Croft, for once not bloodied.

Lara Croft Reboot Link Roundup

A screenshot of the new Lara Croft, for once not bloodied.

A screenshot of the new Lara Croft, for once not bloodied. She is a white woman with straight brown hair, pulled back. She frowns and looks serious, with her gaze slightly away from the camera.

Trigger warnings: discussions of rape.

I quickly wrote my post last week, Lara Croft Reboot: Vulnerability Galore!, in order to make a quick assessment of the new Tomb Raider trailer and now widely sited Kotaku E3 interview with the game’s executive producer Ron Rosenberg.  In the past week, bloggers have written many thoughtful and analytical responses to the trailer and interview.

On June 12, Kat Howard of Strange Ink wrote When you don’t get to hit the replay button, where she linked Rosenberg’s comments to the type of victim blaming that suggests rape victims don’t fight back enough:

But I have a huge problem with there being a game where, if your female character doesn’t fight back well enough, she gets punished by being raped. And my problem is because this hews too closely to the actual reactions rape survivors get.

Also from June 13, see So We Replaced Sexy Lara Croft with Victim Lara Croft by Kellie Foxx-Gonzalez on The Mary Sue.  Foxx-Gonzalez wants her feminist hero back:

Personally, the worst part about this reboot is that it is taking a traditionally feminist character (who has been embraced as a empowering fantasy in spite of the canonical hypersexualization of her character), one of the most beloved ass-kicking female protagonists in gaming, and warping her and her story to cater to a male-dominated gaming culture (and culture at large). Instead of offering women gamers a game in which we can relate to the protagonist, share her hopes and despairs, we’re left with the promise of  veritable torture porn. The promise of a new Tomb Raider held so much potential to add to a growing selection of awesome women protagonists, especially for women gamers. Ron Rosenburg, I would like my strong women protagonists back, and I would like them without having to experience the threat of rape and rape culture, even in a game. I’ve had enough of that in real life as it is.

You’ve probably heard by now that on June 13, the same day the Kotaku article was widely linked by other journalists, Crystal Dynamics retracted their interview with Kotaku.

retraction

We had a great E3 with Tomb Raider and received a fantastic public and press response, with the game picking up numerous game of the show awards based on the new direction taken with the franchise. Unfortunately we were not clear in a recent E3 press interview and things have been misunderstood. Before this gets out of hand, let me explain. In making this Tomb Raider origins story our aim was to take Lara Croft on an exploration of what makes her the character she embodies in late Tomb Raider games. One of the character defining moments for Lara in the game, which has incorrectly been referred to as an ‘attempted rape’ scene is the content we showed at this year’s E3 and which over a million people have now seen in our recent trailer entitled ‘Crossroads’.This is where Lara is forced to kill another human for the first time. In this particular section, while there is a threatening undertone in the sequence and surrounding drama, it never goes any further than the scenes that we have already shown publicly. Sexual assault of any kind of categorically not a theme that we cover in this game."

 

Kotaku went on to provide the original interview, where Rosenberg does state that there is an attempted rape in the game.  Foxx-Gonzalez responds to the retraction:

To be clear: a member of the Crystal Dynamic team stated that scavengers “try to rape her” and in response to being asked to clarify that point, stated that “she’s either forced to fight back or die.” This hardly seems like a statement that was misunderstood and taken out of context. Furthermore, regardless of whether we are calling it an attempted rape, sexual assault, or a “threatening undertone,” in the aforementioned trailer, a man makes a movement toward Lara Croft’s hips in a way that simultaneously threatens her life and conveys sexual assault. Call it whatever you’d like, that is sexual violence.

On June 14, Alyssa Rosenberg (no relation to Ron, I presume) of Think Progress wrote, Lara Croft Will Be Threatened With Rape In the Next Tomb Raider–But Don’t Worry Guys, You Can Rescue Her.  Apparently, a number of blokes responded with glee at the speculation they might be able to watch Lara be raped.  Yesterday, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote them an open letter:

So, in all seriousness, why do you want to see Lara Croft get raped?

