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One common reason given for the absence of female characters in video games that are set in the past is that the portrayal is supposed to be historically accurate (see for examples these discussions at the Border House). This great post by Juliet McKenna suggest that excuse is not legitimate.

McKenna notes that much of ‘history’ as it was studied did leave women out of the discussion, but as she puts it, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Instead of accurately representing the role of women in history, McKenna suggests that the absence of women reflected Victorian beliefs about the importance of great men. It was not the case that women played little role in history, instead it was the case that Victorian historians focused on what men did and neglected what women were doing. And since the rise of women’s studies in the 1960s, writers can no longer use the “historical accuracy” excuse.

Women’s influence and significance is now apparent, even when they were effectively denied financial and political power by the cultures of their day.

So a fantasy writer can no longer point to a few exceptional women in fantasy narratives, such as Galadriel, and hide behind a claim to reflect historical accuracy because the only significant women in history were exceptions such as Good Queen Bess. Not when I have books on my study shelves about the women who sailed with Nelson’s navy and built his ships in the royal dockyards, about the role of so many women in the scientific developments of the Enlightenment and a whole lot more besides. (From “The Representation of Women in Fantasy“)

So the alleged historical accuracy might not be so accurate. If only this were enough to convince people to stop using the excuse…

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Update: SLee and Topher now have an entire case guide out in e-book form. Even better, it is FREE!

Update 2 (May 5th 2012): If you want some help answering the questions, but don’t want the spoilers of the actual answers, SLee and Topher now have a guide with tips on how to deduce the correct response.

I have been playing L.A. Noire [1] and I have really been trying to like it. It should be the kind of game I love. I have written before about why I love crime shows and I usually like crime games as well. The game was highly recommended to me by two friends whose opinions and taste I trust. So I want to like it, but L.A. Noire is just not doing it for me. In this post I give the uncharitable version of my reaction to L.A. Noire. In a future post I will give the more charitable interpretation of my reaction to the game. [Note: This post contains spoilers for L.A. Noire and Triggers for Racism, Sexism and Violence. I will note each in-text as they arise, and hide any spoilers that affect the cases]

Sections:

  1. Racism and Sexism
  2. Plot, Choice and the Uncanny Valley
  3. Gameplay and the Uncanny Valley
  4. Final Verdict (tl;dr)
  5. Link Round-Up of Interrogation and Investigation Tips

1. Racism and Sexism

[Trigger Warning for Discussion of Gender-Based Violence]

L.A. Noire is both racist and misogynist through and through.[2] You play as Cole Phelps assisted by several partners throughout the game. Phelps himself rarely says racist or sexist things, but his partners can be relied upon for a steady stream of racism and sexism. [Light Spoiler for L.A. Noire] One partner, Stefan Bekowsky Roy Earle [Thanks to Harold for the correction], becomes incensed when a black man makes a suggestion. He spits out, “don’t tell me what to do,” with a tone that indicates he thinks the black man “doesn’t know his place.” Later he says, “What an evening I’m having. First a negro puts his hands on me, and then this.” The game also features anti-Semitic conspiracies as part of the plot-line.[3] Later, Phelps’ partner, Finbarr “Rusty” Galloway, jokes about beating and murdering his girlfriends and wives. Galloway thinks a woman deserves to die if she keeps a messy house.[4] [/Spoiler] But I am not going to dwell on those points, since there is an in-game explanation (America is racist! It was especially racist in the ’40s! It adds realism!)[5] and I expect that anyone who is playing a Rockstar game will anticipate a lot of racist, homophobic and sexist shit and will have prepared themselves accordingly.

[/Trigger Warning]

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An image of Chell from Portal 2: A woman of slender to medium build with somewhat messy dark hair. She wears an orange jumpsuit, the same jumpsuit as she was in Portal 1, but now it is tied around her waist to reveal a white tank top. Chell has braces on the back of her calves, and carries a handeheld portal device, which looks like a futuristic ray gun. She is modelled on a woman of Brazilian American and Japanese descent. The image also has a portal to Chell's right and we can see GLaDOS in an environment over-grown with weeds. (Thanks to rho and bluestar for elements of this description; photo from The National Post).

In June, after the release of the Portal 2 trailer at E3 I wrote about some concerns I had reading interviews with the developers of Portal 2. Now it has been released and I have finished the main story and co-op, gone through again for the trophies and to listen to the developer commentary, so I thought I should return and assess whether the worries I had were warranted. [Note: The following discussion contains spoilers]

1. Portal 2 and Gender

This version of portal is certainly more gendered than the first version was. But just because something is gendered, that does not necessarily make it sexist. Gender can be used in subversive ways as well as being used in sexist ways. Arguably, the first Portal game used gender in subversive ways (for an analysis see Joe McNeilly’s discussion here).

