Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

8 August, 2010

Games as a mirror
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 1:56 AM
(This post has been viewed 6432 times.)

Games hard to really understand purely in terms of media that has come before. Games aren't like a TV show or a movie except that you push a few buttons (at least the good ones aren't). The role of the player is important to the process of enjoying a game since interactivity allows them some control. The exact role the player takes in creating the story is one that creates endless debate, but I think all sides agree that interactivity is a key element to games.

One of the most interesting things about this, however, is that it means players do tend to invest something of themselves into a game. In MMOs, this means that many people get heavily and personally invested into a game. What is really interesting is that this tends to hold a mirror up to the person looking at the game, whether they realize it or not. One's actions and perceptions in the game tend to reflect as much if not more about the person as they do about the game or even the game's creators.

Let's take a closer look at this, shall we?

Now, let me give the caveat here that I'm not a real psychologist. I'm basing this on my own observations and readings. With luck, maybe a real psychologist will chime in.

Games as tools of the fascists

One of my local (print) newspapers carried a slightly abridged copy of an article entitled Virtually Conservative that got me thinking about this topic again. The summary of the article is that games are inherently "conservative" in nature in that they encourage domination and order, allowing the player to accumulate stuff and eliminate obstacles often by violent means. The breakout text on the page says, "Video gaming is about control. Your participation is restricted to steering and maintaining the narrative flow, altering the course of the story, eliminating hindrances (monsters, or human antagonists) and generally being the only significant individual anywhere in the game." The author claims that progressive, egalitarian themes are missing from games.

As hard as it is to take an article that mentions DOOM (without a sequel number) seriously, it's interesting to really think about the deeper meaning here. Game developers, overall, tend to be more left-leaning in their politics as you would expect in an industry that predominantly has younger employees, with some libertarian types (as you find in many technological industries). Very few, if any, developers working directly on a game tend to be authoritarian or traditionally conservative. So, how do these messages get slipped in?

And if you gaze for long into an abyss...

A clue can be found on the site's about page.:

In These Times is a nonprofit and independent newsmagazine committed to political and economic democracy and opposed to the dominance of transnational corporations and the tyranny of marketplace values over human values.

Suddenly, this position makes sense. If your mission is to fight an enemy, sometimes you start seeing enemies everywhere. If you want to fight against the dominance of transnational corporations, then it becomes easier to see them and their philosophies lurking in the shadows. A game that restricts control and limits the player could be seen as supporting such an agenda.

But, let's have some fun and take a look at how games actually support socialism!

  1. In many games, the player(s) is(are) the only one(s) capable of performing the task required. In DOOM, your character was the only one tough enough not to get slaughtered by the demonic forces and it falls to you to clean them up. In RPGs, one everyone relies on you as the most capable to go defeat the big bad. "From each according to ability..."
  2. You usually acquire resources at about the rate you require them. In a FPS game, health packs are ideally placed in a level at about the location where you will need it. Before a big fight, you'll often find a big supply of ammo. In MMOs, they are designed so that you will earn about as much money to pay for a big expense like training skills, etc, when you need it. "...to each according to need."
  3. Most of your basic necessities are taken care of for your character. There is often no intrinsic need to eat or take shelter in games. Buying a house in MMOs, for example, tends to be a luxury item, but priced in such a way that nearly everyone can afford one.
  4. Acquiring excessive wealth tends to be relatively meaningless. In most RPGs, eventually money becomes useless and while shops still charge you, most other NPCs seem unconcerned about acquiring more wealth. In fact, if you need money in an MMO there are usually subsidized tasks (daily quests) that you can perform for a set amount of cash. There is no formal system of interest and there are increasingly few regular expenses that correspond to rent or free market wages.
  5. Many MMOs have economies that are monitored and controlled by the developers. The developers set the prices NPCs will buy and sell at, and they adjust the economy to ensure that everyone has a fair chance. This central control is similar in structure to the planned economies that form the basis of many socialist concepts.

So... are games the tools of the transnational corporations looking to oppress the workers, or are they the tools of socialists looking to undermine free market capitalism and declare a communist utopia?

Who's in charge here?

The answer, of course, is "neither". The offline world isn't simply black and white. Even the U.S. isn't a purely free-market capitalist economy despite the general preference for this economic model. Games are no different. You'll be able to find elements of almost any philosophy you want if you look hard enough, even without making much of a stretch. Does a game with avatars and no permanent death (reincarnation) advocate Hinduism? Again, probably not, although one could see how a Hindu could use this as a way to explain elements of the religion.

It seems that what a person sees in a game might reflect more about the person than the game. It serves as a Rorschach test, giving a glimpse of the person who is observing and describing the game. As above, someone who writes for a website dedicated to fighting the encroaching power of transnational corporations might choose to focus on the elements of games that could be seen as relating to that focus. Or, an economist might see a lot of economic elements in a game that are worthy for study.

Of course, this doesn't mean that there might not be elements in a game. Obviously Castronova's work dealing with economies of MMOs is measuring something that actually happens in our games. Game creators also do have their own agendas, and they might use the medium of games to encourage people to support their worldview, just as an author might write an essay to persuade the reader. But, I think it's important to take a look at the person identifying some element.

Beating a dead hooker...

One of the more colorful examples of this bias was the coverage about hooker NPCs in Grand Theft Auto 3. People were aghast that players could not only engage in simulated sex with a hooker to regain health, but then the player could then kill the hooker to get his money back. What kind of moral depravity do these games encourage?

However, as Raph Koster has pointed out, gamers generally focus on the abstract layer instead of the concrete layer when in a game. "Paying for sex to heal up" was more exchanging one resource for another, similar to buying a healing spells in a fantasy RPG, but with more complex graphics. The concrete representation did have meaning, but it was a game action with gameplay consequences that made it meaningful within the context of the game. The fact that it also dealt with a taboo subject likely made it a bit more exciting to some players as they were definitely doing something "naughty".

However, it's interesting that people fixated on this aspect so much because it was one fairly minor part of the game. In a game full of shooting and vehicular mayhem, it was notable that prostitution was the aspect that made people most vocally upset. The game does not require the player to engage in prostitution to heal; in San Andreas there was a detailed eating system where players could eat to heal, but eating too much or too little would affect the character's physical attributes. (See? Eating too much fast food IS bad for you, even in video game land.) The game also did not require the player to shoot a hooker to get back money, that was a choice made by the player.

So, why did people fixate on that one particular aspect? Primarily because it was an easy way to demonize video games as a whole by selecting an extreme example. But, this argument often ignores the fact that engaging in prostitution and then killing the hooker requires player choice. Simply because the option exists doesn't mean that the game is encouraging this behavior, especially since the game does not require it to progress. This is also sexual in nature, and we know how Americans feel about sex. But, I think there's also an element of discomfort with people looking at their own attitudes here. Just as those who prefer to legislate morality often fall prey to that form of "moral turpitude", people pointing out sexual content often have ulterior motives. (Note to Republicans: yes, the Democrats are just as hypocritical, but it's usually not quite so obviously related to morality as in this glaring case.)

Virtual Hatred

Before I get into this next part, I just want to take a moment to say that hatred is a very real thing. Human nature, unfortunately, encourages us to shun that which is different from ourselves. Racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and other forms of hate are alive and well in our world, and games are no exception, especially when it comes to the sorts of things that random people will say in public chat channels in MMOs. My point here isn't to say that these things do not exist in games, they certainly can, but pointing out examples you've noticed isn't the same as proving that there is systematic behavior on the part of the developer.

A post caught my attention recently, and reminded me of another post I read. The first post was by a WoW blogger discussing examples of sexism in WoW, specifically misogyny. To be honest, some of the examples are pretty damning, such as how some of the female characters have been given diminished roles potentially contradicting the lore that has already been established. Some of the examples, however, seem to be a stretch; after complaining about how some female NPCs wear (the same) skimpy outfits, the author of the article tries to dismiss examples of male partial nudity by explaining, "...there isn’t the same sexualisation of those [male] characters going on." (Does anyone sane really look at Sylvanas and think, "I'd like to get into those skimpy pants!")

In that post, one particular quote stuck out: "[There are] groups of NPCs with no female model at all – ogres, kobolds, furbolgs, Gronn." An interesting observation, although I'm not sure how one sexes (definition six, perverts) a Gronn to determine that they're all male. But, this reminded me of a quote from another article about sexism,

If anything the developers at Blizzard have bent over backward to give females in Azeroth positive images and in many cases have minimized negative ones. Here are some examples: [...]What about the ogres? Again no female ogres. I guess male ogres just hatch by themselves.

Interesting that two different people can see the same thing (no female models for some races) and come to different conclusions: a woman sees this as one example of a bias against women because they aren't included, while a man sees it as an example of men being demonized and the only proper sex for villains. Which perspective is right? I don't think there's a clear cut answer, and both posts make good arguments. Again, we see that the observer brings her or his own perspective into an observation of what message a game is trying to portray. The "Rorschach test" of seeing no female models in a game and the posts people make tell us more about the individuals than it likely does about what the game creators intended.

