Modern Warfare 2 Ad Features, Condones Homophobic Slurs

(UPDATE: The ad has been removed; apparently IW didn’t notice the acronym, which I kind of think is bullshit, but I’m glad action was taken.)

Via Kotaku, a new ad went up on developer Infinity Ward’s YouTube page for the upcoming Modern Warfare 2. The ad features an in-game model of Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies “speaking out” PSA-style against grenade spamming multiplayer tactics. Along with using misogynist slur “pussies”, at the end of the ad is a caption saying the PSA was done for a fake organization called “Fight Against Grenade Spam”, aka FAGS. In one stupid video, Infinity Ward reinforces misogyny and homophobia and condones the openly homophobic atmosphere of online gaming where such words are used all too often.

Here is a transcript for those who can’t access the video:

[Video opens with in-game footage of a player named “BluntTrauma” (whose gamerpic is a pot leaf) killing another player with a headshot from a sniper rifle.]

Male Voice Over: Let’s take a break from the action to get a word from our sponsor.

[Cole Hamels game model, in fatigues, armor, and a red Phillies cap, closes the door on a Jeep and walks toward the camera.]

Hamels: Hi, I’m Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels. And I’m here today to talk to you about something close to my heart: random grenades. Have you ever found yourself just walking down the street, minding your own business, when BAM! You look down and see a deadly explosive device attached to your uniform? I have, and let me tell you, it’s not cool. So be cool, and avoid random grenades. They’re for pussies.

[A grenade thrown from off-screen sticks to the front of Hamels’s uniform; Hamels looks shocked; a ton more grenades cover him.]

Hamels: What the fuck?

[Hamels explodes. A black screen with white text reads: “Funding Provided By: Fight Against Grenade Spam.”]

VO: Brought to you by: Fight Against Grenade Spam.

And I’m pretty sure the joke about walking down the street only to be attacked by a grenade is totally hilarious to people living in actual warzones, who actually have to worry about being killed by explosives.

More at Hellforge, including an interesting quote from an Infinity Ward dev about how they take responsibility for their marketing. Oh, really?

ETA: Lono from Sarcastic Gamer speaks out, and some analysis from Brainy Gamer.

Vorpal Bunny Ranch has a powerful post about personal experiences with this word.

Deirdra Kiai has a related post about what is truly “edgy.”

ETA2: Sessler’s Soapbox on the issue; Adam explains the precise problems rather well, making the distinction between simple swearing and words that are bad because they marginalize groups of people.

ETA3: Another post on the issue by Amanda Phillips at HASTAC.

Is BioShock Feminist? A Response in Defense of Tenenbaum

So via Critical Distance I found this feminist critique of BioShock, written by Richard Terrell (who, you may have noticed, is a man). But it is really not sitting right with me. His thesis is that BioShock depicts women as weak and men as strong. So I thought the rest of the article would try to show how BioShock upholds patriarchal values.

And it does, at first, but I don’t really agree with the analysis. He starts off talking about the Little Sisters. Obviously, everyone else has pointed out the sexist dichotomy of the Big Daddies and Little Sisters. But he states that when you play either good or evil, Little Sisters are commodified. I disagree with that, based on my friend’s* analysis that I wrote about over here: the entire point of the good path is to show that the Little Sisters are PEOPLE, not commodities; as Mighty Ponygirl states, you have to reject Randian philosophy and accept that they AREN’T resources for the taking in order to save them. And if you don’t, and you harvest them, you get the bad ending–you’re evil.

I’m also not totally sure I buy the argument about taking away the girls’ agency when you save them, since you are ignoring their resistance. These are very young girls we are talking about, not adult women, though I suppose your mileage may vary on this point.

