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12:18 AM on 11.15.2013

War Games: How war and heroism is represented in videogames.

Recently, we celebrated Remembrance day (Veteran's day in the U.S), which made me think about how we see war, especially in video games. Today, one word is used above all others to describe soldiers: Hero. They fight against the country's enemies, risking their lives for their cause. But whether or not this is a fair use of the word 'hero', it is interesting to see how the concept has evolved, and is represented in video games.

Couldn't resist.

In a broader sense, fictional heroes can be split roughly into two camps. The ideal, Classical hero and the more modern, and more relevant antihero. Although for a long time the idealized hero was more popular, the classical hero has been replaced No longer are heroes grand, strong, virile, and capable. Now we have the every-man hero, a hero closer to our own mundane selves. Rather than have a hero as an ideal to strive towards, we now have a hero as an exploration of what we already are underneath. We all want to believe that we would do the right thing, and, perhaps beyond that, the brave thing, in a time of crisis. But we can never know until we are in that situation.

How does this relate to war? Well, war is typically the arena for heroics. Whereas in Classical times it was a place for heroes to display their nobility and prowess, and also a place for the clash of ideals, today it is the place for accidental heroics, those who lack the qualities to become the type of hero who can never exist. People no longer want to strive towards an ideal, instead they want to see the events which can form heroes from ordinary people. Almost every superhero begins their origin as a normal person. We want to believe that power is both a reward for righteousness and a test of it, and the privileged classical hero can't represent this modern desire in the way that modern antiheroes can. It is no longer interesting to see a perfect hero's perceived struggles. We want to see someone flawed cope with adversity and triumph through their flaws.
But gaming is not focused on the passive watching experience. As players we want to be active in our own narratives. We do not want to play as a flawed antihero, neither do we want to play as some idealized hero that we can never be. We want to play fantasies, an alternate, heroic version of ourselves. We fight, we win, we get the girl and we manage to survive it all and come home. And if something goes wrong, we get to try again, because that is not the end of our story.

My question then has two parts. Do video games represent the established tropes of war? And if they do, or don't, why do they do this?

Video games seem to edge a lot closer to the Classical role of the hero than the modern variation. It simply doesn't suit most war games, which thrive on the thrill of combat, to portray war as horrifying, lethal, disorientating, strange and dark. At least, when they do this it is as another means to the ultimate end of entertainment: Atmosphere is rarely used for its own sense but rather to amplify the tension of the combat. And, quite simply War games can't often show war as negative and then rely on the thrill of combat as the main selling point. That would be a textbook case of ludo-narrative dissonance. You can't tell me war is bad, then show me how fun it is. One of those two messages is not going to stick. And, as always, showing works better than telling.

However, rather than regard this as a glorification of war, I would believe that this is more the 'arcadification' of war, reducing it to a competitive sports arena, where the stakes are low and adrenaline and mountain dew course through the veins of young, foul-mouthed gamers. And perhaps I would not think this is so bad, except that this is the dominant representation of war within video games (or, at least through Call of Duty's popularity, the most culturally definitive). And, perhaps worse than this, given the age of many of the player base the dominant representation of war both socially and historically for many young people today. And I don't expect this to change anytime soon. Negative representations of war simply don't suit action-oriented war games.

This is what kids see when they think "War".

But what about Strategy games? Most war games are either first-person or third-person shooters, with the occasional stealth game as well. But many strategy games are based on war. The brilliant yet underrated Valkyria Chronicles actually manages to address the futility and pity of war without drowning its message in thrill-seeking gunplay. Strategy is key, there's a steep learning curve and once a soldier dies, they're gone. And much like the recent Fire Emblem, Soldiers are not faceless pawns but real characters, with personalities and aspirations, so losing them doesn't just suck because of their strategic value but also because you don't want to see people you know die. Fire Emblem goes even further, allowing team members to have relationships and even marry. For a game to resonate when it represents the horrors of war and the burdens of command it needs to represent loss not only in a strategic way but in a personal one.

