Admonishing Absolution

•June 2, 2012 • 21 Comments

“…that really kind of angry defensive feeling you got in your gut while you read this post where you felt attacked? That was your privilege kicking. ” – Brendan Keogh

I laughed at this. Not an uproarious booming projected in mockery, but a wry, sour snort at its surprising accuracy. Angry? Defensive? Without even having seen the trailer in question, I began mentally taking notes on my points of disagreement, filing away responses to de-construct Brendan’s piece – line by line if necessary. Then I read the quote above, laughed, and my irritation dissipated. I read the post again, this time unencumbered by a knee-jerk emotional reaction, but something still nagged at me: why did I get annoyed and defensive?

Brendan says it’s “privilege”, and I certainly fit that description: I’m also a straight, white, male. My interest in a feminist view of gaming is relatively recent – since Freeplay last year, in fact – so I’m also happy to class myself as appropriately ignorant on the subject. That said, “privilege”, to my mind, explains neither the immediacy nor the vehemence of  my negative reaction upon beginning to read Brendan’s post, but I’m fairly certain now what does.

[Trigger warning]

“Rape Culture”. The phrase itself is extremely unsettling, and re-reading Shakesville’s explanation and definition of the term (I found it after Freeplay last year too), confirmed my suspicions. At this point I’m going to pause and take a deep breath before proceeding, because I am acutely aware that what I’m going to say next could seriously offend people; something I normally couldn’t care less about, but really want to avoid with this topic.

I feel it’s too nebulous a term for the severity of its implications. Specifically, I disagree with the claim that sexualised violence constitutes rape culture. I distinguish sexualised because despite the shared etymological heritage, it bears entirely different connotations to sexual. From Wikipedia, sexual violence is:

“any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.” – World Health Organization., World report on violence and health (Geneva: World Health Organization, 2002)

The act of sexualisation:

“…refers to the making of a person, group or thing to be seen as sexual in nature[1] or a person to become aware of sexuality.”

While violence is:

“the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.” – Krug et al., “World report on violence and health”, World Health Organization, 2002.

Summarised, the differences could be denoted as follows: sexual violence is violence relating to sexual acts, while sexualised violence is violence made “sexy”. This is where I have a problem. Sexual violence, without a doubt, fits under the umbrella of rape culture, but sexualised violence? Defining sexualised violence as rape culture serves only to discredit the severity of rape and sexual violence, and I don’t understand why anyone thinks this is okay.

Let me be absolutely clear: I am not denying the existence of rape culture. I am not denying its existence in games. Neither am I suggesting that sexualised violence is acceptable, in games or any other medium.

What I object to, is the implication that sexualised violence and sexual violence are similar enough that they can be classed together – as rape culture or any other phrase. To suggest that a video game trailer (repugnant as it may be), is somehow on par with the experience of being raped, is to belittle the horror every rape and sexual violence victim has experienced.

The definition of a rape culture from Transforming a Rape Culture referenced in the Shakesville piece is as follows:

“A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.”

Contrast this definition with the myriad examples provided (with appropriate links) by Melissa McEwan and I would hope that “violence seen as sexy” somehow doesn’t register on a scale that also includes children being accused of enjoying rape and sexual torture.

This is the Hitman: Absolution trailer in question:

It contains no sexual violence, promotion of sexual violence, or implication of sexual violence and yet we’re to understand that this is equivalent to a societal belief that wives and sex workers can’t be raped? The gratuitous sexualisation of  women is pathetic but nothing about Agent47 suggests sexual desire, or an act of sexual aggression and I simply have trouble swallowing this as rape culture.

Now that I’m sure my defensive reaction wasn’t just privilege, how do we resolve the problem? I think we need another word or phrase to refer to the prolific sexualised violence in our society – in video games, in movies, in television, and in advertising; something that doesn’t trivialise rape and its victims. I don’t know what word or phrase might be, but I feel as though I know what it isn’t.


Dead Island’s zombies don’t discriminate

•September 26, 2011 • 1 Comment

They don’t care if you’re a feminist, a misogynist, promiscuous, or a prude. They’re entirely ambivalent about whether you’re a bigot or a zealot, a charlatan or a good Samaritan. To them, creationists are interchangeable with evolutionists, and their interest in whether you believe climate scientists or are, instead, a moron, is non-existent. Zombies judge every person equally. As food.

