Saturday, 31 August 2013

Is Jonathan McIntosh behind Anita Sarkeesian's views?

No. That's the short answer to that question.

In case you don't follow, one of Anita's critics conducted something of an investigation into her internet past, uncovering little details about her former website, former career and a look into a man called Jonathan McIntosh. Up until now, McIntosh's name didn't mean much other than being a name that showed up next to Anita's in the credits of the Tropes Vs Women in Games series with the credits "Produced By" and "Written By". Looking into his other sites more, there's more to it than that.

[It seems this video has since been removed.]

In short, McIntosh was already expressing strong feminist viewpoints while Anita was still selling PR services online, before her own viewpoints ever became known. She went as far as to use some of his statements about Lego in her own videos. They've apparently known each other for at least five years or so. Today, McIntosh still expresses the same viewpoints on Twitter, still works with Anita Sarkeesian and you can see if you scroll far enough down his Twitter page, uses very similar language as Anita when talking about gender issues, albeit more argumentative.

There was a lot more revealed on a Tumblr page than in that video above but I'm afraid I won't be linking to that page here; there's a lot that can be said about Anita Sarkeesian -- and trust me, before the end of this blog, I will be saying plenty -- but when you're posting links to her mother's website, you really have to call it a day.

So why do I think McIntosh isn't responsible for Anita's arguments? Well in short, it isn't conclusive. I absolutely think Anita was influenced by McIntosh's viewpoints but there's nothing to say that she didn't already have feminist views herself. It isn't like McIntosh had a background in feminism, Anita had a background in pyramid schemes and one fateful day, the two met and Feminist Frequency was born. Anita has also performed college talks by herself and I'm sure she wouldn't be going out there on her own if she didn't think she could handle any questions on gender issues tossed in her direction. Not that I think she's been asked any challenging questions, mind you, and the no-recording policy is obviously in place just in case she ever is.

I don't want it to sound like I'm being too harsh on anyone who is in full support of the information dug up on Anita. In fact, she could learn a lot from people so thorough and hey, for all we know, I could be wrong and McIntosh really could be pulling the strings. However, I think the desire to uncover information on the notoriously closed-off Anita Sarkeesian won out over the need to argue sensibly in this case.

It's also worth noting that Anita acknowledged the discovery on Twitter:


In a way, she has a point. Except for the victim blaming, which is complete twaddle. I'm not even sure who the "victim" is that she's describing here. Jonathan McIntosh? Herself?

Something I've noticed is that, even though I've said before that Anita doesn't respond to criticism, that's not quite true; she actually responds to criticism that's very easy to dismiss. For example, it's incredibly easy to dismiss the information that people dug up on her either because it doesn't appear to be relevant to her current videos -- I don't want to speculate on how much or how little of Anita's slightly shady "Success Secrets Of Self-Made Millionaires" course have influenced her current work, although the case is certainly building -- or because it really does sound like a conspiracy theory. Still, it certainly is the pot calling the kettle black when a person who blames everything on the patriarchy blames other people for concocting conspiracy theories ...

It isn't the first time Anita has responded to the "easy" criticism. Earlier this month, Doug Walker, who some of you may know as The Nostalgia Critic, posted a criticism of Anita on his Facebook page where he expressed his disappointment that Anita hadn't focused on any strong female characters yet. Now I'm happy that Doug, as a high-profile internet personality, is voicing his concerns over the Tropes Vs Women in Games series but I think most of us know that Anita will be devoting an episode of her series to positive female examples.

So naturally, this was one of the few criticisms that could easily be answered and dismissed:


And the only video response to the Damsel in Distress videos that Anita has made the wider audience aware of is MovieBob's reply, which was full of praise and dismissed the critics as trolls and abusers. It didn't break any new ground, in other words.

On-topic, it doesn't really matter if McIntosh is behind all of Anita's arguments. The fact that such biased and one-sided arguments are being given such recognition by the mainstream gaming media is the larger problem. In the last two weeks alone, she's been featured in Wired magazine and gave a talk at The Conference 2013 in Sweden. The online abuse crops up in what little of the Wired article is available to read online -- as does her example of Dinosaur Planet from the first Damsel In Distress video, with zero mention of the male playable character this time around -- and Anita's talk at The Conference revolved around it.

So yes, I know it's frustrating. We're talking about a person who has refused to face up to the majority of criticism aimed in her direction for the last year and a third, yet has been making the most of whatever publicity she can garner from the original abuse in that entire time. I know it's frustrating that mainstream gaming sites have never printed an article critical of Anita in the slightest (although the Wired article is the first in some time, so I guess no news is good news apart from that) or posted links or interviews with anyone who disagrees with her.

Although even with all that, we shouldn't go looking for a quick-fix to discredit Anita. You could say that bits and pieces of the information have merit but the fact is that educating people on why Anita's arguments are flawed, hypocritical and biased is always going to be necessary, if a pain in the neck more often than not. The thing is, as stupid as this sounds -- and writing it down now, it occurs to me that maybe I'm making a bigger deal out of this than is necessary -- I think that if we're not going to be listened to, we shouldn't be listened to for all the right reasons rather than the wrong ones.

Besides, having chatted to Anita's supporters online, we could uncover evidence that she's a killer robot from the future and they'd try to find a way to justify it. That's what they did after the video-stealing affair and the Randy Pitchford murder fanfic hypocrisy.

In other news, I got banned from the TV Tropes forum a while ago for talking about Anita Sarkeesian ... in a Feminist Frequency thread. Seriously, that was more or less the reason ("derailing" was the actual term used, in spite of the fact that I didn't start the derail and other members weren't talking about Feminist Frequency anyway). I wouldn't normally broadcast that here but I know I have at least one private message that I'm unable to answer. So I'm sorry to that person.

