Tag Archives: skyrim

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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TransMovement: Freedom and Constraint in Queer and Open World Games

Samantha Allen is a transgender woman, an ex-Mormon and a PhD student in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University writing a dissertation on sexual fetishism. She is also an erstwhile singer-songwriter. You can find her on the web or on Twitter.

[Author's Note: The essay that follows was prompted by Cameron Kunzelman's presentation on the queer games renaissance, which he delivered at the Studies in Sexualities Conference at Emory University. Thanks both to Cameron and to Aaron Goldsman and Sarah Stein who co-organized this conference with me. For the articles that Cameron mentioned in his talk, please go to this post on This Cage is Worms.]

A majestic panorama featuring an armoured woman standing at a river, looking out into a limitless pine forest with mountains and an overcast sky in the background.

Skyrim’s limitless vistas.

When Bethesda Games’ Todd Howard previewed the open world role-playing game Skyrim, he famously promised that the player would be able to traverse any visible geography. His breathless assurance of the player’s ultimate freedom has already come and gone as an internet meme: “You see that mountain? You can climb it.” This is a fairly common rhetorical frame for talking about open world games. Whether they’re raving about Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV, the open range in Red Dead Redemption, or the jungles of Far Cry 3, game reviewers effusively report that the player can “go anywhere” and “do anything” in these expansive worlds.

I want to contrast this ultimate freedom of movement with the mechanics of movement in Anna Anthropy’s much-discussed game dys4ia, which she describes as “an autobiographical game about my experiences with hormone replacement therapy.” The opening screen of the game itself presents you with a green shape whose movement can be controlled with the arrow keys. A flashing indicator at the top of the screen prompts the player to move the shape through a gap in a yellow brick wall. Simple enough. But when the player tries to move the green shape through the gap, it becomes apparent that traversing the obstacle is impossible. The green shape gets stuck in the gap and on-screen text informs us that Anna feels “weird about [her] body.”

Lim by Merritt Kopas, which Anna Anthropy describes succinctly as “a game about passing and violence” operates on a similar principle as this opening screen of dys4ia. As the player tries to move a block through various passageways, the block is hindered, even attacked by other blocks unless the player holds a key to “blend in.”

I played dys4ia a month before starting my own hormone replacement therapy and Lim only recently, after seeing Cameron Kunzelman play it at a conference at Emory. These games, perhaps unsurprisingly, hit especially close to home for me. They dramatize my own experience, yes, but they are also compelling interactive tools for educating others about some of the issues I face as a transwoman. Simply put, I can’t “go anywhere” and “do anything.” Bathrooms, airports, locker rooms are all spaces that are either difficult or impossible for me to navigate. Customer service interactions make me feel like I’m taking a final exam, trying to squeak by with a “passing” grade. By constricting the movement and agency of the player, then, dys4ia and Lim reflect my own experience while also giving others a taste of what it might be like to tromp around in my high-heeled boots. Merritt Kopas has demonstrated the educational value of dys4ia in her own classroom, noting that “the game helped them to better understand the process of transition and all of the institutional and societal barriers involved.”

 dys4ia's opening challenge. It shows an odd green shape that the player must maneuver through a gap in a yellow brick wall.

One of the opening challenges in Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia.

I’ll confess that I seem to enjoy the rampant freedom of open world games just as much as anybody. But, for cisgender gamers, the supreme motility of open world games often functions as an exaggeration of a freedom of movement that they may already enjoy in the physical spaces of non-game worlds. I should mention, of course, that cisgender gamers do face social obstacles based on other facets of their identity (race, class, sex, age, disability, etc.), and it’s for this very reason that coalition-based politics are so powerful. As Merritt Kopas notes, “not quite fitting into any one category” is not “limited to genderqueer people” and so games like dys4ia are still “going to be of value to people who will never experience those things.”

For the sake of argument, however, let’s compare my experience playing Skyrim to the experience of an upwardly-mobile, heterosexual-identified white male. This is an easy comparison for me to make because I have played Skyrim both before and after the start of my transition which means that I’ve played it both as as precisely that upwardly-mobile, heterosexual-identified white male I just spoke of and as a nearly broke, queer, (but still white) transwoman. When I played Skyrim before my transition, I enjoyed the unprecedented freedom of navigation and traversal. I had troubles in my life, certainly, but I could also rest assured that, if I were ambitious enough to leave my chair, I would be able to go almost anywhere in the physical world without fear of violence, harassment, or social illegibility. From my current standpoint, however, I feel a twinge of melancholy when I experience Skyrim‘s lack of constraint. I can climb this virtual mountain, yes, but what about my mounting medical expenses? I can enter any polygonal city, yes, but what about the women’s bathroom? The difference between before and after transitioning in Skyrim, then, is the difference between a power fantasy and an almost tragic sort of escapism, the difference between an allegorical representation of my own preexisting freedom to move and a cruel reminder of the social world’s impassable obstacles.

In her 1980 essay, “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality,”[1] feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young thinks through the style of movement typical of women in the United States. Women, in her view, do not “make full use of the body’s spatial and lateral possibilities” unlike men who are able to move freely, with long strides and swinging arms (Young 1980, 142). On the subject of women in sports, Young argues that “a space surrounds [us] in imagination which we are not free to move beyond; the space available to our movement is a constricted space” (143).  The space immediately surrounding a woman, for Young, is not a space of possibility but a space of restraint. In contrast with men who are able to interact with others confidently and with clear intentionality, women “often approach a physical engagement with things with timidity, uncertainty, and hesitancy” (143).

This constraint on movement is more than just a stylistic difference; rather, the phenomenology of movement has palpable emotional consequences. In Young’s view, this constrained form of movement contributes directly to women’s “feeling of incapacity, frustration, and self-consciousness” (144). When Anna Anthropy comments, then, that she “can’t think of a form better suited to conveying frustration than the video game,” it’s precisely because video games like dys4ia can allow the player to acutely feel movement constraints, spatial restrictions and the uncertainty, sometimes the impossibility, of success. The basic mechanics of movement are one of the most taken-for-granted but also most powerful communicative elements of video games as a medium. And as such, they’re also one of the best tools that queer game developers can use to allow others to understand our different relationship to motion and public space as queer folks.

To be clear, though,  I’m not arguing that all games should constrain player motion so that the much-stereotyped white, male, cisgender game-playing teenager can understand my experience as a transwoman. I do want to resist, however, game critics’ tendency to think of the open world, “ultimate freedom” genre as the evolutionary endpoint of video games as a medium. Different styles of movement produce different emotional effects and both should be available to us as players and as game-makers. To regard “fun” as the ultimate litmus test for the success of a video game is to sell short the emotive capacity of the medium itself. Games can return us to an innocent state of childlike play but they can also, in the words of Merritt Kopas, teach us that “being an other can be painful and horrible.”

I also want to call attention to the implicit masculinity of the open world genre, not to dismiss it entirely, but rather to point out the ways in which freedom of movement can be experienced differently by people outside the largely white, male cisgender realm of video game preview and review culture. At worst, some of these open world games can appeal to a masculinist entitlement to explore, conquer, control and colonize. Far Cry 3 reportedly makes the masculinist colonialism of exploring-cum-conquering explicit in the narrative by allowing you to play as a wealthy white vacationer who slowly overtakes enemy outposts on a fictional Pacific island. Because I don’t equate fiction with reality, I can’t hold Far Cry 3 accountable for neocolonialism. I can point out, however, that it’s a reflection of an implicit masculinism, the seductiveness of which is facilitated by the mechanics of movement in the open world genre of games. Let’s enjoy our fictional worlds and our innocent-because-virtual power fantasies. But let’s also try to be a little more nuanced and reflexive in our approach to going anywhere and doing anything.