Dead Island has a feature list to die for. Its mechanics speak lovingly of GTA, and Far Cry 2 (for those unaware of my adoration of FC2, it’s documented on Wikipedia), with a leveling system, skill trees, and drop-in/drop-out multiplayer capabilities we know so well from Left 4 Dead.

If you saw the haunting announcement trailer when it debuted, it’s possible the canny cinematography  planted visions of gaming’s equivalent of The Walking Dead in your mind.

It’s a lot of pedigree to live up to, and surprisingly the game does begin as a promising open world zombie slaughter-fest. After the intro which neatly introduces the playable characters to the tune of an infectious “horrorcore” rap song,  character selection is as simple as listening to the ridiculous back stories and selecting a character with a suitable weapons specialisation, and then the tropical island of Banoi is your undead oyster.

Banoi is big, but the constant undead presence means there’s little space to breathe. It’s impossible to walk 10 metres without being assault by lumbering infected, speedy infected, pretending-to-be-corpses-infected, or one of the various special infected.

Beating each to its second death yields experience, as well as cash and items that can be used to upgrade the plentiful weapons found strewn around the environment or given as reward for completing quests.

The combat itself is visceral, and the locational damage system allows one to cripple limbs or sever heads with satisfyingly equal ease at first, though the Oblivion-like leveling system can occasionally seem to scale opponents beyond the capability of your weapons. The skill tree likewise feels like it struggles to keep up, never really giving you the upper hand you desire.

What starts out as fun spirals into a chore, especially once it’s apprent NPCs in the various safe houses seem to deliver nothing but FedEx quests, which means trekking once again across zombie-infested grounds, every encounter building frustration until death steals precious cash and you find yourself howling at the screen as though you’ve turned into one of the ambling dead yourself.

Most disappointing to me is the storyline, because there are sparks of good writing, glimmers of interesting narrative that are never fully explored. These are offset somewhat by many clichéd devices, such as following the instructions of a mysterious radio contact, but it’s possible to see where the writers wanted to go with it. Easily the best character and story-arc is seen in an NPC who also acts as a semi-mobile loot stash, called Jin.

***Warning: Spoiler Territory *** 

I’m going to reveal game plot points now, including final scenes in the game. If you don’t want to read these I suggest skipping down to the end spoiler section indicated by another asterisked heading as above.

The young daughter of a mechanic, we meet Jin when bringing her father an armoured car we need him to make zombie-proof. Having been bitten prior to our arrival, he finishes the work in his last few hours before succumbing to the infection, his final request that Jin accompany us rather than see him turn.

Later in the township, we meet the mayor who refuses to help in the crysis, and Jin insists its our duty to help the survivors scattered around the town, ferrying food and water. She threatens to take the armoured car if we don’t agree, and with our forced concession, begins her mission while we make our way back to meet her.

In her youthful naivete, she even brings supplies to a gang occupying the town’s police station. They capture her, and scene following her rescue is possibly the most moving in the game. Any joy at having saved Jin is muted by the heavy implication – though not outright statement – that she was raped.

The women attempt to console her, while the men argue about keeping her in the group after her betrayal. Sam seems more concerned with having risked his neck in the rescue, and gives little consideration to the horrors Jin may have endured; the price of her mistake.

Towards the end of the game we arrive through necessity at a prison. Jin is still with us, and being in a situation where she’s again surrounded by leering, extremely dangerous men, is taking a toll on her mental state.

An inevitable betrayal by the radio-voice-guy occurs. He wants to get his wife who’s been infected, off the island with a possible cure in hand, and a showdown ensues on the helipad of the prison. Jin releases radio-guy’s wife from her restraints,  and the crazed woman attacks and bites her husband. He’s forced to shoot her, then shoots Jin, who plummets in slow motion from the roof of the building.



