Sunday, April 28, 2013

I Didn’t Hear You Correctly, Did I?

    While this article may not be within the realm of video games, I would still like to take time to comment on comics when I feel the need arises.  It is important to note that comics are another section of the ‘geek’ subculture to which games are also bound. Also, as I refer here to those characters existing within the Batman/Gotham DC Universe, it is important to know that just like this franchise, comics and games have had a border-crossing relationship for years.

    A while back I began reading the Gotham City Sirens, I got the whole set after enjoying the first few and I have been slowly working my way through them since.  After a group discussion about the interesting article by Rebecca Demarest, ‘Superheroes, Superpowers, and Sexuality’ I decided to take another look at the first issue.
Gotham City Sirens #1 - All in the Title, Isn't It?
To set the base for this discussion, I would like to first note on an interesting point put forth by Demarest. The concept of Inherent vs. Gifted Powers in the realm of comics is interesting and diverse, leading to a bounty of beloved or disputed origin stories.  She states “the women heroes are rarely ones to have inborn powers; they are usually gifted to them” while “the men on the other hand have inherent powers”. This is obviously not the case for every female or every male (an example being the X-Men), but it leans towards truth for the majority. Issue #1 of Gotham City Sirens begins with a narrative by Catwoman, so I will first attempt to elaborate on this anti-hero.

    Catwoman has a developing origin story. She was a prostitute who broke free from her old life.  In some she is a mafia boss’ daughter, and in others she is the daughter of a drunk. In Demarest’s understanding of Catwoman’s origins, “Catwoman’s…skills were taught to her by a karate sensei and a boxer, both of whom she was introduced to by a third party. She worked her butt off during her training, but it was still an integral part of the story that she did not get to where she was by herself, she had help”.  In this way, or even if looking at Catwoman as a product of Mama Fortuna’s training, Catwoman’s abilities are ‘gifted’ to her.
Poison Ivy- Just Out for a Jaunt

Poison Ivy, a villaness and eco-terrorist of the DC Universe, is one of the Siren trio.  For this series she has thrown off most of her criminal activities, and at points even treads along the line of anti-hero. Her powers are certainly ‘gifted’.  In both her modern and Silver Age origin stories she is injected with a serum/poison by another person (maliciously). It is this ‘gifted’ serum that gives her the abilities she posses as a villainess. (It should also be noted that in the modern origin story, the serum also makes her unable to bare a child.)

    Last, but never least, is Harley Quinn. At one point in Harleen’s life she was a prominent young physiatrist working a difficult but prestigious job at Arkham, but sessions with the Joker twist her into a gag-hammer toting, laughing lackey.  It is only through her ‘awakening’ by the Joker that she has initiative to take to villainy. Through her origins, she is the definition of a Barnacle character and while she already possessed the physical attributes to act, it is only through Jokers ‘gift’ of initiative that she steps onto the villain stage.

Harley Quinn - Poor Girl

    So, for these women, within the Batman/Gotham DC Universe, they fit the majority of the ‘gifted’ powered women. Demarest, calling on a contributor from the book Cultural Anthropology: A Problem-Based Approach, in this case Robbins, recalls ideas from linguist Robin Lakoff, stating that Lakoff “was one of the first to draw attention to the way that a woman’s identity in society influences how she speaks” and Lakoff says that women are “constrained to minimize their expressions with…tag questions…rising intonations…the use of hedges…[and] indirection”  (Robbins 2006: 205). It is this sort of language I examine Gotham City Sirens #1 for.

    While the appearance of this super-trio certainly falls into the stereotypical skimpy outfit and attractive figure, I am relieved to find that their speech patterns do not. Catwoman, while introduced as weak due to a recent injury, uses very assertive and sarcastic phrasing, similar to many primary young male supers.  She makes clear statements, and her use of questions is not meant to minimize her assertive statements. Poison Ivy has similarly assertive speech, with a slightly more sexualized overtone due to her inherent appeal based abilities. Harley Quinn, portrayed as childlike and still love struck, speaks mainly through the use of questions, tag questions, and assumed rising annotations, being the main fall-gal for the ‘feminine’ speech patterns.

