Category Archives: Gender in Gaming

JUNICORN!

(Edit: Dames Making Games have their own roundup you can find here. It’s got screenshots, too.) 

Juunicorn!

(Seriously. If you’ve seen the old movie “The Last Unicorn”, just try to read that word without hearing it in that drunken skeleton’s voice.)

So, yes, I spent a pleasant evening checking out the collection of “Junicorn” games at Bento Miso here in Toronto. Junicorn was a month-long gaming incubator by Dames Making Games, a “non-profit, education feminist organization dedicated to supporting Dames interested in creating games”. Women who had no experience in making games were given copious coaching and support, and handed the daunting task of creating a game in a month.

Damned skippy I’m down with that. The more women making games, the better. This event was very LBGTQ friendly, too: trans and genderqueer creators were represented and putting out some interesting stuff.

So, without any further adieu, the creators and their creations…and I’ll give my take, if I played it. A lot of these were single levels or early builds, but that’s fine. No judgement here, just exploration. Evaluative criticism is overrated anyway.

Carly Rhiannon made a game called Girl Sprout Camp. Players were supposed to “perform tasks at summer camp-such as gathering flowers while avoiding poison ivy-to earn your merit badges in this retro-inspired platformer”.

It definitely felt retro. Though it didn’t feel “console” retro, but more “PC” retro. Playing this game reminded me of stuff like Duke Nukem and Commander Keen. It was early, of course, but that’s definitely how it came across.

Daniella Armstrong made a platformer called “Princess in Distress” that also felt like a retro PC title. This time, though, it didn’t feel like an old PC game. No, PiD reminded me a LOT of an old Amiga title.

I’m not sure why it was so “Amiga”. Maybe it was the way the characters looked. Maybe it was the palette. Maybe it was how the player and opponents were arranged. Whatever the reason,  it brought back a lot of happy (if slightly frustrated) memories of battling against early Amiga platformers. I was especially really interested in how the projectiles very slightly sloped downward. It made for some interesting “trick shot” situations that you wouldn’t expect in a simple incubated game, and was reminiscent of Dark Castle in a way.

Hisayo Horie did a Twine game called “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind”, which was about navigating the issues of language and discomfort that can come up in a social group involving people with different gender/sex/ethnicity identities. Horie’s writeup says that the game is “made with the intention to be played in a workshop/seminar setting with facilitated discussions outside of the game”, and though it DOES work outside that context, I can see where they’re coming from. There is a lot of material for discussion here.

I was especially struck by one scenario in the game where one of the group is feeling frustrated and alienated by a highly technical, jargon-filled discussion of power, intersectionality and alienation. A lot of online discussions of these issues end up being confrontational; Horie presented it as an opportunity to be sympathetic to gender “newbies”. I liked that.

Linda Boden made a game called “Muselings” with an intriguing premise: you provide the name of a book, and get a little Princess-Maker or Tamagotchi-style “Muse” based on the book, that you try to work to improve and grow. Over time, the game’s intended to become more involved and complex, as your Muse becomes a more rounded and individualized character. Sadly I didn’t get to try much of it; I got stymied by an early bug. I’ll be tracking it, though. It’s a neat premise.

Vass Bednar, who I met at the Spur festival back in early April, wasn’t able to present her game, but is working on something involving representaiton of rep-by-pop in a gaming setting. Frankly, ANY representation of politics and government in gaming is a step forward. It’s amazing that something so well represented in other media is almost invisible in games.

Kara Stone made MedicationMediation, which is a selection of minigames based around “the work of just living” for people suffering from mental illness. Simple, mundane stuff like taking medication on time, meditating, self-affirmation, and talking with therapists are “gamified”.

There are no victory or failure conditions, so I suppose the Humourless Ludologists out there might question whether Kara’s made a game. Screw those guys. I tried it, it was an interactive representation of exactly what it was supposed to be, it ended up being surprisingly engaging, so it’s more than game enough for me.

Kat Verhoeven made a game called Midnight Campground which, frankly, I didn’t quite “get”, beyond its description as an adaptation of Einstein’s Riddle. You moved around a campground, and everything you touched gave some kind of text response, and there were clearly connections between the elements, but I didn’t see how they fit together yet. It was a quick, unguided play, so I may have missed something. On the other hand, it was filled with Twin Peaks references. Props.

Izzie Colpitts-Campbell made a game called “Wingman” which, sadly, I didn’t get to try. It’s about a pair of women going out to clubs, getting soused-but-not-too-soused, and scoring phone numbers. So I definitely want to try it, because anything that portrays women not only as having agency, but having agency in seeking romantic relationships, is subversive as all hell in gaming. Sadly.