The monsters making the monsters

A wise man once mangled a famous quote and said, "Game design is the art of the possible." Game design is a immense and complex thing, where the designer not only has to attract and keep a player engaged, but also do things like tell a coherent story and possibly even create a whole world to explore, while maintaining this mysterious state called "fun" for the participants. It's a huge task, and some designers certainly do take intellectual shortcuts to make the process easier.

What about in the specific case of no female models for some of the monstrous creatures in WoW? Ultimately, it was probably more of an issue of allocating limited resources than any honest bias. In the case of ogres, I'm sure that having fat, ugly female ogre models would likely result in some more unsavory comments by the less mature elements of the WoW community. Given the alien physical nature of the kobold models, it's hard to see how they could be made more feminine without falling back on silly and potentially insulting stereotypes like making them wear dresses, giving them monstrous (heh) breasts, or adding a hair bow. Ultimately, the time it would take to make a good effort to make a proper female model was probably not available to the developers, so the variation wasn't included for fear of not wanting to do something sloppy and potentially even more insulting than simply not having the models.

Again, this isn't to say that some subtle sexism (misogyny or misandry) can't possibly exist in games, rather that people pointing out such flaws need to understand how their own biases influence their observations, especially in an interactive medium like games.

Moving forward

Even if the developers aren't guilty of sexism, let's look at what can be done to improve the world. Addressing hatred requires, like most design problems, that we not just point out the problem but also the solution. Looking at Pewter's post on The 'mental Shaman, I'd really suggest concrete ways to address issues of misogyny that may appear in WoW. I think it's also important to understand the consequences. Would adding female ogre models really help the cause of sexism? Or, would it encourage more crude behavior from some players? Sadly, I suspect that it would cause more problems than it addresses in this case. But, having a list of proposals would go a long way to really addressing the issue rather than just stirring up a hornet's nest.

I think it's also important to address the idea rather than attacking individuals. For example, I admit I'm a white, almost middle-aged male. Using that to attack me for "not understanding" doesn't address the issue, it distracts from it. I shouldn't have to trot out my marginalized person credentials in order to address the issue.

I'll also make this friendly warning, as owner of this blog: hateful comments will not be tolerated. I don't expect this to be a problem for most of you, but please be thoughtful as you respond lest I have to become a harsh authoritarian, as all game designers secretly are. ;)

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37 Comments »

  1. Does anyone sane really look at Sylvanas and think, "I'd like to get into those skimpy pants!"

    Yes! Oh, wait, what?

    Pre-teen humour aside...

    after complaining about how some female NPCs wear (the same) skimpy outfits, the author of the article tries to dismiss examples of male partial nudity by explaining, "...there isn’t the same sexualisation of those [male] characters going on."

    Wouldn't the sexualisation of those characters be primarily a function of your taste in man-flesh? I mean, my wife loves me walking around topless, but when I see other topless dudes, sex isn't something that comes to my mind.

    Having said that, the sexualisation in the female examples he gives isn't purely a question of partial nudity, but very much a question of pose. The tilted hip thing that the ladies in question sport a) can work it's charms with or without exposed skin, and b) isn't really something most people would do that have their mind focused on stuff like epic battles. It's not the most practical pose for standing around all day long, handing out quests to heroic adventurer after heroic adventurer. Keep your spine straight, balance your weight equally on both legs, etc. Walk around for god's sake, and sit down at other times.

    So I can see that female NPCs in WoW are probably more sexualized than their male counterparts. Maybe. But maybe beardy topless dudes that stand tall and glare purposefully appeal to some like bikinis with thigh-high boots on female characters appeal to others.

    Would adding female ogre models really help the cause of sexism? Or, would it encourage more crude behavior from some players? Sadly, I suspect that it would cause more problems than it addresses in this case.

    It depends.

    It mostly depends on whether you're aiming to please second-wave or third-wave feminists. Saying that, third-wave feminists might not find scantily clad women in positions of power quite as offensive as second-wave feminists.

    That might've sounded a bit glib, but there's a point: I think when it comes to sexualization of game characters, you've pretty much left the realm of games altogether, and touched on talking about our culture as a whole. And when you do that, you'll find so many different points of view on whether or not, and to what extent, it is good for a public figure (which an in-game NPC is, in a sense) to express their sexuality, that it's pretty much impossible for you to do the right thing. I mean, Lara Croft is considered to be both a feminist idol and an example of sexism in games, depending on who you ask.

    It's easy to do the wrong thing, of course, that is to, on average, treat one gender very differently from the other.

    Speaking of the lack of ogresses... has anyone seen a male Harpy in WoW?

    Comment by unwesen — 8 August, 2010 @ 4:33 AM

  2. I don't think it's a contradiction to say that the new Garrosh model is not sexualised in the same way that the Alexstrazsa model is, for example, and it certainly hasn't inspired the same amount of 'fan service art' that Alex has (and yes, Sylvanas has a lot of fan art). The sexualisation of the male form is maybe something we can disagree with (I don't find the new unique models of Garrosh and Malfurion to be designed to be sexy, they just happen to not have tops on, while Kalecgos and a couple of other unique male models did have their tops off and there was a bigger element of attractiveness - they still aren't simply clones of another sexy model.)

    As I said in my article - MOST of the articles can be excused or explained away (such as saying 'limited resources') but that doesn't excuse such things in the long run, imho. It's very easy to say that it's 'okay' when your gender (or sexuality or race) is the default one, and you are well represented across the entire videogame medium. I don't think Blizzard is intending to do any of this stuff, it's just a natural path for them when they have to solve story or design issues - it no more is intended to demonise men than it is intended to erase women - the males simplywill take precedent. And this is certainly not to say that they don't do a lot of things right, or that women should never touch the game - I love it, and I am passionate about it (or I wouldn't write about it.) So I certainly do not think there is some big conspiracy and that all male developers, designers and writers are out there trying to be misogynist.

    I don't think answer to 'bad male behaviour' as a result of female models (such as Furlbolgs and Ogres) is not to erase women from the game, or accept that it's okay to leave out people of colour, or women of colour simply because of design limitations and writer's habits. That said I also don't want to see us in the story or the game merely to fill a quote - tokenisation is just as othering as being plopped in the maiden/lover, mother, hag/crone box. It's an easy path, in the long term, to cater to the white male fantasy that doesn't include extremely fat, non-typical bodies as anything other than a villain (such as Princess from Maraudon.)

    This is a very interesting post and I think your conclusion raises an interesting point about the way to move forward.

    Comment by Pewter — 8 August, 2010 @ 4:34 AM

  3. @unswesen argh you commented when I was typing my response up. I am female btw

    - Well the bikini look (and the stance, and the pouty lips) are definitely designed for the male gaze, I really don't think most of the male models are designed for the female gaze (although so much the better if we find them attractive.) They're designed to look fierce/noble/wise etc.

    I haven't identified myself with any wave yet, but with regards to sexualised video game characters a) they are generally designed by men and for men and b) the non-sexualised ones grow in number, but are definitely outnumbered. If I as a player choose to dress female Shepard (or any other character) in skimpy clothing, that is me as a woman defining and controlling the way I look. I think there is a distinction between that, and graphics designed by men and for the male gaze. Lara Croft IS both a feminist icon for being a female lead AND an example of by men/for men.

    Comment by Pewter — 8 August, 2010 @ 4:42 AM

  4. Sexism & WoW: Responses and Relevant Reading

    [...] people to support their worldview, just as an author might write an essay to persuade the reader. - Games as a Mirror [...]

    Pingback by The 'mental Shaman — 8 August, 2010 @ 4:50 AM

  5. When it comes to doing female models for some of the stranger races, part of WoW's problem, aesthetically, is that it's so ... steroidal. The male figures are all muscle-bound (for the most part), even the overweight but still obviously very strong ogres -- more Boris Vallejo than Alan Lee. The female figures are at the other end of that scale, curvaceous beyond Mae West; call it "boob-bound".

    While it's easy enough to do this extreme male/female divide for the more obviously humanoid races, it's going to be difficult for some of the others. When everything that walks and talks is so extremely categorized, artistically (VERY male or VERY female -- except possibly the gnomes & goblins and even then), you can't very well suddenly become more gender-neutral (or rather gender-normal) in your depiction without jarring people's expectations & sense of aesthetics.

    That said... I can quite happily see female kobolds as nasty grannies, since to me the males always looked like nasty old men. Frumpy dress, slightly frilly (if dirty), same backpack, same clumpy boots, lose the whiskers (or not) - ta-da.

    Article good. Granny Kobold like. You no take candle!

    Comment by Ysharros — 8 August, 2010 @ 6:39 AM

  6. unwesen wrote:
    Pre-teen humour aside...

    I said *sane* people. I think we can agree that pre-teens aren't sane.

    Wouldn't the sexualisation of those characters be primarily a function of your taste in man-flesh?

