We're still reporting it because you're still denying it
// Stephen Beirne
Slowly but surely the academic evidence is building up. A new study conducted by researchers at Ohio University has found that women playing multiplayer on Halo 3 receive three times as much abuse as men. Confirming what i...
Jan 25 //
Gendered compliments are of that type of benevolent sexism that generally flies under the social radar. Getting praise is lovely, right? Surely it raises self-esteem and spreads good will to all the boys and girls. The problem is that benevolent sexism goes hand-in-hand with the more obvious hostile kind (your torsos and your booth babes) and reinforces the subconscious values hidden therein. In essence, it’s the friendly face to those overtly harmful practices and behaviours, making it far more insidious in nature. Unwelcomed and irrelevant compliments on a woman’s appearance can also elicit emotions of self-objectification and shame. By subtly endorsing appearance as a top priority for women, they boost socially ingrained values of superficiality and unrealistic beauty standards.Like individuals, videogames don’t exist in bubbles isolated away from society. The subconscious values of game makers manifest in industry practices and game design, such as the belief that men will foremost want to protect their female protagonist, or the idea that girlfriends are lovely and all but simply dreadful when it comes to the pew pew. I wonder how many developers have passed on the notion of having a female protagonist on the basis that girls are too dainty for all that running about. The effects of media representation on audiences is something we should always bear in mind.Well-intentioned though some beliefs may be, when they carry adverse connotations which support wider spread gender roles, the overall effect is merely an endorsement of deeper structural problems. While it is nice to receive a compliment on your hair every now and again, when it becomes a recurring thing everywhere you go you start to get a message about what’s commonly perceived as important.
Speaking of well-intentioned, personally I remain sceptical of whether Objectify A Man Day will succeed in its goal or obscure it. It’s true that a bit of awareness and empathy can help men to see sexism to which they’re normally blind, but the condoning of benevolent sexism is a much harder thing to shift. The event stands no chance of emulating the problems of misguided compliments, what with the lack of everything else that makes benevolent sexism so disconcerting (including, odiously enough, the sincerity).
Those in on the joke need no convincing, while those outside might barely even notice anything’s different. Most likely it will bolster the belief of many that getting complimented on one’s appearance is flattering, not insulting. And if well-intentioned men can get through one day of receiving superficial compliments, it may just encourage them to think that benevolent sexism isn’t so bad after all.That being said, the event can prove indirectly productive simply as a gateway for conversation on the subject. Certainly the more people that grow aware of the many facets of sexism, the better we become at correcting our errors in value and judgement. For this, I wish Objectify A Male Tech Writer Day all the success in the world.You can check out the #Objectify FAQ here.
Of course, they all have lovely bottoms For men to compliment women is far more common than for the reverse to happen. It’s one of those socialized traits people barely notice unless they’re particularly alerted, what with it being so widespread as to b...
Nov 01 //
For something as intrinsically teleological as videogames, quite a lot of energy is put into providing the appearance of individualistic experiences. Publishers are often keen to tout how their games offer a unique playthrough for every player, or how an array of options translates into meaningful choice on behalf of whoever's holding the joypad. Those with big open worlds insinuate themselves as especially true-to-life in comparison with your average corridor shooter, while games of the latter variety focus on convincing the player to want to do the only thing available.
We understand that by its nature the medium is limited but this fact doesn’t necessarily engender our experiences with a sense of impotence or powerlessness. Despite how virtual worlds are deliberately designed to pander to a players’ wants and needs, how everything we do in-game has been meticulously crafted before we even begin, we seldom feel hard done by. We even go so far as to differentiate “things that we did” from the actions of the player-character in cutscenes.
Although videogames are inherently restrictive, we can have meaningful experiences. We feel empowered by our in-game actions, we are impressionable by moral epiphanies, and we frequently relate to the affectations of our on-screen avatar. Knowing that it’s all a dog and pony show does little to lessen these reactions. And yet, any impression of player agency is a mirage shaped solely by the game makers’ prowess.
