Heavy Rain’s sexism problem

21 Dec

Oh, Quantic Dream…

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Heavy Rain is actually the game that made me want to start a blog. And that’s not a good thing. So expect this to be a bit of a rant.

I was really intrigued by Heavy Rain when it was first announced. I’m always up for a non-traditional gaming experience, and I thought that, even if the game sucked, it would at least be a cool experiment.

I played it on release and, overall, enjoyed it. I loved the threat of permanent death for any of the main characters, and the finger scene is still one of the most tense moments I’ve experienced in gaming. There was one trial that I failed, making me feel genuinely guilty, and this was one of the first games I can think of that (attempted) to seriously delve into the parent/child relationship that has been so popular in 2013. The game wasn’t perfect, but at least it was trying to do some unique, genre-pushing things.

So it’s really too bad that Madison Paige is an abysmal character.

Continue reading

One unlikely reason that I love Journey

18 Aug

I love this game

Let’s talk for a while about player characters and player projection and all that jazz.

(But first, some mood music.)

So far I’ve dealt with lots of games with very defined characters. Lee Everett, Booker DeWitt, Joel — they each have very specific and pre-defined personalities. If their characterization were wishy-washy, their games wouldn’t work in the first place, because the narrative of all three games pivots around their complicated pasts and present emotional journeys

Animal Crossing goes in a different direction. Players are meant to create a character for themselves (although, as I talked about, this is frustratingly limited by the lack of a skin color option). Whether the player chooses to create a self-insert character or painstakingly recreating every detail of The Lord of the Rings and calling themselves Sauron is up to them. The game doesn’t have any fixed narrative, leaving room for customization.

Lots of journalistic ink (and blogging ink, and commenting ink…) has been used up about story heavy games that allow the player to create their own avatar. Obviously, this is common in WRPGS. The Mass Effect series is particularly well-known for having popular male and female player character options.

Even without more in-depth customization options, it’s become common for games to start with a gender choice. Typically, gender has little or no effect on gameplay in these games. Think Pokemon. TV Tropes has a great list of games that do this.  (I’m so sorry for linking to TV Tropes all the time.)

I think this is a great trend. Although I love story heavy games with a defined protagonist (seriously, I gobble them up like the most melt-in-your-mouth candy imaginable), many games don’t need a set protagonist at all. Half-Life wouldn’t have been materially changed if the player had an option to play the game as a woman. (Although the ships sailed now, since Gordon Freeman has become such an iconic character. In the same vein, I’m not particularly eager to see a female version of Link — although gender has no bearing on the story of the Zelda series. Rather than changing well-loved male characters, I’d like all new games with female character or a gender choice. I wouldn’t scoff at a game with a playable Princess Zelda, though.)

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The obvious limitation with this discussion is that there are more than two options of people in the world. We don’t start life with a dialog box asking us if we’re male or female. Hopefully, as we move into the future, more and more games will have the option to choose other very basic identifiers like skin color.

But someone will always be left out. After all, we live in a society that assumes two genders, so if you don’t fit into that binary in any way you’re left out to dry. Often gender choices in games have no impact on the game EXCEPT when it comes to romantic options, which leaves cisgender gay gamers in a tough spot. Do they play as their gender or do they play as a gender that allows them to court the man or woman of their choice?

It might not seem like a big deal. “Oh no, you can’t get virtual married to a character you like!” But this isn’t something that straight gamers have to put up with, and romantic options can have a big effect on player immersion. I’ve mentioned my sort of guilty pleasure for the Harvest Moon games before, and I can still remember how much it sucked when I had to play as a male character and get married to a female character to progress. That type of situation is sadly common for many gay gamers, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

But I’m starting to veer off topic. All of the above — a player’s relation to their avatar and the constraints on player choice — are dealt with elegantly in Journey by outright taking the options out.

The red (or white) cloaked player avatar of journey is completely neutral. Not just gender neutral. But age, race, sexuality, hair color, etc. Heck, maybe even species neutral. None of these things are important to the game, so they’re not even a factor.

The blank player character reminds me of a smiley face. At their simplest, smiley faces can have three lines — two eyes and a mouth — but we still recognize a human face. Our brains are so primed for social interaction, that we look for faces everywhere. That’s why people see faces in nature so often.

The Journey traveler has two legs and a head, but no identifiable arms. I’d assume that the two white dots under his cloak are eyes. With these simple signs, the traveler is identifiably humanoid to us.