One of dys4ia's final screens. A pink butterfly flies toward the sun with text reading, "It's a small thing but I feel like I've taken the first steps towards something

Anna Anthropy’s measured expression of hope.

dys4ia concludes with the player controlling a butterfly as it floats up toward the sun. Anthropy writes: “It’s a small thing but I feel like I’ve taken the first steps towards something tremendous.” I, too, feel like I’m at the start of something momentously difficult and wonderful. When I climb a mountain in Skyrim and look out over the frozen tundra, I’m imagining all sorts of future days: a day when my hair reaches my shoulders, a day when I have more than $300 in my checking account, a day when my identification cards match my identity. What days do you see from the top of Todd Howard’s mountains?


[1]    Young, Iris Marion. 1980. “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality.” Human Studies 3(2): 137-156.

Continue?: How Gaming Helped me Deal with Depression

The following is a guest post from Jordan Salari:

Jordan Salari (or “Salari” as he’s commonly known online) has written on various mediums over the years such as cinema, television and music, but most likes to talk about (and of course, play) games. Most of his work can be found on his blog, ‘Ich Bin Ein Gamer’,

He’s British, male, currently working on his second book, and dealing with long-term depression; though he doesn’t define himself by it, he acknowledges that for all it has taken from him, it has given in equal parts.

He’s been playing games since the age of five and hasn’t stopped since. Like his taste in music and film, he loves all genres of games, so long as they’re well made. He also likes to play various musical instruments, between telling crude jokes over Facebook.

Upon the advent of a new year, I, like many others enter a state of contemplation about who they are, what they want from life, and how they came to be where they are. This is something I admittedly do a lot, not just when it comes to hanging up a new calendar, but throughout the year. It was amidst this contemplation that I came to a very stark realization, one that stirred up a myriad of feelings in me:

I am now 26 years old, and since the age of 16, I have been battling depression.

That’s 10 long years. Important years that were crucial in forming the person that I am today. Years that by most are spent building the foundations on which one perceives the world around them, how one applies the meanings they’ve established throughout the years to reality in order to create a better understanding of the world around them.

Whilst I had the opportunity to develop those myself during my formative years, going through that process while feeling ultimately alone and lost was daunting and confusing, those elements which are required for us to better understand ourselves and the world became somewhat polluted by circumstances out of my control, be it something within that existed chemically, or factors external to myself, such as family.

A painting titled "Im Cafe" by Angela Selders. A man with blonde hair and a green blazer sits alone in a cafe. In front of him on the table is a cup of coffee with empty sugar packets, along with a glass of water. His back is turned to the other patrons of the cafe who are behind him, to his right and in silhouette. His eyes face to his right, aware of their presence, but not engaging them.

 

At this point, you’d be safe to assume that this article is far more personal than anything I’ve ever been willing to post online so far, being so candid with others is something incredibly alien to me, as during those 10 years I’ve built up the habit of internalizing and repressing what I might be going through, appearing relatively stoic and composed to those around me, from close friends to work colleagues, and sadly, even my family. For the sake of privacy of both myself and those I know, I will refrain from citing any specific individuals who may have been the cause of emotional duress in my life. Those who know me personally are mostly aware of the issues I’ve faced over the years, each of them to different extents (as I said, to my own disadvantage, I often don’t share as much as I probably should in real life), so forgive me if I don’t reveal too much, but ultimately, this is a blog about gaming, and of course gamers are people, and people are very complex creatures, sometimes, wonderfully so. One thing that unites all people though — gamers, and those who’ve never touched a controller — is that through our hardest times, we all require something for distraction, to detach us, if only momentarily from a reality that can become unbearably overwhelming. For me, it was games.

Everyone has their vices, it’s a given, and they exist in order for us to be able to indulge in that part of us that defines who we are; to indulge in what you enjoy is affirmation of your existence, that the world still has something to offer you. For a lot of people around my age range in the UK, excessive alcohol consumption is the vice du jour; they work or study throughout the week, and in order to feel that sense of release and expression that’s inhibited in their everyday life, they drink, and let loose. I, unfortunately, have never been able to indulge in such a manner, as I am tee-total. I’ve never even been drunk in my 26 years of being alive on this planet, and not about to start. This isn’t due to any health ailment or religious obligation; I can, and have tried alcohol but found I detest the taste, and although I was brought up Christian, I stopped believing in God in my early teens. I simply don’t like drinking, and what it does to people, and as someone who believes that as an individual who already holds little control over his life due to circumstance beyond any immediate control, losing that last facet of control would be too much to sacrifice. Also, in all honesty, I think if I were to get drunk, part of me fears that I may like it a bit too much, and when suffering from depression, developing an external dependency can be a dangerous thing (more on that later).

I don’t judge those who drink or do drugs, I believe that everyone should have the right to put whatever they want into their body, so long as they’re not bringing harm to anyone else. In a way, it’s a little unfair to call gaming a “vice”, because that word carries certain negative connotations, where in fact it can be a term that’s a relatively innocent label. When people think of the words “gaming” and “depression” in the same sentence, there’s a tendency for institutions (namely, media outlets) to conjure up images of socially difficult, sometimes volatile and broken individuals whose lives have been overrun by a game. Quite famously there are even clinics dedicated to certain games these days, both online and in bricks and mortar form. There is a big difference though, between using games as an aid to help you deal with depression, and using games to reject a reality you’re not currently satisfied with. Overall, I do feel it’s a little unfair to say that game “addiction” exists, to me, an addiction is something that’s built up through chemical dependency, such as nicotine through smoking, or becoming accustomed to the effects alcohol has on the brain. I think you can have a gaming compulsion, in which you rely on games as a form of escapism; yes, their definitions are similar, but I think it’s the neurological differences that separate them.

A photograph of a grey cat in front of a computer keyboard and monitor. On the monitor is 'World of Warcraft' and underneath the caption reads "World of Warcraft Addiction: It has taken over the human race, now it's going for the cats".

 

Now, to how this has had an affect in my life. First of all, a little recent back story: back in April 2011 I was working at a job that I hated. I was relatively well paid but worked ridiculous hours, had very little time for myself, and most importantly, despised what I was doing there. I was undervalued by my superiors, I watched underqualified ass-kissers climb the ladder ahead of me, and for all my attempts to try and reap something good from my job, I simply couldn’t. Eventually, I felt trapped there, and I realized that I’d made a tremendous sacrifice just to be able to exist in that kind of environment, a mistake that would come back to shake my world – I gave up my creativity, a part of me that was once so huge and had defined me for many years, that I carefully cultivated in every way I could had been abandoned, because I didn’t have time for it any more. Before I started working there, I was able to express myself in so many ways; I can play six musical instruments, all of which I taught myself since the age of 16, I can also draw and write, but for some stupid reason, I just stopped doing them. Overall, I was someone who thrived on creating new things, not just for others, but for myself. When that fateful April came around, I started experiencing major problems with anxiety and remorse for what I’d done, and indeed, become. It had even started to affect me physically, I started experiencing extreme stomach pains in which I literally couldn’t keep down any food for over a week.

Eventually I called in sick to work and arranged to see my doctor, after filling in a form which measures your level of anxiety and depression at that given time, on a scale of 1-5 on each option (5 being the highest), I realized that I was at the very extreme on each of these scales, this included terrifying questions like whether I’ve had “thoughts of self-harm?” or “ending your own life?”, and facing this truth, I broke down into tears, feeling foolish for allowing myself to get into such a state, and not attempting to address it beforehand. And thus, for another time in my life, I had entered on the dark and difficult path of depression, one that I now realize has been the hardest I’ve ever faced, and as of right now, while I write this, I’m still on that path, unknowing as to when it’ll eventually come to an end, or where it will take me, but finding solace in the knowledge that one day I willovercome it, and things will be different.

