Thursday, July 16, 2015

Analysis: SWAT 4

SWAT 4 is a first-person, squad-based tactical shooter. The player takes the role of a police SWAT team leader and is tasked with "restoring order to chaos" in a variety of scenarios ranging from robbery to terrorism. In many ways it is easy to compare SWAT 4 to other "realistic" shooters like ARMA or Rainbow 6. Mechanically, they are similar. People go down in one or two shots, making tactics and fast reflexes a necessity. The gameplay is tense and things can go bad in a few short seconds. But there's a big difference between SWAT 4 and those other games as well.

"Advanced AI", and Human Psychology

I wrote a while back about Liberal Crime Squad, a game that in many ways is on the opposite side of SWAT 4. LCS is about creating social change, SWAT 4 is about preserving order. LCS' methods range from "subversive" to "terrorist", SWAT 4 is about going by-the-book at all times. LCS and SWAT 4 have one important thing in common, though, and it's what separates SWAT 4 from Rainbow Six et al: the way characters, especially hostile characters, behave.

In real life, people have a variety of reactions to a combat situation. Some people are dedicated enough to keep fighting even when they're certain they're going to die. Some people decide it's not worth it. Some people freeze up. Some people panic. Some people run. People don't behave the same; they make their own decisions based on their own adrenaline-fueled emotional state.

This is a thing that LCS and SWAT 4 acknowledge. It is a thing almost every other shooter ever made fails at.

In LCS, every combat encounter has more options than just "shooting". You can intimidate. You can bluff. You can take a hostage. You can use realistic options to manipulate the situation in your favor, and people will behave in a relatively realistic manner. Characters have a sense of self-preservation, cowardice, or moral ambiguity. Even though the game is intentionally designed to be over-the-top political satire, the characters in that game behave more "humanly" than most other characters do.

In SWAT 4 - which is more serious than LCS by far - you are playing a police officer. It is your first priority to arrest suspects, not to kill them. To that end, there are rules that you must abide by. You must give the suspect fair warning and a chance to surrender (specifically, by shouting "Police! Drop your weapon!"). Even after you issue that warning, you do not get a "clean kill" unless the suspect is aiming at a police officer or a civilian. And even if that is the case, killing a suspect prevents you from getting full marks on a mission. The act of killing is, itself, a minor failure, no matter how justified it is.

I mentioned the game's difficulty earlier, and this, too, is important for its message. Because it's so easy to be killed, the player is forced to balance their mercy and their desire to do the right thing with their own self-preservation. You are forced to make judgment calls in the heat of the moment: was I right in shooting that person? What if I was wrong, and they didn't have a gun? These kinds of moments are narratively important, and the game's difficulty is necessary to create them.

What It Means

If viewed "objectively", in a purely mechanical format, SWAT 4 is unique, but ultimately flat. SWAT 4 is a hard game. If you look at it purely as a game, then it's "difficult" and not much else. But that's true of any game that you look at mechanically, because that's what games are: flat. They're fun. They're entertaining. You play them, and you're distracted for a while.

But if you look at SWAT 4 narratively, or contextually - if you treat it like art - it is doing something very important. It is avoiding dehumanization. Every human life in SWAT 4 is intrinsically valuable. Every death is a failure. Every suspect has the chance to give up. In most games, "human enemies" are essentially the same as zombies or robots. They are aimless, ego-less beings with no sense of self-preservation. Their only goal is to kill the protagonist. They do not have any desires or values beyond that, unless the developer wants to throw in a scene where it turns out they're also universally sadists and torturers.

That is what violence in media is. Not just "violence", the act, but "dehumanization", the idea. The idea that there are people out there who can never be fixed, and who only deserve death. This is not a "fictional" idea. It is a real one. It is a real belief held by many real people. It colors the way our society thinks about soldiers and police and anyone else whose job involves killing people. And, because of it, we become more accepting of torture and abuse by those people, because the people they're hurting were permanently evil anyways.

"Taking Things Seriously"

The thing about SWAT 4 is that, more than anything else, it takes itself seriously. It is the result of people sitting down and saying "We want to make a SWAT simulator. In order to make it accurate we are going to include a lot of decisions that some people will say 'aren't fun'. But we have to do that in order to make it right."

There are no female officers in SWAT 4. I am not blaming them for this. If there were female officers in SWAT 4, I have no doubt that (like the Tom Clancy games) those officers would be treated, and depicted, as respectfully as possible. I'm not saying that the SWAT 4 team is particularly feminist or egalitarian or whatever else. What I am saying is that they took the game seriously, and as a result, if they had included female officers, they would have taken them seriously as well.

The thing about women in gaming - when you talk about objectification, or damseling, or anything else - is that women are generally not taken seriously in games. Women are there to be pretty, and games are supposed to be fun, not serious. So you end up with characters whose physiques don't match their roles, because they're not there to be "serious combatants", they're there to be eye candy. You end up with characters whose contribution to the story is ultimately just male gratification, because games aren't meant to have serious stories, they're meant to be escapism for dudes. And the same is true about violence: it's okay to dehumanize people because killing is supposed to be a fun outlet.

If you're concerned about things like objectification, you need to start by taking things seriously. And consistently, too, because it's always going to ring hollow when you're complaining about realism in one case and then justifying non-realism in the next. If you want positive social change you have to hold yourself accountable to the standards you want everyone else to play by. SWAT 4 is not just "realistic", it's serious. It's cohesive. It works together. Its components fit. It is not ludonarratively dissident, it is ludonarratively harmonious. It works.

SWAT 4 is an enjoyable game, and as countless bungling Youtube videos have shown, it's possible to play it in a "fun" way (i.e. not taking it seriously). But the fundamental fact remains that SWAT 4 was made to be played seriously. If you are not playing SWAT 4 seriously, and you are not taking SWAT 4 seriously, you are not getting the full experience that was made for you. And it's that dedication to the message that makes SWAT 4 one of the best games - if not the best game - ever made.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Realism

I feel like we need to lay all our cards out here on the table with this "realism" thing. I keep seeing it get misused and, frankly, I'm not super-happy about it. I mean, it all seems pretty basic, doesn't it? And yet people keep messing it up. So, once again, let's roll out the Realism 101.

