A Brutal Landscape: Sexual Assault in Gaming Narratives

Content warning: discussion of rape in video games.

It’s like a wave is rolling in, borne of several currents: a Nightline special, an errant tweet, a sequel to a hot gaming franchise. People wondering if we’re going to “start” having this conversation of how to “tackle” rape in video games, but I don’t feel like the conversation ever has stopped. It never, ever stops for me.

Sometimes it feels like the discussions that rape and abuse victims have among themselves is significant and invisible. We pass along content and trigger warnings for shows or games we consume. We acknowledge something off to the side, just out of your line of vision, a thing that lurks in the dark. If you believe that the games industry cannot discuss or approach a conversation about rape, I believe it is because many people feel like we are set apart from this somehow. It doesn’t acknowledge that you might not know who is a victim or a survivor. You don’t know who could contribute or maybe the ways that we have been, all along.

Rape is a topic I’d be okay with striking altogether from gaming, outside of victim- or survivor-written narratives. It’s obvious that the game industry barely recognizes what counts as sexual assault, let alone acknowledging that people are victims of it. The insistence to include rape in games creates this uneasy message that someone like me doesn’t belong here. Given that sexual assault is an assertion of systemic power and violence, it is grimly ironic.

I want to ask all of these developers, writers, a simple, “Why?”

Why put this in your game? Why this and not something else? It leads me to think that many find it essential as texture, to make the world “come alive.” It creates a world that so many don’t have to live in day-by-day but can participate in, like tourism. When you make a game and use it to bolster the game’s “realism,” what you’re telling me is that you need our suffering as a fixture in your world, placed just-so, like a lamp. What is actually disruptive violence in the real world, exists as something inevitable and crucial for your fictional one.

“But rape exists in movies and comic books too!” 

When I watch a movie or read a comic book, there is a passivity there. I cannot affect the story at hand, I am not a part of it. I can either regard or turn away. The fact is that I have more control in being passive than what gaming frequently offers me. At best, a game’s interactivity absolutely positions us as a silent participant, a complicit bystander, with no ability to change course. At worst, it puts us into the position of the rapist. These are two alternatives that I cannot bear, time and time again. The fact that so many games rely on showing us these things and never center a victim or survivor in the narrative indicates that games care more about rape than those who are raped.

Rape is complex. It’s not picking the wrong item to equip or taking the wrong road. Games are focused often on player choice and it never seems to address that it is not about a victim’s choices, it is actually about a rapist’s choices. But the narrative never really reflects that, indicating that rape is just something that sort of happens. It also neglects that rape is the escalation of many more innocuous things in our culture. Rape culture, which feminists talk about often, isn’t just a buzzword – it literally describes the seemingly endless language that builds slowly to enable rape at all levels. Much like playing enough games gives you a familiar sense of inputs or consequences (jumping off a cliff often kills you, hitting D on a keyboard turns you right), rape culture is our society’s way of developing language to violate someone. We don’t value people’s personal spaces, we demand that women smile or allow us into their immediate vicinity. We overlook if someone is too drunk, we overlook if someone is uncomfortable with disagreeing, we value our own sexual desires over others needs or safety. We place certain groups above others, put people into power over others and give them the ability to enact it without culpability. We strip people’s ability to ever say “no.”

The pinnacle of this is often sexual assault, a finishing move.

“But this guy in the game is evil, that’s why he’s a rapist! It is showing us he’s bad!”

This is a lazy writing trope. It’s just as empty and useless as promoting this idea that all rapists are scary men that lurk in alleyways, that they are people you don’t know. Rapists are not always evil people that wear capes and kidnap young women. Rapists are often the hero, the friend, the family member. They are people who even might think of themselves as good, right, or justified. Many men can’t even reliably identify rape (or even would consider it) even when it is described to them, so how is an huge industry supposed to recognize it when they put it into games?

It is also laughably facile to position rapists as a villain, when it’s horribly rare that we even get to name our rapists in real life, much less bring them to justice. Many times in video games, the rapists are bad, but they are horizontal or parallel to the incredibly violent antagonist, because a victim would never be the person centered in the narrative, much less able to bring retribution on their attacker. If anything, the ability to enact revenge is only ever given to someone who is adjacent to a victim – such as a husband to a wife. Many times, victims are often people who are not even considered worthy enough to be a character. We’re dead and cast off to the side in places where it should be our story.

These are all things I’ve been trying to address in my work for a really long time, as someone who is a survivor and a feminist. The gaming industry has a long way to go because it barely understands how to see us as real people, but only cares as much as we can lend realism. The fact that most of us barely register as human beings means that it will not have the empathy or concern needed to put our stories first and foremost in a video game. The fact that games seem to value rapists over people who have been assaulted means I will always sit uneasily on the sidelines whenever this conversation comes back up, every single time.

 

It’s Monday Again: Tuesday Edition

A girl leans her legs up against a wall and smokes.

It might not be Monday now, but that’s not a problem.

The beginning of the year, also known as last week, was fairly auspicious in that I wrote not one but two pieces on the blog. I hope to maintain that kind of entropy for the rest of the year but much like my desire to cut out junk food, I doubt it will happen.

My summation of 2014 (with appropriately vague title) really should have included relevant links to my own work, as that seems to be the standard fashion but I ended up not caring much about re-directing people to pieces I was proud of, just yet. I might need to marinate on that a little more. I did do some good writing last year, but it’s hard to feel like you’ve really accomplished much as a mostly amateur writer. It was a lot more fun to highlight the best of some of my friends’ and peers’ work, as well as try to encapsulate just how last year was to both myself and to games at large (okay and awful, respectively.)

The second piece I did was a personal, poetic unraveling relating to my feelings about The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo. I’ve come back to that game a few times, poking and prodding about why it was so good but I finally sat down and hammered that post out in one go, feeling satisfied that I held something important in my hands for at least a moment. I am still shocked that Michael Lutz managed to capture something important to me, even if a lot of it I brought to the game myself. Having a game at least provide that kind of petri dish for emotional culture growth is rare.