I was given an extended period of leave from work, thanks to the support of my doctor, and during that tine, I wanted to rediscover the things that once gave me such joy that I’d left behind. I had been playing games during my employment, but very, very little of them; as I mentioned, I worked a ridiculous amount of hours, which isn’t forgiving for someone who wants to both maintain a personal life and indulge their hobbies. Fortunately, I wasn’t and still aren’t beholden to anyone else, so apart from maintaining my relationships with friends and family the best I could, I was afforded a lot of freedom, so I made an effort to get back on the gaming wagon.

So back I went, feet first into the wonderful world of gaming, I managed to catch up on all the old titles from my library I hadn’t managed to invest enough time in. Games with unfinished campaigns, unresolved stories, untouched modes, and even ones that hadn’t been unwrapped. Every day it felt like I had something to do, and there was something undeniably wonderful about it. Sure, it wasn’t necessarily productive, but for once in my life I felt like being selfish and offering my time to a fictional reality.

But how was this helping me? Well, even though it didn’t serve as a “cure” to my depression, I noticed that these games became almost a surrogate for a reality that I felt I had ultimately failed, and even been failed by. In these worlds I wasn’t burdened with the feelings that had come to overwhelm me in real life; in taking on the role of these avatars, I walked in the shoes of someone who wasn’t worthless, who had purpose within their prescribed reality, whose narrative was more often than not in a straight line, and offered predictable outcomes. It also offered me a sense of accomplishment, albeit on a microscopic level (I don’t take pride in achievements or trophies like many other gamers do, but I do like the feeling of having brought something to a resolution). In some cases, it was aesthetic factors that made me enjoy visits to these different worlds; during that period, titles likeDeus Ex: Human Revolution, Catherine, Portal 2, and – despite its grim subject matter – LA Noire(what can I say? I adore the noir genre and late 1940s design motifs). Each presented worlds that attempted to mimic reality, yet at the same time lacked its counterpart’s chaotic nature, that for some reason had begun to bore and disappoint me.

A screen capture from LA Noire, showing the city of LA in 1947 at dusk. Three tall buildings are on the left, the furthest is a skyscraper. The road in front of them has cars from the era passing through, to the right is a traffic signal on green, and various pedestrians are walking on the pavement.

 

Later in the year during the hectic Autumn release schedule, I picked up what for me and many others became the ultimate self-contained reality of the year: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Skyrim is an RPG set in the expansive lands of its namesake, where you take on the role of the “dragon born”, a being rarely born over the space of centuries whose return spells a new threat on the lands of Skyrim. Upon beginning the game you find that the character whose role you’ve been thrust into is being held captive as a prisoner, and on the way to your execution, events unfold that avert you from your demise, and set you on the path of your true fate: to be the saviour of Skyrim.

What makes Skyrim so great though, is that even though your destiny and goals are set out before you as clear as day, you can roam the lands as you see fit for as long as you want, and the more you scour it, the more you find there is to discover; magnificent landmarks, bandit hideouts, shrines to long lost gods, bizarre inhabitants and dangerous creatures. It’s a beautiful vibrant world in which you can lose yourself, both as the character and the player. I liked it so much it was even my pick for the best game of 2011, along with many others online publications.

I sunk a ridiculous amount of time into Skyrim, and in a very short period too; within two weeks I clocked up over 100 hours in the game, and for the first time in a while, waking up each morning didn’t feel pointless, I could look forward to paying visits to its world and seeing what it has to offer me, it offered unpredictability that I felt I could handle, because for as diverse as this game could be, I found comfort that its framework was still that of a game, and that unlike reality, should failure come my way, it’d be something that I could try to resolve with the load of a save file, and rationalizing my mistakes could be accounted solely on my actions. In my reality, my mistakes sadly get attributed to my emotional state of mind, something that serves to bring upon further feelings of guilt and remorse, and even lessen my already low sense of worth.

A lot of this can be perceived as gaming being a distraction from facing my problems, but this would be unfair. A lot of the underlying issues behind gaming compulsion (or addiction, depending on how you look at it), is that the people who fall foul of it use gaming as a substitute for a reality that doesn’t fulfil their needs, or disappointed them, or indeed that they could no longer handle. As with many who suffer from compulsion or addiction though, there is often some past event, be it recent or from childhood, that has brought them to retreat from the world.

For all the time I spent in these alternate realities, I never denied that the reality I lived in was what I needed to find comfort in, and accept for all it had to offer, chaos and all. Gaming helped me realize that for all the varying forms of reality they had to offer, they all had something in common; they offered purpose, something which I’d lost in my life, and worried that I’d never find again. After I finished Skyrim‘s main quest, I had to deal with the fact that I’d experienced and exhausted most of what its world had to offer me, and in a strange way, this saddened me. It reminded me of my reality, where despite the random nature of our world, people and events had become predictable, and much like that horrible day back in April, I felt like I’d exhausted all of my options, and didn’t really have anything left to do other than repeat menial tasks. It’s a shame, because I grew to love its world and its inhabitants, and it suddenly struck me that this fictional reality has more in common with my own than I cared to acknowledge at first.

An image from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. A wide shot of a small, silhouetted figure standing on the peak of a mountain as a flying dragon on the right breathes fire on them. The flames completely engulf the person, as they hold up their shield in defence.

 

Games like Skyrim among many others have also taught me something else during this endeavour, something that surprisingly may not be all that profound, but it’s something very significant that I’d clearly lost sight of in my own life: that for every mistake you feel you’ve made — whether it’s from being short-sighted, immature, arrogant or haphazard — or even failing to recognize a problem before it got out of hand, it’s completely up to you whether you give up or try to somehow deal with these issues.

Ask anyone who’s ever played and finished Demon’s Souls or the recent Dark Souls; two games which are near perfect allegories for the trials and errors we, as humans face as we try to overcome that which holds us back. Both are crushingly hard games, and both use death and error as an effective teaching tool; because of the rules set within these titles, players must progress with both caution and observation of enemies and traps that lay ahead. There are messages along the way which are left by other players who’ve once travelled the same path as you, most are helpful, but some can lead you to danger.

A lot of the time, your journey can be a lonely and difficult one where you feel overwhelmed by the world, but upon admitting you need the help of others, you can summon the help of people willing to offer a hand, and whilst they may not remain in your world, they make the journey a lot easier for the time being. I could go on about how else these games brilliantly mirror the trials of life, and even depression, but I feel the greatest connection in them is how we deal with failure; in Demon’s Soulsand Dark Souls, when you die (or fail), there are consequences, you lose the souls you collect which are the very driving force of these worlds, not only can they be used to purchase better items, but they can be used to develop your character. When you come back after death, you have the opportunity to rectify your mistakes by fighting all those you once faced before in order to reclaim your loss, but should you fail again before you do this, the souls will be lost forever; and much like life, sometimes when an opportunity has been lost, we have to accept that it’s gone for good, but it’s still up to us whether we strive to find further reward and accomplishment in this world. These two games show that for as dark, bleak and overwhelming as the world may be at times, you can still fight, and you can still win, and the harder the fight, the more glorious the reward can be when you win, the hardest part is keeping the will to fight.

A screenshot from Dark Souls. The player's character who is clad in armour and armed with a sword and shield runs towards the camera from a giant, minotaur-like creature who wields a large club. They are on a stone bridge with a large tower behind the minotaur, and the pathway is littered with debris such as bricks caused to fall from their battle.

 

I owe a lot to games, for the many wonderful experiences they’ve given me, and now, the important lessons they’ve taught me. As far as my depression goes; I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’m making the effort to better myself. I’m seeing my doctor on a regular basis, speaking in-depth with a therapist who’s been instrumental in me uncovering and addressing the problems that’ve affected me so deeply over the years, I’ve taken major steps in improving the quality of my life by applying to return to university in September, and despite how life has this horrible habit of separating you from friends whom you hope can remain close to for as long as possible, I still have some truly exceptional people in my life, who’ve made the effort to listen to me, and try to understand the chaos that rages on within my head, and do whatever they can so they can calm it down, even if that means just letting me know that they still care, and that I’m not completely alone.

