Sunday, 24 June 2012

Misogyny in Video Gaming: Hitman Trailer, Tomb Raider, Anita Sarkeesian

So I thought I’d write about sexism in video games, after all, it’s about time a white man gave his perspective on the issue. It’s a topic that’s been coming up a lot recently and lots of other blogs and articles have already echoed my own thoughts, but I’d thought I go through the issue nonetheless.
At the end of May IO Interactive, released this trailer for the new Hitman Game. 

There’s already been articles written on the topic here that dissect the controversy, this one does a better job that I’m going to do 
But let’s just summarise what happens in this trailer: Agent 47 takes off his blood-soaked clothing, cleans his wounds, and then puts on his iconic suit and tie. Meanwhile a group of Assassin nuns , march towards Agent 47’s motel, strip-off their garb to reveal latex PVC/latex leather bondage style nun gear, continue towards the motel where Agent 47 is hiding, and shoot it with a rocket launcher. Then there’s a cut and Agent 47 appears behind them silently takes a couple of them down and a gory battle ensues in which he violently takes down these eight scantily-dressed, tattooed assassins.

I’m interested to know the thinking behind his plan exactly. These women have been tasked with assassinating Agent 47, so they disguise themselves as nuns, hire a school bus and then take a rocket launcher with them? Um Okay? Well uh… maybe dressing as nuns meant they’d be able to sneak through passport control without suspicion or something, I don’t know. I still don’t get why they had to strip down to latex gear before shooting the motel with a rocket launcher. Didn’t exactly seem combat practical, a little less unwieldy than nun’s robes I guess, but you’d think they could have something much more suitable on underneath. Maybe they all have 2nd jobs at a bondage club and they knew they wouldn’t have time to change after the assassination?

Well whatever flimsy excuse you could conjure together, the main visual images of the trailer is women stripping off into revealing gear and getting violently beaten and killed by agent 47. Yes this kind of violence isn’t really anything, and this kind of objectification of women isn’t really anything new either. Taken on their own they’re slightly dodgy, questionable things, but have become so ingrained that we’re used. The real problem comes from the combination of the two. Firstly there’s cheap shock value of juxtaposing the traditionally ‘pure’ repressed nuns with overt sexuality. Then they strip off and attack agent 47, and it’s now that we see him violently killing them all. I know their assassins and he’s defending himself, but there’s a subtext that they’re being punished for being slutty. It may not have literally been what the makers of the trailer intended, but this attitude is so prevalent; it’s hard to see it being taken any other way. This has been quite an on-going trope in media  this was something initially pointed out to me by a university lecturer that the “promiscuous” girl in a horror movie will be the first victim. This isn’t just about religious ideas, there’s an ingrained idea in society that it’s worse for a woman to be sexually promiscuous. Women should be virgins… men not so much. Although women shouldn’t be frigid bitches either of course.

I’m hardly the first to point this hypocrisy out of course, but I’ve started to think this needs to be pointed out a lot more and men should probably be more vocally against this as well, In part I’ve been inspired by Greg Proops’ Smartest Man in the World podcasts, and Jen Kirkman's Jen Kirkman’s blog on women in comedy 

But as I was saying, it’s the combining of sexualisation and violence; these two things together reveal some troubling attitudes. Evil femme fatale/ asskicking, scantily clad assassins aren’t that unusual, though they’ve always been a dubious premise for film and videogame characters, but even putting that aside, putting such overt objectification and graphic violence towards women is something else entirely.

That’s what commenters on the Keza MacDonald’s article seemed to miss and it’s the sheer defensive rage and idiotic point missing on display in these comments about representation of women in video games that’s troubling to me. It made me realize that this is a more pressing issue than I’d first thought.

So I became slightly alarmed by the language the Executive Producer of the new Tomb Raider game used when discussing the new game. The new character design for Lara was actually quite encouraging , she’d considerably less sex appeal, and the game was promoted as an ”origin story” a reboot for the franchise. It seemed like they were trying to make the character less defined by her assets. But as more was revealed, there appears to be something slightly sinister to the game, much of the focus seemed to be on how much physical punishment Lara takes. This is still potentially justifiable, action heroes will suffer before they triumph. But then Executive Produce Ron Rosenberg said this in an interview with  Kotaku

"When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character," Rosenberg told me at E3 last week when I asked if it was difficult to develop for a female protagonist.
"They're more like 'I want to protect her.' There's this sort of dynamic of 'I'm going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'"
So is she still the hero? I asked Rosenberg if we should expect to look at Lara a little bit differently than we have in the past.
"She's definitely the hero but— you're kind of like her helper," he said. "When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character."

