Thursday, July 10, 2014

Semper Invictus

Before I start this, I'd like to dedicate this article to S.R. Holliwell, the author of a well-researched and well-written set of analyses on the works of Hideo Kojima with regards to depictions of misogyny and transphobia. These articles have been stricken from the internet, I assume because she got tired of being harassed about them. If there is one person in games who should have been writing, whose works should have been getting recognition, it's her, and not people who are writing about how games need to be More Fun And Less Serious, or about how games journalism is Totally Corrupt (for the ten thousandth time).

Anyways, on to the article.

The second most-read article I've written was "How To Write Empowering Female Characters". In that article, there was an examination of the concept of "agency", as well as the greater concept of portraying characters as though they are people and not just cardboard cutouts. Pretty simple stuff. At the end I mentioned WWE wrestler "Kharma", who differed from other women in the WWE because she was presented first and foremost as an aggressive, powerful figure instead of eye candy. I mentioned that the WWE should consider hiring some female MMA fighters to add that sort of credibility and power to their women's competitions.

But I never wrote an article about female MMA fighters, and that's basically a huge oversight on my part, because essentially Women's MMA is 90% of the things that I wanted out of videogames before I gave up on them as a medium. Here's the checklist for depicting combat well:

1) Combat is realistic and meaningful.
2) Combatants dress and behave in ways that indicate they are taking things seriously.
3) Combat, and its participants, are treated with respect.

These are pretty simple rules, I think. I'm not going crazy here (at least, not with this specific set of rules). And there's games that fulfill those standards - well, a few at least. Tom Clancy's stuff was pretty consistently good about that sort of thing. Rainbow Six 3 was a respectful, realistic, intelligent shooter that easily included female characters with no major overhauls necessary. GRAW2 has the best "tough lady" faces in video games. But most of the time, games are pretty dumb about this, because games make combat to be "fun", and by being "fun" they also end up being "stupid".

Whereas, conversely, MMA in real life is a sport where people are getting punched in the head. As a result, competitors and spectators tend to take it pretty seriously. They wear practical clothing. They do their hair up so it can't get yanked around - and if they don't, they at least know there'll be repercussions. They're not there to "look good", they're there to fight. It's simple stuff. And it's basically all I wanted out of games, at least in terms of depicting characters.

So here's the funny thing about women's MMA, right: I don't have a lot to talk about. It's basically fine. Women are competing seriously. The commentators are treating them respectfully as athletes and fighters. You get cool natural moments because this is an actual fight instead of a staged event. Everything is right where it should be. I mean, the thing is, everything that happens around it is more balanced because there's that strong core of serious respect. There's women in MMA who flaunt their sex appeal, and the difference between that happening in MMA and that happening in a video game is pretty obvious too: it's a real woman doing it, under her own agency. She's not being disrespected for it. It's simple stuff. That's the thing about MMA, though - it's real. It treats fights like they're real because they are. It treats women like they're real combatants because they are.

It'd be silly to say that there are no problems in the MMA world, but compared to gaming it feels like there's a more real chance of actually undoing those problems. Yeah, Dana White is a misogynist asshole, and the entire Invicta company was founded as a way to get away from him, but hey. Martial arts is founded on principles of respect. You know what isn't? Gaming. There is no underlying expectation of respect in gaming. The only principles in gaming are "if people will buy it, make it". Anyone can throw out a "market research" explanation for depicting women in a certain way, or, failing that, they can go for the equally eye-rolling "artistic license". You don't get that shit with MMA. Fights are fights.

Of course there's still assholes who follow MMA - it's a bloodsport, after all. Of course there's still people making derogatory comments about WEAKER WOMEN. Of course there are MMA fighters who are pieces of shit. It's an inevitability. It's still an event that takes place on Planet Earth, after all. On the other hand, you have companies run by and for women - the kind of thing that would get overwhelmingly swarmed and harassed in the gaming world. You have a backbone of "this is real combat" that adds a level of objectivity to the proceedings. There's a strong core foundation of "hey, this is a serious sport" that helps solidify the community in the face of shitty human beings. Gaming would be fucking blessed if it had a single woman - fictional or non - as intense as AnnMaria De Mars. Fighting is serious fucking shit.

When people ask why Assassin's Creed won't treat women with respect, ask yourself: when did AC ever treat anything with respect? When did games ever treat anything with respect? Why are we surprised that a medium based on shallow, petty self-indulgence keeps fucking up when it comes to actual serious topics? How can they stay when they're sixty million miles away? How can they fly when they're free?

Sometimes I wish I'd started taking heroin instead of getting into videogames. It'd probably have been healthier overall.

Support Invicta FC.

Thursday, June 19, 2014


it finally happened

it's pretty funny that, like mrbtongue*, wong ultimately has a soft spot for mass effect despite it being all the things he's listing off as shitty

also i probably would have added an entry for "things looking stupid as shit" but you can't have everything

*for the record mrbtongue is undoubtedly the most respectable games theorist on youtube; the fact that he has only two attributes that i dislike should make it pretty clear that he's heads and shoulders above the rest of the video game world

as for me,

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ludonarrative Dissonance: A Primer

In conventional terms, there are two parts of a "game", or "interactive experience". There is the mechanical aspect ("the game") and the narrative aspect ("the story"). Some people are confused about the relation between these two things and I have a lot of time on my hands after writing literally every possible thing about believability that I could, so here we are again, doing this old song and dance one last time before I do it again next week. To start with, let's identify the two major parts of an "interactive experience", or "game". The first part, the mechanical game aspect, is what we'll call "the sport". The second part, the narrative story aspect, is what we'll call "the story".