The criticism of Tenenbaum is where the feminist analysis is really weak. Terrell describes how Tenenbaum is initially shown as logical, protective, and strong, saying that she is “a woman whose life style flies in the face of the patriarchal woman,” but then she “begins to artificially morph falling into the patriarchal gender role of women.” While I agree that Tenenbaum not shooting the player when zie harvests the first Little Sister (if that path is chosen, mind) when she had just shot a splicer for even trying to do the same is a bit of a plot-hole (though she could have known that the player was much more powerful than any splicer and could have feared getting killed, leaving the Little Sisters with no protection whatsoever), I don’t think that Tenenbaum morphs into a patriarchal woman. She doesn’t change, we just find out more about her, and as it turns out, she is rather complex (the post doesn’t touch on her background in a German World War II concentration camp). Just because we find out that she cares about the little girls doesn’t make her NOT a brilliant geneticist, and a Holocaust survivor, and everything else she is.

Terrell’s analysis is based on the idea that “logical = male = good / emotional = female = bad,” an association that is used and repeated by the author with no critical examination when he says that Tenenbaum defies patriarchy at first by being logical but succumbs to it by being emotional. I mean, should Tenenbaum have NOT been emotionally invested in the Little Sisters? I think that would have been entirely unrealistic, and even bizarre since in order to follow the good path, you must care (to some degree) about them yourself. In addition, an important concept of feminism is that logic and emotion are not exact opposites (example: it is logical for one to feel sad after one’s dog dies), the two qualities aren’t inherent to one gender or another, and they are both essential for all human beings. A feminist critique should take into account the fact that it is natural and human to be able to both reason and feel emotion, often at once.

Further, the author notes that Fontaine puts down Tenenbaum by calling her a “Mother Goose.” The author seems to forget that Fontaine is the villain of the game, so the player isn’t necessarily supposed to agree with him. I didn’t quite get his point here, but the Critical Distance post sums it up as “Dr. Tenenbaum’s redemption comes through an acquiescence to patriarchal ideas of motherhood.” But I don’t see what is specifically patriarchal about Tenenbaum’s maternal instincts. She has them, and that is enough to make her a tool of the patriarchy? (Should Tenenbaum, and women in general, NOT have maternal instincts in order to be feminist?) I would contend that Tenenbaum is actually a feminist mother in that she is a genius with a career AND a single mother figure! She is the head of her little non-traditional family, after all.

Tenenbaum is not an unproblematic character from a feminist perspective, but she is a lot more complex than the author of this post gives her credit for. The post also doesn’t mention the botanist, who is a woman and another genius; this gives the game at least two female geniuses, when most forms of entertainment rarely give us any.

I also take issue with this statement: “Throughout the rest of the game Tenenbaum guides the player through various tasks and objectives. She tells the player what to do, and the player does it. Simply by playing through the game, the player fulfils [sic] the typical patriarchal male role of a strong, proactive, decisive force.” How is the player proactive and decisive? I believe the player is actually reactive and obedient. The fiction supports me on this one: the entire point of the twist with Atlas, the line “A man chooses, a slave obeys,” is that the player has been doing what zie is told the entire time, without any true free will; zie is not a Randian genius but a cog in the machine. This is pretty much the entire point of the game and is, as others have written, a critique on the limitations of video games.

As my friend* pointed out to me, the game takes this critique even further by showing how the Little Sisters are conditioned to feel safe around and attached to the Big Daddies and negative toward women (Tenenbaum in particular). This social conditioning is something everyone goes through, and it affects (and to an extent controls) peoples’ thoughts an actions in a deep and subtle way. In feminist theory, patriarchy is a form of social conditioning that teaches people that there are certain traits that are inherent to men and women, that men are strong and logical and intelligent and women are weak and emotional, and so on and so on. In this sense, the game is actually agreeing with and explaining feminist theory.

The post goes on to describe the misogyny present in the game: the cartoons that cheerfully show violence against women, Dr Steinem and certain characters’ obsession with beauty. After several paragraphs describing these things in a negative tone, the post ends with: “[Rapture is] a place where women are forced to play in a man’s world according to his rules, and there’s nothing the player can do about it. And what’s worst of all, Rapture is a place that is like our own in many ways.”