Perhaps the most striking truth about soldiers in video games is that they totally disregard the notion of soldiers as heroes. Most are simply cannon fodder, dressed in the uniform of the enemy du jour: Nazis, Al Qaeda, loud-mouthed Russians. Often it doesn't matter, as long as it's recognizable.At best, a couple of allies are vaguely heroic, and even they pale in comparison to the player, often because they must. At worst, allies are passive and incompetent, without even the complexity of cowardice or naivete to explain their actions. The player has to be the deciding factor in the narrative, else games would struggle to justify why their story is being played and not another. However, I think this comes from the weakness of the representation of war, and the narrow, thrill-focused experiences which result from this. I, for one, would not mind playing a game where I am mostly powerless, where I am not the hero, where others decide the fate of the world. Because when the world revolves around you, you can't see what makes it turn.   read

10:19 PM on 11.08.2013

What is wrong with feminist game criticism today.

Let me say this before I start: I consider myself to be egalitarian, and support women's rights as well as further equalities. But God damn what is happening to video game criticism?

What is the difference between sexy and sexualised? I would like a feminist critic to enlighten me, because I think, in the mind of many, there is no difference. Please, any feminist critic, give me an example of a sexy character who is not sexualised. I'm not being sarcastic, or trying to call you out. I just genuinely believe that the two have become synonymous, and I would like to see what an example of a sexy but desexualised character (I think that's the right word) from your perspective.
The dictionary definition of sexualisation goes as follows:

[with object]
-make sexual; attribute sex or a sex role to; (as adjectivesexualized) sexualized images of women

Now forgive me if I'm wrong, but that's not always a bad thing, right? Nature does this, and also makes us do this to each other. Not to say that sexualisation is great, but it is something that happens to people, who are inherently sexual. And, depending on which psychological studies you subscribe to, people may even be sexual to their very core. My point is sometimes it's bad, but hey, it's a tool that creative people can use.
And this leads me to my next point. You cannot gauge authorial intent from the device used alone, without at least the context of the work as a whole. This is perhaps the greatest sin of what I call 'checklist criticism', that it disregards the game as it is and rather strains a few elements to fit a presupposed argument - that the game is sexist. Basically, the line of thinking in this case goes:

1. Does it feature women, in either an important or on important role? Basically are there any women in the game. If they're playable, you might be OK depending on what you do with them, but it's no guarantee.

2. Are any of them sexy? (Note: this does not mean sexualised, which has become synonymous with sexy in modern feminist critique of video games. This is exactly what I'm talking about: taking a surface detail; sexiness, and immediately assigning authorial intent and labeling it as sexualisation, using only the evidence that it is sexy, as though women aren't naturally sexy.)

3. Are any of them in weak or powerless positions? (Bonus points for captive female characters, or female characters who must be saved in some way)
This kind of thinking has to stop. It really does. Because it is so rampant, and so faulty that I don't even know where to begin. But it's criticism working backwards. You should not assume, on superficial evidence, that a game is sexist or not, and then work backwards to find evidence to support your theory, often ignoring any evidence which contradicts that. That's not criticism. That's selection bias.

Instead you should look at the evidence as a whole, and consider both sides of the argument (my lecturer gave me the best essay advice: present your opponent's arguments and counter-arguments as logically and fairly as possible, then proceed to destroy them) and only then should you come to a conclusion. Cos, you never know, your opponent could beright.

Now here's the biggest problem with this kind of 'criticism'. A game may do all these things and be fantastic for feminists. But because a certain kind of gamer approaches the game with a biased perspective he/she is often just looking for signs that the game is sexist, as if that's all game design and narrative are, merely signposts towards the inevitable road to sexism and oppression, and not nuanced or detailed, and rich with meaning in of themselves and in the context of the game.