I also read a really awesome article about Shadow of Mordor (prompting me to pick up the game, finally) by my partner-in-crime Tzufit. She talks about accessing a relatable power dynamic that’s different than other games, like Bayonetta 2, as well as what it is like to play a woman, who for all intents and purposes, is treated like a man. I can’t help but agree with Tzufit’s desires to engage with a power fantasy that is not related to sexuality, as that is sometimes off-putting in games for me as well.

Last but not least, last week was our Justies/GOTY episode on Justice Points, and I suspect you’ll want to check it out. We didn’t go into it looking for consensus and I think the show is much more entertaining and amusing for it. You be the judge.

 

 

 

 

take my hand

This review/post contains mild story spoilers, so please play the game first.

This post also deals with personal, violent subject matter, so if that is triggering, feel free to skip sections 2-6.

1

I mean this as no disrespect, but I don’t expect men to write women, or girls, very well. There’s just something how most men push our narratives to the very edge of their awareness, stuff us into boxes. Men don’t listen. They don’t care. They don’t have our blood in their veins, our tender flesh held together with strings and whispers. Our stories squeeze in narrowly between theirs, and if no one believes us, we stop taking up space. We lose mass.

I still don’t know what kind of magic birthed The Uncle Who Worked For Nintendo into being. It has some of the same fairy dust as Gone Home, though the latter had more time to really dig itself under my skin. Gone Home had too many nuances to not be true. It was fiction, but it was clearly true.

The Uncle Who Worked For Nintendo, for people who have not played this short Twine game, is a fictional tale that on the surface works as typical creepypasta, but underneath is made up of real stuff. Hard stuff, scary stuff.

And underneath all of that is hopefulness, optimism.

I usually do not like games that give me too many endings. There’s always a nagging feeling that I’m not making the right choices, that I didn’t get the best ending.

I think something they don’t really tell you is that there’s some points in your life that will irrevocably change you for every moment that comes after. Time travel stories work on this principle but only to hand out platitudes about being unable to change the past. It has no real teeth, and it never tells you the real truth of forking paths: that you become this different person, the potentialities dropping off your body like gangrenous limbs.

I’ve struggled for so many years to not feel like half of a person, that some essential part of me fell away back in my teen years, that I didn’t make the right choice. I am not sure what I would do if I had the ability to turn back everything until then. Would I get the best ending then? What do endings mean when you constantly have to move forward no matter what?

no, turn back, don’t go in the room, run away, run far away, he’s a monster

I ended up running anyways, later into the darkness, scared

Monsters are real, they are real. 

And part of me was left behind.

2

The Uncle, the literal uncle of the title, is a monster. We don’t know where he comes from or what he truly is but he represents that kind of terrible bargain we sometimes make, to just get by.

We become monsters to keep us safe, no one tells you that

Your friend (I chose Jennifer) relates to you the misery that is being a girl who plays videogames. You know that feeling, that shared chasm that you fall into. Kids are cruel, you know, and it sets you up for the kinds of cruelness you deal with later on in life, that cruelness becomes part of you. But for that moment, you reach out to her and remind her that you’re there. That you are both real, and both wonderful.

Your friend has changed, you can tell. The events, the ones you remember, she doesn’t.

They don’t tell you that your memory goes, utterly. Bits of time are gone. There’s only holes, and blackness. Your ability to fragment a narrative is gone. Things shift around, uncomfortably, as some details burn white-hot in your brain while others fall away. 

There were twinkly lights. It was red. The room was bathed in red light. Everything became red. There was a phone call. 

I wouldn’t be able to sleep in a bed for years.

3

The uncle comes to the house and it becomes all too apparent what your role in this game is: sacrificial.

I ran to the door on my first go, trusting.

I knew better the second time and ran to the bathroom, hiding.

Fight or flight, no one tells you that the third option is to be so quiet and so still. Holding your breath. If I do nothing, the monster will leave.

But the Uncle is too smart, he knows where I am.

There’s more endings, I know there’s more, the lines are right there, and I can’t figure out how to get there, why the story keeps repeating and I cycle back to the moment when I can change things. I keep cycling back. It’s some detail, something I’m overlooking, I keep re-tracing my steps to see if I could have done something differently, it would all make sense.

You blame yourself a lot. A lot, over and over. They don’t tell you that monsters are monsters and that’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. You can do everything right, correct, perfectly, perfect perfect perfect and there’s nothing that can stop it. It’s out of your hands. It isn’t a wrong or right thing. 

But I can’t even remember the story right.

4

It was the perfect Mew-two, that little key to your friend’s heart. The storm, the things that got changed when she made the deal with the Uncle. People started disappearing, but he made everything better, he salved the wounds.

Can you blame her? I can’t blame her. I would have made the same choice. We make these horrible concessions to ourselves, to other women, because it keeps everything copacetic. It keeps the anger at bay.

They don’t really tell you about the anger, the sticky disgusting rage that wells up in your eyes, your throat, that wishes to see him hurt, twisted, mangled like a corpse. Pushed into a compacter. Eaten alive. Stabbed with shards of glass. The anger is what is left behind when all the sadness burns away. People look at you differently, it is the darkness you run into, the monstrous hands you have. We don’t talk about it because it makes us less sympathetic, to coax a fire of hate around our hearts.

Your friend, she tells you, when you remind her that you are her friend, invited the monster because she was tired of being picked on. Even if it meant feeding everyone she cared about to him. It meant she got special gifts and attention.

It rang a little too true, for me.

I had a lot of girl friends in high school and we were inseparable. By college, I didn’t trust women, I said I never trusted them. It was a lie but I was so angry at myself, so I lashed out at other women for taking men away from me. Men, men, all the men, the ones who hurt me over and over again, but I kept hurting myself, hurting other women.