    This is exactly my point. Just because Pewter doesn't see the shirtless male figures as sexualized doesn't mean everyone shares her point of view, or that they weren't intended to be sexualized. Perhaps they were intended titillate a homosexual male viewer more than a heterosexual female one?

    The tilted hip thing that the ladies in question sport [...] isn't really something most people would do that have their mind focused on stuff like epic battles.

    The ladies in question aren't "most people". They are leaders in an epic fantasy story, making them, by default, superhuman. I mean, Alexstrazsa is a dragon in humanoid form, the leader of the red dragonflight. Not your average, everyday woman. Would a morphed red dragon really stand around like that? I don't know, I've never met any in person.

    Pewter wrote:
    (and yes, Sylvanas has a lot of fan art).

    That is the activity of the fans, not the developers. I'm sure you're aware of the now infamous Rule 34 which says there is porn made of everything. Just because someone takes a character and creates fan-art doesn't mean that this was the creator's intention.

    The sexualisation of the male form is maybe something we can disagree with

    I think the important thing here is that we understand that sexualization depends largely on the viewer. The first time I saw Alexstrazsa in her skimpy outfit in the Dragonblight zone, my first thought wasn't to take some "private time" in the bathroom. I viewed her as being powerful. She has a subservient male standing right next to her; she's the one giving quests and directing missions, not the guy. I viewed her skimpy outfit as her emphasizing her power and her alien nature to others. She didn't need heavy armor to protect her; she was the leader of the red dragonflight! She could transform any pitiful mortal she chose. The only reason she was even in humanoid form was so that the lesser beings didn't soil themselves in her mighty presence, and if she absolutely had to wear clothes then she'd stand out from the crowd.

    I'm aware of the fact that this is my own reaction, not necessarily a typical reaction. Could someone see Alexstrazsa as a sexual object? I can believe that. Is that the majority reaction? That's harder to say. It's also tough to say what the original design motivation was unless we were there. Perhaps the character designer did intend Alexstrazsa to be teen fantasy stroke material, or maybe the designer was thinking the same way I was. Trying to ascribe intention is fraught with peril here.

    It's very easy to say that it's 'okay' when your gender (or sexuality or race) is the default one, and you are well represented across the entire videogame medium.

    The problem is that nobody is really represented here. My body type is certainly not positively represented in the game. My socioeconomic class is not well-represented or shown in a very positive light. My personal religious beliefs aren't represented at all. (And, yes, I understand that many of these are choices, unlike one's race, sex, or sexual orientation. However, I know my religious beliefs define me more than my sex.)

    This is a very interesting post and I think your conclusion raises an interesting point about the way to move forward.

    Thank you, and thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. I value discussion on my blog, and I'm glad you found my post insightful enough to consider. As I said, hate exists, and I think it is the responsible thing to discuss the issue so that we can deal with it. But, we also have to accept that we all have our own personal biases.

    Ysharros wrote:
    I can quite happily see female kobolds as nasty grannies....

    Your imagination frightens me. ;)

    Personally, I never assumed that all kobolds were female. As I joked, I assumed that my character couldn't tell the difference between the sexes for some of the races. Some species just exhibit less sexual dimorphism than others.

    Insightful commentary so far. Thanks, all!

    Comment by Psychochild — 8 August, 2010 @ 11:37 AM

  7. A few more things to consider.

    Toldain has an insightful blog post about the topic. One quote that is pertinent here: "Once a work of art [...] is given to the public, the creator loses some ownership."

    Talking with my significant other, she reminded me of some other articles I had talked about before. This is an interesting article, "'Mirror's Edge' Producer Found Sexed-Up Fan Version Of Heroine 'Depressing'" As I said in my previous comment, the actions of the players are sometimes out of the hands of the developers, and they can sexualize something that the developer never intended to, as in the case of Mirror's Edge in the article.

    Some more ideas to discuss.

    Comment by Psychochild — 8 August, 2010 @ 5:56 PM

  8. A tangential thought: It's been my experience to note that either the political left OR the political right can turn to totalitarianism. They can both be tyrannical and abusive, hypocritical and hyperparanoid. I always find it interesting to see one blaming the other for what they themselves do when they have power. Sure, they have different ideas, but neither is afraid to force the little people to play along when they can, and that's the real problem with political power... at least, in my mind. I no more want to force people to do my whim than be forced to do theirs. (Well, real people anyway. I'll happily order around digital critters.)

    A lot of it comes back to power; who has it and how they exercise it. What better place to explore that than in games, naturally a medium of shared power between devs and players, and how that affects the conversation?

    That tangent aside, great article Brian! I'd posit that pretty much *any* entertainment is a mirror of a sort, but games having that unique interactivity are in a very good position to polish that mirror.

    Unfortunately, it's a rare person who looks in that mirror and sees themself rather than an enemy to villianize in reflexive self-justification. The honesty that it takes to indulge in true self-analysis just doesn't seem to come easily to humans.

    Though... like all good fiction, sometimes dressing things up a bit might just bypass some of that reflex. If the game becomes obviously about our actions, it might just be less about villainizing the other... unless we want it to be.

    Comment by Tesh — 8 August, 2010 @ 6:02 PM

  9. There's a lot of times though when it's obvious we are supposed to enjoy it: Bayonetta is a good example, where the whole point is to finish with over-the-top torture scenes with a side order of sexual fetishism. It's not holding a mirror exactly, it's like one of those mirrors which have things painted on them that distort the image reflected.

    Of course, it needs to be said that only the most popular games awaken this mass moral indignation. Everyone focuses on GTA and the ability to kill hookers, and give Rockstar grief, but I have yet to see anyone ever give Tecmo grief for their Deception series. You tube link of the PS2 "Trapt" version here at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZ06ItQuRBo

    Keep in mind the person the player fighting is good: the player is a cursed girl who is thought to be a fiend in a trap-ridden mansion, and the magic-user is an adventurer coming to slay her. It gets more intense: if I remember right eventually you fight the grown children of people you kill earlier.

    This one got some heat, but also slipped under the mainstream radar. Each character in Persona 3 can summon their mystical alter-egos in an...unusual way: by whipping out a gun-like evoker and shooting themselves in the head. No blood, but cutscene of it is here at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rs_JAeRM5ho

    Every single time you use an ability apart from two non-human characters, you do this in battle.

    So I think also developers need to shoulder some of the blame. Was there honestly a reason to let you shoot prostitutes? Did it really advance the story? The director of Persona 3 at least tried to explain it: the evokers reflect the need to be willing to risk death, but when you add gratuitious content, is it only the overreaction of the public?

    Comment by Dblade — 8 August, 2010 @ 6:46 PM

  10. Creator responsibilities

    [...] Psychochild wrote a perceptive post here about games as a mirror to ourselves. He is right, but I also took some exception to it, because [...]

    Pingback by MMO misanthrope — 8 August, 2010 @ 7:56 PM

  11. @pewter:

    argh you commented when I was typing my response up. I am female btw

    Yeah... I realized after a while of browsing your website there. Sorry about that!

    Well the bikini look (and the stance, and the pouty lips) are definitely designed for the male gaze, I really don't think most of the male models are designed for the female gaze (although so much the better if we find them attractive.) They're designed to look fierce/noble/wise etc.

    I can see that the female models in WoW are designed for the male gaze, but I can't see whether or not the male models are designed for the female gaze. In terms of the amount of skin shown, however, I don't think there's that much of a difference... so I'm thinking the bikini look is really the least of the factors involved in that, yet it's probably the first thing people think of when they gauge these models in terms of how sexualized they are.

    I haven't identified myself with any wave yet

    I'm not sure anyone should, personally, but that's nothing to do with feminism, just with things ending in -ism in general. And I'm saying that knowing full well that I deliberately form an association between myself and some -isms, but going there would lead the discussion very much astray :)

    but with regards to sexualised video game characters a) they are generally designed by men and for men and b) the non-sexualised ones grow in number, but are definitely outnumbered.

    I'm sad to say that I have to agree with those observations.

    Lara Croft IS both a feminist icon for being a female lead AND an example of by men/for men.

    Well, you get other female leads that aren't quite so... pronounced. Yet when it comes to feminist icons, I don't see them mentioned in the same way. Jill Valentine from Resident Evil/Biohazard is rather less strongly designed for men, came out around the same time, and to many gamers out there, Jill Valentine is synonymous with the whole Resident Evil series, whether she appears in a game or not.

    As a male, that confuses me (not really all that much, but let's pretend for the sake of argument). Why is it that the female form that has obviously panders to my presumed tastes also the perceived stronger female lead character?

    All I'm trying to say, really, is that the role of female characters in video games isn't really helped by giving them more clothes, or making them appear more or less asexual.

    That something should change I agree with, but as yet I haven't figured out what it is, exactly, beyond the attitudes of the population in general.