Do you think she has an obligation to be sexually available, if not to you in real life, to someone else in-game, and if she violates that obligation, that it should be enforced upon her? One of the hard, immutable truths of adulthood is that no one owes you, and there is no mechanism to guarantee that everyone gets some mysteriously-allotted fair share of happiness and sexual satisfaction. I get that there’s this fantasy of a time before feminism when women were more broadly sexually available to men, when some men think they would have experienced less of that pain of loneliness and that fear of rejection that is baked into modern life. But I’d bet if you think about it carefully, you’ll acknowledge to yourself that it’s not really true, that participation in that fantasy was limited to certain very powerful and wealthy men, that it probably wouldn’t have served you as well as you think it would, that then, as now, you would have been required to exercise persuasion and charm and negotiation to get what you wanted. This fantasy of yours, it’s a fantasy. And nothing, not pretending you’re owed something, not seeing a video game character get raped, is ever going to bring it back.

On June 15, Doone of T.R. Red Skies posted a lengthy article, The Story of a Woman: Lara Croft, in which he analyzes both the official screenshots of Tomb Raider, which predominately feature women experiencing violence, and Ron Rosenberg’s comments, line by line.  I recommend reading his whole post, but here is an excerpt from his concluding section:

So …Why?

It’s because we don’t question masculinity; we just reinvent, and redo, and rework women. We add qualities we value to women in order to make them “more real”.  And because we don’t question masculinity, we haven’t fully deconstructed the concept of hero in order to build it up to androgyny; to a set of human values and characteristics in which males and females are equals, are only humans. We’ve resorted to making Heroes and Others Who Can Do Cool Things if We Make Them More Like “Us”. I mean we’re not even supposed to identify with Lara according to Rosenberg, but to feel like her little chivalrous helper. Even the most hardcore holdouts among us shouldn’t fail to see this.

This is why on Lara’s road to heroism, that road will be defined by her capacity for carnage, just like most other male heroes. It will be defined by stoicism and vengeance streaks (angry ones). She will have to shed all those softer qualities and emotions that are clearly the source of her weakness; the reason she’s not a hero to begin with. And this will happen because we define heroic as masculine and violent, realistic. That’s why there’s a rape threat scene. That’s realism. That’s why there will be brutal punchings in the face for Lara; because it makes us chivalrous men cringe …that’s realism. That’s why we will feel like her “helper” because that’s realism. To be a real hero is to be strong and to be strong is to be violent. To be violent is to dominate  and to dominate is to be a real hero. Lara Croft’s Rites of Heroism will follow this tired trope in the image of men, not as the story of a triumphant woman. This is why I say we fall into this trap because we don’t examine the behavior and perceptions of ourselves. We instead choose to remake woman in our image. Lara’s story isn’t about a woman. It’s a man’s perception of the story of a woman wrought with some masculinity in order to create a heroine.

(By the way, if you like Doone’s post, and are irritated by the fellows who whine, “But men are unrealistically portrayed in videogames too!!!”, you might join in the discussion he’s started on his blog where he asks, What Would a Realistic Male Portrayal Be Like?)

For another in depth analysis, see Laurie Penny’s Lara Croft and rape stories: breaking down the bitch, published yesterday:

This isn’t a story that was dreamed up out of nowhere. It’s a response to a familiar industry dilemma (how to rescue an ailing franchise?) with an equally familiar solution (hurt a beloved character). So what does all this mean for the many prospective players who will already have played or watched Lara Croft do her deadly thing in tiny hotpants?

Well, for one thing, it makes her suddenly vulnerable. For all the players who ever stroked themselves into a frenzy over this unattainable pixellated fighting fuck-toy, it’s an opportunity to see sexual violence done to her. It makes her weak, explaining away a ritualised savagery that needed no explanation before; it makes her an object of pity as well as lust and envy, someone who needs your “protection”. Industry mandarins seem to have assumed that gamers, by which they mean male gamers, can only carry on loving cold, powerful, beautiful Lara Croft if someone “break[s] her down”.  And that is frankly offensive to men everywhere.

Finally, there is still an excellent conversation happening in the comments of The Border House post from last week.

Did I miss any links?  Let us know in the comments!

The 2006 Lara Croft reboot. She is a busty, small-waisted white woman swinging from a rope as she aims a pistol.

Lara Croft Reboot: Vulnerability Galore!

Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft on a motorcycle.

Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft on a motorcycle.

Trigger warnings: rape, violence against women.

