Shame, Sexuality and Video Games: A personal account

Recently, I have been both looking forward to and dreading Vanillaware’s upcoming Dragon’s Crown. Vanillaware have developed one of my favourite Wii games, Muramasa: The Demon Blade. So when I found out they were developing a game for the PS3, I began to salivate. Those familiar with Vanillaware’s games know that they are absolutely gorgeous. The thought of seeing amazing 2D artwork in HD and having a fun game underneath thrilled me to no end.

Then I saw the game…

It definitely is a gorgeous game, with beautiful environments and creature design, and amazingly smooth animation. I did, however, find myself deeply uncomfortable when I saw the player character art. The character design pays homage to the artwork that adorns low fantasy novels; muscular men and barely dressed women representing the pinacle of “masculine” and “feminine” virtue (from a certain perspective). Impossibly sculpted bodies one would expect of some deity and not a mortal. These physiques were representative of an ideal. It was not an ideal I really subscribed to, but it was nevertheless an ideal of some sort.

If you have a look at the character art for Dragon’s Crown, however, it appears the pulp covers of low fantasy were but a starting point. The end result being grotesquely exaggerated caricatures of an idealised human body that is at times disturbing and at others strangely fascinating. It is something that has already attracted commentary from both detractors and supporters and it is not my aim to parrot opinions in this piece.

What I want to do is work through having a game that I want to play because the gameplay looks genuinely fun to me, and a game that makes me feel uncomfortable due to its representation of the human form.

Through various events and thought experiments, a realisation has been dawning on me: I have an aversion to things related to sex and sexuality and I am confused and ashamed of the fact I am a sexual creature.

I have been confused about my sexuality for the past couple of years. Prior to this confusion, I had untreated depression and anxiety and so my libido was effectively suppressed. Life was easy and I could ignore any issues that may have cropped up.

However, after getting treatment, I must say I am feeling a lot happier more frequently, and for the most part, my anxiety is manageable. This has also come with an increase in my libido and a confusion about being attracted to people both romantically and sexually. I guess you could say I am dealing with teenage sexual identity issues in my mid 20s.

Having not really dealt with my libido much before this time, it feels alien and unnatural for me to feel any sort of sexual attraction to anyone, and the mere recognition that certain things can be viewed through the lens of sexuality makes me uncomfortable. I just haven’t had the time to work through these issues and I find myself on the back foot. I have been too embarrassed to raise these issues and concerns with my parents and my mental health professional, and I think I am beginning to view sex related topics as something to be embarrassed by and ashamed of.

I find I play as a female character in most games that allow me to customise my character or play as a pre-made female character. I have been jokingly asked if I do this so I can stare at the character’s ass while I play (something that seems both silly and counterproductive to me). I am also pretty sure that it’d be pretty hard to do so in a first person game =P

Anyway, ogling is not why I play female characters, in case that wasn’t clear.

I’ve finished Mass Effect 2 only once though I have attempted two playthroughs of it. The first run through, I played as Male Shepard and I did not feel at all connected to my character. However, playing through as Female Shepard allowed me to invest much more into the game. I felt more attached to my Shepard, and I wanted to see her story through to the end. Any moment where my Shepard was taunted or insulted, I felt personally insulted and any moment of triumph was similarly personal. I got none of this with the Male Shepard.

I’ve been wondering why I feel uncomfortable being around men in real life and why I dislike being reminded of my male-ness. I’ve cringed in the past at being called a man by a friend, yet my pronouns are still He/Him/His. It feels like I am cheating a little, but I’ve concluded that I’d rather be seen (by myself at least) as a genderless, or at the very least, not male entity. In video games, the easiest way to be non-male is to be female. I feel much more comfortable playing as a female character because I am not reminded all the time that I am male. In virtual spaces, a female avatar is what I feel most comfortable representing myself as, even though I don’t feel like I am female myself.

The gaming landscape is a strange place that handles sexual identity and gender identity in a number of ways, whether intentionally or not. The “everyone is bi” of Mass Effect, the homoerotic undertones of the Metal Gear Solid franchise, the male default of Minecraft’s Steve or the power fantasy that is Duke Nukem.

