Sunday, 14 October 2012

Nerdbaiting!

I came across an article a few weeks ago that I want to write about here but I have to give a bit of context first. There was a writer on Destructoid by the name of Ryan Perez. At some point, he Tweeted that he believed that actress, writer and internet "celebrity" Felicia Day was "a glorified booth babe" and asked the question, "does she actually contribute anything useful to this industry, besides retaining a geek persona?". After a massive outcry from many, many of Felicia's friends, fans and coworkers, Ryan lost his job. I'm not going to go into that too much because, (A) it happened four months ago and (B) I'm more interested in what happens in games than what happens outside of them. Although that piece of information will come up later on and on the off-chance that Ryan Perez ever reads this blog, he has my sympathies.

With that out of the way, let's get into the main point of this blog; what is nerdbaiting?

You know how a game comes along every so often featuring a character modelled on and voiced by a real-life actor or celebrity? Quantic Dream did this for most of the characters in Heavy Rain, for example, and they've picked out Ellen Page for its spiritual successor, Beyond: Two Souls. Other examples include Max Payne's character model in the second game being based on actor Timothy Gibb and, if I remember correctly, there was a Playstation 1 game called Apocalypse that starred Bruce Willis in the lead role. So this has been going on for a while.

Nerdbaiting has a few definitions but the one that has to do with gaming is connected to the paragraph above; imagine if the celebrity chosen wasn't based on their star status (like Page and Willis) or because they were right for the role (like Gibb and the Heavy Rain characters). Imagine if they were chosen just because they had a certain significance to a portion of the gaming audience.

Much like Jessica Chobot, on-camera host and staff writer for IGN. She has also made appearances on G4 shows and writes a blog for Maxim. The character of Diana Allers in Mass Effect 3 was modelled on and voiced by Chobot.


There were only two reasons for Chobot to be chosen for this role; firstly, because BioWare wanted to appeal to IGN and secondly, to appeal to the tiny segment of the audience with a love of Jessica Chobot. I hate to make assumptions but I suspect the majority of Chobot's fans follow her work for IGN most closely and, of course, IGN deals with games, comic books, etc, so it's safe to say that it's a fine site for "nerds" to hang out (and I use the term positively. I'd describe myself as a nerd). Chobot has no acting or voice acting experience but was chosen to play Diana Allers nonetheless.

It's worth mentioning that Diana Allers plays no role in the Mass Effect 3 story. From what I recall, you don't need to talk to the character at all. Yet, in true Mass Effect fashion, you can completely pursue a romance with her. More on that later.

Then we have Felicia Day, who is a more acceptable choice in one respect ... and a much worse one in another:


Felicia Day is as sensible a choice for a video game voice actress as anyone else as, unlike Chobot, she's a professional actress and has experience as a voice actress. The top picture above is from an online web series she wrote and starred in called Dragon Age: Redemption and the picture below is the in-game model of Tallis, the character she played, in a Dragon Age expansion pack.

Now, strictly speaking, I have nothing against Felicia Day. I have no opinion of her, in fact. However, she was the focal point of Ryan Perez being removed from his position as a writer for Destructoid. As mentioned earlier, shortly after describing Day as a "glorified booth babe" and questioning what she added to the gaming industry, everyone from random Felicia Day fans to her coworker Wil Wheaton banded together to arbitrarily brand Perez' comments "misogynistic". Those comments were not misogynistic in the slightest. "Booth babe" may have been used derogatively but was it so bad that it was necessary to instigate a witch hunt (that really is the only suitable term for it) against Ryan Perez? Absolutely not. As far as I know, Day herself didn't respond to or comment about the Tweets from Perez and I commend her for not getting involved. I may be wrong about that, however, so feel free to correct me if so.

So, to recap, that's wealthy Star Trek and The Big Bang Theory alumni and reader of audio books, Wil Wheaton, leading the charge to have a man fired for making non-sexist comments against his co-worker.

This article at AVoiceForMen spoke on it further and is where I first learned of the issue, so you can go there to read more. I posted this back in my article about Anita Sarkeesian and Feminist Frequency but it's worth posting again. Make sure to watch the "4 Friendly Reminders About Women and Video Games" video posted in that article too. The final thing I'll say about this whole issue is that it made me completely ashamed to be a gamer. Getting a man fired goes far beyond a fandom reacting negatively to their favourite celebrity being criticised. It was downright amoral and, as I said before, a witch hunt.