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But we can’t tell anything else. It’s as easy for us to project onto the traveler as it is for us to project happiness or sadness onto the three lines of a smiley face. There are no awkward barriers between the player and their playing avatar, meaning every single player can use the traveler as a self-insert character. (If they choose to, of course. Not everyone likes to project themselves onto a character, and I know many people enjoy making up stories for the traveler[s] as well.)

The very neutralness of the character also facilitates the multiplayer.

In Journey, it’s impossible to fight with your fellow travelers. It’s possible to abandon or be abandoned, but that’s the worst that can happen. I suppose you could bait an enemy toward another player, but, besides terrifying me, the “enemies” in the game can’t kill you.

Really, though, that’s not the behavior I’ve commonly experienced from other players. Generally, people are helpful and stick together. I still remember my first time playing through the game and having a more experienced player guide me through the ruins on the mountain so that I didn’t get caught by one of those giant worm machine things. I had no idea where I was going and was very, very slow, but they stuck with me the entire time anyway. Like many others, I was moved by the care they showed me and felt a closer connection to them through singing notes and flying together than if I’d been able to send them whole sentences.

Taking away differences between player avatars — the cloak designs are negligible — doesn’t mean that there are no differences between players. Each avatar is a representative of their player, and I can’t be the only one to wonder where in the world my partner is from or what they might be like. In the stories people share online about their Journey experiences, I’ve been struck by the language that people use.  Other players are often referred to as “they” or “my companion” or “friend” (because this game makes a lot of us sappy).

The Journey player avatar works effectively as an in-game representative of a real life person, because of its simplicity. We can simultaneously project ourselves and other people onto identical avatars. Doing so helped create a multiplayer game with player motivated cooperation — there are no significant benefits to working together — and has fostered a wonderful sense of friendship based on minimal interaction.

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Now, I’m not saying that I want every game to emulate Journey. I still want well-written characters, and I love being able to customize my own character. But the neutral protagonist that Journey uses is another possibility that game developers can use. With a truly neutral approach, there is absolutely no barrier between the player and their avatar. Nothing slightly off that interrupts player immersion. For many games that don’t place importance on the protagonist, I would love to see fewer male-default characters and more neutral-human characters.

Women play games too

4 Aug

I would like to talk this week less about games themselves and more about a worrying sentiment that I see crop up constantly in the online gaming community. Mainly, this:

“Men are still the biggest majority in gaming. They are mostly the ones who make and play games. So it makes sense that most game characters are men, because it’s easier for them to relate.”

I want to make it very, very clear that this common sentiment is no way applies only to women. It’s an idea that rears its head in every conversation about diversity in games that I’ve participated in, but I do think it’s an especially prevalent and easy argument to make when discussing the lack of women’s representation in games. Usually, if the argument revolves around race (or, when it happens rarely, sexual orientation), the language is a little more couched — I think because people realize that thinking this way is a little racist.

But even though I think the statement itself comes up most when discussing sexism in games, I’m going to treat it as a broader concept and discuss discrimination and minority populations in general rather than sexism and women specifically.

So often, these words are used as a way to explain why a lack of representation is no discrimination at all. Or, even, why discrimination doesn’t matter. Ironically enough, the rebuttal to that lies actually within the very logic of the statement itself. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.

 

Hypocrisy

 

I think the blatant hypocrisy of this sentiment is what gets under my skin the most. Most often, I see this idea espoused by the very white straight men that make up the majority of gamers, and the idea can so often be boiled down to: “I can’t relate to female characters as well as male characters, so I don’t necessarily want more female characters in games.”

Have those who say things like this ever taken their own ideas to their logical conclusions? If they like to play as a character that is similar to them, then wouldn’t others like that as well?

I really could have labeled this section “Hypocrisy and Selfishness,” because that’s what this attitude is. Rather than take that one extra step to empathize with another gamer that wants to play as a character that looks like them, they claim all games as their own. “I am the majority, and so everyone must cater to what I want.”

The desire to relate to a character that is like you is absolutely understandable. This is a common immersive tool in games, because it’s affective. One of the most basic reasons that I want more diversity in games is that I have a personal interest in being able to relate more closely to characters. This isn’t wrong, and I don’t condemn the impulse.

What I do condemn is the myopia that prevents people from looking past their own noses long enough to recognize the same desire in other gamers. Everyone wants the chance to recognize themselves in a favorite video game protagonist.

And if you can’t relate at all to characters that don’t look like you, that’s a real problem. I’m perfectly capable of playing as a male main character — I do it all the time — without feeling as if I can’t understand or empathize or seek wish-fulfillment from that game. I would guess that the “majority” would also say that they can do the same thing.

I often see the same people who bring up the male majority argument say things like, “Women will still play games if they are gamers and enjoy games. A lack of female characters won’t deter them.”