    Comment by unwesen — 9 August, 2010 @ 6:20 AM

  12. I can't agree with the assessment of the hooker killing in GTA. Sure, it's a choice made by the player, but it's an example of the game essentially rewarding illegal (and arguably immoral) acts. If a game provides a tool or mechanic which closely mirrors the real world then arguably it's making a statement about how that mechanic 'should' be used. Operant conditioning means that people tend to repeat the behaviour that rewards them and vice versa. At the very least this sort of gameplay is desensitizing people when you allow the unacceptable uses without significant penalty. Even Doom has a more solid ethical grounding - you're saving humanity from the demons, right?

    Similarly, saying that players "focus on the abstract layer" is not a sufficient excuse. Would it be acceptable if this were a game about the Deep South and people were abusing their slaves? They're just resources, after all! Or are they? I'd say that part of being a responsible human is learning to treat other people not just as resources but as common members of your society with their own needs and aspirations. I'd hope that games would work towards that goal rather than against it. The last thing we want is to train a generation of people who just see other humans in a cold utilitarian light.

    I have nothing against viewing games in a mathematical light, and am quite happy to enjoy games with no real narrative or characterisation at all, or those that don't attempt to simulate anything. But as soon as you add those elements in, you're introducing metaphors for the real world, and at that point I think you have to take some authorial responsibility for the way that metaphor is interpreted by the player. (Ridiculous yet interesting example: picture Pacman as a burglar, the maze as someone's house, the ghosts as residents of the house, and power-pills as guns or knifes left around the property. Does this game become less acceptable the more realistically it is rendered? I think so.)

    Games are educational, and people learn useful skills from games to carry forward to the real world. We're kidding ourselves if we want to pretend that they only carry forward the positive skills and magically forget the negative ones.

    Comment by Ben Sizer — 9 August, 2010 @ 9:56 AM

  13. Its at this point that I would like to point out this on Gamasutra by Arinn Dembo. Its a good perspective on the bias by male game developers.

    Comment by Haversack — 9 August, 2010 @ 11:17 AM

  14. Ben Sizer, the thing is, players *do* treat these things in the abstract. That doesn't make it right for devs to aim for the gutter or refuse to think through the moral implications, but the gamers don't tend to think much either.

    There's blame on both sides, but when each can point to the other and say that it's OK, there's little impetus to look in the mirror and change.

    ...and yes, for the record, I detest the GTA games, precisely for the moral implications. They might be great free-spirited sandboxes, but as far as I'm concerned, they are trash.

    Comment by Tesh — 9 August, 2010 @ 11:35 AM

  15. Would it be acceptable if this were a game about the Deep South and people were abusing their slaves?

    Ethics aside, it would be historically accurate if that was an option. Say, abusing your slaves got you better short-term results but worse long-term results, or something along those lines. And this opens up a whole new argument about how historically accurate a game should be...

    This sort of thing does happen in games, it's just usually more abstracted. In many strategy games there's a mechanic for providing food/shelter to keep your (forced?) workers happy and their output high. While they don't usually provide an option for actively abusing them, neglecting to care for them is a form of passive abuse. So yes, games that are accurate to that level exist, and I can't recall that the ethics of that are usually questioned all that much... probably because the workers are Orc peons, etc. rather than "people". And that would be racist towards fantasy races.

    Comment by unwesen — 9 August, 2010 @ 2:14 PM

  16. Ben Sizer wrote:
    I can't agree with the assessment of the hooker killing in GTA. Sure, it's a choice made by the player, but it's an example of the game essentially rewarding illegal (and arguably immoral) acts.

    You do realize the game's name is Grand Theft Auto, which is a law enforcement term for stealing cars, right? Or that you can shoot just about anyone in the game, including police officers. There are a lot of potentially objectionable things in the game, but the media did focus a lot on the sexual aspects, and I heard a lot more about the ability to kill a hooker and get your money back than I did about killing cops, for example.

    Now, if you want to talk about some aspect of GTA that the game requires you to perform to advance the story, we can certainly get into a more insightful discussion. At no point does the game require you to have sex and/or kill a random hooker to advance the storyline, as far as I know. But, the game does require a lot of other specific forms of violence and illegal/immoral behavior.

    Similarly, saying that players "focus on the abstract layer" is not a sufficient excuse.

    Question: what's the difference between a kid shooting people in GTA and "shooting" trees in the back yard with a stick that he or she is pretending is a gun? Answer: mostly graphical veracity and social acceptance. The kid is performing similar actions, and one could argue that the physical activity of fighting trees in the back yard could be more harmful since it develops muscle memory in addition to other activities. Yet, one is a cause for moral panic and the other is usually dismissed as "boys being boys", assuming the child is male.

    Many games involve graphical depictions of slaughter and killing, but most of us accept that on some level pushing a button "kill" an on-screen character is a very different act than pulling a trigger on a gun and ending a life in the offline world.

    Would it be acceptable if this were a game about the Deep South and people were abusing their slaves?

    Would you prefer a game set in the United States in the 1850s not include any indications of slavery? Careful here, lest you tread into the areas of censorship and the even more grave sin of forgetting history. Slavery, while ugly, is still an important part of U.S. history that we need to understand. Note that understanding something and celebrating it are two different things.

    I think you're forgetting that "presentation does not equal promotion". Being able to abuse slaves in a game does not mean the developer promotes this idea. Again, I think it's more of an indication of the player's point of view rather than the developer's. It might also be part of an insightful game to make people realize how easily they can fall into the same mindset that informed our predecessors and how we should work to avoid that.

    I'd say that part of being a responsible human is learning to treat other people not just as resources but as common members of your society with their own needs and aspirations.

    I agree completely in normal life, but there are cases when this is a detriment such as in war. Ever wonder why so many games are set in the context of a war? Because in a war we accept that some pretty inhuman things have to happen. Killing, treating living human beings as expendable, asking people to give their lives for a greater cause.

    Perhaps the best example of this is seen in an RTS, such as Starcraft. One reason I preferred the single-player campaign was because I could play a little meta-game to see how few of my own troops I would lose. Does that mean that someone who throws units into combat as part of their strategy is an inhuman monster? We don't see successful generals that use planned casualties as monsters, and an RTS game doesn't even involve the loss of life.

    Games are educational, and people learn useful skills from games to carry forward to the real world. We're kidding ourselves if we want to pretend that they only carry forward the positive skills and magically forget the negative ones.

    But, do the players learn both positive and negative lessons equally? Playing an RTS can teach you about resource management in a dynamic environment, I think we can agree on that. But, does it also teach that killing is an acceptable path to conflict resolution? I'm not so sure, but my argument would likely rest on the hypothesis that gamers focus on the abstract nature of the games, something you don't agree with.

    Haversack wrote:
    Its at this point that I would like to point out this [article] on Gamasutra by Arinn Dembo.

    This brings up a whole other angle to the discussion, about the limitations of developers. As pointed out, the males were uncomfortable with the thought of hurting women. Some might still argue this is a sexist attitude, of course.

    The flip side here is that having female corpses and zombies might also set the player at ill ease. Given that for violent shooter-type games the majority of the audience is still male, is it worth potentially alienating them to have female corpses? Will having female corpses make women like a violent apocalyptic game more? No easy answers, and I suspect there's a "chicken and egg" issue to unravel, too.

    Comment by Psychochild — 9 August, 2010 @ 3:01 PM

  17. Tesh, I know players (or a large subset of players) do exactly what you describe. But I still think that doesn't remove our responsibility towards them; in fact, it makes me worry that we teach them to be that way in the first place. When there's blame on both sides, I would say the onus for change lies on the side that has the position of power, and I think we're shaping the behaviour of a player in more significant ways than they shape the behaviour of a developer. I worry that some of these people who we encourage to indicriminately blow away foes on an FPS go on to be soldiers in Afghanistan piloting Predator drones with XBox controllers. I'd rather not be the developer that made a soldier just trigger-happy enough to kill people who might be civilians when someone else without their game 'training' might have hesitated long enough to hold back.

    Unwesen, historical accuracy is great. I think an example such as the one I brought up is perfectly fine as long as you've not got mechanics that make unethical treatment a beneficial game mechanic and excused this by saying it's just an abstraction. The real world has too many instances where people were 'abstracted' into something meaningless to be used and abused. But, if you were to make the game in such a way as to convey the abhorrent aspects in a wider context, it becomes a useful educational tool. I don't think any subject is or should be taboo for games, if we want them to be taken seriously. But if we tackle the serious subjects - and I think prostitution and gun crime are included in this - we have to treat them with the respect they deserve.

    Regarding the 'orc racism', I think that's a valid example that supports my point. If the peons are portrayed in quite an abstract way (NB: not the same as saying that the players abstract them away) then it's not so bad, but if you are able to witness their suffering and are not penalised in some way for ignoring or causing it, then I'd say there are ethical questions there to be asked. In film, the treatment of fantasy races in something like Avatar or even Star Trek can be used as a way to draw loose analogies with the real world without bludgeoning you with blatant morality. Yet in games we rarely go that far, instead mostly ignoring the metaphors and pretending they don't really exist.