Anyway, what does all this have to do with nerdbaiting? To answer that, we have to go back to the article I mentioned in the very first sentence of this blog. I came across an article a few weeks ago when looking for details about the Ryan Perez issue. I'm not going to link to it here because I don't want to give them free publicity -- even though their site is undoubtedly more popular than my little strip of rantings and ravings -- but if anyone dislikes that I don't provide a source, I'll be quoting directly from the article, so you can probably find it by using one of the sentences to search yourself.

First of all, the writer of this article actually made a couple of points I agreed with. "I don’t believe a woman’s place is anywhere other than where she wants to be," cropped up early in the article. Very good. "Now the question here is whether or not Perez would still be employed by them had he not caught the attention of people like Wheaton and Baldwin. The answer is, yeah, heprobably [sic] would," came later. Not half bad. Unfortunately, those are the only good things in the article. That's it.

To give you a quick rundown of what's said, the writer makes the same Tomb Raider/Hitman Absolution argument that I criticised in my second post on this blog. In his few paragraphs about Anita Sarkeesian, he had the typical reaction; acknowledging the abuse but none of the legitimate criticisms or concerns about her project. In fact, he actually said, "I will click the like button on every single video Anita Sarkeesian produces even if she says something that I completely and absolutely disagree with". He approved of Perez' firing. He used Hostel 2 as an example of sexism in Hollywood without acknowledging Hostel 1. Oh, and he stated "videogames are inherently misogynistic" towards the end.

Criticising all of the above would be pointless. While I've already written about a couple of the points, the "videogames are inherently misogynistic" line is what makes me just dismiss this one out of hand because the writer of the article and myself are operating on two completely different wavelengths. However, there is one paragraph from the article that I do want to closely critique, and that is the following about Ryan Perez' question about what Felicia Day contributes to the gaming industry:

I really shouldn’t have to explain this, but considering the amount of crap I’ve had to wade through while researching this bloody thing I’m going to anyway - it really is a very, very stupid question. Because Felicia Day is an actor. Not a game designer. Not a developer. Not a publisher. She’s an actor. So of course she doesn’t contribute to “the industry” by decoding the bugs from CoD or coming up with new and interesting ways to use a Wii nunchuk. Instead she contributes to gaming by, and pay attention because this will turn your entire life upside down, being a successful celebrity who happens to really like video games. She is a walking embodiment of all that should be right with gaming culture. She’s charming, articulate, and has a genuine passion for pixelated entertainment. Also she defies stereotypes of what a gamer should be, simply by being Felicia Day. In the seemingly never ending war between a mainstream media that will all too often portray gamers as hairy palmed, sweat filled, butter balls, Day is one of the few people walking the planet who is actually doing it right. She proves you can be successful, have social skills, and yet somehow also be a fan of video games at the same time. That is her contribution. She’s an ambassador for the rest of us.

Alright, let's look at this closely, particularly the second half. "She is a walking emodiment of all that should be right with gaming culture" and so on. From that point on, not only does this read as a rather creepy love letter that a stalker would shove through a letterbox, but it also does an absolutely wonderful job of summing up exactly why nerdbaiting is so insulting.

Let's compare Felicia Day to the people the writer compares her to; the "hairy palmed, sweat filled, butter balls". While the writer of that article was using them as an example of what the mainstream media thinks of gamers, the writer himself apparently agrees; "Day is one of the few people walking the planet who is actually doing it right". So those of us who aren't Felicia Day -- those of us who apparently lack the success and the social skills, in other words -- we're all doing it wrong and should bow down before the Almighty Felicia. And if we don't? We might just get fired too!

Now let's say that one of these "butter balls" was to write some Dragon Age fanfiction. Presumably, it'd sit on a website for a while and gather some comments. When a random gamer does something like that, that's what happens. When Felicia Day writes fanfiction? It's turned into a webseries and Felicia earns a Dragon Age expansion pack devoted to her character. Frankly, even the most successful Dragon Age fanfiction couldn't reach that height. Even if the writer was successful and had social skills, do you think he or she would get his/her own character in the game modelled on him/her if they were a "hairy palmed, sweat filled, butter ball"? Is there any chance of that happening?