For example, I heard one view on Dragon's Crown on why the Sorceress has such big breasts. Because she is a necromancer, she gives life, although in a perverse, unnatural fashion, through raising the dead. So she is endowed with what gives life, and sustains it - breasts. Now that is an interesting perspective. Could be right, could be wrong. But at least more critical thinking has gone into making that point than 'Boobs = sexism'.
Another example: I recently saw criticism for MGS:V character 'Quiet'. 'Oh another sexualised character'. But again this is just viewing her on the surface and is therefore an invalid criticism. And, just like with Dragon's Crown, criticism came before the game was even out, and is therefore invalidated further. Yes, the game might be sexist. Yes, your initial criticism may be right. But just like a high school maths paper, being right is not enough. You have to have taken the right steps to have gotten to your conclusion, otherwise it counts as little more than a lucky guess. You have to put the time in, experience the game as a whole, then present your idea rationally, and back up your argument with evidence. Criticism 101. You have no idea where the narrative or game-play will go. Not even a second of game-play has passed through your thumbs, and yet you know what the game is about? You can judge a book by its cover, but you look like an idiot if you do, and you look even worse if you try to review a book by its cover too.

Quiet seems to me to be similar to the Beauty and the Beasts of MGS4. While I can't talk about Quiet, the games not even out yet, I can talk about previous Metal Gear games.I found them so fascinating because it seemed like they enjoyed warfare, or at least got some perverse pleasure from it. And then I realized what war does. Women are just as often the casualties of war, War which commoditised and objectified countless humans, and continues to do so, in the slick, well oiled machine of the War Economy. But women are also commoditised in a different way. In a sexual way. True objectification. And this is in the past of some of the members of the B&B. What they are, is both a product of was and a subversion of it: sexualised and commoditised at a young age, objectified, warped, broken, twisted into weapons and tragic reflections of emotion, killing with or without remorse, it's impossible to tell beyond the wailing or the cackling laughter. And then they are turned against the very machine which created them, in Liquid's insurrection, and became the system itself, and, in defeat, and their dying moments, they turn every commodity they have against Snake, embracing him in an attempt to end the violence. But it never works, it never ends.

And, cos I'm big on examples, here's another. An idea I just came up with that features women in powerless and often captive conditions. OK, so you're a woman in captivity in a war-zone. Your goal is to escape. It's stealth based, and if you get caught, you might get killed, in which case, game over, or you might get kidnapped by male soldiers. I don't need to say what comes next. You have to use stealth and occasionally improvise violence in order to outwit your enemy and reach safety. Kinda like Anita's example, but rather than just make her both the traditional male role and the female role, the protagonist remains in a distinctly female role throughout the game, and outmatched by almost every single enemy in the entire game, and relying on cunning and bravery to survive, facing the specific threats which go along with that role in a war-torn country where chaos rules.

You see, not every game has to be a power fantasy. When Anita Sarkeesian suggested her own game idea, of a woman who escapes captivity on her own (cos she's a strong, independent woman) in order to take revenge on her captors, not only does that already exist (Tomb Raider and Remember Me come close, to name a couple of recent examples) but it also doesn't accomplish anything other than swapping the chromosomes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and putting him in a game. Not every game can, or should, cater to the player's fantasies, and by not trying to paint a perfect, feminist happy world you can actually explore the issues even better. Not every woman is strong and independent. Don't believe me? Read The Handmaid's Tale.

I guess my final point is there are good critics, and there are bad critics, but the best critics tend to be those who understand the genre from a creative standpoint and not just a critical one. Anita's game suggestion shows me that she doesn't understand why games do what they do, just that she can see the signs of what she believes is sexism. Mario doesn't save Peach because she is a woman who is incapable of acting on her own (seriously, check her out in the Nintendo Power comics) Mario saves peach because the narrative is trying to explain motivations in a concise and concrete way in a world which is inherently abstract and chaotic.