    Comment by Ben — 9 August, 2010 @ 3:07 PM

  18. I think an example such as the one I brought up is perfectly fine as long as you've not got mechanics that make unethical treatment a beneficial game mechanic

    Why not? I mean, you can approach this in roughly three ways:
    a) Make the unethical action beneficial, and don't provide ethical actions with comparable benefits.
    b) Make the unethical action beneficial, but also provide ethical actions with comparable benefits.
    c) Don't offer unethical actions.

    (Note that I haven't even gone into balancing beneficial with disadvantageous effects, which would provide more options.)

    As far as I am concerned, option c) can, but doesn't have to lead to rather flat gameplay. Ethical choices are interesting, can be educational, and can help people grow. From that point of view, option b) is the best choice.

    Option a) is difficult; I would probably condemn it, unless the game's theme is for a particular period in history, and all historical evidence suggests that, yes, people would clearly have benefited from these unethical actions and there are/were no conceivable ethical alternatives.

    But that still leaves plenty of room for a game set in any country and period where slavery existed to allow abusing slaves. It should just be balanced with realistic alternatives.

    As for the orcs, I probably shouldn't have mentioned them. That quickly leads to a fascinating but relatively unrelated discussion about whether fantasy as a genre is inherently racist...

    But with regards to how abstract such orc peons might be, they're usually portrayed to be quite similar to humans. Which might well be a reason to raise ethical concerns, but as far as I am concerned they should be treated no differently (for better or worse) than what I mentioned above.

    Comment by unwesen — 10 August, 2010 @ 9:49 AM

  19. Another interesting article (which I believe was also a thesis), talking about character design but delving into information about female characters as well: http://gamecareerguide.com/features/854/the_aesthetics_of_unique_video_.php The author then tries to make some female models for a few TF2 classes.

    Ben [Sizer] wrote:
    When there's blame on both sides, I would say the onus for change lies on the side that has the position of power, and I think we're shaping the behaviour of a player in more significant ways than they shape the behaviour of a developer.

    As I commented above, I'm not sure that all lessons are being applied equally to the player. I think some lessons may be better able to be absorbed by the player than others. I'm not sure I'm ready to agree that players can pick up the lesson of "it's okay to kill" as easily as they can pick up lessons like, "guard your flank from pincer attacks". I think that morality regarding killing is also reinforced in other ways beyond games. Well, at least one hopes it is.

    I worry that some of these people who we encourage to indicriminately blow away foes on an FPS go on to be soldiers in Afghanistan piloting Predator drones with XBox controllers.

    I suspect military discipline has more to do with attitude here than any gameplaying. I expect that someone who gets to the point of controlling an unmanned drone is going to have a specific attitude about killing people enforced by military training whether or not they have played a violent game in the past.

    I think an example such as the one I brought up is perfectly fine as long as you've not got mechanics that make unethical treatment a beneficial game mechanic and excused this by saying it's just an abstraction.

    Again, I worry that you're trying to edit history here, and that's never a good thing. Slavery was a "beneficial mechanic", which is why it was used so heavily. For southern plantation owners, slaves were a very efficient way to manage their land, and treating the slaves as "others" helped salve troubled souls about enslaving another human. I think it's important that people understand that mindset even if we certainly don't want to promote it. Understanding how easy it is to dehumanize others is an important lesson for people to learn so that we can avoid it.

    unwesen wrote:
    That quickly leads to a fascinating but relatively unrelated discussion about whether fantasy as a genre is inherently racist...

    Except that technically orcs are another species, not another race. Fantasy mislabels the classification if you want to get into technical terms. But, it's common and fighting to change something like that is a fool's errand.

    I think that this does allow you to address some issues of racism, though. As I said, one strategy for not having to face one's inhumanity to fellow humans is to believe that the slave is "an other". What if the slave is a literal "other", as in another sentient species? Interesting ideas....

    Comment by Psychochild — 10 August, 2010 @ 2:20 PM

  20. Brian, I missed your first response to me, sorry. It came in while I was writing my previous reply. I'll try and cover both here.

    I am aware of the name of the GTA game, yes! Titling it with an unambiguous name like that doesn't make it more acceptable though. That's just moving the goalposts to support the developer's wish to make any sort of content they like. Regarding the disproportionate coverage of the sexual issue over the rest, that is a legitimate point, but one I'm not qualified to address since I live outside the USA - I expect I would concur with your judgement on the bias but that's as much from my stereotypical view of American media than anything else so I'll leave that discussion to those better qualified.

    Re: graphical veracity - I think this plays a part in how effective a teaching device it is. Some studies have suggested children are less affected by cartoon violence than realistic violence, for example. Sadly I don't have any handy links to provide evidence of this but I would hope it's fairly intuitive that the more realistic the depiction, the stronger the association.

    Re: presentation does not equal promotion - games are powerful operant conditioning devices where we don't just present a concept but we reward or punish a player's chosen response to it. This is an absolutely crucial distinction that has to be made between games and film or written fiction! And yet, even so, films and novels usually try to ensure that perpetrators of crimes get punished, whereas games flirt with doing the exact opposite.

    I agree that morality regarding killing is also reinforced in other ways beyond games. But we contribute to that corpus. I don't believe that any set of laws, any other form of media, or even intensive military training, will completely override whatever lessons we teach people. I basically don't think it's ok for us to set a bad example and then expect the rest of society's many ways of shaping us to correct the damage. What if everybody else did that? Interactive media, passive media, teachers, legislators, parents, neighbours... We can't all just pass the buck. Nor can we hide behind "it's just a game" when we want to fly under the responsibility radar and switch to "games are important works of art" or "games are speech" when we suddenly decide we deserve protection.

    As for rewriting history, I'm not sure what you're referring to in what I said. I wasn't suggesting removing unpalatable aspects of history, but about disallowing the assumption that players will just abstract the horror away and thus make it acceptable. Slavery was indeed a beneficial mechanic for a certain group and a rather damaging one for another group. Similarly shooting a sex worker to get an instant refund is a beneficial mechanic for a criminal and works out rather less well for the prostitute. Abstraction of these elements by making them less realistic within the game helps break the association but the game needs to enforce that. The last thing we want to be doing is actively training players to see past the human faces and instead spot the abstract patterns that reward their cruelty, and calling that a feature.

    If we don't want to enforce that presentational abstraction, perhaps because we do want to portray the real ethical issues in a hard-hitting way, we have to do it sensitively, ie. with some sort of overarching structure that reminds the player that this is actually not considered an acceptable thing to do. Films do this. Movies like Schindler's List or The Pianist show plenty of atrocities but you're also left in no doubt as to who is right and who is wrong almost entirely from the context of the film alone, even when they deliberately show you the perspective of the people who straddle the ethical boundaries. In games, we seem to prefer that the player can do what they like and that they will learn right from wrong from some other source other than games. But we can't expect other people to always provide this education for us. Games are inherently training devices. They're metaphors for the real world, and the closer the analogy, the stronger the lesson. We have to be careful what we train people to do.

    Comment by Ben Sizer — 10 August, 2010 @ 3:11 PM

  21. The games as training devices was a point by Lt Col Dave Grossman as an argument against videogames, lightgun shooters in particular. That using the gun desensitizes you to possibly using real guns in real life, and is similar to creating psychological distance in real life soldiers. Most soldiers have a tremendous aversion to killing, so that distance is needed. I think the book is called On Killing.

    However you have to take it with a grain of salt. If games are training, Japanese RPGs train you to go into total strangers' houses and rifle through their dressers to steal items from them. That's where they hide the potions and stuff, you know.

    I'm more concerned about the atmosphere in general having effects, not specific ones. It's not that setting someone on fire with a flamethrower in a game trains us to do so in real life, it's that we see a character in a game being set on fire with a flamethrower, and running around as cool. Many times its because its designed to be cool.

    Comment by Dblade — 10 August, 2010 @ 5:58 PM

  22. Some minor stuff:

    First, I found the remarks on whether MMORPGs are highly capitalistic or highly socialistic illuminating. The thing that always stuck out to me was the Pareto curve of wealth ownership: a very few players are always very wealthy. Take a look at the wealth ownership chart from 2004 (the fifth and last image) that Raph Koster put together for the "Astromech Stats: Economy" of Star Wars Galaxies. To me, if that sends any message it's the message that if you work hard enough, you can prosper financially. What is that but the old Protestant-work-ethic-meets-capitalism? The thing is, though, I tend to favor economic liberty as a political goal... so am I just seeing what I want to see in MMORPGs, no differently from the author of the In These Times piece?

    To the intersection of political outlook (conservatism/liberalism) and "control," it's worth mentioning the Nolan Chart for those who might not have seen it before. Nolan basically defined a model of political preference to show that both conservatives and liberals favor "control" (by the government over individuals), just in different spheres of human interest -- conservatives favor social control and economic freedom, while liberals favor social freedom and economic control. This model was created to highlight Nolan's own preference of libertarianism as more internally consistent (it favors both social and economic freedom for individuals), but the model has proved to be a simple but fairly accurate shorthand way to explain the most common political ideologies.

