The birds and the bees they hum along… Should @FemFreq mention female-positive games for ‘balance’? (Answer: No).

Feminist Frequency was the subject of a disappointing Kickstarter drama last year.  Wanting to produce a series of analytical videos about gender issues in video games, Anita Sarkeesian began a Kickstarter campaign to bankroll it.  Of course, a large fraction of the gaming community can’t handle the thought of women expressing views about gender, so the Kickstarter drama was more about the influx of trolls rather than the subject of women in gaming.

Fortunately, the drama might draw attention to her videos which (despite some tiny quibbles about presentation) are first class.  Here’s the first episode:

The reaction from the gaming community was predictable.  ‘Silly girl with your HARDCORE feminist friends, you have completely ignored all the examples of positive role models for girls in video games!’  Indeed, so common was the response that a friend of mine (an avid gamer) even threw down this magic card, using the word ‘balance’ to justify the position.

The view seems to be that the only way to tell if women are objectified by video games is to list all the games which objectify women and all the games which don’t — if the Good List is longer than the Bad List, then there’s no problem in the gaming community.

This is a rubbish view for two reasons.

The first is obvious: we shouldn’t be ‘balancing’ the two lists to determine the extent of the problem.  The problem is that the ‘Bad List’ exists at all.  As a straight white guy, I can’t think of a single game where my character analogue is anything less than a triumphant hero.  If we’re balancing the lists for single white guys, the Bad List is practically non-existent.  Yet when we discuss women in video games, we can’t criticise the Bad List without doffing our caps to the Good List?

The second is less obvious and something to which Sarkeesian alludes but doesn’t hit squarely on the head: guys are really bad at spotting gender issues.  The idea of comparing two lists of female representation assumes that we can objectively identify which representations go on which list.  Thus, one internet blowhard (who even went on to argue that Sarkeesian was censoring guys’ responses by disallowing comments to her posts…) listed Ms Pac-Man, Super Princess Peach, and Borderlands as examples of games Sarkeesian should have mentioned if only she’d done more research and wasn’t such a HARDCORE feminazi.

Ms Pac-Man, as we are all aware, is a complicated and multi-layered story about a young woman who eats giant dots and bits of fruit.  Women identify with Ms Pac-Man because, like them, they wear a red bow in their hair, have beauty spots, and wear red lipstick.  Here she is standing up against the objectification and sexualisation of women on the original arcade machine:

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Snark aside, ‘female Pac-Man’ in the gaming community meant ‘sexy Pac-Man’.  Further, the ‘Ms’ element is what we call in Aristotelean terms an ‘accidental attribute’ rather than an ‘essential attribute’.  This essential vs accidental issue is a complicated problem at the heart of representation issues in culture.  We see straight white guys as the norm, with each step away from that norm being a quirky twist.  Captain Smith is a hard-edged, no-nonsense leader of a group of space pirates… oh, and she’s a woman!  That’s what makes this series different to the others!  Woman!  President Jones is a kindly, gentle leader of the Free World… oh, and she’s a woman!  How will she cope with all of her women’s periods?

In the case of Ms Pac-Man, this was literally the case.  They needed a character who was different enough from Pac-Man to avoid a lawsuit but similar enough to be part of the franchise: thus, Pac-Man got some lipstick and high heels.

This might be dismissed as a trivial issue, but it has ‘real world’ implications (beyond telling the non-male gaming community that their identity is a quirky deviation from male greatness).  There are court cases where people have tried to argue that the judge was biased because they were not a white male.  White males are default neutral, anything else looks like bias.  Does popular culture have a responsibility to change attitudes?  Yes.

Super Princess Peach follows a similar argument but, this time, we’re talking about the story rather than the character.  Here, Princess Peach is the protagonist and must save Mario.  What reveals the gender issue lurking beneath the surface is that this is treated as a novelty.  ‘Hey, guys.  I’ve got this crazy idea for a new game!’ said one of the game developers, no doubt.  ‘What if it were Princess Peach doing the rescuing instead of Mario?!  Wouldn’t that be hilarious?!’

Super Princess Peach doesn’t mitigate the problem of gender in video games; it exists because of it.  If gender issues didn’t exist in gaming, nobody would have thought to make this game where the object of the series transgresses against conventions to become the subject of a game.

Finally, Borderlands.  My brother plays this game.  Here’s a woman from it.

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Time to call it a day, Feminists.  Borderlands has clearly demonstrated that women are represented accurately and in a non-sexualised manner in video games.  If those breasts don’t scream ‘progressive’, well…

Let’s go for another recent example of this (and one that I’ve already written about).  In Batman: Arkham City, Batman is aided by a paraplegic woman who communicates through radio, by a woman who breaks social conventions to become a sort of villainous hero, and by a woman with complicated links to one of the key antagonists of the game.  One of Batman’s adversaries is a fanatical woman who acts out of a perverse love for the Joker.