Sport is a term I am using not only because of its structural connotations (sports have rules and regulations that exist on their own terms) but also because of the implications of its etymology. While today we associate "sports" with a highly structured team experience connected to physical exertion and capabilities, the origins of the word are actually much simpler. The word comes from the French desporter, meaning diversion or amusement. No seriously, look it up. This definition dates back to the 1400s, and as "play" became more structured it took on the modern meaning. The point here is that "sport" is a term I am using because sports are done for fun or for enjoyment. This relates in turn to the role of "sport" in a game. Sport is the rules for playing a game. Sometimes these rules intersect with the greater rules of the game slash joke that we call "reality". Sometimes they don't.

Story is the simulation of actions in a usually-consistent universe. Characters, events and settings make up the foundation of a "story", which is reinforced with dialogue, graphics, sound, etc. Story serves as the horrific, misshapen skinsuit crudely fashioned to cover the Sport Experience. It is a tattered and baggy object that nonetheless adds appeal to the Sport Experience despite clearly not fitting on it and ultimately being a terrifying funhouse mirror of real life. An example of Story is a reflexive point-and-click experience being converted into a murder simulator where players pretend to kill other human beings while gun companies make actual real-life profits from their guns being represented in the game as largely unrelated numbers and objects. If the story was not there, the players would simply be launching projectiles at each other, and players hit by the projectiles would be briefly removed from play for several seconds. Without the facade of shooting human beings until they die it's impossible to see this sport as being appealing.

Hey, do you remember that time that a fictional movie was made and it was so convincing that it drove up membership for the Ku Klux Klan to the degree that it was more influential and dangerous than it had been at the height of Reconstruction? No, forget about it, I'm just thinking out loud.

Some games that are all sport and no story include all sports that have no story, such as rugby, hockey, jai alai, and badminton. These experiences do not offer justifications for their mechanics, or even context - the rules are the rules and that's all that they are. A Ping-Pong player is simply a player of Ping-Pong; they are not representative of, for example, a mighty hero vanquishing an ancient evil. They are not recreating the battle of Stalingrad via paddle and ball. They are not pretending to explode civilians with every swing. They are not learning valuable lessons about the cruel nature of war when the ball hits the tiny net. They may have existential crises about why they are playing Ping-Pong, re: the pointlessness of learning to become extremely skilled at hitting a small ball back and forth, but this is within the realm of real life not the simulated reality of a Ping-Pong Narrative.

Some interactive experiences (or "games") that are all story and no sport include Bell Park, Youth Detective, Oren Moverman's Rampart, John Gardner's Grendel, and Eduardo Galeano's Days and Nights of Love and War. In these events there is no "skill" or "rules" that determine forward progress apart from the act of pressing play or turning pages or clicking one of several choice options. However, despite this simple setup, these stories are comparable in choice-levels to more advanced Sportgames such as Uncharted or Bioshock. Despite the more intensive sport setup, the narrative advancement is basically the same for these games as it is for the sport-free games. Also, the writing is worse. Like, Jesus, seriously, have you actually played an Uncharted game? Are they kidding us with that dialogue?

You might ask yourself at this point: what makes a game a game, objectively speaking? The answer is nothing. Classifications like that are entirely a human invention and the universe really doesn't give a shit about whether something is a game or is art or whatever. Their definitions come from the notoriously shoddy English language, which some people think is a near-infallible source of categorization when in reality it was cobbled together from like five different languages over the course of a millenium or so, and that's not including all the loanwords. Fuck Art. Fuck Games. Who gives a shit. Uncharted is a movie where you have to pretend to shoot people with shitty guns to unlock new sections of the movie. Who gives a shit. Fuck it. Another important part of games is level design.

What is the "endgame" of a game? What is the innate purpose that games should strive towards? Once again we must look towards the gaping abyss of existential purposelessness to give us our answer. A great eye opens in the swirling, incomprehensible vortex, and as you stare into it you realize that in 100 years you will be dead, and your role in this universe will be negligible. The only beings who will mourn you are just as fragile as you are. You were born into this universe to die and the insubstantial things that you do during your cosmically brief time here are of no concern to anyone other than beings as flawed and pointless as you are. As you take pleasure from breaking society's taboos, as you drive on the sidewalk in Grand Theft Auto or molest a 14 year old in SNATCHER or improperly stack crates in Shenmue, remember that the fleeting pleasure you derive from these experiences are in essence acknowledging the worthlessness not only of the simulation but also of the real thing. Without the firm hand of the law most of you wouldn't have enough empathy to even consider not doing it in real life because people like you aren't motivated by things like human kindness, are you? Bonus Question: What would Jean Calvin think of video games?

1) Why?
2) Why bother?
3) Objectively explain why murder is wrong. Do not use the human definition of "wrong".
4) If it feels good, should you do it?

6) Explain ludonarrative dissonance.
7) Do you think racists and sexists are allowed to post on the internet? Do you think that if someone commits a rape or abuses their spouse, their internet rights are revoked? Do you think that when you laugh at off-color humor, that every single person who laughs along with you is doing so ironically? Do you think that violence is real? Do you think that all this is just a game? Do you think you're winning? Explain why, objectively.
8) The Office was only funny in the first season. Explain why I'm right.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Hideo Kojima Wishes He Had Thought Of Breaking Bad

I can't even laugh about this anymore.

"The kind of topics they're handling in Breaking Bad, the way they express them and put them on screen, let's say I tried to create a game with similar topics and similar expressions, it would be hard to get approval in the company. The way these guys are putting the planning for this project and making it a commercial success - that's somewhere I feel very jealous as a creator."