Throwing them away.

If I did that, then men would like me better. They wouldn’t hurt me anymore (yes they will) and we’d be fine.

So fine.

5

I’m stuck on this last ending. I look up a walk-through (a walk-through for a Twine game!) to help me. I see what I did wrong, I go back and fix it.

It’s okay to ask for help, they don’t tell you that. It’s always okay to ask for help, you’re not alone.

It’s safe in the kitchen.

I still eventually went back to get the failed ending. To see myself making that bargain, all over a Gameboy cartridge. It’s so easy to fall back into old habits.

Sometimes my friend dies in the fire, sometimes she moves away.  In order to save myself, I have to let her suffer.

I need to do better this time.

6

We can save each other, together, hand in hand. We just have to believe each other, to show our secret hearts.

My secret heart is a scared 16 year old girl who made all the wrong choices, I can’t go back to that room and do it over again

You take your friend’s hand (that’s how I want to remember it) and you destroy the cartridge together. You’re both free. You don’t have to hurt eachother anymore, you don’t have to hurt yourself anymore. You don’t have to blame yourself.

We can be each other’s best endings, if we give ourselves space to fight the monsters together.

Secret Ending

The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo is a game I am still amazed was made by a man. There’s a simple lesson twisted around the agape horror, and that is if you care about yourself and care about your friends, you don’t have to despair. This is especially meaningful if you pick the slightly different story with a female friend, and that is the only one I ended up playing (I believe that the ‘other side’ is non-canon, for me personally. It is not a story I need to see, I have seen it a million times.)

The idea of two little girls holding hands and destroying a monster together is so powerful, particularly in the wake of the events that made the creator, Michael Lutz, skew the story and write the passionate author’s notes that accompany the game. It thoroughly touched me somewhere very deep and personal, in light of many other things that have been dredged up over the last year or so with my interaction with gaming and it surprises me because it’s not a story that gets touched on by men, who often don’t understand the true power of healing that comes from women bonding together. It’s just not something that has weight often in the stories of men.

But I love it, and I hope you love it and I hope you play it, if you haven’t already.

 

 

 

Five Hundred Twenty-Five Thousand, Nine Hundred and Forty-Nine

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I think it isn’t surprising to me that I considered Monument Valley to be the best game of this year. It was well-crafted from a mechanics standpoint, with lush and well-chosen aesthetics. If there’s any one bit of nerdity that I admit to, it is that videogames that employ strong color palettes speak to me moreso than good gameplay. But what spoke to me more than all that was that Monument Valley was a game about hidden depths, about secret faces and alternate surfaces. The comfort came from allowing me to access these things with multiple attempts at twisting, pinching and slowly turning walls and cranks, shuffling Ida and the totem back and forth until it clicked into place.

Life is never so easy as this and Monument Valley gave me the small satisfaction of watching something fall into place, finally.

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I think 2014 was the first time in a couple of years where things started to look up. After a disaster, you spend a certain amount of time assessing the damage, slowly taking stock of what you have and cobbling together a foundation for yourself that hopefully you can build upon. The easy stuff comes first, those base needs – safety, warmth, hunger. Little by little, you start erecting plans and developing a path for where you go next.

Last year was the easy stuff, this year was difficult.

And no one gives you a guidebook on how to push the wheel, how to start climbing. You just have to move the fucking rock. You have to show up and do the work.

You also have to want it.

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But what is it?

Fame, fortune, notoriety, to make an impact?

It didn’t help that after nine years of thoroughly participating in the monolith that was World of Warcraft and its community, two years of that blogging about gameplay and feminist critique, I decided to finally quit. I’ve drifted back into its orbit from time to time to see how things are but I achieved a kind of escape velocity; I moved away from the harm I was doing to myself being hyper-focused on one game in both my writing and my personal life. In the process, however, I slashed many of my ties with acquaintances, gave up a part of my life I had grown used to and landed square in the middle of unfamiliar territory. It’s true that MMORPGs have a kind of insulating effect that lets very few things in and out, and I wasn’t really prepared for the terrain of the larger gaming community. I’ve been playing catch up ever since.

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The upside is that if you have something to say, people will often listen. I have a bad habit of being envious of other people’s success, but there’s nothing stopping me from making my own creations, writing what I want and pushing for the kind of narratives I enjoy most. It helped that I still had my podcast, my blog, and the support of my closest friends. In that respect, this year has been better than ever. Our work on Justice Points has opened up conversations with people who’s work we admire and enjoy regularly as well as made us tons of new peers. It allowed us to explore the kind of themes in video games that we weren’t getting as much from Warcraft.

Getting to express myself on my blog was also enriching. In some ways I’m still new to this whole “gaming” thing, even if I don’t seem like it. I spent a lot of years not being aware of games, and then many more years fully focused on one to the exclusion of everything else. This year gave me an embarrassment of free time and content to consume, whether it was buying my first real console or trying out many games on Itchi.io or made from Twine.

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I’ve met so many people who are both like me and yet not and it’s been amazing. I feel connected to a much larger community of people who share some of the same goals and concerns as I do and who make some truly cool shit.

(A by no means exhaustive list of work I enjoyed thoroughly this year:

)

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SQUAWK. 

SQUAWK.

The inexorable march of squalling baby birds, waiting for someone to regurgitate into their mouths. They say we are cuckoos, that we are here, disguised, to push them from nests. They retaliate, they shit everywhere, they derail in a flock that blots out the sun. Their noise deafens and yet says nothing.

They stood in our way, uncomfortable that the world is suddenly not about them.

