Am I The Problem? A Reaction to Tropes Vs. Women in Videogames

The following is a reaction to Feminist Frequency’s Tropes vs. Women in Videogames series.  It is written by a white, cis male, which I recognize is possibly the worst thing to be in writing any critical response to the series as presented so far.  I am not denying the points the series makes, and I am certainly not denying the industry’s huge problem with gender, stereotypes, and women in general.  Sexism is real, and it is entirely possible for someone to not be sexist and still benefit from its deeply entrenched roots in modern society.  I have no doubt that I benefit from sexism in ways that I cannot enumerate, though given the quality of my life and the fact that the most recent major event in it was getting a type of cancer that it is physically impossible for someone of the female sex to get and the subsequent loss of my ability to procreate, I will admit I find it hard to see exactly how I benefit.

I am going to be honest about my reaction to the series and it is my sincere hope that nobody hates me for it.

Tropes vs. Women in Videogames makes me feel like a bad person.  Really, really bad.  Downright evil, and no, I’m not exaggerating for comic effect like I normally do.  I know that this is likely not the case and that part of the point of the series is to target people like me, straight men who consider themselves feminists and make us uncomfortable with the state of affairs.  Well, it succeeds.  Forgive me if this is oddly disjointed, most attempts to play hop-scotch in a minefield are.

The series, if you haven’t seen it, is presented as a very matter-of-fact lecture, and seems to be aimed at the lowest common denominator, which, given the deranged and disturbing response to Ms. Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter I entirely understand.  Many of the people most in need of education on this subject have not exactly shown that they are capable of understanding complex, nuanced subjects such as this.  Honestly, I’m impressed they’ve managed to attain even a limited grasp of human language.  While I understand that I am not the lowest common denominator that lashes out and makes threats if someone dares to challenge something that I like, I do feel like I am being patronized and talked down to while watching the videos.

Maybe I need to be talked down to, though.  Again, I’m serious, maybe I am part of the problem.  But am I?  How broadly do you define the problem?  I’ve supported dozens of the games specifically called out in her three installments on Damsels in Distress.  I’ve supported them with my money, and I’ve enjoyed playing them, and I haven’t really given a tremendous amount of thought to the implications of this.  I’ve also played and greatly enjoyed Beyond Good & Evil, the game most praised by Ms. Sarkeesian in her series for its general excellence in both quality and positive portrayal of women.

“Isn’t it enough for a game to just be fun and well made?” I thought to myself at one point.  Well, that depends.  If games are just toys, diversions, distractions with no deeper meaning, I’d say yes, it is enough for a game to just be fun and well made.  If no one will ever take them seriously, it is enough for a game to just be fun and well made.  That’s not true, though.  Perhaps the hidden point of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games is that games not only are art, but they have always been art.  There was no magical threshold crossed in the mid-90s or early millennium that transmuted them into art.  The ideas presented in games have always mattered, even if the creators did not necessarily have that intent at the outset.

Still, I wonder, “Am I the problem?”

If Ms. Sarkeesian’s method of presentation bothers me, and if I am bothered by the implication that my taste in games does include, but is not limited to games called out as problematic, is that not my conscience telling me that I am a bad person, and deserve to feel bad for it?  Especially considering that while after viewing and carefully considering her points, I have no intention of more carefully vetting the games I buy for their portrayal of gender?  I will certainly be more aware of it, yes, but if some future game employs this trope to some extent and is otherwise excellent, will I still buy it?  Yeah, probably.

As you can tell I am, in many ways, a deeply insecure person.  Is it a good thing for the world that I won’t even theoretically be able to reproduce?  Would the world be better off without me?  Am I even a man anymore?  These are common refrains.  Experience shapes and forges us all, and my experiences have directed my critical gaze more inward than most.  I’m not a stranger to being on the wrong side of debates.  I’m sure I’m still on the wrong side on a great many things, life is about learning and adapting, becoming better in the process.  In recent years I’ve found myself arguing out of ignorance on the topic of rape culture, something that the modern, more educated variant of me is rather ashamed of.  Likewise, while I respected transgenderism, until Lana Wachowski’s brilliant and revelatory speech on the subject, I held some rather ignorant views on it.

