Tag Archives: games

Heroism vs multiplayer game mechanics and Rape as a fantasy trope

[Trigger warning: as you probably realized from the title, this post discusses the (overuse) of rape in fantasy settings]

I’m going to start with saying that I thought the Penny Arcade comic was actually pretty well done. But explaining why it resonated with me takes some work. Thankfully, our excellent commenters have already got the ball rolling:

Kaonashi says,

I don’t understand why this PA strip is so wrong. To me, it’s not funny because the guy gets raped. It’s funny because the action is so obviously wrong in real life, but so absurdly motivated by limited game logic. I didn’t get an endorphin-strengthened appreciation of rape from that strip, quite the opposite.

And that’s where the comic hits me: the rape isn’t supposed to be funny, it’s supposed to be horrible (if perhaps abstracted to ridiculousness) and make you suddenly more aware of how supposedly heroic actions in games sort of fall apart when they run into game mechanics.

ptp says,

This is a parody of the way that MMO questing works because the people still need saving even though you’re only told to save a limited number of them, and with any understanding of the quest dynamic involved I think it’s fairly clear what they’re trying to poke fun at.

If you don’t play massively multiplayer online games, you may never have encountered this problem: in a single player game, you always can try to save all the hostages. But in a massively multiplayer game, you want all players to have a chance at the quest, so you have the hostages reappear (often before the hero has left the area), or you limit it so that each hero can only save 5. That way, there’s always plenty of people crying for help from the next hero. In many cases actually impossible to continue saving people in an area due to the developers’ attempt to balance game mechanics. And frankly, that’s pretty unpleasant. There’s usually no explanation given as to why as a hero you would deem this acceptable. If this were a movie, the hero would be making a hard choice of who to save and there’d be a reason only 2 people could fit on the boat/spaceship/whatever. But in the average MMOG, the entire world continues along as if it’s perfectly normal for you to leave people to unspeakable horrors.

I’ve been squicked out by this on numerous occasions while playing games. The comic doesn’t exactly make me laugh so much as think, but it’s pointing out a real absurdity using some dark and twisted sense of humour and it’s more effective for me due to the contrast of humour and horror here.

But the question remains, “why did it have to be rape?” Surely, there are plenty of other horrible things that could have been happening to these prisoners that would have gotten the point across just as well? And maybe if you tried hard enough, you’d think of something. But we don’t live in a vacuum, and sometimes you have to use the tropes the genre and culture hands you to make your point most effectively.

Carla Schroder says,

Guess I’m part of the minority here, because I think the PA strip makes it point brilliantly. It mocks this absurd morality of games, homophobia, demonstrates that rape culture is deeply ingrained and the root of many evils, and they do it in three panels. Aren’t dickwolves the absolutely perfect symbols of much of the BS we struggle with everyday? Isn’t the “hero” a perfect representation of the narcissism, lack of empathy, and apathy we beat our heads against?

Not only do we deal with rape culture in the real world, but also in our fantasy ones. Rape is a disturbingly over-used trope, especially in fantasy, as a placeholder for “something horrible happened.” Even in modern urban fantasy reading I’ve gotten hit with a storyline like, “a prophecy says so-and-so’s son will overthrow the king (or whatever), so everyone in fairyland tries to rape her to be father to that son.” How many heros have back stories where their mom was a raped tavern wench? How many would-be queens are subject to assault? Heroines? The hero’s tragic back story might be that his family was killed in a raid, but in the heroine version there’s a good chance she or maybe her sisters were raped in said raid. Can’t we come up with better reasons for adventuring? Maybe not — virginity is often highly prized in these worlds where sometimes it has magical properties. Can’t we come up with worlds that don’t turn rape into a plot device?

There was one month where I compared notes with my sister, and we realized that every fantasy book we’d read in the past few months had included rape. It’s disturbing, it’s pervasive, and fantasy novels don’t come with trigger warnings.

I imagine there’s a much lengthier discussion to be had about rape as a fantasy trope. But the point I want to make here is that part of what made the comic effective for me was the absurdity and the evocation of that trope in an overdone way really made it resonate as “yeah, this sounds like a quest I might encounter” rather than “that’s horrible; it’d never be written that way.”