As a person confused, intimidated and ashamed by my own sexual identity, gender identity and by sexuality in media, it can make things more complex when choosing what to engage with. Coming back to Dragon’s Crown, if I were to ever pick up the game, I would play as the Elf. She is the least stylised of the female characters, a fact that has been co-opted by users of the internet to ridicule those who took offense at the portrail of women in the game (something that many feel strongly about given the prevalence of sexism in the industry. Use google if you need reading material). “She exposes her ears! Strumpet!” ring the cries o those who mock the offended. Insinuations of homosexuality sprout forth from the character designer. “You do not like exaggerated women? Then you must like these exaggerated men I drew in response to your (admittedly, not completely defensible) article! Ha!”

And everyone who wanted to have a discussion about the role of sex, sexuality and gender in games is reminded that for the most part, they won’t be able to find one.

And I am reminded that not only will I have to deal with personal anxieties and shame related to the subject when picking up a game such as Dragon’s Crown, but I will also be drowned in an ocean of writhing, wailing bodies unable to back down from their stance if I ever attempt to seek clarity or opinion online.

PS:

I thought I should put this here. It is a description of myself through the way I behave in an attempt to strip labels away. I seem to have only succeeded by the very end of it:

if we go by what we do, I am a cat-like self hating Indian man that is a biromantic heterosexual and kind of feels more comfortable not thinking of himself as male and if possible, representing himself as female in virtual spaces, because there doesn’t really seem to be a sex/gender-less avatar in most virtual spaces

BRO-TASTIC BRO-VERLOAD~!!

I apologise for being away from this place for a while, I’ve been focusing on my game development studies and such. Assignments take away from free time and all.

However, I have come across something that I just felt needed to be discussed.

TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual harassment and Violence Against Women will now be discussed.

It’s something that seems endemic to the geek/gamer culture. We have seen it in the Fake Geek Girl scare that has (had?) swept the internet, the Cross Assault Sexual Harassment incident, in which Fighting Game Community (FGC) member Aris Bakhtanians defended harassment of a female colleague because (paraphrasing here) “removing sexual harassment from the FGC is removing the FGC from the FGC”, and we have seen it in the many pieces of evidence posted up for all to ridicule on sites such as Fat, Ugly or Slutty. The culture appears to be exclusionary of women.

Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women in Video Games series started life with a gigantic hate campaign via youtube, and (I hesitate to say) culminated in the creation of a game in which you punch Anita in the face. I hope people can see that whether or not you agree with her thesis or the strength of her argument, this is not an appropriate thing to do.

It is not being politically correct to call out attacks on a person’s character and their likeness because of the fact they are viewed as an outsider to your culture, especially if what qualifies them for outsider status is their sex or their gender.

The exclusionary stance against women is something that needs to change. Games and Geek culture are things that should be inclusive of everyone. There should be no self appointed Gatekeepers tasked with keeping those deemed of “inferior stock” from our ranks. It is a sad state of affairs when I am more accepted than someone else by virtue of the fact I possess a penis and they do not.

That it is coming from the community itself goes some way toward reinforcing the notion that geeks and gamers are immature men getting lost in “inferior” product of little consequence because it allows them to engage in juvenile power fantasies in which they are “better” than they could ever hope to be in real life.

We are more than that, and our preferred media and products deserve recognition beyond what the mainstream give them. Our attitude towards women or others is not going to help this.

It would be one thing if this were an issue at the community level, where introspection, soul searching and some frank and open discussions about the way we treat outsiders could help us to be more inclusive and nurturing to those who want to enter the fold.

This is why it is with some degree of sadness, though without any real surprise, I stumbled across this site: corp.ign.com.

With all seriousness, a scroll at the top of the page states:

The Greatest Sites Known to Men.
The Greatest Sites Known to Gamers.
The Greatest Sites Known to Influencers.

