Admin Note: I belong to a circle of close friends who all have very strong opinions on the gaming industry. Because of this, you should be seeing a number of posts from other authors coming down the pipe here. I’m very excited about the possibilities here—perhaps eventually we’ll operate our very own gaming editorial site.
In the meantime, I’m proud to present our first guest poster: my brother, William Monroe, from H. T. Parnell’s.
Though I haven’t touched on it much recently in my writings, (aside from a few scattered comments about Super Street Fighter 4 on H. T. Parnell’s) I’ve been thinking a lot more about some of the old discussions I’ve had about gender roles in games. The conclusion we seemed to come to, amid much discussion, is that there are two separate problems at play here:
First, the overall dearth of female characters in games, particularly ones that are portrayed as capable of engaging in the same activities as men with the same level of skill.
This strikes me as a larger umbrella issue that contains the issue of patriarchy that was brought up re: Super Street Fighter 4. Women are less common (in games) than men, because men are seen as the norm, so that the variation of including a female character is something that must be both explained and reigned in, as to not be too unusual. Addressing the overall problem may not address some of the co-morbid issues, but it’s certainly a place to start.
Second, the overall dearth of emotional qualities that have historically been considered “female”.
This is particularly sticky, however, because by describing these as qualities as “female”, I am implying that they should be embodied, mostly, by female characters. Doing so would be the fastest way to solve the actual physical gender imbalance without actually helping the problem in any way. Not unlike trying to push for civil rights by giving a lot of work to Stepin Fetchit, and even then it’d probably be worse, cause there’s something to be said for being the first African American actor to ever be given a screen credit.
Even discussing this issue is a little troublesome, though, because it’s so easy to accidentally jump horses mid discussion, and to start discussing the specifics of people, as opposed to looking at platonic forms of female and male. That is, if you think that such platonic forms exist/are meaningful concepts. I tend to think they’re helpful for discussions of narrative, but trying to prove that they are is clearly beyond the scope of this particular discussion. Suffice it to say that I believe that they are. Perhaps I’ll diatribe about why at some point.
This issue is also difficult, because it’s more insidious and subtle than the problem of “Over 80% of game characters are male”. This problem (as is the case with all problems of equality, if you get down to it) starts in the culture. America, and to some degree Western Europe (though less so) has always greatly valued physical prowess, self-determination, and the ability to pull yourself up by your bootstraps no matter what, even so much as to be to the detriment of qualities like endurance, intuition, and being conciliatory.
The real heart of this second problem is that games buy into a mentality in which a “male” way of acting is considered positive, and a “female” way of acting is considered negative or irrelevant. This is partially because of overarching cultural factors, and partially because games in particular have always been based almost exclusively on these traditionally “male” activities. So, before we get too deep into this, what the hell am I talking about?
In the Jungian sense (as well as the ancient Chinese philosophy sense), activity is considered to be an essential male characteristic, while passivity is considered to be an essential female characteristic. There’s a valid epistemological question as the core of this, to ask whether “not doing something” can be a valid descriptor, but suffice it to say that Taoism, for one, sidesteps this issue entirely.
Taoism, which focuses heavily on the interplay of gender as amorphous characteristics, largely detached from any instantiation, believes that the essential female characteristic is “wei wu wei”, or “action without action”. The comparison is made to water, which, while soft and yielding, is capable of overcoming virtually any obstacle, and shaping things otherwise thought unassailable, like earth and stone. Taoism submits that the universe has a natural order, and that by acting in step with (and being lead by) the natural order, not only does one achieve more satisfaction, but one is also more effective at accomplishing their goals. (As a purely academic concern, it also proposes that this is the ideal way for everyone to act, but still identifies it as inherently female)
I’m not here to speculate about the truth of this theology, other than to say that I believe there is some non-zero amount of validity to this way of acting: action based on sensitivity to surroundings, and non-attachment to the results of said actions.
Whether or not these qualities represent something inherently “female” is an epistemological gender studies question that I have no interest in tackling. I am much more interested in the relative lack of these qualities, and others like them in games. For lack of a better term, and wanting to avoid overstepping the purview of this article, I shall refer to these qualities as “wei wu wei”.