Portal 1 is not very explicitly gendered. When I first played I did not notice Chell’s gender much at all. Some elements of the environment were gendered (GLaDOS was clearly a female computer, if such a thing makes sense).  McNeilly argues (pg. 4) that many of the elements of the environment are gendered (the turrets are ‘boys’ and the companion cube is male–from the GLaDOS line (about 3:30; the link is a spoiler for Portal 1): “A big party that all your friends were invited to. I invited your best friend the Companion Cube. Of course, HE couldn’t come because you murdered HIM,” which I took as the generic “he” but perhaps McNeilly is right).

In the first game you really did not get a sense of Chell’s gender unless you happened to catch a glimpse of yourself through one of the portals. That lead to some magical moments for many gamers, as Jenn Frank wrote about and I discussed in a previous post. It was really great to play a woman in a game without that making a huge difference to the story or the heroism of the protagonist. As Frank writes,

But here is the next surprise: your being a girl doesn’t mean anything. It means nothing. You play on, and nothing has changed, and the game is still the game, and you are still you. But something has substantially changed, and fundamentally changed, because now you know. You have seen yourself.

But the surprise at playing a woman was never really an option for Portal 2, once they made the decision to keep Chell as the main character (and thank goodness they ditched the jumpsuit revision they were considering at the time. This Chell is somewhat more sexed-up, but not overly so. I don’t find her to be any more sexed-up than Faith from Mirror’s Edge. Also, they seem to have kept the racial ambiguity that allows players to project their own race onto Chell. Chell is still modelled on Alesia Glidwell, a Japanese-Brazilian actor.). So now that the player knows they are a woman, there is a choice about how that will be treated.

Chell is definitely more gendered than she was the first time around. As a few people have already written, some of the jabs that GLaDOS levies at Chell involve calling Chell fat as a particularly gendered insult (see below). For example, loodmoney writes,

Secondly, it seems a poor way to write female characters. In Portal 1, the player might very well have completed the game without knowing the protagonist was a woman. Her sex was irrelevant to the circumstances, thus it was not worth commenting on. Chell is a stronger character as a result.
But here I get the impression that the writers got lazy: ‘Chell is a girl, right? And GLaDOS is also a girl, right? And they’re enemies? Well then, obviously the latter is going to say stuff about the former’s weight! I mean, that’s something that girls do, right?’

I agree with loodmoney that Chell is more gendered in this game. I also agree that ‘fat’ is a gendered insult in this particular instantiation. Why is it a gendered insult? Because Chell is not fat, and despite the obvious truth that (fat) men are sometimes called fat with the intent to insult them, and men can also be hurt by being called fat, it remains a gendered insult because non-fat men are not usually called ‘fat’ whereas non-fat women often are. Further, it is generally considered more important for women to maintain their appearance than it is for men, and men get greater leeway before the label ‘fat’ is applied to them. But this is the text, and there is (I think) a different subtext.

I disagree that this is lazy writing or that it fails characterization and feminism 101. The reason is because of the relationship to power that Valve has included in the game.

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Happy Pills

Give me some happy pills so that I can be a better person.

On Monday the Guardian ran an article about using drugs to improve moral behaviour. Some drugs affect our emotions, increasing our feelings of trust, social bonding, empathy and lowering our anxiety. Scientists are now discussing the possibility that these drugs might be used to improve our moral behaviour.

The assumption seems to be  that we would be morally better people, if only we could better control our emotional responses.

“Science has ignored the question of moral improvement so far, but it is now becoming a big debate,” he [Guy Kahane] said. “There is already a growing body of research you can describe in these terms. Studies show that certain drugs affect the ways people respond to moral dilemmas by increasing their sense of empathy, group affiliation and by reducing aggression.”

I think this assumption is interesting, because it reflects one strain of Western Philosophy that has a long tradition of being apprehensive about our emotions. Philosophers, dating back to the ancient Greeks, were often suspicious of emotions and sometimes considered them to be an irrational influence that distorted our otherwise praiseworthy rationality. For some philosophers, part of the task of philosophy was to control our emotions so that they cannot distort our moral reasoning. The Stoics, for example, recognized that some emotions (love, a sense of justice) might be thought to have positive value within our moral life, but they noted that each of these emotions also has a negative side: love can turn to murderous jealousy and a sense of justice can lead to destructive outrage. The Stoics argued that one cannot keep the good part of our emotional responses without bringing along the bad parts, and so they suggested that we endeavour to purge all emotions from our souls.