It was upsetting and it was suddenly very confusing to come into a community that was full of much of the same behavior I had weathered just a year or so prior, especially when it gained a hard carapace, with hashtags and celebrities, message boards and intelligence missions. Women I had admired were packing up and leaving to do something more worthwhile, and I couldn’t blame them. The ones who stayed behind dealt with an endless torrent of roadblocks, harassment and fear.

Even though this was now a problem we all knew before made visible, it still was confusing from the inside. What did it mean if you were left alone? What did it mean for your work?

The fact that we had to wrestle between being well-known and attacked versus invisible and unmolested still chills me.

But I digress.

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The overall trajectory of this year left a lot of people saying that this year was a hot mess, and it was. We still have a lot of work to do, myself included, to raise the tide for everyone, not the select few who are relatively unperturbed by the surf. The personal growth that I went through this year taught me so much about the power of doing my own thing, appreciating the work of others and doing what I can to put out more value than I take in.

I don’t believe that things begin and end depending on a calendar and far too often, I think we assign ourselves these waypoints to attempt to create meaning from largely disorganized circumstances. The bullshit from this year is going to creep into the next year if we are not vigilant. The work we started regardless of what month it was is going to continue on and doesn’t need to have happened because the clock ticked over. I put a lot of energy into beginning achieving things that I hope to see bear fruit this next year because waiting for the right time is a faulty idea.

We are going to do things, we are going to make things, we are going to keep on going.

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I have a hard time finishing things. This does include videogames.

When I finished Monument Valley and saw the logo draw itself out of the stars, I felt satisfied. There’s power in endings, really good ones, ones that stick with you. The power to cut things off at the right point in the story is something we chase very hard as human beings, which goes back to this belief in the end of the year. We want to package things in a way that makes sense, that our choices lead to a reasonable conclusion.

This is my attempt at that now, as unreasonable as it was.

See you in 2015.

It’s Monday Again: Attention and Fantasies

A sketch of a woman sitting alone at a bar.

I did a lot of stuff last week so I decided to once again shamelessly steal an idea from Leigh Alexander and update you on all of the places I was doing things around the Internet.

Last week’s episode of Justice Points featured Lulu, otherwise known as BlueSweatshirt, talking about her indie witch simulator  Fantastic Witch Collective. We asked her a lot of questions about the gay witch aesthetic, as well as poked at issues of diversity, decorum in e-sports as well as Far Cry 4. It was a lot of fun.

I have had a lot of issues lately sleeping and so I’m often up very early in the morning and that is a good time to play video games without being interrupted. One such morning saw me playing Borderlands and I had a very odd experience with killing a skag. Goes to show though, how little I know about the mechanics of some of my favorite games and instead choose to barrel into fights without any outside knowledge about how it should work. Still, it was weird feeling that emotional about a fictional animal that would tear my face off.

A lot of interesting digging has been going on about The Hashtag That Shan’t Be Named lately, specifically in a sociological vein. I read A Man in Black’s Storify about their perceptions of Goobergate from the perspective of how 4Chan culture operates and felt inspired to go on a tweet rant  about the larger forces at work that inform said culture. This also lead to an interesting tangent about why I hate the phrase “attention whore,” because Goobers seem to be using terrorist tactics towards any woman who dares to be successful. You can read the Storify on all of this here. Thanks for WarrenIsDead for collating all of it.

Finally, my first published piece of game writing went up over at Paste Games! It is my thoughts on the intersection of how millennials have been living and why so many of us love life sims for this reason, including the newly popular Fantasy Life. I was really excited that Paste picked up my pitch and it is a subject that I consider pretty close to my heart as someone who’s had to move around and live fairly austerely; gaming has been a huge savior in my life even when I have fallen on hard times.

If you like this feature, let me know in the comments section!

Marley (and Me)

Image of Marley courtesy of the Borderlands Wikia.

Image of Marley courtesy of the Borderlands Wikia.

I don’t think that killing a skag was supposed to be emotional.  Yet here I was sniffling and crying about a dead digital hellbeast in the darkness of my living room.

I haven’t played Borderlands in a couple of weeks and I’ve been picking at it slowly because I was stuck on one bounty board quest – The Legend of Moe and Marley. The dilemma I was having is that these two incredibly hardy skags were stuck at the ass-end of Arid Hills. I’d try my hardest to clear through all the mobs on the way but by the time I faced these beasts, I’d be low on ammo. I’m not a good FPS player in the slightest so dying to one or both of them and having to buy more ammo and slowly re-clear was frustrating. Through sheer determination I managed to take Moe down, but getting Marley had turned into an exercise in futility and I gave up on it for a while.

It wasn’t until 5 AM this morning that I loaded up Borderlands and gave it another go. After some stunning defeats because I had managed to pull both of them at the same time, I got into the rhythm and figured out how to cope with that particular scenario. Falling back on my intense World of Warcraft training, I remembered that I could kite both dogs, slowly picking their health off, especially because Marley was prone to standing and turretting electric bolts versus getting into melee range. Eventually I had pulled Marley and Moe all the way back to a bandit camp, and finally polished Moe off, and set to working on Marley. The camp had started to respawn in that time, including two snipers on an overhead bridge and suddenly I noticed that Marley had begun to spin around and occasionally attack the other mobs, who were doing their damndest to also pick off her health. Despite seeing this interaction between the skag and bandit AI before, it didn’t occur to me that this would happen if it was a mob I was also fighting at the same time. Pretty soon it was a huge shootout, with me crouched behind a fence to avoid Marley’s bolts and also bandits.

As her health slowly went down, something came over me. I noticed that it was 4 bandits on the ground, 2 snipers and myself, all shooting at one skag. It felt a little bit unfair, especially since most of the time Marley would spin around to try and attack the two snipers that were well out of reach. The idea of two dudes with guns shooting down at an animal that couldn’t reach them was cruel. When the skag finally keeled over and spit out the expected money and loot, I felt incredibly upset. Sure, it was an intended function of the AI but my own accidental blundering made the realization a little more poignant. I had essentially lead something that just was going about its business into a camp full of people with guns, only to turn what was merely a frustrating quest objective into a bloodbath. And for what? So some douchebag could mount her head on his wall?