But, apparently, men won’t buy a game without a male main character, because they can’t relate (or relate as well)? So which is it? Can people rise above their own identity and enjoy a game with a dissimilar protagonist or will they only buy games with characters that resemble them? Is it really so far-fetched to believe that members of a minority population may look at certain games, come to the conclusion that those games weren’t made for them, and be turned off? (Lack of representation is compounded by how minority populations are depicted in games in general, but that’s another topic for another day.)

I’d ask anyone who is on the fence on this issue or who hasn’t really thought it through before to sit with these questions for a while. Try to put yourself in the place of someone who feels underrepresented in games, and try to imagine how that person might feel.

 

“We need more female developers.”

 

Yes, we do. We need a more diverse set of developers in general. You’ll never see me argue the opposite.

HOWEVER. I see people bring this up so often as a way to brush aside the current lack of representation of minorities in video games themselves. In discussions that are about games and not about the industry, I get incredibly frustrated by this argument.

Men can write good female characters. White people can write characters of other races. Same with straight people, cis people, etc.

This idea that we have to wait for a certain large enough percentage of any minority population to enter the industry before we have well-written games is absurd. I’d even say that it’s somewhat offensive to claim that current and aspiring developers that are white, male, straight, etc. are incapable of good writing.

Not only is that a disparagement of the effort, work, and talent that goes into the creation of games, but it’s a claim that we are all incapable of looking outside of our own experiences. Any semi-competent writer can write a character that is unlike themselves. Is anyone going to try to tell me that most game writers have ever been mages or aliens or a plumber who teleports through pipes and regularly battles a big, talking dinosaur? Do these writers all know what it’s like to battle a thousand foot tall monster or even driven a race car or fought in a war?

Writing in games may not be universally good (it’s not), but there have been some wonderfully evocative stories told in the history of the medium. And many of those have very little bearing on reality at all. And yet, somehow, those developers were able to tap into something human enough to captivate their audience.

I’m sure they can handle writing a woman or a gay character.

Not to mention the fact that an influx of minority game developers wouldn’t necessarily change anything. Even putting aside obstacles to getting into the industry in the first place, executives and publishers have enormous influence over what games are made and released. I’ve posted this article about Remember Me before, but it’s relevant here as well. The developers had to fight to have a female main character at all. Aspects of the industry are resistant to the inclusion of minority characters for other reasons than a lack of minority population game devs.

 

“Video games are a business, and having male characters is more profitable.”

 

Here’s another article I’ve linked before from Penny Arcade about the possible reasons this is true. Mainly — although there isn’t much data available — that there seems to be less of a marketing push for female-centric games from publishers. And marketing dollars often translate directly into sales.

But even putting that aside — what about all of the games that do do well with a diverse cast or a minority main character? Look at Portal or the Metroid series or even The Walking Dead. These games didn’t achieve “despite” having casts of minority characters (and I doubt anyone would make that claim). Instead, they’re good games. They’re fun, they’re engaging, and their characters have become video game icons. (Maybe not The Walking Dead so much — but maybe one day!)

Good games will sell, and I believe gamers will play a game with a unique, exciting character no matter what that character looks like. But who knows — I could be wrong. If you don’t feel that way, feel free to let me know.

I also find this claim somewhat amusing, in a depressing way. Since when have gamers ever sided with what’s most profitable for publishers and developers for the sake of… well, profits. I constantly see gamers clamoring for new and expensive innovations in games. But diversity is one step too far?

Most of us are not part of the business side of the industry, and we don’t have to justify business decisions. Especially if, like me, you feel that some of those decisions are poor. The next time I see the same people who make this argument rail against DLC or DRM policies that they dislike, I’ll be sure to remind them that both are more profitable for game companies.

We are the consumers, and we are allowed to want different things from our entertainment. Gamers clamor for Half Life 3, but we can’t ask for more black protagonists?

 

We’re all gamers.

 

Minority populations play games too.

I’m not going to trot out that study that says women play 47% of games, since that’s constantly manipulated to make it seem as if women only play social games on their smart phones.

(Which, by the way, is obnoxious. It’s snobbery, through and through. A lot of people’s bitter, elitist streak comes out in these debates, and it’s often centered around who is “really” a gamer. Apparently, women who play The Sims or a little too much Harvest Moon might as well be playing Tic-Tac-Toe on their phone. I’ve seen it extend to other genres as well. I’ve personally been told that I’m not a hardcore enough gamer — which is code for “I don’t have to listen to your opinions” — because I enjoy JRPGs. Occasionally, I’ve wondered whether genres that become dominated by women — which is code for “I notice women play these games” — lose their status among the “hardcore” crowd. But I’m really getting off onto a tangent here. This is really a topic that deserves more attention.)