Also, I start my game development course at college in a little over a week. I've been playing around with Unity and the Unreal Development Kit and they're both terrifyingly daunting. I also don't get much information from the college, so I'm petrified that other students will be better than me even though I figured we'd all be at the same level. I'm hoping that's not the case.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Reversing The Sexes

I've been really bored lately, even with Dragon's Crown. I played Gone Home recently too but thought that was a letdown. While I suspect there'll be something to write about following Gamescom, it's all very slow-going right now. Not that there's a shortage of gender issues concerning men in video games to write about but, it has to be said, it's so much easier to write about current issues and have links at my fingertips than it is to hunt down pictures and videos myself. Still, with nothing else to do, let's talk about reversing the sexes.

A few days ago, I read a comment on Youtube that said something along the lines of "reversing the sexes is  a standard defensive, kneejerk response to accusations of sexism in video games". I can't recall the video I saw it under (and after spending most of the day searching, can't find it either) but that statement left me scratching my head. Hypothetically reversing the sexes of a situation has always, to me at least, seemed like an easy and effective way to examine whether it's sexist or not. In fact, people like me who get involved in the bubble of gender issues can forget how easy it is to become bogged-down with complicated terms (like "patriarchy", "hypoagency", "rape culture" and other phrases that I like to steer clear of while writing this blog) so reversing the sexes is actually an incredibly useful, accessable tool to people who aren't as interested in gender issues; it's easy to do and doesn't overcomplicate any issues. So let's try a few.

There's a moment in Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic that always confused me; the player character meets a hunter on Tatooine who is stranded and needs the player's help. The wife of this hunter has rigged his hunting droids to explode if he takes another step. He had no choice but to wait for help, possibly dying of thirst in the process. The hunter isn't smart enough to figure out how to disarm them, so he asks the player character for help. It isn't the situation itself that's questionable -- even if it is the Star Wars equivalent of a bumbling husband being at the mercy of his more intelligent wife -- but if the player chose Bastila Shan, a female Jedi and something of a mentor to your own character, to accompany them, she has some eyebrow-raising things to say about the hunter's situation:


Bastila says, "I say leave him". The hunter replies with, "you're pretty heartless for such a pretty lady, you know?" Bastila responds, "I take it back. Let's congratulate his wife".

To me, this always seemed like a huge overreaction, especially for the supposedly good-natured Bastila. So much for "the Jedi do not believe in killing their prisoners", as she states earlier. Leaving prisoners to die of thirst, however, is apparently completely acceptable.

The uploader of that Youtube video comments that, as out-of-character as it may seem, it hints at Bastila having anger issues that would later be used to turn her to the dark side. Personally, I find it a bit hard to connect "irritation over clumsy come-ons" with "dark lord of the Sith". Not that I think the uploader is incorrect but it seems like an odd thing to foreshadow side-switching with.

So do you think it's sexist? I'm torn. The hunter isn't portrayed as a sympathetic character; using droids to hunt is a no-no in KOTOR and he has a habit of flirting with women in spite of being married. Plus, in spite of Bastila's comments, the player earns Light Side points for helping the hunter, so it doesn't seem like the game is encouraging punishing the hunter for his comments. On the other hand, it takes a lot to advocate murder (and congratulate the murderer) just because you're irritated over someone's pick-up lines.

Reverse the sexes and I think there's only one big difference; it sounds a lot more harsh to me to think of a male Jedi offering to congratulate an unintelligent woman's husband for plotting to murder her. It would come across as unbelievably petty for a male character to be so irritated by some (admittedly obnoxious) come-ons to advocate such a serious act of domestic violence. As we know, however, domestic violence against men isn't awarded the same seriousness as it is against women. Having said that, I'm still coming down on the side of "not sexist", solely because the player is rewarded with Light Side points for helping the hunter.

Helpfully, there are a few games that provide surprisingly accurate gender-flipped counterparts to each other in spite of the fact they're more-or-less unrelated. Take Heavenly Sword and Resident Evil 4 as an example:


And back when I wrote "The Violence Double Standard", I brought up a moment in Final Fantasy XIII when Lightning punched Snow -- her sister's boyfriend -- twice in the face for failing to keep her sister safe.


I went on to say, "according to Square-Enix, she was conceived as "a female version of Cloud", from Final Fantasy VII. I must've missed the version of Final Fantasy VII where Cloud clocks Tifa in the jaw angrily. Twice." It was only this month that I received a long reply in the comments that ended with a link to this video from Final Fantasy VII, where Cloud attacks Aeris in a moment of stress. Skip to 14:40:


Comparing these four moments is a good way to highlight the differences when violence is portrayed against colleagues in games. They are, more or less, gender-flipped versions of each other.

The big difference, first of all, is that the men aren't in control of their actions when they attack the women. In Resident Evil 4, Leon is being controlled by the parasite inside his body and in Final Fantasy VII, Cloud's stress causes him to have an out-of-body experience; literally, a ghostly image of Cloud appears that the player controls while the corporeal Cloud attacks Aeris and the player is unable to stop him in any way. In contrast to the two of them, both Nariko in Heavenly Sword and Lightning in Final Fantasy XIII are well aware that they're harming their own colleagues. So it's acceptable for female characters to hit male ones (which is shocking, I know) but for male ones to hit female ones requires a trance of some kind.

It's also worth noting the reaction to each one. Nariko's choking of her fellow clanmember is broken up quickly but there isn't any concern shown for the man. Lightning punching Snow is practically ignored by their fellow teammates. Certainly, no concern is shown for Snow. On the other hand, Ada reacts to being choked by kneeing Leon in the ribs and stabbing him in the thigh to break him out of his trance. He ends up thanking her for this. So no matter who is being choked and who is doing the choking, violence against the male character ends up being acceptable in both situations. In Final Fantasy VII's case, the remaining party member (Barret, in the video above) quickly rushes in to knock Cloud out and prevent him from hurting Aeris any further.

It seems like trances are an easy way to have violence stay reasonably inoffensive; reverse the sexes of either the Leon or Cloud attacks and they're practically the same. The hero doesn't come across as any worse because of the attack, regardless of his/her sex or the sex of the victim. Part of the reason for that is because the attack isn't the important part, whereas the trance is; both Leon and Cloud attack women because it's such an extreme action, it shows how far their sanity is slipping. Women attacking male characters on their own side is just ... a quality. Game audiences aren't supposed to think anything of it, except perhaps "I'm glad that guy got taught a lesson". As a result, reversing the sexes of the Heavenly Sword and Final Fantasy XIII attacks does make things seem worse; a male character in complete control of his faculties choking or punching a woman who refuses to fight back is just asking to be called out for its misogyny.

