Should Mage Hawke have not gotten a pass?

Back in February, Mattie wrote about Anders, and how Hawke is in a position of privilege in the game, the same way most players are in a position of privilege with regard to the LGBT community. It is a great piece that really got me thinking. There was an idea I saw popping up all over the place back when Dragon Age 2 first came out that said that DA2 missed a huge opportunity with Mage!Hawke, that playing as a mage should have been significantly different from Warrior or Rogue in that the mage should have had to go through what all the other mages in Kirkwall go through. The whole abducted from your family, imprisoned in the Gallows, under the constant scrutiny of the Templars, who will make you Tranquil if you step one toe out of line, or even for no reason at all. I actually think that, for the purposes of DA2 specifically, the team at BioWare did exactly the right thing by giving Hawke the Thedas equivalent of “passing privilege” as a mage, first via bribery and later via her wealth and finally her title of Champion.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that games do have a very strong ability to put players temporarily inside the experience of another person. A while ago, I wrote about a hypothetical game that would allow a male player to allegorically experience–and therefore better understand–rape culture. Games are essentially systems, and oppression is a system, so it’s completely possible to create a game that communicates what it’s like to experience oppression. The problem is, while both games and oppression have rules, the rules of oppression are rigged so that the “player” can never win. This means it’s not very fun at all (to put it mildly). A game where a player is put in the shoes of a marginalized person–such as a mage in Thedas–isn’t going to be any fun. Who wants to play being stuck in a tower, or even confined to one small room, for weeks or months on end? Who wants to play a game where your character can be lobotomized randomly and without reason?

Well, I do. But this game will never, ever be made by a company that’s in the business of entertainment, that wants to make money.

So, what if the player just got a taste of it? What if they had to disguise themselves, tiptoe around Templars, make sure they don’t use magic in battle inside the city, at least in the first two acts, before Hawke becomes Champion?

I believe this strategy would backfire. The player gets a taste of what mages like Anders experience and most would think, this isn’t so bad! It’s annoying, but not worth blowing up a building over! It’s like when games or shows depict sexism as being the domain of openly-hateful old men who just need their butt kicked by and/or a sassy remark from the spunky heroine. At least when Hawke gets a pass that other mages don’t, the player is aware that they have it better than other mages. There’s no way to get most players to truly experience and understand what mages are going through without completely breaking the game (and even then, players would still have the option to turn the game off and walk away, which is not an option real oppressed people have), so it’s actually better that BioWare went in the opposite direction and gave Hawke a privileged position among mages. This way, when Anders does his thing, Hawke and the player are more or less on the same page. In a way, it forces the player to roleplay by making sure Hawke, as a character, and the player themselves have the same reaction: how could you? If Hawke was actually meant to be oppressed, herself, but the game never had the player experience what that actually meant, then for the vast majority of players who don’t experience violent oppression themselves in the real world, there would be a huge disconnect between Hawke’s perspective and the player’s.

I desperately want to see a game that puts the player in Anders’s shoes and forces the player to not only do something so extreme, but to feel as if it’s their only course of action. But while that game could be interesting and meaningful, it certainly won’t be fun, and so we will never see if from any huge studio like BioWare.

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Style Savvy's Most Glaring Issue

I played and finished Style Savvy earlier this year, and I kind of loved it. If you’re unfamiliar, it is Nintendo’s aggressively-marketed fashion game for the DS where you play as a stylist and boutique manager. You buy clothes to stock your shop, and help customers find pieces that fit their style and preferences. For example, a customer will say something like, “I’m looking for a skirt that matches my quirky style!” Based on key words (like “quirky”), what the customer is wearing, and sometimes the person’s personality blurb, you can figure out what brand they like, and then it’s just a matter of picking the item they asked for from that brand. Although there are occasionally variations (for example, if a person is wearing all blue, they might buy something that isn’t their favorite brand, if it’s blue), that’s how it works.

Despite how the game (perhaps necessarily) simplifies fashion and style, I quite enjoyed it. There’s a focus on using clothes as a creative outlet and a mode of self-expression, an attitude similar to that of many folks in the style blogosphere. But the game has a glaring problem that cannot be overlooked: your character, and every single one of your customers, all look like this:

A screenshot from Style Savvy. On the right are five different necklaces to choose from, on the left is a female avatar shown from mid-thigh up. She has a tiny waist and narrow hips.

