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How to be Awesome Like Korra the Avatar

In How to be Awesome Like, Television on September 12, 2013 at 8:06 am

THE LEGEND OF KORRA

brian psi

The second season of Nickelodeon’s animated The Legend of Korra, the follow-up to the enormously successful Avatar: The Last Airbender, premieres tomorrow. For the unfamiliar, it takes place in a fantasy world inspired by Asian martial arts, spiritual practices and traditional and pop cultures. Some people are born with the hereditary ability to manipulate or ‘bend’ one of the four elements (earth, air, water, or fire) associated with their nation, shaping it to their will. The Avatar, who alone can bend all four, maintains the balance between the elements and the nations they represent. In celebration of Book II: Spirit, here’s how to be like Korra (ie, awesome).

Announce yourself

The Last Airbender was about learning to take responsibility: its Avatar, Aang, ran away from the great conflict of his own time, freezing himself in a block of ice for a hundred years to avoid it. Throughout the four ‘books’ of his show, he learned to put aside his self-doubt, accept his place, and finally end the war that he perhaps could have prevented all those years ago.

From the opening moments of The Legend of Korra we know that this is a different show with a very different protagonist. In the show’s first scene, when we briefly see her at four years old, she is already putting the world on notice. Bursting through a wall and channeling three of the four elements around and at some skeptical officials—standing in, perhaps, for those too attached to the previous Avatar, or nervous about turning the franchise over to a female protagonist—Korra’s first line says it all:

“I’m the Avatar, you gotta deal with it!”

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A Survivor is (re-) Born, Or, Playing Tomb Raider after Anita Sarkeesian.

In feminism, Film, games, gender, misogyny, Uncategorized on June 26, 2013 at 7:36 am

brian psi

In 1985, Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For inaugurated what has come to be known as The Bechdel Test, a three-point checklist for evaluating how a film represents women. Does it have at least two? Do they have a scene together? Do they talk about something other than men? The fact that so few films pass all of these—even 30 years later—means that many filmgoers keep this checklist in the front of our minds, as part of the internal HUDs that we screen all of our media through.

It is difficult now, at least for me, to play a game without my own internal interface simultaneously replaying bits of Anita Sarkeesian’s ongoing series of videos for Feminist Frequency, “Tropes vs. Women.” The first three (two of which are complete) are about the ‘damsel in distress’ trope. In part 1, she lays out the history of the trope, and some of its earlier incarnations; in the second part she demonstrates how it has been used more recently, including such horrifying variations as the ‘damsel in the refrigerator,’ the ‘disposable’ damsel, and the ‘euthanized’ damsel. The collection of cutscenes and gameplay clips she has amassed in support of these classifications is staggering and frankly, not seriously refutable. So it would not be at all surprising if, in the not too distant future, players and critics evaluate their games by some kind of Sarkeesian test, which might get at whether there are women present in the game, and importantly, whether they are protagonists or allies rather than prisoners or corpses used to drive the stories of stubble-sporting, dark-haired white dudes.

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In the Sky, Lord, in the Sky: Historical Guilt and Bioshock Infinite

In class, dystopian literature, games, gender, race, spoilers, technology, time travel, Uncategorized, violence on April 4, 2013 at 9:30 am

brian psi

Irrational Games’ latest opus, Bioshock Infinite, was released last week, to universal acclaim. Creative director Ken Levine has been making the kind of upscale promotional rounds usually frequented by novelists or filmmakers—rare air for someone who has just made an ultraviolent first person shooter, the most reviled (and most lucrative) subgenre of the most debased popular art form. Like other games of its type, the new Bioshock features plenty of gunplay and gruesome melee finishers; unlike other games in any genre, Infinite’s storytelling, setting and themes explore the most troubling aspects of American history, providing a fairly scathing commentary on the interplay of American exceptionalism, racism, religion and labor exploitation. What really struck me is the way that the game evokes—in its narrative and mechanics—two very different responses to historical guilt, responses which make the game’s politics both fascinating and contemporary.

WARNING: massive spoilers below, including major plot twists and ending!