Skip back several hundred years and you can find a long-lived trail of academic debate dealing with this exact subject. Way back in the day, discussions about human nature routinely revolved around examinations on qualities pertaining to an Abrahamic God and what this meant for the universe. Since God tended to be characterized as all-knowing and all-powerful, it followed that the entire cosmos must be laid out according to some higher plan. The range of God’s knowledge must encompass time itself, too, so as not to contradict his omniscience. What many big thinkers concluded from this was that everything that exists, past, present and future, must have been predetermined by God and is therefore fixed.
You don’t need to be hundreds of years old or especially religious to believe in a deterministic universe. Another theory, dubbed Laplace’s Demon, suggests that the existence of an intellect vast enough to comprehend the physical states and forces of everything in the universe could calculate their future effects, insinuating determinism. Even if that imagined intellect (normally phrased as a demon or highly advanced AI) were forever relegated to the realm of hypotheticals, so long as the idea behind it -- the predictability of all things in existence -- rings plausible, the threat of a deterministic universe looms into view.
Against the backdrop of a fixed universe, many questions about the nature of human life are raised. How can we have free will if our actions are predetermined? What does this mean for morality if conditionals like ‘should have’ and ‘ought to’ are rendered irrelevant? Highfalutin it may be, but determinism entails some philosophical concerns even in the modern day and age.
While we can debate whether our actions are actually predetermined in the real world, it may be hard to deny that the virtual worlds of videogames exist as microcosms of exactly this issue. On blowing up Megaton in Fallout 3, the game assigns the player to a predesigned path. You can go back and repeat the event innumerable times to the same effect. Giving water to the homeless results in good Karma; devouring a corpse grants negative Karma. For every action in the game, every consequence and effect is already set in stone.Another biggie in the free will in games discussion is BioShock, wherein a pivotal moment reveals that the player has unknowingly abided by the mental control of the prime antagonist. With every triggering “would you kindly” your future actions were mandated into existence, says the narrative, by correlating the order with the only route to progress in the game. But what changes between the game before this revelation and the game after the brainwashing has been alleviated? Nothing; it still adheres to a series of objectives that the player is willingly (or thinks is willingly) pursuing out of his/her own agency in accordance with the ludonarrative mirage. The player is no more acting freely in the second part than he/she was actually brainwashed in the first, which is to say not at all.
That so many people were floored by the revelation and moved to wax philosophic on how free will is a thing in games speaks more of the proficiency of BioShock’s narrative than of the nature of the medium. If you recoiled in betrayal by your actions up until the Andrew Ryan scene, as if you had retroactively felt they were not your own, take a seat with the rest. We tend to identify with our input in-game, and the self-reflexivity of the “would you kindly” trigger puts a wedge between our actions and ourselves.
Meanwhile the determinacy of the medium dictates that once you enter Ryan’s office, the game assumes control and leads to Ryan’s iconic battering to death at his own dictation, but again this elicits an odd reaction. Did you feel as if the murder was your own doing since it occurred by your player-character’s hands? Or did you feel exploited and used on the basis that you were being controlled against your agency? Despite how the entire scene was devised by a team of programmers you’ve never met, did you feel responsible?
If your answer is “no,” how can you feel responsible for shooting bees at your enemies, when all you contribute to the action is the push of a button. Or for ending the life of The Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3 -- a situation in which you have little choice but to pull the trigger or wait interminably. In the 1700s, David Hume wrote how our actions must be irrevocably tied in with our identities, for if they were not mandatory given our individual nature (whatever it is when we refer to a “me”), we cannot lay claim to them as the results of our agency.
Either our actions are the causal results of our will, sealing them as the only possible path we could have taken, or they are not, and there is nothing especial to correlate an action with the existential qualities of the person acting. Ryan’s death was cemented by the same process that pressing L2 produces bees; perhaps the player was similarly bound to their decision on Megaton by the compulsory forces of his/her nature.What differentiates the death scenes of Ryan and The Boss from the rest of their respective games is a noteworthy removal of the player’s control. Where normally you can move about and shoot or bludgeon at your own leisure, the sudden narrowing of your abilities comes as something of a shock. And if control is something that can be taken away at the whim of that world’s creator, it follows conversely that any control you have at any given point is bestowed upon you by the powers-that-be. You can’t reduce Rivet City to dust, even though it would have been quite possible for Bethesda to poof a nuke into existence anywhere around the settlement’s geography. You may only choose to do that of Megaton because it is allowed of you.