While there are a few NPCs that have unique character models (though they are all thin, also), every other character has the exact same size-zero body. Since this game is on the DS, it’s possible that there are technical reasons for this, but that’s not an excuse I accept. And it certainly explains why I don’t need to worry about buying clothes in different sizes. But thinking about it, it becomes kind of disturbing. It’s not just that everyone is thin, it’s that everyone is exactly the same.

But also, fashion is notoriously sizeist and fatphobic. It’s no coincidence that Pepsi’s “slim, attractive” new can debuted at Fashion Week. (Really, the entire “bodies” tag at SocImages is ample evidence.) And yet, while the target audience of the game may be fans and followers of high fashion, the game seems to evoke the sensibilities of the democratized online world of street-fashion blogging, with its emphasis on self-expression and experimentation. But the vast variety of bodies that make up this world are nowhere to be seen in Style Savvy. Where are the women like Stéphanie (whose blog subheading is “Style is not a size but an attitude”), or the Fa(t)shion February crew?

(This is not to say that the fashion blogosphere is a happy shiny fully-inclusive space–far from it. The young and thin bloggers are the most likely to get well-paying advertisers and free designer clothing. But due to the nature of the internet, it is still far less exclusionary than the fashion industry and traditional press. It’s possible to carve out fat-positive and inclusive spaces, like the Fa(t)shion February project.)

Sometimes games present worlds that conflict with our own experiences, breaking our suspension of disbelief, and in that conflict we can tell something about the biases and assumptions that went into creating that world. The world of fashion in Style Savvy is comprised entirely of very thin people, which is simultaneously a discouragingly accurate depiction of high fashion and a completely unrealistic depiction of the broader realm of street fashion. In Style Savvy, clothes and makeup and hairstyles are all that separates one person from another, but in the real world, a person’s body can be, and often is, an intrinsic part of their style. It’s certainly always a consideration–fashion is part sculpture, where different fabrics and cuts can change a person’s proportions: clothing and body work together to create art. The game mouths the ideals of fashion as self-expression, but it falls flat when the actual physical self is taken entirely out of the equation. People are different, and those differences should be celebrated, not erased.

Dangerous Ladies: Why I Love Avatar

Watching the reactions to my TBH post about the Team ICO thing come rolling in last week was kind of surreal. The only rational reaction to Ueda’s comments is dismissal, eyerolling, facepalm, etc. The only way you can possibly defend the comments is if you think all young girls are helpless porcelain dolls. And yet people defended the comments–so many people defended the comments. So many people really do think that girls are inherently weaker than boys, at eight fucking years old, even.

It got to the point where I couldn’t help but laugh. This is what our world is. People deny reality (damn near everyone has at some point seen girls playing on a fucking playground) in order to fit their biases about how boys and girls should be. People deny the existence of pants, shorts, bloomers, skorts, leggings in order to fit their biases of who should be the hero. People deny fucking reality. The absurdity hit me like an anvil, thank fuck I was alone because my cackling must have been scary.

It hit me so hard because for the past three weeks or so I have been vacationing in a glorious land of feminist escapism: the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I have watched all three seasons, some episodes multiple times, and most of the DVD commentary for season 3. It’s safe to say I’m a little bit obsessed. But with good reason. As I said on Twitter:

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Quick Hit: Sidequesting Interview

A friend of mine from the JPAG, Ryan Gan, interviewed me for his gaming blog, Sidequesting. I talk about why I write about inclusion and games, stupid excuses for not having female characters, and a bunch of love/criticism for BioWare. It was a lot of fun to be the interviewee for once. Thanks again, Ryan!

Also, that screenshot of Chloe and Elena is really funny to me, for some reason.

PAX East: Girls in Gaming Panel

Crossposted at The Border House.

Last weekend, March 25-27, was the first annual PAX East convention. The Penny Arcade Expo has been running for several years in Seattle, but this is the first time it has come to the East Coast, and the first time I was able to attend. I’m going to write a few posts about the various panels I went to and the overall experience, and the first thing I would like to address is the “Girls in Gaming” panel that took place on Friday night.

