Wednesday of the Robot

The Issue with Creating Gendered Games

I enjoyed the Polygon article, “No Girls Allowed,” but I had some issues with it. Particularly, it suggests that we need to make more games for women. To me, the biggest issue in games is not that there aren’t enough games aimed at women, it’s that we see the games that we already have as being uniquely created for a male audience. In truth, anybody can play and enjoy a game like Civilization or Bioshock—there’s very little content in these games that screams “only men will like this.” 

Instead, we seem to think that women require games that are aimed, unabashedly, directly, at them, because these other games simply won’t cut it. The Purple Moon games, for instance, focus directly on the trials and tribulations of being a preteen girl. The stereotypical “girliness” in these games isn’t really what bothers me here—rather, it’s that the existence of these games, and the absence of similar games for little boys, suggests that every game that isn’t “girly” can only be enjoyed by a male audience. 

We can look at it like this: the existence of stereotypically “girly” video games, and the absence of stereotypically “male” video games, ends up gendering games in the same way as blue and pink toy aisles. That is, because the “pink” video games are for girls, this means that the rest of video games are for boys. 

The Polygon article suggests that we should make video games like books; media with lots of different types and genres aimed at many specific demographics. I think that this will only further the divide that I’ve been discussing. Instead, I think that we should, perhaps, start making more games written so totally and ridiculously for young men that it becomes clear that the rest of games are actually for everyone.

Video Games in Academia

A few years ago at my undergraduate alma mater, I had a lively debate with an English professor and a few students about the future of video games in academia. The students regularly played video games, but the professor did not. Always a purist, the professor staunchly maintained that games could never be a part of academia—at least, never in the same context as literature. Games would, he said, only ever hold a pre-professional place in the academic world; we learn to make games, but we do not learn to analyze them. 

I deeply respect that professor and most of his opinions, but in this case, he’s just wrong, and we need only look at the history of film and television in academia to prove it. 

Much like video games, film and television have historically enjoyed a low place on the list of “worthwhile” leisure time pursuits. Sure, most people spend significantly more time watching TV than reading books like War and Peace, but the Russian novel has something TV doesn’t: artistic street cred. Not only is War and Peace difficult to read and artfully done, but at some point, society decided that it, and other books like it, were good for us. They impart meaning, and are therefore worthy of our precious time. It’s no wonder, then, that the novel holds such a high place in academia. 

Cut to: film in academia. In the second half of the 20th century, film started to eke its way into academia. Both the public and the academics realized that film could provide meaning just as a well novels, even if it came to them in a different format. Today, film doesn’t hold quite the same place as novels in academia, but even my tiny and very traditional alma mater offered classes in film analysis.

Then came television. TV is still quite new, as compared to film and novels; no people alive today remember the advent of film, but plenty remember the rise of television as a viable form of media. It is, perhaps, this newness that’s really making TV lag behind film in the academic world. Whilst writing my undergraduate thesis, I found very quickly that whilst I could easily get my hands on film theory texts, television theory was significantly more difficult to come by. Even so, the professors had some idea of what to do with me and my television thesis—they did not, however, know what to do with my friend Cade, and his video game narrative thesis. 

This is really my main point: it’s all about timelines. Film is more academic than TV because film has been around for a longer amount of time. TV is more academic than video games for the same reason. Video games are just as able to impart meaning as film and television—anyone who’s played enough games can see that—but games need more time to reach the ivory tower. Or perhaps, the ivory tower needs more time to accustom itself to newer forms of media. Give it 20 years and Reed College will have a video game analysis course, just like everyone else.

Narrative Impact on Gameplay

The rub of the video game is that it comes in so many forms. It’s impossible to say what is important or good for a game, because what is good for one may terrible for another. The Last of Us, for example, relies strongly on it’s narrative to function well. Take that away, and the game is incredibly boring. Flappy Bird, on the other hand, relies on pure mechanics to keep itself going. Insert any narrative, and it would overburden the simplicity of the game. 

It’s probably not smart then, to argue that all games require a great narrative. I don’t even think we can argue that any one kind of narrative is better than the other. It is interesting, however, to explore different kinds of narratives and how they function in games.

When we look at a game like The Last of Us, we see a pretty coherent three-act structure (or something along those lines). There’s a good reason that the game is soon to be turned into a film. It presents a very clear, very well done, linear story. 