And, finally, there’s Daniele Hopkins. She made a Unity-based game called Spy Jammer, which was a symbolic first-person game that was about representing the Internet as a three dimensional space, including portrayal of both online surveillance and omnipresent internet memes. (Yes, it had grumpycat. It also had viagra ads.) I ended up having a great chat with Daniele after the presentations, where we talked about the astonishing fact that she jumped straight from being a complete game-creation newbie with no real coding background to making a game in Unity.

UNITY.

Holy hell.

And she did it because “she wanted to learn Unity”.

Like I said… Holy hell.

I was and am seriously impressed. That is jumping in with both feet. Sure, Spy Jammer had comparatively simple gameplay and graphics. Going from zero to fairly challenging play inside a three dimensional space in a MONTH? Damn. Not that she’s any sort of stranger to tech. Her and her partner Kyle Duffield built the brilliant and cheeky controller bra/bro combos that were featured at Vector in February. But there’s still a big gap there.

———–

So, what were my takeaways? Well, there were two.

First, these people weren’t really coders…but aside from Daniele, they didn’t really NEED to be. They used a lot of tools, like GameSalad, GameMaker, and Twine, that abstracted out the coding side of gamemaking. Either Kara or Linda (can’t remember, unfortunately), said that they enjoyed it partially because it felt like they were “playing a game to make a game”.

(Linda had a great bit in her presentation about how both of her parents were programmers so, naturally, she can’t stand coding.)

I really feel like that’s how things are going to be going forward; the arcane BS involved in coding will be replaced by straightforward-yet-powerful tools that use visual and spatial techniques to allow creators to build games without worrying about nuts ‘n bolts.

The other thing is that many of these women were “outsiders”. Daniele had said that she was new to the game design community, and I don’t believe she was the only one. These were exactly the sort of women that bitter, angry boys (of all ages) would decry as being “fake gamer girls”, and gife endless shit-tests to in order to try to prove that they were somehow illegitimate. The sort of women that gaming companies would completely blow off outside of trying to hook them on some sort of obnoxious facebook “social” nonsense.

Yet here they were, not only making games, but making INTERESTING games. INVENTIVE games. Games that were, in some cases, even reminscient of gaming’s early “golden” years that the alpha-nerds use to prove their oldschool cred. In the case of Daniele, you even had a creator that demonstrated an almost-scary level of ambition, yet managed to pull it off.

It’s something to remember.

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Anita Sarkeesian’s First “Tropes v. Women” Video is Out

Yep. After all the shouting and yelling and accusations and whatnot about pretty much everything but the videos in question–largely revolving around a backlash against their funding and a counter-backlash against the ultra-horrible misogyny embedded in much of that backlash…

…we finally have our first video!

So much for the guys who thought she’d just take the money and run. Or whatever that was supposed to be.

Quick reax based on partial viewing…seems good so far, though nothing that exceeds the sort of work done by, say, Lindsay Ellis  on women in movies at Chez Apocalypse or Campster’s gaming-focused stuff at Errant Signal.   The discussion of subject v. object in games did remind me of something I read recently by Todd Alcott about superheroes, though:

(Technically, the true protagonist of The Avengers, is, of course, whoever is on the other end of the celestial jukebox that Mr. Bigrobe is talking to.  This turns out, eventually, to be a guy named Thanos, and Mr. Bigrobe turns out to be a guy named, er, “The Other.”  The “protagonist” of a story, the way the Greeks used the term anyway, was the guy who set events into motion.  Thanos wants The Tesseract, The Other sends Loki [the “ally”] and The Chitauri to get the Tesseract, and it falls to Nick Fury to stop those guys from doing that. This, technically, makes Nick Fury the antagonist of The Avengers. To make this distinction seems picayune, but, in fact, this protagonist problem is why so many superhero movies suck — it is inherent in the genre that the protagonist of the narrative is the bad guy.  The moment you have a main character whose job it is to run around stopping things from happening, you have a reactive protagonist, which means a weaker narrative.  When you have a weaker narrative, you end up throwing all kinds of nonsense at the screen, hoping that no one will notice that you have a reactive protagonist.  This is, incidentally, why Batman barely even shows up in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies — he understood that the protagonist of his Batman movies had to be Bruce Wayne, not Batman, and that, for his narratives to succeed, the bad guys had to be reacting to the actions of Bruce Wayne, not Batman reacting to the actions of the bad guys.)

The true protagonist, the true actor, in all of the Super Mario platformers is BOWSER. Mario has more agency than Peach as a player avatar, but he’s fundamentally reacting to Bowser, instead of really acting to achieve anything in his own right. He’s a superhero through-and-through, no different than Spiderman or Nick Fury.

The question may well be open as to whether or not Bowser’s more interested in Toadstool or Mario as an object, too. What if Bowser’s only kidnapping Toadstool to get Mario to go through his troops and traps to rescue her? What if he’s not actually interested in Peach as a possession (as alluded to in Sarkeesian’s “damselball” bit) but is only looking for the challenge, and knows of no other way to goad Mario into accepting it? What if Bowser doesn’t really want Peach at all?

