Women in Video Games Videos

While I was out playing Renaissance Man, several people have responded to the Tropes vs Women video that I posted before I left. Not here, of course, but people have been responding all over the internet, and for the most part it’s exactly what you’d expect. I’d like to address a few of those responses.

The first to go through is Thunderf00t’s insipid and blinkered response. Now, I expect very little from Thunderf00t when he’s not debating creationists, largely because with the exception of that singular subject he seems entirely incapable of addressing actual arguments, preferring instead to carefully construct strawmen that he can beat to pulps later for the amusement of his equally vapid fanbase. But let’s look into the arguments he makes in his response video.

Thunderf00t makes precisely three arguments:

1. If Sarkeesian were making the points he is claiming rather than the ones she is actually making, then she would have no point.

2. Double Dragon isn’t sexist because in the 2012 remake the bad guy gets punched in the nuts once by the person he kidnapped.

3. If the market supports something, that makes it automatically right and good.

Really, that’s about it. Avicenna at A Million Gods does a great job of tearing this apart in great detail, but here are the things that Mr. F00t leaves out:

1. By switching focus to the original Double Dragon, he invalidates his “but she punches him in the nuts” argument because that wasn’t in the original.

2. According to backstory of the game, Marian is supposed to be one of the people who teaches at the dojo, yet when put up against the most common of male street thugs (guys you beat up dozens of times through the game), she goes down in one punch.

3. She didn’t make this happen and defeat the bad guy. She held her fist in the air while he fell on it. This is no more some sort of example of her strength than my tripping over a sleeping Navy Seal makes me an unqualified badass.

4. The original game ends with Jimmy and Billy fighting one another over who gets to be with Marian. Despite all of ‘F00t’s moralizing about how it’s such a pure expression of human kindness to want to rescue a loved one in danger, he doesn’t seem to have a problem with this. Because I can think of no better way to show somebody how much I love them than by beating up another loved one to determine which of us has the right to fuck her later, apparently regardless of her feelings on the subject.

But one nut shot in a remake 25 years later totes makes up for all of that, because what possibly worse thing could there be in the world, amiright?

I could probably dedicate an entire post to how he doesn’t seem to understand that “strength” is more than physical strength, that the chart in Sarkeesian’s thesis is where those qualities are socially attributed, not some sort of wishlist, or his incredibly poor hospital analogy wherein he says that feminism must treat hospitals as bad because doctors are acting upon patients (for the record, a major problem with the health care industry is that doctors treat their patients like objects rather than like individuals), but it doesn’t seem worth it. Thunderf00t will never read this, and if he does, it’s highly unlikely to have any impact on somebody who is so dedicated to opposing feminism yet continues to have absolutely no idea what it is.

As per usual, for a more rational response, let’s turn to Bob Chipman (a.k.a. MovieBob or The Game Overthinker). The first thing I want to address is that he had an excellent response to the people who immediately complained that Sarkeesian was somehow ripping people off because, I suppose, her first video didn’t have enough explosions and alien robots. Here’s a sample.

Having watched the video itself: She’s shooting and outputting in HD/broadcast-quality (this has clearly been designed for classroom/seminar presentation moreso than the web video) and most the MASSIVE amount of game footage looks to have been captured from either original sources (I’m assuming MAME or download-service copies for the retro stuff) – which requires both expensive equipment and the expense of the systems and games themselves. Also, I don’t know if she does her own graphics and animation, but her transitions all look like original work; and even if she did do them herself the “going rate” for that kind of work can get pretty damn high especially if you plan to buy or license it in perpuity.

However, I highly recommend that you watch his Overbytes episode about it. For some reason I can’t embed this type of video into my WordPress blog, so just follow the link.