A previous essay I wrote posited that most main characters of video games are extensions of the typical male action hero. Gears of War, Devil May Cry, Borderlands, Left 4 Dead. Even Gordon Freeman, while more nuanced, is basically that archetype. While trying to gender these characteristics is probably a mistake, we can all agree that the laundry list looks something like this:
- Physical Prowess
- Willingness to use physical force in order to accomplish one’s goals (usually noble)
- Courage and adherence to goals in the face of overwhelming odds
Plus many others, I’m sure. Don’t get me wrong; these are all awesome characteristics. I really kind of enjoyed that Marcus Fenix and his squad getting swallowed by a worm the size of Rhode Island occasioned no more pause from him than “Well, then we gotta cut our way out!”
But characteristics like intuition, social graces outside of the context of manipulation, sensitivity to surroundings, nurturing, and willingness to stay in step with the natural order (or even fightingfor the natural order) are all characteristics that are all markedly different than, or, in some instantiations, even directly opposed to, the list above.
The problem, as has been elucidated before, is that it’s pretty easy to make a game about “you did this awful thing to me, so I’m gonna beat up you and all your cronies”. Making a game about building relationships, synthesizing disparate pieces of information, or achieving success by gaining immunity to the throes of gain and loss of daily life are all… a little less unclear. I think a game could be made out of these principles, but no one can submit that it would be less challenging to create than a beat’em up.
Now, if we’re discussing real life, obviously a mix of all of these qualities are necessary to be a functional human being, but this is not so in games. The world of Gears of War is constructed so that Marcus Fenix needs to embody all of the action hero characteristics to succeed. The problem is partially the characters, where no one is creating characters that embody these wei wu wei characteristics, but it’s also that before the characters even are introduced, the game mechanics and the story frame success and failure in terms of your ability to succeed at those very particular kinds of action hero tasks. When you get swallowed by a giant worm, it’s undeniable that the appropriate response is to try and get out. To do anything else would mean failure of the challenge set before you.
And that’s just the point: games are almost universally about events to which the only appropriate response is to be an action hero. Just putting in characters that embody this kind of wei wu wei thinking wouldn’t do anything, because they would be monumentally ineffective, unless a conscious effort was expended to make it not so. This isn’t because the action hero is the baseline, and variance must be accounted for, but just because that kind of mentality is so ingrained into the game industry.
This is to say nothing of the difference between valuing wei wu wei in story vs. valuing it in gameplay. JRPGs have done a decent (or at least the best available) job of emphasizing the value of wei wu wei in story, but at the end of the day, 70% or more of your interaction with the game consists of you fighting people for the purpose of ending their life or preserving your own. So you’re left with a poor choice at the end: do I have a final confrontation that doesn’t reinforce the message (the value of wei wu wei), or do I have a final confrontation that the player cannot meaningfully participate in? Obviously, the stakes of the fight are greater than just preserving your own life, but if the final victory is still won by the action of killing the bad guy…
Final Fantasy 6 errs on the side of the former: While you are fighting for the preservation of life, and the ultimate validity of human existence, Kefka can’t be brought into the fold of Terra’s quasi-Gaia worldview, and so needs to be fought and killed for the safety of the planet and its population.
Xenogears errs on the side of latter: While you fight and beat the boss, the planet is still more or less screwed until Elly steps in, who manages to save the day, ultimately by forgiving the villain, and making him understand the value of her worldview.
So… how can the action of “making someone understand the value of your worldview” be made into an engaging game mechanic?
25 thoughts on “Guest Post: Acting Without Acting”
The trick is making a game where the player gets to make decisions that affect story and gameplay. All of those “passive,” “female” characteristics are about interpersonality and responding to nuance: if you have a problem, you try to find an effective, often negotiated, solution, rather than just hitting a dude with a sword. I think Dragon Age managed a pretty good mix of the action hero and the communicator.
This post reminds me of one of Corvus Elrod’s Blogs of the Roundtable questions, talking about “playing the denouement.” (http://corvus.zakelro.com/round-table/#1009)
The problem, as I see it, is this. Think of the normal actions you can do in a typical game. Run, jump, shoot, punch, etc. Now, how can you make any sort of passive situation work when you have just those limited actions available? There is no “Reach a mutually agreeable compromise with the enemy” button. Obviously you could just have the player mash X to get through a conversation that leads to a cutscene, but then you’re not really “playing” the game anymore.