I suspect its moments like these -- strikes against male characters by female ones -- that make up the majority of examples that don't really stand out until we reverse the sexes. They're so quickly dismissed when they're against a male character that either we ignore them or we're supposed to ignore them. Take Bioshock Infinite. It's a very basic example but Elizabeth strikes Booker DeWitt in the face with a wrench that isn't brought up again after it happens. It knocks him out-cold, giving Elizabeth enough time to flee but Booker still doesn't have a word to say about it.


I don't know if the gaming public is prepared to see a male character doing this to a woman, although I think it's possible to give gamers a bit more credit. Take the Mass Effect series as an example. It's possible for the main character, Commander Shepard, to punch a female reporter attempting to smear his/her (although for this example, let's go with "him") reputation in all three games. Sure, it's not the same thing, in quite a few significant ways; the reporter isn't on Shepard's side, punching her is a "Renegade" option and, as previously mentioned, Shepard can be either male or female. Each of those points lessens the impact and controversy of a male character punching a woman. Even so, there doesn't seem to have been any backlash at all against the Mass Effect series for this. In fact, it's been praised because the reporter is intentionally unlikeable. Who knows if a male character intentionally punching, choking or bludgeoning a stubborn (like Snow) or sexist (like the clanmember) woman on their side could be as accepted as women doing it to men is now (irritatingly)?

As always, feel free to leave a comment or send me an e-mail at themalesofgames@gmail.com.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Dragon's Crown: Impressions So Far (NSFW)


I want to get a lot of this out now, while it's still fresh in my mind; Dragon's Crown arrived through my door today. I've played it for a few hours and I think it's ... kind of repetitive, actually (although that may be because I'm playing as the Fighter; I briefly played as the Dwarf and had a great time but replaying all the levels I've already completed is a hassle). Certainly not the must-buy I thought it'd be based on gameplay videos. It's certainly not bad ... but it's not great. I haven't completed it yet though so hopefully I'll enjoy it more later on.

Right off the bat, I'd like to say this: I can see why some people are offended. I'm happy to defend Dragon's Crown's art style and character designs but only up to a certain point. When the artwork actually breaks my immersion from the game because the sexualisation is so blatant, that point is reached.

To explain, I think there are acceptable levels of sexualising characters in games and ... I don't want to say "unacceptable" levels -- I'm not in charge of what should and shouldn't be in games, nor would I want to be -- but levels where it seems less like the sexualisation is part of the game's universe and more part of our universe but an artist wanted to put it into the game anyway.

I'll give you some examples from other games. While I've heard a lot of criticism against the scantily-clad women of Soul Calibur, I've never had an issue with any of the series' content. Take Ivy, for example. Possibly the most heavily-criticised character but as far as I'm concerned, her dominatrix-esque outfit matches her dominant personality. Her dialogue is sexualised but she's the only character in the game with sexual lines. She's deliberately set up as the "fanservice" character, in spite of the large chests and "jiggle physics" of the rest of the female roster.

In my opinion, Ivy and the rest of the female characters in Soul Calibur are examples of acceptable sexualisation. Well, I could do without the chests expanding game after game but the female characters are more than just their sexualisation. Ivy included! Their backstories, fighting styles, relationships, etc. go towards making them fully-rounded. Plus, it's worth bearing this in mind when talking about sexualisation in fighting games:


I've played plenty of fighting games and noticed this a lot, particularly in games where you can customise/create your own fighters. I never got to enjoy them because I was always looking at my opponent.

Then there are moments of sexualisation that detract from the game. I don't feel like Ivy or any other female character in Soul Calibur detracts from the game because their sexualisation isn't focused on. I can't say the same for a game like ... Resonance Of Fate.

Resonance Of Fate is a Japanese RPG that came out a few years ago but I only bought this year. There's a minor character in the game called Cardinal Barbarella who only appears in one cutscene (although she can be spoken to and gives a few missions later on in the game) and that one cutscene sexualises the hell out of her.

video


(Blogspot's Youtube search was acting funny, so I had to download this, then upload it again myself. Credit to ReneidKlein for the video. Click his username if you'd prefer to watch on Youtube.)

For those of you who don't want to watch, the heroes -- three guns-for-hire -- visit the young and sexy Cardinal Barbarella and heroic pervert Vashyron is so overcome by her jiggling breasts and orgasm noises that he agrees to go into harsh danger to fetch her a bottle of wine.

Even though Barbarella's sexiness did serve a purpose -- Vashyron wouldn't have accepted the mission if Barbarella wasn't so attractive -- it was still enough to break my immersion from the game world. I don't usually mind "jiggle physics" but in this case, Barbarella's breasts had a mind of their own. Her orgasm noises were uncalled for. Vashyron, too, is the classic anime pervert archetype turned up to eleven. It certainly made playing as him for the rest of the game uncomfortable (and the other two characters were annoying in their own little ways too).

Dragon's Crown is closer to Resonance Of Fate than Soul Calibur. In fact, it's probably worse.

Now, in all the same ways that sexualisation didn't matter in Soul Calibur, they don't matter in Dragon's Crown either; you're not paying any attention to the Sorceress' jiggling breasts when you're in the middle of a hectic battle that takes up the entire screen. During the quieter moments, such as in the town, you start to notice a few things. The jiggling breasts while running around, for example. The one female civilian who always starts outside the tavern who has jiggling breasts while walking too. Morgan, the female shopkeeper who wears little more than strips of flowing cloth.

Truth be told, I could probably deal with all of that if they were the only examples. Unfortunately, there are times where the sexualisation goes even further than that. I can think of no better example than when the mermaid shows up in the middle of a level:


Every single mermaid I've seen before this one was very specifically "a fish from the waist-down" (or sometimes from the waist-up, when writers wanted to buck the trend). This mermaid, however, is a fish from the buttocks-down. As soon as I saw this, I immediately thought about how the "mermaid problem" -- mermaids are beautiful but men can't mate with them because they lack the appropriate parts -- probably doesn't apply to her. Which made the picture even less wholesome and made me wonder if that's why she was designed this way.