Now this doesn’t quite seem right. The implication is there’s a distance between player and character. It’s very misguided in its language. What they’re doing seems to be trying to forge a stronger emotional connection to the character.  But phrasing it in this way suggests it’s about male characters wanting to protect the vulnerable helpless little lady, which is something Lara’s supposed to be perfectly capable of doing. To top this off he also said revealed

“In the new Tomb Raider, Lara Croft will suffer. Her best friend will be kidnapped. She'll get taken prisoner by island scavengers. And then, Rosenberg says, those scavengers will try to rape her.
She is literally turned into a cornered animal," Rosenberg said. "It's a huge step in her evolution: she's forced to either fight back or die."

Which does make it seem like the use of magic in the series is going too far.
But anyway the rape bit is what’s concerning. I’m fine with games addressing this as an issue, but the problem is from what we know of its use, it’s just a bullet point in the trials Lara will have to endure. It’s not going to be a serious analysis on the psychological effects of rape, and it’s a lazy device to provoke emotion. There’s not really much more nuance to “bad evil rapey man” and “pretty, vulnerable young woman” scenarios.

To be fair, this sounds more like a case of bad PR that doesn’t quite explain things in a satisfying way, the offhand way it’s mentioned doesn’t even seem like he’s courting controversy to me. It just sounds more like men, not really thinking about how women might really feel in this situation. But some of the intentions in the game do seem good, just ill thought out and misguided.

*edit* Since writing this it's turned out the game is being written by Rhianna Pratchett who wrote Mirrors Edge. She talks about the story and the scene here 

So the other reason this topic has been in the news is because of a Kickstarter Project. A woman named Anita Sarkeesian started a project to:

“Explore, analyse and deconstruct some of the most common tropes and stereotypes of female characters in games.  The series will highlight the larger recurring patterns and conventions used within the gaming industry rather than just focusing on the worst offenders. “

As you can imagine this made YouTube commentators mad. The mere idea that someone would even want to research the possibility sent these people into a blind rage, this wasn’t even someone decrying games as being massively sexist, and this was a gamer wanting to put together a research project on the idea. It’s hardly even worth pointing out that there are nasty comments being made on the internet, but this rage was so misdirected it almost reached the level of surrealist art. You can see why young men on the internet could feel defensive over the accusation that a hobby of theirs is wrong and misogynistic. And indeed perhaps the reason they might not like seeing a woman tell them what they should and shouldn’t be doing reminds them of their mother telling them what to do, and that puts them into a childish, petulant rage. It’s hardly surprising games have been so marginalized when there’s appears to be its core audience.

The irony is of course that the abuse was so out of hand, the twitterverse and wider circles of the internet caught hold of the story and the abuse, and it helped the campaign immeasurably, meaning the project raised far more money than its initial target.

But these stories do reveal a very real problem of attitudes women, not just in video games, but in wider society. Some of these online abusers may just be young boys that will grow out of it, but it’s quite likely if we saw the general age, a lot of them would be grown men too. So to other men out, I think we need to make of a fuss about this as well. Terrible representation of women in games is insulting to us as well. If we want nuanced female characters we have to demand these things as well. If developers realize their market isn’t just misogynistic young men then they’ll realize there’s much wider market that they can appeal to and profit from. But that change isn’t going come from tolerating the kind of crap we’ve been getting.

*UPDATE* I was just reading this article on the topic  and found this quote too good not to update

Blystad is a nice, well-meaning man that simply doesn't understand why anyone is mad about the trailer for his game. This is actually a very large part of the problem.

Blystad isn't sure why this trailer in particular upset people, when he feels this is the way the series has always presented itself. When I asked him why these ladies were in dominatrix gear, and why they had to remove their nun costumes before coming to kill Agent 47, he said the ladies are "dressing as something less conspicuous, getting up to their mark, and revealing their true colors."

He does not realize that giving these women dominatrix outfits as their "true colors" is the problem.