The panel consisted of: Brittany Vincent (Editor-in-Chief, Spawn Kill), Julie Furman (Founder, SFX360), Alexis Hebert (Community Relations Manager, Terminal Reality), Padma Fuller (Product Marketing Manager, Sanrio Digital), and Kate Paiz (Senior Producer, Turbine), with Jeff Kalles of Penny Arcade moderating. The format was entirely Q&A, with no discussion and only short introductions before opening up the floor to questions. So it did not begin very well, though this was entirely the fault of the organizers.

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Is This Only Entertainment?: My Click Moment and Why I Write About Games

One of the most common responses to feminist critiques–or indeed any sort of critiques–of games is, “It’s just a game!” Feminist critiques of games outside of specifically feminist blogs are often met with not just outright hostility in many cases, but an attitude of befuddlement; gamers wonder what is the point of writing about video games when women face so many other, bigger problems in the world. This is a question that has been answered over and over. Mighty Ponygirl from Feminist Gamers explained that video games contribute to sexist social conditioning:

…But behavior is more than just action — it’s a way of internalizing what is expected of you. Little girls are taught almost from birth to be quiet, compliant, passive, and that the most important thing is to be attractive to men. These lessons are reinforced when they play games that push women off in the corner to be rescued, or only allow them to pick up a sword if they’re wearing a bikini.

Andrea Rubenstein, aka tekanji, wrote a four-post series explaining why studying popular culture is important. One of her main points is that fighting oppression has to occur on many different levels and in different areas of or society:

Studying popular culture is probably my main focus, but since I love cross-sections I also keep abreast of other topics such as feminist issues, human sexuality, and general oppression work. I don’t think that this is inherently better or worse than someone who chooses one topic, or even a smaller subset of topics, to focus on.

In fact, I’d go one step farther to say that the only way I think we’ll ever have a chance at winning the battle against oppression (as much as one can “win” such a thing) is if we wage this war on multiple levels. I believe that every fight we fight — whether it be against domestic violence or raising our voices against the overabundance of “sexy girls who kick ass” in popular media — is a valuable one. I believe every stride we make, however small and however flawed, should be appreciated.

And I absolutely agree with both points. But there is something I would like to add, something I see as another reason writing about video games and popular culture in general is worthwhile: talking about pop culture is a great way to reach out to people. Not every feminist-minded individual is going to take a women’s studies course or pick up a bell hooks book from their library, but plenty of folks love discussing games, television, movies and so on on the internet. Looking at these things from a feminist perspective can introduce these concepts to people who may hold feminist ideals and just don’t know it yet.

I’m an example of this. Feminists sometimes talk about their “click moment”–the moment or event that led them to realize they were feminists. My click moment happened a little over two years ago. Ubisoft Montreal was promoting the shit out of Assassin’s Creed, a daring new IP that they hoped would turn into a franchise. The producer for the game was a woman named Jade Raymond, and in her role as producer she gave interviews and helped promote the game. The backlash she received from the online gaming community–as well as from so-called game “journalists” from Kotaku, Joystiq, and Destructoid–was swift and horrific, because she dared to be a woman speaking with authority about games.

It was my own outrage over the incident that led me to The IRIS Network and the aforementioned Feminist Gamers, as well as general feminism blogs like Feministe. I stayed up late night after night reading everything I could find, all these passionate and critical essays that put words to things that I had always known on some level, and opening my eyes to new manifestations of injustice that I’d never thought about before; I took the red pill and I never looked back.

But that one incident wasn’t the beginning of my feminist education, merely the catalyst that fused everything I had already learned and seen with newfound knowledge, giving me the tools to describe all those events that made me deeply uncomfortable in my gut but I hadn’t been able to explain. I’d had plenty of lessons before then on oppression, even if I didn’t know what to call it. And a lot of them came from fandom, the feminists and womanists and social justice advocates who cared enough to call people out in various venues. I clearly remember, ten years or so ago when I was still in middle school, getting educated on what “sexual orientation” means and why it’s wrong to assume everyone is straight until they say otherwise, on the now-defunct FanFiction.Net mailing list, of all places. It was a webcomic that first introduced me to the idea that sex and gender are two different things. During the first season of Heroes, I learned about subtle racist biases from a post about racism and the show on the heroes_tv LJ community.