Open and intellectually honest debate is of course worthwhile, and that’s what I’m attempting to do here.  If I’ve failed, I apologize.  I’m trying to respond in an honest fashion.  I do not consider myself a sexist, I consider myself a feminist.  Have I been a bad person, though, in not speaking out more, not doing more, not attempting to in some way repay those whose oppression I benefit from?  Is my patronage of certain media harmful, and if so, aren’t I morally obligated to stop supporting it, even if I otherwise enjoy it?

I don’t know.  Maybe there’s more point in the question than the answer.

A User’s Guide to Media Reviews

Editor’s Note: This is a companion piece to my previous article, “An Objective Review of Dragon’s Crown”  Read it here.

Lately I’ve seen a lot of people who seem to be confused about the purpose of reviews. Specifically video game reviews, but you can apply them to movie reviews, book reviews, really anything involving art. Mostly this confusion stems from the perception that reviews must be “objective”.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Andrew, you sly, sexy thing, reviewers should be unbiased in their work!”

This is wrong. Reporters should be unbiased in their work. Reviewers entire job is bias. There are acceptable and unacceptable biases for reviewers, though. A good reviewer will not allow their review to be unduly affected by any previous perceptions they have about the work, positive or negative. That includes, for example, their personal opinion of the creator, or the system the game is released for. A good review is based entirely on the reviewer’s opinions and observations of the work that they accumulated during their experience with the finished art.

Reviews are objective by nature. This isn’t a problem, this is in fact why they are a useful tool. If you have determined whether or not you like something, or are going to buy something before reading any reviews of it, congratulations, you do not need to read the review. That’s not to say you shouldn’t, I read reviews of things I like, dislike, or have no intention of buying regardless of the quality all the time. It is a form of entertainment, and it can enrich your experience by providing a different perspective from which to appreciate art. A good review of good art will enhance your appreciation of that art.

What you shouldn’t do is use reviews to try and confirm your own biases. We’ve all done it and there’s nothing inherently wrong with this practice either. Who doesn’t love reading an awful movie being eviscerated or a horrible game being pilloried by such masters of the negative review as Jim Sterling and Yahtzee Croshaw? This isn’t what reviews are there for, though. Its a bonus, a treat, and can serve as a validation of your own good taste.

Where people get hung up though is that disagreeing with a reviewer doesn’t make either of you wrong. It just means you disagree. That’s why it is important not to just look at Metacritic aggregates, but to seek out individual reviewers, individual voices who you agree with. Not on score, mind you, but on observation. Different people appreciate different things for different reasons. One reviewer may appreciate a certain kind of game more or less, or a certain style greatly. Find reviewers who appreciate the same things that you do, and if you are unsure as to whether you should or shouldn’t check something out, seek out their opinions.

“But what if the reviewers I usually agree with disagree with me, MSK?”

Well Strawman, it still just means you disagree. Maybe you should think about what you disagree on. If someone who thinks a lot like you do dislikes something that you don’t, odds are you’ll be able to understand their point quite easily. This can improve your enjoyment! Understanding not only that you enjoy something but why you enjoy something is itself enjoyable. Being able to love art not just despite but because of its imperfections is great.

This is why the late lamented Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were so highly valued, not just for their own skills at reviewing movies, but for their wildly different preferences. “Two Thumbs Up” really meant something, because it meant that two colleagues who think differently enjoy the same thing. It was a double positive review, if two people who disagree vehemently on a regular basis like the same movie, odds are it is a really good movie.