    I believe that the reason behind the strong use of language by two of the main characters in Gotham City Sirens #1 is due to the need for strong central characters within the main cast. Having two strong voices can and will lead to interesting conflict, and the edition of a less assertive voice allows for comparison as well as the creation of dependent and engaging speech.

    There are many other facets of Demarest’s discussion of the difference between male and female supers in comics, including relationships and appearance, and the article is well worth a read for those interesting in the topic.  There is also an ongoing column over at Comics Bulletin discussing differing takes on DC’s gender issues that is well worth a read.  In the future I may examine some of DC’s New 52 for these patterns, although I know already that the New 52 has made a few mistakes with its female supers.


Thursday, April 25, 2013

On the Margins - Visual Novel Games

Cinders: A thoughtful visual novel game by MoaCube.
After reading “What Games Made By Girls Can Tell Us” by Jill Denner and Shannon Campe, I started thinking about games I’ve played that have similar qualities to the games the girls in the Girls Creating Games (GCG) program came up with. The girls were limited to a choose-your-own-adventure type game that relied on text and still images. While there was a lot of variation among the games they made they generally took place in realistic settings, focused on fears and social issues that girls face, had multiple endings, chances to win (but not necessarily at the expense of others), and a chance to pick the gender of your character.

Cinders (2012) a PC game developed and published by MoaCube, a small collective of indie game developers, is a visual novel game and retelling of the fairytale Cinderella. Displeased with the Cinderella story most people are familiar with (aka the Disney version), MoaCube set out to create a story where the protagonist, Cinders, plays an active role and the player feels like they are in control of the story. The story starts out familiar with Cinders at home with her “evil” stepsisters and stepmother but it doesn’t take long for the story to take unexpected twists and turns. The story is delivered through text dialogue and the player, when prompted, can choose what actions Cinders takes. Different decisions shape Cinders’s personality and can lead to four different endings with variations within each of them. More importantly, the decisions you make have enormous weight. I often found myself sitting at my computer, mulling over the options, worried that I’d make the wrong choice.

Similar to the GCG games, players are confronted with social issues such as deciding to disobey an authority figure, taking up a romantic interest (or not, the option is there), and navigating the strained relationship between Cinders and her stepsisters. Many games reinforce traditional gender roles, but Cinders allows you to experiment and find the path that best fits you.

Decision Time: What will you do?
Overall, Cinders is a high quality game with great characters, story, art, and music. I believe that there’s a huge market for visual novel games but as of now, they don’t get much press for the same reason that games “for girls” (like Imagine: Fashion Designer) don’t get attention within gamer culture. Their feminine elements and nontraditional style make people question whether or not they’re real games. Does Cinders count as a game when all you have to do is click through dialogue and make decisions? Is it just a visual novel or a visual novel game? I believe it’s as much a game as Halo or Dragon Age. Sure, the presentation is different but you’re still making decisions and roleplaying a character. Leaving visual novels out of the category of game just limits the medium and those who would potentially enjoy them. There’s a lot to like about visual novel games, and I have a feeling that in the future they’ll be a massive part of the casual/mobile game market.
- J.

Bayonetta and Camp

This post is a walk-through of the development of my thoughts regarding the video game Bayonetta.

Part 1: Parody

I don’t think anyone would dispute that Bayonetta is over-the-top.

Bayonetta Trailer

The game combines “hyper cool” combos/moves that only require button mashing with a “hyper sexy” main character whose stilettos are guns and whose outfit is composed largely out of her hair, and an objective to kill angels all set to a poppy, up-beat soundtrack. The target for enemies is a set of red lips, and when you successfully perform a move in the tutorial, the game praises you with “Cute!” and “Beautiful!” Bayonetta catwalks down the aisle of a train in a cutscene on the demo.