And I learned more and more about feminism every day on the girl_gamers LJ comm, where feminists weighed in on sexism-related drama that popped up fairly often, and every time I would learn something new, or someone would put words to an issue that was previously only a minor itch at my brain that told me something is wrong here.

All of these people prepped me for my click moment simply by participating in fandom, by talking about their favorite shows and games in their own way, braving the inevitable backlash and meeting it head-on. I benefited so much from these discussions, though many of the participants were never aware of it.

My greatest hope with my writing is that I can pay the favor forward as much as possible. I try to reach people in a different way than scholarly writing does; and while this may not be the most convincing reason games are a worthwhile topic of feminist discussion, it’s an important one to me, because it is deeply intertwined with my understanding of both topics. I know I’ve already succeeded once; I received an email a few months ago from a GameCritics.com reader who had enjoyed my article about gender and Mass Effect. As he described how he had been ravenously reading the Feminism 101 blog and suddenly everything made more sense, I realized I’d given someone their own click moment. It reminded me of all those lessons I’d learned, and how the seemingly frivolous act of chatting about games on the internet can actually be important, even if you think games are “only” entertainment. And that’s why I write about games.

Wrex and the Art of the Privilege Check

Cross-posted at The Border House.

I’ve written a lot about Mass Effect previously, including a rather long criticism of some of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) gender bias at play in the universe BioWare has created. For my last post, I’d like to take a look at the character of Wrex and how his situation as well as that of the Krogan species is used to teach players about privilege.

Conversations between Wrex and the other members of the crew are clearly meant to mirror conversations about race and racism on Earth, with Wrex delivering withering smack-downs of ignorant privilege. My first example, a conversation between Kaiden (in my game it was Ashley) and Wrex on an elevator, makes this connection obvious, referencing a racist attitude that even those with minimal knowledge of racism can usually recognize:

YouTube (starting around 1:37):

KAIDEN: I haven’t spent much time with Krogan before, Wrex, and I have to say, you’re not what I expected.

WREX: Right. Because you humans have a wide range of cultures and attitudes, but Krogan all think and act exactly alike.

KAIDEN: Well, I–I didn’t mean… forget I said anything.

WREX: Done.

This conversation is an obvious allegory for racism on Earth; most people recognize that treating or talking about an entire race as if they are all the same is racist (at least, I hope so…). However, the game goes deeper than that, exposing a more subtle act of privilege:

YouTube (relevant portion is at the beginning)

WREX: What can I do for you?

SHEPARD: What’s your story, Wrex?

WREX: There’s no story. Go ask the Quarian if you want stories.

SHEPARD: You Krogan live for centuries. Don’t tell me you haven’t had any interesting adventures.

WREX: Well, there was this one time the Turians almost wiped out our entire race. That was fun.

SHEPARD: I heard about that. You know, they almost did the same to us.

WREX: It’s not the same.

SHEPARD: It seems pretty much the same to me.

WREX: So your people were infected with a genetic mutation, an infection that makes only a few in a thousand children survive birth? And I suppose it’s destroying your entire species?

SHEPARD: You’re still here. It can’t be all that bad.

WREX: I don’t expect you to understand. But don’t compare humanity’s fate to the Krogan.

SHEPARD: I was just making conversation. I wasn’t trying to upset you.

WREX: Your ignorance doesn’t upset me, Shepard. …

Some privileged people make the mistake of trying to show non-privileged people that they relate to their struggles by comparing experiences that really aren’t comparable. For example, a white person saying they can understand racism because they experience discrimination for being a nerd, or whatever. This statement may not seem as racist to some white people, but it minimizes the systemic nature of racism and how deeply it affects people of color. (See also Derailing for Dummies’s “But That Happens to Me Too!“.)

Even better, Shepard follows it up by making the intent excuse–don’t get so offended, Wrex, he didn’t mean to upset you! Which is more crap, because intent doesn’t matter: what Shepard said was still offensive and wrong.

A lot of the racism allegories in Mass Effect are anvil-like in their obviousness, things that have been done over and over in fantasy and science fiction–but on occasion the game goes deeper and explores some of the more subtle aspects of systemic racism and privilege. Have you noticed any other examples of this in the game, or in other games? Do you think this is an effective way of subtly teaching players about the nature of privilege?