“So what?” you may think. “I see nothing directly insulting to women, right?” Well, this is where things get ugly. IGN is no small thing. Ziff Davis recently purchased IGN and related sites for an undisclosed amount, though News Corp were asking for USD $100 million for the bundle. IGN is a big thing indeed. After the purchase, sites in the bundle were shut down with Ziff Davis wishing to focus on flagship sites IGN and Askmen.com. IGN has for the past 12 months (February 2012, to February 2013) boasted over 4 million unique visitors per month.

So it is a big site, worth a lot of money that gathers a large amount of unique page views. And?

Going back to the scroll at the top of corp.ign, everything is framed in terms of men. Men are gamers, they are influencers, they are MMORPG players. Never is it suggested that women partake in any of those activities. This language is exclusionary. It implies that women do not matter as it is men who are the gamers, MMORPGers and the influencers. Why would you care about women?

But wait, there’s more: Yes, this is real.

“BRO-VERLOAD!” The page reads:

“With a male composition index pushing one and a half times the online average and heaps of traffic, our original properties together reach 1 in 4 men online in the 18-34 age range. Simply put, we do a better job of applying your media dollar directly to the young male demographic you need to reach. Matched by our breakthrough creative and guy acumen, our pitch adds up to integrated, targeted campaigns with room to scale: it could only be better if our rate cards were printed on crisp bacon.”

Mmm, crisp bacon, the manliest of all meats. All kidding aside, the page goes on like that, talking about how IGN properties bring in the men, men that you, the advertiser have to target because women do not matter to you.

1 in 4 gamers, all men, women don't count.

1 in 4 gamers, all men, women don’t count.

It is a clear institutional and systemic exclusionary approach taken by games media that feeds into gamer culture’s exclusionary approach. It is not fair to blame only the gamer without taking into account the companies and outlets that feed them, and until we do, we will only be having a temporary effect.

The rise of independent game development tools, such that I have mentioned in a previous post, have enabled people of all sorts to share themselves through the medium of video games. Having mass media supposedly for gamers choosing to target the male demographic is setting our chosen medium back. We cannot progress if the audience is kept blinkered as to the possibilities of what can be done and expressed with games, and by whom.

I cannot offer a solution just yet, other than look elsewhere for your games related news. Perhaps Gamasutra and its sister sites will help in that regard. Pixel Prospector is a pretty decent source for independent games, with an abundance of tutorials and links to resources, and the TIGForums provide a community for independent developers.

The next thing you could do is make yourself known and felt within these communities. Make it known that women exist and matter and are part of the face of the gaming and game development communities.

PS:

Need I say this attitude is damaging to men as well? I wonder how many men out there are “bros”, or have a fondness for crisp bacon, or fall for all the pandering sites like IGN employ. How many men out there are the kind of man IGN says men should be?

How many men are better off believing that their culture is for men alone and that anything that deviates from this expectation is dangerous to the foundations of the culture?

An off white narrative

I am not white and I will never be.

It may be something that does not come across the minds of people I have only met online, most knowing me either by a handle or by my first name. It has, however, got me thinking about an article I read a while back called Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is. The article got me thinking that Straight White Male is also the default difficulty setting and the default narrative path through the game of life. Perhaps the game analogy falls down a little, but when people do not know much about you other than words on a screen, what do they picture you as? A Straight White Male or an, albeit, Straight Indian Male?

Looking to media and I can see a lot of Straight White Men being the protagonist and very few characters of differing skin colour, ethnicity, sex, gender, and any other distinction that I may have left out due to ignorance on my part. The Bechdel Test, something already much covered by much more qualified writers highlights a problem of representation in media. It is a little sad, really.

I recently picked up a copy of Anna Anthropy’s book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form, available here for Kindle, and was enthralled by the idea of video game as zine, self-published chronicles of whatever the author wishes to share with their readership. That Triple A Video Games (A quality video game expected to sell well, typically with a higher budget than budget software) cost so much to make and represent such a narrow viewpoint is disconcerting to say the least. In Hollywood you get the big blockbuster action movies, but you also get the comedies, the romance films, the dramas, and there are healthy scenes for film outside of the mainstream. Distribution may still be difficult to come by, but many films do get to see an audience.