1) What Is Realism?

Realism is the illusion of reality, which is to say, the inclusion of real elements and rules to increase the solidity and consistency of a work. Realism exists to connect fiction (an abstract lie) to real life. For example, creating physical sensations of touch, smell, and taste are not possible in most mediums, but by appealing to realism, those sensations can be evoked.

It is important to distinguish between "physical realism" and "cultural realism". Physical realism refers to the laws of physics behaving the same as they do in real life; fire burns, water wets, and a sharp piece of steel being stabbed into flesh hurts like hell. The purpose of physical realism is to connect the audience's senses to reality, to invoke sensations that are not normally communicable through conventional mediums, and to give a sense of weight to the proceedings. And in most cases, even worlds with magic in them are still supposed to run on basically realistic cultural rules - again, fire burns, water wets, etc., even if the rest of the world is full of "impossible" things.

When it comes to those "impossible" things, by the way, I'd like to remind everyone that myth & reality have "coexisted" on Earth since the dawn of time. People have always believed in gods and monsters and other things that exist in fantasy - but they also believed that farming works like this and smithing works like this. They believed in consistency and observable results, but they also believed in snake-headed monsters and lightning-throwing deities. These things were not, to them, in opposition. Somehow, people found a way to create civilization even though they also believed that the sun was towed across the sky by a divine chariot.

Cultural realism, on the other hand, isn't a real thing unless your story takes place on Earth. Why bring it up? Because it's commonly invoked, usually to justify adherence to genre standards or to justify sexism/racism/etc. Culture is highly malleable. Even in real life, "cultures" across the world have a huge variety of values, styles, and concepts. You can find matriarchal cultures and race-inclusive cultures no matter how far back in time you go. The idea that people from a specific time period are "just that way" is factually and provably false.

In addition, if you're depicting an entirely separate society on an entirely different planet or plane of existence, there's absolutely no reason to connect it to a real culture's mores and values - after all, those two cultures have never made contact. Why would the world of The Witcher have the values of real Europe when those two cultures have never actually intersected? Is this meant to be some kind of parallel evolution? How, exactly, did a culture created in entirely different circumstances come to have the exact same values and standards and aesthetics of Medieval Europe? Is it because you're dumb and lazy, but you want to pretend you're a serious auteur?

When someone says "this game needs to have racism and sexism because that's period-appropriate", what they're usually saying is "I want my game to have racism and sexism and I'm going to use the guise of realism to justify it", and it'd all be easier if they just owned up to it.

2) Why Is Realism?

I already basically the question of "what realism does", but it's also important to note why people invoke it. People invoke realism because they believe it is a justification in itself; it's a "high concept" in a lot of ways, and even if you're not talking about the specific benefits it offers, people are generally willing to accept "realism" as a justification for a design decision.

But - and I'm repeating myself here - most people who invoke "realism" are doing so in a very haphazard way. People use it when it pleases them and throw it away when it doesn't. And that's fine as a design choice, but it's pretty bad as a justification for design choices. I've watched people argue that male heroes have to be muscular and strong because it's not realistic to have chubby or fat protagonists, but then immediately turn around when it comes to female characters ("oh, it's okay for them to have large breasts and curvy physiques because it's just a game"). The fact is, most people who invoke realism don't actually care about it. They just want to justify their design decisions but they don't actually want to carry through and make the product "actually realistic".

If you want something in your game to be realistic, fine, good. Realism is a helpful tool in a designer's arsenal. It has utilitarian benefits for creators. It does things. But if you're trying to tell me that the culture on your made-up world has to mirror your perception of a real culture, you're trying to escape judgment for your own design decisions. You're trying to go "well it's not MY fault, I HAD to do it, because of REALISM", and that's clearly not true, because "adherence to realism" is a choice, not a rule. And that brings me into my final point:

3) How Is Realism?

I just wanted to throw this out here: if you're going to invoke realism, please be careful that you're not totally fucking wrong. Because there's a shitload of people out there with half-formed ideas about Medieval Europe that they got from Renaissance Faires and Hollywood movies, and those people are like "well of COURSE this would happen, because REALISM". If you are going to invoke realism to justify something, please, please make sure that you actually know what you're talking about.

I mean, being frank: I don't expect a designer to know everything about reality. That's impossible. But if you're specifically going out of your way to say "I had to do this because of realism", please stop for a moment, do some research, and make sure that you're actually correct.

So, to sum up:

1) Realism is a useful tool, but don't pretend that you're bound by it when you're not.
2) Don't invoke realism as a justification unless you're prepared to be consistent.
3) If you DO invoke realism, make sure you know what you're talking about.

Thanks in advance,
J.Shea

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Last Argument

I. Recently, in response to the new Mad Max movie, Anita Sarkeesian had some comments about the nature of violence. Specifically, the idea that "media feminism" often limits itself to the idea of women doing masculine things & being respected for it, even when those things are distasteful and hateful (i.e. "killing people").

I was thrilled, of course. You all know my thoughts about toxic masculinity by now. I don't support dehumanization, and I don't support tragedy being turned into positive, indulgent entertainment. As I've written before, it's possible for a character to be strong, confident and in control (the "positive" elements of masculinity) without being the kind of hateful person who goes around looking for reasons to murder people (the "negative" aspects of masculinity).

There are plenty of people who didn't like Sarkeesian's comments. This includes the obvious crowd, but there's a lot of people who support feminism and "progressive" ideals who felt slighted by those comments, as well. Again, I've written before about the phenomenon of people who feel that media does affect us and that some things shouldn't be turned into entertainment, but who still feel that violence is basically fine and normal. There are a lot of people out there who enjoy violence and want to make excuses about why they should be allowed to indulge in it. My favorite argument is the argument that violence is okay because it's "natural", even though the people making that argument are generally not okay with sexism, racism, and other things that are just as "natural" as killing is.