To understand, and be understood, is to be free. When we lose our meaning, we have to search for meaning in the things important to us, and within games I found my meaning again, hopefully it has for someone else before me, and with the medium growing and becoming ever more significant and profound with each development, people will some day see it for the remarkable things it can do.

Final note: If you know anyone in your life right now who’s going through depression (or even seems like they’re going through it), please, for their sake, just talk to them. They might wanna talk about it, and they might not, but knowing there’s someone out there who’s remotely willing to acknowledge them, and how they are makes so much difference. Most of the time, you don’t even have to try to offer them solutions, or even say much at all; just having someone willing to listen can mean everything, and make things better for them, even if it’s just for that brief moment.

Depression can be an incredibly lonely and isolating affair, one that can bring a person to think that no one truly cares about them, and as a result, they become reluctant to even reach out for help. To reach out to them without prompt can affirm their place in this world, and in your life. If you happen to be suffering from depression yourself, please, never be too proud to admit that you might not be able to deal with it on your own; I tried this, and it nearly destroyed me. There are so many people out there willing to offer you their help, speak to your doctor, a family member or friend you can trust, or even find people online who’ve been through similar ordeals. As alone as you can begin to feel during those dark times, there is literally always someone out there willing to help, don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for it, and know that one day, things will be better; it just takes some patience.

Female Character in Skyrim

Sex Negativity & Skyrim

The following is a guest post from Bobby Arthur:

Bobby Arthur is a freelance writer and marketing communications professional living in Toronto. He can be reached at bobby@thejuiceagency.ca and his XBLA Gamertag is WhiskerRub.

Odds are there is someone in your life who is spending their evenings slaying Dragons and amassing treasure in the most played game of 2011, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Skyrim is an open world role playing game (RPG) created by Bethesda Softworks and is set in a fictional, mostly medieval, swords and sorcery land called, Tamriel. It is a game where I expected to be killing and looting, but never expected to be slut-shaming.

In the game players are able to create an avatar for themselves, choosing a race, a gender, a name, many physical characteristics and a style of play. Will you be a warrior, a thief, a wizard or some hybrid? The nuance in the game comes from having the player face moral dilemmas along the way. Through these myriad choices the player’s avatar takes on its spiritual form. Will you be a righteous defender of justice? Will you be a mercenary for hire? Will you be a healer or will you practice blood magic? Will you steal all of the gold or just most of the gold? During my playthrough I have robbed just about everyone blind and I have murdered in cold blood. By my current statistics, the game tells me that I have killed 1081 people and about 1300 other various zombies, animals, robots and demons (most of whom I have stabbed in the back). I have stolen 2498 items, including 1659 straight from my victim’s pockets. So why did I take such umbrage at being asked to slut-shame a woman in her own home?

In a town called Riften we can rummage around a place called Haelga’s Bunkhouse. Haelga runs a dormitory for the blue-collar workers of Riften along with her Niece, Svana. Speaking with Svana will open up a miscellaneous quest that knocked me out of the fantasy world of Tamriel. It brought me back into a world where at least one in four western women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes and where women’s clothing choices are brought forth as justification by authority figures for random sexual attacks; where girls in schools everywhere are ostracized for their choice to become sexual beings or even just the rumor that they have. I don’t like this world. This world makes women ashamed of their bodies and afraid to express themselves sexually and freely. I hated that my fantasy gaming was colliding with such ugly reality.

Svana was orphaned and her Aunt Haelga took her in. Svana is an adult and cleans to pay her room and board. Seems like a fair deal to me, but Svana has other ideas about that.

“Work? I suppose you can call it that. I call it slavery. I work my fingers to the bone keeping this disgusting place clean.

Ever since my parents died and Haelga took me in it’s been a nightmare. How was I to know she was such a wretched woman?”

And what is it that makes Haelga so “Wretched”?

“It’s not just the work. It’s everything about her. She’s disgusting. I think she takes her worship of Dibella a bit too seriously. Do you know she slept with three different men in the last month alone? What kind of woman would do such a thing? Just for once I’d like to see her squirm…to rub her nose in it.”

Yes, rub her nose in it. Like you might a dog that has ruined your rug. This is an unattached woman having consensual and spiritual sex in her own home. For reference, Dibella is the in-game deity of love, and sex to her followers is a religious observance. So, what are my dialogue choices for responding to this diatribe?

“There must be a way.”

One choice. In a game full of choices, I can either go along with this or walk away. At no point am I given the option to talk her out of this – to say “hey, maybe you’re being a little hard on the woman that took you in after your parents were murdered.” Or, “it’s none of your business what she does in her bedroom.” Or, “do you think she’d be open to a fourth lover this month?” No, the only option is an enthusiastic “Ya, let’s teach that whore a lesson.” And from a gameplay standpoint, such a response is not in character with the hero I’ve created, but no alternative choice was given.

Svana continues.

“Actually, there is. But I don’t think I could get away with doing it. She’d kill me if she found out. You see, after she makes love she gives her partner a token of her affection called a Mark of Dibella. If you confront her with three of the Marks, she’d be so embarrassed… well, I don’t know what she’d do.”

At this stage I can tell Svana, “Sure. I’ll help you” or “Maybe another time.” Such a polarity of choices. So, off I am sent to retrieve these baubles of shame from the three men. On my way though, I can enjoy some of the contextual flavor that the game designers provided for this quest. I can visit Haelga’s bedroom where a pot of honey and potions of stamina rest on shelves. Her nightstand includes two erotic novels. Her bed has working shackles and underneath we find an animal tusk and leather strips i.e. a dildo and whip. The message here presumably is that Haelga enjoys a kinky sexual lifestyle and is therefore even more worthy of degradation than your average sexually active woman. Under the other side of the bed are some gold coins. A suggestion that Haelga is compensated for her abilities? Additionally we can read a love letter addressed to Haelga from one of her paramours.

“Sweet Haelga,

Last night was the most wonderful night of my life. The things you showed me…the things we did… I could never have dreamt that it was possible. Who even knew that someone could manipulate their body in that manner while wearing Daedric Armor boots? You are a true master of the Dibellan arts, my love… a credit to your religion. Perhaps we’ll meet again soon but next time allow me to bring the trout.

Your secret lover.”

Poor joke aside, everybody seems happy. Time to destroy that, I guess. Makes sense. The three men offer little resistance. One gives me some righteous indignation, one feigns ignorance and one pleads for discretion. You see, he’s married. I wonder, why am I not rubbing HIS face in it? With little effort on my part these three gentlemen sell Haelga out and give me the Marks. After confronting Haelga with the evidence of her rampant sluttiness we are given this response.

“What? How?…Where did you get these? No. Don’t tell me. Look, we need to keep this quiet…between you and me, okay? No one else needs to know about it. If word got out that I was practicing my Dibellan arts in Riften, they’ll run me out of town. Here, take this and don’t mention a word of this to anyone, especially, Svana!”

Still protecting her ungrateful niece after all this time. Svana however, is positively tickled at her aunt’s shaming.

“Isn’t it wonderful? I bet she was squirming like a skeever when you pulled them out of your pocket. I think things are going to be a lot different around here from now on and I have you to thank for it.”

Well, that’s one less brazen hussy terrorizing the penises of poor Tamriel. Such a noble endeavor. I think my problem with this quest was the lack of any kind of moral spectrum. She was either a wanton whore and therefore in need of punishment or I could just choose to not do the quest. There was never a time when I could side with Haelga. Haelga’s lifestyle was never to be considered positive. Some people may say, why make such a big deal about this? It’s just a throwaway quest in a massive game where you are able to commit atrocities against your fellow man and woman. This is true, but it’s small things like this that are so pervasive and surprisingly influential.