Although Batman allows guys like me to play out their power fantasies of being Batman (plus, Batman is the world’s greatest conservative hero, so I’m totally on board with playing as him), he’s put into a world where there are lots of opportunities for female characters to be on a near-equal ground with our hero.

Instead, the script — written by Paul Dini — turns Batman into more than a bit of a pig.  When receiving advice from Oracle, Batman acts like a jerk and rather unkindly reminds her which of the two is the Batman.  Catwoman, on the other hand, does little but make vaguely raunchy remarks.  Talia al Ghul, a woman who is presented to the viewer as a person Batman turns to for advice and guidance, is also presented to the viewer as a sexualised object.  The game takes on an aggressively hostile attitude towards women, with inmates (who, admittedly, are bad guys) frequently commenting on how various female characters are sexually desirable or bitches.

Nowhere was this attitude towards women more notable than in the transformation of Harley Quinn between Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City.

Here she is in Ayslum:

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Sure, she’s probably not going to win The Germaine Greer Award for Feminism, but it’s still a garden mile ‘better’ than her appearance in City:

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The new Harley had even fewer clothed on than before.  This, by the way, was the original appearance of Harley Quinn in the cartoons:

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That’s from the original Batman: The Animated Series.  The more recent Batman had her looking like this:

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Unless you count the face paint, neither version reveals any flesh at all.  Yet in order to be acceptable to the gaming community (and, fair’s fair, the comics community) she had to bare skin.

What we see is game designers pandering to what they think the market wants: scantily clad women.  In the case of Harley Quinn, Catwoman, Talia al Ghul, &c., I still recognise powerful women, but I’m encouraged to look at the characters as objects of titillation first.  This is the problem we face when we ask guys to identify the good female role models for women: we have normalised the sexual component — fictional women are of course created for our visceral pleasure — so we can say with a straight face that these women are powerful, liberated role-models for women.

This, by the way, is but one of many reasons why I don’t think men can be feminists.  Admittedly, as a straight, white, conservative male, I’m not sure why anybody would care about my definition of ‘feminist’.

So let’s wind this back up to the start.  When we hear the complaint that Sarkeesian doesn’t acknowledge all the great female role models in video games, what we are actually hearing is the complaint that Sarkeesian isn’t viewing video games as a guy.  When she is confronted by images of women being objectified, we claim that her reaction is misplaced and that she should instead think of all the women guys claim aren’t objectified (like Ms Pac-Man).  What we are also hearing is that people like Sarkeesian have no right criticising males unless she acknowledges all the good things that guys do, like create novelty games for women such as Super Princess Peach.  In short, if Sarkeesian doesn’t play by our rules when she discusses video games (the rules which make guys feel better about themselves), then we simply aren’t going to enter into a discussion about her point.

The balance argument is particularly noxious when we consider Sarkeesian as something of a pathologist.  Here she is diagnosing a problem at the heart of gaming, yet her critics argue that she’s ignoring a perfectly healthy appendix.  Her patient (the gaming community) says, ‘I refuse to accept your diagnosis of my diseased heart, Dr Sarkeesian, unless you praise me for what a healthy appendix I have.’

I, for one, am looking forward to further episodes of her webseries.  I just wish she’d stop using French phrases followed by their literal English translation.  Seriously, it’s my one quibble.  If you need to translate the phrase immediately, then you don’t need to use the phrase.

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No-one’s gonna bend nor break me… Review of #Batman #ArkhamCity

‘Damnit, Batman.  You’ve been kidnapped by a mystery figure with a mystery agenda which will climax in ten hours and you’ve been poisoned and don’t have long to live.  You need to hurry to find out what the mystery agenda is and to stop it and to find a cure for your disease…. Or you could play minigames.  Lots of minigames.’

Batman: Arkham Asylum was a magnificent game.  It balanced an action adventure game with a solid story.  Seemingly random events were weaved together into a rich tapestry, coherent and engaging.  The story made sense, with each part following logically from the part before it.  The writing was superb, beautifully acted.  Even though you could go hunt down little trophies and solve riddles, you knew where you were in the story and what you were supposed to be doing.

In fact, the game was so good that I wondered if I was misremembering how good it was.  Was I forgetting the awful camera?  Were the battles more repetitive than I recalled?  Had I glossed over my confusion about why Batman wouldn’t come more prepared with more than a Batarang or two at the start of the game?

Nope.  I played it again and it was as rich and enjoyable as I remembered.

So what the hell went wrong with Arkham City?