But it's not just the act of "killing" that's the problem. It's the culture around it. As always, people make the argument that they can separate fiction from reality, and then go on to prove that they absolutely can't.

II. When I talked about Rorschach a while back, I pointed out the fact that in Rorschach's world, he makes perfect sense. Rorschach lives in a world where criminals are not just people making mistakes; they are, almost universally, hardened thugs who cannot be negotiated with. As a result, Rorschach's methods make perfect logical sense, even if Alan Moore thinks they're bad.

That's the problem with violence in media. Not just "it happens", but the reasons it happens. Violence in media is justified because the bad guys are always slavering monsters who cannot ever be negotiated with. Ergo, the "last resort" becomes the first and only resort.

Who would build a world like this? Who would present a narrative where human beings behave like monsters? Imagine the kind of person who sits clutching a gun in their house, paranoid about "thugs" breaking in and murdering their family. That's easy enough to imagine, right? It's a concrete, well-established bloc in American politics, after all. "Paranoia" is the foundation of the Republican party. If we don't maintain order, everything's going to fall apart. The Muslims are going to blow up our cities and then the Illegals are going to take over what's left, and they're going to spend their welfare checks on lobsters!!

Here's the thing, though: those people? Yeah, those are the people who are responsible for our current ideas of "being a badass". Those are the "John Waynes" of the world, the kind of people who support stoic detachment because emotions might make you weak at a crucial moment. Those people wrote superhero comics and action movies. I mean, why the hell do you think superheroes spend so much time stopping bank heists? Who the hell cares about bank heists except for conservatives and people looking for an opportunity to "be a hero"? Nobody, that's who.

The mistake people make is thinking they can separate "violence" from "problematic elements". The entire concept - the dehumanization, the forced stoicism, the toxic masculinity - all of it comes from the same well. Nerd culture idolizes "badasses" because the people who created nerd culture a century ago had specific ideas about how men should behave. And even though some of the ideas from their time became unacceptable - overt racism and sexism, for example - the idea of "killing thugs" maintained its credibility because people were fooled into thinking that it's apolitical.

III. The thing about violence is that...well, let's back up. There's a lot of people who've been accusing Anita Sarkeesian and Jonathan McIntosh of being "pacifists", even though that's clearly not the case - in fact, I myself have been the recipient of that same accusation. The implicit statement being made by that accusation is that they (or "we") are naive and idealistic, blind to the ways of the world, which is why we think violence is bad when obviously it's very good and important.

But that's not accurate, for multiple reasons. First off, there's a difference between being a pacifist and being against dehumanization, in the same way that it is possible to imagine defending yourself against a mugger without fetishizing the idea. Violent media is not just about making use of violence, it's about enjoying making use of violence, and feeling morally justified for doing so. That is the disgusting part. Violence can be justified, but dehumanizing people to justify mass slaughter? And then treating that mass slaughter like it's not only morally accepted but also fun? Reflect on the fact that, seventy years ago, a movie like Mad Max would have been about cowboys gunning down Native Americans.

Second off, reflect for a moment on the idea that pacifism is "naive". Earlier, I said that the Republican Party is founded on paranoia. "Pacifism is naive" fits perfectly into the conservative wheelhouse. It's the idea that if you try to be nice to someone, they're going to take advantage of you. It's the idea that if you show weakness, someone's going to break you. It's all the worst bits of toxic masculinity combined with the worst bits of conservative ideology and people really just don't seem to get it. So even if Sarkeesian, McIntosh & I were pacifists, which we aren't, the idea that "pacifism = naive = bad" is totally derived from the kind of mindset that people claim to hate.

Violence is a thing that exists. It has a place in narratives. But, like rape, it is easy to abuse its inclusion. It is easy to misrepresent violence, just as it is easy to misrepresent rape. It is easy to trivialize violence, to turn it into perverse entertainment, just as it is easy to do those things with rape. Violence is horrific. Violence is traumatic. Violence isn't a game, but "games" are where you see the majority of violence in your life. You're so exposed to the idea of this cleaned-up, sanctified violence that you might not even understand what's weird about it, in the same way that people are so exposed to the idea of "rape = stranger in an alley" that they don't really understand what "rape culture" actually is.

IV. Some of you may have noticed that the issue of violence and dehumanization has essentially come to dominate my blog, overtaking previous issues of realistic depiction, feminism, and sensible plots. There's a reason for this: it's the last argument that needs to be made. Everything else I've ever written about is pretty much common-sense stuff. You either accept the idea that women should be depicted as possessing agency, or you don't. You either accept the idea that realism can heighten people's tactile immersion, or you don't. But violence tends to be "the exception", because people are so used to thinking of it as an apolitical concept. People get the idea that media is important, and then they stop when they get to violence.

I've watched people argue about the unrealism of "boob plate", or the dehumanization of objectification, and then immediately turn around and make excuses about why it's okay to kill hordes of dudes who throw themselves at you until you grind them into pulp. It's our culture's biggest blind spot. People understand the value of realism and they understand that dehumanizing people for audience gratification is bad, and then they throw those concepts away because it might make them feel bad for participating in mass slaughter. Even people who claim they learned something from Spec Ops The Line will make this argument, which is why I'm so dismissive of that game: because it doesn't seem like it worked.

Right now, violence is the breaking point holding together two separate worlds. In one world, media affects people. In the other, it doesn't. Either you think video games affect people, in which case subject matter is important, or you don't think that video games affect people, in which case you're going to play whatever you want. The problem right now is that the people who live in the "media affect you" world are currently attached to the "media doesn't affect you" world by way of violence. They accept the premise, but they're still attached to the idea of being a murderous badass. They'll make arguments against objectification or rape or whatever else, but when it comes to violence, suddenly they don't want to.

