Sunday, 24 May 2015

What Studying "Critical Approaches" is Actually Like

Over the past two months or so, I've been "fortunate" enough to take part in a "Critical Approaches to Creative Media Products" unit that deals with many of the same issues that we have read about and heard talked about in the games industry over the past few years. I don't know if it's anywhere close to the same as the "Social and Political Thought" class that Anita Sarkeesian took but the themes and language used are very reminiscent of her videos. The class itself isn't horrible ... but all the thoughts you have ever had about "cultural criticism" not being a real job are reinforced by it.

Let's start with the biggest reason why: there are no wrong answers. Absolutely everything is open to interpretation. Your own ideology and how much you read into things are more important than being accurate; it doesn't matter if the content creator actually did put the same spin into their work that you claim, it only matters that you make the claim and are able to justify it in some way.

Some of you may have heard of a subject known as "semiotics"; the study of the meaning behind signs and symbols. This doesn't specifically refer to signs but can refer to a body of work (a text, like a movie, game or television series). It's all about the "decoder" (the viewer) figuring out the message and the reasons why the "encoder" (the content creator) created the work the way they did.

Is it correct? Doesn't matter. Can you read something into it? If the answer is yes, then you're on the right track.

If you think I'm exaggerating, I'll use an example given by the tutor herself; when talking about the 2001 Tomb Raider movie starring Angelina Jolie, she brought up a scene near the end where Lara Croft visits her father's grave. The tutor's "decoding" of this scene is that the filmmakers and audience are only comfortable accepting a woman in a "masculine" action role if she also sticks to "her place" as a woman and outwardly displays that she's still feminine.

There's a big problem with this. Let's say Lara attended her father's grave in a suit. Couldn't I interpret that as the filmmakers refusing to show that a woman can be an action hero while also being feminine? That she has to be masculine to be believable? Only today, I looked up Jupiter Ascending on Wikipedia and read the phrase "Hollywood typically portrays strong women in action films as "Arnold Schwarzenegger with boobs"," so couldn't that standpoint be argued and be just as valid?

Of course it could. Because there are no wrong answers.

This "no wrong answers" approach is a key aspect of critical approaches that isn't picked up on by gaming journalists. It's all interpretation, based on the decoder's ideology more than the text. Gaming journalists miss this and treat the critique of people like Anita Sarkeesian as fact. Which is unsurprising, since she herself seems to have failed to grasp the fact that the critical approaches subject is based entirely around interpretation. This is why we hear blunt, insulting statements from Anita about people like Toru Iwatani, who she claimed had "regressive personal or cultural notions about women". It's her interpretation but she's stating it as fact.

More than that, and this is another major point that both gaming journalists and Sarkeesian have not acknowledged, even if your interpretation is 100% correct and you've nailed the reasons behind why a game developer did what they did ... you can still be factually incorrect about the game's content. Anita has brought that to the table in spades, cherry-picking examples that support her argument and ignoring the ones that don't (strong female examples and negative male examples). No, violence against innocent female strippers in Hitman Absolution is not "implicitly encouraged". Yes, MaleShep does have his own nickname. No, NPC bodies disappearing does not reinforce women's status as disposable objects. Even if being a "cultural critic" allows you to say whatever you like about a content creator's ideology, you can't ignore facts and evidence in order to prove your point. That is an area where there certainly are some wrong answers.

I don't want it to sound like my Critical Approaches class was horrible and I have to give my tutor credit in some areas. She wasn't on board with the nonsensical "it's impossible to be sexist against men" attitude espoused by Anita and other high-profile feminists. One other significant point she made about sub-cultures vs. the mainstream. An "out-group" vs. an "in-group". Basically, as sub-cultures become more and more of an "out-group", they become more at odds with the mainstream.

You may also have heard a phrase that goes something along the lines of "the oppressors never see themselves as oppressors". Judging from their reactions over the last year, it seems as though there are a bunch of high-profile mainstream figures in the games industry who still see themselves as being part of a downtrodden sub-culture. People like Anita, Leigh Alexander and Brianna Wu see themselves as oppressed, helpless victims being piled on by their oppressors ... but then do a great job of killing that image by landing television interviews, college talks and articles in mainstream newspapers to talk about how oppressed they are. It doesn't matter that they're wealthy. Or funded by Intel. Or the heads of PR agencies. Or were given hundreds of thousands of dollars by their parents to start their own businesses. Or have friends in high places, like film directors and mainstream journalists who are happy to promote them as being victims. They still don't see themselves as being part of the mainstream. Or they do and know how well-off they are but have to keep up appearances for the sake of profiting off their victimhood.

I want to make it clear that I'm not limiting this to those three. Gaming journalism as a whole (more or less) seems to fit this mould. It seems to be a trend with feminism as a whole too; feminist writers and bloggers appear to think that feminism is the sub-culture when, in actual fact, it's the mainstream. In his interview with TechRaptor last year, Daniel Vavra talked about how, "there is a group of people that think they know what’s right and what’s wrong and that they have a mission to make the world a better place and protect the oppressed by any means. They don’t even care what the “oppressed” people think". This isn't specific to games either. It's in all forms of media and ridiculously common in comic books (such as the controversy over the Milo Manara Spider-Woman cover variant). "If you don't like it, don't buy it" is not a phrase they consider acceptable. The demand is that nobody should be allowed to buy it unless it suits their sensibilities. It's very immature. Feminist critique isn't a subculture. It's the mainstream and it has been for about thirty to forty years. Critics of feminist critique are the subculture.


I was surprised to find that I still get at least a hundred visitors to the blog a day, even when I haven't updated for months. I apologise for that but if you read my last update, you'll know that I don't keep in touch with mainstream gaming news anymore. I get by on word of mouth and a few smaller gaming news sites that care more about the games than the politics. We all want to like games and I feel like buying the games I'm interested in is the best way of doing that. If it annoys critics because it has "regressive" portrayals of women, even better.

Regardless of whether people love or hate what I have to say, I appreciate everyone who visits and feel guilty about not updating more often. My readers (and especially commenters) are all great people and I don't want to let you down after you've done so much for me. I'm not going to stop updating, I guarantee that, but as side projects go, this blog is actually pretty draining.

I have to give a long-overdue thank you to Adrian Chmielarz for his numerous links to this blog in his "Top Ten Critiques of Feminist Frequency" article in February. It's much appreciated and his article was a great read. Thanks a lot to Adrian.