If the above sounds a bit disjointed, it’s because that’s how the story is delivered.  There’s just not enough depth, though there’s a range of human emotion and experience the game tries to communicate at times. Even the emotional scenes lack weight because of sub par facial animation of the characters. Half Life 2 for the most part managed to capture nuanced expression, and that was released what seems like centuries ago. Even the announcement trailer for Dead Island is emotionally more powerful than any of the scenes actually in the game, and it’s really disappointing that this is the case.

Recordings found around the island are another good example of story well-told. Of the 40 or so hours I invested in Dead Island, I found maybe five of these. The believable voice-acting enhanced the world as it did for Bioshock (and to a lesser extent, FC2) and it would have been nice if these had been more prominent.

I love what Dead Island wanted to be. I would have happily forgiven its other quirks had its narrative the quality of the aforementioned Bioshock, and I hope the game is commercially successful enough that Techland can spend more time developing and refining the ideas in the heads of its clearly talented team, in its future games.


Since I sort of played on it as a hook for my intro, a quick note on “FeministWhore”:  For anyone who doesn’t know, some enterprising Steam-goer managed to unearth some code that labelled one of the skills for a playable character “FeministWhore”, despite this not actually being in the final game. Obviously I don’t approve of it, but I do appreciate Techland immediately taking full responsibility for the errant code. I may address this in detail in a future post, but for now, this is all I’ll say on the matter.

The importance of gender in games

•September 2, 2011 • 2 Comments

Complaining about the poorly modeled women of Deus Ex: Human Revolution on Twitter recently, I was lead into a discussion of gender representation in games, and one of the participants in this discussion mentioned all games, regardless of genre, should have gender choices for players, citing Mass Effect’s FemShep.

On some levels – and possibly fuelled by recent Freeplay events – I can understand this desire for equality of gender representation in games, however I disagree that it should always be an option, or even that it should frequently be an option.

At the heart of this objection, lie a couple of issues. One is that it’s the right of the developer to control narrative, and the other is the impact this idea has for characterisation in games.

One of the examples I responded with on Twitter was Blizzard’s Diablo. As a younger gamer I found the gender restrictions frustrating. I wanted to play a rogue, but didn’t wish to play a female character. Sorcerer it was then.

Maybe it’s hard to understand why such an arbitrary restriction should be implemented. Would it really have been so hard to provide alternate voicing and character models for each class?

In reference to Blizzard’s Diablo, perhaps some of this was indeed for the sake of brevity. Effectively doubling the character models, also means doubling all visible equippable items, and it’s feasible that the extra work simply wasn’t justifiable when compared to estimated customer satisfaction for this option.

Beyond these sorts of technical limitations, there really seems no reason not to allow both male and female selections for playable characters in Diablo. That is, until one delves into the lore of Sanctuary; suddenly the playable gender is not a restriction at all. Rather, it’s a facet of a rich game universe.

There’s a reason Rogues are female: they’re Sisters of the Sightless Eye. A male’s superior physical strength and his place dictated by tribal custom defines him for the Barbarian or Druid class; women in those societies would surely not be permitted to enter this man’s world. Likewise the Amazon is a strong female warrior – not just in the Diablo universe, but as the image that permeates our cultural understanding of constitutes an Amazonian.

In permanently defining the genders of each character class, Blizzard also strengthened its lore. One could justifiably argue that allowing a selection of playable genders for each of Diablo’s classes could have harmed the illusion of Sanctuary, though this would not necessarily have been the case.

In other forms of media, gender is used to tell a specific story. John Marsden’s Tomorrow series (beginning with Tomorrow When the War Began) is written from the point of view of a young woman living on Australian farmland. Would the story have had the same impact, had it been told from the perspective of a male?

Think to your favourite movies and consider how the gender of the characters effects your emotional response. In one of my favourites, Sarah Connor’s vulnerability against the T-800 is enhanced by her gender and her gender-stereotypical occupation, in The Terminator. I doubt I would have felt as scared for Sam Conner, truck mechanic.

It would be possible to change the gender of the protagonist and have the very same events play out around them. In doing so however, we have to ask: would this in fact be telling the same story?

In some cases, yes it would, but good writers will make this a conscious decision because there are certain traits we associate with each gender, and these can be used not only to to provide depth and subtlety, but also to help tell a story in a specific way; to manipulate the audience into feeling how the author wants them to feel.