The idea that media affects you is a prerequisite for any other discussion of media's effects on people. You need to accept this premise if you want to talk about anything else. Things like objectification and sexist design can't exist unless you accept that premise. That's why it's so disheartening to see people who claim to accept the premise, and then immediately shut it down as soon as violence gets involved. Because the fact is, until people do that, our "media culture" isn't going anywhere. You're going to end up trapped in a world where people make excuses for Hideo Kojima putting a vagina-bomb inside a rape victim, and then making a busty sniper lady who gets graphically tortured (but also, remember to buy her sexy figurine!). These are the seeds you're sowing. That is the world you're going to inhabit until you accept reality. Silent Hill was canceled because gamer culture is Silent Hill now.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Criterion Collection

you've got to shine, to thine own self be true,

I leave this for those who will come afterwards. 

If you want to understand believability, this is the journey you have to take.

1. 300

they can't tell you what to do when you've gone guru

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Analysis: Resident Evil


I. Resident Evil is a survival-horror series that morphed into an action-horror series, and then (with the release of Revelations 2) took a slight curve back towards traditional survival horror. Resident Evil is a game where you are attacked by monsters and sometimes you have to conserve ammo, and sometimes you can do suplexes on the monsters. Resident Evil is a lot of different things but it's also consistent in a few important ways.

At its core, Resident Evil is about individuals of varying capability put into dangerous situations involving mutated people and creatures. It is a series about surviving through adversity - not seeking out danger, but having danger thrust upon you. It's also generally bereft of the awkward tonal shifts of games like MGS - while there's some light comedic/absurd elements in the games, the story generally maintains a consistent tone, instead of whiplashing back and forth between "serious real-life talk" and "lol the poopy man pooped his pants". It's a B-Movie, sure, but a consistent B-Movie. It has a tone and it sticks with it. But that's not really the important part.

II. The thing about Resident Evil, right, is that there's basically two types of "bad game design", and by "bad game design" I'm talking in terms of dumb shit, or creepy shit, or dumb creepy shit, or dumb shit that was designed by creeps. Okay, so here's the thing, right: there are some games that are bad at their core, and there are some games that are conceptually okay, but have bad elements in them. And the reason that's important is because without that distinction it's basically impossible to criticize games in terms of their Creepiness or their Dumbness.

For example, there is no reality where Grand Theft Auto is an "okay" game. It is, at its core, a game by bad people, for bad people. The only reason to play GTA is because you think it's fun, and in order to do that, you're going to have to ignore (or embrace) all the stupid horrible shit that's part of it. GTA is like having a friend who's an asshole, but you think he's funny, so you hang out with him anyways, and then periodically you get upset about him being sexist or racist or transphobic or whatever. And it's like, look, the reason you hang out with this dude is because he's an asshole. Why are you suddenly surprised when he's an asshole in a different way? He is, at his core, a piece of human filth, and you're hanging out with him because most of the time you seem to be okay with human filth, and you think it's a fun thing to be around. And he's always yammering on about "celebrity culture" and "reality TV", like he's this big above-it-all counter-culture guy, even though his own brand of self-adulating indulgence is the best-selling game of all time, and thus defines culture. He's the most obnoxious, least self-aware human being in the entire world, and you hang out with him because you think he's fun to be around.

Resident Evil, on the other hand, is the opposite end of the scale. Resident Evil is a good "core concept" weighed down by a lot of ancillary bad decisions. If GTA can be characterized as an overtly obnoxious asshole who doesn't even try to be anything else, Resident Evil can be characterized as someone who is basically good, but makes a lot of mistakes (some of which aren't really his fault). Resident Evil is a guy who's aspiring to be better, but gets sidetracked by circumstance. It's a game that, in its own way, wants to be "feminist" - check out this quote from Shinji Mikami and try to tell me that GamerGate wouldn't rip him apart as an evil SJW or whatever:

"I don't know if I've put more emphasis on women characters, but when I do introduce them, it is never as objects. In some games, they will be peripheral characters with ridiculous breast physics. I avoid that sort of obvious eroticism. I also don't like female characters who are submissive to male characters, or to the situation they're in. I won't portray women in that way. I write women characters who discover their interdependence as the game progresses, or who already know they are independent but have that tested against a series of challenges."

III. See, even though RE has a lot of eye-rolling shit in it - mostly in the category of "pointlessly sexy outfits that make no sense during a zombie outbreak" - there's a core morality in the series that is trying to power through that. Resident Evil is a game about people forced into bad circumstances trying to cope with their situation. The protagonists are generally kind-hearted and compassionate, even when they're giant masculine muscle-men like Chris Redfield. There's more female protagonists per capita than pretty much any other major franchise (although this is pretty obviously due to the game's horror roots). The series even quietly included a gay protagonist - it's never mentioned in the game, but that's specifically because there was no situation where it would naturally come up.

Most of the "bad things" in Resident Evil are the result of either executive meddling or a creepy fanbase. Mikami himself says that the young, "submissive" character of Rebecca Chambers was essentially forced on the game by other members of the staff: "I didn’t want to include her but the staff wanted that kind of character in the game, for whatever reason. I’m sure it made sense to them. And in Japan, that character is pretty popular." See, I just want to mention here - this is an example of a creator's artistic vision being disrupted by meddling, and I hate to mention GamerGate twice in the same article, but I earnestly wonder how many of them will retroactively rush to defend Mikami's free speech. Idle musings.

The point is, there's a lot of bad things in Resident Evil. But those bad things exist in spite of the series and its goals, not because of them. And that's a pretty big component when talking about bad elements in video games, because it means the ultimate goal is to move away from things like that. So you end up with decent writers and designers trapped in a system that forces them to include gross shit that they don't want because "it'll sell to gamers", which brings us to the other issue with gaming.