But women do play games. There’s no question about that. And what about your fellow gamers who aren’t white, who aren’t straight, who aren’t cis, who aren’t a million other things?

Because we are your fellow gamers. We read the same news you do. We hang out in the same forums. We play the same games. We’re not some encroaching force trying to steal your games away. We can’t steal them — they’re already our games too.

And what many of your fellow gamers are trying to say is, “Please. Listen to me. The way many games portray people who look like me, who grew up like me, is hurtful to me. I want to be able to fully immerse myself in a game in the way that you already can. And all I’m asking is that you be supportive of that. At the very least, don’t stand in the way and shout at me like I’m an outsider.”

At least, that’s what I would like to say. I can understand how the argument and appeal to the idea of the “male majority” can make sense when you first think about it. But I ask you to please look past that and try to understand what the people you disagree with really want. Don’t ask your fellow gamer to do something that you aren’t willing to do. If you aren’t inclined to play a game with a female lead, why should a woman want to play a game with a male lead? And if you don’t think this way, then why do you think so many other gamers do?

I think we all have a common goal: we want games that are more exciting, interesting, unique. What better way than to break out from the current clichés of the medium and to have characters of all different backgrounds and types? We have a huge range of stories available to us, but we’ve only skimmed the surface so far. Personally, I have faith that we’ll eventually reach a time when games are more inclusive, and I’m excited for the possibilities that I don’t think we can imagine yet.

 

Is Bioshock Infinite anti-Christian?

21 Jul

Bioshock Infinite: Part One, Part Two, Part Three

WARNING: Major spoilers for Bioshock Infinite.

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I promise that this will be my very last post on Bioshock Infinite. But I couldn’t stop without talking about religion, since it’s such an important and intriguing aspect of the game.

While thinking about this post, I debated for a long time about whether I thought Bioshock Infinite dealt with Christianity or religious beliefs in general or even just cults. And, after going over all the evidence in my head many times, I think it deals exclusively with Christianity.

Columbia is heavily steeped in an exaggerated American mythos. Praise of the Founding Fathers and American exceptionalism is carried past it’s logical conclusion and warped into something that’s more like idolization. And it’s all tidily wrapped up in a bow of religious fervor, which is also an exaggeration of a country that has been influenced by religion since its inception.

Columbians don’t worship Jesus — they’ve replaced him with Comstock and the Founding Fathers — but their religious devotions have all the trappings of a particularly Southern American Christian tradition. I’m guessing that Irrational Games took inspiration from mass historical movements like the Second Great Awakening, although scenes similar to the imagery in Bioshock Infinite aren’t exactly unheard of today. For example, here are old and new pictures of river baptisms. Notice the prevalence of white robes that bear a striking similarity to those worn by Comstock’s most devout.

Combination of Christian imagery and mythology and  the idol worship of the Columbians.

Combination of Christian imagery and mythology and the idol worship of the Columbians.

And Zachary Hale Comstock is every inch the fire and brimstone preacher. It doesn’t hurt that the name Zachary is often taken from the Biblical character Zechariah, who is the father of John the Baptist. I won’t get too far into baptism yet, but the game might as well be called Bioshock Infinite: Get Ready for Pruny Feet Because You’ll Be Walking Through a Lot of Water in This Game. 

There are also tons of references to the Bible. Comstock perverts the stories of Noah’s Ark and Sodom and Gomorrah to justify his own rather un-Christian mission (although he’s certainly not the first real or fictional character to do so), and forgiveness, a central tenet of the New Testament, is a major theme of both Comstock’s sermons and the overall game.

So I would say that the game draws heavily from a specifically American Protestant tradition, even if it’s content is not identical (hint: it’s not). But the question that I’ve posed is whether or not the game goes on to offer a critique or religion, if it is negative towards religious belief, etc.

If the only Christian content in the game were the beliefs and horribly bigoted practices of Comstock and his followers, I might be inclined to say that the game did have something negative to say about Christianity.

However, there is also the depiction of normal Christianity in Booker’s repeated flashback to his Shrodinger’s baptism. Baptim’s complete forgiveness and absolution of sins are absolutely central to the game.

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And the game refuses to let us forget it. Booker’s very first interaction with Columbia is a stroll through the Baptism Welcome Center while “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” (a well-known and popular Christian hymn) is sung in the background. Before he can enter the city, where he will eventually face his ultimate sin and seek to repair it, he has to undergo a baptism. (And there’s some birth canal imagery in the tunnel, just in case you didn’t get the “reborn” thing yet.) At this point, he’s completely resistant — and is the baptizer really wrong when he says “this one doesn’t look clean to me”? — and nearly drowns as a result.

