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Community Discussion: Blog by CJHRRIHRH | What is wrong with feminist game criticism today.Destructoid
What is wrong with feminist game criticism today. - Destructoid

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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:

verb
[with object]
-make sexual; attribute sex or a sex role to; (as adjective sexualized) 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 be right.

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) http://www.destructoid.com/blogs/Elsa/feminist-frequency-and-relevance--260518.phtml Also thanks to anyone who read the whole thing, I know the topic's been done to death lately.



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