Like Barbarella, the mermaid doesn't play any significant role in the game (at least not as far as I've played) but she's not the only one. It struck me that a lot of Dragon's Crown is similar to a visual novel, especially when shopping or taking quests. We normally see a bright and colourful character taking up the entire screen and the narrator explaining the situation. As a result, we have a few characters cropping up out of the blue in the middle of missions. The mermaid is one. A hobgoblin chef is another. A female warrior monk in a very suggestive pose is another. She, in particular, looks like she was traced from a pornographic picture, something that artists such as Greg Land have been criticised for in the past. I may like George Kamitani's art far more than Greg Land's but I wouldn't let Greg off the hook. I can't do the same for George, no matter how impressive his art is.

Take it from me, his art is impressive. Especially in motion. It's phenomenal, in fact. There are occasions in Dragon's Crown when I won't progress the dialogue just because I want to see the animation repeat itself (like seeing the wizard Lucain smoking his pipe). I'm glad I bought the game just to see a few of the characters alone, such as the Phantom Knight. Unfortunately, some of these characters, such as the three mentioned in the previous paragraph, only play a very small role in the quest the player meets them in. So characters like the sexualised mermaid -- and the hideous hobgoblin -- showing up can feel like they're there just for the sake of being there.

So again, I understand why people can be offended by Dragon's Crown. It doesn't offend me but it does break my immersion in the game world when a naked mermaid shows up in the middle of the quest just for a chat.

I hope my regular readers aren't too disappointed in me for not fighting Dragon's Crown's corner on this particular issue but what can I say? This all just occurred to me while playing, so I thought I'd let you know. Still, maybe I'm being premature. Maybe my view has been tainted from not being enthused with the gameplay. Maybe I'll stop seeing it as an issue in time. I can only hope, for the sake for immersion, that it's the case.

So where does this leave male characters? Well, every criticism against journalists such as Jason Schreier is still valid and my blog post about the game during development is still correct; with regards to the six playable characters, the men are just as exaggerated as the women. George Kamitani's art is still incredible and, even though I feel some of the pictures are too blatantly inserted into the game, I'm more convinced than ever that he's an unparalleled artist and certainly not deserving of the insults Schreier fired in his direction. Nothing has changed.

Other than that, there isn't much to say about the male characters. There are exaggerated examples, the most prominent being Roland The Brave; a hulking, barbarian-esque man with a lantern jaw and the hair from a L'Oréal commercial. The majority of the other male characters are built like Greek Gods too, from Samuel the Guildmaster to the Monk who offers resurrection services in the temple. It has to be said though, it's not the same. In my opinion, those characters are closer to the Soul Calibur example of sexualisation; acceptable because there's more to them than the sexualisation, with Roland as the Ivy of Dragon's Crown (if the Fighter hasn't already taken that spot). In fact, it's closer to say that Roland is the only one sexualised, with the others being victims of unrealistic body standards.

Then again, it's Dragon's Crown. Everyone is exaggerated. That's the argument I used when it was in development and I have to hold my own criticisms to the same standard.

I've been enjoying the comments I've received lately, so I'm looking forward to seeing what I get for this.

Important Note: I wrote this yesterday but thought I'd wait a day to see how I felt after I'd continued playing. After playing for a few hours today, I'm happy to say that firstly, I'm enjoying Dragon's Crown a lot more. It's a game that takes a while to introduce every element and now, the gameplay is starting to feel a lot less linear and a lot more challenging. It's closer to what I was hoping for at the start.

As for the objectification, I really have got used to it a lot more. The sexualised characters do break my immersion in the game but not as much as they used to. A few characters, like Morgan the shopkeeper, don't bother me at all anymore. Plus, I've played as the Amazon a little and she may be my favourite character.

Do I wish there were a few fewer sexualised characters? Yeah, sure. Particularly the mermaid. I wish there was more variation in the female character designs too, since I'm a big fan of the Amazon having a different body type from what we usually see on female characters. Having said that, just playing through the game a bit more has helped me to stop seeing the exaggerated designs as a hindrance and more as part of the charm. There are exceptions but for the most part, that's the case. It just took some time. Imagine jumping into a cold swimming pool; at first, you're freezing but you become used to it in time and it stops bothering you. It's the same thing with Dragon's Crown; the sexualisation stands out a lot at first but the more you play, the more you accept it as part of the game world that George Kamitani created.

Monday, 12 August 2013

"The Legend of the Last Princess" (and a ton of news)

I'm making a start on this blog a bit earlier than usual because even though I've imported Dragon's Crown from the US, the expected delivery date isn't until the middle of the month. So playing that to exhaustion and then writing a blog about it -- as I expect I'll have to, if what I'm hearing is correct -- before the end of August requires me to write something now, so I'm not strapped for time.

It's important that I get it done before the end of August because in September, I'm actually going to college to begin a game development course. Not that the course will take up all my time and don't worry, the blog will continue. In fact, I'm looking forward to hearing a few different perspectives on sexism in video games and keeping my fingers crossed that I'm not the only person in the class who has heard of Anita Sarkeesian. Still, it's best to get this done now rather than rushing at the end of the month.

I got a lot of new visitors after my last post, so if you're still reading, welcome! I also found myself in a huge debate in the comments of my very third blog post after it was linked to extensively on the forums of Escapist Magazine, so go here if you're interested in reading it.

This isn't to do with video games but visiting Reddit this last week, I was drawn to two topics that I thought were pretty important. The first one highlights the lack of safe spaces to talk about men's issues and rather succinctly explains why people interested in fighting for men's issues may also become anti-feminist. Given that a large chuck of the mens rights movement seems to be made up of former feminists, it makes for a worthwhile read. It's very rare that this blog deals with serious real-world issues but the second thread features men going over incidents where they were raped and sexually assaulted. It chilled me to the bone and I had to stop reading because I was afraid I would cry if I continued. It's heartbreaking. The least I can do is link to it here and hope that a very serious issue can be given more exposure, if only a little.