Therein lies the trouble with the subject of free will in videogames. Every single choice that you make is dictated to you and permitted by someone pulling your strings. Never is “free will” as great a contradiction in terms as in the realms of virtual worlds, for what is free will claimed to be free from? Is it influence? Every single game asks “would you kindly” to varying degrees of obscurity. Or is it the imposition of the will of others? You can’t even walk without permission. The notion of free will in videogames a fallacy.
Hideo Kojima credited himself as God in the MGS games, although unlike that one referred to by the Vatican this God is not omniscient. At least, I don’t think he is. He may have designed the world and fooled us into thinking we were acting of our own liberty, but even despite all the teleology his control does not extend to what goes on inside our heads. That’s the domain of tiny mad scientists.
What did I do to deserve this, My Lord? Inside everybody’s head lives a tiny mad scientist who governs their actions and whims. Most of the time it’s barely noticeable, even to the point of feeling perfectly natural. Every now and again something might ...
Jul 02 //
Destructoid: How did you first get into gaming as a hobby and in what way would you describe your relationship with the medium?
Anita Sarkeesian: Because my dad was a networking engineer I basically grew up surrounded by computers and started playing PC games at a pretty young age. I also spent a lot of time with the NES and the SNES but what I remember most is the Game Boy. At around ten years old I begged my parents to get me one, this took some serious persuasion on my part because 1) my parents believed it was a toy for boys (at the time I didn't realize how gendered the marketing was, I mean, it's called Game 'Boy' after all) and 2) my mom had heard all the nonsense about how videogames are dangerous and would rot my brain. In the end, though, they gave in and I remember the sense of victory when I unwrapped it on Christmas morning. After that, the Game Boy and I were inseparable.
Today, I would describe my relationship with gaming as complex, to say the least. There are a handful of truly amazing, artistic, creative and engaging games out there that I absolutely love. On the other hand there are so many more where I, as the player, am forced to choose between the ultra violent, emotionless space marine or the male fantasy style sex object. This is especially frustrating because there is an incredible amount of potential for the industry to push the envelope and create gaming experiences which employ more immersive storytelling, complex character development, and innovative gameplay.
It's deeply unfortunate that there exist quite a lot of great games marred by their poor representation of women. Have you played any games that you absolutely adored in spite of their failings in that regard, or perhaps some instances where you are willing to overlook such discrepancies simply because you fell in love with the game?
Many of the games I would want to list are a little too complicated to explain in a short paragraph so for brevity's sake here are a few of the more obvious examples that spring to mind from games I’ve played recently:
Rayman Origins is one of the best platformers I’ve played in years. It was a fun, challenging, and gorgeous game but I was frustrated that I had to repeatedly save the "busty" Nymphs in Distress. On the indie side of things, I really enjoyed Bastion, but the only female character in the game doesn’t have any depth (to put it mildly); basically, her whole characterization was "The Female."
This week I've started playing Gravity Rush and I'm really loving it, though I have to say it’s a little ridiculous that our hero Kat flies and tumbles through the city at tremendous speeds, lands upsidedownways on various building or structures and fights Nevi monsters all while wearing high heels and without any armor (or even pants). Can you imagine what her knees are going to look like? Someone needs to get this woman some protective motorcycle gear and a pair of hefty boots!
I really appreciate the gameplay and some of the complexities of the Assassin’s Creed series, but I've been regularly disappointed with the female characters for a whole host of reasons that we don’t have the space to get into. I am, however, looking forward to Assassin's Creed: Liberation for the Vita which is (finally) going to feature a woman, so we’ll see how that goes *fingers crossed*.
You've been making videos for a while and have shared insights into various subjects that have on the most part eluded mainstream critics. What was it that inspired you to start a video series about the negative portrayals of women in the first place?