In the Video Game space, there seems to be a rise in the popularity of indie games. Indie Game: The Movie came out last year and served as an, at times, heart rending primer on the indie development scene. Its reach was necessarily small in order to adequately profile the stories it chose to tell, but there is only so much one film can do.

In addition, sites such as Pixel Prospector, indiegames.com, indiestatik.com, and others, shine a spotlight on the indie game scene. Indie game developers are becoming Rock Stars in their own right. Jonathan Blow’s charming platformer, Braid was wildly successful. Hotline Miami, as of 12/12/2012, has sold 130, 000 copies, and is a favourite among some of the staff over at Gamespot, among other video game publications. (Hell, I bought three copies of the game myself).

The success of the indie scene is a wonderful thing to see. And branching off from this success, it would be even more amazing to see games that chronicle additional experiences to become more known to the public. We, as people other than Straight White Men (and I have nothing against Straight White Men), have something to say to the world, and the medium of video games has become increasingly open to outside perspectives. Software such as Game Maker and Constuct 2 allow those of us who are code-illiterate to create video games without the hassle of learning code.

For those of us who do know how to program, there are a multitude of solutions out there to suit our needs, from Unity to LOVE2D, UDK to even CryEngine 3 allow individuals and teams to realise their visions and release them for general consumption.

I have no idea which solution is best for me as I cannot code or script to save my life. I am currently learning Lua and Python, and am planning to experiment with LOVE2D and Pygame at some point in the future.

I have a story that I wish to tell, a view of the world that I need to allow others to see. I will no longer be content to remain silent in an age that democratises media creation.

The basic idea is of a boy of Indian origin being troubled by being the odd one out in his surroundings, wishing he were more white, and dealing with alienation and the nightmare that is early high school. It will be based on things I have experienced, though necessarily abstracted to allow for ludic engagement. It is something that bothers me to this day. Every time I gaze at myself in the mirror or in a photograph, I catch myself saying “Damnit, I am still Indian”. I am scared of getting to know people, or even attempting to find a mate because I rationalise that no one would want to know me, for I am Indian.

I forget what I am from time to time, and those are my happiest moments. I am no longer human, I am no longer male, and more importantly, I no longer have a body with a skin tone that used to make me stand out from the crowd. I am nobody, I am nothing.

It may not be healthy to feel that way, and I am hoping that this project will help me work through this issue as well as bring an experience, and maybe some understanding, to others who may not have considered what it would be like.

I may have to collaborate with someone more knowledgeable than I, but that is a necessary evil in a quest to bring about a greater good.

So far, this article may end up depressing people more than it gives them insight into the fact that someone can take up the challenge to make their voice heard. What happened to me in my past has defined how I interact with people and how I live my life, and I want to share with anyone willing to listen that even the most insignificant of actions can have far reaching consequences.

Now I could recommend that you read Anna Anthropy’s book (it is an interesting read), but that costs money, and money is not something all of us have in abundance. I’d like to suggest you pick up a free version of Stencyl or Game Maker and have your voices be heard.

We may be lost in a sea of bombastic advertising and big budget launch events, but we will be content in the knowledge that someone out there will have the option of listening to our stories if they so choose. The world will be a worse place for our inaction.

“War has changed…”

When I was a kid watching cartoons I always got annoyed that the section of the wall that turned out to be the secret door was always a different colour.

If you are wondering what the preceding sentence had to do with a Fallout 3 quote, let me tell you it had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Really, what I would like to talk about this entry is a bit of a personal taste issue. I am talking about sound in Killzone 3.

Killzone 3 was a game that could in no way live up to the hype. One could say it pandered to the fans a little too much with the characteristic heavy killzone feel being watered down to make it feel like a slightly more weighty console Battlefield game. The attempts at making it colourful were well handled, I suppose, if an almost entirely out of character and inconsequential jungle stealth mission count for anything. Characters were omitted from the story without explanation (Natko, where did you go you annoying SOB?). But all in all it was a fun game. Except for the end. The end was one of the most disappointing ends in my recent video gaming history. It is really funny how much better Portal 2’s end felt while boiling down to the same thing. Both games were ended by the player pressing a single button, yet Portal 2’s ending felt immensely more satisfying. This is not what I want to talk about, however.