    Finally, thanks for the "note to Republicans." ;) Though concerning hypocrisy ("it's wrong for others but OK for me") I would point out that, following the model given above, where some conservatives can rightly be criticized for hypocrisy on social control, some liberals are susceptible to similar hypocrisy regarding economic control. There are liberals who've made a lot of money as entrepreneurs who then advocate command economies and central planning policies that make it much harder for regular folks to keep the money they earn through their labor. This suggests there's no monopoly on political hypocrisy -- it's just the flavor that changes.

    Now, to the top-level point, that of seeing games as reflections of ourselves. I can see how that might appear plausible... but what about the notion that we see games not so much as reflections of who we see ourselves to be as of what we perceive the real world to be?

    Obviously he can speak for himself, but I think that's not too far off from a position that Richard Bartle might take. To some extent, every game is a "world." Through its appearance and its rules it defines a sort of alternate reality -- a world. And as another premise, I'd suggest that the larger and more detailed the game, the more we expect the world expressed in that game to share some of the qualities that we perceive our real world to have.

    Which would explain not only why the author of the In These Times article felt it important to consider MMORPGs (as the largest and most detailed of games), but perhaps why MMORPGs were seen as demonstrating the qualities of the real world that appear to annoy the writers and readers of In These Times. As a mirror of the real world (as seen by those who share the In These Times worldview) wherein the working class is ruthlessly exploited by the owners of the means of production, MMORPGs can only have tyrants (developers) and the exploited (players).

    I see that primarily as a reflection of a general worldview shared by some people, and less as an expression of individual personality. But of course there's no bright line separating worldview and personality -- can't one flow from the other? So I'm not saying the conception of evaluating games politically as "good" or "bad" based on one's individual personality is wrong; what I'm suggesting is that it might be a little easier to understand this idea if we focus more on how people see the world (and thus virtual worlds like games) than on how they see themselves.

    (As an aside, I disagree with the apparent worldview of In These Times... but I think they're not wrong when they criticize MMORPGs as being almost entirely about "power and profit." On many occasions I've expressed my opinion that nearly every MMORPG -- by design -- is about shooting people in the face and taking their stuff: power and profit. So how do you tell someone who buys the worldview of In These Times that you think their perception of the real world is bogus when you think their perception of virtual worlds is right on the mark?)

    And to conclude, a thought on "control" from the Dean of Science Fiction: "Political tags -- such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth -- are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire." -- Robert A. Heinlein

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 10 August, 2010 @ 11:01 PM

  23. psychochild said:

    That quickly leads to a fascinating but relatively unrelated discussion about whether fantasy as a genre is inherently racist...

    Except that technically orcs are another species, not another race. Fantasy mislabels the classification if you want to get into technical terms. But, it's common and fighting to change something like that is a fool's errand.

    Yes, that's usually my counter-argument. At the same time, it's not always correct. When interbreeding is possible and producing fertile offspring, things become a bit harder to define; at the very least you should probably be speaking of subspecies rather than species.

    Man, it's hard for me to shut up on a topic once I get going ;)

    Comment by unwesen — 11 August, 2010 @ 5:52 AM

  24. Ben, aye, I do think that devs may well have the moral impetus to take the first step into a better moral space, given that they are the creators and all... I'm just noting that they aren't the only ones at fault, and they can't clean up the place alone.

    Bart, I love that Heinlein quote. In the end, it really is all about who has the control. That's highly relevant in games, where the devs and the players are expected to *share* control. That's the point of games, as far as I'm concerned.

    Comment by Tesh — 11 August, 2010 @ 9:29 AM

  25. Games have an issue, as a medium, of being interpreted differently every time someone sits down to play.

    Creating a game that has the same emotional impact as "Saving Private Ryan" would be amazing the first time you play it. The second time through most people would start pushing the boundaries of the game. For the most part playing a game is like being a rat in a maze. A rat put in the same maze will run through it faster each time. Humans will "Stop and smell the roses", explore the rest of the maze, and possibly try to get out.

    I love testing boundaries of games. One of the first things I do in a game is to see how far I can go before I am forced to turn around or fall to my death. I spent the better part of a day figuring out how to walk around on top of the mountains surrounding zones in WoW.

    In a game that was like Saving Private Ryan, on the second play through past the initial emotional impact, I would do everything I could just to see if the game would react. If the game failed to react to something I would be exultant in finding a boundary and sad that the game did not react. Pushing a games boundaries is a game all to itself in many ways. The only thing I could think of that would stop me from testing the effect of team killing while storming the beaches of Normandy would be for me to actually care about my virtual teammates way more than would be rational or sane. If I shot a teammate and the other teammates didn't start questioning me or trying to hold me back from killing more I would instantly think "Its a game because I would be in deep trouble".

    I think that obligating game developers to force a moral barycenter on you, by limiting your actions within a game, should be avoided. Instead, realistic responses to actions by the player should be included and developed.

    Take GTA for example. You kill a hooker for her cash. Then on the 5 o'clock news a picture appears as a witness saw the act and then a manhunt starts. You run, you cant do any missions cause no one will talk to you because you are a publicized killer. Your character gets caught eventually and you go to jail. End of game.

    More realistic but many players, after the initial game over, would then see it as a challenge. How long can you go without being caught. This to me is particularly scary since the more realistic games get the more likely they will actually train you to really escape cops or something else along those lines. The only effective punishment you could have for evil/morally wrong actions in a game is to stop gameplay. Providing more gameplay would just encourage those actions to be used to explore the new path. Unfortunatly ending gameplay would be kind of counter productive to designing a game in the first place. Of course you could just make it impossible to do anything but the "right" path.

    This whole thing brings up the question of whether or not game designers have an obligation to keep things "game" like and exclude interactivity to prevent morally wrong actions, and lessen the amount of knowledge that can be gained from experiences in games to prevent them from possibly being used in a bad way.

    Think of how many people watch CSI, Dexter and other shows that show a lot of detail in forensics. While it is still Hollywood and many of the things they do may not be even accurate. The show still is a learning experience widely available to anyone with a TV.

    Do we owe CSI, Dexter and Law and Order for smarter criminals? Probably. It doesn't stop the show from being made or shown and it shouldn't stop games from being made.

    I'll stop rambling now.

    Comment by Haversack — 11 August, 2010 @ 11:04 AM

  26. Both genders suffer, in different ways. For every pouty supermodel in a chainmail bikini, there is also a buff, ripped, steroid dripping killing machine. Is that not also sexist?

    Comment by Mikyo — 12 August, 2010 @ 4:09 AM

  27. Interesting article!

    I read the Virtually Conservative article and I found it to be a rather silly argument. The author has no idea what he's talking about. From the tone of the article and agenda of his company (which you masterfully included and analyzed) he is indeed biased. Probably the most disturbing thing about it that he feels it's time to politicize video games before too many people *gasp* end up falling in love with conservatism. That's laughable. Well, he has no idea what conservatism is. He just sees it as a convenient boogeyman that can only be remedied by his solution naturally which is progressivism (read: government intervention). The shot at the Tea Party movement was uncalled for and he was preaching to the converted.

    What is of real concern here is that certain people on the left want to inject politics into videos games. It is not the responsibility of the TV, radio, book or video game industries to indoctrinate the people who buy their products with agenda du jour of whatever regime is in power. But it is happening in our schools and in Hollywood more and more.

    Here's a link on how pressure was put on Ridley Scott during the making of the film Kingdom of Heaven:

    http://bighollywood.breitbart.com/mtapson/2010/08/10/cairs-hollywood-crusade/

    This whole idea of stopping "hate" or "promoting positive images" is odious and something I disagree with strenuously. I would feel very uncomfortable if we suddenly started having panels and committees starting to censor video games. We don't need the thought police monitoring our culture and art.

    Besides, who defines what hate is? Seems to me that the whole concept of "hate" as some kind of social ill only recently became part of the social lexicon in recent years as political correctness has become the new religion of the left displacing traditional values and faith. The crusade to stop "hate" is really all about a select group of people trying to wield power over another group and creating commensurate thought and speech crimes. When you can shut down debate and have people afraid to speak out then you can control the public discourse.

    Back to MMOs, regarding the lack of female villain models. I never believed it was outright sexism on the part of MMO companies; I used those examples to demonstrate and poke fun that anyone can find sexism, racism, and "hate" if you look hard enough. I agree with your assessment that it's probably due to limited resources.

    For me though as someone who looks are virtual worlds with regard to immersion I just can't help wondering how ogres are supposed to reproduce with no females around. There's a disconnect there for me as it seems unnatural and non-organic.

    Comment by Wolfshead — 14 August, 2010 @ 1:54 AM

  28. Ben Sizer wrote:
    I basically don't think it's ok for us to set a bad example...

    I think this is the crux of our differences in points of view. I don't believe we are setting a bad example any more than a novel set in a war does. Even with the interactivity aspect which could lead to operant conditioning, I think most people who play games are able to distinguish between fantasy and reality and understand the game world does not reflect the real world.