Any qualms I had about another buxom femme fatale was assuaged by the realization that this was a parody. The game is just too much to be taken seriously. A heavy reliance of tired stereotypes about femininity, hyper-sexualization to ridiculousness, and the intentionally provocative charge of killing angels with combo moves that require skill a novice could muster are all tongue-in-cheek. Bayonetta playfully critiques elements commonly found in “those other games” (and real life): the conflation of sex and violence, a heroine in a sexualized outfit, a heroine who is only her sexuality and is constantly reconciling the whore/Madonna paradox, endlessly bloody and graphic combos, the unabashed t and a shots.

One reviewer said they felt uncomfortable because the game seems to encourage objectifying Bayonetta (positioning her in suggestive poses and moving the camera around), and yet sets her up as a strong, independent, angel-slaying badass in the plot. That this tension was obvious in this game is part of what makes it an effective parody.

Part 2: Author’s Intent

Later, J. pointed me to some comments the developers made in regards to the creation of  Bayonetta. In creating the game, they decided to start with focusing on "her femininity and sexuality” and built the character around that. They achieved this in part by incorporating a butterfly motif with Bayonetta, a symbol typically considered “girly” but also is associated with female genitals. Other elements include the use of flowers, a focus on her shoes, and her (sexual) dress and comportment. One developer, Kamiya, said that the theme of the game and the power behind Bayonetta’s attacks is "sexiness."

Aside from the focus on sexuality and femininity conceptually, there was also a focus on these aspects of the character’s visual design. Kenichiro Yoshimura, who worked on the games images, said in regards to Bayonetta: "I really wanted to get Bayonetta's backside perfect. I guess I am into that sort of thing..."

Thank goodness Kenichiro Yoshimura spent hours toiling over that perfect butt, am I right?

 While there is not anything wrong with being “into that sort of thing,” or even creating a sexualized woman character, the creator’s commentary reveals a level of objectification.

These comments make me question whether or not Bayonetta really is parody. By focusing in on the character’s “femininity and sexuality” to an extreme, instead of other real aspects of her character, the development team did just what one needs to do in order to transform a character into campy parody. Unintentionally.

Part 3: Cross-Cultural Camp

But then it dawned on me that this game was made in Japan. There are numerous examples of Japanese games that when brought to the USA have elements that are “lost in translation.” Is Bayonetta one big misunderstanding?

I kept asking myself, if the “authors’ intent” was to pull off hyper-sexy fighting fuckdoll “with an air of mystery,” why could they not see that they were plunging head-first into camp instead? One answer is that “camp” is a culturally specific category. It is worth looking into whether or not “camp” as an aesthetic even exists in Japanese culture, and if it does, how congruent the Japanese ideas of camp are with the United States’ ideas of camp are.

Part 4: What does this mean?

So, how does someone make sense of this? How much does authors’ intent matter when it comes to interpreting a game? How about cultural origin? If this game was not created as parody, but instead as an attempt at more sexist BS in the video game industry, does that undermine any empowering interpretations of Bayonetta, or create a hierarchy of meanings?

Personally, these realizations left me feeling conflicted over what had at first been a very tidy categorization of the game. At the same time, the United States has been creating “local” meanings for imports for years, and I don’t think Bayonetta is any different. I don’t have a problem continuing to enjoy the game as parody (in the United States at least?). However, the only remaining qualms I have surround the prospect of knowingly financially supporting an endeavor that was potentially at its root a sexist one.

