So, a few things happened, and I wanted to bring them up.
First, game journo/critic/maven Patricia Hernandez gave my post a write-up on Kotaku which is humbling/gratifying. While I’m not normally a proponent of ignoring comment threads — I think that sort of sweeps them under the rug as “not real” somehow when I firmly believe they’re badges of the times — I would suggest skipping those if you agreed with me in any way, and rubbing them all over your body if you thought I was wide of the mark.
I did want to share one of the best, most Bingo card-iest of them, though hilariously, I think the last comment is actually spot on, just not for the reason this individual thinks:
The second thing I wanted to call attention to, however, is a blog post that a college friend of mine, Kristin Bezio, posted her own riff on this topic. In particular she discusses my argument that Taric being a powerful, good-at-his-job character was essential to create buy-in, and she agreed, expressing it thusly:
In short, the only way to eliminate the kind of bias and bigotry that generally accompanies the inclusion of gay, minority, and female heroes (player-characters or otherwise) – and the inevitable screaming we hear from the “probably straight white cismale gamer audience” about corrupting their precious male power-fantasy games – is to make them valuable. Basically, we need to see in videogames the same things that we want to see in the real world: if you’re good at your job, then it shouldn’t matter whatelse you are, whether female, gay, lesbian, African American, Asian, Hispanic, atheist, Muslim, or covered in purple and orange tattoos.
I don’t necessarily disagree; in fact I argued for the same principle. But I do want to point out something relevant to both Kristin’s and my stances on the matter, something that came up during the “Moving forward in queer game studies” panel I was part of at the AoIR conference this year: we need to be careful about the rhetoric of “we’re worth market share so you could include us.” We saw this a lot with TV in the late 90s/early 00s: “gays are a good target demo, they are faithful consumers of our material, so we need to include gay themes.” The problem is that the unspoken flip side of this is “once they are no longer an important demo, we will abandon them.” It moves the imperative for inclusivity from a moral or social imperative — “the right thing to do” — to a purely economic one. I don’t necessarily have a problem with economic imperatives, mind you, because they are terribly effective… but not always in the long term.
We need to make sure that we frame this desire for inclusivity along multiple dimensions. Be upfront, use the economics. Say “Hey, you’ve got an LGBTQ audience. Give them some love and they’ll support you in the short term.” But we ALSO need to argue that “Hey, you’re a media creator and like it or not, you have a role in (re)producing culture. Including a wide range of characters and themes in your work is a responsible thing to do, as well as being economically in your benefit.”
Right. So out of deference to a colleague, I’ve backburnered this because I didn’t want to interfere with his ability to attend and speak at this year’s Games for Change Festival. That said, if you’re reading this, then I’ve already watched him give his speech and now all bets are off.
This is the story of some serious mistreatment from the organizers of the Games for Change festival. For a number of reasons I won’t name names about what has gone down, but I feel like this story needs telling… after the break. Continue reading →
Bioware. You people, let us chat. Long time listener, first time caller. Love your work, have even devoted some of my professional research time to one of your creations (Dragon Age 2). Enjoy the Mass Effect series a whole bunch. Am even a SW:TOR subscriber. So I’ve established my credentials as a fan of yours, right? I’m not against you. I respect you. And that is why I have to ask you:
Oh, my friends. It’s been some time since I had a moment or two to craft a blog post for you, but today I really, really just saw something that made me get on here and share my thoughts with you.
So Gamestop had a sale a few weeks back where a number of PS3 titles I’ve been thinking of picking up — Disgaea 3 and Valkyria Chronicles — were down to $20, so I went and grabbed them. Having basically plucked the ripe fruit of Final Fantasy XIII and devoured it in what I would call record time, I was in need of something for occasional diversion. One of my students in Digital Games and Representation played Valkyria Chronicles last quarter and after reading his paper (and, uh, getting massively spoiled on the game) I decided to pick it up. However, Disgaea 3 charmed its way into my PS3 first, so I didn’t really get a chance to play around in VC until today.
Oh boy. Where to start.
Now, I am not very far in the game, so this is relatively spoiler free. So far, the premise seems very prototypical Japanese game/anime about war: unlikely pacifist is thrown into role of military commander and his/her focus on non-military, peace-related things ends up being the key to winning the combat, so that peace can return and we can all realize that war is bad. If you’ve ever seen a Gundam series, for example, you realize I just described the plot of at least half of them to you right there.
The player’s in-game surrogate is Welkin Gunther, said not-quite-but-close-enough pacifist. After his hometown is basically destroyed by The Empire (not kidding) and he pulls a tank out of his ass to escape (also not kidding) he becomes the leader of Militia Squad 7, via said tank, the Edelweiss (still not kidding). One of the first things you do as commander is pick from a semi-random, pre-generated list of militia “recruits” to form your squad. These recruits have first and last names, distinct looks and personalities, and belong to a class of soldier. When I got around to the Lancers — rocket-wielding anti-tank infantry — I was presented with this (naughty language in video):
Yeah. I mean… yeah. Let’s just be fair: the guy playing sounds like a jerk, and yes that is John DiMaggio doing the Gay Bender voice. But yeah. That’s Jann Walker, Anti-tank rocket-wielding infantry. He’s got a crew cut, a lisp, and an RPG and he isn’t going to take your shit.