The assumptions about emotions made by Kahane are a little different than the discussion of emotions by the Stoic philosophers, because Kahane seems to believe there is a positive role for emotions in our moral lives and through pharmaceutical manipulation we might be able to harness the positive aspects of moral emotions while leaving behind their bad aspects. Nevertheless, Kahane’s discussion reflects the ancient Greek discussion because there is a suspicion of emotions in their natural state. The view seems to be that emotions can positively contribute to our moral behaviour, but in order to do so they must be “tamed” and manipulated by pharmaceuticals.

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[Trigger Warning: I am writing about rape again, and I will be snarky, sarcastic and otherwise more emotive in my writing than average]

If there is one thing that could be said for Penny Arcade’s handling of the criticisms of “The 6th Slave” comic, it is that they did begin a serious discussion of rape culture that is probably reaching a wider part of gaming culture than “ever before” (*hyperbole*). More non-feminist gamers are hearing this discussion than would ever hear of similar discussions of rape culture that occur in feminist gaming forums, on feminist gaming blogs, and non-gaming feminist blogs.

When I read the Debacle Timeline, I am struck by how many genuinely thoughtful posts have been created discussing the whole affair. Many of them don’t really seem to understand what feminists are trying to express by the concept of “rape culture,” but many of them do make an honest attempt. Some posts show serious reflection, and a change of mind. They also inspired the creation of Team Respect, who are pretty willing to patiently describe the aspects of rape culture to those asking about it at xkcd forums. It might be true that the debacle also started a flame-war in the blog comments, over e-mail and on twitter. But many of the actual blog posts linked through the Debacle Timeline are pretty thoughtful, for the most part.

Perhaps that is something good to come out of the whole affair. It is true many did not listen. But some did. Many have been saying they never considered such things before, and now they see differently. So congratulations to Kirby Bits for speaking her mind. And congratulations to Penny Arcade for bringing discussions of rape culture to a wider gaming audience. Too bad it had to happen in such an ugly way that probably hurt many rape victims and threatened many others along the way.

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Many gamers have complained about the ridiculous outfits that game designers make their female characters wear (see here, here, here, here, and here). In this video, the guys at Rooster Teeth Labs decided to see what would happen if real women tried to fight each other while wearing video game inspired clothes. The results are revealing.

I think results like these are ones that female gamers would expect. It is one of the reasons that chainmail bikini-wear tends to break our immersion (or suspension of disbelief) when we run across these outfits in games.

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Almost nobody likes commercials. Since technologies such as VCRs, DVRs and TiVo are now available, many people prerecord TV shows and skip through the commercials. So marketers and advertisers are trying to come up with commercials that we are willing to watch, or that we cannot get around watching (for example, because they are part of the TV show itself). I am not usually a fan of commercials; I usually only watch prerecorded TV precisely because I can skip the ads.

The Box Art for LittleBigPlanet2

But last night, I was playing LittleBigPlanet2 and I ended up playing a commercial for the Prius (Part 2 of the level is here). The level is published by “LittleBigPartner” and is described as:

Join Sackboy* as he solves puzzles in his treehouse and takes his Prius for a drive in the city. With the objects you collect here, create your own Prius-inspired level for a chance to win a Sony Bravia 3D HDTV and other prizes. Visit http://www.us.playstation.com/psn/events/littlebigprius.html for more details. NOTE: Name your contest levels “Prius_[Your Level Name]” in order to enter.

The contest has been pretty popular, and there are now a number of Priusthemed user-made levels. From a marketing perspective, this is probably a great campaign. It encourages people to spend a lot of time thinking about the Prius and how to use it in a level they are creating. The Prius car, and various other objects (like wind turbines, and so forth) are given away in the level, and users are encouraged to use “as many of the collected objects as possible” (at 0:59) in their own levels. This allows Toyota a degree of control over the kinds of messages that users create in their levels. The objects that are given away are all associated with environmental themes and alternative energy sources.  If a user incorporates these objects, there is a good chance that the level will end up with a theme that associates the Prius and environmentalism.

Since LBP2 includes the user “LittleBigPartner” I am quite sure that there will be many more of these commercial levels in the future. Perhaps this is a good marketing strategy, for the reasons I described above, but I found it really off-putting. First, I was annoyed because I found the level through the “Media Molecule Picks” and in the past Media Molecule had always featured levels made by regular players, rather than advertisement levels. I felt tricked when I played this level, because I expected a user level, but instead got an advertisement. Second, the contest feels more insidious that previous contests. Both LittleBigPlanetCentral and LittleBigLand have held contests in the past, but these contests did not promote a particular product. This contest seems to be piggy-backing on the work done by previous competitions in the LittleBigPlanet game-universe.

*Note the use of the “universal” or “gender-neutral” “he” and “Sackboy,” which I complained about before.

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