Games Criticism · Games Journalism · Rants · Sexuality in gaming


Hi, Twitter. So I made this tweet earlier tonight, around dinner time-ish:

I’ve got thoughts about both of these topics, obviously, but I’ve been skirting writing about them for various reasons. Some of them more professional, some silly (FF14 has eaten up a lot of my life lately), and some personal (I am scared of engaging these topics). But I figured, I should at least say something. Isn’t this kind of my job? So I sat down tonight and prepared to write a quick thing about Soleil. This means opening up a browser and looking for some links.

This led me to Kotaku, and a story by Brian Ashcraft on the situation (I’m comfortable adding a CW for homophobia to this link), and now I can’t write about Soleil. I was already reluctant, and now I just never want to talk about the situation. But as I’ve taken Kotaku to task in the past for problematic framing of a queer games issue, I felt compelled to talk about what Ashcraft does in this story that presents a serious fault in the craft of journalism.

So, if you want to hear me talk about framing in news, strap in; if you’re more interested in my thoughts about Soleil and FE:Fates itself? Sorry, but I’m gonna pass.

Right so, a quick summary — Fire Emblem: Fates is going to include a (very limited, sort of upsetting, definitely far too late in the game compared to everyone else) implementation of gay marriage. I’m not thrilled about it, but I am a big FE fan and I will probably play it and be as gay as fucking possible because it’s okay to be both critical of not going far enough while enjoying the step they do take.

On the other hand, people playing the Japanese version have discovered some potentially troubling content with a character named Soleil. I’m sorry that I’m going to ask you to google it on your own (or suffer through Ashcraft’s article) because talking about this subject just upsets me, now. Basically there is a strong implication that your main character, in a romantic support with her, drugs Soleil without her consent and uses it to “make” (note quotes) her attracted, or more at ease, around women or something. I don’t know. The whole thing gives me a headache so I’m avoiding it.

Of course the issue is contentious and the fact that we’ve got as many translations and interpretations of what’s going on as we have bilingual Fire Emblem fans with access to the content isn’t helping, but when Brian Ashcraft — Kotaku’s resident “HAHA ISN’T JAPAN STRANGE” correspondent — wrote up the situation for Kotaku he made a number of missteps that are really kind of harmful.

I’m going to go through my objections point by point, but here’s the broad brush version: Ashcraft’s framing of the situation decidedly casts those who have issues with the content as overreacting, and frames the entire issue as largely irrelevant or illegitimate.

Framing, again, is not necessarily the literal content itself at the denotation level; it’s about how word choices, sources used, and other structural components of a story set the tone for the reader. It is a demonstrable media consumption phenomenon and I’ll be happy to rec you some scholarly work on the subject if you’re really interested. Framing isn’t mind control; the “magic bullet” where the media says [x] and you think [y] isn’t a thing. But it is extant, and it has an influence, and more to the point the less critical the reader is of the framed POV, the more effective it is. Framing often reinforces implict biases and cultural assumptions, making them invisible and “assumed,” and thus is all the more dangerous for its opacity.

So without further ado:

Problem 1: The headline

On the internet right now, Twitter in particular is a place people often go to in order to express themselves emotionally, sometimes unwisely, and because it is quick and accessible, sometimes in haste. As the saying goes: “act in haste, repent in leisure.” So yeah, we have a problem right now with reading the headline and reacting to it without reading the story.

However, this isn’t a reason to ignore headlines as a critical tool; the headline is the journalist’s hook, their net. It’s how they get you to read their story, how they tell you the gist of the story, how they argue that the story is important. Headlines are tremendously powerful, way more than we think. And the headline of Ashcraft’s story has problems.

Ashcraft headline for FE:Fates Soleil story
Ashcraft headline for FE:Fates Soleil story

Think about this wording and deployment. “Some people” — I know it seems tiny, but think of that word “some;” it’s not really necessary, is it? “Some” is there to separate from “all,” of course; it distinctly sets people who are calling the game homophobic off in their own little arena (which we’ll get to in a bit). “Why People Are Calling” says more or less the same thing unless you assume the headline is thereby implying literally everyone is doing it which… isn’t reasonable?