Tomb Raider holds a fond place in my heart as a cultural icon, if only for the sexual awakening I shared with many other teen girls when I found myself infatuated with Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft.  However, I never could get into the videogames due to my own prejudice against games that screamed “boys only!”  As a teen girl, I couldn’t get past her giant tits long enough to take the game seriously.  Later, 2006, game designers acknowledged Lara was unrealistic, and responded with a redesign of supposed realism, I still snubbed Lara Croft:

As a gaming woman, I don’t find Lara Croft’s new proportions especially empowering or representative of me. It’s another message of how I ought to look so I can be sexy, confident, and poised. The consensus was that Croft was ridiculous, even from those who found her aesthetically pleasing. Now, she’s “realistic.” I could, theoretically, look like the new Lara Croft; she’s become within the realm of possibility existing. I’ve already “won” genetic lottery—I’m white, brunette, not fat—and now I just need to get breast implants, work out more, and stop eating.

If you don’t remember the 2006, here’s an image of how “realistic” the then-new Lara was:

The 2006 Lara Croft reboot.  She is a busty, small-waisted white woman swinging from a rope as she aims a pistol.

The 2006 Lara Croft reboot. She is a busty, small-waisted white woman swinging from a rope as she aims a pistol.

So game designers acknowledged that a pin-up girl was problematic, but responded with “realism” that was not so real.  Now, in 2012, Tomb Raider has another reboot that attempts to make Lara realistic through… vulnerability? Continue reading

Wind-up Knight: An entertaining iOS game with questionable elements

 

While confronted with a few plane trips and long delays at the airport a couple of weeks ago, I browsed the App Store and downloaded a game for my iPad.  Wind-up Knight is an “endless runner” style iOS game with really high quality 3D side-scrolling graphics in which the player controls a little armored knight through a series of challenging-yet-not-frustrating levels.  I can’t deny the fact that the gameplay is fantastic — it’s intuitive, looks beautiful, runs smoothly, and kept me entertained long enough to make me forget that I was freezing and bored in the airport.  However, I ran into a bit of a conundrum.

The game’s loading screens are “Pretty Princess Primers” – tips intended for would-be princesses to groom themselves into the perfect princesses.  Now, before I continue, keep in mind that I’m not actually sure if these are intended to be a joke or not.  While I was busy getting offended and being flabbergasted, my fiance was asking me if I was sure the game wasn’t being intentionally misogynistic in an effort to tell a message.  The thing is, I’m not sure it matters.  The way they are presented is matter-of-fact; white text on black screen with no other context.  If there was some kind of subversion of sexist norms going on, it kind of went right over my head.  But some of them were so ridiculous that they have to be a joke, right?

 

A black screen with white text saying "Pretty Princess Primer Tip #4. A Princess cannot be respected unless she dresses as if she respects herself."

 

For someone who is well-read and knowledgable about concepts like this, I could kind of see the shallow humor in it. But I’m going to make a huge assumption about people — I don’t think the majority of people understand the complicated elements of rape culture, and I don’t think this loading screen is doing any education.  It kind of looks like something you’d see in a late night Twitter hashtag about #thingswomenshoulddo.  Here is a sample of some other loading screens from the game:

 

Pretty Princess Primer Tip #8, Catering to the comfort of men, especially Princes, will give you immense personal satisfaction.

 

Learning masculine skills such as fencing or carriage repair can make a Princess more desirable later in life.

 

Be prepared for meetings with men. Take a 15 minute break beforehand and double-check your hair.

 

Always wear dresses or skirts.

 

These screens made me feel uncomfortable.  I’m not sure what exactly the message is here, other than life as a princess seems like it would surely suck.  But the sad thing is, there are analogous serious “tips” in trashy magazines with real-life, non-princess women as the target audience.  ”16 sexy tips for being desirable late in life” sounds like a headline from a Cosmo.  For some women, this stuff isn’t a joke.  I’m just not sure what the intention was and it all but ruined what was one of the better iPad games I have played.  Thoughts, Border House readers?

 

 

 

Feminism and Video Games 101: The Solution is Both/And Not Either/Or

A crop of the cover of Anna Anthropy's book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters.