It's a quick fix for a world which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Now if she was to explore why men think saving the damsel in distress is so recognizable and understandable for men, and why the trope is useful, or has been, for creators, rather than simply say 'it's sexist' and that be the end of it, then she would seem to be a more engaged and insightful critic. But at the moment she seems to find surface details which she can enter into her Microsoft excel version of criticism.

This is why literary and cinematic movements of the past have been driven by both the desire to create something new and also to move away from established ideas. It's no use denigrating almost all of a genre if you have no decent ideas for where it has to go. Go out, make a game. Grab a couple friends who can code and write what you believe is a true feminist game. There are already lots of people doing this. Get a Kickstarter. It is easier than ever before to create a game. And its not right that you have to do this while men get catered to by the industry. But the industry runs on money. So the best way to change the industry in a major way is to use that. Prove that games for women can be successful then the big publishers will take notice. Simply attacking games which cater to men fails as a tactic on two grounds: it offers no real suggestion on where to go next, or what women even want; and it also turns the industry against you, when you should, rather than seek to destroy parts of the industry, become a part of it, change it from the inside and reveal to it the new opportunities within the female gamer.

(Thanks to Elsa for her blog post which inspired me) thanks to anyone who read the whole thing, I know the topic's been done to death lately.   read

4:07 PM on 02.24.2012

Endings: F*ck Ormazd

The ending of 2008's Prince of Persia is one of my most memorable moments. For those who haven't played it, the game features the titular Prince, and enigmatic wanderer who stumbles on the decaying kingdom of the Ahura, a people dedicated to keeping Ahriman trapped within a magical tree and the surrounding lands. After the princess of the Ahura dies, her Father makes a faustian pact with Ahriman, releasing him in exchange for her resurrection. Only she comes back with powers from Ormazd, Ahriman's good counterpart, and alongside the Prince she proceeds to heal the fertile grounds in order to imprison Ahriman once again.

At the end of the game, after defeating the corrupted king Ahriman is sealed away, only for the Princess Elika to die. Never before have I felt such a failure as a gamer. I did everything right, sealed Ahriman, just like Ormazd wanted. I win, right? But this isn't like a death in any game - in fact it isn't possible to die in the game - Elika saves you. Every time. And that is why her death was so meaningful to me. The ending doesn't just jump out at the end. The whole game is a set up for that moment. Every time the Prince jumps, she boosts him. Every time he falls, she catches him. The prince himself cannot become stronger - his only upgrades come from Elika's new Ahura powers - from Ormazd. There are so few characters in the game. There are a few faceless enemy encounters, then Ahriman and his corrupted, the King, and Elika. That's it. Everything you learn about the Kingdom of the Ahura comes from Elika's interaction with the Prince. She's a storyteller. She says it herself. She's all that's left of the Ahura.

But the game gives you a choice. You can turn the game off, accept Elika's sacrifice and the Prince leaves, wanders into the desert to further adventures. but I couldn't do that. Elika and the Prince had come too far together. I had come too far. It all emant too much. When she and the Prince spoke it seemed natural. She was uptight, critical, he was cheesy, flirtatious. I would, upon entering a new area exhaust the dialogue options - for the kingdom's backstory, sure, but for their banter just as much.

There is a second option. You can cut the trees that bind Ahriman. Release him, just as the King did, in exchange for Elika's life. Throw away everything you did, together, in the past 12 hours.

It dawned on me, how much of a sucker I was. I was no different to the deformed Corrupted. Just like them, I had been manipulated, chewed up, spit out. Cast aside. Except my god was not the god of darkness but the god of light. How could he? I deserved that much. For all the Prince's hardship, endured for a country that wasn't even his own, for Elika, devoted, faithful, willing to sacrifice herself. For the gamer, who fought alongside them. We all deserved our happy endings.