IV. Apart from bad designs, the other big problem with Resident Evil is the fanbase - specifically, the parts of the fanbase that sexualize the gruesome death of female characters. And, fundamentally, there's nothing the designers can do about that without simply locking female characters away from violence. It's just something you kind of have to accept: if you make a game, it's going to be played by creeps. If you make a game with a little girl in it, gamers are going to be creeps about the little girl. If you make a game where there's a female sidekick, gamers are going to be creeps about the female sidekick. "Gamers being creeps" is the most reliable constant in the world, and would you look at that, once again I feel like I should bring up GamerGate for reasons I cannot adequately explain. But ultimately, like GamerGate, you really can't stop it - you just have to learn to tolerate it, and you find ways to throw the worst offenders in jail. That's all you can hope for. And ultimately, that's the Death of the Author - no matter how good the developers' intentions are, the audience can ruin it however they please, because that's how audiences work.

Resident Evil isn't perfect - far from it - but it's trying to be good. It's trying to be a game where genuinely heroic protagonists, male and female, of all races, are trying to make the world a better place. Resident Evil Revelations 2 made the two protagonists reasonably-dressed women with agency and (relative, video game levels of) character depth. The series is trying. It is aspiring to be better, at some level. That's important. That's something you can work with. Grand Theft Auto will never aspire. Grand Theft Auto will never improve. Grand Theft Auto is built by assholes, for assholes, on an asshole foundation. If you give money to GTA, they're going to say "hey, thanks for rewarding me for being an asshole" and they're going to use that money to build a more expensive, more bloated asshole simulator. People act like it's weird and difficult to talk about "problematic games", but here's the rundown: if you give those devs money, are they going to use it to be assholes? And that's it. Either you're funding people who might make a better game, or you're funding people who are gleefully going to make the worst possible game. That's the difference.

In conclusion, I would like to play an X-COM style game set in the Resident Evil universe. I think it would be good, and also fun. Thank you.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

MTR, In That Order

Trigger warning for this. For, like, all of this. Just, it's just, don't even read it. Go home.

I. What's Okay?

Many years ago I took part in a discussion that would fundamentally redefine the way that I looked at fiction from that point on.

The topic of the discussion was the inclusion of rape in tabletop games.

The original poster made the argument that, while rape is horrific, so are torture, murder, arson, etc - all widely accepted as fare for tabletop gaming campaigns, even lighthearted ones. Attempting to draw a line about the inclusion of rape suggested that it was implicitly, intangibly more heinous than torture, murder, etc. There were essentially two counter-arguments being made: "rape IS more heinous than torture, murder, etc., which is why those are acceptable and rape is not", and "they're the same, in that they're all unacceptable".

We can essentially chart this argument by creating three points on a line.

The LEFT SIDE is "all acceptable". The premise of this viewpoint is that "it's just fiction" is a common, accepted idea. It is a view that can be described as distasteful, but not inconsistent. It is an idea that fiction lies outside our "real morals", and thus real morals cannot be applied to what is purely fantasy.

The MIDDLE SPECTRUM is the idea that some things are innately okay, and some things innately are not. Since it is a spectrum, this covers a wide combination of "some things are okay, others aren't". This view is best described in terms of its objective weakness: its principles are established based on personal feelings, rather than a legitimate guiding principle. However, due to the nature of our society, it is by far the most common viewpoint.

The RIGHT SIDE is "all unacceptable". While the Left Side operates under the argument that "if it's fiction, it's okay", the Right Side uses the concept that fiction does matter, and does have moral bearing. Therefore, if you wouldn't do it in real life, you probably shouldn't glorify it in fiction.

The original poster's goal was to convince people in the Middle Spectrum that they were hypocrites, while also expecting their enjoyment of murder & torture to override their disgust at rape. The Middle Spectrum individuals would then be shunted over to the Left Side, so they could continue enjoying the distasteful things they liked without feeling hypocritical about it. However, in the case of some individuals (myself included), the disgust for rape overrode the enjoyment of murder & torture. As a result, we expanded our feelings of guilt and disgust to include acts of murder and torture. This pushed us away, onto the Right Side.

This basic argument is the foundation of all "it's just fiction" arguments that have ever, or will ever, happen. You either accept it, you don't, or you muddle in between picking and choosing.

II. Criticism of Sexism vs Criticism of Violence & Issues of Severity

Beginning primarily in the early 90s, videogaming was constantly under fire for the depiction of violent, gory, or otherwise distasteful content. The most common assertion - or at least the most prominent assertion - was that violent games would transform a regular human being into a murderous psychopath. This idea is commonly confronted by gamers specifically because it is easy to disprove; there are numerous studies that debunk the idea that violence in games leads directly to violence in real life.

When critics of sexism in games bring up concerns that the depictions of women and sexuality in games will propagate certain ideas in the gaming public, the counter is often that video games are "proven" not to affect people. Which is to say: "if violent games don't affect people, how can sexist games?"

I've seen quite a few critics have a difficult time with this question, and they usually have a difficult time because they're trying to make excuses for violence in games. The most common explanation is that "murder" is an act, whereas "sexism" is an idea - it's easier to propagate sexism than it is to commit murder, and it's easier to convince someone to behave in a sexist way than to convince someone to commit murder.

The argument is fundamentally sound, but in the context of the discussion, it's simplistic. It does this because it is trying to encourage one discussion (sexism in games) while quashing another (violence in games).

MURDER is the most extreme actualization of the concept of HATE.
RAPE is the most extreme actualization of the concept of SEXISM.

Saying "games don't cause murder" is like saying "games don't cause rape": it's provably true, but there are many ways for a concept to affect people without pushing them to the furthest possible reaches. Refusing to talk about violence in video games except in terms of "murdering people" is like refusing to talk about racism in media except in terms of "lynching people". There's a lot of room between "absolutely no change" and "the most extreme change possible". There are plenty of studies that indicate violent video games can increase aggression, and it's common sense that cultural depictions affect people's perceptions of the society around them.

It's also worth noting that murder and rape tend to fall under the same primal concept: the desire for power. People enjoy killing in video games because it feels good to be better and stronger than other people. A similar motivation exists for rape in fiction; it's certainly not about the sex, because the sex itself is fabricated, and could be totally consensual just as easily. But it's not, because that's not what's important. Rape is about power, just like killing is about power.