To Maggie: I actually find myself enjoying games much MORE as a communicator than as an action hero. Historically in every game that attempts to provide communication as a valid method of problem solving, I find myself drawn to that style of play—Arcanum and Dragon Age are two excellent examples. In Dragon Age, I often found myself resenting the action sequences and hoping they would move quickly on to the next conversation. Odd?
Brian: I think that the problem is in the limitation of those actions themselves. Too often when we design games (and I use the word “we” advisedly), we provide players with a toolset that is constrained by the traditional definitions of “action hero” game play. B.J. Blaskowicz from “Doom” has no method of solving problems except with his gun. When presented with that toolset, of COURSE there’s no “reach a mutually agreeable compromise” button—by design.
There ARE games which encourage you to solve problems in a different way—even games that restrict you to resolving problems that way. The Phoenix Wright games (though still fundamentally masculine, and based around aggressive/assertive action on the part of the main character/player) are an example of this.
Sadly, I’ve usually found social interactions in games in which you can skill up in “social” to be a little unsatisfying. I’m not sure I’ve ever found an example of those that wasn’t more or less “you get better at manipulating people to give you what you want even though they wouldn’t want to help you if they understood the situation”. There are occasional cases to the contrary: Talking Cauthrien down from attacking you before the Landsmeet in Dragon Age, among others, but I’d conservatively say that over 70% of the time, it represents your ability to lie and manipulate in order to get your way.
I think that’s an iffy descriptor. If you’re telling the truth, but phrasing the truth in a way that speaks to the experience of the person you’re talking to, is that “manipulative”?
I agree there’s a huge grey area there, but I’m not trying to go after the grey area. I think you’ll find there’s a disappointing number of unquestionably manipulative things: “Yes, I *am* a guard at this station.”, “No, the job that I am doing for you is worth X monies, not Y.”, “You do not want to fight me because I will kill you.” (Okay, that last one might be the truth =P)
And even when you’re not out and out lying to someone, because of the nature of gaming, it’s “I need to get past you (a challenge), so that I can move on.” Conquering/Subduing is an action hero thing, assimilating is not.
Yeah, I understand the conflict. In those cases you’re asserting your will over your opponent, which is still part of the masculine archetype, as opposed to assimilating your opponent’s will into your own.
Really I suppose when someone puts points in “social”, they’re really putting points in “Jedi Mind Trick”. I do appreciate when putting points into things gives you extra conversation options, though.
Along the lines of extra conversation options, one of the things I enjoyed about Dragon Age was that the extra conversation options you could get through skill or statistics were not universally better than the regular conversation options. Ordinarily when I see the option to use my persuade skill in a game I take it without thinking, but there were several times in Dragon Age when my conversation partner clearly felt like he or she was being talked into something, even when I succeeded, and wasn’t necessarily happy about it. I think there needs to be more of that.
I’m sort of bouncing off of Alison’s comments on where this is posted on Willie’s blog (and I hope she re-posts here), but I think I’m still struggling with this need to gender those qualities.
I can’t help but think of de Beauvoir (which, um, you should read if you haven’t already) – “The terms masculine and feminine are used symmetrically only as a matter of form, as on legal papers. In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity.”
I think you make some excellent points about the need for more “interpersonality and responding to nuance” (as Maggie said) in characters, but I’m not sure why that keeps getting gendered feminine. I understand that it is a traditionally (whatever that means) “feminine” quality, but as long as we act on the binary, we won’t move forward. Why not focus instead on the different types of qualities instead of equating wei wu wei with solely the feminine? Women can certainly be more than passive communicators, yes? I think bringing up Forms is probably not the best way to go about it, because it implies that there are set definitions for Male and Female.
Bouncing off that, you said “has always greatly valued physical prowess, self-determination, and the ability to pull yourself up by your bootstraps no matter what, even so much as to be to the detriment of qualities like endurance, intuition, and being conciliatory.” Since when are these qualities exclusively masculine? I refer of course to the first set, but it surprises me that you can casually say that the Western world has so lauded these qualities while implying that yes, they are naturally male characteristics, when in fact, they aren’t.