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Watching without Williams

In race, sports on March 19, 2013 at 8:46 am

Serena

brian psi

It’s the Ides of March, and I’m watching tennis. Semifinals of the first big American hard court tournament of the year, and Caroline Wozniacki is about to edge Angelique Kerber to make the final. It is a close match, but not a particularly good one.  Kerber is noticeably hobbled by a back injury. Wozniacki got here because Viktoria Azarenka—one of the world’s two best players—forfeited their quarter due to an injury of her own. Both players are spraying and looping shots everywhere, seemingly content to wait for their opponent to lose. It is almost over now, which is probably the only thing preventing me from turning Tennis Channel off and catching up on Girls. I wish there was more offense on display. More fire. More Serena Williams.

Read the rest of this entry »

GLG Year-End Picks: Brian’s Games of 2012

In games, gender, Uncategorized, violence on December 28, 2012 at 7:17 am

brian psi

2012 was the year that the sexual harassment endemic to many online gaming communities finally started to receive mainstream media attention. While there had long been sites dedicated to documenting it (see also Fat, Ugly, or Slutty and Not In the Kitchen Anymore) it was the backlash to Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter for her “Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games” doc that really set off the community’s vile and vocal undermind. Sarkeesian documented the responses she received including rape and death threats, the vandalizing of her Wikipedia page, and one guy even coded a game, the object of which was to beat up a virtual version of Sarkeesian until she was left bruised and bloody. This, people, is why the world is awful. Thankfully, Sarkeesian also received considerable support, her kickstarter hit its goal many times, over, and she recently appeared on TEDx to give the full rundown.

Relatedly, #1reasonwhy trended on Twitter after a designer asked his followers why there were ‘so few lady game designers.’ A number of industry women replied to share their stories, some of which are depressing, others hopeful, but every one eye -opening.

The Year in Games Writing

On GLG this year, Allison Bray wrote about bodies and corpses in DayZ, and I wrote about the promising/troubling phenomenon of crossplaying gender.

Elsewhere, Tom Bissell’s ostensible review of Spec Ops: The Line is actually, Benjamin-like, some theses on the philosophy of the first person shooter. Bissell asks why we enjoy video game violence, a theme newly re-relevant post-Newtown. I’ve read this piece at least ten times, and now I’m reading it again. You should, too.

Patricia Hernandez talks Gears of War and the internalization of rape culture in competitive multiplayer. And it is devastating, the saddest thing I’ve read all year.

Games Played

FTL: Faster Than Light

A kickstarter-funded independent, FTL looks and plays like a fancy German board game. You are the captain of a starship pursued by evil rebel scum. Your fragile ship will be torpedoed, boarded by killer robots, pelted by asteroids, is subjected to internal fires and will occasionally experience explosive decompression. Your few crew members must make repairs, pilot the ship, and basically keep it all together while you order them to trade for parts, explore strange nebulae, and upgrade your ship with meaner lasers and death-dealing drones. Random star maps and events means your intrepid crew will die in different, horrifying ways every time. Fun for fans of Star Trek, strategy games, and those with malevolent God complexes, FTL is less than ten bucks on Steam. Read the rest of this entry »

GLG’s 2012 Picks: Brian’s Top 3 Books

In books, dystopian literature, misogyny on December 18, 2012 at 9:56 am

brian psi

The books I was most surprised by this year—Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Secret Confessions of a Justified Sinner—are8 and 188 years old, respectively. But here are some of my favorites from the last year (and a half, sorry).

