Saturday, 17 November 2012

No "Off Switch"

PLEASE NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Dishonored.

This one's not going to be an analysis of men's issues in video games but I'd like to spend at least one post writing about what goes through my mind when I come across a sexist issue in games. I started thinking about it when I saw this Tweet from Anita Sarkeesian:
"Just waited in line to pick up a copy of Halo 4 at midnight. Gearing up for some serious Sexy Sidekick trope research!"
It made me think about the different reaction I have to sexism in games compared to Anita. I don't know if this was a one-off for Anita or not but gender issues are probably the last thing on my mind whenever I pick up a game. You could say that it was more justified in Halo 4's case; Cortana is more prevalent in Halo than, say, Elena's punching of Drake was in Uncharted, so it makes sense that "Sexy Sidekick" is on Anita's mind while picking up Halo 4 more than female-on-male abuse was on mine when I purchased Uncharted 2.

Other games might have a different effect. If there was a sequel to Heavenly Sword, I'm confident that I'd think back to the sexism in the first game because it was so prominent. If the trailer for Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes suddenly showed Meryl (which I know is impossible because of the time period), I'd probably think back to her misandric behaviour in Metal Gear Solid 4.

However, for the most part, gender issues don't cross my mind while purchasing games. I get the feeling critics of men's rights would say something along the lines of, "well that's because there are fewer men's rights issues to worry about in gaming" but the answer is simpler than that; I see games as entertainment first and worry about the gender issues second.

So I don't consider gender issues before buying the game, which leaves me to do it while playing, when it occurs. It isn't ideal, since real-life issues tend to take you out of the game's universe, but it can't be helped. There isn't an off switch where you decide not to consider gender issues. I'll give you an example of when this happened to me recently, with Dishonored. There will be spoilers ahead, so only read if you've completed the game or don't care about the game's story being spoiled.

Basically, Dishonored is about a group of evil politicians who conspire to murder an Empress and frame her Royal Protector, Corvo (the player character), in order to seize power for themselves. As Corvo, your job is to subdue or murder all the conspirators and rescue the Empress' daughter, Emily, so she can ascend to the throne.

Corvo isn't alone in his plan to save Emily. He's joined by the Loyalists, people who believe that Corvo wasn't responsible for the Empress' murder. Around three-quarters of the way through the game, the big twist is that the Loyalists betray Corvo because they want to further their own interests too.

At first, this took me out of the game because the "main" Loyalists were all male, so it seemed like we were going down the "all men are scumbags" route once again. It was as if Corvo was being set up as the only good male in the game, solely because he was loyal to women (the Empress and Emily). Luckily, this wasn't the case; the game changes depending on whether you cause a lot of chaos or not and in my Low Chaos playthrough, three male characters remained heroic. So it seems like I was worrying over nothing.

If anything, Bethesda, the makers of Dishonored, seemed to make an effort to avoid gender issues in Dishonored. As well as making sure there was a reasonable mix of good and evil with the men, they did the same with the women (although the evil men outnumber the evil women by a long way). While Emily is kidnapped twice in the game, two men are also held captive at certain points during the game. And with the Empress being lionised throughout the game and Emily being a tomboyish princess, it seems like the feminist audience don't need to worry about the lack of good female characters.

... Or do they?

To paraphrase someone from a forum I frequent, "the women in Dishonored are plot devices. The Empress does nothing but get killed. The princess gets captured. Things happen to them, they don't do things. Lack of agency".

The agency argument is always an odd one. It doesn't matter that so many men in the game are scumbags compared to only two women. It doesn't matter that the majority of deaths are of men, as always. Women lacking agency is considered to be a significant issue for feminists in games.

There's precisely one character in Dishonored who has anything that I could describe as "agency" and that's Corvo. Although he suffers the exact same pitfall that most men rescuing "damsels-in-distress" fall into; his worth is only defined by how valuable he is to women. Corvo has no personality of his own and exists solely to take orders from others (usually the Loyalists, although he does it all to benefit Emily). He could easily be compared to Mario, as could Emily be compared to Princess Peach. The female character is the valuable one in both of these situations and the man's worth is defined only by how useful he is at any given time. If he's about to rescue the Princess, he's valuable. If he's about to fall to his death, he's disposable. The woman is still the important one.

The lack of agency isn't necessarily true of the women in Dishonored anyway. A morally ambiguous character by the name of Granny Rags can be fought late in the game if you go off the beaten track and she's by far the most powerful enemy in the game. Likewise, one of the Loyalists who doesn't betray Corvo -- Cecelia -- was the only person sensible enough to create a safehouse away from the pub that the Loyalists use as a hideout. It comes in handy.

I didn't intend for this to be a lengthy analysis of Dishonored so I'll finish quickly; all-in-all, I concluded that Dishonored had a reasonably even split, favouring women slightly. In spite of the fact that the lone female assassination target reeks of tokenism, at least Bethesda made the effort to include a female target. That's something to be praised. The trio of male Loyalists who betray Corvo is questionable but the three remaining good male Loyalists are strong enough characters for it to be less of an issue. One male is killed during the betrayal but so is a female. Emily is kidnapped twice in the game but two male characters are held captive too.

Anyway, I went off on a bit of a tangent with the agency talk there. The point was that even though I've never considered gender issues while buying a game, like Anita, I've considered them while playing. In Dishonored's case, it was during the Loyalists' betrayal and occasionally when Emily made her tomboyish statements. Although if I was paid $160,000 to make videos about gender issues, like Anita, I'd probably think about about them more often.

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