I don’t know if this precisely what Borderlands was supposed to evoke. It is fairly apparent that our characters, as close as you might get to them, are assholes.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling terrible, all over a scabby alien dog.

When I went to look up the quest on the Wikia for this blog post, I couldn’t help but feel worse since that’s one of the strategies suggested on the webpage to take both skags down, given their relative difficulty. All’s fair in love and bounties, according to the game. It is a strange change from MMORPGs, where abusing terrain,mob AI or pathing is usually forbidden. Both of these points reflected my embarrassing lack of understanding, especially now. My initial belief that this was a broken act of game AI gave way to the thought that perhaps it was I who had broken out of what the game required of me.

Shoot-and-loot games, which Borderlands is easily the most narrative of the genre, require a distillation of roles in order to make them work correctly. There’s whomever or whatever is in the sights and who is pulling the trigger (you). Most of the visual elements stress this – your appearance is novel and fleeting, whether it is a pair of disembodied hands or just the form of your gun. Enemies are constantly coming for you, outlined in red. This crystallization has some really problematic forms when it boils down $enemy to characteristics like “brown people.”  It’s crucial that FPS games have this format; the ability to mimic real behaviors such as identifying targets in a fraction of a second and to unemotionally make a judgement just as fast to take them down is what drives the genre. For all of Borderlands goofy trappings, it still has this at the core.

Marley should have been merely another box to tick off, another challenge to overcome in order to progress my character and gain skills to go farther in the game. Despite Borderlands’ best efforts to pass me through this in a perfunctory, expected way, I still entered into it with my unbearable reflex to assign emotions and value to the inanimate. What I had even believed as a chance occurrence of AI interaction may have been intended as a potential solution to the problem. This was overwhelming because I felt utterly alone in my hysterics in that moment.

Despite my embarrassment with having feelings, I feel that my discomfort with some moments in any game, especially games like Borderlands is worthwhile. Being taken out of the core loop of any game is usually considered a negative. Being empathetic for a fraction of a second, even towards a simple boss mob, is not a failure state in the slightest. If the last few months have taught me anything, it is a requirement.

Memes, Context and Teen Girls: How ‘Just Warlord Things’ Rings False

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Image courtesy of Just Warlord Things tumblr.

Memes and other forms of memetic communication that have sprung from various social media outlets are something of an interest of mine. Whether it’s Twitter jokes (like Jobs/Hope/Cash) or Tumblr text posts, there’s something charming to be examined about how we talk to each other in-group in the various spaces we occupy.

One of the stranger things that has come about from this is that companies have definitely noticed that there’s cache in adopting the mannerisms of the population they wish to sell to, especially via the same channels their demographic will be browsing. Most times the attempts are incredibly tone-deaf or straight up incomprehensible, with at least one notable exception. It feels goofy on the surface but the larger capitalistic intent is to try and don the apparel of your audience in order to get them to identify with your brand. Most companies do not realize that they are not people, as much as they like to try. Plus, since most social media outlets are moving towards making their huge client base into more active consumers, the effect feels chilling.

Memetic jokes and language in online spaces are designated for entertainment and to also bolster a sense of community, but something people often forget is that they are also purposeful and create cultural meaning. They inherently refer to both the medium and the people who inhabit said media. Companies often run aground because they attempt to remove the contexts that created the language in the first place.

Take, for instance World of Warcraft.

Warcraft started a Tumblr this week called “justwarlordthings” and has created both image macros and video content to go along with, plastering both (with attendant tags) on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook. The whole shebang is an artful parody (homage?) of the well-known #justgirlythings Tumblr. For those people who weren’t aware of that blog, #justgirlythings produced the kind of basic but relateable image macro that was delicately indicative many of the things people ascribe to Tumblr generally: teen girls. The pictures often of headless white young women frolicking often dreamily talk about boyfriends and simple pleasures that are no doubt the height of femininity.

Warcraft is not even close to being the first to do a send-up of #jgt, given that the blog itself was so easy to poke fun of. Many parodies often subversively undermined what is presumed to be a very normative, white performance of femininity by suggesting that it is typically girly to summon demons or be a witch. There’s a resistance there, via satire, to the presumption of what it means to be “girly” when that meaning is so rigid. It is powerful, especially when Tumblr’s high population of girls, women and other femme individuals is so soundly made fun of.

It’s this general scorn for Tumblr by the rest of the Internet community that makes Warcraft’s joke feel less like “laughing with” and more like “laughing at.” There’s also the matter that their meme overlays what is traditionally a pink, feminine meme with their newest expansion’s trappings: masculine, brutal and violent. There’s nothing smart being said here, but rather another instance of nerdery that adopts something for girls/women (even if it is problematic) and makes it about men and their interests. The ability to critique can come from outside the group, but it often rings false if there’s a substantial power differential at play. This goes doubly so for a company who has no real interest in making a statement or undoing societal structures.

The extra layer to all of this is that Warcraft is not absent of girls and women; the giant MMORPG boasts quite a large population of both. This, along with past issues with representing gender is why Blizzard has been making attempts to rectify how they come across to their audience. They just recently debuted their newest IP, Overwatch, which prominently features women as half of their new characters, as well as replied to many of their fans who felt left out by Warlords’ story.

It is weird that Blizzard is doing a campaign like this. Given how their expansion was marketed prior to the release, it feels off-base and callous. No one owns a meme, per se, but given a company’s ability to leverage it into sales or a deeper community buy-in, is it really Blizzard’s right to cash in on something that is largely not theirs to dance all over? Do they really want to alienate the people who might have created the whole girly meme from playing their game? Who knows.

This just feels like another instance of a big business not really getting what some of their potential demographic is really all about.