Ernest Cline – Ready Player One

The future sucks. So people stay inside, create avatars, and log into OASIS, an enormous virtual world—think Second Life if it was fun. The simulation’s eccentric, dead creator James Halliday has hidden a number of easter eggs inside, and so those with the requisite time, resources, and encyclopedic knowledge of the 1980’s pop culture Halliday loved search for them. These ‘gunters’ compete or cooperate in their quest to win the game, billions of dollars, and control of OASIS itself, now threatened by a corporate takeover. The plot follows Parzival, a high school kid from one of the teetering ‘stacks’ of trailer homes inhabited by the residents of 2044 Oklahoma City, and his online friends/rivals (frivals?) Aech and Art3mis. Together they obsess over the minutiae and meanings of the Duran Duran lyrics, Dungeons & Dragons modules, and John Hughes movies presumably also loved by first time author Cline (and many of his readers, including this one). Ready Player One was certainly the most joyous book I’ve picked up this year, even if I couldn’t shake the feeling that on some level it was always pandering to me. When it works—and it does more often than not—it’s because Cline makes an unabashed claim for the value—nay necessity—ofhit records and bad television. Artifacts of pop culture, like OASIS itself, provide an escape from our problems and those of the big bad world outside. But their playful scribbles, adorning our inner landscapes, also make us: building us up and breaking us down and giving each other things to share and argue about and just overall making life, well, livable.

Halloween Eve Cover

Brandon Montclare & Amy Reeder – Halloween Eve

I have already written a little about DC Comics’ 52 relaunch and some of its representations, so now I’ll shovel out some coal for their increasingly puzzling relationship with their female creators. It’s already been something of a dark December, with the great Gail Simone relieved of her duties as writer of Batgirl, and the killer Karen Berger—arguably the most important comics editor of the past 25 years—has announced her departure from the Vertigo imprint that she created and ran. Earlier in the year, the amazing Amy Reeder was forced off of Batwoman apparently at the behest of its new writer, J.H. Williams [alliterative deleted].

Shortly afterwards, Reeder (art) and Brandon Montclare (words) financed Halloween Eve through Kickstarter, and had it published by creator-owned Image Comics just in time for the holiday. The comic is a retelling of A Christmas Carol, with the titular Eve as the Scrooge of Samhain: she works in a popular costume shop but hates Halloween, dressing up, and unseriousness generally. Forced to work late the night before the big night, she is startled to find that the costumes are coming to life. They whisk her away to Halloween Land where Eve discovers the real reason for the season… which after a couple of reads is still somewhat unclear: at 40 pages, Halloween Eve is long for a single issue of an ongoing, but rather short for a self-contained work, and so the character relationships and development has to occur very quickly. Montclare’s script works within these limitations, but the book largely relies on Reeder’s art and layouts to tell its story. Luckily, while Halloween Eve is not as strong as the best issues of their collaboration on Madame Xanadu, it is neverthelesss a fantastic showcase for Reeder. Eve herself is a wonderfully realized character, and the monsters and demons that populate the other realm are perfect subjects for her (somewhat-manga influenced) art style: does anyone draw more expressive, almost three-dimensional eyes?

I should also say that there are depressingly few mainstream comics with black women as protagonists, so let’s hope that Halloween Eve’s success can help address this inbalance. Finally, at $3.99 this was the value of the year, pick up a few for next year’s All Hallow’s Read.

John Scalzi – Redshirts

Sci-fi author Scalzi probably received more attention for his blog than for his novels in 2012. His piece “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is,” –which used the form and rhetoric of video games to explain privilege and how it operates without actually using the p-word—generated  thousands of comments, shares, tweets, reblogs, hatEmails, and  academic attention. In July he initiated a minor war with CNN contributor Joe Peacock over an opinion piece about how cosplayers—primarily women—weren’t ‘real’ geeks. Comic book artist Tony Harris made a similar post later in the year, which Scalzi also obliterated. (A brief aside for those unfamiliar with one of 2012’s most irritating trends, the best response to the ‘fake geek girl’ manplaint is still albinwonderland’s video, also a response to Harris).

So, Redshirts. Scalzi’s latest novel is a loving satire of Star Trek, in which three new junior crewmembers of the U.U. Intrepid discover that lower-ranked officers are dying off with alarming frequency: disintegrated by weapons fire, mauled by killer robots, eaten by space oozes, etc. Meanwhile, the bridge crew seem to live charmed lives, healing from devastating injuries overnight and surviving attacks that would emulsify ensigns and liquefy second lieutenants. Naturally, there is a conspiracy afoot, but not the kind that the characters and most readers expect. There is a highly metafictional plot twist about halfway through, after which much of the gallows humor fades and the book becomes something else entirely. Some readers will likely not follow the leap that Scalzi makes here, his attempt to go for bigger emotions in the book’s “three codas.” I’m of course a super sappy emo kid, but a couple of the endings made me cry. If Frankenstein asked us what responsibility the creator has for their created; Redshirts raises (or perhaps lowers) the stakes by suggesting that even fictional creations deserve our respect and care: these literary lives, too, are worthwhile, and we should not be so quick to discard them (or subject them to lazily-written transporter accidents).