We all know that killing is wrong. We all know that theft is wrong. We all know that raising the dead is wrong (and unlikely). There are way too many of us however that do not know that slut-shaming is wrong and continue to use it as emotional blackmail or worse, an excuse for violence. By denying the player the option to be sex-positive it perpetuates the problem. Bethesda really missed an opportunity to not necessarily take a stand, but to let the player at least make that choice. Because choice is what RPGs are supposed to be about.

 

This post originally appeared on http://notyourmothersplayground.com


APPENDIX: ​FULL DIALOGUE

Svana:​ Work? I suppose you can call it that. I call it slavery. I work my fingers to the bone keeping this disgusting place clean.

Ever since my parents died and Haelga took me in it’s been a nightmare. How was I to know she was such a wretched woman? So now I’m stuck living here while those pigs she calls customers grope me and say the most awful things.

You:​​ Why do you hate Haelga so much?

Svana: ​It’s not just the work. It’s everything about her. She’s disgusting. I think she takes her worship of Dibella a bit too seriously. Do you know she slept with three different men in the last month alone? What kind of woman would do such a thing? Just for once I’d like to see her squirm…to rub her nose in it.

You:​​ There must be a way.

Svana: ​Actually, there is. But I don’t think I could get away with doing it. She’d kill me if she found out. You see, after she makes love she gives her partner a token of her affection called a Mark of Dibella. If you confront her with three of the Marks, she’d be so embarrassed… well, I don’t know what she’d do.

You:​​ Sure. I’ll help you. OR Maybe another time.

Svana:​ Oh, this is going to be great! You need to get the Marks of Dibella from Bolli, Hofgrir and Indalyn. Not sure how you’re going to do that, but try your best. Then just confront Haelga with them and the rest works itself out. Try and get those Marks without violence please. I don’t want to be responsible for their deaths…or yours.

AFTER RETURNING WITH THE MARKS

Haelga:​ Can I help you?
You: ​​I believe these are yours.

Haelga:​ What? How?…Where did you get these? No. Don’t tell me. Look, we need to keep this quiet…between you and me, okay? No one else needs to know about it. If word got out that I was practicing my Dibellan arts in Riften, they’ll run me out of town. Here, take this and don’t mention a word of this to anyone, especially, Svana!

AFTER CONFRONTING HAELGA

You:​ I gave the Marks to Haelga

Svana:​ Oh I know. Isn’t it wonderful? I bet she was squirming like a skeever when you pulled them out of your pocket. I think things are going to be a lot different around here from now on and I have you to thank for it. Here, I want you to have this. It was my Father’s but I’m certain you’ll put it to good use.

Character creator of Saints Row 3 showing an alternative-styled man of color

The Border House Podcast – Episode 5: Our Avatars and Us

Character creator of Saints Row 3 showing an alternative-styled man of color

Character creator of Saints Row 3 showing an alternative-styled man of color

 

This time around, Rawles and I talk about Skyrim, Saints Row 3, and other games that have character creators and how they relate to diversity issues in gaming. Unfortunately, I sound a little weird and there’s a few blips here and there, I was sick during the recording :( But I’m better now and the oddities are minimal, so we hope you all enjoy! And remember, we’re always looking for guest speakers, so if you are an active game critic/journalist, designer, or activist, get in contact with me! Interviews are also a possibility :)

 

Opening & Closing Credits - Was that away message for me? by 8bit Betty

Two horses in Skyrim, modded to look like My Little Pony.

The strange world of Skyrim mods

I’ve never really been much of a game-modder, myself. I’ve always preferred the vanilla experience, half out of laziness, half out of not wanting anything to break my savegames. While some people love getting every ounce out of a game, I always feel some kind of weird desire to play the game as the developer intended. Although, what they usually intend is something for Xbox that gets a PC port, but I digress.

A few blogs recommended the FXAA Post-Processor mod, which I do recommend – it adds a lot of colour to a sometimes washed out game. In the process, I came across a weird and wonderful variety of mods. This is by no means exhaustive!

Clean Female Bodies

Fantasy settings have ladies that are simply too dirty for you? Don’t like the idea of all that unwashed grottyness? The psychoanalysis you could read into this would doubt have no end. It  reminds me of troll arguments about having people of colour in games being some kind of aberration (you can imagine fantasy races and dragons and spell casting, but black skin is out?).  Kristeva’s ideas of the Abject come to mind. The disembodied body meshes on the mod site itself are equally creepy.

A "clean" white woman in a bra and pants in the game Skyrim

Nude Females

Clean bodies not enough for you? NSFW – requires site registration. This is the 11th most popular mod on this site, weirdly enough. It does pretty much what it says, although by the look of it all the breasts and the like are drawn by an amateur modder and look – strange to say the least. Some of the feature lists alone highlights how creepy this mod is:

- New default Argonian texture without nipples (nippled version is optional)
- Corrected belly button placement
- Corrected nipple placement in .msn files
- Removed some blockyness from .msn files
- Dirty and Clean version of the textures, with pubic hair and hairless versions of both
- Khajiit textures: Default version (two nipples) and Alternate Cat version (8 nipples)

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with in-game nudity. But to default every woman in the game to naked? I mean – what is this supposed to achieve, apart from mild titillation? Again, the psychoanalysts could go nuts here.

Female muscle mod

On a different note, this mod takes it the other way. From the mod notes:

Since nords are supposed to be “big and burly” as one of the devs said… It seemed kinda weird. Men look like bodybuilders and “ofcourse” women look like playboy bunnies (with reasonably sized boobs)… So heres a lil something to make them nordic women look little more formidable.

I have to say this one feels pretty reasonable to me. Does this make me a hypocrite? Of course, the site has some naked shots (why?). I’m no expert too but I’m pretty sure those breasts are unrealistic considering how ripped the models are.

A Nord woman in Skyrim made much more muscular via a user mod. She's wearing leather armour and a quiver.

Yes, there’s some mods to alter the men too, but they’re not nearly so numerous and game changing – mostly they’re part of high def conversion packs.

My Little Pony

OK – so this one is sorta cool. Convert Skyrim horses into My Little Pony livery. I think the picture speaks for itself.

Two horses in Skyrim, modded to look like My Little Pony.

Do you use Skyrim with mods? What are your favourites? Do these mods tell us anything about gamers, or am I over-analysing how people want to play their game?

A beautiful Skyrim town with a castle towering in the distance

To the Ends of the Earth: A Review of Elder Scrolls V- Skyrim

My character, Serena, looking out from her balcony in the city of Solitude. Dark eyes, dark lipstick, dark mage's clothing- but a sunny personality!

You could say I found my womanhood on the island of Vvardenfell.

My life has been, in many ways, a master class education in the fact that games are never “just games.” You see, the setting of Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was a key site of my life and my evolution as a transgender woman. In some real ways, my transition began with the realisation that I preferred playing as women in life sims like this. Morrowind’s beautiful, amazing open world was where I learned more about myself than I imagined, as I adventured again and again as a claymore wielding woman bedecked in armour. The world of Tamriel taught me things about myself too numerous to list here. Needless to say, I owe it much and it has a rather special place in my heart, even for its occasional failings.

With that powerful history in mind, I gleefully turned from the eastern realms of Morrowind to the snowswept north, the province of Skyrim, home of the Nord people. This is, at last, a worthy heir to the legacy set forth by Morrowind. 2006‘s Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, unfortunately, did not meet this standard in my eyes. But Skyrim, at long last, meets the very high bar set by Morrowind.

We should begin by talking about how cities and towns speak to the spirit of a game like this.

The Death and Life of Great Tamrielic Cities

Oblivion’s greatest failing was that it lent no soul to its setting: the province of Cyrodiil, the scintilliant heart of Tamriel’s Romanesque Empire. Instead, the Imperial City felt like a large town set in marble. The province itself felt, well, provincial as opposed to cosmopolitan. The expectations set by the numerous in-game books in Morrowind that glowingly described Cyrodiil came to nothing, in the end. Yet, even excepting the size of the cities and towns, their lifeless geometric placement on the map, and their lack of grandeur, there was the soullessness best expressed by the vacant, uncanny valley stares of most of the game’s NPCs.