III. Comparing the "MTR" Triad

These are the three most prominent "immoral acts" in games: Murder, Torture, and Rape. They are written in order of ascending vileness; murder is the least bad, torture is more bad, and rape is the worst.

Here's an example sentence regarding morality in fiction:

"Yeah, I know it's bad in real life, but in fiction it's okay."

Going back to this article's Point I ("What's Okay?"), one of the defenses I've heard from the Middle Spectrum is the idea that murder and torture are widely accepted as "bad", whereas rape is still a common issue and thus more dangerous with regards to influencing people in real life.

However, I don't agree with this idea. In fact, the specific order of the MTR triad reflects how commonly accepted actions are in real life (and, accordingly, in fiction).

MURDER in real life is easily excused by a huge number of scenarios, many of which even strip the act of the name "murder". If you kill an enemy, that's not only "okay", it's encouraged. If you kill an attacker, that's okay. If you kill a criminal of pretty much any sort, that's considered okay - and this one forms the slippery slope, because you'll see people encourage the shooting of protesters and other perfectly legal inviduals under the ASSUMPTION that they're doing something illegal. The United States of America in particular has a massive legislative bloc built around the idea that private citizens have the right to bear arms - which is to say, private citizens need to be able to commit "justified murder", because there are so many scenarios in which that need might arise. Real pacifists are few and far between, and they're massively outnumbered by people who think that killing is an acceptable choice in a pretty wide number of scenarios. It is therefore extremely simplistic to say that people generally accept that murder is "wrong", and more accurate to say that it is commonly glamorized, glorified and anticipated.

What does that mean for this comparison? Killing in games is not only common, but more often than not it is depicted in a purposefully unrealistic manner ("shoot bad man, bad man fall down"). Killing, as an action, is not "shocking" in games, or "jarring", or "upsetting", unless a game is specifically going out of its way to create that effect. And as games have gotten more realistic, we begin to associate more in-depth depictions of murder with simplistic black-and-white morality - Sniper Elite being the most prominent example of that. Despite having incredibly in-depth models of the human body being penetrated and torn by gunfire, the game operates on the same basic moral assumption that fueled Wolfenstein 3d: "it's okay to enjoy killing if you're killing bad guys". So you end up with cases where even brutal, visceral murder is associated with clean, justified morality.

TORTURE in real life is generally discouraged by society, but exceptions always exist. The Jack Bauer concept of a "ticking time bomb" convinced many people that torture was (a) effective and (b) necessary, and if we took away the CIA's right to commit torture, we would end up in a scenario where we could not effectively protect ourselves. This argument was so persuasive that it was cited by Antonin Scalia of the United States Supreme Court - yes, it was a fictional scenario in a fictional show, but many people were convinced that it was hypothetically plausible. Of course, the reality of torture, especially the CIA's torture, is that it is (a) generally ineffective and (b) pointlessly, needlessly, grotesquely cruel. The "ticking time bomb" scenario almost never arises and is thus statistically irrelevant to actual torture issues.

When torture shows up in games, it is almost always of the "brutal interrogation" variety. From "Splinter Cell" to "The Punisher", the idea of horrifically hurting a flat, one-dimensional "bad guy" character draws into the same wellspring of hatred that fuels the act of killing, and the act is morally justified because prisoners provide intelligence. It's not needlessly cruel, goes the implication, but an act of genuine tactical necessity. Therefore, games feel okay showing torture as an extension of their existing paradigms; you kill because you have to, you torture because you have to. It's all necessary for self-preservation and/or saving the world. Also, they're bad guys - they deserve it anyways. They'd undoubtedly kill you if you left them alone. So what's the harm? By presenting unlikely situations and totally dehumanized enemies, fiction is capable of distorting the public's view about real torture and what it entails.

RAPE in real life is "almost never okay". Without getting into the network of fringe philosophies, it's generally accepted, in our society, that "rape" is a universally bad thing. If a soldier kills an enemy, that's justified; if a soldier tortures an enemy, that might be justified; if a soldier rapes an enemy, that's weird. Games commonly feature killing as a mechanic, and sometimes feature torture as a mechanic, but the inclusion of rape in a game generally only exists if the game is rape pornography.

There are a lot of nuances of the depiction of rape that we could talk about. For example: most rapes in fiction involve strangers ("thugs") when in reality this is a small percentage of the total. The reason most rapes are depicted as "thugs in alleys" is because there are very clear ways to deal with "thugs in alleys" that coincide with conservative values ("don't dress a certain way", "carry a gun", "don't do drugs", "don't be a prostitute"). As a result, the "thugs in alleys" model is used as a coercive threat - "women, do what we say or else rape will happen to you". Often, conservatives will dismiss other types of rape because they suggest an alternate problem - a cultural problem, a patriarchal problem, a communication problem, etc etc etc. "Rape" is only useful to conservatives when it is "thugs in alleys", which is one of two reasons why "rape in alleys" is so common in fiction.

The other reason is because "rape in alleys" is an easy conundrum easily solved by violence, which is a thing that fiction loves. Superheroes solve alley rapes because that is the only thing they are good at. We don't have superhero comics about systemic reform and revitalization efforts; we don't have superhero comics about legislation and education. We have superhero comics because (a) we want to enjoy violence and (b) we want to justify this violence as good and necessary and heroic. "Rape in alleys" fulfills that condition by being easy and simple in a way that most real rapes aren't.

I could also talk for quite a while about the "no means yes" angle of certain rape fantasies and why that negatively impacts a "positive consent" culture. I could also talk about the "rape victim starts becoming aroused" angle, which is an incredibly volatile issue in real life and is often used to justify an act as "not being really rape". But, believe it or not, I'm actually getting off-topic.

IV. Desensitization

The point of the MTR comparison is this: rape is unacceptable in most games, torture is sometimes acceptable, and killing is almost always acceptable. Very relatedly, rape is almost always unacceptable in real life, torture is sometimes considered acceptable, and there are a wide variety of justifications for murders. The representation of "bad things" in fiction matches up pretty well to the justification of those "bad things" in real life.