- A.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Volatile, Self-Obsessed, and Doesn't Play Well with Others: Post-Avengers Movie Fandom Backlash

Ladyvengers, fan art by _kreugan on DeviantArt
Geek, nerd, gaming and comic book culture have members who claim the culture is inclusive. They say that nerd culture is for outcasts, the bullied, the alone. While for some people this may be the case, for many others nerd culture is a hostile place. It is dominated largely by white males who are also heterosexual and cis. This privileged group not only has a lot of control of the content that is released in the gaming/comic/movie industries, but they are also the most vocal of the fans. This has caused many problems, where certain groups of people aren't regarded as "real fans".
After Joss Whedon's hugely popular The Avengers was released, many new folks wanted to join in on comic book superhero fun. Those who hadn't read comics before were intrigued by the movie and many decided to give comics a try. While this new surge of fans is good for the industry, and debatably the fandom, many new fans received huge backlash.

As a member of the Avengers fandom on various internet platforms, I watched as people were targeted for "not really being fans" because they were introduced through the movies. However, not all "fake fans" were targeted equally. One group that was specifically targeted was women. Women were first assumed to be heterosexual, and then accused of only liking the film because of all the hot men. The prevalence of "hot women" in comic book culture to attract heterosexual males was never questioned. I noticed that men frequently discussed the attractiveness of female comic book character, or in the case of the movie Black Widow, but they were never told they "only liked comics for the hot ladies". Even if a female fan had been reading comics for a long time, they were assumed to "only be fans because of the movies". Many times I saw women being grilled for information about the Avengers team, but men did not receive the same scrutiny. Women were assumed to be "fake fans" until proven otherwise.

Data comparing screen time in minutes to number of character toys at 5 major retailers, including the Disney Store.
Additionally, the idea that only men are fans of comics (and superhero movies) was perpetuated by the merchandise sold in affiliation with the film. While Black Widow, the only female superhero in the Avengers movie, was prominent in the plot she is often missing from t-shirts, backpacks, toys and other merchandising.

One member of tumblr, who created the butnotblackwidow blog, is in the middle of a study comparing screen-time to number of toys. Currently their data shows how drastically Black Widow is erased from the toy sales (see graph below). This also perpetuates the gendered ideas embedded in toy sales  in which certain toys are specifically made for boys and girls. In this case, toys that target boys don't include female characters, even important ones.

In addition, many new fans began to actively ship characters into gay relationships. These ships were attacked with homophobia, and many men in the fandom complained about these members "ruining their characters" with by making them potentially gay. This backlash is also gendered because queer women as superheros are more accepted, like Batwoman.
There are many fans of the Avengers who are not men, who are not heterosexual and who are not white. These fans produce amazing fan art, fan stories and contribute everyday to the fandom in positive ways. But the backlash following the Avengers film demonstrates how geek culture is not always welcoming to everyone. In fact, the industry and members of the culture often actively attempts to remove women, queer folks and people of color from geek circles.


Friday, April 12, 2013

Fake Geek Girls, Fake Geek Problems

It is difficult to have a valid discussion on a concept that is so hotly debated. The idea of the Fake Geek Girl exists in a multitude of discussions. Do they exist at all? Does the idea of a Fake Geek Girl have a spectrum? Is one a Fake Geek Girl to the complete exclusion of being an actual geek?  Does the debate of the Fake Geek Girl expand to booth babes, or even just a geek culture naïf? What stressors over the last few years of the geek and gaming community has led to the explosion of negative energy towards the communities female participants?  When the first postings about the Fake Geek Girl hit the Internet it ushered in a flood of reactions both condemning the idea and expanding upon it.