As I mentioned in the round-up about the Hitman trailer, there are a whole lot of things wrong with this blog post by Tycho Brahe at Penny Arcade, but the thing I want to focus on for this post is the argument that people should be making their own art instead of doing criticism. It’s something that has come up a lot in the past, whenever someone criticizes a game for whatever reason, but especially when the criticism has to do with oppression.

The first issue is the obvious: yes, almost anyone can make a game. There are a lot of tools and resources out there so that basically anyone with access to a computer can make a simple game, given enough time. But the idea that a game made by one or a few people on no budget will have anywhere near the influence of a AAA game with millions of dollars behind it on marketing alone is simply ridiculous.

The suggestion also ignores the fact that there are people in the game industry, who work on games big and small, who are also critical of our sexist culture in general and the way it manifests in video game subculture in particular. Some of our own writers here at The Border House also make games, and people in the industry participate in and engage with the critical conversation all the time (for example, in the comments on this terrible Kill Screen article (trigger warning)). When people are both making games and engaging in criticism, telling them to go make their own stuff is really just telling them to shut up.

The “if you don’t like it, make your own!” argument is nothing more than a silencing tactic.

What makes the Penny Arcade post especially head-desk-inducing is that Tycho links Anna Anthropy’s excellent book as part of his argument. The book encourages people to make games, yes, but it absolutely does not tell people to shut up and not criticize problematic aspects of video game culture.

The thing about changing culture, about combating the sexism and other bigotries within it, is that there is no one approach that is most effective or that should be used to the exclusion of all others. We need to use all approaches and tackle all angles in order to change the culture. This is why I don’t argue with people any more about tactics. If someone tries to tell me that I should be, for example, making games instead of writing blog posts (as if I’m not also making games!), that tells me that I should ignore them, because they have no idea how effective writing about sexism actually is. An article brings attention to an issue and can make many people more aware. A lot of articles over time will reach that many more people, the knowledge will sink in, and the culture will slowly change. I have personally seen change happen over the course of my four-plus years writing about games. There are more people than ever drawing attention to sexism, rape culture, and other problems in video games and video game culture. There are also many people in the game industry being the change they want to see, whether it’s by influencing game development to be less bigoted and more diverse, or by changing the perception of what the industry is like and who it’s for with their very presence.

We need both of these approaches because they’re working. Anyone who tells you otherwise either doesn’t know what they’re talking about or doesn’t actually want change to happen.

Link Roundup: Hitman: Absolution Trailer

A screengrab of the Hitman trailer. Nuns walk with their heads down toward the viewer.

Screengrab from the Hitman trailer

This week has seen another round of discussion of rape culture in video games, prompted primarily by the release of a trailer for the upcoming Hitman: Absolution, which I will not link. Instead, I will offer a round-up of some great and some not-so-great (to say the least) articles written this week, both about it and about rape culture in general. Trigger warnings apply to everything below.

A good place to start is Opinion: What the Hell is With That Hitman Trailer? by Keza MacDonald at IGN, which has a description of the trailer in question and has a great explanation of the problems with it.

Next is Can’t We Discuss This Like Adults?, by Rob Fahey at GamesIndustry International, pointing out that the backlash against critics of the Hitman trailer is childish and ridiculous, and that it probably stems from the history of video games being attacked, as a medium, by cynical politicians and other outsiders. Fahey asks gamers to stop having that knee-jerk reaction to criticism and, well, discuss things like adults.

Brendan Keogh at Critical Damage demands that gamers Quit Pretending There Isn’t a Videogame Rape Culture. This is a great post, and some of the comments are quite great as well (some of them are not, though, so tread carefully). Blake linked this one in her post earlier today.

The next two posts are not related to the trailer specifically, but they are posts about rape culture that were published this week, so they are still part of the conversation. At Kotaku, Patricia Hernandez wrote a very personal and powerful piece titled Three Words I Said to the Man I Defeated in Gears of War That I’ll Never Say Again, about the true insidiousness of rape culture. And Taylor Cocke wrote In Response to “Three Words” at his blog, about his experiences of personal growth from being part of rape culture to criticizing it.

On to the not-so-great portion of our roundup… Michael Thomsen at Kill Screen has an utterly ill-informed piece with a ridiculous headline: What is “rape culture” and do videogames have one? Scare quotes alert! The comments on this one are quite worth reading.