But the real problem is the scare quotes around ‘homophobic,’ and that’s really obnoxious. Scare quotes are a real thing and they are all too often deployed in print journalism to indicate doubt. The headline, right off the bat, is going to put someone who does find what Fates does to be homophobic on the defensive because it implies that there’s significant doubt about whether it is or not. Which is another thing we’ll come back to.

It’s clear from the story that Ashcraft thinks this entire affair is pointless and wrong-headed, but considering the nature of the issue, is that the tack you want take from word go?

Problem 2: “Yikes!”

So in the first paragraph, we get this:

Last month, Nintendo announced that gay marriage would be included in the strategy gameFire Emblem Fates, a first for a series that has long included straight romantic relationships. This month, many are calling the game “homophobic” and criticizing it for allegedly featuring “gay conversion therapy,” all based on a Tumblr translation of the game, which is currently only out in Japan. Yikes! Let’s take a look and try to figure out what’s actually going on. [Emphasis added]

Uhhhhhhhhhhh what. Try to think for a moment on the image that deployment of “Yikes!” conjures. To me, it is absolutely some white guy in a suit looking at, say, a woman co-worker who brought him a legitimate grievance and he mock-recoils and goes “WHOA THERE missy, ha ha ha! Let’s look at the ~*facts*~.” Tone-wise, it is really gross, because it dovetails with other, smaller expressions of dismissiveness in Ashcraft’s story. Let’s figure out “what’s actually going on” pretty much outright says “This isn’t really a thing” point blank. Again, we have the scare quotes around “homophobic,” as well. This is not good. And this is the first paragraph. The inverted pyramid is a thing, folks. Like the headline, the first paragraph is where the core of your story goes. It sets the tone, and I already don’t like where this is going.

Problem 3: Oh, Tumblr-chan

You’ll notice in the above paragraph that he uses the phrase “all based on a Tumblr translation.” A few paragraphs down, he throws this out:

Many of those charges are drawing from Tumblr, where the translations I’ve seen have lacked context and nuance. And some people have reacted based on those translations, which moves the controversy further from the facts at hand.

Why the looking-down-your-nose at Tumblr, guy? Why is Tumblr a less legitimate framework for information than, say… Twitter, which Kotaku uses as a source of news on the regular? The answer, of course, is that culturally Tumblr is deeply associated with things that “lack legitimacy”: fan culture, queer subcultures, youth culture. I’m as guilty as anyone of a little Tumblr-sneering, and I think that’s why I’m so sensitive to what’s going on here. There’s a serious undercurrent in this story of “Haha… TUMBLR, amirite, fellas?” while I get nudged in the ribs, bro-style.

What’s hilarious is that, later on in the story, he links to localizer Adam Evanko’s thoughts on the subject that generally agree with Ashcraft’s dismissal of the issue as serious… by linking to Evanko’s Tumblr. Heh.

Problem 4: This Is Like, The Wikipedia Image For Heteronormativity, Guy

Okay. So here’s the 101-level description of “heteronormativity:” it’s a framework where being heterosexual is the norm, and so it is assumed as the baseline from which all deviance is charted. This is how we get lines like this, midway through the story:

Soleil likes women and often gets weak in the knees around attractive ones. I don’t know if Soleil is a lesbian, as the game doesn’t explicitly say she is gay. Then again, we don’t get an explicit announcement for which characters are straight. [Emphasis added]

The fancy name for this (thanks, Alan McKee) is “exnomination:” a norm so pervasive and powerful that it no longer gets pointed to overtly; “exnomination” literally means “without a name” and that’s what heteronormativity pretty much is. “Straight” is a default so pervasive, so unspoken, that we barely even have a name for it. This is what Ashcraft does in this truly upsetting line.

One of the most common lines delivered by people arguing against queer inclusion in games is “why do you gotta bring sexuality into it?” That’s heteronormativity, being exnominative, right there. Sexuality is already baked into most games with a story of any kind; it’s just that the sexuality in question is “straight” so it doesn’t get talked about or mentioned.

It’s very frustrating, then, to see Ashcraft make this statement. It’s very much a “we don’t do it for straight characters so why do gay characters need it?” as if the contexts of those situations are equivalent when they very clearly are not.