Later, he and Elizabeth finally encounter Comstock standing next to a baptismal font. Booker is desperately trying to make up for the terrible things he’s done in life, and in doing so he murders Comstock with the baptism font. (We couldn’t get more obvious here.) If the player already knows the revelation about Comstock, this action is deeply, deliciously suffused with dramatic irony. Booker wants to prevent Elizabeth from becoming a murder (it’s a little late for that) and he wants Comstock to pay for the evil that he’s done.

And so he does what he has always done and solves his problem with violence. He bastardizes the baptism ceremony — the baptismal font fills with Comstock’s blood — and simply kills the other version of what he could have been, still leaving the “other” man who betrayed Elizabeth and unjustly murdered thousands.

Ultimately, murdering Comstock is trivial and ineffective. As Elizabeth reveals, there will be no end to the cycle until Booker accepts annihilation of all versions of himself.

The final death-by-baptism is a final, ultimate “redemption,” but it’s not necessarily Christian. Baptism is supposed to be a spiritual rebirth, but Booker just dies (depending on how you interpret the post-credits stinger).

I would call that last scene a sort of agnostic baptism. Booker can’t be so easily absolved of the terrible things that he’s done, and baptism can’t help him heal from his own wounds (obviously, since it leads to his transformation into Comstock). But he does accept his death willingly. It is the first time in the game that we see him submit to a baptism, and he does so with selfless intentions.

If there’s any sort of religious critique in the game, it’s not that Christianity or religion are unilaterally bad. I would say that the game is, at worst, skeptical. We have two potential outcomes for the main character: the cynic, Booker or the zealot, Comstock. Both characters are miserable and cause absolute disaster for everyone around them. Neither option is recommended.

Perhaps the game’s answer is that actions also need to be actively atoned for. Comstock achieves “redemption” through baptism, but he never does anything to earn that redemption. Instead, he went on to commit more crimes in the name of God. On the flip side, Booker rejects any possibility of redemption. He sees himself as a lost cause — as someone unworthy of forgiveness. Maybe it is impossible for him to atone for what he’s done, but he never tries.

I can’t even say that the game is advocating some sort of middle ground between Booker and Comstock. And, really, the game doesn’t need to choose a position. It raises an interesting question, and we can all answer it in our own ways.

Should we also be skeptical of forgiveness, especially if it is complete and unqualified? What effect does forgiveness have on other people? Typically, our unqualified metaphysical destruction doesn’t cause some sort of time ripple that erases the past. If we do something terrible, it’s been done. It’s affected other people, and we can’t change the past.

But do we still feel that forgiveness can be reached? Even if it can’t, should be still strive for it? And for who? For ourselves (similar to Comstock)? In an attempt to fix the harm we’ve done to others? Is that even possible?

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I’ll follow the game’s example, and I won’t pretend to have answers. We all have to craft our own belief systems. (And hopefully there aren’t infinite, conflicting versions of each of us roaming around causing all sorts of trouble.) Since the game does not position itself as a Christian game, it approaches core Christian ideals from an un-affiliated perspective and treats them separately from their religious context. In the best scenario, this different way of seeing things can offer a fresh take on an old or taken for granted idea. Thinking about the Big Questions from others’ perspectives is healthy for both the religious and the non-religious. Examining beliefs that we take for granted can help us to change or reaffirm those beliefs.

The cultish, warped Christianity of the Columbians is certainly not endorsed by the game, and, more importantly, it’s not nearly as central to the plot and themes as the examination of the Christian ideal of forgiveness. (I am not saying that forgiveness is Christian, only that the specific type of unrestricted, absolute forgiveness used in the game comes from a Christian ideology and tradition.) There’s a difference between using the imagery and practices of Christianity to create a game world and actively critiquing real life Christianity or Christians (although I wouldn’t discount the possibility that some Christians are being criticized). Forgiveness is more authentically Biblical than praying in front of giant statues of the Founding Fathers, so I think any real critique of Christianity can be found in that portion of the game.

Bioshock Infinite isn’t perfect, but I hope everyone can appreciate it for raising so many issues that aren’t often tackled in games. And when they are, they are often dealt with tangentially. It’s exciting (for me, at least) to have a major game released that treats fluid topics with such attention and seriousness. I hope that the success of games like Bioshock Infinite helps game developers to be daring in their writing and designing, especially as we move into a new console generation.

(Let’s see if everyone read all the way down here. NO, Bioshock Infinite is not anti-Christian.)