Writing In the Margins: Bayonetta 2, Sex Criticism, and Power Dynamics

I won’t pretend that this is even remotely an objective look at literally anything and rather a bag of cats that I’ve had going around in my mind for a week now. It’s almost 4 AM my time and this is nothing but one of those dreadful, self-absorbed noodlings on personal experiences and feminist theory. But isn’t that the point of discourse of in our community?

All of this started because I started seeing (whether some phenomenon or actual increased usage in just specifically my circle of Twitter acquaintances) sex positivity and sex negativity being mentioned in the last couple of days. It feels good to see feminist discourse happening in the video games community because I think it is sorely needed after the last 3 months. Admitting that we’re allowed, as feminists, to disagree with each other, feels like a positive first step in healing and growing a community where we’re not letting harassment cause us to constantly have reaffirm each other’s humanity to disgusting people versus having diverse discussions about the nature of our critique.

This seems, of course, all related to Bayonetta 2.

(Here is where I admit I have not played either 1 or 2 to any great degree. As a cultural work though, I feel it has quite a lot of innate context just from the the design and mechanics.)

Not only have I seen several comments painting Bayonetta 2 as enjoyable because of a sex positive viewpoint, but I’ve also seen sex negativity specifically float around as the opposite of that. If you enjoy Bayonetta, you’re the champion against sex-negativity. I find this really hurtful and reductive, especially as someone who tends to fall closer to sex critical or sex negative. I feel that reducing one’s ideological stance to your feelings on literally one video game character undoes a lot of the real nature of sexual discourse in feminism.

This is where I pause and say that you should all read Maddy Myer’s incredibly awesome look at Bayonetta 2. I don’t agree with all of it but I think it’s a really important line of conversation to have and it has a lot of nuance and angles to look at. This is the kind of stuff that games criticism should touch on and we should always make room for. Here’s also where I draw a circle around this conversation with salt , because, straight men, I do not actually give a shit how you feel about any of my thoughts today.

I think I should backtrack a bit and maybe elucidate on why sex positivity/negativity are particularly unsettling concepts to flatten out. For one, neither sex positivity nor negativity initially started as feminist dialogues. Both were schools of thought that date back pretty far in history and eventually came into the fold of critical discourse later on. Sex positivity was a celebration of sexual behavior without moral judgement and sex negativity was the fairly prudish opposite of that, crying that sex was a root of many different problems. Neither are particularly interesting at that basic level and I believe that they became much more interesting once feminist and other social justice movements got started. Much of what was dubbed the “Feminist Sex Wars” were a struggle between two wings of feminist thought – one that openly embraced the Free Love aspect of the 60s and 70s and the other wing that became much of the second wave’s anti-pornography collective. Again, both have really interesting things about them. Second wave also had issues with not just a lack of regard for sex workers but also trans women as well, which is why a lot of sex negative critique is largely not useable. However, moving past that into more 3rd wave and more intersectional analysis of feminist critique, we can see why both approaches are valuable.

I do not see sex negativity or positivity as wholly bad positions. I also don’t see them as opposites necessarily, either. If sex positivity in feminism is embracing women’s agency and sexual empowerment, then sex negativity is critiquing the structures that make enacting that agency and empowerment an issue. I think both together make up a body of sex criticism that looks at the ever-present issues of misogyny, abuse, rape culture and sexual performance, sexuality that is part of our work as a whole. Looking at one without the other, in my mind, does a disservice to large concepts and methods. Both, taken to logical extremes, also have sufficient issues. On the one hand, sex positivity performed in an uncritical way can ignore people who struggle with sexual behavior due to abuse, rape or other traumatic experiences. It can gloss over how sexual performances by women in our society can be co-opted by patriarchal concepts (Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy, while a problematic text, rotates around this idea.) However, it’s also a way for women to embrace their own sexual agency that can be uplifting. It can define what that agency means. It can widen the way we perform our sexuality in our culture and ameliorate those who have been marginalized in a sexual way.

Sex negativity, when taken to this same way can be incredibly harmful to sex workers, focusing on how damaging things like porn can be without respect for the women who work in the industry. It can be incredibly narrow about sexual performance that does not happen in a male-dominated space or with the involvement of men. It can fall back largely on white supremacist concepts of sex that were enforced by colonialism and hurt women of color. However, sex negativity also pokes at the meaning of consent in a society that is founded and enforced by men (Andrea Dworkin’s work has a lot of this), it can tackle power dynamics that surround sexual performance as well.

Both things are incredibly essential to a larger critique of sexual practices and themes. Reducing them to “sex positivity means you think sex is good, sex negativity means you think it is bad” is hearkening back to those roots of the theory and inimical to progress in feminist discourse. Sex cannot be all good or all bad and even framing it in that way is reductive.  As someone who finds herself incredibly critical of sex, seeing these views crop up in gaming, which is still perceived as male-dominated, is alienating. It also falls back onto actually very misogynistic concepts that reduce women on some level to “bad” or “good depending on one’s views on sex. There’s two flavors of this, one being the more contemporary idea in nerd culture that fun women are sexy and cool, and bad women are frigid and stuck-up. The other older idea is the whole virgin/whore dichotomy, which chides women for being lascivious and sexually impure. Both remove the ability for women to act authentically with their sexual behavior and defines it in a moralistic way. The former is the one I see the most happening lately, especially given that nerd media, like video games, portrays women as sexual beings for men’s benefit only versus any of us. Maddy’s article squarely tackled the idea of male gaze being outdated and I largely agree with her. However, I don’t think that negates that there is definitely a very heterosexual male way of looking, especially in media.

A digression, if you’ll allow me.