I'll make one admission: it is possible - possible, but not likely - that I overestimate Kojima's creative control over his product. It is certainly feasible that he didn't want to include a sexy sniper babe to boost figure sales - that without the interference of the rest of Konami, he would have made a completely straightfaced story about child soldiers and CIA torture and sewing bombs into peoples' abdomens. It is possible that the goofy things throughout the rest of Metal Gear Solid were foisted upon him by the company.

But we still have to judge MGS; we still have to see it as the result of ideas, some of which are problematic, that leads to a completed video game product. This gives me the unenviable task of separating Kojima's "real thoughts" from the company lines he is contractually obligated to support. Was it Kojima's idea, or the company's idea, to have the bosses of MGS4 be played by supermodels? Was it his idea to sexualize women with horrific backstories of abuse and murder, or was that the company? Was it Kojima's idea to make the poopy guy fall in love with Meryl and then turn into an action movie badass? I know for a fact that he wanted Metal Gear Rising to be about Grey Fox and not about Raiden, so I can't blame him for anything in that. Was anything related to Peace Walker Kojima's idea? Is Kojima even a real human being, or is he a marionette assembled by the Konami corporation to have a relatable goofball behind their coldly calculated corporate products? In short, is Kojima a piece of shit, or does he just make games for pieces of shit? This might seem like a simple issue, but it kind of calls to question the whole "art" angle of  video games. If you literally cannot tell if a game is designed for the artist's preferences or "just to sell", is it really worth anything? Also, why is it that the people who want games to be considered art will also go out of their way to defend pandering, stupid decisions even when they're explicitly stated as such?

Anyways, if you want the Breaking Bad of videogames, play Liberal Crime Squad or Swat 4 or, hell, maybe even try out Floor 13 if you're okay with going a bit afield. All of those are games that exist, made by small, dedicated studios without grandiose ideas of billion-dollar profit margins, more concerned with delivering a small-but-tight experience with meaningful decision-making. So maybe Hideo Kojima should just fucking quit and start his own studio, is what I'm saying. It worked for Peter Molyne-oh wait no

During development of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Hideo Kojima wanted the Beauty and the Beast Unit to be naked during cutscenes, though this would have severely affected the game's censorship rating.

i forgot that hideo kojima is just a piece of shit and there's no question about it

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Men climb the mountain to reach the top.

There's a paradigm in our culture. It's called "I can tell fiction from reality". It's a statement used in reference to escapism that contains elements and actions that are considered immoral or wrong "in real life" but are okay in scenarios where no real people are hurt. For example, material that involves the protagonist committing murder, torture, rape or acts of pedophilia are all defended under this argument. The core of the argument is that while it's acknowledged that a character's behavior is disgusting, it's okay to draw pleasure from it because it's happening in a caged, unreal environment. As long as nobody is really hurt, you can do whatever you want.

I won't say that there aren't truisms found in this argument. I'm certainly not going to argue that people who play violent video games should be locked up, as much as I'd probably enjoy a world free of them. But it's an oversimplification of one major element, which is this: the things we draw pleasure from have reasons behind them. You're not gardening, you're not driving a bus, you're not mowing the lawn, you're not painting your house. Your escapism - your alternate world, constructed purely to give you pleasure - involves murder. Specifically, it involves power. Escapism, 95% of the time, is about having power, and often about having power in such a way that you don't feel bad about using (or abusing) it.

That image at the top shows why there's a gaping weakness in this argument - a massive, uncovered, festering wound that people like me can jam their fingers into and then start pulling apart. The fact of the matter is that words like "badass" and "awesome" don't exist in a vacuum - they're appealing to concepts that people have been trained to value and enjoy and consider important. For men, appealing traits generally exist with a few core concepts.

"Badass" men are powerful. They are strong, rich, fast, etc because these characteristics allow them to influence others without being influenced themselves, which is the basic goal of the pursuit of strength. "Badass" men are composed, detached and stoic. They are not affected emotionally unless it is appealing for them to be, which is to say they do not show fear or weakness, but will exhibit grief when it can be turned into righteous anger. This ties into power; a real man does not allow himself to be affected by others even in an emotional sense. It is okay to show anger, because anger is a prelude to violence, and violence is the man asserting power and dominance over others. Fear, on the other hand, is a prelude to having power asserted over one's self, and as such is unappealing for a male character.

In short, characters like James Bond - who represents "the top of the mountain" in the opening post - exist in such a way that they are able to influence others without themselves being hindered or weakened or trod upon. Even when they are tortured and beaten and stabbed and shot, they grit their teeth and bear it, knowing that their chance will come to exact revenge, and that revenge will be all the sweeter for the grievances inflicted. Similarly, it's okay for such characters to have character flaws like alcoholism or drug addiction, as long as the manner in which they deal with such things is stoic and detached and not pleading or pathetic. They needn't be a braggart, either - think of characters like Solid Snake who are constantly asserting that "they're no hero", and how every insistent repetition of this fact just makes them seem humble and, ergo, more awesome. Every trait comes down to power, a perpetual need to be on top of situations even when those situations are specifically centered around being weak or downtrodden.

I'd like to talk to you about James Blake Miller briefly. You may remember him better from this picture:

When this picture was taken during the Battle of Fallujah in 2004, it was held up as one of the best pictures taken from the war. The New York Post splattered it across their front page as an icon of success, of tough American soldiers kicking ass in the face of fierce (yet cowardly and conniving) resistance. The thousand-yard stare of a man who had just emerged from a hellish warzone and was taking a brief reprieve before re-entering it was interpreted as the cool glare of a detached and stoic warrior who was able to kill his enemies without emotion or regret or remorse.

On his return home, James Miller suffered from severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of course he did. He was involved in the most intense urban theater of the Iraq War, during which time he was constantly in fear of death coming from any direction. He watched friends die, and knew that at any time he could be next. It didn't matter if it felt like he was safe - RPGs and mortars don't care about walls. He knew these things. Even when he returned to the United States, his body and mind were trained to live in fear, to be paranoid about every whistle and sound and sudden motion and loud noise.