Bioshock Infinite and fictional racism

7 Jul

Bioshock Infinite: Part One, Part Two, Part Four

WARNING: Some mild spoilers for Bioshock Infinite.

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This post is going run along the general theme of “they could have done better.”

I can only speak for myself, but I was expecting racism to be a more significant theme in Bioshock Infinite based on information that we were told about the game. That expectation likely altered my opinion of the way Irrational handled race relations in the game in a way that it wouldn’t have been altered if I’d just gone into the game without any knowledge. But I still believe I would have noticed the things I’m about to talk about, so I think it’s a valuable topic for discussion.

I wouldn’t say that I was outright upset by the handling of racism in the game, but I do think that Irrational flubbed the theme. Racism became an easy way to paint Comstock as a villain and show that Columbia wasn’t such a utopia rather than a topic that was handled as important in itself. I found racism in general to be a much less intriguing topic than a lot of the other strange and fantastic ideas that Bioshock Infinite put forth, solely because of the trite and simple way the game handled race. In such a thoroughly well-crafted game, this is a real shame.

The way Bioshock Infinite handles race, is similar to the way I learned about racial prejudice in an American elementary school. Being racist is bad. Now let’s watch a movie about the Civil Rights Movement with a completely evil white racist Southerner as the villain. (All racists are very easy to spot, you see.) Racism ended in the 60s, kids! We won’t be talking about modern day racism. In fact, when learning about the Civil War, we won’t be mentioning Northern racism. The South were the bad guys, because they liked slavery. Slavery and the suppression of voting rights are the only way racism manifests itself.

I wouldn’t call any of what I was taught malicious — far from it — but it was an incomplete picture of what racism was and is like in the United States. And it’s easier to show a kid something obvious like slavery in order to get across the message “racial prejudice is bad” than teaching them anything more nuanced — especially when those nuances are tied up in the constant scuffling of the American political party system.

Bioshock Infinite tends to go for the easy when it comes to race. Black people are shipped up to Columbia as workers, who are essentially slaves and second-class citizens to their wealthier, white counterparts. In case the parallels to the history of American racism aren’t obvious enough, Irrational is kind enough to include race-segregated bathrooms in the game. I doubt there’s an American school child who makes it through their education without seeing at least one image of a racially segregated water fountain: an easy to understand image that makes the racial hatred of black bodies starkly apparent.

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There’s nothing particularly wrong with being a bit obvious in setting up a theme of racism. And I can accept that Columbia is an openly racist, white supremacist society. I think the problems start to occur when hours of gameplay and story go by without any added nuance to what is a major element of the world-building of Columbia.

The problem with the two-dimensional white racist in all those movies about the American Civil Rights Movement isn’t that those people didn’t and don’t exist. It’s that the majority of people are not like that. Many people held (and hold) racist beliefs that were normative at the time but were harmful in that they helped keep the racist status quo.

I found there to be little of this nuance in the people of Columbia. They were all just… terrible. Fink was abhorrent, the random racist comments of the NPCs were said in the most obnoxiously snooty way possible, and the only minor NPCs who help you are members of the anti-racism league.

I understood where Irrational was going with the rebellion of the Vox Populi. Something like “power corrupts no matter what,” which fits well with the themes of the game. But I found myself having trouble raising my ire about the Vox Populi’s violent uprising when their anger seemed warranted. If a single white Columbian had ever once been kind to them, I would have been surprised. And they were so physically separated and segregated in Shantytown that it was unlikely the Vox had any real connections or relationships with white Columbians at all. Why should they care? And why should I care about the chaos and murder that takes over Columbia?I won't say white savior, but...

I won’t say white savior, but…

Because that was a real missed opportunity. In the grips of the personal story between Booker, Elizabeth, and Comstock, the wider picture gets lost. I would have liked to feel some sadness or guilt at the downfall of Columbia. As it was, it was a city of racist cult members, and the world seemed not only better off, but safer, without them.

My guess is that the loss of the racism thread in the overall tangle of the plot was a result of changes in development. What started out as a story about a place (much like the first Bioshock) turned into a more personal story. And so what seems to be an important plot element in the beginning of the game — racism — becomes mere backdrop by the end, and barely even that.

As a serious social injustice that still affects millions worldwide, racism is used as an easy brush with which to paint the villains of Bioshock Infinite as bad. In a game that has generally good writing, it’s disappointing to see the writers go with what amounts to cheap and easy emotional manipulation. I would have preferred a more morally ambiguous Columbia full of inhabitants with differing opinions. I do believe, however, that this was sacrificed in the name of the central conflict between Booker and Elizabeth, which has its own merits.