Onto today's topic; I know it probably seems like I write about nothing but Anita Sarkeesian nowadays -- and, being sick of writing about the same topics myself, I'm sorry about that -- but before we put Feminist Frequency's "Damsel In Distress (Part 3)" video behind us for good, I'd like to write a little about the "hypothetical game concept" made by Anita and co.; "The Legend of the Last Princess".


Or if you don't want to watch the video, here's a transcript of the narration:
"Like many fairy tales, this story begins once upon a time with the kidnapping of a princes. [sic] She dutifully waits for a handsome hero to arrive and rescue her. Eventually, however, she grows tired of the damseling and decides it’s high time to save herself. Of course if she’s going to be the protagonist of this particular adventure she’s going to need to acquire a slightly more practical outfit. After her daring escape, she navigates the forbidden forest, leveling up her skills along the way. Upon reaching her kingdom, she discovers the inevitable yet unexpected plot twist; the royal counsel has usurped power and were responsible for her kidnapping. Branded a traitor and an outlaw in her own land, she unlocks new disguises and stealth abilities to infiltrate the city walls. She makes her way through the final castle to confront the villainous council, and abolish the monarchy forever."
Let's not go overboard; I know this is only a minute-long video. Not every point Anita wishes to make can be told in a minute. I am going to be scrutinising it as heavily as I would any other game but I'm well aware that a full game may not have the problems that I'm being critical of.

First of all, I have to say that I don't have any problems with the basic concept; a princess-slash-damsel in distress becoming the hero seems like a decent enough idea to found a game upon. Earning new abilities and disguises is fine too; done right, it could be comparable to games like Okami and Batman: Arkham City, with certain places being off-limits before finding the right ability or disguise.

All that is fine. The problems start to creep in when we look at the plot. First of all, I've heard the "powerless female character quickly adapts to defend herself" foundation compared to the Tomb Raider reboot, although in my opinion the entire plot is practically lifted from Dishonored. In fact, it's basically "Dishonored if Princess Emily was the hero". Although in Dishonored, the protagonist was framed for the princess' kidnapping, whereas that point is glossed over in "The Legend Of The Last Princess" (although yes, I know, it's only a minute long). Even the twist of the council taking over the throne is the same.

Speaking of which, why does the princess want to abolish the monarchy? I suppose I can picture her wishing to prohibit groups such as the evil council taking advantage of the power that the throne provides. It's a stretch but it's the most sensible explanation I have. Having said that, there are lots of reasons why the princess would not want to do this: without the monarchy, the princess wouldn't be at all significant in the LotLP universe. She wouldn't have any power and wouldn't be able to use her influence -- and newfound skills -- to defend the kingdom from further traitorous schemes. Presumably, other forms of government could be taken advantage of just as easily as the monarchy was. It doesn't make any sense.

There is an out-of-universe reason for the monarchy being abolished; Anita Sarkeesian dislikes princesses:


Personally, I think that line of thinking is a little sensitive -- kids are kids, I think we should let them pretend to be what they want -- but that tweet is besides the point; I get how tempting it must be to put a piece of yourself into your characters but giving a princess an anti-monarchist viewpoint is rather silly, isn't it? Although the title of the game couldn't be "The Legend Of The Last Princess" if the monarchy was still present by the end of the game.

Let's talk about the gender issues the video brings up. First of all, how did the princess escape from her cell? According to the narration, she escaped because "she grew tired of the damseling". How did she beat up the trained guard and steal his uniform? According to the narration, she was able to defeat him simply because she was going to be the protagonist.

Again, there might be more to this than the minute-long video had time to mention but when these are the princess' reasons for escaping, it seems like Anita is only interested in making a game that says, "damseling is wrong, see?" and, "look, we have a female protagonist!" I'm sure a full version of "The Legend Of The Last Princess" wouldn't resort to storytelling like this but the video did have time to go into the mechanics of learning new abilities and finding new disguises, so was it really too much to ask to say the princess had a lockpick to escape the cell and had been taught self-defence from a young age? If this game concept really is just a sensible game concept and not a game to satisfy a stereotype-subverting fantasy, having the princess break out of her cell and beat up a guard "just because" needs to go.

The other gender issue is simple; all the bad guys are male. From the guards to the three evil council members seen at the end of the video, there isn't an evil female character in sight. With men as evil and disposable as ever, it's hardly breaking any new ground when it comes to gender roles, including female ones; there have been strong women in games before, not to mention strong princesses (although rarely as the sole protagonist, I'll admit. Then again, I'm in favour of more varied protagonists, so I'm fine with a princess being playable).

The reason I'm bringing up Legend Of The Last Princess now rather than during my post about Anita's Damsel In Distress - Part 3 video was because it didn't particularly matter at that point. Like I said at the time, there wasn't much to write about the content of that video with the exception of Spelunky. Since then, there's something about the way Anita has been spotlighting the fanart for the game that makes me think she's keen to make more of this than just a "hypothetical game concept".

So could it ever be made into a real game? Well possibly. In spite of what we hear about publishers not spending as much on advertising for games starring female heroes as they do with male ones, gender issues in games are a hot-button issue right now; there are certainly developers who would be keen to score some points with a demographic that has so much clout in gaming right now. With game journalism catering to a feminist viewpoint as much as they are -- from Dragon's Crown's George Kamitani apologising to Jason Schreier after Schreier's immature insults to Naughty Dog being "surprised" by the backlash to the gender roles in The Last Of Us (thank you, Carolyn Petit) -- don't you think a developer would be happy to earn some instant good publicity by working with Anita Sarkeesian herself?

I'm not saying that it will happen, just that it's possible. There are reasons for developers to do so.

By the way, while I was on the Feminist Frequency Tumblr, I noticed that Anita had reblogged and linked to this flowchart. It's a great way to ignore the arguments while insulting people and pretending to prove a point at the same time. See which ending fits you the best.