Again, I think that you’ve spelled out some great steps for characters in the future of games including more well-rounded characters, but let’s step back from acknowleding the characteristics as masculine or feminine and instead focus on having both male and female characters embody all of them. I mean, hey, Chel in Portal had resourcefulness, wit, endurance, physical prowess (ok and jumpy leg things) – and think about how awesome it was that it didn’t even matter that she happened to be female. It didn’t change the gameplay. Of course, it’s fun when that does come into play – Alistair is much more fun to interact with when I’m playing a girl, because he’s a hilarious flirt – but that doesn’t affect how I fight.
Hope this made some kind of sense! :)
I’m a little torn here. I was attempting to distance myself from gendering these characteristics by using the term “wei wu wei”, but I don’t think I did so strongly enough.
And yet, if we want to get down to it, the more I think about it, the more I stand by these characterizations. I’m not saying they’re appropriate, I’m not saying they’re not sexist, and I’m definitely not trying to characterize them as true, but as the historical framework within which these characteristics have been viewed, as well as the implicit assumptions that are constantly affirmed by an endless parade of media outlets.
I guess the debate that springs up from that point is “Is it helpful to continue to describe them this way as a shortcut to getting at said characteristics? Or does it do more harm than good?” I’m still undecided, but it’s a little beside the point of the post, I think.
I’m committing a bit of an informal fallacy here, I realize. I am talking about these characteristics, with the proviso that they have historically been described as feminine and might even continue to be described as feminine in the modern day (*implied: if they have to describe the characteristics as one or the other). As you point out, Emily, the idea of describing something like resourcefulness as “exclusively male”, is kind of ridiculous.
Also, despite my pointing out that it was a danger, and my best efforts to avoid it, I’ve still fallen into the trap of jumping from pure theory to part theory part practice, because some of the evidence I’m implicitly citing to support my opinion that the media treats these characteristics as “male” is that when they are exemplified in the media, 9 times out of 10, they are exemplified by a man, and when they aren’t, (like in the Street Fighter example), the femininity of the character needs to be “accounted for”.
In that same vein, I could have made a bigger deal out of pointing out that while both the lack of presence of women and the lack of these characteristics in the media are both problems, combining the two is at best dangerous, and at worse, sexist and dismissive. If all your men are bare chested, sweaty, and constantly engaged in the activity of punching other guys in the face, and all your women are demure, yielding, and only interested in having heart to heart talks with other women…
You get the point.
“because some of the evidence I’m implicitly citing to support my opinion that the media treats these characteristics as “male” is that when they are exemplified in the media, 9 times out of 10, they are exemplified by a man, and when they aren’t, (like in the Street Fighter example), the femininity of the character needs to be “accounted for””
Taking it actually back a step, if we think about it, the media sees those characteristics as neutral / human, and them “feminine” qualities are seen as the deviation. You’re completely right — but I think it’s important to account for the fact that they’re not just seen as male – there’s something more. If that makes sense! :)
Moving away from the lack of not-an-action-hero heroes in games … where is the line between de-genderizing the action hero and being stupidly exploitative? Let’s take the list Willie suggested: physical prowess, resourcefulness, willingness to use physical force in order to accomplish one’s goals, wit, endurance, and courage and adherence to goals in the face of overwhelming odds. Alyx Vance has all of these, and when people talk about “good” female characters in videogames, Alyx is usually on the list.
But Lara Croft has all of those characteristics too, an d when people talk about “bad” female characters in videogames, Lara is usually on the list. Is it just that Lara isn’t built like a real woman? Bayonetta suffers the same problems – in fact, Bayonetta has the mutant body problem even worse than Lara does, and her sexuality is much more overt – but she doesn’t seem to come in for the same heat that Lara does. Is the problem just that Lara isn’t objectified enough to be ironic?
Bayonetta confuses me. I never originally bothered to give the people who made Bayonetta crap for making a blatantly sexist, absurd female character, because it was making fun of a clown. (“It’s like making fun of a clown. What do you make fun of? His red nose? His floppy shoes? It just doen’t work!” —Penny Arcade) But then as I became more informed, I started to realize that they were actually trying to pitch Bayonetta as a cliche-busting, anti-stereotypical character. This just…confuses me.