When we look at a game like Mass Effect 2, we do not see, or perhaps do not remember, a clear narrative structure. What we do see and remember, are numerous, extremely important character interactions. The player character is told to go out and save the galaxy, but spends 70% of the game building up their team—the roster of characters that make up the game.

Mass Effect 2 and The Last of Us, then, demonstrate two very different—but equally valid and useful—kinds of storytelling. They are both incredibly narrative heavy games, but these narratives are functioning on different levels. It is also very easy to see how these different narratives have informed the gameplay of the actual games. The Last of Us, with its cinematic three-act structure, has almost no player choice. No matter how many times you play the game, each scene will play out in almost exactly the same way. This is because the form of the narrative is directly translated from film. Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, has almost the same ending every time, but each play through can be radically different from the last, depending on which characters you speak to and form bonds with—despite the fact that I did a nearly completionist play of Mass Effect 2, I’ve probably only experience about 60% of the dialogue and content written for the game. The emphasis on character interaction to drive the narrative means that the game involves much more choice than a cinematic game like The Last of Us

I’m sure there are plenty of other examples of different forms of narrative in games, but the point of this blog post is this: narrative can have an extreme impact on gameplay. Games don’t require narrative, but when they have one, they need to take that into account.

Is Anti Design Anti Useful?

In his article about punk games, Chris Priestman delineates what features make punk games punk. These features are: DIY aesthetic, anti design, bugs as features, politics, sex & violence, and loud & punchy. What really struck me in this list was “anti design,” and I’m having a big issue with it as a feature.

We all know this, but I’m not the arbiter of games and what makes them good. Likewise, we all have different tastes—your favorite game might be my least favorite game. That being said, the fact that there appears to be an entire genre of games that can be labelled as “anti design” really confuses me. Perhaps Chris Priestman and I are working under totally different definitions of the word “design,” but making an anti design game feels like making an anti edible meal (“Here’s your filet mignon, Sir. I slathered it in mayonnaise just to upset you.”).

This sort of thing reminds me of certain kinds of museum art (a broad category, but here I mean something you might find at LACMA or even the Met). Occasionally, I’ll be walking through a museum, looking at the lovely art, and wander into nightmare room. Sometimes this means that all the art on the walls are paintings of clowns with breasts for eyes. Sometimes this means that the entire room is just a dark space with a recording of a woman screaming over and over. Either way, the object of this sort of thing is clear: it is meant to be unpalatable. The artist intends for the viewer to dislike the art. 

Games, however, are a different form of art; much like food, they are meant to be consumed. In games, design is a huge factor for the cosumability of a game. Design is important. To a certain extent, it may be what makes games good or bad. Much like I will not seek out a terrible restaurant, I also will not seek out a bad game. Museum art can afford to be upsetting and bad because they’ve already got you trapped in the building. Games, on the other hand, rarely have a truly captive audience. A person playing a game can simply put down their computer, or close out the program. Anti design, then, strikes me as counterproductive; bad for badness’ sake only works in very specific circumstances, and I don’t think games have found those circumstances yet.

The Magic Circle Persists

Mia Consalvo doesn’t believe in the magic circle. In her article, “There is No Magic Circle,” she decries the magic circle by explaining that we always take everyday life with us into games. It’s impossible not to; we each have experiences, cultural baggage, and learned behavior that we simply cannot forget when we enter the world of a game. These things influence how we play and experience games. Mia Consalvo’s argument, then seems to be: there is no magic circle because we can never forget our “real” selves completely. 

Consalvo is correct, of course; we don’t get amnesia every time we enter a game. That being said, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a magic circle. Perhaps I’ve simply been totally misunderstanding the nature of the magic circle, but to me, it isn’t the rigid barrier that Consalvo sees. Rather, it functions on a much more semi-permiable level. It is a cell membrane, not a brick wall. That is to say, little things (like societal mores) can and do enter and leave the circle. It is almost always clear, however, that the circle exists; I don’t start playing World of Warcraft and suddenly become convinced that I’m an elf in real life. I usually know where the bounds of playing the game and not playing the game exist. This is a bit harder to argue with some ARGs, but I think we can say that in cases like those, we are at least aware that the bounds of playing the game and not playing the game do exist, even if we don’t know exactly where they are.