What I would like to talk about is sound. Particularly sound in multiplayer. The multiplayer portion of Killzone 3 was an interesting beast. It gave with one hand while taking away with the other. The ability to search for matches that suit your preference (Killzone 2: Pistol only? Sure, why not?) replaced by a somewhat shoddy matchmaking system that dumped you into a hopefully playable game (It did get better with time though). It, however, added Operations mode which was basically a mini campaign complete with cutscenes! Well done Guerilla Games, well done. But during beta, I noticed something that at first made me deeply uncomfortable, that then went on to give me immense joy.

This something special would later be dubbed “overly enthusiastic death sounds”. Yes, I felt joy at hearing people screaming and whimpering in agony as they bled out of their many bullet wounds. This, of course, is not because I am sadistic. No, it is because it gave the game a sense of authenticity that some may condescendingly call “Grim Dark”. By the way, Tvtropes was linked. Consider yourself warned. After all, it is war. I think it goes beyond saying that war is hellish. It was flavour like this that made me especially fond of the Killzone brand.

However, beta ended, and with it, so did the gloriously hideous and disconcerting death rattle. Or rather, with feedback from the community, GG patched it out with patch 1.12.

You can try your luck looking for the original screams here.

I’ve seen excuses that amount to “But soldiers are meant to be badass! No way they’d be screaming in pain and fear when they’re bleeding out!” Needless to say, I do not find that an appropriate excuse. I wonder, would, for example, Saving Private Ryan have been as effective if the scene where the medic bled out after being shot in the stomach didn’t have him crying hysterically after realising he was going to die. Steamboat Willie!!

It’s no secret that war shooters are big business. EA has recently stated that Battlefield 3 has reached 10 million sales. I find it disconcerting that consumers are happy to engage in bombastic military wank while being unable or unwilling to consider the darker or more depressing side of conflict. It’s all good to engage in war as long as the war experience plays out like a big budget action film and not like embedded war footage.

This really just makes me miss Six Days in Fallujah, a game that aimed to depict conflict in a more realistic, terrifying light by making the game play out like a survival horror game.
Unfortunately the game was cancelled due to it representing an actual conflict. And by cancelled, I mean the publisher that had originally had no problems with it decided to drop it as soon as it became controversial. Never mind that it was developed under the supervision of soldiers who fought in said conflict under their grace. Still, this is a particularly touchy subject since, well, real people died and this made their family understandably upset.

There is argument to be made that games are escapist fantasies, and for the most part they are. For example, Test Drive Unlimited 2 is basically a rich person simulator. What would you do on an island if you had lots of money and could afford a bunch of supercars? However, lumping all games into the escapist bucket is selling interactive media short. Games can be so much more than elaborate Skinnerian conditioning machines.

I urge those of you with a strong constitution to play Freedom Bridge. It is a very simplistic experience, and yet something so very soul crushing. Sure there are some in the comments that argue such a simplistic example of interactive media cannot be meaningfully classed as a game, but that is opening a whole other can of worms. It doesn’t change the fact that it is a piece of interactive media that sheds light on some of the horrors faced by people.

Some may argue that Killzone 3 being a work of fiction should not have to depict people dying in such a pathetic way. But if it is a creative work crafted by artists committed to a vision, what is there to say that they cannot make it as horrific as they want to? If it makes the end user uncomfortable, maybe it would make them think twice about the nigh on fetishistic portrayal of military paraphernalia and scenarios in their medium of choice.

In the end, I truly believe with patch 1.12, Killzone 3 lost something of itself. It watered down part of its character and compromised itself to make people consuming it feel more comfortable with their current schema of how military should be depicted in video games rather than challenging them to alter their perceptions.

As a little bonus have an educational (somewhat NSFW) video about War crimes in the Modern Warfare trilogy:

Enjoy!