In 2005, while preparing for disaster recovery efforts for Hurricane Rita, Miller was involved in an incident where he attacked a Navy seaman. This came after the seaman had whistled in a way that mimicked an RPG's signature trail, which Miller believed was done intentionally to upset the marines present. In 2006 he got married, which was made possible thanks to the donations of people affected by his story and his trauma. Less than a month later he was divorced, unable to live in normal conditions due to his PTSD.

James Miller is a warrior, a stone-cold killer whose icy glare and drooping cigarette are iconic images that will endure for centuries to come. He is a model for children to follow, like Clint Eastwood or John Wayne or Max Payne or Adam "Kane" Marcus or who the fuck ever else you want to name. James Miller is a human being who has difficulty functioning in our society. He is a man who lives in fear because he somehow survived an event that could have killed him at any moment it damn well pleased and his body and mind are so tensed up that resuming normal life is almost impossible. He is a traumatized individual whose sacrifices seem hollow and meaningless in retrospect, who has survived while watching friends die, who endures and can't really explain why he does.

"I mean, He must think I deserve to fuckin' be punished baaad. And the only reason why I can figure that I'm still alive is that this is God's way of letting me feel the guilt for all the bad shit I did. Because there's not a morning when I don't fuckin' wake up and the first thing I think is, 'Another day I'm here.' What did I do to make me deserve another day? What have I done in my life that my buddies didn't do to make me deserve so many days?"

You want to know how I can tell people can't tell fiction from reality? Because if they understood reality, they wouldn't idolize the image of a badass murderer in the first place. It wouldn't give them pleasure to pretend to be those people, and it wouldn't make sense for them to think of such people as being worthy of emulation. There wouldn't be people who look at Rorschach and think "yeah, that guy makes a lot of sense".

But they do. They think of people like that as "the top of the mountain". They think of war and killing as baptismal waters that transforms untested boys into hardened men. They think that it's the goal of the male animal to become sharpened, focused, stoic, detached. They think that men are killers, even if they have to obey laws. They wait, primed and ready, for a moment when some thug tries to mug them, some shithead breaks into their house, some little old lady gets attacked on the street. They wait for a chance to commit murder in such a way that it's societally condoned and justified and even heroic, like a firefighter hoping for an arsonist or a doctor hoping for a plague.

The mountain isn't real. And if you think you're at the top of it, you're fucking deluding yourself.

I just need someone to talk to.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Male Objectification

It's difficult to talk about the objectification of men in media, especially in gaming. This is not because of denial of its existence by presumed feminazis. Rather, it is because of the overeagerness of certain groups in attempting to suggest that all instances of attractive men are objectification - an argument clearly intended to suggest that the objectification of women is not itself a problem. The goal of such groups is to reinforce the status quo, rather than to actually challenge the way men and women are presented in media. This presents a dilemma for anyone who intends to talk about the actual nature of objectified men, as the spark of discussion becomes the roaring flame of "men are the real victims", overshadowing any attempts at real analysis.
what will make my cause seem legitimate, i know, slurs used against homosexual men
Firstly, though, we need to understand what the concept of objectification actually entails. Objectification is an authorial process that presents a character as essentially lacking any agency or believability, usually for the sake of personal or audience gratification. Zooming out, a character's physique and personality can be entirely tailored such that it comes off as wholesale personal gratification on the author's part. It is not traits or features that are objectifying, but rather the reasons for their selection or inclusion. A character being large-breasted is not objectifying; a character being reduced to "large breasts" as their primary character trait is. A woman being attractive is not objectifying; a refusal to include or depict non-attractive woman is. It is entirely about the relationship between the author and the character.

Since many authors, especially in the world of game development, are straight and male, it's obvious that most instances of objectification are done by male designers with female characters. With that said, it's not impossible for men to be objectified - it's just done far more rarely. People who don't quite understand what objectification means tend to look at attractive men in games and go "yes, that's what objectification is". People compare Conan the Barbarian with Red Sonja - after all, they're both scantily clad. But of course the difference comes down to context and intent, not just "what they're wearing", which makes it a partially subjective and therefore strenuous issue.

But what about the men, though? Surely in all of gaming it's impossible to think that there are no examples of men being victimized, dehumanized, or sexualized. This is true. Male objectification does exist. But it's a little more complicated than certain groups would like it to be. So let's get started.

Men Dying En Masse, Screaming And Gurgling, With Blood Issuing From Their Mouths;
or, Who Will Weep For The Veterans Of Simulated Wars

Games love murder. Damn, do they love murder. Murder is fuckin' fun as shit. Games love fucking killing the shit out of human beings. God damn. And who gets murdered? Most of the time, it's men. Oh, sure, sometimes it's women, but women generally get murdered "specifically" - that is, as characters with actual backstories, for specific reasons. Men get murdered en masse. Men get shot and stabbed and pureed and sliced and diced and burned and frozen without so much as a whiff of regret or a last dying quote. We accept this because, shit, we have to kill somebody, might as well kill the sex we think is capable of fighting back.

And that's it. That's the reason. From a gender standpoint, men are strong aggressors, women are weak and incapable. The same logic that prevents many gamers from accepting female protagonists in action games also affects their view of men in a negative way. The expectation that men are stronger and less emotional is great - that is, if you're coming from a culture that values stoic strength. On the other hand, if you have moral qualms with the expectation that men need to bleed and die for their country, that a real man needs to be a killer, that death is the business of men and they have no right to complain about it...well, it gets fucked, doesn't it?