Games do not commonly feature killing by accident, they do this because society, in general, accepts the idea that it is Okay To Kill Bad Guys. The fact that it's okay to kill bad guys means that depictions of killing (whether simple or detailed) are common in our media. Eventually, games move on to the idea of killing people who AREN'T bad, and justifies it because it's "just fiction". The missing piece of that transition is that people are already okay with the idea of killing people. It's not shocking or disgusting because we've already been exposed to the idea in a safe, justified environment.

However, rape is NOT commonly depicted in games because it can't be justified. Therefore, unless you're into rape pornography (and a lot of people are, especially in the gaming world), the imagery of rape is probably going to be jarring and disgusting to you, because the act of rape itself is jarring and disgusting. By default, a human being watching a rape is most likely going to think it's horrific, in the same way that by default a human being watching a murder is most likely going to think it's horrific. For killing, repeated exposure to "sanitized" fictional murder has created a smoother, less jarring experience, but that process hasn't happened for rape. So the people who are into rape pornography, who have already been desensitized to the act, are going to be like "I don't see what the big deal is", while everyone else has horrific visceral reactions to one of the most objectively awful things that can happen to a human being.

That is the difference between rape and violence in games.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

There's A Whole Damn World Out There

I. Hayao Miyazaki Is Right

A while back I wrote an article about Princess Mononoke. It was something I essentially just dashed off (as all my articles are) and despite this it's now my third most-read article. In that article, I made a lot of points about how the film is fundamentally realistic despite being fantasy. Reality forms the base, and the fantastic elements augment it. The fact that the film is bright & colorful adds to the realism, rather than detracting from it - the idea that "reality is dull" is a false one propagated by regen-health shooters.

I bring this up because I'd like to talk about a few quotes from Princess Mononoke's spearhead, Hayao Miyazaki. While I'm sure some of you have seen the falsely attributed "anime is garbage" pics floating around the internet, there are some actual negative things he's said about anime and its culture in the past.

“You see, whether you can draw like this or not, being able to think up this kind of design, it depends on whether or not you can say to yourself, ‘Oh, yeah, girls like this exist in real life.’ If you don’t spend time watching real people, you can’t do this, because you’ve never seen it. Some people spend their lives interested only in themselves. Almost all Japanese animation is produced with hardly any basis taken from observing real people, you know. It’s produced by humans who can’t stand looking at other humans. And that’s why the industry is full of otaku!” (Source)

The more astute among you might notice that Hayao Miyazaki is basically making the same point that I've been making for years - that real life is a foundation, and fiction should draw from it. Miyazaki finds that he is frustrated with people who learn more from fiction than from reality, and who don't understand reality well enough to depict it. While many of Miyazaki's films are fantastic in nature, there's always at least some grounding of reality, and Princess Mononoke is by far the best example of this.

(In response to the issue of "lovely girls" vs "so-so girls" in anime)  "It's difficult. They immediately become the subjects of rorikon gokko (play toy for Lolita Complex guys). In a sense, if we want to depict someone who is affirmative to us, we have no choice but to make them as lovely as possible. But now, there are too many people who shamelessly depict (such heroines) as if they just want (such girls) as pets, and things are escalating more and more. While we are talking about the human rights for women, why they can do this, I don't want to analyze much, but..." (Source)

Here's Hayao Miyazaki talking about the way that women and girls are depicted in media. He notes that girls are often depicted as being "lovely" so that they will be perceived positively by the audience. In response to this, a culture has developed where artists and audiences treat "lovely girls" as objects or pets. Miyazaki has always been a proponent of depicting girls and women in active roles, and his disdain for this is pretty clear. I wonder if anyone has ever screamed about Hayao Miyazaki being an "SJW". I know there are people on both sides of the aisle who have criticized the politics of "The Wind Rises", so it's possible.

What frustrates Miyazaki is basically the same as what frustrates me - although his love of childlike innocence is totally at odds with my brooding cynicism. Yet fundamentally speaking, Miyazaki is frustrated by artists who don't care about the world around them, writers who treat characters as playthings, and audiences who only expect to be pandered to. An interesting line in that last article occurs when Miyazaki lays out his "ideal" Japan - a low population, environmentally stable, and socially aware. He ends his description by stating "If a mass market for animation no longer exists in such a country, so be it." A curious line for an artist, but certainly consistent with his views of the world. Let's let that lead us into the second half of this article.

II. Why Do People Care

Throughout the life of Exploring Believability, I've tried to explain the concepts of realism in a way that made sense. In my original article, I laid out the three basic values of believability - essentially, what benefits it provides for a story. In the following articles I began to expound on specific details and techniques, and examined existing stories and settings. Eventually, the issue of "art" came into play, and while I certainly had many things to say about it, I think it's time to settle it conclusively.

Firstly, art is a totally subjective term connected to a set of societal values. It's simply unavoidable, from an objective standpoint. I generally focused on the second half of that definition, and there is a reason I did so: because I was attempting to influence people's ideas by using those societal values as a motivating tool. In this article, as well as this one, I used "art" and "taking something seriously" essentially as a carrot on a stick. I don't believe I was being dishonest in doing so; in both articles, I said outright that this was about "the way society views art".

Secondly, if you don't want to care about the "societal values" aspect of art, you don't have to. No one can make you do it. You might remember this message from a later set of articles, such as this one and this one. While many people seemed to think these articles were aimlessly existentialist, it's a pretty important component of the discussion - art only has value if you allow it to have value. It's a societal influence. The only thing it does is change the way people think about things. If you don't want to care, you don't have to. But, as I pointed out, most people do care what people think, whether they want to or not.

Thirdly, there are more important things in fiction than "art". A lot more. A lot more. Fiction affects the way people think. This is barely disputable, yet it is the primary defense of the gaming medium as it exists today. People get angry when you suggest this, even though their anger is often expressed in ways that prove the principle. People don't think they're crazy or irrational. People don't think they're affected. People, in general, think they're being logical and reasonable, even if they're justifying torture or expressing racial hatred or using an overtly fictional product to justify a selfish Libertarian philosophy. Fiction affects the way people think because it, too, represents a set of societal values. What's "acceptable" and "unacceptable" are often established through culture, and fiction is a cultural work.