… Right. At first I thought the author was criticizing the inclusion of the cartoons, the character of Diane McClintock, etc., but at the end he seems to understand that these things were included as criticism of the time period the game takes place in as well as the modern world. But doesn’t that undermine his thesis that the game isn’t feminist?

Even though the game may seem very problematic on the surface, overall I found it to have some deep feminist thought and themes behind it. It seems like Terrell couldn’t decide either way.

I would really like to hear from you guys about this one. Am I missing anything? I think part of the problem here is that Terrell looks at the game purely through a cursory understanding of feminist theory and I am coming at it as a practical feminist. (Another problem is that I use way too many parentheticals.) But a lot of you are probably more well-read about BioShock than I am, and I would like to hear more from that perspective.

* The friend I keep referring to is Alex, who sometimes comments here (hi!). He’s a lot smarter than me (just ask about the Merchant King in Assassin’s Creed).

Moral "Choices"

(This post contains spoilers for the ending Fable II.)

I’m currently playing Bioshock and will be writing a lot about it in the coming weeks (and I know talking about how awesome Bioshock is at this point is kind of like saying “Hey, have you heard of this thing called ‘The Internet’? It’s super neat!” but bear with me!). To kick things off I’d like to address the hook of the game: the decision whether to “harvest” or rescue the Little Sisters.

A brief summary, for those who don’t know or have forgotten: In Bioshock‘s game world of Rapture, the Little Sisters are essentially little girls that have been genetically altered to harvest a substance called Adam from dead people. Adam is used by the inhabitants of Rapture to modify their own genes to give them super powers. Because it is a very valuable substance, the Little Sisters are protected by the now-iconic Big Daddies from the people and creatures who want the Adam from the Little Sisters.

When you kill a Big Daddy you have the option of either rescuing or “harvesting” the Little Sister: harvesting takes all the Adam from her and kills her. Rescuing her takes only some of the Adam and frees her from the creepy enchantment-like state. Thus the game’s “tough moral decision” is set up: do you kill the Little Sister and get more Adam, allowing you to upgrade your powers more quickly and thus be more likely to survive Rapture? Or do you rescue the Little Sister, putting yourself more at risk but doing the Right Thing?

The thing is, during playtesting the Bioshock team found that because the “evil” path was more rewarding, players would almost exclusively choose that path, no moral agonizing. This led to a change in the final game: saving the Little Sisters actually ends up netting you more Adam and more powerful Plasmids (super powers) because in addition to the small amount of Adam gained from rescuing the Little Sister, you are given a gifts from one of the game’s characters as thanks for rescuing them.

So, ultimately, the “tough moral decision” was anything but, even with a charming Scotsman trying to convince me otherwise. For me, saving the Little Sisters was an easy choice: I did the Right Thing, and got better rewards for it.

The choice did, however, leave me to wonder what an actual agonizing moral choice would look like in a game, and how it could be implemented. There is one recent game that possibly does this, or comes close: Fable II.

Unfortunately I haven’t played Fable II, but this is what I know about the ending: during the course of the game your family, your dog, and thousands of people die; after the final boss is defeated you get three choices: 1. You can have 1 million gold (which is fairly meaningless because when playing the game you probably have more than that already), 2. Revive your dog and your family, or 3. Revive the thousands of other people that were killed.

Now just from reading about it, the choice between 2 and 3 seems like a truly difficult choice. Choice 3 nets you more “good” points, and is generally the right thing to do for the greater good, but because by this point the player really cares about her dog (and likely her family as well, depending on what she brings to the table) so doing the not-so-good thing is much more tempting.

Of course, because the townspeople aren’t real, it’s probably easy for a lot of players to simply do what is best for themselves (revive the family) because the game world truly revolves around their character. But I think the emotional connection to what is being lost is something that was missing from the Bioshock choice; so while the ending of Fable II might still be a fairly easy choice for most people, it’s definitely on the right track.

(Next I’ll be getting into some feminist analysis of Bioshock, which I’m really surprised hasn’t been done yet because there is a lot to talk about!)