Bob’s point is largely that after all of the controversy, all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth, all of the months of fear-mongering about how this will…do something, I guess. I was never really clear on what people were afraid of other than some woman might not be talking about how wonderful men and video games are. But after all of that, the result was fairly non-threatening. It’s not some excoriation of video games and the video game industry, nor some fiery manifesto imploring women to stand up and burn game cartridges on the bodies of the men who owned them. It’s a reasonably dry but interesting academic discussion on the use of the damsel in distress trope in video games and how the games industry keeps falling back on it.

In fact there is almost zero criticism in the first episode other than acknowledging things like the repetition of themes and the overuse of character types that the gaming community was complaining about long before Anita Sarkeesian showed up.

Bob also addresses Double Dragon, pointing out that Sarkeesian’s only real criticism of anything in the video is calling the opening sequence of it “regressive crap.” But, of course, it’s supposed to be regressive crap. Double Dragon works very hard to be this, “sleezy, cheesy, grindhousey 80s mashup of…The Warriors and Fist of the Northstar.” That’s not to say that that makes it less problematic, and it’s also not to say that I don’t love Double Dragon and that people shouldn’t play it, but that is a completely different topic. The point is that when people like Phil Mason (Thunderf00t) try to make the argument that it isn’t, that’s much like saying that this blog is not attempting to be polemical. Of course I’m making an effort to say that some things are right and some things are wrong and demonstrate my point through evidence, and of course Double Dragon is attempting to play up the worst aspects of the ultra-masculine action genre so popular in the late 70s and through the 80s. To argue otherwise is to reveal that you either haven’t paid attention, or are ideologically committed to that not being the case.

Jim Sterling’s video today also takes on a similar point (sorry, again I can’t embed this type of video in WordPress for some reason), which is that not only are there very few female protagonists in video games, there is active opposition to them and, when they are introduced, to allowing them to behave like human beings. In this video, Sterling addresses Mason’s ridiculous free-market fapping (albeit indirectly) by pointing out the chicken and egg nature of video game marketing when it comes to gender.

Basically, Sterling’s point seems to be that it’s very hard to tell whether games marketed to women (or at least not exclusively to men) don’t sell well, so they’re not worth marketing, or whether the fact that only about half the budget is given to marketing games not primarily aimed at men reduces the sales for those games.

What really struck me was the quotes from Jean-Max Morris, the creative director of Remember Mewho said in an interview with The Penny Arcade Report that, “We had some [publishers] that said, ‘Well, we don’t want to publish it because that’s not going to succeed. You can’t have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that.'” and, even more disturbing from my perspective as somebody who would love to see just what they’re afraid of in more video games, “We had people tell us, ‘You can’t make a dude like the player kiss another dude in the game, that’s going to feel awkward.’”

I’m really not sure what to be more offended by, the idea that women can’t be main characters in video games and have relationships because the player is likely male, or that male players feel “awkward” at the very idea that their on-screen avatar might be doing something that could make them, as players, feel gay. And that’s somehow bad.

The point that Sterling eventually makes, and I would use to respond to Mason, is that it may be true that video games with female protagonists or that don’t immediately satisfy the sexual power fantasies of male players might not sell as well, but that’s still really, really sad. More to the point, that doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. It’s the result of a society that tells women that they aren’t supposed to like video games, then turns around and refuses to make video games that might appeal to women because “women don’t like video games.” Games with male protagonists and heterosexual love stories are no inherently more fun for satisfying some magic formula. This is no more valid or reasonable than when people, notably even the otherwise pretty brilliant Christopher Hitchens, suggest that women are somehow less funny because…something. Well, in Hitchens’ case, he makes the incredibly stupid suggestion that it’s because women have boobs to get attention and don’t need humor, which reveals how even very smart people can have really, really ridiculous ideas.

The point is that the “market” argument only holds water if games are marketed the same way, but they aren’t. You’re otherwise left with this circular argument of “we don’t market to women because women don’t play video games because we don’t market to them…” ad infinitum.