And that’s why the comic worked for me. It was effective because it hurt and reflected a reality that I don’t like to see but get shoved in my face regularly as a genre fan and a game player. That doesn’t mean it will work for you, or even that it should. There’s plenty of people for whom this is simply triggering and horrible and cannot be effective because of that, and that needs to be recognized. But a comic that’s horrible for some may still be effective for others. There are often many legitimate feminist readings of a subject, and dark humour and satire are hard to handle because it feels a lot like the same old stuff getting thrown in your faces again.

But I think shielding us from the overuse of rape as “some horrid thing” would only lessen the effectiveness of the comic within the context of the genre and culture. Darker humour sometimes is most effective when it embraces the dark.

Linkspam feels left out (2nd June, 2010)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism†to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

Feminists do things wrong

We are essentially a social commentary blog. We tend to grab relevant somethings that pass through our individual radar and put them up for discussion. As part of this, I noticed and wrote a quick hit critique of the character profiles listed for an indy game called “Puzzlebots” last Wednesday.

I’ve since had several personally addressed emails from people involved with Puzzlebots, including the game designer, assuring me that the game is not as bad as the product pages sounded to me. I still have not played the game nor spoken to anyone who has, but I hence publicly apologise to the team for analyzing the game without first playing it.

This apology does not, as much as I wish it could, negate the issues I had with the marketing of the game as they were on Wednesday. In my opinion, the marketing text is utterly irrelevant to how the game actually plays since it is supposed to convince me that I want to play it. The marketing is why I wrote the post.

Before I go further, I acknowledge that some of the text that this post now is discussing has changed, but it remains that the grievances I held with the text as it was last Wednesday are real issues that do genuinely deter me personally from choosing to play games.

As I described in an email later last week to Erin, the designer of the game, the primary issue I have with the marketing of the game is how the women characters are described. Women characters are 2 of the 6 humans in the game, which I really like; it is terrific that it is more than a token woman. My joy at this is however destroyed at reading that both women is either the recipient of or holds desire for “The Straight Man’s Gaze“, and that these are features of her character which take up half of her description.

This echos the expectation that an unfortunate number (and vocal minority) of men within the geek communities I frequent (or frequently hear tales of) hold. That expectation is that women partake in the geeky community either because they are looking for husbands” (desire the gaze) or to “make the community sexy” (are decoration to be gazed upon).

And that’s what hurts. We have this game that at a glance looks really awesome. Multiple woman roboteers! Sweet! That means it could really easily pass the bechdel test; it has two actual women who have actually made robots! And… they are given poor descriptions focussing on a man’s desires within a game which had (at the time of posting the quick hit, not any more) a story that posited the question: “Will Zander win the affections of the pretty new scientist?”, and the buzz was killed.

Here is the thing; all the bloggers here at Geek Feminism do actually understand that getting called out on shit really does suck. It is even suckier when you think you are already doing the right thing. The puzzlebots team have done the right thing by avoiding tokenism, and kudos to them for that. But in the same breath they have used typical stereotypedstrong female character” archetypes and scenarios that (unintentionally?) markets the game to heterosexual men.

See, that’s how easy it is to do or say sexist (or other *ist) things; Even a self-identified feminist game designer such as Erin is plenty capable of using tried and triumphed typical archetypes. It certainly does not make her a failure as a gamer or a feminist. However, at some point there really does need to be (at minimum) a recognition that just because the scenarios are common throughout various mediums, it doesn’t change how much repeating them impacts on the perceptions of women’s roles in geeklands and especially in STEM based fields.

The members of the Geek Feminism blog community call each other out all the time for anything ranging from classism to actual real genuine sexism itself. We call each other out because we fuck up too, and when we fuck up we accept it. We accept our fuck ups and learn from them because we realize that Feminism, it turns out, is really quite hard.

Feminism is so deity forsaken hard, and if it was not so hard, then it would be so over already. But no matter how easy it is for even us to fall for the trappings of the internalized sexism each and every single one of us has, letting something you notice pass by is still tacit support for that stance, and not calling that shit out because it is probably a genuine mistake sucks even more in the long run. For everyone.

Commenting note: We have a comment policy here which means we will delete comments which are anti-feminist, abusive, or otherwise inappropriate at our sole discretion. Now you know.