Arkham City is an incoherent mess of a game.  The ‘quickly! hurry up! rush! don’t delay!’ aspects of the game are so inconsistent with the sandpit environment that it is difficult to follow the story.  I suspect it’s for that reason that you’re treated to a series of panels explaining the game so far each time you load the disc.  Even then, the story is confusing.  There appear to be two plots in the main story, with throwaway lines to explain inconsistencies.  For example, the story says that the characters you encounter in Arkham City are all inmates.  So why do so many of the mooks have advanced weaponry?  To explain this away, one character, A, phones you up to explain that another character, B, has given them weapons.  Unfortunately, this explanation is entirely inconsistent with the plot relating to B, causing even more confusion.

Cameos are shoehorned into the game, resulting in random battles with no clear purpose.  One character asks for your help; Batman declines so the two characters fight.  When the fight is over, Batman promises to help the character anyway.

The game mechanics, on the other hand, are an addictive pleasure.  Despite disliking the game, I’ve spent ages flying around, punching mooks and solving riddles.  I’m glad I’m an insomniac; it would be easy to lose days to punching inmates.

Which, it must be said, bothers me a little bit.  The game indicates that Arkham City was a place to lock away criminals and psychiatric patients.  You don’t know which is which but you creep up behind them and punch them anyway.  I had this mental image of one of the mooks spending time with their therapist, noting that they’re really seeing some progress, only to be punched unprovoked in the back of the head by Batman the next week.

‘Why am I punching you?  Because you’ve been programmed to punch me.  We are both victims, but I will break your face.’

Meanwhile, just about every character is an expat of the Uncanny Valley.  Several of the characters note that they can tell how ill Batman is from a cursory look at his face.  I, on the other hand, had difficulty distinguishing his facial flaws — the mumpish, plasticy, weirdly-moving flesh — from that of everybody else in the game.  It made me wonder if I misheard an earlier exchange and everybody in Arkham City had been infected with the disease.  Did the disease make you look mostly undead?   Did it make your eyes bulge?  Did it make your lips curl back into your mouth?  If so, everybody’s showing symptoms…

But my biggest beef with the game is the treatment of women.  Every year or so, the comics industry tries to clean itself up and declare it a safe space for women.  It hires more women writers and women artists.  It writes women-friendly plots and treats the female characters like they’re worthwhile.

Then that all goes to pot because powerful females as soft-core porn is just too tempting and (apparently) sells a few extra copies (for further reference, check out the criticism of the rebooted Starfire by the seven-year old daughter of a fantasy author).

The gender politics in the game are painful.  Excruciatingly so.  It’s to the point that it is difficult for any person interested in the subject to enjoy the game.

It all starts with Catwoman’s dialogue.  There she is, captured by a villain, tied up, forced to endure his monologue.  How would an intelligent, crafty, independent woman respond to this situation?  If you replied, ‘With half-wit puns!’, help yourself to a biscuit.  Catwoman escapes (whoops, spoilers) only to have a lot of dialogue reference what a bitch she is

At first, I thought that it was just a problem with Catwoman.  It’s not long into the game that you realise that something is really wrong with the concept of women in the game.

Batman’s handy navigator is Barbara Gordon (a.k.a. ‘Oracle’), daughter of Jim Gordon.  Their interactions are mostly limited to Batman ‘mansplaining’ absolutely everything to Oracle.  When Oracle realises something and tries to give him advice, Batman responds: ‘This isn’t my first day on the job.’  Three-quarters of Oracle’s job is explaining the Batcomputer’s screen (reminding me more than a bit of Sigourney Weaver’s character, Gwen, in Galaxy Quest:

Gwen DeMarco: Fred, you had a part people loved. I mean, my TV Guide interview was six paragraphs about my BOOBS and how they fit into my suit. No one bothered to ask me what I do on the show.
Fred Kwan: You were… the umm, wait a minute, I’ll think of it…
Gwen DeMarco: I repeated the computer, Fred.  )

And then there’s Harley Quinn.  Harley was a highlight of Arkham Asylum.  She had amusing lines, she made most of Joker’s scheme work, she was an irritating boss.

This time ’round, Harley has lost all of her redeeming features, reduced to her most vapid aspects.  Being mere mortal and liable to fall, when Harley first appeared on the screen, I thought she was kinda hot in an extremely skanky, wrong kind of way (I know, I know.  I have a weakness when it comes to villainesses).  I was quickly made to regret the existence of my Id when several of the mook characters make reference to how hot she is and how they would like to [insert single entendre here], hurr, hurr, if you know what I mean.  The feeling of ‘Awwww, Harley.  I’d like to catch Stockholmes from you’ quickly turned to ‘I am a bad person; the mooks have made me feel like a bad person’.