Well, put it another way: can there be a female character with physical prowess, resourcefulness, willingness to use physical force in order to accomplish one’s goals, wit, endurance, and courage and adherence to goals in the face of overwhelming odds who is also deliberately presented as sexy? If so, why is the cultural focus always on the sexiness instead of any of the other admirable traits? If not, what does it say about our culture that we consider sexiness to be off-limits to female action heroes?
Bayonetta was clearly crafted to be sexy, though of course whether you actually find her sexy is a matter of taste. She was also clearly crafted with physical prowess, resourcefulness, willingness to use physical force in order to accomplish one’s goals, wit, endurance, and courage and adherence to goals in the face of overwhelming odds. The only non-“kickass” trait she ever displays is maternal instincts, a trait that is typically conceptualized as feminine. The question she raises is this: will we allow all these things to coexist? Or do we insist that any female action hero who is also deliberately presented as sexy is demeaning?
Oooh, good one! That might deserve its own post. :)
I heard an argument that Bayonetta was created to embrace her sexy femininity as a response to most action-hero-y-embracing sexy manliness types. They talk about it better than I can:
“Bayonetta takes the video game sexy woman stereotype from object to subject, and it’s tremendously empowering. The title character uses the mantle of her sexuality as a power source. Between Bayonetta and her equally fierce rival, Jeane, it’s a women’s world — the boys just play in it. The Umbra Witches aren’t to be messed with. With this unique theme, the game itself is an artistic representation of the concept that female sexuality is its own kind of weapon. This stylized love letter to femininity is signed and sealed with all of the game’s tiny details, from the kiss-shaped aiming targets to the subtle grace of Bayonetta’s butterfly-shaped shadow.”
“But what about her unrealistic body, her gratuitous sashaying, the lollipop-licking? The hypersexualization of Bayonetta is intentionally unrealistic — just as unrealistic as the superhuman aplomb of the Devil May Cry boys. Dante, for example, is a pleasure to play because of his unrealism, and Bayonetta is too. Both reject subtlety in favor of unrestrained, sometimes theatrically-excessive style in their own ways.”
Full article here: http://www.gamepro.com/article/features/213466/bayonetta-empowering-or-exploitative/ — go nuts. :)
I think we’ve made a good case that the Bayonetta character isn’t nearly as bad as she appears to be. She’s clearly not designed to be exclusively a sex object, and she clearly isn’t helpless and overmatched. (I haven’t played Bayonetta, but one of the appealing things Dante from Devil May Cry was the same kind of thing as I mentioned in reference to Marcus Fenix: “Ride this missile like a skateboard? Sure! Drive a motorcycle straight up the side of a collapsing building? Let’s do it!” I can only assume Bayonetta features the same kind of ridiculous activities entered into with reckless abandon).
The problem here, I think, isn’t that Bayonetta is supposed to be sexy. I think Natalie was right on the mark at pointing out that not letting competence and sex appeal coexist is prima facie ridiculous. The problem is that Bayonetta’s counterpart, Dante (and to a lesser extent, Virgil, from DMC 4) ISN’T sexy, any more than any other physically fit, capable action hero. This is not to say that John McClane isn’t sexy, but never in such an overt way.
What makes me twitchy is that I see these facts implying that in order for a female action hero to be awesome, she needs a leg up in the form of being overtly sexual to “keep up with the big boys”.
Of course nobody in the preliminary meetings about Bayonetta said this exact phrase, but I would certainly feel better about the whole situation if there were characters of varying levels of overt sexuality of both genders.
To be fair, the artistic project of Devil May Cry was “let’s explore violence,” whereas the artistic project of Bayonetta was “let’s explore sexiness.” From the director’s point of view, I daresay it’s less a case of Bayonetta being made sexy because she was a female action hero, and more a case of Bayonetta being made an action hero because that’s sexy (and also, I’m sure, easy to sell). I mean, if Bayonetta wasn’t an action hero, she wouldn’t be sexy, and that would defeat the point of the project.
By way of contrast, I’ll be interested to see how Gears 3 handles the character of Anya Stroud. Gears 3 is being written by Karen Traviss, the same author who writes the Gears novels, and in the course of those novels, as the COG’s remnants flee Jacinto into ever more desperate survival straits, Anya insists on being given field work in order to contribute more to society. In other words, Anya is a woman who is forced by circumstance and her sense of civic duty to become an action hero (just like Marcus) – and there’s no artistic or logical need for her to be sexy (unless you count the fact that she’s the nascent love interest).
