Friday, 22 June 2012

Game/Cultural Issues of the Week

This week month has been a busy one... excuses abound about why I haven't stayed true to my humble principle of writing more regularly, but, to be completely honest, it doesn't really matter. So I'm going to ignore my own self pity and talk a little about what's been going on in the realm of computer games! What follows is an amorphous mass of writing on the issues of sexism and violence in computer games. Oh god...

It seems that socio-cultural issues spread like wild fire in game journalism. First it was the issue of violence which found itself most cohesively expressed in the demos of E3 - that now much derided convention/colossus of a sales pitch. Much was said about Usher, dubstep and all round disappointment/bewilderment, but more importantly there has been a general backlash surrounding the fetishistic insistence on violence and realism still dominating the big budget game releases. Then this was coupled with some serious criticism coming from journalists apparently finding themselves agasp at gender issues in mainstream computer games, meaning that there has been some really interesting and heated web-debates going on in computer game journalism.

On, for instance, there has been a whole series of articles dedicated to the subject of sexism and gender politics, approaching it from several angles but altogether leading to the "astonishing" conclusion that computer games, as a medium of storytelling, is a little immature compared to others. Response from the 1up readership seems to have been negative to put it mildly and I found it slightly worrying to read so many comments expressing a desire to completely ignore the issue altogether (and perhaps ignoring the cultural importance which games have now developed). 

Costumes for Lollipop Chainsaw - titillation or objectification? Also phallic...
Bob Mackey's (writer for 1up) review of Grasshopper's Lollipop Chainsaw seemed to be at the epicentre of this feud between journalists and readers, but also diverged from another writer's approach to the game which hinted at an entirely different way of understanding Lollipop's hyper-sexualised teen protagonist. Jim Sterling's article on objectification in Lollipop (for Destructoidsuggested that instead of the girl being the centre of objectification, it was in fact the beheaded boyfriend who symbolised the vulnerability and harassment so often aimed at young women. His position as a helpless, defenseless, tag-along, satirized the ordinary male/female roles: "The outright emasculation of Nick" Sterling writes, "is certainly terrifying enough for a person who shares his gender, and opens the door to sympathizing with the rest of the trials he faces...It takes reversing the roles for us to see that" 

However, I'm not convinced the game entirely gets away with it's often flagrant objectification of the main character. By parodying the position of the male - being completely vulnerable and "emasculated"...that is, physically castrated (along with the rest of his body) - compared to the aggressive, phallus wielding, female lead shows that the game is at least aware of the issue of cliched male/female dynamic in popular culture.Yet the game still maintains the conventional gender roles; only switching them for comic effect. The woman uses what can be considered (and if the writer - as he has claimed on twitter - follows Sterling's gender-centric approach) a massive motorised phallus to penetrate and disembowel hoards of zombies whilst the male, without such a weapon, is weak and comical. It therefore maintains the same language Sterling suggests it satirizes. I.e. the female is only strong because of her masculine qualities while her female attributes are still purposefully objectified. Yet she is presented as loving and caring towards her boy-head-friend, which is important to her character...the game is clearly more complex than Mackey's approach first suggested - whether or not it is entirely successful. 

Phall...oh why bother? 

There is perhaps then a link between these two problems of violence and sexism [this is where it all gets a bit fuzzy/preachy]. The problem of sexism possibly stems from the general language of mainstream computer games. Just as with Lollipop's obsession with massive weapons and evisceration, most games use their interactivity to force overly aggressive acts from the player - all of which is rife with phallic imagery and physco-sexual symbolism. Maybe these aggressively traditional masculine approaches to any and all situations has inadvertently lead to a very aggressive approach to, not only female characters, but the subject of gender altogether.  

Anyway, as with most all problems I face in life, one possible answer is Looking Glass Studio's 1998 game, Thief. Yes, I know it's amazing, but why I bring it up is that it approaches violence in a still surprisingly unique way even today. Unlike stealth games such as Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid or Hitman, Thief never necessarily requires the player to fully engage in violence. In fact it's rather frowned upon and generally leads to the player running away like a little girl (oh yeah, sexism, sorry) or being mauled like a rebooted Lara Croft. BUT! What's great is that the game's protagonist, Garrett, who's so rubbish at fighting, is never presented as either weak or emasculated. He is in fact a very masculine character, with a gravely voice and a dry wit, encapsulating that rare character trait of being genuinely 'cool'. The game prizes intelligence over violence and therefore empowers the player through non-cave man or overly sexually symbolic means. 

Thief... not quite as sexy as Lollipop Chainsaw

It is by all accounts a sticky issue. But its allowed me to talk about Thief so I think it's worth consideration. Seriously though games regularly use non-violent means of interaction (more so outside the mainstream, though games like Portal prove that the mainstream is also aware of entirely different approaches - Professor Layton was pretty popular too, wasn't it?) and non-conservative approaches to gender representation, though both still seem to be the go-to form of representation in "AAA" games. Thief and multitudinous other games point the way towards a form of mature game design which has freed itself from the shackles of thuggery and an insistently immature world view.

Yet there is also a danger of treating gamers like they can't make a sophisticated choice of their own. If I want to gun down swaths of scantily clad hookers then surely I should be allowed - we really don't want mass censorship for a medium which has so often embraced the shocking with such admirable verve. There is also an important differentiation which must be made in the face of criticism towards computer game violence: many games use violence well and it supports the story and is mature and engaging. Also these games are always given age restrictions. And for the mature gamer there is a lot to be said for choice and variety - and, to quote Cliff Bleszinski, "There's room for all styles of games out there. Most games that rely on violence as a selling point and nothing else tend to rightfully fail."

Therefore, as with most rational approaches, the answer seems to lie right on the fence. If there was ever a mass censorship movement in computer games' history we might not have games such as Doom, GTA, or The Witcher - all of which are very good computer games because they include of sex and violence. Yet fetishistic violence and sexism is not what we want to represent the mainstream of computer gaming. So, in conclusion, everyone should play Thief....

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