And finally we have an irritating blog post accompanied by a completely nonsensical comic strip from Penny Arcade. There are so many things wrong with this post: the assumption that people criticizing the trailer are video game outsiders condemning the entire medium (Fahey was right!), that the criticism is somehow “compulsory” or being leveled by pearl-clutchers who have nothing to do but get hysterical about something they don’t understand, that the problem is that the women being killed are nuns, that instead of criticizing, people should just shut up and make their own games (that last one I’ll address in its own post). Way to miss the point by a mile; my only surprise here is that it was Tycho and not Gabe who was committing it this time.

Update: I forgot to link this great piece about empathy from Alexis at the Betterblog (Failbetter Games).

If you’ve seen other articles that should be included, please link them in the comments.

A semi-cute furry grey creature with a name tag reading "Hello, my name is Ike"

On Taking Seeing Sexism For Granted

A semi-cute furry grey creature with a name tag reading "Hello, my name is Ike"

The images from the trailer are super-depressing and it doesn't need more publicity, so have a whatever-this-is from the upcoming strategy game Quantum Conundrum instead. A grey creature of indeterminate species stands next to a couch and a science machine, waving in a friendly fashion and wearing a name tag that says, "Hello, my name is Ike".

Brendan over at Critical Damage has an excellent article (TW: discussion of sexual violence and rape) about  the implicit and complicit participation of video games in rape culture.  It was sparked by a video trailer for Hitman: Absolution that is a complete sexist mess.  The trailer is painful to watch unless the viewer instantly dehumanizes the women, seeing them as the sexed-up objects they are coded to be through lingering shots of disembodied high heels and crotches.  If, just maybe, the viewer identifies with the women instead of the middle-aged white man slaughtering them, it becomes horrifying.  I simply can not understand how one would watch this video and fail to see the misogyny, fail to grasp that that level of hatred might be scary when directed at people like you.

And yet, some people do.  People on Twitter are complaining that the problem isn’t sexism, it’s that it misrepresents the gameplay!  It’s not really that bad; stop overreacting!  We shouldn’t complain, other video games are just as bad![1]  Why are we generalizing from this game to all video games!?!  If we criticize it we just want the government to regulate video games!

I don’t care about the government: I want people to stop giving money to companies that make first-person participatory hate speech.  If they do so anyway, I am going to judge them for that individually.  It baffles me that we might want government regulation, because I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect people to not do things like this in public without having anyone tell them they have to.  It’s basic empathy here.

There may always be some population that would like to play this sort of game, but it’s not that hard to make it not worth the huge budget that went into this game.  As an industry, we don’t have to spend millions to cater to assholes.  Chances are, all it would take to get people to stop doing stuff like this is to stop giving them positive feedback for doing stuff like this!  I am disappointed that it makes economic sense for this game to be advertised with this video.  Apparently, holding out a giant poster saying “Our Game Hypersexualizes Women And Then Lets The Player Brutally Kill Them, Which He (because he is the same straight white male protagonist as almost always) Will Enjoy Because He Is Scared Of Agency Among People He Might Like To Have Sex With” is a winning strategy.  The least I can do is point out that I don’t think we should be validating that world view.

There is another article I’ll write at some point about nuns and how they are employed in popular culture to represent men’s ultimate fears of an equal society, but this isn’t it.  I’m writing this article to note that while we may assume these things are obvious, especially when they are as blatant as they are in this trailer, to many people they aren’t obvious at all.  There is an entire media industry devoted to obscuring these issues so they can keep selling misogyny to misogynists.  We keep pointing out what assumptions these games make about the player, their audience and the world in which we live because otherwise some people will keep thinking that the real problem isn’t the sexualized violence towards women, it’s the misrepresentation of the gameplay.

[1] We here at Border House have deconstructed sexism in many of the other games, as well as explaining the generalized social dynamics being employed.  We’ve missed some for sure, but that’s because we don’t spend all day doing nothing but playing terrible games in order to certify how sexist, racist, ablist, transphobic, gender-essentialist and generally awful they are.  Luckily, we don’t have to criticize every single game in order to make an impact: tell someone a game is sexist and they’ll be disturbed by that game.  Teach someone to recognize when a game is sexist and they’ll be disturbed for the rest of their life!