What Skyrim shows is something that Morrowind should have taught us all too well: Bethesda captures the frontier far better than the metropole. Morrowind’s setting on the island of Vvardenfell was at the very periphery of the Empire’s reach and that fact showed itself beautifully. Skyrim is set in a different periphery but a periphery all the same: a world of the wilds with cloudcapped peaks, vast valleys still fully given over to nature, and rifts hewn over millennia of geological evolution. The sense of being at the edge of the world is pervasive sometimes. It feels real, in other words. You feel as if you stand on a world where things have happened and where things are going to happen- a far cry from Oblivion where there was no ‘there’ there.

A beautiful Skyrim town with a castle towering in the distance.

This is a province with cities that are not vast, but whose dense size is a better fit for the harsh wintry climate, as if the buildings themselves huddle for warmth. Solitude, the Imperial capital of the province, is built on an amazing rock formation that, as the loading screen reminds you, provides a natural shelter for its harbour against the powerful northern winds. That may seem small, yet it’s a master stroke that Oblivion glaringly lacked. Cities and towns in Skyrim make sense. They are located near resources, near trading lanes, on defensible land or on terrain that provides some other benefit. In other words, cities feel both planned and organic in the way that many real life settlements do. Morrowind had this feeling in spades. Oblivion had a pentagon of towns around the capital.

I dwell so much on these intangibles because they are what make giving over so much of your time to play such a worthwhile affair; they lend the world a sense of reality that enhances the simulation and makes the world simply more fun to run around in. Around each bend is unique terrain that feels less shaped by human hands and more by the forces of wind, erosion, and time.

Everything that needs to be said about this can be said via a comparison of the maps: MorrowindOblivionSkyrim. Skyrim’s map may lack the detail of Vvardenfell’s but it does capture a more realistic and detailed world.

But what of the meat itself?

Woman as a Way of Being Human

Much has been made of the fact that your character is a Dragonborn, a humanoid with dragon blood that gives them the power to use the Voice; words of power that channel great magic. Hence every last one of your friends randomly going FUS ROH DAH! every five minutes. This has become the game’s signature, and as a mechanic it works remarkably well. It adds a layer of reward to the game- you find each word of power carved into walls with other Draconic speech; the ‘learning’ takes place via a beautiful animation set to a chorus that never quite gets old.

Legate Rikke, a stern faced woman wearing Roman-inspired iron armour, exercising her right to bare arms and standing before the red and gold banner of the Empire she serves.

But what makes Elder Scrolls games a breed apart is that the main quest isn’t the only game in town. Skyrim is replete with quests, many of which are stunningly interesting, others more mundane RPG fare that nevertheless can’t help but to take you somewhere pretty. One of my favourite quests early on is helping a single mother and shopkeeper with a problem she’s having: a male bard with an entitlement complex (he even wrote the book on ‘romancing women’ in his particular town) has been pursuing her aggressively despite her continually saying ‘no.’ Your job is to make it clear to him that she doesn’t need a man to get by.

There are literally scores of quests that have this flavouring element to the world, that breathe life into characters.

On that note it’s worth discussing the women of Skyrim at length. There are strong women and weak women; good women, evil women, and everyone in between; women of faith and women of the arcane; vampire women and werewolf women; women in power and women barely getting by; women fighting for the Empire and women fighting in the Stormcloak rebellion that stands in opposition to it; a sharp tongued wizard with a beautifully eloquent darkness about her, and an absent minded professor wizard who lives for magical theory; women who are starstruck romantics, and women who need no man.

In a word, they are human.

What a concept.

There is never room for a lone woman to become a representative archetype as, say, an evil or seductive deceiver simply because there are so many diverse women. The game forces you to stare women’s humanity in the face by lending us as many motivations and personalities as the game’s men.

The very first Imperial captain you come across is a dark skinned woman; countless more women who fight and/or are in positions of power and authority abound in the game. You find women who are most at home with an axe, men who are most at home with a poem, and interestingly a lot of people who are quite at ease with both. Women are not there purely for display while the men do all the thinking and talking. In Solitude, a Nord lieutenant, Legate Rikke, is just as at-ease hunched over a strategy map as her male colleagues.

A woman rocking out with her lute out. In the hearth lit, stone hewn tavern she sings "We drink to our youth, to days come and gone. For the age of aggression is just about done."

The game’s narrative also presents you with political complexity. A volcanic eruption in the neighbouring province of Morrowind set thousands of the native Dark Elves on the long road to other lands in search of greener pastures. Many came to Skyrim where they ended up staying despite the often as not racist reception of the Nords. One book in the game reads like a right wing screed, bemoaning the Dark Elves’ “failure to assimilate” and blaming them for “choosing” to live in ghettos. It all sounds rather familiar and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Bethesda is making some interesting political commentary here. Indeed, this issue is at the heart of the complications that beset your choice to side with the Empire or the Stormcloaks at the beginning of the game.

The Stormcloaks are freedom fighters who seek independence for Skyrim, and yet they are very much a ‘Skyrim for the Nords’ group. The Empire, even for all of its abusive machinations, has little problem with the province’s growing racial diversity. The politics becomes even more complicated, of course, and this is yet another reason I’ve come to enjoy this game. You enter a world already enmeshed in complicated, worldly political theatre as this hero-with-a-destiny. Great events are in motion and the world bristles with gossip, arguments, and songs about it all. Some bards will sing of the Empire’s glorious preservation of order, others will sing a toast to the Stormcloaks and their eponymous leader, Ulfric Stormcloak.

Often as not, as you hear tales of woe, anger, and political ferment you sometimes doubt the side you chose. A remarkable feeling that mirrors the self-doubt that plagues real politics. This is a game that, mercifully, avoids the stark good/evil meta-themes of other high fantasy settings (not that there aren’t a few necromancers needing slaying).

The Crunchy Bits

A primal and particularly Scandinavian sort of beauty dominates this game; I can stand on a mountainside and look into the valley below knowing that I could walk every square metre of that plain. Very few games can say this and it adds a depth to the sweeping breadth of the title’s beauty. But that stylishness also infuses one part of the game’s interface that pleasantly surprised me. At the beginning of the game I lamented the loss of the ability to choose your birthsign. Those constellations were a part of the flavour of the old games, but I fully understood (and approved of) the slimming down of the array of statistics you have to manage. Skyrim’s system is both lightweight and flexible enough to accommodate several playstyles.

But the skill/level-up screen seemed to say to me “I’ll take your constellation and raise you a nebula!” Your skills are displayed as stunningly pretty constellations set in great nebulae that enshroud them under the three main aptitudes: Mage, Rogue, and Warrior.

This is, however, a classless game. You level whatever skills you choose, and unlike in previous TES titles the leveling of any skill contributes to your next level. Previously you chose ‘major’ and ‘minor’ skills from a lengthy list and only if one levelled those particular skills would it count towards your next class level. Gone is this confining system, replaced with something that leaves you more nimble with your talents than ever before. At present I’m playing a wizard with a great talent for thievery and the game fully accommodates this.

The magic system is also significantly improved. Although it remains awkward to change spells in mid combat (a Dragon Age-style system would have greatly benefitted Skyrim), you can now cast a different spell in each hand and the new ‘perks’ system (which operates similarly to WoW talents) enables greater granularity for magic. Dual casting fireball, for example, has a staggering effect which a single-handed cast of the spell will lack. There’s quite a lot to love here.

All that’s missing are Celtic bagpipes in the soundtrack, really. But the soundtrack the game does have is still amazing, and it resurrects almost note for note some of Morrowind’s old themes. Music that had become so synonymous with adventure for me that I sometimes ran the tracks in the background of other RPGs I played when I tired of their more droll music.