I also think that this game does poorly for modern racism, which is certainly not only a problem with this game. The racism in Bioshock Infinite is couched securely in American history. Columbia is distilled old-timey, American imagery based on a fake nostalgia for an America that never existed but is still held dear by Comstock and his followers.

Sadly, I don’t think a lot of Americans have the best grasp on American history to realize that America was never all apple pie and kids riding their bikes outside until dinner time. Especially, you know, if were a black American.

I would say that Bioshock Infinite plays with this false nostalgia (which is certainly present in American politics today), but never pushes it very far. The game, like all of those overcoming-racism movies, subtly encourages the narrative that true racism exists in America’s past. We’re over the worst of it now, and the only really bad racism that exists now lies in those few people who go to KKK meetings.

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After all, it would be easy to think, “Columbia sure is racist. And, man, America sure was racist too. But that’s not what my society looks like now, so we’re not racist.”

If only that were true. Racism is a much quieter force than what is portrayed in Bioshock Infinite, and it’s all the more pernicious for it’s quietness. The racism of the past might seem obvious to us now, but it wasn’t always so obvious to those who existed at the time. And you can be sure that the racism of today will be much more obvious to our descendants.

Bioshock Infinite isn’t trying to be a treatise on modern racism, and I’m not trying to claim that it should be. The game does a great job of evoking exactly what this imagined “ideal” America would probably look like in real life, especially for those who wouldn’t win the white, wealthy lottery. But the game eventually drops the complexity and uses racism more as set dressing and as a cheap way to characterize villainy, and I believe the game should be interrogated closely for that.

It might seem like I just want the game to be more about racism, but that wouldn’t really fix the problems of poor implementation. The world of the game is informed heavily by Columbian white exceptionalism, making race a large factor already. My problem is twofold and related: the racism in the game draws upon imagery of American racism without the content of real, historical racism (I’ve seen far too many people say things along the theme of, “So this is what racism was like!”) and this unrealistic treatment of racism — while it technically works for the plot — flattens the world and people who live in it. The overly simplified version of racism in Columbia basically turns into a writing shortcut to make the player understand that Columbia = bad. A bad Columbia is kind of boring, especially when the ruination of a more complex Columbia would have played so well into Booker’s massive guilt trip. It smacks so sadly of a lost opportunity. Once again, my mantra of “games need to be written well and thoughtfully!” returns.

So how can we move toward better writing, especially when dealing with social realities like racism? In my ideal future developers would ask themselves a few questions while working on their games: Why am I including this topic? Am I handling it responsibly? Is it essential to the plot, or can a similar idea be conveyed in a less conventional or more intriguing way?

What it comes down to once again is responsible, well-thought out, and complex writing in games. I’m confident we’ll get there eventually, and I do actually count Bioshock Infinite among the games that are getting us there. One topic handled poorly does not a bad game make.

What do you think? Was racism actually handled really well in Bioshock Infinite? What perspectives am I not considering?

Is The Last of Us too violent?

30 Jun

WARNING: This post definitely, 100% contains spoilers for The Last of Us. Don’t ruin it for yourself! At least go watch a walkthrough on YouTube. Look, someone even turned it into a movie for you. 

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I think I’ve gained enough distance from The Last of Us that I finally have most of my thoughts in order, so I’m going to take a break from talking about Bioshock Infinite to get some of these thoughts on paper (or pixels) before they escape me.

With most games, I would sit here and tick off boxes on what amounts to a glorified checklist:

Does this game have non-white characters? Yes. Three black characters, to be exact.

Does this game have any age diversity? Yeah, it’s not too shabby. There’s an older protagonist (compares to most video game protagonists) and a fourteen-year-old girl.

Does this game have women characters? Yes. A whole bunch of central characters and plenty of NPCs and enemies as well.

Does this game have any gay characters? You bet.

Then I would keep going down the list and expand on the most interesting or important characters. I would talk about whether they’re believable or fleshed out or what unfortunate stereotypes they might fall under.

I don’t feel like I have to do this with The Last of Us. The game is so consistently well-written and the characterization is so consistently strong, that the question of whether or not a character is “good” becomes petty in context. Because they are good and complex and fully imagined — across the board — with the possible exception of a slightly flat villain in David.

So I would prefer to talk about something a little different with this post: violence.

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Is Columbia a gender egalitarian utopia?

23 Jun

Bioshock Infinite: Part One, Part Three, Part Four

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Bioshock Infinite. Read at your own risk.

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Bioshock Infinite features something that we don’t usually see unless it’s a major focus of the story: a sexism-free fantasy world.