Brian Psiropoulos is a dad and PhD candidate in English literature. He likes stuff, especially gothic Victorian novels, superhero comics, and video games. Also tennis.

Catwoman has Boneitis: Comics, Bodies, and Form

In body politics, gender on July 17, 2012 at 8:49 am

brian psi

Last year, DC Comics relaunched its entire line of superheroes in an event they titled The New 52. Aimed at luring new readers, the initiative sought to wipe away decades of confusing and conflicting continuity and to present the most authentic, essential versions of their popular characters (including Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and others). Costumes were redesigned, creative teams shifted, and backstories simplified or altered. 52 was by most accounts a commercial and artistic success. But despite the lip service that DC editorial has paid to bringing in new creators and readers, especially more women, they somehow still allowed a lot of crap to happen.

I do not want to rehash Red Hood and the Outlaws, Wonder Woman, or Catwoman here; even though last month’s Catwoman #0 is obviously the principle motivator of this post. Others have already written on these, and I encourage anyone interested enough to have gotten thus far to click on the links embedded in the titles above for some excellent commentary on the issues with those specific works.

Catwoman #0, cover by Guillem March

Instead, I want to tackle a very specific argument that some creators and fans have raised in defense of the sexualization of women within the pages and on the covers of these comics. Let’s call it the ‘other mediums do it too!’ defense (AKA the ‘books/films/games/etc., are just as bad!’ defense). Put aside the fact that this defense, more of an excuse, is incredibly juvenile: if a novel jumped off a bridge, would you? It also conveniently elides the greatest formal difference between comics and other media: comic book characters are drawn, inked, and colored—wholly produced—by people. This seems rather obvious, I know. But it has enormous ramifications for the ways that the human form is represented, and how that representation is understood, consumed, and/or identified with by the comic’s audience. So, when I argue that representations of women in comics generally are worse than those in other media, it is not because I am a snob or self-hating comics fan (well, maybe sometimes), nor is it because there are some objective criteria by which we can measure this phenomenon. Nor do I believe that comics artists and writers and editorial boards are evil or are actively trying to ‘keep women down’ somehow–although at times (see examples above) one has to wonder. Rather, it is because in comics, unlike in prose or film, the creator or creative team exercises absolute control over the bodies it aims to represent. Read the rest of this entry »

Gender/Play: The Problems, Promise, and Pleasures of Video Game Crossplaying (part 2)

In body politics, gender, race, technology on April 17, 2012 at 6:56 am

brian psi

Earlier, we looked at some of the problems with ‘crossplaying’ gender, or taking on an identity that is not yours in video games. Next, we will look at some of its promise.

 Play

One of the more beautiful aspects of games is that since their worlds are created from scratch, they need not follow the rules and conventions of the non-virtual world–its culture or even its physical laws. In Dragon Age 2, anyone’s Hawke, regardless of gender, can romance any of the game’s four romanceable npc’s, regardless of their gender. Specific categories of sexual identity, therefore, are not necessary in the game’s fictional universe and may not even exist within it: sexuality is in fact just the performance of sex, which can and does occur between any two willing participants. Comments made to your character about your romance(s) are mostly limited to your partner’s perceived fit based on their personality and backstory. At one point, my lady Hawke engaged in a casual three way encounter with Isabella, a female human pirate, and Zevran, an elven male assassin. Note the other npc’s reactions: bemused, but really pretty muted (video shows male Hawke, sorry!):

In terms of gameplay mechanics, male and female bodies are equal. Game developers do not code differing baseline statistics (for physical strength, or the ability to take hits, for example), so a female warrior is just as effective as a male one. Games therefore already realize the potential for a fundamental equality–and more importantly I think for us, the acceptance of equality as an idea–in ways that the nonvirtual world does not. Samus Aran is the great bounty hunter, and FemShep saves the universe. By creating worlds that espouse this vision, and allowing us to explore them and consider their implications, games are usefully utopian.