Masculinity hurts men. More than anything women will ever do, masculinity is what hurts men. Masculinity creates damaging stereotypes and enforces harmful expectations of what men should do. Men can't cry. Men can't run. Cowardice is wrong. Weakness is wrong. Men fight. Fighting is cool. Killing is cool. Killing men is cool, because the men you beat are either weak or cowards, and those things are wrong. Don't be a pussy. Don't be a faggot. Get strong. Get powerful. Kill or be killed; if you're killed, you're wrong. Be the best. Every moment you're not the best, you're losing. EVERY MOMENT. BE THE BEST.

We love killing in games, don't we. We love winning. We love the thrill of superiority, and thanks to protagonist-centric action games, we don't really have to worry much about the agony of losing. We don't have male characters worrying about being brutally killed or torn apart. We have stoic badasses - even survival horror gets characters like Leon Kennedy and Isaac Clarke, not poor whimpering manbabies who would basically deserve to horribly die, am I right? Yeah. Fuckin' badass. Oorah.

Three things fix this. First, we accept women in action roles, both as protagonists and antagonists. Allowing women to join men on the front lines of video game murder eases the burden of war-murder by making it so that the horrendous acts of death are not limited to the male sphere. Second, we accept men in non-action roles; games can be about all sorts of things, not just things where aggressive and assertive characters need to be the protagonists. Third, we stop accepting games where we casually kill people by the truckload. I mean, if you care about not objectifying people, it's pretty obvious that "turning people into gratification-corpses" is one of the most severe types of objectification there is. So let's stop doing that, right? It's fucking creepy.

The Automaton Cannot Love You Back, No Matter What It Is Programmed To Say;
or, Press X To Elicit The Feels

This is going to be a short section because I don't think the concepts are particularly advanced. Dating sims are traditionally designed for both men and women - for every Tokimeki Memorial there is an Angelique Trois, for every Ashley there is a Kaidan, for every Morrigan an Alistair. Dating sims are bad at depicting relationships, and it's for relatively simple reasons: they don't exactly go out of their way to try to depict realistic human behavior or simulate any sort of agency. In games like Mass Effect you can basically say whatever you want to a person and still end up sleeping with them, because otherwise the game's not fun. Both sexes in dating sims end up as automatons, existing solely to dispense sex once enough coins are put into the machine. They're shallow representations of humanity given only enough character to provide emotional gratification when fake-sex is achieved.

Of course, a notable contextual aspect is that men and women are treated differently with regards to promiscuity. A man casually picking up a woman for sex is accepted, whereas the inverse is less so. A man is expected to take the lead in a relationship, while a woman is expected to be the lesser part of the relationship. Terms like "who wears the pants", which are still used in the Year of our Lord 2013, suggest that the gender concepts of superiority/inferiority still hold traction. Male characters are not shamed for having sex, while female characters implicitly - if not overtly - are. While the situation is "equal", that doesn't magically make the results equal.

The solution to this is to stop having dating sims or romantic relationships shoved into games that don't do them well. Stop including characters like Alyx Vance, who fall in love with mute murder-machines. Stop including simplistic dialogue trees that serve to offer no real choice or options of failure. We make characters emulations of human beings to elicit emotional reaction, but part of that has to include the illusion of agency or else you might as well just be having sex with robots.

The Beautiful Boys, Whose Tunnels Are Already Opened;
or, Would You Trust The Greeks To Make Your Games

I'm going to start this section off with a short bit from Grimoire Nier, a guide released alongside the "dual game" Nier. In one version of the game, the titular character was a gruff adult; in the other, the titular character was an effeminate, beautiful teenager. The relationship with the character Yonah is changed; old Nier is her father, young Nier is her brother. Despite these being the only changes, some radically different moments of characterization ensued; things that affected Dad Nier weakly affected Brother Nier far more strongly. They also had different pasts. Dad Nier did jobs around town to make ends meet, since he was a competent adult. Brother Nier, on the other hand, was forced to resort to prostitution to pay the bills; only later, when he was more capable, was he able to take the Dad Nier role of odd jobs and hunting.

I said that extremely casually, but I want you all to understand it clearly. Brother Nier, the effeminate bishonen, was forced into prostitution (with both men and women) as a young teenager. This is a heavy plot point, and it adds an extremely sinister undercurrent to the way he's treated in the game and as a result of his design. Specifically, it affects a line that comes from this interview.

-Which scene does (Novelist Jun) Eishima like?

(Director) Yokoo: Eishima is definitely satisfied with just watching young Nier’s back while he roams the fields, since it’s zettai ryouiki and whatnot.

Eishima: I did get satisfaction from making him run like crazy.(laughs) But you see…when I get really happy watching that, my high school son would just pass by and say “But, haven’t this kid’s tunnels been opened up already?”, popping my bubble.

This is objectification of a male character in a video game. The novelist Eishima knows about and acknowledges the traumatic past of Brother Nier; in fact, she was partially responsible for writing it, although the idea wasn't hers. She even expressed some disgust at it and the tonal dissonance of a "shonen adventure" that also features such dark material. And yet she sees Nier as a piece of meat, a beautiful young man to view sexually, and her reverie is only interrupted by her son - HER SON, mind you - reminding her of his "lost purity". This is it. This is the equivalent to Quiet from MGS5 or the B&Bs from MGS4. This is male objectification. This is a man becoming meat, his agency and feelings and experiences thrown aside for the sake of empty, uncaring lust.

In my last article I talked a bit about the nature of cultural standards - how we expect murder to be treated as a normal part of a story rather than a serious event in the same way that Romans and Greeks would casually depict rape and pedophilia. If our video games were written by the Ancient Greeks, things like this would be incredibly common. Look up Ganymede, whose visage - often engaged as a bottom in acts of homosexual intercourse - is plastered across many a Grecian vase or urn. The idea of not depicting sex acts involving young, beautiful boys would strike the Greeks as being as prudish and "out of it"; not dissimilar from the way many gamers view complaints about sexualized female characters.