All this is not to say there isn’t such a thing as a Bad Review, however. This comes down again to bias, in the case of video games it also involves skill. If someone has made up their mind about something before they have seen it or played it, they have no business reviewing it, and thankfully you can usually tell, because the people who do this are not professionals, but rabid lunatics zero-bombing things on websites that allow for user reviews pre-release. Likewise, if someone just plain isn’t good at a particular game genre, they never play them personally, what have you, they have no business reviewing those games.

Sports games are the most common example, here. For me, its certain 2D fighting games. I am BAD at them. All-Caps BAD. I can’t beat more than three or four levels in Street Fighter IV on the easiest difficulty. That bad. When I see dozens of positive reviews of Street Fighter IV, though, I don’t get upset at the reviewer, though, of course not. I know its not for me, and I can still appreciate their observations with no intent of acting on them.

Which brings me to the current debate going on in the commentariat over at Polygon over their Dragon’s Crown review. A lot of people are going to really enjoy this game and would likely give it a score above 6.5 themselves. That is fine, but it doesn’t mean the author is weighing down the score with her own personal baggage. Some people do not like hypersexualized women and male power fantasies in their games. That detracts from their enjoyment.

“But MSK, if they don’t like sexy babes in their games, they shouldn’t review games with sexy babes in them! That’s your logic!”

No its not, Strawman. That’s a perversion of my logic. Dragon’s Crown is a beat-em-up, a brawler, with a heavy emphasis on its art style as a primary selling point. Naturally, critique of the art style is not only fair game in a review, but a necessity in a review. We’re not talking about someone who just hates brawlers, here, and besides, Strawman, and since I created you, we both know that isn’t your actual problem with the review.

This is the nature of criticism, people will always disagree. I have never had a problem with a little cheesecake here and there, but to me, Dragon’s Crown seems to be rather obnoxious with the way it presents its particular flavor. That’s my opinion. Is yours different? That’s fine with me.

And it should be fine with you, too.

On Tomb Raider

If Crystal Dynamics wanted to intellectually challenge me with Tomb Raider, they certainly did that.

I started off thinking that Tomb Raider looked good, if questionable as regards gender politics in their announcement trailer. The tone of that trailer was very similar to the torture/imprisonment scenes in V for Vendetta, where a female character, Evey Hammond, is put into a hellish scenario and through survival and defiance becomes more than she was before.

After the E3 trailer I started having doubts, while the technical aspects showed promise it did veer fairly close to what I define as torture porn. I actually thought the attempted rape shown in the trailer was a sign to the contrary, the nature of the story as crucible in which a heroine is formed was intact. And for all intents and purposes, Lara Croft is someone they historically depict as a sort of Lady Batman by way of Indiana Jones, so I think the “traumatic superhero origin story” fits what they’re trying to do.

Then the producers and PR jackals started opening their mouths and I moved from cautious optimism to complete skepticism with a handful of statements. Not statements taken out of context, mind you, things that stand on their own quite well and weren’t walked back later by others. The “You’ll want to protect her” angle. Not good. Way back in the announcement trailer the most negative thing was the implication of the drowning scene, where Lara is pulled out of the water by what is clearly a strong, male arm.

I think the intent behind it is as metaphor for her father, but it still sends a troubling message that this is someone who is not competent to survive on her own, without male assistance. A message reinforced by the producer’s statements regarding ‘protecting’ the protagonist. Suddenly the metaphor is warped backwards upon itself, casting the player as a controlling father-figure who the protagonist Cannot Survive Without. The E3 trailer furthers this idea with the narration that plays over the rape scene, in which Lara’s (presumed) father is reassuring her.

Finally we come to the point at which the PR apparatus, clearly in some sort of panicked, deranged Damage Control/Hype Amplification hybrid state actually double down on rape, saying it is something that enemies in the game will try to do to her. Now, this is one that could be misunderstood. It could be that one instance in the trailer and no more. Many would say that one instance is still way too far. Even so, in the context of the interview, it is implied that attempted rape is something that happens multiple times throughout the game, if not just a thing that enemies will pull out of their “move set” if given the chance. That is genuinely disgusting, but raises an even more troubling point to compound my feelings.