See if you can spot the dragon some miles in the distance. Beneath an overcast sky Serena's standing on a mountain pass here looking down into a foggy, rocky valley sprinkled with coniferous trees. Every inch of the land in the distance can be explored.

Skyrim is that rarest of games that fully realises the grand sweep of its ambition. The forbidding and harsh beauty of this hardened land is vivid and alive, the people feel more real, and in a vast improvement over Oblivion the spoken dialogue is extremely well done. The landscape is dotted with signs of life, even in this frontier land that is quite far from the (supposedly) glittering centre of the Empire. One finds mills with water wheels and windmills turning, farms with livestock, bandit encampments, small cottages and tiny hamlets mixed in with towns of various sizes, and occasional passersby. There is too much to tell, in many ways. The subplot quests for organisations like the Thieves’ Guild are massive undertakings all on their own which could easily be turned into (good) fantasy movies. You can marry someone of the same sex in Skyrim. You can look at a strategy map on a table and ‘use’ each pin on it to learn a location for your game map. The Dwemer ruins, in all their steampunk glory, are back. On and on it goes.

My greatest hope for this game is not that it becomes Game of the Year. That’s assured. But rather the hope that for some young child out there it plays the same role that Morrowind did in my own life: kicking open the doors of possibility and teaching, in a very real way, the all important lesson that you should be who you choose, and that you ought to be able to push headlong and succeed regardless of who you are. Morrowind was one of the first games that taught me that my sisters could kick ass. Given Skyrim’s lofty heights of achievement, I feel just as assured that it will teach a whole new generation of young people the same thing.

My Super LE3T Feminist E3 Review

The following is a guest post by Zaewen:

Zaewen is a white, straight, cis woman and avid feminist gamer, with MMOs being her favorite genre. She has a degree in psychology, a Texas accent, and spends most of her free time playing games, reading blogs, and very occasionally doing some blogging herself. Zaewen hopes to one day get a PhD in awesomeness (or sociology) and do her best to help change the culture we live in.

E3, the gaming convention and showcase for gaming professionals, wrapped up late last week. I was a bit busy elsewhere, so this is going up a lil late, but hey it’s my blog and I do what I want :D So here are my reactions and thoughts to some of the games I saw in the coverage of the convention.

First, though, a word about the convention itself. Having booth babes is not in any way professional and is both degrading and alienating to the women who attend the expo and to the women in the gaming audience looking on from home. Having them there is a very loud and clear signal from the game companies themselves that says women only matter to them as a pair of boobs they can dress up in skimpy little outfits to sell games to hetero-men. And to the game journalism sites that exert a huge amount of effort to take photos and write articles about these women, almost as if they were a game to be bought and played with like the merchandise they’re hocking…. way to stay classy. It’s no small wonder that there is still such an entrenched atmosphere of open sexism in the gaming community with professionals and journalists like y’all.

With that said, onto the games!

Fable: The Journey

Apparently its a rail shooter type game that sounds absolutely boring and counter-intutive to the idea behind an Action RPG. I’m getting really tired of the male as default character too. You see it in almost every game that gives you the option to have a male or female character. The gaming companies apparently think that no one will want to play a game that has a female hero as default/canonical, so we get stuck with the white dude being the hero for the umpteenthillion time. Also, they never seem to like really advertising that you have the option between male/female even though it would probably get them a much larger audience if they really pushed that edge. Add to that the decline in progressiveness from Fable 2 to 3, and I am not optimistic for this one at all.

Skyrim

A screenshot of a roaring dragon perched atop a column of rock with a snowy mountain as a backdrop.

Pretty dragons!!

OMG pretty. So pretty. They’ve pretty much done everything they needed to do to make Oblivion 100x better and then they introduced DRAGONS. So much win. Only thing I need to know now is how the female Khajitt look so I can be even more psyched about playing the game. Yes, I want to be a cat dragon-born hero, leave me be.

3DS games announced: Star Fox, Zelda, Mario Kart, Smash Bros

All my favorite Nintendo games on a 3d handheld to be played whenever/where ever I want? Yes please! Now I just need to get my hands on a 3DS…

Batman: Arkham City

A screenshot of Catwoman. She has a sly smile on her face, her head slightly cocked, and is wearing a leather jumpsuit with the front zipper undone enough to reveal enough cleavage for us to be able to see the bottom curve of her breasts.

Holy Cleavage, Batman!

I love Batman and I love the first game, butwhat they’ve done to Catwoman in this game borders on making me not want to play the game. Their outfits and body proportions are absurd. Seriously, how do you get a leather catsuit that is so tight it gives you butt cleavage, and how does she managed to keep her breasts in with that huge slit down the front? I’ll still end up playing this (just because I’m such a huge Batman fan) and enjoying all the awesome combat, but I can guarantee you that I will be fuming every time the camera strays over Catwoman’s butt. She’s not an object to be lusted at! She’s the most badass woman in the Batman universe!

Zelda Skyward Sword

This looks great, the windwaker art style but sans boat and wind. Though it does have bird riding in it…. so we’ll see. Can’t we just recapture the awesomeness that was Ocarnia of Time again? Ooh, maybe they should just totally redo that game in awesome graphics mode (I know they’re doing it over in 3d, but just think of it the game with the graphics of Skyrim or something, that’s going on my gamer wishlist)

Mass Effect 3 (Trigger Warning for talk of rape in this section)

A screen grab of the Krogan Princess from the gameplay demo. It's hard to make out but she appears to be wearing an intricate metal headdress that covers most of her face, only leaving her mouth visible.

I'm not sure why she's wearing a veil... or why she's a princess that needs rescue...

This series has only gotten worse with the more exposure I have to it. When I first played Mass Effect it was awesome in its scope and story… then I got into the details of the races and background cultures (the Asari and Salarians) and it was suddenly not as cool. Then I heard tell of all the ‘goodies’ tucked away in ME2 (Miranda’s butt cleavage, Samara’s chest cleavage, the Krogan breeding/rape camp, the rape city mission, just all sorts of not good stuff) and the game lost even more of its luster. Now, ME3′s coming out and I’m just really hesitant to get excited about it at all. Especially since there’s some hubub going around about a Krogran princess from the game demmo(lemme guess, a mushroom tells Shephard that his princess is in another castl…err…breeding camp?)

Kingdoms of Amalur

This game looks and sounds like it could be either super awesome or super horrible. A game whose story is written by R.A. Salvatore, visuals done by Tod McFarlane, and the game dev behind Morrowind and Oblivion could be the most amazing game ever to grace our medium, or it could be one really polished and great looking piece of misogynist crap (niether Salvatore or McFarlane or particularly known for the feminist views). So far, I know that there’s the option for female avatars (not that they’re used in promotional material and not that this is specifically a problem with this game… like I said earlier, it plagues almost all games of this genre like Fable and Mass Effect), we’ll just have to see how it all works out. This is a game I will definitely be keeping tabs on.

SWTOR

When I first heard about the game I did an *eyeroll*, then after seeing some stuff about it I was a lil interested, then after seeing some more stuff about it I have reverted back to *eyeroll* status. The IP is not known for its progressive attitudes towards women in their universe. And tho Bioware has done some good things with the IP in the past, they’ve not been particularly good lately with their handling of gender, especially when it comes to character models or lore (just check out the huge racks and tiny waists on the women of DA2 or any of the backstories for the races of Mass Effect). None of the screenshots I’ve seen of the game give me a confidence that they’ll be giving us reasonable body proportions on the women, nor do the three trailers they’ve released. It is amazingly, disturbingly sad that the aliens and people with half their faces blown away look more human and normal/right (i.e. not smack dab in the middle of the uncanny valley) than all of the women in the trailers. It’s something about their eyes, the facial features, the airbrushed skin, and heavy amounts of makeup that just make the women look like amateur renders compared to the detailed and realistic looks of the men’s faces. Also, the fact that in all 3 of the trailers there’s only like 4 women compared to the roughly 100 men in each trailer. Ok, yea, that’s a slight exageration, but seriously… the ratio is very skewed and the women are very much tokens (of the ‘oh crap, all the jedi are men, guess we’ll make the bounty hunter you see for half a second me a woman) or scenery for the oodles of men to leer at.