One of the points that gets brought up in Maddy’s article regarding how rigid the idea of male gaze is that it does, rightfully ignore that the potential audience that is looking could potentially be queer women. Queer women are often a subset of participators when it comes to media consumption that are overlooked when it comes to women being sexy. It seems to follow logically that we’d be in the same general demographic as straight men when it comes to consuming sexualized women in media – except that it really doesn’t. I’ve felt very pushed aside when it comes to seeing the same images of women that are obviously styled for straight men due to the fact that they both reflect their interests (versus mine) but also have a double effect of how those same men perceive me. Many images of sexualized women are reliant on a larger context that derives from a very male-dominated, heterosexual society and it’s very hard to escape that, no matter who you are. Sexualized women are often portrayed as enticing due to their objectification, lack of agency as well complacency. To say that queer women don’t internalize both the idea that this is what we should find sexy in women, as well as ourselves would be faulty. But to say that that’s where it ends is faulty. I don’t find how women are created to appeal to straight men to be representative of my tastes, especially now as a feminist. It relies on too many problematic and frankly, harmful elements for me to feel comfortable.

The personal aspect of this is that as a queer woman navigating internalized misogyny, sexism and my own sexuality as a nerd, I spent a lot of hours sucking up to male friends by joining in their ogling and chatter of women in a sexual way. One of the easiest ways to fit in with nerd guys as a woman is to be “one of the guys” and being a queer woman who also finds women sexually attractive? That’s like a huge stat bonus. Being bisexual also meant I was technically available, so the possibilities were endless. It’s a fantasy of men to subsume a queer woman’s identity – have her enjoy his sexual overtures but also indulge in objectifying women alongside him. Nerds eat that shit up and so it was one of the ways I got my “cred” and tons of attention. It’s one of the most persistent strains of biphobic misogyny as well, that bisexual women are just attention whores and faking it for men. The fact that you are encouraged to do so for men’s validation is besides the point, right? (Heh.)

But when I really thought about it, especially after I broke out of that part of my life, my sexuality was confusing. I didn’t find women attractive in the same way these men did. I didn’t really want to degrade women or treat them like garbage or sex dumpsters. I wanted them the same way I wanted men – meaningfully, in a fun way, as a fellow human being, in a romantic, emotional or sexual way. In short, I wanted to treat them the way I wanted to be treated.

However, that directly deals with how we as people talk about ourselves, but what about applying these things to media? This is where it gets trickier and why Bayonetta is so contentious. Sexualized images in our media are both subject to the same things real people are but on a much different level. The easiest way to think about is that a fictional character does not have agency. A fictional character does not act on her own steam, she does or says whatever the author (or authors) want her to do. This is why when nerds fall all over themselves to say, “Oh she’s such a sexy, strong woman, look how empowered she is!” I roll my eyes a bit. The author has made a character perform in that way and it means that it’s not immune from criticism in quite the same way a real woman would be regarding her own choices (which are still subject to criticism, I must interject, but it’s still her choice to do those things.) This is why media is such an intriguing topic to engage on a feminist level – we have to both account for the potential author’s intent but at the same time reject it past a certain point. Looking at media on a critical level as a feminist means both picking apart what makes it problematic but can also be celebrating how to derive meaning and enjoyment from it.

This is where we turn back to Bayonetta. She is both the product of a woman designer, who had her own goals for her, as well as a product of our feelings towards her as a character. Her contentious position in videogames comes with a much larger context and that is why so many different people have different opinions about her. I don’t think you have to be looking at it from one particular way to simultaneously hate it or enjoy it and the idea that to embrace Bayonetta means to completely embrace sex positivity does both the character and the concept a disservice. Because from where I stand, I believe it is possible to look at her position as both a potential power fantasy that we rarely see in videogames but also positioned squarely in an industry that allows so few woman characters to exist at all that it’s hard to ignore the sexual elements. It’s an industry in a society that still is controlled on many levels by men, especially sexual performance. Sexual nuances to characters are never apolitical in this climate and they go over about as well as sex in our society. We all have our personal experiences and struggles to consider when wanting to engage with this kind of content and that’s where my fallback onto sex criticism comes – I want women to feel free to reject or embrace as little or as much of Bayonetta as they choose. She’s the product of many people and is both a fetish object and also a rejection of the dehumanization that often occurs. She’s a mockery of masculine ideals of sex appeal and also panders to them at the same time. Bayonetta is both strong and is also subject to the whims of her creators. She flirts with kink and domination while also potentially being a man’s idea of what that means. It’s a confusing bundle of many things and that’s why there is so much disagreement.

In that way, I do agree with what Maddy said – I don’t think she’s solely positioned within the debunked male gaze, but I don’t know how we are supposed to perceive her. Women finding joy and excitement from her, as much as loathing or criticism, is valid. Until we start seeing a landscape more thoroughly populated with nuanced portrayals of women, more of whom are sent out into the world by women authors, I believe we will continue to have this conversation. I embrace it and would love to see more of it, as long as we’re not shutting out other avenues of criticism.

 

The Real Escapism

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I’m not the sort of person who is afraid of being alone. Much to the chagrin of my friends, I will often do things that allow me to sit and enjoy something entirely by myself. I sit for hours at both home and my job, just passively watching things go on around me. Movies, dinner dates and sightseeing are all things I’ve done lost in my own thoughts.

Gaming nowadays goes roughly the same way, almost in defiance of how social video games have innately gotten. There’s endless titles that have single-player narratives but still allow global text chat, voice chat, cooperative play and random matchmaking. The act of playing a game can be just as social as anything else we choose to indulge in.

However, as I grow older, I find that my gaming habits have changed. As Ian Williams remarked on a recent episode of Justice Points, we don’t need MMORPGs to fill that social void when we’re constantly interacting with social media. Social media has let me lapse into a solitary lifestyle while the gentle pings of Twitter keep me company whenever I decided to tab out of whatever I’m doing in Diablo III or Hatoful Boyfriend. I can even enable my app to pop Mentions out as tiny boxes that I can read without even leaving what I’m doing. Having others rely on me to keep a game experience going is often tiresome for my mercurial attention span – sometimes I can hyper-focus for hours at a time but most of the time I just want to come and go as I please.