That is to say, what happens if I put the controller down? What if I, as PlayerFather, choose neglect be it by accident, frustration, or experiment? Will the protagonist be raped in front of me? No, that won’t happen, everyone has some common sense and that doesn’t seem like a good idea to anyone. More likely is that it will be treated as the exact same failure condition as physical death. Game Over screen, reload at most recent checkpoint. Now I’ll admit I might be reaching with this next point but to my mind that sends a message that is both horrifying and untrue, which is “Rape Is Not Survivable”.

While technically, Crystal Dynamics may be making a solid game from mechanical and graphical standpoints, they are clearly not equipped to play with the loaded gun that is the emotional complexity of extreme trauma and rape. Many have criticized the game for looking like Uncharted. It does, and Uncharted was called Dude Raider by a great many people well past its release. I don’t find that a problem. I like Uncharted, if Tomb Raider is like Uncharted then I will be happy.

But why do I like Uncharted? Long and short? Its human. It has actual characters who are developed, expanded upon, and undergo physical and emotional arcs, with triumph and tragedy along the way. It has love, loss, sacrifice, the pursuit of meaning, adversity and triumph over such. It is by no means narratively the Best Game, but it is very good, and consistently so.

Which brings me to The Last of Us. Like Tomb Raider this is no empowerment fantasy of a game. Like Tomb Raider, survival seems to be the crux of much of the gameplay. And here is where Naughty Dog prove themselves the superior developers, unlike Tomb Raider, The Last of Us is framed to have its cake and eat it too.

Both games are seemingly setting up to play off of paternal instinct to protect young girls. The difference is twofold, the obvious, you Play as Lara Croft, your job as the player is to protect her. In The Last of Us, you Play as Joel, your job as Joel is to protect Ellie. That makes a fucking mighty difference right there. Second, and more subtly, I don’t want to protect Lara Croft. I want her to protect herself. Contrast to The Last of Us, where every iota of information they’ve released on it has made me want to protect Ellie.

Ellie’s thirteen, though. She’s not fully equipped to handle this adventure, that is the specific reason that Joel is with her. Lara may not be fully equipped to handle her adventure as well but she should not be portrayed as otherwise helpless. Ellie, in contrast, is far from helpless. She’s smart, she’s sarcastic, she’s surprisingly well-adjusted, and most importantly she is not in the least afraid to brick a motherfucker in the face and then not three minutes later stab another in the back. Yes, Joel has to protect her but she can be just as important in protecting Joel. They need each other to get through this alive.

Lara Croft should not need a protector. I do not want the job. The story I thought I was getting, and might still get despite these communication turds to the contrary, is one ultimately of female empowerment. Overcoming the very real dangers facing her, on her own, and through this ordeal being reborn as a heroine as iconic as she is strong and independent. This still might happen, if it doesn’t, I will consider it an opportunity squandered.

Part of storytelling is knowing when to stop. Pushing boundaries is good, playing with the emotions of your audience is also good. The best stories we have do both. They allow us to grow as people, we emerge from the experience better for it. Tomb Raider has this potential. If it fails, it will be because no one in the room was smart enough to tell them when to stop, when to back away from the edge, leave some taboos unbroken, and in turn leave the next great boundary for another day and another story.

After all, if authors and audiences alike were capable of breaking all barriers with one swift narrative punch to the brain, we wouldn’t have any good ones left to tell.

Chris Taylor is Wrong

So Chris Taylor, he of Total Annihilation fame, is demagoguing about how to “save PC gaming”.  Of course, he’s got it wrong.

Putting aside the fact that he’s an irrelevant fucktard, a one-hit-wonder of a game developer whose library is a cavalcade of mediocrity, to ape the inimitable Yahtzee, he’s on the wrong path.

Taylor says that the future of gaming is in “Secure PC Gaming” a nebulous term that in hu-man language means “draconian copy protection”.  He claims the problem is widespread piracy, and that the only way to save PC gaming is to inconvenience everyone.  This is wrong.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.