With that said, what's up with art?

III. Understanding How The Product Works

The thing you have to understand is that there are essentially two "spheres" of art.

The Major Sphere is the experience. Why do people go to movies? Emotional gratification. Regardless of the genre - action, drama, comedy, romance, "thinky", etc - that is the common goal. In almost every scenario, the reason is that the audience wants to feel something. They want to feel intensity, or they want to feel moved, or they want to feel like part of something, or they want to find themselves deep in thought. Movies are a space wherein emotions can be manipulated, and people go to movies because they want their emotions to be manipulated. The same is true of books, movies, paintings, etc. Ultimately, all creative products are an attempt to provoke emotion of one kind or another.

What's the difference between that and, say, a chemical injection? Or a drug hit? Can a sufficiently well-made drug be considered "art"? Can the resulting high be considered an "artistic experience"? Well, if the goal of art is to provoke emotion, why wouldn't it be? Or, instead, what about a rollercoaster? Movies are often described in similar terms, or - more directly - are simply described as "a thrill ride". The only difference is that a rollercoaster isn't trying to tell a story (usually). You get on the ride, you have your emotions manipulated, you get off the ride. It's fundamentally the same.

When people talk about moviemaking, or about writing, or about music, the majority of what they talk about is how to make the experience work. How do we make the audience feel this? How do we make the audience think that? How do we make the ride do what we want? Remember when the RedLetterMedia guys talked about Star Wars? Ultimately, their premise was "how do we make the movies work", and "why don't they work as-is". The character motivations, effects and storyline were all discussed in terms of why people didn't enjoy the experience. RLM has done a lot of other reviews since then, and that's really the common factor amongst them - they very rarely stray from this sphere. Their vested interest lies in examining the emotional thrill-ride of the moviemaking process. Occasionally one of them will have an insight about a real societal issue, but those are few and far between. Which leads us to the second act.

The Minor Sphere is the context. Which is to say, the minor sphere is what connects the work to real life. In most cases, the minor sphere is drawn upon to support or bolster the major sphere. For example, the purpose of an action movie is to make the audience excited, and in service of that, action movies will generally make villains of people who are hated by the audience already. An audience might balk at an action movie about killing innocents; this would distract from the experience the creators are trying to provide. However, using "bad people" would make killing acceptable, and thus allow the audience to successfully find pleasure in the act.

Stories cannot exist without context. Every value of our society is integrated into the stories we see; that's why we like them. The classic conflict-based story is built around seeing a protagonist succeed and an antagonist fail. The reason we root for the protagonist is that they represent concepts that we like; the reason we despise the antagonist is that they represent concepts that we hate. Luke Skywalker fought for freedom against an oppressive empire. John McClane was protecting innocent civilians from murderous thieves. Batman fights crime. We root for people we think are good, and we don't root for people we think are bad. And, of course, words like "good" and "bad" are personal, which is why people end up sympathizing with Walter White and Tony Soprano - because there's plenty of people for whom masculine values override "not doing horrible crimes". That's just how people work.

As established, fiction does change people's minds about thing. Whether it's torture or violence or politics, a fictional narrative can convince people of things even if they don't think it does. After all, do you know where your values came from? Can you pinpoint the exact time and place you first felt something was good or bad? Probably not. That's not how values work. Values are shaped, not chosen. And, of course, people generally think of themselves as logical and rational; they don't want to hear that they're ignorant or naive or foolish. When fiction reinforces their beliefs, they just accept it as being "honest".

IV. So What's The Point?

As a person, I try not to judge the Major Sphere. I don't judge musical tastes or fashion sense or preferred aesthetics. While I certainly have opinions about those things, I don't think they're worth judging. It's just what you like; it doesn't matter. The flipside, of course, is that the major sphere ends up seeming pretty unimportant. If something's not worth being judged or examined, it's probably because it has no real value. And that's not totally true - if you like something, it has value to you - but at the same time, I'm certainly less intense about those subjects than a lot of people.

That's because I reserve all my judgment for the Minor Sphere. And it's strange, isn't it? Because with the minor sphere, you have context, and with context, you have "things people want". You have desires and goals that are expressed through simulation. People use stories to pretend that they have power, or to pretend that they're desirable, or to pretend that they're wealthy and influential. And yet "judging this" is not always popular.

People will scream about art, they'll scream about metaphor, they'll scream about musical types and painting types and prose and poetry. They'll get all in a dander because someone likes a band that they don't. And yet those people balk at the idea of judging a story, because they don't want to get political about it. That's weird, right? It's nonsensical. It defies explanation.

So here's the point, and I'll bring it back to Miyazaki.

I brought Miyazaki into this conversation because he's demonstrating some concepts about the Spheres that I think are important. He feels that anime fans are too far divorced from reality, and too obsessed with their own experiences. Or, to rephrase, he thinks that they don't care enough about the Minor Sphere, and they care far too much about the Major Sphere.

Let's go back to that little quote: "If a mass market for animation no longer exists in such a country, so be it." Animation is undoubtedly important to Hayao Miyazaki. This is not arguable. But the fact is, he'd rather have a country that was happy and healthy and sustainable than to have widely-popular animation. It's an "anti-art" statement. Truth is, he thought it mattered. He thought that animation mattered. But does it bollocks, not compared to how people matter.

Art is nice. But people are what's important. And, you know, before last summer, it would have been hard to make a case about what that has to do with games, or movies, or whatever else. But now it's easy to make the connection. Art does affect the world. Just not in the way that a lot of people want it to. People wanted it to be nice and easy - just provide a soothing experience, and that's art. That's making the world a better place. But they're wrong. The world's more complex than that, and yet so much simpler. And there's so much more to do than to make people think they've had a meaningful experience.

There's a whole damn world out there.

There's a whole damn world.