Dear PC Gamer:

From your Left 4 Dead review: “…you can’t choose which survivor you play as, so someone will be stuck playing the girl.”

Please explain this joke to me? How does one get “stuck” playing as “the girl”, and why is this a bad thing?

Seriously, I really want to see you explain how this is funny without just coming out and saying girls and women are inferior. Because that is the entire point of the joke… someone gets “stuck” playing as the female character because no one WANTS to play as the female character, because girls suck.

The “joke” makes especially no sense because you go on to say that the characters are entirely cosmetic since they all play exactly the same. So in this case the ONLY reason someone would feel that they were “stuck” playing as Zoey is because they are sexist assholes.

Clearly you didn’t take into account that some of your readers would actually WANT to play as “the girl”. But, you know, keep on keeping that boy’s club sealed up tight.

If Valve Avoids Horror Film Tokenism but No One Gets it, Does it Count?

I really like the GiantBombCast. The guys are pretty funny, though the Joystiq crew has a much closer taste in games to my own. But not a week goes by when Jeff Gerstmann doesn’t say something casually sexist, which is like sudden sour note in an otherwise fun song.

Last week, in talking about Left 4 Dead, he described the characters as your typical survivors of the zombie apocalypse: “the old veteran, the businessman, and the girl.” Whoa, what? The GURL? Her distinguishing characteristic is that she’s female?

The problem is that, while this may be the treatment of women in many horror films, this is Valve we’re talking about, here. These are the people behind Half Life 2 and Portal. Even working within the “three dudes and token woman” format, Zoey has a personality and background just like the others; she’s NOT just “The Girl”, she’s a student, a slacker, a horror flick buff, in the same way Louis isn’t “The Black Guy” (another token in horror films–also notice “The Girl” is always white unless noted otherwise), he’s the IT technician frustrated with his job. So this is a criticism of peoples’ perceptions rather than what the developers of the game did; in this case the developers actually made an effort to elevate their characters above the typical horror film stereotypes while still working within that framework, yet that framework made it very easy to fall back on the genre’s sexist tropes when thinking about the characters.

(Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that that the only “super-zombie” that is female is called The Witch and sits around crying. She’s also the deadliest, but there are still no playable female zombies; apparently when women become zombies they’re either in the horde or sit around and cry. This feels silly to complain about–rest assured I am dying (*groan*) to play the game more–but also it’s kind of baffling.)

I’m not really sure what my point is here. I guess that it’s frustrating when a developer does some things right but people just go with their preconceptions.

While I’m at it, I don’t think this warrants a whole new post, but I just finished Prince of Persia and what the heck is up with The Concubine? The token female enemy (yet again one of four) and she’s the “Scorned Lover”? This is the motivation of like 99% of female villains. Quite unoriginal for such an overall unique game. Why couldn’t The Alchemist have been female as well? Or do women only have motivations relating to love and sex? I’m really frustrated with so many female characters being pigeonholed into roles that focus on their sexuality.

Faith: The Next Jade?

Ask anyone to name the best female game character, and chances are the answer you’ll get is Jade, from Beyond Good and Evil (the other likely answer would be Alyx Vance from Half-Life, though she’s not the player character). Jade is a fantastic character in addition to being a capable and intelligent woman, well deserving of all the praise she’s gotten since the game came out in 2003.

But that’s the thing–BG&E came out in 2003… a full five years ago. That’s a long time in video game land. Yet we haven’t seen a female protagonist at least on par with Jade?

Luckily for us, that could change with the release of Mirror’s Edge next month. The protagonist is a young woman built similarly to Jade, though in keeping with ME’s more realistic art style. It’s a great start, but what remains to be seen is whether Faith is as interesting a character as Jade is; personality and relationships are the other, arguably more important half of what makes a strong female character. The fact that they are both women of color is awesome as well.