As the music and film industries have so valiantly failed to learn, piracy is not the problem, it is the symptom of the problem.  Namely, barriers to entry including, but not limited to, rising costs and draconian copy protection.  Simply put, the problem is that it is easier to pirate something than to acquire it legally.  PC gaming, however, has another problem, a great big problem so glaring that the herculean effort required to ignore it defies the laws of science.

It’s the system requirements.

Let’s put this in perspective, I am a life-long PC gamer, I cut my teeth on this stuff.  I’ve long supported the platform and it is my fervent belief that the mouse and keyboard are the gaming equivalent of lightsabers, that is to say, “finer weapons, for a more civilized age.”   My computer is four months old, it has a processor that can think faster than God and enough RAM to store the collected knowledge of humanity.  It cannot run Crysis above “low” settings.  It cannot even meet minimums for the forthcoming Assassin’s Creed port.  Considering it rarely runs above 1280×720, this is ridiculous.

There are PC games being made these days for a machine that does not fucking exist.  That is the problem, not piracy.  The solution is simple, though.  In fact, several companies are already doing monstrous business by using it!

Stop competing with the consoles.

World of Warcraft can run on just about anything.  Ditto for The Sims.  I bet Spore won’t require a demonically-empowered quantum-shitstomper of a machine to run, either.  The fact is, the PC cannot, nor should it compete for graphical supremacy with the consoles.  They’ve got the high ground, they’ve usurped the mantle of prettiest princess at the ball.  Making games that people can’t play is capital-R Retarded.

Make games that will run on three-year-old machines.  At the very least, don’t develop for hardware that doesn’t exist.  Sell your games through Steam, and for god’s sake don’t saddle retail boxes with restrictive DRM.  A CD-Key is enough.  I don’t know a single person among my friends and acquaintances who pirated StarCraft.  Everyone bought it, and they bought it because the online experience was so compelling that they would rather have paid the cost of entry than found some arcane method of circumventing that barrier.  To my knowledge, it had no copy protection beyond a CD-Key and requiring the disc in the drive.  None.

The audience for PC gaming is there, Blizzard has proven it time and time again.  They don’t want to spend thousands of dollars to upgrade their computers, at least not along the schedules that PC developers have decided upon.  Chris Taylor wants to punish consumers for a problem that he doesn’t even understand.  For my part I’m glad no one in their right mind would listen to him.

International Politics + Gaming Forum = Hilarity

So I’m posting on boards.1up.com today, when I come across a thread that asks if it is right or wrong to play a game based on the Iraq war/GWoT.

Short answer, No.

Long answer, No, but that doesn’t mean developers will actually make them. As I intimated in the thread, those are dark and dangerous waters inhabited exclusively by things designed to kill you. Even a respectful game that takes an evenhanded look at both sides and tells a story with the utmost respect to everyone involved, that is to say, a perfectly done Iraq Game, would get endless flak from at least 20% of the population.

Why?

Politics. You can’t please anyone when it comes to this sort of politically-charged topic. Why have there been acres of World War 2 games and almost zero Vietnam War games? We all agreed on World War 2, and we can certainly all agree on its righteousness in retrospect. Well, everyone who isn’t a white supremacist that is. And the white supremacist demographic is a historically marginalized one in the field of global marketing and sales.

Vietnam and Iraq will never be suitable topics for game makers to approach with rationality, because the divisions are too deep and bitter. Revisionists will inevitably say the same thing about Iraq that they said about Vietnam after the fact. “We would have got the job done had we just stayed in there and got the job done!”

Its hard even for me to bring it up without falling into the political us v. them aspect of it all. There is nothing at all wrong with any aspect of making an Iraq game. It just isn’t good business.

P.S. How did that thread end, again? Yeah, someone called me a traitor. And then I laughed. Serious fucking business on this here internets.