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Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

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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DARK SECRETS, Genre, and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

In adaptation, dystopian literature, Film, spoilers, technology, Uncategorized on July 18, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Sarah S.

If you have not read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, I recommend that you go out, pick it up, and read it immediately. Better still, if you do not know the underlying premise or “twist” of the novel, I highly recommend you stop reading this post right now. Which is to say, this post contains spoilers and, while I acknowledge that anxiety over “spoiling” may be overrated in many circumstances, I really believe that Ishiguro designed his exquisite novel so that the twist be revealed with agonizing slowness and that you’ll enjoy the novel more if you don’t know. I didn’t know. I knew that the novel focused on three students who had grown up in a seemingly idyllic, British boarding school that had a DARK SECRET but I had no inkling what said DARK SECRET was. If you are similarly ignorant, please, stop reading this post and go read the book.

Phew. Now that we’ve got that out of the way…

Never Let Me Go features Ishiguro’s achingly beautiful and slow style as likewise exhibited in The Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating World (one of the loveliest books I’ve ever read). But what particularly fascinated me about Never Let Me Go was its mingling of genres. On one hand, it’s a coming-of-age story, a Bildungsroman, about growing up and accepting one’s place in the order of things—albeit with a bleak, postmodern twist. On the other hand, and much to my surprise, Never Let Me Go is science fiction of the dystopian/utopian variety (see footnote below).* Or, if you prefer the more literary term, “speculative fiction” that asks “what if?” in order to question our current cultural trajectory.

The narrator of Never Let Me Go, Kathy H, is a clone—born and bred for her vital organs and other relevant parts, along with her friends Ruth and Tommy and every student at their boarding school, Hailsham. The clones’ existence creates a disease-free golden age for all of the world’s “normal” people. In the book, however, the reader only discovers this fact in bits and pieces scattered throughout the novel; indeed, Ishiguro forces us to work for the information, to read into and around what scraps Kathy gives us as she relates her story.

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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 »

GLG Responds to The Hunger Games: Terrifying Technologies

In dystopian literature, environment, Hunger Games, technology, violence on March 30, 2012 at 8:14 am

Like many of you out there, the GLG folks could not wait to see The Hunger Games on the big screen. And this last weekend, we did! Given our serious fandom of The Hunger Games more generally, and Katniss specifically, we thought we would do a little HG response fun. So, this week we asked the GLG folks to pick a particular topic from the film and respond to it. Read on, for thoughts on Katniss as badass heroine, terrifying technology, Hunger Games violence, and much more! And, if you have a topic you want to discuss, post away in the comments or send us a question at girlslikegiants@gmail.com.

Last up: Phoebe B. on HG & Terrifying Technologies

One of the most striking things about The Hunger Games on the silver screen is the terrifying ways technology comes to life. This is not to say that technology itself is terrifying, but rather its destructive capabilities as wielded by the gamekeepers. The pristine and technologically advanced all-white nerve center of the gamesthe arena where the gamekeepers operate—stands in direct opposition, visually at least, to the technology-starved districts and even the arena, which it controls. In the film, visions of dystopian technology rise from iPad-like screens and are then wielded by the simple movement of a hand. A gamekeeper’s quick whisk of her hand sends panther-like mutants into the arena to attack the last contestants. Another hand flutter makes two more appear out of thin air. While the arena is both produced by and at the mercy of very advanced technology, that technology is virtually invisible from within it, save for the shots of the faces of those lost to the games. And, this faux-natural world is incredibly threatening to those who enter into it.

the technological center of the Games

Yet in the course of the film we learn to tell the difference between real nature and constructed nature. The film figures the presumably real natural world as a safe haven, outside technology. For example, Katniss’ life and hunting outside the boundaries of District 12, or Gale finding solace in those same woods while Katniss is in the games, suggest an area outside of the Capitol’s technological grasp. For Gale, nature provides comfort and cover. But inside the arena, the visually similar nature threatens Katniss’s or Peeta’s life via deadly tracker jackers, panthers, and more generally the game itself.

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