Objectification is not found in objective design concepts. It is not found in "bared skin" or "weakness". It is found in design reason and justification. It is found in purpose and intent. When you played Zelda ALTTP, did you notice Link's bare thighs and short tunic? Did it worry you, to think that the designers might be appealing to a pedophilic sort of crowd? What if the designer was a gay man or a straight woman? What if the designers admitted that they designed the character to appeal to gay men and straight women, as Kojima did for Quiet?* What if the author was revealed to have a Vore fetish - would you think differently of scenes where Link is swallowed whole by monsters? The important factor here is vulnerability. An attractive character is one thing, an attractive character designed to be viewed as a "victim" for purposes of sexual appeal is another. This is why Nathan Drake and Marcus Fenix are not "objectified" - because society doesn't view strong men like them in the same way that it views attractive, feminine women. It's not about beauty; it's about the implications, and how those implications affect how people are treated. A character that exists to be emotionally mistreated and belittled for the gratification of the player is objectified; a character who is "good looking" is not.

*I acknowledge that Kojima also designed Raiden to appeal to women, but this decision was far less explicitly about "sex appeal" and additionally less related to sexual vulnerability. If it was, then there would be reason to have concern over Raiden's nude torture scene in MGS2 - but as it is, it came off as a goofy joke, where Raiden is reasonably competent and in-charge even as he's forced to cover his genitalia with his hands. It's reminiscent of the way that, even as a child, Nathan Drake is still a hyper-competent individual at no risk of dying; even at his most vulnerable, Raiden is still a badass ninja who can cartwheel the fuck out of armor-suited guys.

One last note about Quiet: I've noticed people saying that it's ridiculous to complain about Quiet in MGS5 when the game contains child soldiers and torture, both of which should provoke more outrage than "a girl is sexy". Let me teach you something about Tone, readers. Tone is what gives Hideo Kojima the credibility necessary to say that he's going to make a serious game about child soldiers and not be laughed out of the industry. Tone is what suggests that a game presented in a serious and realistic way should be able to handle child soldiers as a reasonable topic of discussion, in a way that will enlighten and inform players. Tone is trust. Quiet being a sexy, unrealistic sniper for the explicit purpose of appealing to the teenage male crowd breaks tone. It means that the game now exists to be fun and enjoyable and lighthearted. Don't worry about the details - this is a goofy game with sexy babes! Everyone knows MGS games are goofy and fun. Now kill those child soldiers we talked about. Kill them. Put a gun in their mouth and blow their fucking brains out. Fucking murder them. This is a serious game. This is a real game. This is art. Okay, now back to the titty babe. You can blow her brains out too if you want. It's all in good fun.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Analysis: 300

What Is The Purpose Of "300" As A Concept

Broadly speaking, there's a huge number of battles in history. There's a smaller, but still sizable, number of famous battles. There's a smaller-than-that number of famous last stands. So why Thermopylae, in particular? Why Spartans (and only Spartans, excluding/marginalizing their allies) versus Persians? And why, specifically, do we root for the Spartans, other than the fact that they're underdogs? Why did all of these things happen in the movie "300", based on the comic by Frank Miller? Why did this happen? Why did this story need to be told?

The answer is threefold. Firstly, because the Spartans are white, despite being olive-skinned, dark-haired Greeks. Secondly, because they're politically similar to us, despite being slave-owning (and frequently slave-murdering) semi-pedophilic pagans. Thirdly, because they're ideal masculine figures of strength and courage, despite that strength and courage coming from a horrifyingly brutal lifelong training regimen.

Let's take it from the top.

Part 1: The Whiteness

The Battle of Thermopylae took place in 480 BC - which is to say, almost 2500 years ago, 500 years before Christ, 1000 years before Muhammad, and 2000 years before the concept of "whiteness" existed. It's strange, then, that we feel naturally compelled to ally ourselves with one group of Aegean pagans against another. Maybe there's a little bit more going on than that. Let's take a look.

Firstly, let's note that in the traditional schema of Western History, Greece is considered an essential forebear, along with Rome. While the Angles and the Saxons and the Normans and the Franks and the Germanic Tribes might all get attention, Western Culture generally thinks of itself as being descended from the Greco-Roman world. The reasons for this are kind of complex, but to sum up a lot of things in a pretty quick way, the Romans admired the Greeks, and Christian Europe admired the Romans. Though Europe was descended from the tribes and peoples who had torn Rome apart, there was still a great deal of admiration and respect for Roman culture. Rome itself was the capital of the Catholic faith, and was considered an absolutely holy city. The Church declared many Romans to be "virtuous pagans", worthy of emulation despite not being part of a Judeo-Christian faith system. Catholic priests did most of their writings and sermons in Latin, and worked to preserve writing and art from the Roman era. The rule of most European rulers was fashioned after Rome, the most notable being the Holy Roman Emperor, but also worth noting are the Czars (Caesars) of Russia.

So that's a lot about Rome. Catholics admired Rome, and Rome itself had admired Greece, fashioning many aspects of their art, architecture and culture around Greek concepts. So through this two-step process we get the modern idea that the Greeks and Romans are our "true" forbears. This reached its peak with Neoclassicism, wherein the prestigious peoples of Europe saw themselves as Greece Reborn, emulating their fashions, artwork and sculpture. As late as the Napoleonic Wars, soldiers would ride into battle with helmets designed in Greek styles. Despite being two thousand years away, and not even being really "white", the idea that Greece = Europe became ingrained in Western culture. Conversely, the descendants of the Persians were the Turks (although that's also much more complex), who were hostile infidels (also more complex) who threatened the unity and stability of the Christian world (see previous).