There was no choice. I cut the trees, every one of them. Elika wakes up, she only says 'What have you done'. I say, to my screen, knowing that she can't hear me, she's only a character, lines of code, [i]pixels[/], two words, as the Prince walks from the waking Ahriman:

Fuck Ormazd.   read

2:51 AM on 02.03.2012

Legislation is the wrong way to deal with piracy.

Before I begin I'd like to say that I'm not an economist, so I might not know much of what I'm saying. Even so, everyone seems to have their 2 cents on piracy, so here are mine.

SOPA, PIPA, ACTA etc are threats to the internet. Part of the reason the backlash from the online community is that while copyright holders claim that the bill protects them, they are in fact already protected adequately and the bills give them a disproportionate amount of control over the content of the internet.

But there are, and always will be too many pirates and content thieves for them to keep up with. But let's not judge the pirates. We can sit here and play the blame game but in the end when markets collapse, share prices drop and people lose jobs pointing fingers won't do anyone any good. People need to realise the true problem.

See, piracy is simply a market force. It's a symptom, and not an illness. And the disease is pricing.

Piracy, or at least large scale piracy exists because there is a difference between what the publisher sees as the value of their product, and what the consumer see as it's value. Clearly the pirate is interested in the product, and would probably consider buying it but the prices are too damn high.

Look at it this way. Piracy is a calculated risk. The pirate's mind makes it into an equation: Perceived value of product + risk of prosecution < publisher's perceived value of product. Now legislating to increase the odds of prosecution does seem to balance out both sides. However, that will only lessen piracy. What it won't do is increase the value of the product. So it won't make people more likely to spend money, only less likely to pirate, which, obviously won't increase industry profits.

The solution is simple = increase the value of your product to the consumer. You can't legislate your product into becoming more valued. Make them see that your game is worth more, that they get more for buying from you than they do from pirating. Provide them with a better service than illegal sites. Jim Sterling goes over this point very well in his recent Jimquisition.

But also lower prices. And I don't mean let retailers drop prices after a few months. I mean actually lower them right out of the gate. Now I can't find any official statistics but isn't the biggest pirating group teenage boys and young men? Let's be honest, as a demographic they don't have a lot of money, many are in school or college and can't afford to pay 40 per game more than a few times a year. Yet that demographic is repeatedly punished for lending to a friend, buying second hand.

But it's very easy for me to say 'lower game prices'. That's a strategy that serves me best, not the publishers. Well here's the thing: I'm the consumer. The publisher is supposed to serve me. Yeah, the publisher provides me with entertainment, but I provide them with money. I put them in a job and food on their table. They're not my friend, they aren't even on my side and would, as recent turns would show, take every penny from me if they could. They are simply a necessary evil which I endure to get to the work of the developers, who are more than anything far closer to being friends of the gamer.   read

8:23 AM on 12.03.2011

PETA, the Red Cross and Videogames

Recently, PETA kicked up a fuss about Mario wearing a Tanooki suit. Now, I've always thought PETA sucked, and the reason is this: Rather than using their network of informants and activists to promote their cause they choose to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude and spend their time attacking popular icons (before someone corrects me, I'm sure that they spend a lot of time and effort promoting their cause in better ways, but honestly you never hear of them doing that, they get the headlines when they attack something. And it is probably more important how they are seen rather than how they act, because as a charity they rely on the goodwill of others, People don't want to donate to jerks.) That isn't how a charity acts. That's how terrorists act. Now I'm not about to use such a controversial and elusive term to describe PETA, because obviously there are still a vast amount of differences between them, and, say Al Qaeda. I'm just pointing out the methods that they use, and trying to move towards a definition.

So yeah, PETA are jerks. That in itself is not that big a deal though. There are plenty of Animal rights charities out there who's methods people can agree with, and many people support those charities. PETA are just one bad apple in the bunch.

So when I read that the Red Cross were debating on whether to scrutinise War crimes in games, I fell off my chair.


Even the Red Cross is getting in on criticising games.