Like many people I'm a fan of TV shows, movies, and videogames, but it's always a bit of a double-edged sword for me because while the production quality or game play could be amazing, there's often a deeply sexist or even misogynist undertone to some of the stories or characters. It's no secret that, at least in the videogame industry, the majority of games are not made with me in mind, so it's really hard to be a fan of these mediums and yet see that much of it can seem actively hostile to women.
I started Feminist Frequency because I wanted to take a look at gender representations in mass media through a sociological lens and have a conversation with my generation about why being critical of our media entertainment is important. The work that I do emphasizes and focuses on patterns in the media because it's not just one or two movies or games that are the problem but rather the repetition of sexist characters and narratives over thousands of movies, games, comics, and TV shows that play a role in amplifying, reinforcing, or normalizing regressive gendered myths.
Are there any games that you're especially looking forward to experiencing for the first time and researching as part of the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games project?
There are a handful of older generation console games I missed when they were originally released that I’m interested in playing such as the Persona series, Primal, and also Knights of the Old Republic 2 (which I've heard has an intriguing take on the female villain). Because of my Kickstarter campaign and ensuing firestorm, I haven't yet had a chance to sit down with Diablo III, so I’m looking forward to that as well.
How many games would you say the project will have you going through for source material? Do you intend to keep a quantitative record of the tropes under scrutiny in order to support your qualitative analysis?
I'm going to have to research and play through literally hundreds of games. I don't have a final list yet since we're still in the research phase and we are adding new titles every day, but the scope is already very extensive.
When planning this series, I did preliminary research to identify the character tropes which seem to be repeated most often, so while I'm not going to be able to discuss every single example that has ever existed in gaming for each trope, I am going to keep an extensive running list of how many characters fall into one or more of these gendered stereotypes and archetypes (which will include data on playable vs. non-playable female characters, protagonist vs. sidekicks roles etc).
In response to all the online threats and racist/misogynistic harassment a few weeks back, your Kickstarter project saw an incredible influx of support. What do you plan to do with all the money excess of the final $50,000 stretch goal?
My team and I are talking about how we can expand the scope of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games and Feminist Frequency project more broadly given the influx of additional funding. It's important to us that the backers are the first to be updated on the project's evolution, but what we can share is that the issue of harassment both in the gaming community and on the Internet in general has, unfortunately, become intertwined with this Kickstarter campaign, so we're definitely going to include a substantial additional component to this project that will directly address the epidemic of misogynist, racist, and homophobic online harassment.
Over the past three years, I've been dedicated to making Feminist Frequency videos whenever I could, but it’s still essentially been a passionate side project between freelance jobs. Now with the extra funding, it’s an exciting moment for me, because my team and I can now commit full-time to Feminist Frequency and to producing an even bigger and better collection of engaging, in-depth and critical videos that will hopefully contribute to the already ongoing conversation about women's representations in videogames.
In relation to your attitude when you discover that you have been the victim of this kind of online bullying, how do you normally cope with that realization?
First, I have amazing and incredible viewers and supporters who are an endless source of encouragement and inspiration. I also have a small crew of friends that I go through the comments and messages with so we can laugh at some of the absurdity (while still understanding the increasing severity of the situation). We also document as much of the harassment as we can and then share selected bits of it online to illustrate how serious, threatening, and pervasive Internet harassment can be.
To be completely honest, we also pass around clips of our favorite Star Trek captains standing up to interstellar bullies. This one with Captain Janeway is a favorite of mine. During this particular tidal wave of harassment, a few supporters sent me over this wonderful video that I'll admit I've watched about ten times already - Thank You Hater!
What do you hope to achieve in the grander scale of things by tackling the misrepresentation of women in popular culture? For example, how would you say misogyny in the gaming industry relates to the gender-divided wage gap in the US?
With Feminist Frequency my goal is to promote media literacy and give viewers some tools to look more critically at the pop culture we all engage with. My hope is to clearly present the issues surrounding women's problematic representations as a systemic issue by identifying the harmful recurring patterns that we see repeated over and over across all forms of entertainment. Part of this work for me is also to remind people that they aren't alone in any misgivings they might have about sexist characters and narratives. Many of us (people of all genders) have had enough and want to see real change in the entertainment industries. Ultimately, my video work is one small part of a community of people working towards a larger cultural shift with the end goal of there being more media and entertainment that represents women as full and complete human beings rather than as sex objects or shallow stereotypes.