This random quirk seems to come from Valkyria Chronicles‘ core game mechanic of “Potentials,” where each solider has a list of personality traits that can affect their combat stats. Jann, for example, has the Fancies Men potential: he wants guys to notice him, so his stats improve (not kidding) when he’s around other male units. He also has the Largo Lover (or something similar) potential that increases his stats around storyline character Largo, another Lancer who looks like this:
Would your stats increase next to this guy? Mine might. A little. (Image courtesy gaygamer.net)
Right. And lesbians, don’t think you’re left out. Dallas Wyatt is a female character who has the Fancies Women potential (see above, then invert the genders) and Alicia Lover (Alicia being a female storyline character). However, she also (for some reason) has the potential Man Hater, which lowers her stats when she’s around men. To really throw a capstone onto it, she’s an Engineer: a class that fixes tanks in the field. With power tools. Again, the guy playing the game in this video? Super winner (and more naughty language in video):
I just… yeah. His reactions to this stuff are priceless. I mean, not to make the blog post more about him than the characters, but really… just awesome stuff.
So to recap, Militia Squad 7 has two possible gay members. A gay man with a phallic rocket launcher, a drag queen’s worth of verbal sass, and a crush on a bear… and a power tool-wielding lesbian from an all-girl’s school who just hates guys. I haven’t encountered him, but apparently there’s a bisexual character named Ted who’s a comedian and showoff. And… a masochist who gets off on pain, and a sniper who just hates people, period. Right.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. These are stereotypes. They are also stereotypes with a distinctly Japanese flavor toward homosexuality, where the butch takes a backseat to the femme raised in an all-girl environment whose lesbianism just comes from her lack of exposure to men, and gay men are not super-feminized, but rather are too masculine: they obsess over muscles, manliness, and brotherhood. If you’ve ever heard of the Cho Aniki games — one of which is available in the US via, of all things, Wiiware — then you’ve experienced that Japanese gay stereotype in an oblique way:
Not gay at all. (Image courtesy Wired)
However, what I find less interesting than the stereotypes are two things: the game’s treatment of them mechanically, and the reactions I’ve read through some quick googling.
Now, I don’t see much mention of Dallas as an Engineer; I get the impression that because they’re so specialized and not focused on attacking, that Engineers don’t tier very well. Jann, on the other hand, is a Lancer and specializes in blowing things up.
In fact, Jann is apparently super good at blowing things up:
I can’t tell if that guy’s the same guy from the previous two videos, but if it is: heh. All I can say is “heh.”
From all accounts I’ve read, Jann is one of the best Lancers in the entire game, second only to Largo and, depending on who you ask, Audrey. Who is a good reminder of this: the stock of Lancers available to me on my playthrough included typical butch guys, Jann, and a somewhat elderly-looking woman named Yoko who promised she would do her best.
What gets me about these audience responses is that they’re so diverse. You’ve got a smattering of the standard idiots who not only can’t use Jann because he’s gay, but blatantly say that even thought they know he’s mechanically excellent they can’t use Jann because he’s gay. But interestingly, you also have people who use him because of his stats despite his sexuality (or their distaste for it), people who thought he was funny/amusing and then were surprised by how good a Lancer he was, and people who embrace both halves, loving both his character and his stats.
This is why I’m so divided about Jann. The stereotype, of course, frustrates the [eff!] out of me. I really wish it didn’t need to be that way. But on the other hand, the game takes that personality thing and turns it into a benefit. It turns out that being gay and loving big bearish Largo helps Jann to be amazingly good at his job. The other members of Squad 7 don’t rag on them, don’t abuse them… they accept it, they embrace it. Largo might not reciprocate those feelings romantically, but his dialogue in combat with Jann proves that the two are at least friends (the same with Dallas and her crush Alicia). That’s an amazing thing.
I am sort of sad that Dallas’ in-game role of support makes this less tenable for her; she doesn’t have moments of awesome where she obliterates a tank in one shot, for example. I also feel like her Man Hater Potential is a serious smack in the face. Gay men are okay with women, but lesbians have to hate men? Evokes images of the man-hating lesbian that are outdated, silly, and pointless… which the game then mechanically enforces by penalizing you for not keeping her around women only.
However, is it possible that despite his lisp, his drag queen vocabulary, and his totally over the top muscle obsession (thank you Japan), that Jann Walker in some small way is helping straight gamers to adjust to being around gays?
I don’t really know one way or the other. I think it’s a very complex issue, but it is one worth exploring.