Now PETA I understand, I've already said I think they suck. But the Red Cross? Surely they have better stuff to do with their time. Plus it's not even established whether or not video games have psychological effect on us.

I've heard both sides of the argument - the 'It's only a game', that it's virtual, no-one is being hurt in reality and therefore there is no need to worry about it, that video games are simply being used as a scapegoat and people blaming them are ignoring the true social issues. You always hear about the Psychopath of the week who murdered someone 'over videogames' or 'because of their addiction to videogames' but the more discerning of us readers immediately know that such causal reasoning is deeply flawed. The addictions or similar issues are usually symptoms, rather than causes, and that is is very unlikely that the person's issues rest solely in videogames - without the existence of games, would they really be a fully functional member of society?

Anyway I'm off the point. The other argument is that video games, while not unique in their ability to influence but aggravated in it because of their visceral nature, can have a profound effect on people's behaviours and beliefs. Violence in a game desensitizes people to real violence, and they are therefore more likely to use violence in real life, and with less remorse.

Now why would the Red Cross even consider looking at video games? OK, I agree that playing violent games probably does have some effect, but I personally think films have more of an effect due to their aspirational nature (everyone looks up to the action hero, hell even I want to transform into a truck and duel with decepticons) and games are simply more cathartic, or too ridiculous to actually stimulate aggressive impulses.

So with that argument, I ask 'Saving Private Ryan had war crimes. So did Schindler's List. Hell, those two films were basically about war crimes. Why not look at them?'

Ah but those are historical films, showing a historical conflict. Not entirely fictional, highly fantastical films. But what about, say, Avatar? Although the Na'vi are not human the film makes the point that it doesn't matter that they aren't specifically human, they are like humans and the attacks against them are wrong.

So what is it about videogames that makes them so easy to criticise? Why is it that they find themselves in the spotlight so much?

In part, this is due to videogames being a relatively new art form (YES AN ART FORM, they are certainly capable of aestheticism, or conveying a message as effectively, if not more so than any existing 'art form'). That will just change with time. But I think it's important to note when these criticisms are strongest, weeks after the release of Call of Duty.

Now I'm not a hater, Obviously these criticisms are not unique to Call of Duty, they are shared by almost all military shooters. The difference between them and, say, Saving Private Ryan is that the war crimes committed in Saving Private Ryan helped to illustrate the war, and various themes - loss, family etc. In, say, Call of Duty, they have no real value above simply shocking the player. In multiplayer, war crimes have no purpose other than the accumulation of points. They are a necessary measure for victory, an idea which, it taken literally could be dangerous. Good thing games don't affect us too badly. Anyway, beyond that they have no meaning. There is no punishment, only reward in the virtual coliseum of leaderboards and stats.
However, single player is different. Take the infamous 'No Russian' level. Now it could have shown the coldness of human nature, or the horror of terrorism. But for me it didn't. Unlike Saving Private Ryan, while the terrorists were certainly evil, making me one of them meant that as a Player I couldn't judge their actions - even as a mole. Secret agents aren't supposed to judge the actions of others. They are supposed to serve their country, whether they are fighting terrorists or other, less morally reprehensible people. And the civilians, well they didn't differ much from an enemy who had run out of ammo. They weren't people, they were simply cardboard cut outs who bled and screamed when you shot them. As a player, I wanted more to show their humanity. I think a cutscene, focusing on, maybe a family or something for a minute or so (like that halo reach live action trailer), then showing the terrorists mercilessly cutting everyone down. Or, if you hate cutscenes, make me the father of two young children, desperately running for my life, doomed to fail. Then I can judge them, and hate them.

Whether or not games affect us psychologically is still an issue. There will likely be countless studies in the future which will both support and denie those claims. However, I think our violent games need to have a little meaning, and that there are more themes to explore in the theatre of war than shock value. Until then, I'm off to skin a Tanooki.   read

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