    Stop for a moment. Do you think that any mentally healthy person playing a contemporary video game is suddenly going to change their mind about the morality of killing? Does repeated exposure to gunning down enemies truly make someone more likely to engage in gun violence? Anecdotally I've played a stupendous amount of games that focused on killing, and I've only ever used a gun once. As Dblade pointed out, the number of RPGs I've played should make me want to smash every pot and enter every house to find goodies. As I said before, I simply don't think that all lessons a game could teach will be learned by the player equally. Perhaps someone in academia can pick up on this topic.

    As for rewriting history, I'm not sure what you're referring to in what I said. I wasn't suggesting removing unpalatable aspects of history....

    Let's say I'm making a game where the player is a Southern plantation owner just before the U.S. Civil War. You say that the game shouldn't allow the player to beat slaves and get a reward. So, how should the game handle it? Not mention slavery? Not mention that owners sometimes beat their slaves? Allow the player to beat slaves but only have negative consequences? By making an absolute statement, you're potentially eliminating an important part of history. "Doomed to repeat it" and all that. If I were making a game in this setting, I think it would be important for players to understand the context of their actions.

    ...the assumption that players will just abstract the horror away and thus make it acceptable.

    I never said that abstracting it away made it acceptable. I said that players will abstract it away and not make the literal lesson to heart. Just because you can shoot a prostitute to get money doesn't mean that mentally healthy players in GTA are going to start going and shooting prostitutes for money in the real world. I'm also not sure "horror" is the right word here; I worry that you're trying to ascribe the same weight of killing a character in a game to killing a living person. These are very distinct acts.

    Bart Stewart wrote:
    Take a look at the wealth ownership chart from 2004 (the fifth and last image) that Raph Koster put together for the "Astromech Stats: Economy" of Star Wars Galaxies. To me, if that sends any message it's the message that if you work hard enough, you can prosper financially.

    One could also see this as an example of "the rich get richer" issue with laissez-faire capitalism. I know from personal experience that there was a huge first-mover advantage in a lot of the crafting professions in the original incarnation of SWG. People who reached higher levels first were able to dominate entire industries and use that advantage to shut down potential competitors. So, I suspect that there is an element of personal perception there.

    ...what about the notion that we see games not so much as reflections of who we see ourselves to be as of what we perceive the real world to be?

    I don't think that's distinct from my point. I think that our perception of the world, including games, is heavily influenced by our personalities. If someone is an economic conservative, they're going to focus on the positive aspects of capitalism more than someone who doesn't share that ideology. Likewise, a social progressive is going to see the benefits of a "melting pot" society more than others who don't share those biases.

    Haversack wrote:
    Humans will "Stop and smell the roses", explore the rest of the maze, and possibly try to get out.

    I think this is the old "control vs. storytelling" divide again. As you give the player more freedom, it becomes harder to tell an effective story since so many variables could invalidate it. A game trying to give the same emotional impact as Saving Private Ryan would almost certainly have to be on rails. Giving someone more freedom means they might miss some of the high points. But, what they miss in the official storyline might be made up for their personal experiences.

    Mikyo wrote:
    Both genders suffer, in different ways. For every pouty supermodel in a chainmail bikini, there is also a buff, ripped, steroid dripping killing machine. Is that not also sexist?

    I agree. As I said above, my body type isn't usually portrayed very positively in games. In WoW, my only option for male characters is someone who obviously spends all their time in the gym when I'm not playing the character. The human proportions have been commented on in other places as being rather exaggerated. I'm not sure if it's necessarily sexist in the same way paladin armor that exposes the midriff is, but it certainly isn't as inclusive as it could be.

    Wolfshead wrote:
    What is of real concern here is that certain people on the left want to inject politics into videos games.

    Careful, we slam all political viewpoints equally here. The right would be just as happy injecting their political biases into entertainment, but for some reason their carefully crafted daguerreotypes just aren't being picked up by the shallow youth of today! Okay, on a more serious note, there have been quite a few commentaries on how the show 24 promoted a rather conservative viewpoint.

    Here's a link on how pressure was put on Ridley Scott during the making of the film Kingdom of Heaven:

    Okay, as soon as I read the phrase "smear the opponents of the planned Ground Zero monument to Islamic supremacism" isn't exactly a source of information I'm going to trust. It's interesting to note that Islam has been part of that area from before the World Trade Center.

    This whole idea of stopping "hate" or "promoting positive images" is odious and something I disagree with strenuously. I would feel very uncomfortable if we suddenly started having panels and committees starting to censor video games. We don't need the thought police monitoring our culture and art.

    You're mixing two different ideas here: the desire to reduce hate (which I think is a good thing) and the government passing laws and censoring works to reduce hate (which I agree is a very bad thing).

    Seems to me that the whole concept of "hate" as some kind of social ill only recently became part of the social lexicon in recent years....

    Well, yes. That would be because globalism has become a lot more important in our lives in recent years. There's the sterotype of Americans not being able to point out other countries on a map; this is because we largely didn't have to care about other countries. We lived in our small towns near other people that looked just like we did. But, now the world is more global. We're involved in a "combat actions", as you might have heard. Jobs are being outsourced to other countries. More people want to come live in the U.S. to capture part of that elusive American Dream. The internet is bringing people of different cultures together with near-instant communication. The old mindset of "us v.s them" doesn't work so well anymore, and we need to accept that people come from different cultures. And the differences are a lot bigger than whether you correctly call it "pop" or "soda", "coke", or some other improper term. ;)

    But, seriously, "hate" is a very real thing and something that hurts a lot of people. This isn't a "religion", as you state, it's a wakeup call to understand how the world is changing. As I joked before, I got to see it first-hand when I was an American designer working for a German company that was outsourcing development to China. Pretending that a religious group wanting to put a place of worship near the location of a tragedy is somehow a "monument to Islamic supremacism" doesn't work in the modern world, even if we pretend that America doesn't have freedom of religion and other freedoms we cherish.

    I used those examples to demonstrate and poke fun that anyone can find sexism, racism, and "hate" if you look hard enough.

    Oh, I know. I think it's instructive to see how two different people can see the exact same thing and get two different impressions.

    For me though as someone who looks are virtual worlds with regard to immersion I just can't help wondering how ogres are supposed to reproduce with no females around. There's a disconnect there for me as it seems unnatural and non-organic.

    It's magic. Or, perhaps half the ogres are female, you just don't know which ones. Time to complain about how kids playing WoW now have a roughly 50% chance to see female breasts instead of manboobs when fighting ogres!

    Comment by Psychochild — 14 August, 2010 @ 2:47 PM

  29. Since some of this discussion has started to tread into morality and ethics, I figured some readers might be interested in this post: Morality and New Media.

    Comment by Psychochild — 14 August, 2010 @ 6:45 PM

  30. "What is of real concern here is that certain people on the left want to inject politics into videos games. It is not the responsibility of the TV, radio, book or video game industries to indoctrinate the people who buy their products with agenda du jour of whatever regime is in power."

    Except, it's your political philosophy that they should be apolitic. So if those creators kept out their politics they would be making a de facto insertion of yours. Still to some extent you're right, it's not their job to be the propaganda arm of any administration, however they cannot help but be the propaganda arm of the creators and publishers. In fact a conspicuous absence of propaganda is in itself propaganda for the status quo. This is the reality of life as a creator, you are a propagandist and can never be excused from that role so long as you continue to create.

    Also as Psychochild already pointed out, both Left and Right produce, and suppress, some pretty hefty propaganda.

    Comment by Sara Pickell — 14 August, 2010 @ 7:05 PM

  31. "Except, it's your political philosophy that they should be apolitic."

    Not true. You are playing word games. I've never heard of an organized political party or philosophy that was centered around the removal of politics from art. I'm advocating for art, culture and video games to be free from political influence.

    "So if those creators kept out their politics they would be making a de facto insertion of yours."

    That's absurd. You are engaging in sophistry here. Although you grudgingly seem to agree with me it seems you are doing your best to be disagreeable.

    "In fact a conspicuous absence of propaganda is in itself propaganda for the status quo. This is the reality of life as a creator, you are a propagandist and can never be excused from that role so long as you continue to create."

    If I paint a picture of a flower, who am I being a propagandist for? Mother nature? The Flower Grower's Union? Why does everything have to have a political message associated with it? Can't art and beauty exist for its own sake? Why can't we trust the beholder to evaluate the art for themselves?

    Of course we bring our own values, experiences, biases and preferences to whatever endeavor we as artists and game designers create. I'm not disputing that. But it's quite a departure from that to prostituting oneself for the sake of blatantly promoting a particular political ideology via their art.

    Since I seem to be the one on trial here, I'd like to turn the tables on you and ask you outright: do you let your political views and/or agendas influence the art/design where you work?