Make no mistake; Felicia Day was not chosen for Dragon Age: Redemption or Dragon Age II's expansion pack just because she's an actress and voice actress. She was chosen because she is that popular amongst gamers (to the point that her co-workers were able to rally enough people to get a man fired). She was chosen because she's "nerdy". She was chosen because she's "hot". The same can be said for Jessica Chobot. Why isn't Geoff Keighley of GameTrailers appearing in any games? He's charming, he's articulate, he's good-looking! But as of this writing, he's yet to make an appearance.

So is it any wonder that -- surprise, surprise -- not everyone is going to shower Felicia Day with praise the same way the writer of that article did? It's nothing to do with petty jealousy over Day receiving the recognition and preferential treatment that, say, other Dragon Age fanfiction writers don't. It's simply the dislike that comes from the assumption that we should be in love with Day just because she's an attractive girl who likes gaming. That's why Ryan Perez was fired. He didn't. The same goes for Jessica Chobot, albeit to a lesser extent. She was just there because ... why not? Attractive, nerdy, popular. Bearing all this in mind, what's wrong with segments of the gaming population feeling insulted by their inclusion in Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age II? Are we supposed to be happy about the developers painting us all with the same brush? Assuming we'll all love Felicia Day because we're all nerds and she apparently appeals to us? Sorry but that's blatant nerdbaiting.

As a bonus, it's worth pointing out that both of the games featuring these women allowed the player character to also pursue a romance with them too. This is going to sound very cynical but I can almost imagine an advertising campaign that says, "hey nerdy male gamer! Have you ever wanted to date a hot nerd girl like Jessica Chobot or Felicia Day? Well now you can!" Of course, that didn't happen.

I know that people reading this will take into account that both of the games above were made by BioWare, so these are actually isolated incidents. You're right about that, completely. I don't want to make out like this is indicative of gaming at large or in any way an epidemic. At the same time, I don't want this to become a wider issue. I'm actually using "nerdbaiting" in a lesser-used context; I've heard it used more often to describe something minor, like an internet meme being quoted in a game to make the "nerdy" players who get the reference laugh. So keeping in mind that this form of nerdbaiting is actually very rare, I want people to take two things away from this blog:

A) Developers; stop trying to so blatantly appeal to nerds with someone you perceive to be a popular (female, attractive) nerd icon. It's insulting to men and it's insulting to women. Use someone more appropriate for the role.
B) Gamers; reel in the rabid fanboy/girlism a bit. That doesn't go for many of you, obviously, but you might want to reconsider the next time you decide to start a backlash against someone just because they don't share your opinions.

I think that's it. As always, you can leave a comment below or send me a message at themalesofgames@gmail.com. I'll just leave you with one final thought from the writer of the article you've been reading about in this blog:

And when the history of games is etched in to stone, Felicia Day will probably be deemed to be more important than, oh I don’t know, an ill-conceived reboot of Tomb Raider.

... Yeah ... let's wait and see how that one works out ...

2 comments:

  1. I've just read a few of your articles, and I find it strange you don't get many comments. I enjoy reading your stuff.
    Anyway, I learned a few things here. I had no idea who Tallis and Diana Allers were modeled on, and in Allers case, I really didn't care, she was quiet forgettable. And I agree with you when you say voice actors/actresses and models should be chosen because they fit right in the role, regardless of their "celebrity". Personally I never cared about the real person behind the characters. As long as the game is enjoyable, whoever participated is irrelevant. I have my fun, they get my money, end of the story. Emily Wong in Mass Effect 1 is one of my favorite character of the serie. She doesn't get a lot of lines, and she isn't that important, but the animation and the voice acting was so good that I wanted to see her again in ME2 and 3. She fit right in, and I don't know who was behind her.
    It's too bad models and voice actors aren't always chosen on skills and experience. And man, I knew internet drama could get bad, but to get someone fired over this?
    Anyway, thanks, that was an interesting read.

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    1. Well said and thank you for your comment!

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