The Fake Geek Girl has a vague definition. Articles by CNN, The Atlantic, and Forbes (several times) contributors explain that FGGs are “pretty girls pretending to be geeks for attention”. One article even drew the FGG infiltration as parallel to the Communist sleeper agent uncertainty of the 1950s. Jokes are cracked and comics and advertisements are drawn about how these FGGs are here to prey on the male geeks as unfeeling huntresses. These comics or short films, while made in jest as a manner to dismiss the FGG, can actually get across some important points. One short film has a humorous depiction of the FGG as a murderer. In it, the detective makes a comment stating that: “Maybe there is no fake geek girl. Maybe it is just a product of the deeply rooted sexism of geek culture. Maybe she is just a manifestation of the insecurities about the opposite sex”.  This is the only somewhat serious part of the film, and it is quickly laughed off and forgotten. Yet, Dr. Andrea Letamendi, who writes for The Mary Sue, explains that this may be the case as well as several other factors.
Pulp Scifi style seems perfect for the silly idea.
Dr. Letamendi explains the situation on both sides: why the male geek population reacted to viciously, and why the female geek population reacted so defensively. She lays it out in three very clear lines. Geeks are afraid of imposters and false infiltrators because: 1) There is a false notion of limited resources within the community, 2) The community has a misinterpreted sense of ownership, and 3) There is resentment for the change that ‘geek’ culture is undergoing. These negative ideas are supported by the fact that, every once in a blue moon, there is a girl just looking to get some attention in a skimpy cosplay, there are still booth babes in many conventions, and fledgling geeks are not given enough positive reinforcement to pursue the culture before being turned away.

Dr. Letamendi also states that female ‘geeks’ become defensive at the idea of the FGG because of long-seated “insults, indignities, and demeaning messages from other members of the comics community”.  She brings up the subtle ways in which female members of the community are belittled, stating the use of microaggressions, to plant a disparaging seed in the female geek’s mind. She also elaborates on the ways women are made to feel invisible within the community, as well as pointing out that female geeks are constantly told that they cannot keep up intellectually with their male counterparts.

There may be a little more to it though.  The introduction of the idea of the FGG to the popular community mindset led to the creation of a new wall.  This barrier, arbitrary in its subject or depth, has to be hurdled every time a female geek wants to participate in the community’s conversations. Every time the wall is faced, the qualifications to be an ‘authentic geek’ changes. Many of the articles about FGGs written by females who consider themselves part of the community start their articles with their geek justifications; a list of how and why they can be considered part of the community. They have to prove themselves, establish their geek credentials, in fear of not being taken seriously.

The itching idea of attractive female non-geeks invading the geek-space for attention without an actual interest in the geek subset of cultural material has been growing for a while. Bans on the use of Booth Babes (another term for a promotional model), female models hired to attract attention to products and product tables at conventions, has been on the scene for a while.  But for them it is different, while they may be at the con for the attention, they are also there for the money, for them it is a job. But the main worry is that this condescending attitude towards ‘pretty invaders’ is now being applied to attractive female geek community members who have, for a long time, felt like a part of the community and are now faced with requests of justification.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

[TRIGGER WARNING: R*PE] Yes, We’re Still Talking About This Game

In 2006, Japanese erotic game developer Illusion released RapeLay in Japan to little fanfare. In the game you play as a male character who stalks and rapes a mother and her two daughters.

I wish this was a joke.

Sex is an active mechanic in the game meaning that you, the player, can control the sexual acts you force on the female characters. You can choose between a variety of sexual positions and unlock different game modes, each equally as disturbing as the next. You might be wondering, “Well is there a story? Is there a point to all this?” Sure I guess there’s a story, if one could call it that. The main character is arrested for groping one of the female characters on a train. He is bailed out of jail by his father, who is an important politician. After the incident, the main character seeks revenge on the girl and her family.

Three years after the game’s initial release, gamers in the United States caught wind of the title and the media outlets exploded in debate. What is interesting about the RapeLay fiasco is the gamer response to it. A casual review of the game was first featured on SomethingAwful where the reviewer nostalgically recalled (in a tongue-in-cheek manner) the video game days of yesteryear where rape was simple pixels in Custer’s Revenge. He finds RapeLay disturbing but does not outwardly condemn it or any other erotic game featuring rape.

When CNN covered the game, erotic manga artist Nogami Takeshi took offense. He believed that because the game was created for rational adults, the game would not encourage people to become rapists. He says that rational adults are capable of distinguishing from real life and a fictional game so the content of the game isn’t an issue. Many gamers nodded in agreement.