I suspect that video games, as they struggle to find their place as an artistic medium, will also continue to struggle with gender like every other artistic medium has or is. However, this is also a really good time, while gamers are already angry about other things (like the Sim City almost-launch), to really start to address these issues and demand a better product overall. Not just one free of online DRM, but one that begins to represent other types of people, notably women, and treats them as valuable characters, not simply side-kicks and objects to be won.

Tropes vs Women Part 1

I’m going to be at Gulf Wars for the next 10 days or so (plus a couple of days in New Orleans), so no posting as I will be dressed in funny clothes trying to stab people with swords way far away from the internet (hold me).

So, I leave you with the first part of Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women project for Feminist Frequency. For those who missed the inane stupidity when this was originally announced, Sarkeesian set up a Kickstarter to fund this project, sexist assholes raised a fuss, people (like me) responded by donating more money to the project, and her $6,000 goal turned into $150,000 so that she can explore how women are addressed in and affected by video games and video game culture.

This first part is about the classic use of the Damsel in Distress trope. She’s done a lot of research, has a lot of in game video to back her up, and sets out a really good case. Highly recommend the watch.

Now I have more packing to do and, ironically, a princess to guard for a week. Didn’t realize that until I wrote it. At least this one fences, too.

“Intellectually Challenging” Doesn’t Mean “Not Fun”