And, weirder than that…what if Mario and Peach both know this?

More later.

Edit: Okay, it’s later.

For the most part I liked it. She did a good job bringing out issues of empowerment and objectification to a popular audience.  I saw two (surprising) issues here, though.

First, it’s barely about games per se. Sarkeesian analyzed her subject games strictly as narrative texts, without any real thought being given as to the reason or motivation for these things from a ludological perspective. Her “players” might as well be viewers, and the games might as well be television. I’m very surprised by this one; anybody who talks or thinks or writes critically about games has been absolutely buried in arguments over ludology v. narrativism, and the war over that sort of thing ended because almost everybody now realizes that you need to look at them through both lenses instead of one.

“Empowerment” in games is as much about play as it is about anything else. A playable character is always more empowered and enjoys more agency than a non-playable one from a strict gameplay perspective. She didn’t really get into that much, and it surprised me. Sure, she’s a media critic and not a gaming critic, but you really must address these things if you want to talk about games in 2013.

Second, it doesn’t have much of a temporal perspective. It treats the Zelda and Mario series (which are nearly completely the objects of analysis) as one big unit, instead of works that evolve over time with the changes in overall culture.

That’s somewhat of a problem with Mario, since Mario has evolved to become a larger franchise with players more used to the playable Peach of the modern franchise than kidnapped object Peach of the “core games”. While you can argue that Super Princess Peach for the DS isn’t a key game in the franchise, or than Peach’s surprisingly active role as an intermittently playable character that plays a key role in her own escape in Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door doesn’t really count, or that Super Mario Brothers 2 was an outlier due to the whole Doki Doki Panic thing (as Sarkeesian does), it’s really hard to argue that Mario Kart doesn’t really “count”. Those games are as popular as the platformer, and an entire generation grew up on those games. They ARE Mario to a big, big audience of gamers. You can’t arbitrarily discount that.  Sarkeesian doesn’t even really address it, though; she just focuses on the “core” games and leaves the others aside.

It’s a big problem with the Zelda games, though, because that evolution over time is by far the most interesting thing about them. Yes, Zelda started off as little more than a plot device in Legend of Zelda.  Over time, though, she’s become a more and more interesting character in her own right, and has started playing more and more of a role as a sidekick instead of a mere object. Sarkeesian did bring up Zelda’s Sheik and Tetra personae as examples of welcome subversions of Zelda’s traditional role, but didn’t really mention that process of change and evolution.

The omission that REALLY surprised me, though, was Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. That’s a game where Zelda is, absolutely, positively, one hundred percent a core character from pretty much beginning to end. Her personality is refreshingly more like the feisty Tetra than the passive Peach.

She’s also extremely important from a ludological perspective.  The way in which the player controls her when she’s using her possession mechanic is the very thing the game is named after.  I wouldn’t even necessarily call her ghostly state in the game “dis-empowered”; her ability to possess Phantoms in Spirit Tracks is as vital to success as Link’s whole werewolf curse thing was in Twilight Princess.  The player is quickly taught that Link’s quest would be utterly impossible without her.

It was a grand step forward, a fun mechanic and a welcome counterexample to the standard trope. So where on earth was it? Maybe Sarkeesian is saving it for the followup where she talks about “flipping the script”. I certainly hope so; the game doesn’t get anywhere near enough recognition.

In any case, I’m looking forward to the next one. I’m especially interested in seeing how she deals with Princess Rosella in Sierra’s King’s Quest IV, since that game’s as clear a reversal of the standard trope as you can get, and by a female game-maker besides.

Another Edit: Shouldn’t give the impression that I’m entirely critical, so I’ll name two things that really worked for me too. That story at the beginning with Dinosaur Planet and Starfox Adventures? Gold. Journalism worth watching in-and-of itself even if you never watch the rest. (Which you should.)   The transformation of the main character of Dinosaur Planet to damsel-in-distress in Starfox Adventures really is sketchy as all hell.

Also gold? That sequence with all the female characters shouting “help!”. It really, really nails down just how formulaic and lazy this sort of thing is. The big takeaway of this for me is that the damsel-in-distress is used because it’s easy. It’s a trivially obvious way to motivate a presumed audience of boys and young men.

That’s why I’m so interested in how she addresses King’s Quest IV. Not only because it’s an obvious and incredibly prominent subversion of the trope in the history of electronic gaming, but because it gets into the fact that PC games had a different audience. It was still primarily male, but usually older, better off, and less interested in adolescent power fantasies. The entire adventure game genre is rife with titles that either subvert this trope or ignore it entirely, and I don’t think that’s an accident.

NEW EDIT: Okay, embed’s fixed.

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