Problem 5: LOL Japan

From about halfway through the story to just before the end, things are a little more even-handed; Ashcraft at least admits that even if he doesn’t agree with the homophobic interpretation of events, the elements of the scene clearly exist in contexts that suggest there could be capital-t Trouble here. It’s still couched in his sort of disbelieving tone where he kinda can’t understand how this is a thing but at least he accepts that it might be reasonable to think it.

However, at the end of the story, we get this paragraph:

This sort of deflection happens a lot with Nintendo content and I’m gonna go on record as being sick of it. There’s this implication that because attitudes towards queerness in Japan aren’t as permissive as they are in, say, the US — though I think that’s probably a gross and outdated oversimplification — that it’s okay for Nintendo to do stuff that’s not great and we should handwave it by saying “Well, things are different there.”

The US is a massive exporter of cultural products… perhaps the world’s largest, enough so that many nations — even our close allies and neighbors — have government policies and agencies built to limit our cultural products coming into their country. Cultural imperialism is a thing, it is absolutely a thing, and the US is terrible about it.

On the other hand, Nintendo is not a company making content solely for Japan anymore, if they ever really were in the digital games industry. They are global, now, with intense power and reach. And frankly, most of the countries where they extend that reach — the US, Canada, most of Europe — have pretty permissive and understanding cultures when it comes to queerness.

The implication of this paragraph is “Well I know it seems awful to AMERICANS but remember this is JAPAN” and I’m like: wow, really? So we should back off from aggressive critique of something, because Japan? No. If they’re gonna sell this in the US, it’s an issue, and frankly discussing it now, while the game is still being localized for its 2016 release, is the time to bring it up. Localization is the time when this stuff could change for US audiences, when Nintendo could be truly global in scope and recognize that the morality of their audiences abroad might not be the same, and might require a different approach. I say this because if the situation were reversed, there’d be every expectation that a US content creator would change their content for the global market. Why is Japan immune somehow?

Of course, the very first comment on Ashcraft’s piece kind of answers that:

Yeah. I don’t like the idea that we should just sweep the discussion under the rug “because Japan,” either. They don’t get a free pass.

<takes a deep breath>

So here’s my thing. It’s clear that Ashcraft doesn’t agree with the readings others have made that are concerned about homophobic implications of the Soleil romance plot. Given that he ends his story on this line…

Things we say and things we do can often be taken different ways, depending on the listener’s own life experience. This is exactly what happens when the real world meets the virtual one.

…I get a strong sense of irony. It’s clear that Ashcraft doesn’t have the life experience that would prime him to view what’s happening as potentially harmful or worth discussion, which is why the story undercuts the legitimacy of that viewpoint.

Like, disagreeing is one thing. I don’t even necessarily agree that the content is de facto homophobic because I don’t speak Japanese and there’s about a zillion different translations and interpretations, many of them conflicting. But I think looking at this and saying “Hey, this is a valid POV and we should consider it” is absolutely what should be done.

In this story, Ashcraft doesn’t just disagree; he dismisses, he sets aside. The idea that the Soleil scene might be problematic is never once given actual legitimacy in his story; instead he dismisses “Tumblr” en mass, deploys heteronormative logic, brackets “homophobia” in the Quotes of Dubiousness, and then gives most of his article time to explaining his interpretation of events, in which he — who is, I believe, a cis straight white guy — doesn’t see a real problem.

This story wasn’t presented as an editorial; it was handed to us as news. And that’s a problem. I don’t necessarily subscribe wholesale to the idea of “journalistic objectivity,” but if you’re presenting yourself as reporting then you have a duty to treat multiple angles as if they are legitimate and worthy of consideration. You especially do this when the “other side” of the argument you’re disagreeing with has a distinct cultural power differential. Dismissing an argument is one thing; dismissing the lived experiences of queer players because their interpretation differs from yours is another thing entirely, especially coming from a position of relatively higher institutional power.

Long story short, I’m still undecided on the Soleil situation because I don’t have all the facts. At the same time, though, I trust and believe the people that have a problem when they say it’s not coming out of nowhere, that it deserves my attention, that I should at least think it through. Ashcraft, in this instance, clearly does not.


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