Anthony over at Rev Rants has a new video up in which he discusses how every time somebody points out that video games should move away from the “guns and chainsaws” mentality that so many games seem to have and focus instead on creating games that address serious philopsophical issues, there are generally two camps: the ones who smugly agree, and the ones who get righteously furious at the idea that games should no longer be “fun.”
And that’s where I lose the argument. Anthony brings up some very good points about how if games are to to treated seriously as an art form, they have to be about more than just the physical challenge of pressing the right buttons at the right time to kill your endless stream of enemies in the most creative ways possible, but I take issue with the fact that he doesn’t really go into what I consider to be the major problem with this argument.
Media that challenges us intellectually can and often is really fun.
Now, I’m not saying that he doesn’t believe this or that I have a problem with the video, which I think is largely spot on, but rather that in arguing for games to be more thought provoking, he neglected to explicitly point out that that doesn’t mean the game isn’t suddenly fun, as if every medium has to have its share of “interesting” things and “challenging” things, and checks them off a list to fill certain quotas in order to qualify as “art.”
Some of the games he mentions, for example, are not only thought provoking and interesting, they are also a real blast to play. Braid is one of my favorite games that he mentions. It was clever, artfully designed, did really fantastic things with mechanics, and told a story that produced a wonderful twist ending without significant cut scenes, dialogue, or anything that explicitly spelled out what was going on. It was a beautiful game that told a great story with a lot to discuss, and was still hours of fun.
Similarly, Journey was fantastic. It was gorgeous, emotional, and thought provoking, but also a whole lot of fun.
Far too often, the idea comes up that something, anything, can be fun or it can be intellectually challenging, but it can’t possibly be both. I hear this most often when I talk about texts and do close readings of them. The common refrain is “Can’t you just enjoy the movie/game/song/book/whatever?” or, even worse, “When I watch a movie/play a game/etc., I don’t want to have to think about it.”
When did thinking become this gigantic burden? Seriously, I’ve been thinking for the 30+ years I’ve been alive and, quite frankly, it’s the most fun thing I do.
The Rev also brings up movies in this as a medium that struggled to attain a reputation for artistry, and even mentions in passing the idea of a “Citizen Kane of video games.” He does this to point out that despite how many absolutely awful movies come out every year, there is a “bedrock” of artistic films that prove that movies can be an artistic medium, giving big studios an incentive to create films that are contemplative, so we can have the American Beautys and Fight Clubs and even Willows (which I just watched again a couple of days ago because it has some of the most perfect storytelling I’ve seen in film) without those who for some reason I couldn’t begin to articulate don’t enjoy thinking too much missing out on another American Pie or [Fill in the Blank] Movie sequel. The existence of Casablanca does not preclude the existence of No Strings Attached. Because The Godfather was made does not mean that Corky Romano was not. And the filming of Arsenic and Old Lace did not prevent the filming of The Hangover, much to my continued chagrin.
To an extent, I think this goes with Anthony’s point about how a medium doesn’t have to be one thing, in that video games can be serious and they can be fun, but I feel like he’s separating those two ideas. A video game, like any medium can be serious and fun in a single game. In fact, I would hope that is the objective in most cases: to make a point and make that point enjoyable. I can appreciate the technical aspects both in terms of film and writing of Casablanca and still be deeply invested and entertained by the plight of Rick and Ilsa.
There are two more supplementary points to this video I would like to make. The first is that the Rev makes a point I rather disagree with around the 5:27 mark when he starts to talk about comics. The point he makes is that while there are some amazing indie comics doing interesting things, the mainstream publishers are basically super hero comics, with the implication that super hero comics can’t tackle meaningful subjects in a serious way. While I love and respect a lot of indie titles, I think this seriously underestimates the ability of super hero comics to deal with important , human issues. It doesn’t take a whole lot to see the metaphor for the civil rights struggle in X-men going back to its conception, nor Stan Lee’s refusal to change a story line in The Amazing Spider-man that dealt with drug addiction in order to get a Comics Code Authority seal for those three issues. There were the Green Lantern/Green Arrow crossovers that were designed specifically to deal with social issues, and to do so by pairing a highly liberal with a highly conservative superhero so they would be able to really delve into the ideological divides present. Shortly after taking over Green Arrow in 2004, in fact, Judd Winick started a storyline dealing with Speedy (Mia Dearden) testing HIV positive that was sometimes ham-handed, but a real attempt at dealing with a serious issue that didn’t drain a drop of entertainment from the comic.
Beyond those, look at the Marvel series-wide events, most specifically the Civil War, but also Fear Itself. I make no secret of the fact the Marvel Civil War is one of my favorite comic series of all time. In the midst of the War on Terror, Marvel decided to take a hard look at how we balance our need for security with our civil liberties and used its major characters to do so. And it doesn’t just focus on the heroes themselves: it takes the time to explore how it affects everybody and the historical connotations of what we’re doing. At the end of one of the Frontline issues, for example, there is a small vignette about a couple of Japanese Americans reporting to an internment camp, and the panel sticks in my mind is where the father is telling his child that the reason why they left their home and have to live there now is that they’re “good Americans” and this is what their country requires of them.
Superhero comics are absolutely able to be serious and give insightful treatments to real problems while still remaining fun.
The other thing that this makes me think of is the current problems within the atheist movement vis-a-vis whether atheists can speak out against social injustice in light of their atheism and skepticism or rather, as some people have argued, atheism is just a non-belief in the supernatural and anything beyond that is out of bounds. Much like video games can be more than one thing, so can the atheist movement. If we’re feminists because there is no rational reason to oppose equal pay for equal work or the perpetuation of rape culture, that doesn’t mean that suddenly people will start believing in Bigfoot. Anthony says that those who agree that video games should be about more will “look down their nose” at others who don’t, but the counterblast is often just as guilty of that behavior. Applying that to atheism/skepticism, there is a fair amount of “Well, I’m a real atheist because I don’t spend my time discussing LGBT rights, which have nothing to do with psychic scams,” and that’s not only not helpful, it’s a callous attempt to avoid bringing skepticism to its logical conclusion. That being said, it’s also not prohibited to focus your energy on combating pseudoscience just because my energy is on how blind faith in bad ideas makes otherwise good people do terribly cruel things to myself and other queer folks.
Things don’t have to be just one thing. Games don’t have to be either fun or contemplative. Superhero comics don’t have to be exciting or socially meaningful. The atheist movement doesn’t have to be just about stopping quack doctors from scamming people or stopping quack preachers from advocating for the death of homosexuals. We are capable, as humans, of doing many things for many reasons, and it’s important to realize that it’s not a zero-sum game.