Of course, realizing this vision in ways that make for useful change in the nonvirtual world will require more and better visual and written representations, especially of female, LGBTQ and nonwhite characters. It is too early to be too optimistic, but in some very small ways, this is already happening. Recently, a couple of sports games, officially licensed properties of male professional leagues, have begun to allow the creation of female players to compete in them. These changes were driven by female fans of the sport and games, who, forced to crossplay as men, asked the companies (who had to ask the leagues) to allow for the creation of female athletes. As a result, you can now make female rinkwarriors in EA’s NHL 12  and golfers to play The Masters in their Tiger Woods PGA Tour.  Hopefully, baseball and the other sports will jump on board, too.

Performance

Gamespace, that virtual universe that can be entered and exited at will, can serve as a safe space to try on identities one is unable to in the nonvirtual world. Take this widely disseminated post from earlier this year, by blogger and Gamespot manager Kristen Wolfe. In it, she recounts an experience at her store in which a teenager buys a game and controller for his younger brother. The younger boy insists on getting a game with a female protagonist (Wolfe helps him choose 2008’s sci-fi/urban traversal title Mirror’s Edge), and a new “girl color” controller. The boy’s father is incensed, and tells his son get a zombie survival game instead. Eventually, older brother stands up to dad, explaining that it is his money and present, and that little brother can get whatever he wants. Read the rest of this entry »

Gender/Play: The Problems, Promise, and Pleasures of Video Game Crossplaying (part 1)

In body politics, gender, race, technology on April 16, 2012 at 7:59 am

brian psi

Check out Part 2 of this series here.

Preface

James Cameron’s monsterpiece Aliens opened in the US in 1986. That same year, in Japan, a playing card company re-establishing itself as a consumer electronics giant released a game for its still new Nintendo Entertainment System called Metroid. The game dropped the next year in the US, at about the same time Aliens gained a larger audience with its release on videocassette. The two are forever intertwined for me, and not just because of how much the atmosphere, music, and creatures of Metroid reminds me of Aliens (not accidentally), or the fact that they were, at the same time, my favorite movie and favorite game.

It’s mostly those characters. By now, the bad-assedness of Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is well documented, affirmed, and granted. But the other franchise, as successful in its own way if less mainstream-famous, also featured a resourceful, tough-as-a-railgun protagonist in bounty hunter Samus Aran. Wearing a full suit of power armor, constrained by mid-80’s 8-bit graphics, the fact that Samus is also a woman was not apparent while playing the game. This was not advertised by Nintendo, and the game’s manual used male pronouns, essentially keeping her secret from the game’s (mostly) male players. Tantalizingly, the page where Samus and ‘his’ mission is described concludes by saying Samus’ “true form is shrouded in mystery.”

Defeating Metroid took players dozens of hours, as they were required to find a number of secret weapon stashes and learn the patterns of a handful of difficult boss monsters. But those that learned the tricks and replayed the game (including myself) discovered that Samus’s pre-credits salute to the player changed based on how quickly they were able to finish. Five hours or less, and Samus removed the red space helmet, revealing for the first time that he was… she.

This was groundbreaking. Female game protagonists were largely unknown at this time, mostly relegated to quickie tie-in games designed to capitalize on various girl’s toy crazes, or occasionally feminized versions of male characters like Mrs Pac-Man (1981)—never in a AAA action title marketed on back covers of Uncanny X-Men comics. But then it happened that some players, even more skilled, got ever faster. They learned that if they defeated the game in under an hour, Samus’ armor disappeared altogether. She would stand waving back at her operator… in a pink bikini:

Samus undergoes two transformations. Before she takes off her helmet, she is mostly identity-less, intrinsically identifiable because beneath the helmet ‘he’ is mostly the player’s vague projection. Once she unmasks, this projection is shattered, and the made/male-in-one’s-own image is replaced: the confident and resourceful alien ass-kicker is actually a woman. This is surprising, and for its time, incredibly progressive: Ripley would be proud. But in the second transformation, the player’s projection is replaced with something very different: the ass-kicking heroine becomes the ass-revealing reward for player competence. (Years later, metagame rewards would come to be called achievements or trophies). The dual nature of Samus’ transformation exposes a tension that will run throughout the piece below. Specifically, that ‘crossplaying’ gender too often serves to confirm the same harmful ideologies which reduce the bodies of others to objects of desire (or, sometimes, revulsion). But it also produces potentialities: the promise of surprising, often radical re-imaginings of the ways we understand—and are bound by—concepts like gender, sexuality, and identity. Read the rest of this entry »

How to be awesome like Ayesha, “She-who-must-be-obeyed”

In gender, How to be Awesome Like, race on March 26, 2012 at 9:39 am

brian psi

First edition

[From H. Rider Haggard’s She: A History of Adventure, 1886-7]

The Set-Up. Just finished Haggard’s classic adventure novel, about an expedition mounted by a few good Englishmen into the Darkness[t] Heart of Africa. Their quest:  to find the white goddess-queen Ayesha, ruler of the once-great inland empire of Kôr, which exceeded even Egypt in its architectural, technological, and medical sciences. The team is made up of L Horace Holly (LHH), the ugly and bookish scholar-narrator; beautiful Leo Vincy, descendant of Kallikrates, priest of Isis,  slain by Ayesha 2000 years ago for daring to love another; and Job, Leo’s boyhood caretaker and salty sub-paragon of the English lower orders (and also their many servants and their pilot, “a stout swarthy Arab, Mahomed by name,” all of whom perish violently within the first few chapters). After a number of perilous adventures, they meet Ayesha, “She-who-must-be-obeyed,” the focus of the next few paras. Mostly, I want to talk about about Ayesha herself, and what (and how!) she represents awesomeness. But first…

Read the rest of this entry »

Girls Like Giants Presents: Our 2011 Preferences – Games Part 2

In gender on January 3, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Brian P. (aka Cyanotic)

5: Plants vs Zombies (everything)

There are too many games about zombies, but not enough games in which those zombies wear football helmets, attack from pogo stick, or cross suburban swimming pools on children’s inflatable duck innertubes. Clever, cute, addictive, cheap real time strategy and puzzle game with solid replay value. Get it for your iPhone/Pad/Pod/what you have/has you.


[P vs Z]

4: Bioshock 2 (360, PS3, Windows, Mac version January 2012)

The first Bioshock introduced us to Rapture, the sunken, failed 1950’s utopia of Andrew Ryan, (a figure inspired by the philosophy of Ayn Rand, because, hey, Aynagram). The game’s most clever conceit, revealed during its big plot twist/reveal, offered a fascinating commentary on the nature of games themselves: what is a ‘character’ in a medium in which control over (at least your) character is shared and conditional? What is the relationship between the ‘player’ and the ‘played’? How do games in which the player is given moral choices—indeed agency—coexist with the less cheerful reality that one’s character/avatar is nothing more than an automaton, to be used and abused as the player sees fit? Read the rest of this entry »

Girls Like Giants Presents: Our 2011 Preferences – Games Part 1

In gender on January 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Brian P. (aka Cyanotic)

Video games are the world’s most popular, most profitable artform, but they still lack the cultural cachet of books, film, and reality television. Despite a number of legitimately great titles, 2011 will probably not be remembered as the best in the medium’s history. But it will, I think, be remembered as the year when they went irrevocably mainstream: Angry Birds were featured on 30 Rock and worn by America’s Trick & Treaters, formerly nerdcore games like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim were advertised during ESPN’s College Football Gameday, and even the editors of Forbes and The Wall Street Journal (even if begrudgingly) picked games of the year.

Commentary on the medium has become better and easier to find. Tom Bissell’s criticism on Grantland is quite good, Slate’s Year-end Gaming Club celebrated its fifth anniversary, and super-snarky Gawker Media’s own gaming site, Kotaku, published some compelling and frankly overdue pieces on gender, games, and the community; including one recently on the default male voice and female self-censoring and another on gaming/fan communities and male privilege. Read the rest of this entry »

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