Well there you go then, I think that sums up the problems perfectly.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

E3 2012

The e3 conference 2012 passed in fairly unremarkable fashion this year. There was a slight lingering tension that it might be the year for Microsoft or Sony to unveil their new consoles, but it wasn’t to be. As a gamer, I’m happier with that decision. There was a bit of a cold war scenario going on between Sony and Microsoft where if one revealed their new technology, the other would be under pressure to prove they could match this. But I don’t want either to rush into releasing a new console yet. Last time this resulted in some faulty consoles and some technical decisions were made that might not have been for the best.

Nintendo meanwhile had more of the upcoming Wii U to show off, but it somehow lacked any real excitement, it didn’t really feel like the next generation, it felt like it was catching up with the technical abilities of the PS3 and Xbox360. This didn’t matter with the release of the Wii because its focus was completely different. It has a unique interface and it was bringing gaming to a whole new market that wouldn’t normally play games. At the same time, it was doing something fresh and new in a way that interested hard-core gamers. It’s hard to see this having the same success as the Wii. The console seems to merge the functions of the Wii and the DS. One of its major selling points seems to be its portability and the fact that the console can be played on a tablet. While that may be convenient for some, sharing a television isn’t an issue for me. A big television is still a preferable way to play console games than a tablet. But of course I’m not everyone and others may see this as a good thing.
While there were plenty of exciting releases shown to be coming, the conferences did suggest perhaps the end of this generation has been approaching, particularly with quite a big focus on family games and gimmicky interfaces.

Microsoft went out first; they had probably the least successful conference. Their focus seemed to largely be on gimmicks rather than games. The main game attraction was the new Halo which seemed to have taken a lot of inspiration from Metroid. But the main push of their new show was the new smart glass concept was. It’s hard to see it having much affect at this time, and how much affect can it really have on a console so late in its life. If anything it seemed like what we were seeing could have been a test, an experiment that could be later expounded upon on Xbox’s next incarnation. The rest of the presentation was fairly gimmicky, an NFL commentator was brought out to promote the new Madden, and a voice interface seemed to show that FIFA would allow you to get booked by the referee for swearing at him. How this could be seen as anything other than a gimmick that’s amusing for 2 minutes I’m not sure. They finished the show by bringing out Usher to perform a song for some bored journalists.

Sony faired a lot better. Jack Tretton comes across as rather humble and likeable for the CEO of a huge company. (Well, the American branch of it anyway) The highlight of the show was probably Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, which made physical violence look like it actually should be, horrible and painful. The idea that having to kill to survive actually felt like the dark and harrowing prospect it should be, albeit in a way that looked fun and exciting. I’m suspicious if it’ll manage to sustain this throughout the game though. The dynamic between the two characters was a better example of “interactive storytelling” than David Cage’s efforts. As much as I’m glad there’s someone that aspire to the things Cage does, his latest effort, Beyond which was the other highlight of Sony’s conference. It doesn't really look like he’s moved on from the writing ability he displayed in Heavy Rain. It’s too early to tell, and I may be interested to ‘play’ it when it comes out, but I remain sceptical. Still the presence of Ellen Page in the game may mean the acting will be better than his previous games. The other large feature in their show was Wonderbook:  Book of Spells (you know, for kids!) something that seems to be trying to find a use for eye toy. It could well be very good and fun for children, but again, it’s too hard to predict at this stage.

The Nintendo conference promised to be more focused on games, but didn’t quite deliver on that. My twitter feed went wild at the reveal of the new Pikmin, which must be another video gaming icon that passed me by somehow. I’ll have to go on faith that this was a good thing. But the bulk of it was dedicated to promoting the new Wii U and a bizarre amount of time was spent on showing a new version of Batman: Arkham City. It just seemed like a very weak way to appeal to hard-core gamers, as well as showing off the new interface design, anyone who would care, has already played it. I’ve already talked about my scepticism at the Wii U, so I won’t repeat myself. They showed some things that would appeal to their fan base, but I don’t think they did much to reach outside their own demographic.

It’s been said by many, but the real winners of the show were Ubisoft. Assassins Creed 3 and Watch Dogs the real highlights of the show.

In many ways the live streams has affected the way the e3 conferences are viewed and presented, the conferences now have to consider the large audience watching at home, but it’s not just intended for them and so too much is made of which company “ won” the conference. So the conferences aren’t quite satisfying for journalists, viewers or the company’s stock-holders. It’s become a weird meshing of different aims. So let’s try not to make too much of them.