thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Posts Tagged ‘video games’

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 »

DayZ: Where Everybody Is a Body

In games on July 25, 2012 at 7:47 am

Guest Contributor Allison Bray

It is a silent and unremarkable landscape devoid of people. A subdued version of the apocalypse. Depending on which direction you walk, and for how long, you may find hills, streams, farmhouses, or industrial areas. An approaching figure could be a zombie or a human being, but the latter does not guarantee survival. Humans are just as likely to kill you in order to loot your corpse. You’re equipped with little more than a flashlight—useless in a fight. If you run, and many do, the environment poses its own threats. You could die from hypothermia, starvation, dehydration, shock, blood loss, or infection. If you die, and everyone does, you lose everything. Start over.

That is the bleak and uncompromising experience of DayZ, a new online video game that’s been met with widespread acclaim despite—or perhaps because of—its gritty and utterly unsexy minimalism. DayZ could be described as a simplified zombie survival game with an emphasis on realism, or a realistic survival game that happens to include zombies. In either case, the simple premise doesn’t sound that different from many other games on the market. DayZ has set itself apart, however, by throwing out the prevailing formula and its familiar balance of narrative, character, and gameplay. As the gaming industry moves ever closer to cinematic standards in producing that balance, the small team responsible for DayZ stripped away the elements of narrative and character altogether, leaving little more than a player, their on-screen counterpart, and the very real question of what they are willing to do to keep that lone figure alive.

The first people who played it must have been baffled not so much by what they found, but what they didn’t find:  DayZ drops you into a world without context or guidelines. Joining a server loads you onto the map, a fictional chunk of Eastern Europe roughly 225 square kilometers in size, but there is no introductory cut-scene establishing the details of your environment or anything else. Besides the lack of items, there is no map or compass automatically available for navigation. There are no tutorials for new players, no pop-up screens with tips or hints, and no witty sidekicks appear to ease the tension and help. Since this is a game downloaded online and not purchased at a store for sixty dollars, there isn’t a glossy booklet with explanations of the world and its items. The only information available is a small inventory screen, nearly empty at the start, and a small stats display that is a window into the heart of the game.

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A well-stocked inventory.

Like other games, some of the statistics relate to your success within this world, but success means something different in this world. No real plots or large objectives mean no progress meters, experience points or levels, and even though a counter keeps track of the number and type of kills (zombie or human), you don’t win by obtaining the highest tally of kills. You avoid losing by staying alive. Read the rest of this entry »

GLG Weekly Round-Up

In activism, gender, race, Weekly Round-Up on June 15, 2012 at 9:38 am

Here are some fun and interesting things the GLG folks read this week. What did you read this week? Let us know in the comments!

From the Racialicious Tumblr, debunking the Kumbaya myth.

Check out the awesome trailer for the upcoming Dear White People movie here and their Tumblr here.

What pop culture items do academics study most? Buffy? The Matrix? Find out the answer this week at Slate.

A recap of the misogynistic backlash to Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarted project about video games and misogyny, on Feminist Philosophers. And another post from Slate on this same topic.

Lastly: Going on a date this weekend? And looking for a perfume? Smell like Labyrinth! Check out Labyrinth-inspired perfumes over at Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab.

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 »

The Invention of Lana Del Rey

In gender on February 16, 2012 at 8:13 pm

Sarah Todd

Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” looks and sounds like an arrival. On the surface, it’s about a girl swooning over romantic fantasies while her boyfriend ignores her for his Xbox. That’s a pretty potent idea to begin with: a girl who’s absorbed the message that life is “only worth living if somebody is loving you” tethered to an indifferent lover, trying to convince herself, “This is my idea of fun.”

It’s not so fun, sitting in the blue light, waiting for someone to notice your sundress and the scent of your perfume. Sometimes girls stay anyway. They deserve a song.

But “Video Games” also taps into a deeper truth. Girls dreaming about love are often dreaming not so much about the love object as about the women they might be, if they were loved the way they wanted–about what it would be like to be as desired as they are desiring. The song’s fantasy of wide-sweeping love is propelled by haunting church bells and delicately plucked strings; a plaintive, simple piano strain grounds it back in the blue-light reality. And in the music video, Del Rey herself is all fantasy, looking impossibly gorgeous with smoky eyes and pouty lips and Brigitte Bardot bedroom hair. It’s easy to see why the video went viral, unleashing a tidal wave of internet chatter in late 2011. 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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