While I’m writing about Faith, I’d like to take a moment to write about this Kotaku article. I discovered it via a post on Gaming Angels, which is celebrating Love Your Body Day with some fantastic posts. (I pretty much boycott Kotaku.)

The article posts a piece of official art of Faith, followed by a fan alteration of the image. The changes appear to be simply: a rounder face, rounder eyes, removal of the badass eye tattoo, and much larger breasts with visible nipples (implying she is not wearing a bra, which would be extremely painful considering the fact that she is a RUNNER).

The changes are not surprising. The face was stripped of all character and made into Generic Final Fantasy Heroine (commenters who preferred the fan-made image’s face because it’s “softer” and more “feminine”–because women shouldn’t be tough). And of course women need to have C-cups or larger to be attractive. That someone had the gall to declare that Faith wasn’t hot enough and actually take the time to alter the image in that way is sad but not surprising, either. (Has this ever happened to a male game character? No, really, has it?)

What really irritated me about the post was the vast amount of assumptions made by the “artist”. This is how Kotaku describes the fan’s intent:

As reader Torokun points out: “There is always a huge complain from Asian gamers whenever Western developers design Asian female characters…” As Torokun continues, this is mainly because many Westerners’ definition of what is considered as “Asian” beauty is very different from what Asians consider beautiful.”

While I have no doubt beauty standards differ slightly around the globe, Torokun makes the assumptions that:

  • Faith’s appearance was designed to be attractive to straight American men, rather than as one aspect of her entire character.
  • Not only that, but she was specifically designed to appear as an idealized Asian woman for straight (presumably white) American men.
  • All Asian men are attracted to one specific body and face type, to the exclusion of anyone else.
  • That a female game character must meet certain beauty standards in order to be viable.
  • Tough =/= feminine =/= attractive.

All of which is really bothersome to me, especially the first part. She’s a character, not a pinup. No one complains that male characters aren’t hot enough. It’s pretty sad that some can’t even accept female game characters–who, by and large ARE made to be attractive even when they’re not blatantly sexualized and/or idealized–as they are without feeling the need to break out photoshop and make them “better.”

Setting and the Physical Language of Puzzles

I’d like to clarify my use of the word “should” in the last post. Game areas should form a cohesive game world iff this is a goal of the game design. Functioning worlds (by which I mean worlds that appear to have feasible ecosystems, economies, etc. within the fiction) are not important or necessary for all games, certainly; it’s not a good idea to try to limit possibilities here. For a game that seeks to immerse the player in its world and/or story, which very many games try to do, the world should make some sense, or it will detract from the immersion.

To go back to my Metroid Prime 3 example: would MP3 be a better game if this imposed interface were more blended into the world, if it made more sense for those spherical crevices to be there in the first place?

I’m not convinced it’s even possible. One gameplay component of Metroid Prime is the puzzles, and to have a good puzzle, you need to set up the physical language that the player interacts with and can “read” to solve the puzzle. The different devices in Metroid Prime, for example: the player sees a small glowing circle and learns, from the tutorial and from doing it over and over, that when they see one of those circles, they’re supposed to turn into a ball and drop an explosive in the hole. In this sense, puzzles in Metroid Prime are simply a matter of reading the symbols.

(Similarly, The Legend of Zelda develops its own language with the player: the player learns that a certain target will stick to the hookshot; how far Link can jump or if he has to use the hover boots; what rocks can be blown up with bombs; and so on.)

The point is, if the various technologies on each planet were more unique and made more sense, it would obscure the puzzle language that is very clear the way it is now. If that were to change, at minimum it would be the same problem with a thin layer of paint over it, causing some frustration for the player while not enhancing immersion at all. At the extreme it would cause gameplay that requires the player to relearn the same simple activities at every planet, and not allow the player to reuse knowledge from the last world, limiting the player’s sense of advancement. So in this case, making a more “immersive” universe in this sense would be detrimental to Metroid Prime 3‘s gameplay.

I get the feeling the environments in Metroid Prime were designed more for cool factor than immersion, which is totally fine by me.