As always, feel free to leave a comment or send me an e-mail at themalesofgames@gmail.com. Thanks for all the comments last time, by the way.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Damsel in Distress: Part 3 - Tropes Vs Women in Video Games

I've noticed a spike in viewers today because Dragon's Crown has been released. I'd like to get around to making another blog about that but, unfortunately, I live in Europe and our release date for the game is "Q3/Q4 2013". Amazon's estimate is October. Still, it's my birthday soon so I'll probably import it for that.

Of the three damsel in distress videos that Anita Sarkeesian has planned, this is the one I've been looking forward to the most. To me, this is the one that could make or break her arguments. As this is the video that concerns male damsels in distress -- or the "dude in distress" as she calls them -- how Anita treats this issue could be what sets the tone for the whole series.

At least to Anita's critics, this video could be the turning point. Maybe she'll try to justify the existence of male captives and attempt to dismiss it as an issue entirely. If that's the case, it's nothing particularly new and her critics have been justified in calling her arguments and examples cherry-picked and biased. On the other hand, maybe she'll treat male captives with the analytical eye they deserve; maybe she'll notice that they're not that different from female captives and perhaps she'll notice that men are tortured more often to create sympathy. If that's the case, maybe Anita can win over a few cynics. Maybe her videos won't be seen as a propaganda piece anymore and instead a more reasonable, if deeply flawed, analysis of sexism in video games for both men and women. When writing about part two of Anita's damsels in distress series, I stated, "when it comes to gender stereotypes, her heart is in the right place". That opinion has wavered a bit since then but who knows? Maybe Anita can come good at last and her silencing of others, her plagiarism of other people's videos and her misquoting of studies will just be stumbling blocks along the way.

I just hope that Anita has kept her own tweet in mind while making this video:


As of this writing, I haven't seen the video. So let's see what Anita has for us ...


Before I watched this video, I wanted Anita to say one of two things in this video; the first would be, "the dude in distress is a horrible, damaging trope because male damsels often have to go through torture and unsympathetic treatment that female damsels often don't". That's not quite my position -- I don't particularly mind damsels in distress if it makes sense in terms of the story but I do question why male characters have to be tortured to gain player sympathy -- but that would be something. The other thing I was hoping Anita might say would be, "I think having male damsels in distress is great because it's a deconstruction of gender roles and shows that the damsel plot device isn't gender-specific. It's a sensible and progressive attitude for developers to take regarding kidnapped characters".

Anita didn't take either of these stances on the subject. In fact, she didn't say much on it at all; only a third of the twenty-three-and-a-half minute video focused on the "dude in distress" and it was sharply dismissed with nothing more than a, "it's sexist when it's a woman. It's fine when it's a man". The rest of the video focused on more damsels in distress, with some focus on the use of "ironic sexism" in games.

So it looks like Anita has, in fact, chosen to be sexist by denying and dismissing the sexism against men that permeates our culture. You'd think she'd know better.

The funny thing is just how few games featuring "dudes in distress" Anita listed. She mentioned a grand total of six. I'd also like to point out that this was the first time I was made aware of the fact that, in Anita's eyes, the "distressed" character has to be the opposite sex of the hero character. Before now, I was operating under the assumption that the sex of the "damsel" was important but the sex of the hero was completely irrelevant. Even so, six games is still an incredibly small number to highlight. There was no mention of any of the games with male damsels listed in KiteTales' response to Anita's first video, all of which did feature female characters saving male ones. She didn't go into, say, Onimusha, a series that featured women saving men in all three games of the original trilogy. She didn't mention Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2, having to be released from his torture device by a woman. Oh, and she didn't bring up this blog's favourite go-to game for sexism; Heavenly Sword. It wasn't long after she mentioned these six games that she rattled off a lengthy list of indie and mobile games featuring damsels in distress, as if to lessen the significance of the six games featuring "dudes in distress" that she brought up.

Still, let's focus on Spelunky, a game that Anita focused on because she believed it highlighted the difference between the "dudes" and the "damsels". Here's a couple of points Anita made beforehand:
"First there’s been no shortage of men in leading or heroic roles in video games or in any other creative medium for that matter. In fact one recent study found that only about 4% of modern titles are exclusively designed around a woman in the leading role. Since men are still largely the default for protagonists, the rare dude in distress plotline does not add to any longstanding gendered tradition in storytelling."
It's worth mentioning that the 4% statistic doesn't mean the other 96% of modern titles are exclusively designed around a male leading character; that 96% includes sports games and games where your character's sex is optional, bear in mind.
"Second, and perhaps more importantly, damsel’ed female characters tend to reinforce pre-existing regressive notions about women as a group being weak or in need of protection because of their gender, while stories with the occasional helpless male character do NOT perpetuate anything negative about men as a group since there is no long-standing stereotype of men being weak or incapable because of their gender."
First of all, there's nothing to suggest that damseled female characters reinforce any stereotypes about women as a whole; individual damsels do not represent women as a whole. They're also not necessarily weak or in need of protection because of their gender (and I'd be surprised if there were any games out there that outright stated that). Those are both stigmas that Anita herself has attached to female damsels. Much like her declaration that damsels in distress are more like property than people, it's a conclusion that Anita has arrived at without evidence. The stereotype may exist but a damsel in distress doesn't perpetuate it simply by existing.

Anyway, Spelunky was singled-out by Anita because the 2012 HD remake of the game featured the ability to switch out the large-chested female damsel with a "Chippendales-style hunk" or even a dog. So it was the perfect game to focus on the differences between male and female damsels. In Anita's own words:
"Setting aside the fact that – if a female character is easily interchangeable with a dog then its probably a pretty good indication that something is wrong – Merely providing an optional gender-swap is not a quick and easy fix, especially where stock character style damsels are concerned.
The two may appear the same, but they don’t mean the same thing in our culture.  This [damsel] is still a problem while this [dude] is not. Again because one reinforces pre-existing stereotypes about women, while the other does not re-enforce any pre-existing stereotypes about men."
Anita's argument is "these types of token role reversals do absolutely nothing to diminish the issues inherent in using the trope in the first place" but this is nothing more than her opinion. If anything, I think the fact that a female character being interchangeable with a man or a dog is a good indication that the gender (or even species) of the damsel isn't an issue; it is an easy fix, in that the damsel isn't particularly relevant to the story, nor is her gender and the fact is that she can't reinforce a pre-existing regressive notion about women as a group if she doesn't necessarily have to be a woman.

