Tagged: Changing Representations

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:

Bingo!

Bingo!

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.”

So as you may know, I have an interest in competitive video games and their player cultures. Today Travis George of Riot Games gave a postmortem of the new Dominion play mode they added to League of Legends in 2011. I thought he gave a really great presentation, but the takeaway for me was what he ended up saying about Riot’s goals, ideals, and way of doing things. One of his slides — which, when I got up to ask a question later, I called the “Global domination slide” — was a silhouette of a world map with Riot’s creed in big bold letters: “We want to be the most player-focused company in the world.

League of Legends Dominion gameplay

League of Legends Dominion gameplay (Image courtesy IGN)

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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 Chroniclescore 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:

 

Largo from Valkyria Chronicles

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:

 

Gay laserbeams from bodybuilders' heads. Yeah.

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.

Her best blowing up tanks, guys.

Now, comparatively, look at two things. Check the comments on any of the Jann videos I linked above, via their actual YouTube pages. Then check out this thread on Gamestop’s forums for the game, as well as this thread from the Gamefaqs forums, and finally the discussion on this rpg.net thread.

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.