So a while back I was invited by Mia Consalvo to take part in a podcast by the GAMBIT Lab at MIT with herself, Clara Fernández-Vara, and Matthew Weise. They were talking about a game that was, at the time, newly released and hotly controversial: Bayonetta. If you don’t know anything about the game, let me give you the five-second summary: she’s a busty, unrealistically curvy, glasses-wearing witch who fights with guns and kung-fu and British-accented sarcastic sass against a horde of monsters that look like angels while making heavily sexually suggestive comments and, in some cases, sucking on a lollipop.
Like I said.
If you read the previous post in this blog — the inaugural post in this blog no less — I know what you’re probably thinking: “he dove right into how terrible those ads were to women so he’s really going to let them have it for this nonsense!”
Well that’s where it gets complicated.
Part of the reason Mia invited me to take part in that podcast, I’m sure, is that my playing and enjoyment of Bayonetta were a conversational time bomb that we played hot potato with for weeks. Ever since I played the demo — a demo I loved so much I not only got it on the 360, but also on the PS3 just to experience the slightly different content in each — I was waiting with massive anticipation for a game that struck me as amazingly fun. Mia, on the other hand, played the demo and wanted to (my words not hers) cave in the creators’ skulls with a wrecking ball.
In fact, once the game actually game out in early January I frequently found myself… well, on the defensive for not only playing but thoroughly enjoying the game. Some of it was external, like my bouts of near-childlike guilt for the feeling of having disappointed Mia, my advisor and mentor, who I kept envisioning as a floating cartoon head looking at me with stern disgust every time I turned on the 360. Some of it, though, was internal. Whenever something truly stupid happened, I could hear the voice in my head, the critical cultural voice I’ve cultivated, telling me that what I was playing was awful and I was awful for enjoying it and the whole damn situation was just awful awful awful.
Then the loading screen would be over and I’d resume blowing up angels.
This is a dilemma I’ve faced before while teaching classes in media representation and I think it’s a perfectly valid thing to think about. On the one hand we all want to be both sensitive and properly active about the things we find seriously bad in the media. I, for example, blacklisted seeing Avatar because it struck me as so over the top that I tended to refer to both it and The Blind Side as “white man’s burden: the movie series.” It pissed me off so bad there was just no way I was going to see that movie. Yet I played Bayonetta and, people, let me just tell you: representation wise you’d be hard-pressed to find a more awful game than Bayonetta, which I’ll get to in a second. I played Super Robot Wars Original Generation Saga: Endless Frontier (what a name) which, since I doubt most people have heard of it, can be described in two words: BOOBS AKIMBO. However, I also loved that game (which we’ll also get to in a second). I know these things are terrible. But I love them and enjoy them and only feel a little bit sorry for that. Think how your typical university class which is generally full of middle to upper class Caucasian students of relative privilege must feel. Not only do they have to “feel bad” simply for being who they are, but they have to “feel bad” for liking what they like? That they might instead flip the middle finger to the world and resist awakening to identifying their privilege does not surprise me at all. That is a huge challenge in teaching diversity awareness that I, as a teacher, am constantly struggling with.
Anyhow, back to Bayonetta.
One of the more famous commentaries on Bayonetta’s sexuality as a character came from Leigh Alexander’s article for GamePro in which she argues that rather than being exploitative, Bayonetta’s unabashed use of her sexuality, her combat prowess, and her other attributes instead provide a female hero she can enjoy and which might make male players a little uncomfortable with how unapologetic she is. Frankly, I don’t think she could be more wrong; the article reads like apologia rather than argument, where as a woman who liked Bayonetta she had to invent a reason that the game wasn’t awful on the subject of representation of women, and latched on to the “strong female character not afraid of her sexuality” angle.
Others have taken Leigh to task for her article and in considerably more nuanced and in-depth ways, so I’d like to link to them: both Tiffany Chow and William Huber craft excellent arguments about just who Bayonetta’s sexy design is for, and the answer in both cases is: straight men. In fact, in my Digital Games and Representation class when we discussed this, there was a near-consensus that Hideki Kamiya may have created Bayonetta solely for his own masturbatory desires, which… we had a good laugh, a short but serious talk about the intentionalist fallacy, and then we moved on. The fact that in the developer blog he refers to a moment when one of the “booth girls” at the Tokyo Game Show 2009 asked him for his autograph, it got the “cherry boy” (Japanese slang for a young male virgin) in him “exicted” isn’t helping his case there, though. Anyhow: I absolutely agree with Chow and Huber. Bayonetta assumes a straight male audience, and Bayonetta’s appearance is designed to appeal to them, and attract them, not “make them uncomfortable” unless you’re referring to jeans which, suddenly, seem tighter than they were a few minutes ago.
Not subtle at all.
That said, I don’t think Bayonetta as a female character is all bad, but the ways in which her power as a character and her resistance to patriarchial norms aren’t apparent just from her appearance, or from a short play of the game. They come mostly from her relationship with rival witch Jeanne, a little girl named Cereza, and the game’s primary antagonist, a man named Father Balder. Here’s where the spoilers kick in, so allow me to produce a ‘more’ cut for you.