Unfortunately, games are so over saturated with sexualized depictions of women that gamers don’t even blink when a game like RapeLay comes along. Games like this don’t exist in a cultural vacuum, they are reflections of the society in which we live. This isn’t an issue of fiction vs. reality. You can’t just say “It’s just a game so it’s okay.” The game glorifies the systems in place that keep victims of sexual harassment and assault from reporting their experience. The game also plays into rape fantasy and normalizes sexual violence against women. According to the study “Effects of Exposure to Sex-Stereotyped Video Game Characters on Tolerance of Sexual Harassment,” men subjected to hypersexualized images of women in games were disproportionately more likely to tolerate sexual harassment than those who were exposed to non-sexualized images of women. Even if its not immediately obvious, games like RapeLay do have an effect on players’ perceptions.

I find it disturbing that many people did not even question the existence of a game like this or why there are people willing to play it.

- J.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Harassment: Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

CONTENT/TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of sexual harassment/threats of sexual assault, links contain potentially triggering material.

When I play World of Warcraft, I always play female toons because honestly, I relate to them. WoW does a pretty decent job of providing clothing that doesn’t drastically change between the genders. I’m not going to stop playing female-bodied toons because men in game feel that they have the right to harass me.

I’m sick of walking into dungeons, being asked my real-life gender over and over again and when I finally concede? I get asked to do sexual favors, to makes sandwiches, “can I feel your boobs? lololol”, “where do you live real life— you’re probably fat”. I’m sick of walking into PvP and being inundated with angry players threatening rape on each other’s mothers and daughters and girlfriends. I’m sick of men loudly proclaiming their relationship status in game as if women are some kind of commodity that allow you to be accepted into gaming communities.

The infamous trolling excuse.
I’m sick of, when I call out these misogynists, being called a "bitch" and told that I should just “laugh it out, they’re just trolling”.

“Trolling” is a universal excuse that basically amounts to “they’re just joking” or “they’re just trying to get you angry”. This excuse is problematic because trolling almost always targets marginalized groups. In gaming, much of the “trolling” I have seen has been targeted towards women, gender and sexual minorities and people of color.

Additionally, a lot of insults used, no matter the victim, are usually gendered or based off of racist/heterosexist ideas. Often times “trollers” will insult people by mis-gendering them or calling them gay.

Essentially “trollers” often get away with making horrible remarks by saying that they’re just kidding. Many people also claim that trollers are only like that in-game, that truthfully they are not racist or sexist.
There are many problematic aspects of these arguments  and unless we deconstruct these excuses, we cannot move past the rampant harassment in the gaming world. If you are truly against racism, sexism and the like, trolling is unacceptable.

Another popular excuse is that people shouldn't be offended by harassment because "it's just the internet". In no other form of communication do we dismiss the words and actions of others based on the form of communication itself. We don't yell at folks over the phone, "Don't get upset, we're on the telephone!". As gaming and online communities become more and more common, we must recognize that the internet is a valid space for communication and that words and actions matter.

(TW for link: Sexual harassment, threats) At Fat, Ugly or Slutty, moderators compile screenshots of thousands of cases of harassment. This website serves as evidence for how rampant harassment in video games really is, and how there are very little repercussions for bullying online. The content of the website is sad, angering and potentially triggering. In reality, though, these screenshots represent the everyday gaming life of many women.
Fat, Ugly or Slutty compiles online gaming harassment directed at women.
Extra Credits, in their video on Harassment, note that harassment online is just a vocal minority of players, the worst part of the gaming community. Whether this is true or not, there is a large part of the gaming community that is complicit in harassment. In the Cross Assault debacle, no one in the room stood up against the sexist harassment. When I've experienced harassment in game, no one has stood with me to stop it. This has to change. We cannot just stand idly by while folks are harassed. Not only must developers do something to police the community, but we as a community must work to police ourselves.