Neverwinter

The trailer for this looks pretty awesome but the same thing I said for Kingdoms of Amalur and SWTOR hold up here. The IP and lore is not exaclty renowned for its feminist ideals, but it could either be great or horrible, depends on the route they took. It seems like it’s going to be good, both in the gameplay and the not causing me to *headdesk*

Saint’s Row The Third

I’ve always preferred these games to the GTA series, probably because I get the option to be a woman (which is such a big plus), they’re not so full of white guys, and I like their humor a bit more. We still have to put up with quite a lot of sexist crap from them (see the link up above with the car wash booth babes and the numerous panty and boob shots in the trailer) but they usually give us more options to subvert it than other games. In Saints Row 2 I was a gang leader who swaggered and cursed like a sailor, but had a posh voice and was overly fond of cleavage shirts. Apparently, in this new game we get even more control over our character creation, and they add in a sex appeal slider. This, on women, is a boob slider all the immature boys in the audience can have huge boobs on their characters. This would usually get a gripe from me, but they went one step further, and made the slider on men affect how large their ‘package’ is. When I found this out, I could not stop laughing for a good 5 minutes. We usually only joke about this when people bring up boob sliders, the fact that it is now being given to us as an acknowledgement of the ridiculousness of boob sliders, is so unbelievably awesome.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

This trailer surprised the heck out of me when I saw it. I played Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune just recently (yay gamefly!) and loved it…. minus the zombie parts, that scared the crap out of me. The characters were great and even though she was the only woman, Elena kicked major butt and didn’t take any shit from the guys (not that the guys gave any shit, they treated her more or less like an equal). The third apparently has three women in it, one of which is the bad guy and the other is what appears to be an even more badass Elena. I’m definitely down with that, so I’m going to have to sneak Uncharted 2 up on our queue and try that out asap!

Tomb Raider

A bloodied and dishelved Lara Croft, holding a torch aloft as she searches through a cave.

They really like beating her up in this game...

Ah, Tomb Raider. The *only* game with a female lead protagonist that I saw in all of the E3 coverage (if I missed some, please let me know, I’d love to be wrong about this), which is quite fucking sad. Pardon the cursing there, but seriously, that is some sad ass shit right there. We’re half of the population and 44% of the gaming audience, yet we only get one game that focuses on our stories out of a whole slew of games? Pathetic. Anyhoo, besides that BS, I’m not entirely sure that this reboot of the franschise will be a good thing. When watching the trailer and gameplay demo, I got a distinct Other M vibe from it. Maybe it was Lara simpering while she ran away from her chaser or the naive baby face they gave her, I dunno, but something about it is giving me the impression that this is not the badass Lara we all know and love. I know its a reboot and origin story for her, set in her first (mis)adventure. She’s just a kid, fresh out of college, and that what she goes through in the game are the events that make her into that badass we all know and love. I just can’t shake the feeling that this is going to be another Other M. I’m just going to have to hold off on making a judgement about it (again, would love to be wrong about this) till I play through the game.

Battlefield 3

Don’t have too much to say, other than this game is so realistic that its slightly disturbing to me as the wife of a combat vet.  ’Course he thinks its bloody awesome and is eager to get his hands on it, but I keep getting this image in my head that he’s one of the soldiers getting gunned down.  Also, when are they ever going to start adding in women soldiers to these military games that are set in the future like B3 (its set a couple years in the future, which at the rate things are going its quite possible we’d have them on the frontlines) is or MW3 will be (which is definitely set in the not-so-near future and has no excuse to not have women in them)? Come on, if Bungie could do it with Halo, certainly these games can manage it.

Assassin’s Creed 3

Love this series, can’t wait to try out this new one and the trailer is all sorts of epic. I’m kind of sad, though, that they decided to stick with Auditore’s tale throughout the last three iterations. I really liked the idea that the second game presented us with: that each new game would follow a different assassin from history, and thus that we’d get to see and be a female assassin, but alas that was not the case. Maybe after this one we’ll get to have the protagonist be a woman, pretty please Ubisoft? That would be totally awesome.

Rift Patch 1.3

Four Ascended heroes stand in front of Rift's new raid zone. A human woman wears a mage robe with ample cleavage showing and a belly window, a high elf woman wears an intricate plate two-piece set that leaves her midriff and legs bare, a human man wears a leather armor set that cover every inch of skin, and a dwarf man wears a long chain robe and pants ensemble that covers all but his face and neck.

The second to the left is plate... seriously, it is. Don't ask me how that's supposed to be good tanking armor. And yes, it actually completely covers men when they wear it.

Rift announced its 1.3 patch and I’m rather excited about it. We’re getting a new raid zone, guild banks, and a new type of rift event thing called slivers. The only thing I’m upset about is the new armor models that will be released with the patch (yes, I care more about the armors than class changes, class changes I can learn to deal with, sexist armor models I cannot). Apparently they either did not have the time to or decided not to take under advisement the plethora of criticisms they got about the female armor models. The new male armor models cover the men head to toe in really badass looking armor.  Meanwhile, the new female armors are all some form of bikini bottoms with chaps or leg warmers and tops that have some form of cleavage or belly windows involved. The female plate model has so many cut outs and is so short, I had trouble identifying it as plate armor at first *headdesk*. At least the designs on them still look pretty awesome, even though there is a whole lot less surface area for those designs to be displayed. It’s rather upsetting that there is the high probability that they saw the complaints about the female armor models (especially since they have been going on since the beta started back in December long before this patch was being developed) and decided to say ‘fuck you’ and made more of the same anyways. If they keep this up, the wardrobe function will not do us any good because there will be such a limited amount of non-revealing armors to choose from that the ability to choose becomes almost meaningless.

Dragon’s Crown

The Sorceress poses for her biographical picture in a low cut dress with high leg slits. She is contorted so that both butt and breasts are in view of the camera. She is pushing the skull of a skeleton into her ample cleavage and has her staff nestled very close to her butt crack.

She's got a skeleton shoved into her bosom and her staff is nestled between her butt cheeks....

Yea, this game gets a seriuosly big WTF from me. Its an animated, side scrolling dungeon romper…. with BOOBS. Lots of boobs that jiggle… and, as Wundergeek pointed out in her E3 review, because its aniamted the jiggle had to be drawn in…seriously WTF. And its not just a lil jiggle, the Amazon and Sorceress jiggle so much it made my chest hurt with sympathy. Also, talk about crazy ass proportions, they’ve both got hugely exaggereated body parts (butt on the Amazon and breasts on the Sorceress, although the Amazon still has quite a large rack and the Sorceress is well endowed in the rear too). Now, to be ‘fair’ the men are exaggerated too, but I’ll give you a guess as to whats not exaggerated on them…. that’s right it’s definitely not their penis or balls. No, its their biceps and shoulders which is tooootally equivalent to women having GG boobs or a butt the size on Montana. Men having exaggerated muscles != women having exagerated sexual body parts because the men are not being sexualized, they’re having their strength and power exaggerated. The women are having their status as sexual objects to be lusted after exaggerated which is not the same. At. All.

So that concludes my E3 roundup. I didn’t cover everything, no where near in fact, and most of what I covered was sadly things that caught my eye for being *bad* or *not good* from a feminist standpoint. Trust me, I would really, really love to see the day where I can pick out the things that are doing great on that front.

(Originally posted here)