Not to mention that the hero doesn't have to be male, something that Anita failed to mention; even in the original game, the player could unlock a mode to play as a damsel and save spelunkers, rather than the other way around. The HD remake added playable female characters too.

This is another case of creating an unwinnable situation for developers. Regardless of the effort put in by the developer to create a more progressive game -- removing the gender issue entirely by providing the option of female playable characters and male (and animal) damsels in distress -- it's dismissed for its progressiveness and derided for its perceived sexism; when talking about "ironic sexism", Anita had no problem stating:
"In Spelunky the damsel can be knocked out, picked up, carried around and thrown at enemies before rewarding the player with an extra heart via a smooch of victory (if you manage to get her limp unconscious body to the end of each level while still alive that is)."
However, doesn't this completely ignore the facts that Anita provided above? The damsel doesn't have to be female but Anita still uses the game as an example of "ironic sexism" (in this case, parodying the uselessness typically displayed by damsels in distress). Again, I have to ask why isn't the issue removed when the genders are switched? In fact, if Anita can hold up the female Spelunky damsel as an example of a character reinforcing stereotypes about being weak and incapable, couldn't I do the same for the male Spelunky damsel and say that being thrown at enemies is an example of male disposability and reinforces the fact that we don't care about men in games? Which wouldn't make any sense because the gender of both the protagonist and damsels can be picked by the player.

Putting aside all the specifics, I can't help but call this what it is; hypocrisy. An attempt to rid gaming of female damsels while coming up with flimsy justifications -- or excuses, more accurately -- to keep male ones. We have to go back to the tweet at the beginning of this blog post; she's denying and dismissing the sexism that permeates our culture. It's Anita wanting to have her cake and eat it too. To plant her flag on the moon of victimhood and claim it for womankind, if I may use a horrible metaphor.

While that might sound like a snarky and grandiose thing to accuse Anita of, here's a couple of examples that I think will clarify it; one of the six (six!) games that featured a male damsel was a game called Primal, featuring the female protagonist's boyfriend, Lewis, being kidnapped by evil forces. The protagonist, Jen, develops some powers and goes to get him back. That's a very simplified version of the game's events but it sums up the basics. What Anita didn't mention is that Lewis, in addition to being a damsel in distress, is also the final boss of the game, having been brainwashed (again, an oversimplification), and he dies shortly after his defeat. There's a hint that he could return after his death but, if the after-credits scene is anything to go by -- Jen reading to Lewis while he is comatose -- it isn't a certainty. There isn't any movement in Lewis to hint that he'll awaken.


My big problem with Anita's coverage of this is that, while there's a hint in her video that Lewis dies, there's no mention of him being the final boss. There's no mention of Jen being the one who kills him. Given that the meat of Anita's second damsels in distress video was about the implications of domestic violence when a male protagonist attacks his brainwashed (or otherwise coerced) girlfriend in a video game, mentioning these facts would be the minimum I'd expect her to do.

Also, it really does have to be said that the lack of focus on protagonists saving damsels of their own sex damages Anita's point; like I said earlier, up until this video I was under the impression that the sex of the damsel was the only important thing, rather than the sex of the damsel and the protagonist. I'm willing to wager that more men are in need of rescue in games starring male protagonists than in games starring female protagonists. Yes, I understand that's due to a lack of female protagonists -- and more varied protagonists is something I'm entirely in favour of -- but there's a plethora of male captives to be found in games with male protagonists and by refusing to include them, Anita isn't painting a complete picture. It makes the "dude in distress" out to be rarer than it actually is.

Even worse is one of the links Anita provided as a source on her website. It's a link to a PDF file called "Spelunky & Sexism", archived from a site called "How To Not Suck At Game Design". It brings up the option to switch sexes (and species) of the protagonist and damsels in Spelunky and states "this is very progressive and forward-thinking. Great concept". After that, it quickly goes downhill (excuse the few spelling and grammatical errors. They were present in the original source):
"But in a concrete manner, it makes everything even worse. Since saving is not an option, you get to choose not who to save, but who to exploit and abuse. Since we do not have as much problems in pop culture and society with abuse of men for being men, the buff guy is not that much problematic as a damsel style. It still is kinda ugly to witness, but at least it does not endorse common real-life abuse.

Animal abuse on the other hand is quite real, so smacking a dog around and using the dog as shuriken, maybe accidentally killing him, really does not feel any better, then doing it with another human being."
If you've read some of my previous posts, you might know that concern over domestic violence against men was the "main" issue that caused me to identify as a men's rights activist. To say that the paragraphs quoted above make me uncomfortable is an understatement. In fact, I don't think I've ever read anything quite as ignorant about gender issues in the many years I've followed video game websites. This is stating the obvious but domestic violence against men is also "quite real" -- without wanting to be especially preachy about the issue, hopefully this article can shine a small spotlight on an incredibly widespread issue -- and not only is the writer of the paragraphs not above treating the abuse of men as secondary to the abuse of women but also the abuse of dogs.

None of the scenarios outlined endorse any kind of abuse -- whether the damsel is a man, a woman or a dog -- but it's quite despicable that the writer treats male victims of abuse as non-existent. I would've thought it'd be worse that the abuse of men in popular culture wasn't considered an issue and that's why it should be criticised, rather than swept under the rug as "not that much problematic". Unfortunately, the writer of the paragraphs above takes an attitude of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" or "if the masses don't consider it an issue, I won't make it one". How a site can completely unironically be titled "How To Not Suck At Game Design" and then provide such a blatant double standard, I'll never know.

