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Friday, July 26, 2013

Isms in Games, or Just Who Is Your Role Model Here?

One of the really nasty things that happens when you get your social justice mixing with your video games is you start to lump in artistic displays with actual problems. I will openly admit that, due to video games being a sort of 'boys club' for so long, that ingrained attitudes and storytelling techniques will seep into the finished products that represent outdated and/or harmful attitudes, but there's been a disturbing trend of pointing fingers at things that really don't need fingers pointed at. Some of these things range from ham-handed to clever in their depictions, but they're still just that. Depictions.

In 2011, the sequel to the amazingly well-received and well-crafted Batman: Arkham Asylum was released in Arkham City, with a story that spanned most of the terrifying Rogue's Gallery of the Bat-Family, with cameos from civilians Jack Ryder and Vicki Vale, the League of Assassins, Calendar Man and a disturbing Rabbit-masked sequence with the Mad Hatter. The game expanded on the amazing gameplay and storytelling of the first in the series, introducing new mechanics, a vast city, and an entirely new gameplay style and playable female character with the Catwoman levels. Now, it could be argued that some of the female characters were a bit sexualized, but that's not what we're after. In the Catwoman levels, the thugs called her a bitch. Repeatedly. In anger. This was deemed, on the front page of Kotaku no less, to mean the game was sexist.

In March of this year, the Tomb Raider franchise was rebooted. Scripting the new game was one Rhianna Pratchett, daughter the one and only Terry Pratchett. Gone were the cheesecake tank-and-short-shorts of yesterday, replaced with battered cargo pants and sturdy boots. The pixelated boobs that were nigh-on-infamous were replaced with a more realistic female frame. The cocky, cold-blooded demeanor was replaced with a young, nerdy student who was eager to chase her ideas and turned out to have a spine of tempered steel. The things that Lara Croft endured in this game would have probably made me give up after the first 20 minutes or so. Every time I overcame a major obstacle, I felt a sense of accomplishment for myself, and a sense of awe at the personal fortitude that this woman was displaying. For context, this island is full of men that came from crashed aircraft or ships that have washed up on the island under similar circumstances to how Lara's ship was marooned. In the pre-release trailer for the game, one of them corners Lara, clearly intending her harm. For a half a second, his hand rests on one of her hips. The public outcry overwhelming. Lara Croft, rape victim. Rhianna Pratchett was crushed when she found out that's what people were taking away from her story.

That same month, Bioshock Infinite was released. The setting was a city in the sky founded by a religious zealot and set in the year 1912. The game was gorgeous, with a deep storyline, a fantastically well-crafted companion AI, and an ending complicated enough that Casey Hudson over at Bioware was probably steaming as the ending credits rolled. The Bioshock series has always dealt with serious political, social, and religious themes in a very serious manner. Bioshock Infinite was no different with the city of Columbia, a display of American exceptionalism run rampant. The city was a product of its time, with the wealthy white folk enjoying the carnivals and clean streets, the Irish providing the bulk of the manual labor, and the black population relegated to cleaning toilets and using servant's entrances. I think by now you're probably seeing a trend here. There were people that latched on to these things and decried the game and its creators as racists.

Now, I feel I'm getting a bit long-winded on the subject, so I'll take a break for the time being, and you'll get further ruminations on this in my next installment.


  1. I am terribly disappointed with you.

  2. I have a tactic for these people, ignore them and ponder how they got to be so stupid. Sure i am a racist, i slaughtered tens of thousands of Atari 2600 Space Invaders just because they looked different. How many ghosts, or innocent asteroids i killed, i cannot count. And i sleep soundly for it.

  3. Guess it's a good thing I put my faith in Blast Hardcheese.

  4. The sad thing is, I can see intelligence in some of their arguments, it's just the misguided over-sensitivity to things that don't even affect them particularly. I plan on really tearing into this subject in the coming weeks.

  5. I think some of the outcry over Tomb Raider, wasn't necessarily just the trailer but the way the headlines of the trailer were portrayed on various media outlets AND the commentary from staff working on the game. Sorry for quoting from a Kotaku article but they're the ones who had originally interviewed producer Ron Rosenberg,"In the new Tomb Raider, Lara Croft will suffer. Her best friend will be kidnapped. She'll get taken prisoner by island scavengers. And then, Rosenberg says, those scavengers will try to rape her" Also not to mention that he specifically says she's not the direct hero and you're supposed to want to protect her. Commentary afterwards also acknowledges that they identified it as rape, but had mispoken. Quite honestly, I believe, much too late. So the game may not have been going that way, but unfortunately, marketing/producers/etc need to possibly work with community managers and PR people prior to doing interviews and using words that despite all the best intentions are going to cause doom and dismay.

    Here's the two articles I referenced on the matter:

    Now, should people have lost their minds at the idea of rape being portrayed in the game? (Considering there is rape shown in Silent Hill 2 and we didn't hear that outrage....) Probably not, just because it's a touchy topic, doesn't mean it aught to be unapproachable. However, with any controversial topic, you better be prepared for the backlash and be sure that you explain how you're approaching it clearly for all audiences.


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