So with all that said, do you really think it's a coincidence that there are no actual Greeks in 300? Let's go down the list. Leonidas is played by Gerard Butler, not even pretending to hide his Scottish accent. British actress Lena Headey plays his wife, Queen Gorgo. Australian David Wenham plays the film's narrator, Dilios. English actor Dominic West plays that one smug guy who turns out to be a traitor and a rapist.

Huh! How about that. Nobody Greek. Nobody with olive skin and dark, curly hair to distract us from this story about the foundation of European culture. Oh, and they got a Brazilian to play Xerxes, because, you know, whatever, brown skin. And nobody on the Persian side is developed as anything but a lacky to an insane, gibbering emperor, there to be killed by brave, white Spartan warriors. Well, let's move on.

Part 2: The Values

Okay, so maybe it's kind of weird that the Spartans are being used to represent White People in a battle against Brown People. But surely we must empathize with the Spartans - after all, the Greeks are the fathers of democracy! Of republics! Of representation by the people, for the people!

"A new age has begun. An age...of freedom! And all will know that three hundred Spartans gave their LAST! BREATH! to defend it." - Leonidas

But see, then we run into trouble again. The Spartans had a society based on all men becoming warriors, without exception (which makes it hard to explain the totally-fictional skeevy senator dude, as an aside). But naturally they still needed people around to make weapons and harvest crops and stuff - they weren't going to have their women do all that. So they needed slaves. Lots of slaves. Lots and lots and lots of slaves. As in "seven times as many slaves as Free Spartans", according to Herodotus. Yes. Seven times as many slaves as Spartans. Seriously.

Maybe you're thinking, well, slavery back then wasn't like slavery now. It wasn't as bad, and it wasn't drawn along racial lines. And in some regards that's true, but on the other hand you got stuff like the Crypteia. Let's explain the Crypteia a bit: it was both a method of control and a way to train their young boy-warriors and make them into man-warriors. Every Autumn, the Helots became free game, and the boy-warriors were sent among them to kill and steal at their pleasure. In this method, children were introduced to the concept of killing human beings, and the slaves themselves got the pleasure of being constantly spied upon by their murderous masters.

So yeah. Not doing too great on the whole "freedom" front. Oh well, a little slavery and ritual abuse never stopped the American founding fathers. Let's keep going.

"If those philosophers and, uh, BOY-lovers have found that kind of nerve..." - Leonidas

Now this one is kind of nuanced. Most Greek societies practiced pederasty openly, and wouldn't have really seen "boy-lovers" as an insult. The Spartans actually formalized the man-boy relationship into a one-on-one mentorship; where this gets murky is whether or not this, too, was pedophilic in nature. Some writers of the period suggest that while an adult Spartan was definitely meant to have a relationship with a boy, the idea of it being carnal was outright frowned-upon. Worth noting is that Aristotle in particular thought it was part of the reason why Spartan women had an inordinate (in his view) amount of power. So this one actually gets a pass, although for obvious reasons the PLATONIC man-boy relationship is never established in 300 either. Even that would be too close to "oh right the Greeks are pedophiles", a fact that many scholars actively refused to engage until the 1970s, because it was so harmful to their idea of the Greeks being a superior and enlightened culture.

"Immortals... they fail our king's test. And a man who fancies himself a god feels a very human chill crawl up his spine." - Dilios

So, on to the Persians. The Persian Empire at the time of Thermopylae was pretty well-established, coming off the reign of Darius The Great, who expanded the Empire, organized its linguistics and monetary system, codified systems of law, and developed a bureaucracy to manage its many peoples. A bit before Darius was Cyrus the Great, praised by historians for his respect for religious tolerance and his views on human rights, as well as his contributions to the infrastructure of the Empire as a whole. Of course this is not to say that the Persian Empire was perfect or anything - they were still an empire, after all - but they were at least comparable to Rome in terms of morality, and Cyrus especially was studied by the American founding fathers. They were a bureaucratically organized state with a goodly amount of freedoms for their citizens, based around the dualist Zoroastrian faith but with tolerance for other religions and traditions.

So in 300 they make Xerxes a megalomaniac with delusions of godhood standing at the head of a slave-army forced to revere his own divine personage above all, who cannot even conceive of the idea of failure because he is so invested in his persona as a superhuman being. He brings with him an army not just of elephants and alchemists and exotic tactics but also of horrifying monster-people. His Immortal bodyguard, far from being treated as respected, loyal counterparts to the martial Spartans, are instead turned into monstrous orc-men who dual-wield swords and dress like Hollywood ninjas.


"This day we rescue a world from mysticism and tyranny and usher in a future brighter than anything we can imagine." - Dilios

In general, 300 seems to have a major problem with religion overall - or at least the acceptable target of pagan religions. In addition to Xerxes and his whole schtick of religious domination over the free, enlightened Spartans, you also have the Ephors. The Ephors are creepy people who creep all over shit and accept bribes and do other terrible things. It is the Ephors who prevent the entire army from moving to meet Xerxes, not based on legitimate religious reasons but because they took money from the Persians and also so did that senator guy they totally made up.

The only good Spartans are warriors. Everyone else is a limp-dicked communist attempting to undermine our way of life because they're unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to ensure Spartan freedom and liberty and justice and apple pie and baseball and Do You See Where This Is Going

It's really kind of difficult to not see the movie's contempt for "people who would rather talk than fight", and its inference that these people are actively attempting to support our enemies and destroy our culture. Considering that it was made by and for Americans, aka "the people whose government spends half of the world's military budget by itself", who had been waging a War On Terror aimed exclusively at brown people, it's really really kind of difficult to miss the political implications of this movie.