The magic circle, then, persists. As with any theoretical framework, it has its loopholes, but for the most part, it is an incredibly useful and simple way of describing that we know that game worlds aren’t the same thing as the real world. 

A New Kind of Narrative

In “Games Telling Stories?” Jesper Juul makes it clear that he does not think that games have narratives. Whilst he admits that they may have narrative elements, and may share commonalities with more typical narrative vehicles like movies and books, Juul still maintains that games fundamentally cannot have narratives. 

Juul claims that narratives must always “prior”—that is, that those experiencing the narrative must always have the sense that the narrative is somehow in the past. As Juul points out, games are played with the sense that everything in them is happening in the present. For Juul, then, games cannot have narratives because they can never have “prior” narratives.

I, on the other hand, think that’s a pretty rigid way to view narratives. Juul needs to realize that things change. With the advent of the video game, we’ve been able to really integrate story into our games. We can easily tell that there is a huge difference between The Last of Us and Mancala. That being said, there’s also a huge difference between The Last of Us and Threes. We can see then, that not all games—even modern electronic games—are narrative games, but also that some are. “But,” Juul would probably say, “that’s not narrative! The experience in The Last of Us and other similar games is simply too immediate! Narrative must be in the past.” Well, Juul, it’s really your theory of narrative that is in the past. At some point, narrative stretched and remolded itself to welcome games, and their present tense stories, into the fold. It follows that if we can easily describe games like The Last of Us as telling stories (which I believe we can), then we can also argue that these games have a narrative structure—even if this structure isn’t what we originally envisioned as “narrative.”

To this, I’ll add an article about how games are changing the way we experience stories and narrative. Interestingly enough, it is from a television and film review website. Simply the fact that the TV and film reviewers are able to welcome games into the sacred garage of narrative vehicles suggests that our definitions of narrative have somehow changed as a culture.

Cultural Influence on Games

In “Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon,” Johan Huizinga states that “play” is “not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life” (SZ 103). Of course, he means to make a distinction between play and everyday life. To a certain extent, however, the type of play that we engage in reveals a lot about our everyday lives and the cultures we live in. In this way, play is almost indistinguishable from “ordinary” life, insomuch as it is culturally tied up in our ordinary lives.

For instance, the very fact that we feel the need to put a J in front of RPGs that are produced in Japan suggests that we view them as unique to Japanese culture and not to our own. Japanese RPGs, whilst similar to our own Western RPGs, are imbued with a cultural significance that feels distinct enough to us that we must label it as a completely new genre. Similarly, we often refer to German-style board games. Of course, many people in America produce German-style board games, but there is still something different enough about this style of game that we must label it as “German”—distinct from games in our own cultural milieu. 

Defining what makes games feel like they come from other cultures may quickly become problematic, however. We can always poke fun at our own culture, positing that Monopoly is distinctly American because of our extreme love of capitalism and its requisite trappings, but it is difficult to boil down other cultures in a similar way without being deeply offensive. 

Regardless, games are clearly influenced by the cultures that they come from. It’s a subject that is worth looking at, if we can find a way to discuss it in a tasteful manner.

Gamer and Nerd Culture

In class we went through a list of topics that we may end up covering on the syllabus. We touched a bit on gender, race, and demographics. A lot of people would probably argue that gamers are the key demographic for  most games. Recently, gamers have come under fire for being less than sensitive about issues of race and gender. 

This article ( is an interesting critique of gamer and nerd culture. I agree with some of it. It is true that there is quite a bit of misogyny and racism in gamer and nerd culture. That being said, this article seems to suggest that ALL gamers and ALL nerds, by identifying as such, align themselves with, and therefore become, misogynist racists. I definitely don’t agree with that. The comments on the article are also extremely interesting, and often quite well thought-out. They’re worth a look. 

Despite these issues, I still identify as a gamer. Is there a way we can take back the term “gamer?” I feel like being a gamer doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The writer of the Pajiba article, Corey Atad, says he is purposefully choosing to stop identifying as a gamer in order to distance himself from the misogynists and the racists. To me, that feels like giving in to them. I don’t want to surrender “gamer” to the bad guys. I want to take it back.

(Source: willrc)

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