Quick hit: Puzzlebots

From the casual stereotyping department comes Puzzlebots. First off, I want to make it clear that this particular game is not unique in this regard at all. It’s just a convenient example that I came across today.

Taking a look at the characters page, there are 2 women in the humans (emphasis mine):

“Thanks to her many years in the Japanese school system, Yuriko is smart, industrious, and almost pathologically shy. She harbors a secret crush on Zander, which may remain a secret forever the way things are going.”

“Astrid is a bit like a flower on a cactus.  Pretty from a distance, but almost guaranteed to hurt you if you get too close.  She captures Zander’s attention right away, but can be downright mean to the other employees.”

To summarize; a lady roboteer in this game is either secretly (because she’s shy) crushing for a dude, or she is eye-candy who will probably rip your bits off. And the two girls in the team of six get to make up a disproportionate two thirds of a love triangle.

Because, you know, I can’t imagine that reinforcing any stereotypes or anything.

As for the robot characters? One Hiveling I discussed this with stated: ”None of the boy robots are cute and sassy.”

I can see other problematic things in the character descriptions too, the above is just the start.

What are your thoughts and observations about the (people and processor-based) characters?

Bechdelicious geek entertainment of 2009

Inspired by a post of lauredhel’s asking for recent movies that pass the Bechdel test, I wondered if anyone has some recommendations for good recent geeky entertainment that also passes, ideally comprehensively rather than barely. Share your recommendations in comments. Fanfic and vids and similar welcome!

Quick refresher: passing the Bechdel test requires that:

  1. the movie [media/story/game/narrative...] has at least two women characters;
  2. who talk to each other;
  3. about something other than a man.

If you’d like to recommend something not-women-hostile that passes a variant instead (two people of colour who talk about something other than a white person, for example) go ahead.

That’s Ms Linkspammer to you (4th December, 2009)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism†to bring them to our attention. Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

Avast! Free episode o’ Tales of Monkey Island!

Arr, it be talk like a pirate day, and dem scallywags at Telltale Games be givin’ away der booty.

Okay, I promise, I won’t pirate it up for an entire post. But Telltale really is giving away a free episode of one of their games, so you can try out the new Tales of Monkey Island for Talk Like A Pirate Day.

This clearly fits with the geeky theme of this website, but what about the feminism? Well, I won’t say the games are perfect on that front, since most of the games probably wouldn’t even pass the Bechdel test, but there’s a lot to love about Monkey Island. The women aren’t just eye candy. For example, the love interest, Elaine, is a smart cookie. When we first meet her in the first Monkey Island, she’s already governor of the island. And when we find her in the latest episode of Tales (Episode 2: The Siege of Spinner Cay), she’s already started solving problems and moderating negotiations rather than moping around waiting for our hero to rescue her. And unlike many video game heroines, she knows how to dress sensibly.

Monkey Island is still mostly about the boys, but the few women most definitely kick some butt. I loved them in the original games when I played them as a kid, and while there’s some to nitpick, there’s also lots to love in Telltale’s new adventures.

So, pick up a free episode of Tales of Monkey Island today while you still can, and have a great talk like a pirate day! ARRR!

Quick Hit: Joystiq helps EA find the path to redemption

EA has been promoting one of their games with some pretty dubious deadly sin-themed marketing stunts. Their “lust” stunt left many of us unimpressed, but with their “greed” stunt, they gave Joystiq a chance to put them in their place

However, the latest stunt is a little more creative. They’ve mailed this editor, and presumably the editors at several other media outlets, a check for $200. The packaging says that “by cashing this check you succumb to avarice by hoarding filthy lucre but by not cashing it, you waste it, and thereby surrender to prodigality.” If your SAT dictionary isn’t at arm’s length, that last one means wastefulness. So, we either cash it and “succumb to avarice” or burn it and be wasteful. What’s an ethical gaming blog to do …

So what did they do? Well, after EA’s not very female friendly booth babe harassment contest, Joystiq decided that EA could use some help on the road to redemption… And they’ll be cashing their cheque and donating to a women’s charity in EA’s name.

Well done, Joystiq!

[full story on Joystiq here]