In terms of the real-world connection, we like to think that the media exists in a vacuum and is somehow not connected to our larger cultural ecosystem. We also like to believe that the media has no effect or impact on us whatsoever, that we are somehow invincible to its embedded myths and messages. The truth, however, is that the media does play a big role in helping to shape individual and society-wide values and belief systems. It should be noted however, that it is not a direct one-to-one cause and effect relationship. The impact of, say, misogyny in games is often subtle and complex in the ways that it works to replicate sexist ideologies and reinforce pre-existing stereotypical notions about women in our larger society. Sometimes I put it this way -- think of popular culture like the air we all breathe -- it's in everyone's interests to make sure that air is not polluted with toxic sexism, racism, or homophobia.
Many thanks to Anita for taking the time to talk to us. The first episode of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games should be freely available in the upcoming months. In the meantime, you can check out past videos in the Tropes vs. Women series on Feminist Frequency.
It must have been an exciting experience for Anita Sarkeesian during her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games Kickstarter project. Broadcast under the name of her hosting site, Feminist Frequency, where Tropes vs. Women originally...
[Update: Encouraged by the rate at which the original goal of $6,000 was reached, Anita has extended the scope of the series to suit demand. Five more tropes have been referenced as research points, each warranting its own 10...
A few weeks ago at GDC, Mare Sheppard of indie game company Metanet told a small but packed conference room what she thought about Women in Games initiatives; her conclusion was less than favorable. Although she supports th...
Well, it's Saint Patrick's Day, and what better way is there to mark the occasion than by doing something flippant and pointless?
Naturally, the Irish are fantastic at everything they do (and they're handsome, too), so it's...
Jan 23 //
Although more commonly known as the spiritual predecessor to Shadow of the Colossus and the upcoming The Last Guardian, Ico is a game of some renown. The player takes the role of the title character Ico in his attempt to escape from a mysterious castle after being exiled and imprisoned there for the sin of growing horns. Before long, the young boy finds himself accompanied by the ethereal Yorda, an older girl subjected to the captivity of her mother, the Queen of the castle. The game is minimalistic in narrative style, meaning the sparse characterization is primarily drawn from nuance and inference.
Gameplay consists of two general operations: puzzle-platforming, wherein Ico traverses terrain and solves environmental puzzles in order to create a path for Yorda to get from A to B, and combat, which tasks the player with fending off specters as they seek to recapture Yorda for the Queen. Although the player can jump, climb, swim, swing, push crates, pick up objects, use levers, attack monsters, and so on, Yorda's abilities are limited to rudimentary movement and the opening of doorways. Since this latter function is otherwise unavailable to Ico, it is for this that the player must drag her around.
Despite being her primary function in the game, Yorda opens doorways through proximity alone, courtesy of some magical properties innate to her. This is par for the character -- Yorda's absence of will defines everything about her, from her incompetency at performing basic commands issued by the player to her inability to register the danger of the Queen's minions. Even when the time comes for Yorda to carry out her most useful (and only) duty, it is a passive ability that requires her to do absolutely nothing but smile and look pretty. Yorda is burdensome, vapid, and weak; she is the lobotomized archetype of the damsel in distress.
Sadly, Yorda determines a significant proportion of Ico. The gameplay mechanics are framed by Yorda's feebleness and Ico's need for her continued survival. Since a language barrier reduces communication to basics, their relationship largely consists of the dynamic described by these mechanics. A primary expression of this is Ico's method of directing her about the castle, either by hollering at the lass to grab her attention or by holding her hand and physically moving to the desired location. The former, however, tends to be rather time-consuming as Yorda often finds it difficult to concentrate on the matter at hand, while the latter feels more like Ico is hauling cargo by an elastic rope. Meanwhile, the unfolding narrative impinges on the player growing emotionally attached to Yorda on the basis of this physical interaction.