There’s a difficult line to walk here. To a certain extent, a female character HAS to be sexy—but so does a male character. After all, John McLane isn’t ABOUT sexiness the way Bayonetta or Lara Croft is, but he still has to be sexy—if he isn’t sexy at ALL, then people aren’t interested in the character. If John McLane was a goofy, awkward guy with a hairlip, then the movie would have been a flop.
So likewise, Anya Stroud is going to have to be sexy—just like Alyx Vance is sexy, although that’s not necessarily the POINT of her character. The fact is, not all characters have to revolve around their sex appeal—but they DO all have to be appealing. So doesn’t this just put is on a sliding scale?
If I may make a guess, I think the traditional feminist objection to games isn’t against sexiness—it’s against gratuitous sexiness. But that’s a very difficult line to walk, and how do we know when we’ve crossed it?
You know, except in a marketing sense, I’m not sure that there is a line. Consider:
Some characters have a logical need to be sexy. If Inarra Serra isn’t sexy, the character doesn’t work – an accomplished courtesan who isn’t sexy just makes no sense (such a person might exist, but the audience would never buy it – fiction has to make more sense than reality). Another character might need to be sexy because the story calls for a person whom many other characters desire. And so forth.
Then you’ve got characters like Lara Croft. who have no such logical need. There’s nothing about being an athletic British heiress archaeologist-adventurer that logically entails being sexy. I think this is the point at which we approach the traditional feminist objection.
The thing is, Bayonetta also has no logical need to be sexy. There’s nothing about being a witch who’s made numerous pacts with demons and kills angels in order to prevent her demonic creditors from dragging her down to hell that logically entails being sexy. But Kamiya didn’t want to make a game about a witch – he wanted to make a game about a sexy witch. Surely that’s okay.
The thing is, on some level, the makers of Lara Croft didn’t want to make a game about an athletic British heiress archaeologist-adventurer either. They wanted to make a game about a sexy athletic British heiress archaeologist-adventurer. Now, maybe they weren’t as artistic about it as Kamiya was (I certainly don’t think they were, although I have no problem in general with Countess Croft and to be fair, the medium was considerably more limited at the time).
I certainly have no problem with people preferring Bayonetta to Croft as a matter of taste. But I do start to get queasy when we imagine that there’s some National Endowment for the Arts in the sky judging this character who’s sexy for purely artistic reasons as okay, because she’s artistic enough to make the cut, while that character who’s sexy for purely artistic reasons is not okay, because she’s not artistic enough. I mean, surely people are allowed to make bad art. We may long for better art, but I don’t think we should simultaneously try to outlaw or ostracize the bad art.
Also, as it seems eminently relevant, in his book Art and Animation, Paul Wells says the following about Hayao Miyazaki’s work:
‘Miyazaki establishes authorial tendencies by refuting the tenets of
films constructed on masculine terms… (His) complex heroines are
consistently engaged in the pursuit of self-knowledge and a distinctive
identity. His use of the feminine discourse subverts patriarchal agendas
both in film making and story-telling.
‘As Miyazaki suggests, ‘We’ve reached a time when the male-oriented way
of thinking is reaching a limit. The girl or woman has more flexibility.
This is why a female point of view fits the current times.’
I think that the greatest example of the perfect female protagonist is Jade from “Beyond Good and Evil.” She is the ideal balance of traditional male/female character elements, and honestly I think highly overlooked when it comes to discussions such as these.
That’s a game I really need to get ahold of. I feel incomplete for not having played it.
There’s a lot to be said for believability. The female characters in Dragon Age are sexy, meaning they generally possess the ideal physical form. The thing is, they also don’t look like a Boris Vallejo piece. They wear realistic armor, and have realistic characterisations, so that when they do get totally nekkid it can be sexy without being gratuitous.
Of course, believability is relative. I haven’t played Bayonetta, but I get the impression that a Dragon Age character would be monstrously out of place–dare I say dowdy–there. The main character is believable within the context of her world. The difference is, Lara Croft kind of isn’t. There’s nothing about being an athletic British heiress archaeologist that requires or precludes being sexy, but Lara’s even over the top for her own universe.
Would it be fair, then, to say that by “believability” you mean “internal consistency?”