It’s no different for games, though being a very visual medium whose audience has traditionally been males, this has resulted in a skewed depiction of game protagonists. We have historically been shown what appeals to men as a demographic: the men they want to be like, and the women they want.

Looking retrospectively at games in general, we may wish that we’d been given the simple option to choose the gender of the characters we played, but what would that have done to gamings iconic heroes and heroines?

With optional genders would we ever have had Duke Nukem? Some might argue we’d be better of without that particular ‘hero’ (which is a discussion for another time), but I don’t think a female protagonist in that universe would have made sense.

What about Lara Croft? Well, the male version of her would probably be Indiana Jones, but it’s unlikely that given the choice to choose between a playable Lara or Larry, that she’d be the instantly recognisable figure she is today. We’d probably be remembering Tomb Raider as that one pretty-decent-puzzle-game-with-its-nod-to-Time-Commando that came out a while ago.

Some games, both in story and mechanics, are conducive to a protagonist of either gender. A lithe female form would certainly have worked for Thief, and augmentations would have made Paul Denton’s sister as capable as his brother.

But would we be left with characters we know as well as Garrett or JC, or would we just remember the games as great games?

I suspect the benefits of this potential abstraction could be debated endlessly, however it behooves us to remember that without a defined gender, our protagonists’ roles can change.

Would No One Lives Forever have been so memorable with a sassy Kyle Archer? Would we feel as deeply for The Longest Journey’s Arthur Ryan? Would a female Agent 47 have been able to exude that perfectly balanced mixture of cold detachment, coiled power, and effortless panache? Would Bulletstorm have had the same effect with Georgie Hunt yelling about shooting things in the dick? Actually I’d play that last one; someone make it please!

There are some good examples of games in which gender is selectable, and has little effect on either the story, or the way the game is played. The example given to me in the Twitter conversation (and mentioned earlier) that set my train of thought rumbling down this track, was Mass Effect with Shep/FemShep.

Dragon Age and Baldur’s Gate are other good examples. The Elder Scrolls series and every MMO I can think of also doesn’t care which gender you play (though MMO narrative is also somewhat lacking, and another discussion for later), so there’s definitely support for the argument that the option can be implemented well.

I just don’t think it needs to be. Or even that it should be. There is a case to be made for games to break gender boundaries in this way, especially as more and more gamers are women, but I’m not convinced adding a token male/female switch benefits the cause.

As developers explore the medium further, they should remember that gender is a powerful story-telling tool, and as such should be treated with respect. If all we see is an addition of female player characters as knee-jerk reaction to feminism – “Here, have a female character in this FPS, now stop bothering us.”  – isn’t this sweeping the issue under the rug? Isn’t this doing more harm than good?

I think sometimes the best way to present the issues surrounding gender representation in games is not through making the choice irrelevant, but by making it all the more important.

Of Freeplay and Sexism

•August 28, 2011 • 5 Comments

The entirety of the gaming world must have been discussing the “The Words That We Use” Freeplay panel in the last couple of weeks, and so it should have been; the ensuing hubbub has been enlightening, and it’s probably about time this topic was addressed.

Being a male (freelance) games writer puts me in the awkward position of wanting to comment on the proceedings, but without really knowing how. What can my perspective offer? Can I say anything that hasn’t been said already? If so, can I say it without putting my heavily-booted foot in my maw? It’s a sensitive topic.

So instead of addressing the topic directly, I wanted to respond to a couple of pieces that have been written in the aftermath. Foremost of these is the Ben Abraham’s Gamasutra opinion peice on sexism, because while it sounds passionate and heartfelt, I have some issues with its logic and I can’t quite shake the feeling I’m being preached at.

The ability to say something passionately doesn’t intrinsically mean it should be said. Just look at Tom Cruise.

In the piece, Ben’s final ‘crucial’ point asserts that “if you are not challenging sexism on a…probably daily basis…you’re perpetuating the problem.”

It’s an interesting angle to take: accusing every single person – male and female, though I get the impression the piece is distinctly targeting males – who’s not actively challenging sexism in some way every day, of making the problem worse.