So both Anita and her sources are determined to dismiss the poor treatment of men to perpetuate the victimhood of women. Even so, this may be the first time I've been more irritated by Anita's sources than her videos. Having said that, in spite of the speech I've written above, there wasn't very much in Anita's videos to feel annoyed by. Oh, it was bad; if you thought Anita was judgmental of Shigeru Miyamoto, wait until you see how she treats indie developers. Although apart from that, the rest of the content was just there and aside from Spelunky, I'm mostly critical of what wasn't in Anita's videos rather than what was. So her sources bother me a lot; there aren't any misquoted studies this time around (as far as I'm aware) but a couple of the sites linked to are just complaints about Fat Princess.

Which leads us to the content that makes up the second two-thirds of the video and honestly, I don't have much to say about it. There are only three things I want to write about regarding Anita's commentary on "ironic sexism".

One. Personally, I've always thought that no topic should be off-limits for comedy. I hope I'm not the only one who wonders how Anita would react if she watched a controversial stand-up comedian. It's certainly within an indie developer's right to portray the damsel in distress -- or anyone else -- satirically. It doesn't have to fall within the bounds of Anita Sarkeesian's narrow view of satire; "There is a clear difference between sexist parody and parody of sexism. Sexist parody encourages the players to mock and trivialize gender issues while parody of sexism disrupts the status quo and undermines regressive gender conventions."

Some of the games listed certainly deconstructed and parodied the damsel in distress more than Anita gave them credit for but earned criticism because they didn't fit her definition of "parody". More on that in a second. This really is a case of "if you don't like it, don't play it" though. Satire is not Anita's to dictate and trying to do so just makes her seem entitled.

Two. When talking about indie games, Anita falls into the same traps as she did in her first episode when discussing retro games; rather than simply accepting that developers either don't have the time, the budget or just the wish to implement a deep storyline. Her accusations towards Super Meat Boy stand out in particular; she shows the game's intro sequence, which is an almost frame-for-frame remake of the the intro sequence from 1989's Adventures Of Lolo. Rather than accept it for the homage that it is, Anita brands it "a shallow meta-commentary" and criticises it for not "challenging or disrupting what the damsel in distress trope says about the role of women in such narratives".

... Who said the developer had to? Anita goes on to praise games such as Fez and Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP simply because they don't fit this mould. The problem here is that there's nothing wrong with Super Meat Boy paying homage to a retro game with its intro sequence but it still faces Anita's ire because ... it's not the retro quality she wants to see in a game. Again, this comes across as very entitled on her part. Rather than listing examples of games with damsels in distress, she's passing judgment based on preferences. This isn't the critical analysis that Anita claimed on her blog. It's closer to a soapbox or pulpit.

Three. This quote:
"The bad ending of the indie game Eversion (2008) features a similar joke; when the hero finally reaches the princess, she turns into a monster and eats you alive.
A similar end game punchline can also be found in Castle Crashers (2008). After you’ve saved the 4th princess, and then fought and killed your friends over who gets to claim her, it turns out that she has horrible clown face.
In each case the joke derives from the fact that after completing the long and perilous journey to save his woman, our hero is hilariously cheated out of his “rightful” reward."
When I watched the video for the first time, the exact thought that ran through my head was "okay, so the male hero is the butt of the joke; he gets eaten in one ending and in the other, he's deprived of any satisfaction when it turns out the princess has a clown face (and therefore has probably tricked the hero)". So how did Anita follow that up?
"In other words the comedy comes at the damsel’s expense."
 ... How? No, really, I mean how!? Only Anita Sarkeesian could see a princess eating a male hero as a sign that the damsel is being made fun of.

If I might go off on a tangent here, a few years ago I was watching any and all US comedy that I could to see if anything caught my attention. I became a fan of a few series that I'd never seen before, like Cheers and Scrubs, while some others fell by the wayside, like King Of Queens. One of the series that didn't make the cut was a sitcom called Just Shoot Me, starring David Spade. One episode featured Spade's character faced with the prospect of having a threesome with two women and as a result, he was able to persuade every male character he ran into that day to help him out because none of them wanted to ruin every man's dream (sarcasm) of being with two women at the same time. Here's the relevant part of the episode on Youtube. It ends with him being tricked, the two women who promised to have a threesome with him orchestrating an argument so they'd have an excuse to go back on the deal.

In this case, we're supposed to laugh at Spade's character. He's the butt of the joke. His sexuality and lack of sexual gratification is the butt of the joke. All the men who help him and appear at the end to applaud him are the butt of the joke too; they've all been fooled and we're meant to laugh at men for being so gullible.

The reason I'm writing all this about Just Shoot Me is because I heard a theory that Anita said "the comedy comes at the damsel's expense" because the damsel's value is supposedly lessened in the eyes of the male heroes because they turn out to be ugly (and therefore, not what the hero wants or expected). I couldn't disagree more; the damsels are no worse off than they were when the male protagonist thought they were just regular old princesses. The male protagonists, however, are David Spade's character in Just Shoot Me. They're the dorks and losers who don't get the reward they were hoping for and we're supposed to laugh at them for it. The damsels aren't devalued in any way. The damsels win.

The male protagonist is made to look stupid in these situations (or dead, in Eversion's case). While I see them as individual instances, the fact is that if Anita really is against "reinforcing pre-existing stereotypes", she really could do worse than starting with Castle Crashers. Given that Anita somehow manages to warp even that around to being offensive to women, however, that's obviously never going to happen.

Anyway, that brings this lengthy post to an end. I'd like to say that I won't watch another Feminist Frequency video but I think we all know that's a complete lie. Besides, with a brand new topic, the next time I write about a Feminist Frequency video, it'll seem more fresh. I really can't stress enough just how little of this video interested me. If anything, I was just disappointed that Anita acted so predictably, dismissing "dudes in distress" without much of a fanfare or even an interesting argument. If not for Spelunky, this blog would be much, much shorter. Again, we just have to look back on Anita's hypocritical tweet -- which I honestly did take a screenshot of before I ever saw the video -- and realise that the chances of her ever giving men's issues a fair hearing are zero.

Well, whatever. Feel free to leave a comment or send me an e-mail at themalesofgames@gmail.com.