Where this gets interesting is that the idea that 300 isn't political or racially-charged or whatever. If 300 had been about feminism or anti-war sentiment or something, everyone would realize that it was a political movie. Everyone! Every single person who watched that movie would know it was a Political Movie. On the other hand, most people who saw 300 just thought of it as an action flick. They never questioned the idea that we should root for the Spartans against the Persians. Spartans are badass, and Persians are crazy. I'm sure most of them realized something was amiss historically when the monster-men rolled up, but how many of them do you think went home and learned about the history of the Spartans and the Persians and looked at the whole "white people versus brown people" thing and so on and so forth. How many.

Well, I'm sure a few did.

Part 3: The Manliness

The real reason we root for the Spartans is that despite all the awful shit they did, they are manly as fuck. They are badass. They kick ass. The idea of rooting for a violent person is considered "politically neutral" because "action" is such a common, yet low-key, genre. There's no political implications to Commando or Predator, right? We just want to watch a strong guy kill a bunch of other guys. That's what all guys want. It's universal. Look back on Beowulf or Achilles or Hercules - they were unambiguously heroic, right?

But we're not crazy, either. We don't just murder anyone for the hell of it. We, like the American Government, only want to kill people who threaten us. We want to be violent, but we want it to be morally justified, because murder is wrong and bad. We want to kill, but we want to do it in self-defense. So we dream of that moment when someone steps up to the plate so we can totally ruin them. At least 1464 people on the internet share this dream, according to the top comment on this post. The Spartans, in particular, are fighting for Our Freedoms. They're Our Troops, as it were. Their bloodshed is implicitly connected to your continued freedom-having status, despite any analysis that says otherwise. You can't stop the killing because if that happens then we're not free anymore. You monster.

It is made explicitly clear that the majority of Persians are slave-soldiers, fighting only because of the crack of whips on their back and fear of the retribution of their God-Emperor. Yet all this really means is that they're incompetent, a flailing army of cowards and conscripts driven towards the meat-grinder of the Spartan phalanx (and then later the Spartan freestyle murder competition) to die horrific and undignified deaths. No sympathy is garnered for them despite them being forced into this by a power far beyond their control. The Spartans never make offers to accept defection. The Persians are never humanized despite being the victims of the story. They exist to serve as a group of people that it is okay for the Spartans to kill, under the reasoning that the Spartans are outnumbered, and thus are allowed to resort to any measures.

I'd like to pause briefly and compare this to Metal Gear Rising. In MGR, the "non-lethal" options of previous MGS games have essentially been removed. Sure, you can cut off a person's arm or leg and eventually they'll leave rather than fight you to the death, but there's no "shock sword" or anything like that until you've already beaten the game once. Enemies will constantly taunt you and attack you; later, during a guilt-trip sequence, this is attributed to nanomachines. Inside they are human, afraid and vulnerable, and Raiden is made to feel bad for killing them. Rather than leading him to develop a method to take down enemies without killing them, Raiden simply activates his latent "super-asshole" mode, which gives him a hilarious growly voice.

In the hands of a capable player, it would be simple for Raiden to take down enemies without killing them. Attacking their weapons, for example. Using a weapon that isn't lethal, but makes it harder to take enemies down. Avoiding enemies altogether. So on and so forth. Raiden's power is great, and that's why it's supposed to be fun to play as him - but great power comes with great responsibility. Raiden is so overpowered compared to the enemies he fights that it would be child's play for him to take down enemies in a non-lethal fashion, but the game does not provide any apart from de-limbing them. Thus we are reassured that Raiden has to kill these guys, and because they're assholes, he's morally obligated to do so.


Now think about how many people thought that Rorschach from Watchmen was a good and reasonable character.

Action movies and games and so on don't turn people into murderers. But on the other hand there is a latent culture of violence that really wants to be unleashed. It expresses itself through wars, air strikes, and "anti-terror" operations. It expresses itself through police brutality and the death penalty. It expresses itself through a huge military budget combined with constant complaints about far smaller programs like health care or food stamps. It expresses itself through an ongoing cultural fascination with vigilantes, even when they're entitled rich kids like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark. It expresses itself through the basic idea of "I want to do violence because violence is cool, but I need to find someone to do it against that's okay to hurt".

People don't think these things are political. They think the idea of challenging them is political. The status quo is normal, not political.

Politics, my friends, is everything. Everything you do is politics. The act of living your life is politics. Politics may mean the difference between whether or not you are capable of living your life. Racism is politics, even when it's academic for one group of people and unavoidable for another. Sexism is politics. LGBT affairs are politics. Violence is political. Jail is political. Budgets are political. Values are political.

Games aren't inherently political, of course. Neither are sports. But as soon as you throw a narrative over it, and establish a Good Guy and a Bad Guy, it becomes political. The Greeks would make dating sims where you find a young boy to fondle, and they wouldn't think of that as political - they'd think of it as normal. The Romans would make bawdy games about slave-rape and call each other Bottoms over their headsets (Romans accepted male homosexuality, but it was considered shameful to "take it" - Julius Caesar himself was dogged by accusations of the act). Culture is defined by normalcy; cultural relativity is defined by re-examining what "normal" means. The things that you think are Fine and Okay and Not Political are things that future generations may revile you for. Or they might think you're not hardcore enough. Who can tell with future generations.

The purpose of 300 is to tell a story that appeals to Americans. It does so by making its protagonists unrealistically white and freedom-driven, and it does so by making its antagonists weak, simpering, pagan, and Brown. It tells a story of violence that we are meant to agree with, because it is violence in defense of our Liberties and our Rights. And it kills a shitload of people, because that's fun, and cool, and we love it.