Challenged by this forceful declaration from Ben, I have to ask myself, “Am I making the problem worse?” So I applied Ben’s theory to across the whole my personal conduct and the result was both startling and humbling.

  • I’m starving children in third world countries to death RIGHT NOW because I don’t donate to any charities like Community Aid Abroad.
  • I’ve never once chained myself to a tree in protest of logging, so I’ve actually promoted deforestation worldwide for decades.
  • I don’t have a degree in medicine and consequently have failed to save millions of lives with the medical care and research I could have provided if I’d pursued this career path. (Though I have worked to improve life-critical medical systems, so perhaps I’m somewhat redeemed here.)
  • I’m actively contributing to keeping our nation’s homeless and long-term unemployed on the streets by not buying The Big Issue.
  • Raging homophobia is obviously one of my severest conditions, because while I have some homosexual friends, I’ve never been in a gay-pride march.
  • I’m probably a racist, because I don’t EVEN KNOW what it is I’d need to do on a daily basis to support an attitude of anti-racism.
  • And I’m pretty sure that I murder unborn babies because not once have I attended a pro-life rally.
  • Oh, I also don’t like Vegemite, so obviously despise Australia.

The point is that I don’t agree with Ben. The kind of commitment Ben requires from us is a  career-changing one. It’s a level of dedication to the cause that excludes everything else.

However I have a sneaking suspicion his use of hyperbole was intentional, hoping to get people thinking and talking about the topic – not to necessarily impose a regimen of daily sexism opposition (though if you’re motivated into that action, it would hardly be a bad thing).

And in that goal I’d say he’s been successful. It must be; after all, here I am, talking about it. Unfortunately it’s also worded in a way that can make people quite defensive, and I think this topic has been handled much better by others – mostly by the female journalists who’ve responded.

The most important article, or response to this debacle that I’ve read is Katie Williams’ It’s time to stop being afraid. Tracey Lien and Laura Parker’s Kotaku article covers similar ground, and even though Katie might not have a Walkley award under her belt, I found this telling account of being a female in a male dominated university course touched a nerve Tracey’s and Laura’s didn’t.

Reading the sexist remarks made by the male members of her class, I was disgusted. Surely not, in this day and age? I wracked my brains, thinking: what could these males have meant by those statements? They must be taken out of context. She must have misheard; misunderstood.

As I kept reading however, I could find no justification, no context in, nor level on, which these ‘jokes’ could possibly be found humourous. No way in which this behaviour was anything other than offensive. Then I became worried. I mean, I had been in an IT course at university. It was male-dominated. It was even the very same university.

Had I, in my youth, with my friends, made similar disparaging remarks against the females in my course? Had I uttered some similar ‘witticism’ in a lecture theatre that had reached the ears of the object of my remark?

I’m eternally grateful that I have not been able to recall any such occurrence. I was friends, or in group projects, with a few of these women, so perhaps this assisted to temper any potential stupidity on my part. I’m not sure how I would have dealt with the information, had this soul-searching yielded different results, especially since women in my course were smarter and more capable than most of the males; more capable than I was, certainly.

But I digress.

The reason that I write this is firstly to say thank you to Katie, without whom I’d probably be ignorantly thinking the world is a slightly better place than it actually is; that the problem is smaller than it is.

I’ve probably been somewhat blind to the issue because the corporate IT world in which I work is full of women in positions of importance and authority, and they do their jobs well. I hadn’t really considered what it was like for them to get to those positions.

Secondly, it’s to ask that women reading this don’t remain silent when confronted with the kinds of situations Katie describes.

Thirdly, it’s to ask that men reading this recognise the difference between humour and sexism, and ensure they don’t engage in behaviour related to the latter.

I don’t think the solution to the problem is to be found in guys like Ben accusing the world at large of not doing better, especially when the tone is just likely to raise belligerent backs.

I think it’s more likely to be found in women like Katie speaking up. If her relation of these events can cause this inner turmoil, those few minutes of self doubt, for me, what could hundreds, thousands, of continuing accounts of this discrimination brought to public attention do for our societal consciousness?

But what do I know? I’m a late-twenties-something male who doesn’t challenge sexism on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis, so I’m probably just perpetuating the problem.