As evidenced by her vacuity of will and her incapability to act, Yorda is severely lacking in agency. If she is not being rescued by Ico, Yorda is waiting for him to make a path that suits her relative immobility. In contrast, our steadfast protagonist spends his time in willful activity, solving puzzles and battling monsters as the situation demands. While it is of course quite easy to imbue a character with agency by drawing a comparison with Yorda, Ico is nevertheless propelled by actions in his own right, to his own end. Ico wants to escape the castle and will do everything in his power to achieve this goal.
So too does the player, by virtue of wanting to play and advance in the game. Ico's agency here is compatible with the player's, making the filling of his shoes all the more comfortable. The gameplay functions of the player-character meet the expectations and desires of the player, engaging him or her with the game under a loose role-playing pretense. For the most part, this is made all the more facile in Ico through the minimalistic style -- the less reason we have to dislike a character, the more tolerable we tend to find that character and his/her actions.
Unfortunately, at several points in Ico, the agencies abruptly diverge. So long as the player-character is expected to cart around Yorda as a glorified key card, her company is a necessary burden for the sake of game progression. There comes a time, however, when freedom is at hand and her abilities are no longer needed, yet the player is obliged by the narrative to reunite with Yorda and sacrifice any newfound chance at liberty. Attempts by the player to treat Yorda's literal stumble at the last hurdle as destined-to-be (or in my case, as a chance to thank my lucky stars) is met with a resolute "Game Over" screen.
What develops is an odd entanglement of the agencies of player, developer, and player-character. The developer requires the player to instinctively want to prioritize Yorda over escaping the castle. The player-character of Ico wants to return to Yorda's side in much the same way, we are retroactively told. What the player wants, on the other hand, is very much conditional.
Whether or not the player wants to reunite with Yorda depends on how tolerable they find her character to be. In the possibility that the player finds her company to be a far greater burden than she is worth, as is quite the likelihood given Yorda's chronic uselessness, the player will act contrary to the developer's wishes and the narrative will hit a dead end. The subsequent "Game Over" screen is not one resulting from a lack of skill on the part of the player or from misfortune but of a denial of the player's agency.
But the player's agency is never anything but a false pretense, an illusion maintained by successful manipulation of the player on the part of the game's makers. The actions of a player, and therefore the fulfilled agency of a player, only exist so far as they are entertained and permitted fulfillment by the developer. Likewise, the agency of the developer is only realized by the actions of the player. This is a universal principle across all videogames whenever a developer creates a virtual world and invites a player to participate within it.
This mutually characterizing relationship between the player and the game's makers produces a phenomenal experience born from both party's collaborating agencies. The agency at play during the course of a game is neither solely the player's nor the developer's but rather the two combined. We always talk about our personal experiences with a game as if we authored them, and insofar as the developer enables us, we are indeed the authors. Be that as it may, authorship isn't authority. He who brings to life an act is no more automatically the highest authority on his action than the player is of his/her decision to take Yorda's hand.
Not that any of this invalidates the authenticity of a player's experiences. There are hundreds of thousands of videogame tales that are intimate to the player who pseudo-co-authored them, each tale reflexively offering its own story on what player agency entails. Sleep Is Death is one game in particular that relates to this phenomenon, as is the above Half-Life 2 mod The Stanley Parable. Ultimately, the game experience is a shared one, just as any agency exercised within a game is collaborative.
So long as the illusion of choice is maintained, the discomfort of a non-existent player agency can be whitewashed. In the case of Ico, the problem is not linearity but that the feedback insufficiently matches the player's natural inclinations. The solution as always is to successfully enrapture the player until they are blissfully unaware that their strings are being pulled.
In philosophical terms, "agency" is the capacity for a person to make decisions and act according to those decisions. The ability to decide one's own actions entails a substantial degree of self-expression and so is quite a s...
If you frequent any videogame website, there's a high chance you will have read about a game released this year by the name of Dark Souls. That it is quite passionately talked about should come as no surprise, really -- th...
[Editor's note: Community member Byronic Man (a.k.a. Stephen Beirne) presents a fascinating, intelligent look at videogames through classic RPG Persona 4. Enjoy! -Chad]
Much can be gained from the analysis of videogames. Whet...