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Why talking about sexism in games sucks: you cannot win.

You know what’s an amazing column if you enjoy intelligent, well-reasoned articles on all aspects of games and game culture? Scoot right over to GameSetWatch’s This Week in Game Criticism and you’ll find it. In fact, this is often the first place i’ll go when I’ve been out of town for awhile and need to catch up, something I’ve just been doing after a week of HTML5 conference-going and training.

It’s also wonderful because it pointed me in the direction of Leigh Alexander’s recent piece at Kotaku entitled, wonderfully: I’m Tired of Being a “Woman in Games.” I’m a Person.

Yes. Oh lord, yes. This piece will piss you off if you are precisely the sort of person who thinks “issues” have no place in games/games writing, or if you fit the following description from the very first paragraph:

“some of you will hear the s-word [sexism] and roll your eyes and go, “oh, this again?” You guys can piss off-–go click on some new screenshots or a trailer consisting of a release date slowly fading into view. You’re hopeless.”

Followed up by:

“It’s just that I’m shocked that grade-school concepts like “diversity is constructive” and “treat human beings equitably” are concepts that somehow still need championing, still need arguing for. I mean, really? I have to explain many times that the convergence of varied perspectives makes creating things-–like video games-–more fruitful? Or more simply: You think boys’ clubs are better than spaces where everyone gets equal respect regardless of their gender? What’re you, five?”

Sweet, delicious honesty – I could drink it in all day. I agree with her, in case you cannot tell, that it would be wonderful if the default position for game fans is to respect one another instead of act like angry, bitter children afraid of words that end in “ism” and obsessed with stereotypes.

It’s the main reason I get annoyed by things like Duke Nukem’s “Titty City” and the “whore” achievement that was axed from Dead Island. It’s not the exact instance that’s troublesome, its the bland, casually sexist, ridiculously pervasive attitude that it signifies. It’s the insufferably whiny “well, why don’t I get special treatment if you do?”; childish attitude that so many privileged people display when someone else (any “other” will do – woman, non-white, LGBT, disabled, etc.) is trying to point out that the way they have been portrayed – or seem invisible – really sucks, and gee, wouldn’t it be cool if it sucked a little bit less?

I agree with her ambivalence – that the sexism war in games is an unsolved problem (thanks, lowest common denominator marketing!) that needs champions, but it sucks to have to be pigeonholed into the “lady games journalist” or “lady writer” or what have you, as if all women who play games — or even all women who play games and write about them will have precisely the same opinions and ideas.

I’ve had many (oh, so many) developers/PR come at me at game conferences with “girl games” and insult my intelligence time and time again, giving me “great examples” of games “women will love!”. I refrain from telling these people that I’ve been teaching university courses (as faculty, not as a student teacher, mind you) since I was 24, that I know a thing or two about gaming, and that despite being female, I’m actually not a moron. There’s a whiff of this about the game press as well, though it’s usually not as obvious. I’m polite in person and in all my communications, but I’d be lying if I said that didn’t grate on me.

Her overall point is simple, and very (almost comically), easy to follow – treat other people with a modicum of respect:

“What I mean by “err on the side of respecting people” is this: when peers and friends speak up and let me know something is hurting them, I usually feel that the need to respect their feelings is way more important than obtuse arguments over someone’s all-important right to say “whore” in a codebase.”

Amen, sister.

Occupy Wall Street meets Animal Crossing

I just came back from an incredible vacation in the wild west (National parks! Mountain biking! Crazy hikes! Horses!), and look here, the Occupy Wall Street protesting has spread like wildfire.

So much so that one awesome blogger on STFU conservative compared the cause with trying to pay off debt in Animal Crossing – the infamously adorable Gamecube game where you converse with animal friends, collect fun items to decorate your house, and face mind-numbing toil to pay off said dwelling.

From the post:

“Animal Crossing was probably the first time I really understood the concept of not just debt, but being crushed by debt.”

“When you first move in to your town, you’re given a house by the local merchant Tom Nook (the raccoon on the right). It isn’t until you’ve already moved in that he reveals to you that you’re indebted to him for 100,000 bells (the game’s currency) and he forces you to work in his store as an indentured servant. After a few days (literal. days.) worth of doing delivery work, you’re freed from your servitude but not from your debt. Thank goodness Tom Nook didn’t charge interest or your in-game circumstances would be that much more dire.

You do a bunch of random gathering to gain up money to pay back your loan and just when you think you’re finally free from the crushing weight of Tom Nook’s thumb… he adds a second story onto your house! And the cycle of debt begins again.”

At first, the post struck me as funny – then I realized that Joe totally has a point. Animal Crossing was actually one of my most-played GC games next to Wind Waker and Metroid Prime – I actually ended up paying off my McMansion and getting my statue erected in town (I suppose you could see this as the equivalent to “beating” the game), but yeah – it was actually a ton of work. I fished and fished and fished that damned river for weeks on end. Metaphor for real life? Yeah, I can see it.

Playing with Terror

Terror’s been on my mind a lot lately. No, not the “good” kind, where you get to overcome the zombie hordes or monsters or aliens or ghosts or whatever supernatural beasts lurk in the dark. I mean the complicated, horrifying real life sort, and how we deal with it in this country. Watch out, folks, there’s heaviness ahead!