Or at least a world that seems to be free of sexism. It’s difficult to notice the lack of something, especially when subtle sexism is so pervasive in our society that we make out own sexist assumptions while playing games. But in Columbia, where bigotry is proudly held up as a religious and moral imperative, the lack of explicit sexism is noticeable.

It’s an interesting world building technique, because many fantasy worlds hold onto some form of racism and sexism in an effort to ground the world in “reality” and make it more believable to the audience. (I’m not going to get into the merits of this technique right now, because that’s a whole other thorny issue.)

When the racism isn’t explicitly about skin color as it is in Bioshock Infinite, it might be about aliens or intelligent AI or what have you. There’s an extensive list on TV Tropes if you would like to check it out. And as many fans of historically inspired fantasy (like Bioshock) can say, there’s a long-standing discussion of the prevalence of sexism in these imagined worlds.

So it stood out to me when I first realized that Columbia was a remarkably egalitarian society when it came to gender. Continue reading

Let’s talk about Elizabeth’s dress

16 Jun

Bioshock Infinite: Part Two, Part Three, Part Four

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Bioshock Infinite. Read at your own risk. I mean it. I will talk about the end of the game. Don’t do this to yourself if you haven’t played the game. 

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When the first trailer for Bioshock Infinite was released, I wasn’t thrilled with Elizabeth’s character design. Especially once Irrational Games, the developers, started to tout Elizabeth’s importance as a dynamic character that players would care about. If she was meant to be such a well-fleshed out character, why exactly was Irrational deciding to sexualize her? Those types of cheap tricks are used constantly in low-brow games that rely on safe thrills — lots of explosions and boobs — to make sales. And, of course, games made with higher ambitions also fall prey to the one female character with enormous breasts or jeans so tight they double as a thong. Here, I thought with Bioshock Infinite, was another that would be just a little bit lesser in my eyes because of a silly outfit choice.

So I was surprised when I first met Elizabeth in-game and she was dressed conservatively. No cleavage or pinched waistline in sight. While creating a game, hours are spent over the smallest details, and that’s especially true in a game as detailed and finely crafted as Bioshock Infinite. I started to wonder if maybe Irrational had designed Elizabeth’s dress for more than fanservice. And the more I think about it, the more I believe they did.

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Gender Expression and Race in Animal Crossing

9 Jun

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I’m editing this while anxiously waiting for Animal Crossing: New Leaf to download from the Nintendo eShop. I adore this series. It’s simple and sweet and charming — the perfect relaxation game.

But that doesn’t mean the game is devoid of social justice issues. I’ve noticed two prominent ones while thinking a lot about the overall series during the last few weeks. (I swear this isn’t just an excuse to spend time feeling like I’m actually being productive while obsessing over New Leaf details.)

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Now, I’m not going to try to defend the gender dynamics of the game. I think the game’s attitude is well encapsulated in the player’s very first interaction with the game. In fact, it’s the very first time the player gets to make a choice. I’ll take New Leaf as my example, although all of the games follow the same format.

To begin the game, a cat named Rover (oh, how I missed you, friend!) asks for the player’s name. Like the flatterer he is, he then gushes about how “fantastically great” you name is, to which the player can either respond:

“Cool, right?”

“Cute, right?”

“Oops, I misspoke!” (in case the player wishes to change their name for any reason)

Your choice between the first two options decides the gender of your character. “Cool” = male; “cute” = female.

It might seem like a small thing (and in the context of the game, it is small), but it serves as foreshadowing for the way the game handles gender. In general, female characters tend to act, dress, and decorate in a way that’s more cutesy/girly and male characters, while not necessarily fitting into standards of Western/American masculinity, act, dress, and decorate in a more masculine way.

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Lee’s not “urban”: or how to write black characters the right way

2 Jun

Warning: This post contains SPOILERS. Read at your own risk. 

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I said in my post on The Walking Dead last week that I wanted to take a week to focus on Lee and Clementine. I know, I know — what a novel idea!

Everyone who plays and enjoys this game has something to say about Lee, and there might be more articles written about Clementine than about the rest of the game. But there’s a good reason for it: Telltale did a bang-up job of creating two main characters that people genuinely care for. I have heard very, very few negative opinions about either character.

The most amazing part of this is that both characters are black.

Now, this isn’t amazing because they’re black (stay with me for a second), but because the games industry — and so many other mainstream entertainment industries like the movie and TV industry — seem intent on believing that most audiences (read: white, middle-class America) won’t care about a main character that doesn’t look or act exactly like them (read: the only money we actually care about is white, middle-class people money. No one else has money, right?).

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