Enter Eidolon, a game I feel strongly about despite having only played a handful of hours. I have barely scratched what promises to be a deep narrative experience, only to just wander lonely and quiet, gently surviving. I watch the sky change color and clouds roll by. I climb to the top of cliffs to look out across the horizon. I pick up tinder and mushrooms. I orient myself using a compass I found from a glowing green cube.

There are no social options in this single-player game. There’s not even any other people as far as I know and I find that the best part. In this low-poly post-apocalypse setting, all I encounter is the occasional animal (dangerous or not) and snippets of what people left behind. I could sit doing nothing, just looking at the stars and the game would not mind. As long as I have enough food to keep myself from starving and a fire to keep me warm, I could go on like this forever, criss-crossing this ruined stretch of the low-poly Pacific Northwest.

It isn’t that I eschew the comfort of others, far from it.

When I used to have anxiety attacks about my own life, I used to imagine leaving everything behind. Whether it was driving out to the ocean in a car I didn’t own or leaving my body somewhere, the particular act of dissociation gave me a little control over my feelings. The open road has been a call for many people but I mostly just wanted to drift from whatever particular circumstances I was in at the time and felt chained down by.

What the game offers me so far is that same freedom to leave the trappings of being – I have no body or presentation in this game. There’s not even the ubiquitous “pair of hands” that so many other games have, I am a ghost wandering the hills. My experiences with other genres have been tied up very heavily in how I look, and one of the drawbacks of that is that it does remind me how, even though I am almost the lowest bar to clear in terms of representation (white cis female), there’s still quite a lot lacking. There’s also just how weighed down I can feel by how much even my gender matters in the video game sphere. Everywhere I look, someone is reminding me that I am queer, feminist and a woman and everything that means. Expectations and micro-aggressions are their own suit of armor and my spaces have gotten more hostile as of late.

Video games have long been the province of escapism, full of power fantasies and highly idealized versions of self. Exploration mechanics in games are the antithesis of that in a lot of ways, they beckon you to enjoy being somewhere versus someone else. For me, the chance to be no one is enticing, to not matter in the slightest. I simply wake up in the middle of a forest and the only question I have to answer is, “What now?” It’s a way to gain the feeling of being lost and happy about it without some of the concerns that do come up if I wandered outside of my house.

The choice to matter so very little is an odd one, but it is less stressful, even for a little while.

 

 

 

 

Escape Velocity

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Thelma and Louise picture courtesy of the Screenlines blog.

Sometimes you just have to trick yourself into thinking you’re going on vacation and while no one is paying attention, pack your car and head west.

It’s weird to think of leaving a game and its attendant community with the same gravitas as other more serious topics, but given how often World of Warcraft resembled a small town at times, it is an apt description. For a population of 7 million, it was incredibly insular in that regard. Instead of doing things for World of Warcraft, it’s been nice to focus on other things, particularly things that interest me, no matter what they are. I’ve been catching up on more television and movies with my boyfriend, as well as trying out way more games. Not having to maintain an audience who only care for me to talk about WoW means I can talk about anything I want, and interact with whomever shows up to listen.

I never thought I’d leave Warcraft. I thought about the day that I’d just end up being done and turn off the lights, wander away. I didn’t realize that it would really be me watching my pretty consistent enthusiasm for a game being ground into dust and my attempts to change things being stymied as I realized that a giant company doesn’t really have to care. Warcraft, and Blizzard if we’re being honest, is so massive that it has its own gravity. You either roll in towards it or in my case, work up the energy to fly away. It is a funny business attaching yourself, limpet-like, to one game and one game only and the whole method of criticizing the one thing you’re so intimately connected with. People resented me for my criticisms, but those same people were the ones I had to impress and cajole into listening. I grew increasing frustrated when I realized the only thing that kept us talking to each other was a thing I was growing to hate. I was playing the same game that I had come to despise over a number of months, wishing it would get better and then watching it get worse. I definitely wasn’t making any progress, and I wasn’t getting any better at what I was doing. I also was becoming a person I really didn’t like – resentful, angry and generally just bitter.

Everything looked like it would be better once I put enough distance between myself and Warcraft.  The reality is that it is and isn’t. I am a small country mouse in a big city now. (I would imagine some people would term it as “little fish in a big pond” but I am not nor consider myself such. I just know this is a different culture now where the land is way more unfamiliar.)

The larger gaming community is confusing and it’s been odd to disentangle myself from one population of people with a significant sexism problem only to run straight into watching the paranoia, misogyny and schisms happening all over due to gamers being angry that women like making games and writing about them. It did remind me though that trying to attack the problems with one game left me not focusing at how it’s a deeply connected issue to every other game that’s been made and the people who play them. It also showed me that the despite all of those fibers crossing back and forth, capital-G gaming is content to not overturn the rock that is MMORPGs and the shit that goes on there. This is one of the reasons that MMORPGs have such a weird, impenetrable barrier around them; they are a genre of game so all-encompassing and socially engrossing that it’s very hard to get out of them long enough to try other things, and the audience is okay with the larger world ignoring them.  MMORPGs are hard to understand unless you’re in the thick of it. Having been there, I understand that it is extremely hard to leave, and extremely hard to peer into it without feeling confused.

I guess this is at least one thing I do understand, this liminality. There’s a difficulty in making a promise to yourself that forever means just that, the end.  It’s hard to change present tense to past, to put down the road lines as you’re driving, trying not to outpace your expectations by the reality of the situation. I keep moving forward and away because it’s not cool to look at explosions. It’s also hard not to sound dire when I don’t even know if I’m running from, or to somewhere

Some days, it feels like a little of both.