Obviously, the tenth anniversary of 9/11 (which I spent, by the way, in Washington DC, then flew back via Logan airport – where two of WTC-bound planes originated from), has a lot to do with it, as does my job, where we do a good deal of work related to civil liberties violations in post 9/11 America. But what really got me thinking, dorkily enough, is an old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that I saw last night, in my quest to re-watch the whole series. No, you can’t have my lunch money.

It’s a season three episode wherein Doctor Crusher is held hostage by a band of terrorists, and in Trek’s lovingly blunt way, it’s a front for talking about terrorism as a practice, for security and surveillance’s ability to trump freedom in difficult times, and the human costs of violent conflict. It’s about as subtle as a six-ton hammer, and everyone ends up happy in the end (of course), but the show raises questions that are infinitely more relevant and poignant now than they were in 1989, at least for folks living in countries where terror threats (or acts) have disrupted our way of life.

I’d like to see a game that handles the issue with even this level of rudimentary moral sophistication. One of the reasons why I stay far away from most supposedly “modern” military shooters is their complete and utter inability to treat an incredibly complex subject with the scrutiny it deserves. Whatever your politics, its a very complicated thing to go into an armed conflict in 2011 – especially where terror and terrorist organizations are concerned. The gung-ho attitude of most games where you play as a “good guy” soldier, just killin’ them thar terrorists seems a little stupid to me, especially when we have real life men and women fighting overseas, in murky, dangerous, and often unclear situations. Its cheesy 80s action-hero – think Top Gun, when we should (at least in a better world) have a Hurt Locker or hell, even a Thin Red Line. Don’t even get me started on Homefront.

I’d like to know what other people think – is there a place in gaming for a more sophisticated take on terrorism, arguably one of the biggest and most pressing issues in the modern world – or do you prefer to just fantasy play as a badass soldier in a more or less black and white world? It’s a genuine question.

The big question: why do you play?

Everywhere in the game journalism/game writing/game coverage world, you’ll hear all about WHAT people are playing. Heck, “what we’ve been playing” is the first (and often the longest) segment of our podcast, and much of what we write about on these pages consists of the particulars of what, when, who with and sometimes even how we play games. What about why?

Over on, writer Kate Cox conducted a sort of semi-scientific study on the reasons WHY gamers play. It’s a fabulous story, and well worth your time, especially for all of the thoughtful comments she collected from folks on their own reasons. The breakdown was fascinating:

“A full 50% of answers fell into the category I rounded up and called “Goals / Accomplishment / Success.” I decided that the urges to solve problems, accomplish goals, complete quests or missions, or to understand systems were all similar enough to group together.”

Yes, I can dig that.

“Following from real-world impossibilities and the desire for problems with actual solutions, a full third (34%) of the answers also specifically called out gaming for escapism, for relaxation, or as a coping technique.”

Finally, players who are really into storytelling and role-playing (in the traditional sense of actually playing a role, not playing the style of game we all love to acronym-ize into RPG) should find familiar ground in the third major category:

“Narrative gaming, though, is clearly where it’s at. Over 40% of the answers cited stories and storytelling, and of those a high number specifically referenced what makes games different from other media.”

These (obviously cross-pollinated) responses do touch on the “4 keys of fun” theory that’s written about in Game Design Workshop, one of the books I like to use when I’m teaching game design courses.

According to Nicole Larazzo (who wrote the passage in question), posits that there is “hard fun” – think challenge and mastery. “Easy Fun” is enjoying exploration, escapism, goofing around, simply enjoying the possibility space. This is what’s going on when you decide you’d like to find out what happens when you drive off a cliff.

“Serious Fun” consists of playing with a “purpose”, exercising creativity, exploration, building skills, etc. And finally, “people fun” rounds the four, with social interaction and teamwork (or griefing, as the case may be).

Obviously, everyone has their own preferences across all of these kinds of fun – or kinds of experiences, if you’d rather not use the F word here. In Cox’s survey, every respondent had answers that crossed boundaries from serious to hard to easy to social – in fact, plenty of games encompass elements of all four. It all comes down to your own preferred belnd.

We’ve chatted a bit about the games that shaped us as gamers in a previous episode of Jumping the Shark, but I don’t recall ever really hitting this question at the core. I know that I personally play games primarily for escapist entertainment, artistic inspiration, and the ability to really “go” places that don’t exist in real life. For me, game experiences that really transport me to another world have always been my favorites.

Kate Cox’s reasons resonate with me as well – she professed a love of games that make her feel “clever” for figuring things out (I’m big on this as well), and she’s partial to being able to explore and feel like a badass. Her explanation of how awesome she feels when she plays as Shepard in Mass Effect 2 is a good explanation of precisely why I played the ever-loving crap out of that game.

Enough about me. I want to open up the floor and ask why you – yes, you – play games.

Sandra Day O’Connor, Game Developer

When you think of octogenarian former Supreme Court Justices, surely the least common post-career move is a jump into game development, right? In the case of Sandra Day O’Connor (the first woman to serve on the highest court), that’s actually the case: Kill Screen recently blogged about Newsweek’s coverage of her games portal, which features a number of legitimately fun games about American history, the legal system, and other civics topics.

The platform isn’t brand-new – in fact, I have actually used it (and the awesome “Do I Have a Right” game) in the past to convince my game-biased (in the negative sense) co-workers to buy into the idea that creating games for our own organization could be a cool, workable idea.

It’s awesome to see iCivics get some mainstream love – it’s a very worthy platform, in terms of both its mission (teaching young people about important topics) and the fact that unlike most “educational” games, these are actually fun.