But the low point was yet to come.  Later in the game, you’ll come across Harley bound and gagged.  Press A to ungag her.  Press A to gag her again.  I searched Google for an entrance into a room off this one (which, it turns out, was completely sealed off) only to find the discussion threads of guys gloating about how much fun they had pressing A over and over again.

It’s ‘fan service’ like this that makes us bad people and makes it difficult to shake off the criticism that video games are designed to indulge the crass fantasies of male gamers.  Shoot Nazis and dominate women, guys.  Enter the Konami Code to open a beer bottle with your eye socket.  If the industry is going to be serious about being inclusive of women, it can’t just be a part-time commitment.

The end result is a worry that the writer, Paul Dini, has some serious problems when it comes to women.  Which is a shame; the guy has written some amazing stuff.  Why he resorted to such low hanging fruit, I have no idea.

Arkham City is not even remotely in the same league as Arkham Asylum, which was clever, intense, and witty.  Once you finish the ‘plot’ (and I use that word loosely) section of the game, it becomes a thousand times better.  Hanging out, swooping on psych patients, solving riddles, performing daring feats.  That part is fun and the game pulls it off perfectly.  Such a shame it’s bundled with the misnamed ‘story mode’.

Take my money, twist of paper… I’m still in shock

So it turns out that Batman: Arkham Asylum was exceedingly excellent.  I’ve finished the story mode (I’m finding it difficult to be interested in the ‘challenge’ mode) and enjoyed absolutely every moment of it.

I don’t play many plot-driven games, truth be told.  The plot is usually an excuse for huge amounts of fun (see: ‘Bowser stole the princess’, ‘Ganondorf stole the princess’, &c.).  The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was about as plot-heavy as I’d ever been (and even that story was only an excuse to go explore insanely awesome dungeons).  It was like playing your way through a movie.  Apart from a few awful moments (including The Riddler asserting that you must be cheating when you solve his puzzles, even though he left a map solving his puzzles right next to the entrance), this was a beautiful plot, with a variety of interesting characters and all the good things that people like.

Which makes it a shame to point out its faults.

I often got stuck because Batman can not jump.  And I don’t mean superhuman jumping ability.  I mean: ‘Why! There is a small amount of rubble on the floor.  I will have to walk around it.’

The other problem is linked to one of its biggest strengths.  Because it’s story-heavy, there are a huge number of cut scenes to progress the tale.  You open a door?  Cut scene.  You fall over?  Cut scene.  You die?  Cut scene.

Oh, and Batman also has a weird habit of getting on the radio to Oracle (thus cutting out all of your abilities save walking) when you’re leaping from on high.  That kind of got annoying.

The very worst thing has to do less with the game and more with the game’s awesomeness.  It’s massively time-draining and it encourages a very specific set of reasoning patterns for problem solving.  After playing hours of the same sorts of problem solving, you unleash yourself on a world filled with problems which do not match those reasoning patterns…  Thus, when I was stuck in a crowd of bogans at the local Westfield, I noticed a ledge to which Batman could have jumped…

You also can’t kick the bogans in the back of the head.

Must be love, love, love… and this game is absolutely beautiful

There’s a bit of a backstory to this.  Bear with me.

I am completely rubbish at making decisions.  I much prefer waiting until the last possible moment before settling my plans.

This year, I’ve decided that I need to be better at making decisions, even if this means making a couple of silly decisions along the way.  For Christmas, I bought my younger brother a copy of Batman: Arkham Asylum.  It was an absolutely stunning game.  It was so good that even Yahtzee gave it a good review.  After seeing the sibling play it and Yahtzee giving it a favourable review, I decided that this was a game I should play.

At the same time, I’d decided that I needed a new DVD player for my room.  For a few extra quid, I ended up with an XBox.  Look at me in my swanky decision-making pants.  Amn’t I Lord of Decisiveness?

Anyhoo, it was a good decision.  I’m having far too much fun playing it.

In other news, I check out the statistics of this blog every so often.  30 of you don’t seem to understand how RSS feeds work and, for that, my self esteem thanks you.

Apart from the vanity benefit, it’s showing me who is linking to my mostly incoherent ramblings.  This has resulted in more than a few flamewars with people who think the new internet filter is totally just like Nazi Germany all over again.

It’s also resulted in the discovery that I’m Googlable.  If you type “freak me sideway” (with quotation makrs) into Google, I appear a few after Shaun Micallef.  Hooray, hoorah.  My parents must be so proud.

Today’s discovery was that the phrase “you ask me to enter and then you make me crawl” (with quotation marks) lists me as the second hit.  In your face, Bono.  In your face.