    Comment by Wolfshead — 14 August, 2010 @ 8:55 PM

  32. "Careful, we slam all political viewpoints equally here. The right would be just as happy injecting their political biases into entertainment, but for some reason their carefully crafted daguerreotypes just aren't being picked up by the shallow youth of today! Okay, on a more serious note, there have been quite a few commentaries on how the show 24 promoted a rather conservative viewpoint."

    So let me get this straight, because the left routinely promotes their ideology into entertainment they produce, the right is somehow also guilty of this -- if only they had a chance to run the entertainment industry? Sorry, nice try.

    Regarding 24, this TV show is often trotted out as a "conservative" TV show by the left. It it not. But I'll play along here: 24 is the first TV series to have a black President of the USA plotline season after season. One of the first TV shows to have a female President of the USA in a few seasons. And TV series where so-called "conservative" hero Jack Bauer bows down and prays with a Muslim imam during an existential and spiritual crisis? Yeah, sounds like a real conservative show to me. Right!

    But even if I was to concede that 24 was a ultra-conservative show (which it is not) with a hidden conservative message and agenda -- that is one show versus a sea of thousands of movies and TV shows that are made by producers, directors, writers and actors with an openly left wing agenda. There is simply no comparison.

    "Okay, as soon as I read the phrase "smear the opponents of the planned Ground Zero monument to Islamic supremacism" isn't exactly a source of information I'm going to trust."

    The article I took the trouble to link on this thread is thoughtful and legitimate analysis of a film that was subject to political and religious pressure during its production. That is a serious issue that should rightly concern all of people employed in the entertainment and cultural industries. But because you prejudged the opinion of the writer based on his viewpoint of the mosque at ground zero issue (how dare he have an opinion that is contrary to yours!) you dismissed it out of hand. Yet in a further part of your post you call for cultural understanding yet you are unwilling to read and evaluate the article I quoted in good faith and are unwilling to understand the cultural sensitivity of those who lost loved ones at ground zero at 9/11. Seems to me you are practicing hatred and bias toward this person all because he expressed an opinion. You should practice what you preach.

    "It's magic. Or, perhaps half the ogres are female, you just don't know which ones. Time to complain about how kids playing WoW now have a roughly 50% chance to see female breasts instead of manboobs when fighting ogres!"

    Not sure if you are trying to be funny here. We're not friends -- you haven't earned the right to joke around with me. But you seem to be implying that I'm some kind of conservative, religious prude that likes to "complain" and that I'm one step away from being outraged that children would be exposed to androgynous ogre breasts. I resent that. Maybe I'm taking this the wrong way but I'm not sure the point of your comment. It seems rather unproductive and unhelpful.

    Comment by Wolfshead — 14 August, 2010 @ 10:35 PM

  33. Wolfshead wrote:
    If I paint a picture of a flower, who am I being a propagandist for?

    Why did you choose to paint a flower? Why did you paint a flower instead of photographing one? These choices you make are important, and making choices without thought is something you've written about extensively. Anything except the most simplistic art has some meaning behind it, even a painting of a flower. Now, obviously, there is obnoxious propaganda and less offensive propaganda. Painting a flower because you appreciate nature is more acceptable to a wider audience than, say, immersing a plastic crucifix in a jar of urine.

    So let me get this straight, because the left routinely promotes their ideology into entertainment they produce, the right is somehow also guilty of this -- if only they had a chance to run the entertainment industry? Sorry, nice try.

    Yes, sorry, obviously you're talking about the kindly, generous conservatives here that are always open and forthright, the ones that play poker with the liberals who believes in limited government and Santa Clause on Thursdays. See, I'm talking about the ones who are still lying, sleazy politicians just like all the rest and desire power for power's sake.

    Yeah, [24] sounds like a real conservative show to me. Right!

    You're confusing "conservative" with "bigoted". Don't worry, it happens a lot in U.S. politics. Conservatives don't have to hate blacks or women, and there's nothing in the core political ideology that requires it. There are even arguments that pure capitalism is the most equitable system since people are economically encouraged to find the most qualified people to increase value regardless of race, creed, or sexual preference. The actions of individuals who claim to be conservative, however, are another matter.

    that is one show versus a sea of thousands of movies and TV shows that are made by producers, directors, writers and actors with an openly left wing agenda.

    As they say, reality has a well-known liberal bias.

    And, in the context of this post, I have to ask if there really is a pervasive liberal bias, or if your own biases cause you to seeliberal biases.

    But because you prejudged the opinion of the writer based on his viewpoint of the mosque at ground zero issue

    The didn't talk about a mosque on ground zero. The article talked about a "Ground Zero monument to Islamic supremacism".

    Except it's not a mosque and it's not on "ground zero". These aren't "viewpoints", these are facts. That article starts with lying and bigotry, so anything else they say is tainted. Sorry, I'm not going to read to a militant feminist state how all heterosexual sex is rape in order to get to the part where she complains about how a movie director was hassled about how to portray men, either.

    Wanted to show how someone was put upon unfairly? You should have posted a link without obvious bigotry and outright lies in the second goddamn paragraph.

    This is enough of this topic because I'm not running a political blog here. I will aggressively moderate comments that stray over the line.

    Not sure if you are trying to be funny here. We're not friends -- you haven't earned the right to joke around with me.

    Except this is my blog and I'll make fun or be funny as I want, crybaby. ;) Or, am I to assume you're good pals with everyone at Blizzard as much as you razz them on your own blog?

    Anyway, I wasn't saying YOU had to complain about it. One could just as easily infer that I was speaking in the first person, so why did it bother you so much that you had to comment about it? Once again we see that we do bring our own biases into our perceptions of everything.

    Comment by Psychochild — 15 August, 2010 @ 12:20 AM

  34. Brian it was rather late when I wrote my previous post and I didn't realize you were the author. The first part of the post "read Ben Sizer wrote:" so I figured it was someone named Ben Sizer who I don't know at all. I apologize for the remarks about not being a friend at the end, if I had realized you had made the post I would not have said that.

    You've been to my blog and posted many excellent and kind comments over the years and I value your opinion immensely as one of the best minds in the industry.

    Can we agree to disagree? Politics, faith and culture are dangerous waters to navigate these days in a polarized world and almost always seem to end in heated arguments and bitterness. These are minefields that I would rather avoid if at all possible but at least I hope we can be gentlemen. If people with some opposing views like us can't get alone then what hope is there?

    I apologize for the tone of my remarks. As a rule I always try to never make things personal. Perhaps I crossed the line. But I still stand by my arguments as I believe in vigorously defending what I believe. As you probably already guessed, I am a conservative and a Christian -- that is something of an anomaly in the video game industry. You rightly pointed out that that there aren't many people like me in the industry given the young age of most of the people employed. I just hope there is enough diversity and inclusiveness in the industry for someone like me.

    Part of the reason why I post on my blog with my handle is that I don't want people to know my politics and religious beliefs in real life. Working in the industry dominated with progressives, liberals and atheists who think nothing of talking openly about their beliefs -- even the director of the studio where I worked -- is very hard to deal with. You have to keep your mouth shut and your beliefs to yourself if you want to keep your job. When you are a conservative person of faith you learn to keep your beliefs to yourself. That is a reality. For what it's worth, I know what it's like to be a minority within an institution.

    Thank you for letting me express my opinion on your blog.

    Comment by Wolfshead — 15 August, 2010 @ 2:10 PM

  35. Wolfshead wrote:
    ...I apologize...

    Accepted without reservation. I understand that strongly creative people have strong opinions, and I relish discussion.

    I want to re-iterate my position that hatred and bigotry is never acceptable whether it is against conservatives, liberals, Muslims, or Christians. I try not to be a hypocrite and keep an open mind.

    When you are a conservative person of faith you learn to keep your beliefs to yourself.

    The problem is that a lot of people who self-identify with those labels are stereotypically closed-minded rather than being inclusive as Jesus showed by example. I think tolerance is good for everyone, and as you point out accepting that others have different viewpoints is important to having civil discussions.

    Thank you for letting me express my opinion on your blog.

    No problem. As I've said many times before, the discussions are my favorite part of my blog. If there weren't differences of opinion the discussions wouldn't be nearly as interesting. As you said, though, we can agree to disagree and have some tolerance for divergent viewpoints.

    Comment by Psychochild — 15 August, 2010 @ 5:21 PM

  36. Offhand, "tolerance" is not the same thing as "acceptance".

    Religiously speaking, Jesus is inclusive; He's all about bringing everyone possible into his fold, *but* he has some pretty strict rules for behavior. He wants to help everyone, and yes, He's tolerant of a LOT of things, but in the end, we are either obedient or not. He's inclusive and tolerant because he wants us all to choose obedience, not because he accepts all of our bad behavior.

    So what? Well, "tolerance" implies understanding of disagreement by both parties, but that such disagreement doesn't get in the way of civility or useful conversation. We do *not* have to agree with each other or even accept behavior we don't agree with. We are, however, commanded to forgive each other (and if you're not a religious sort, no worries, it's still a good idea to avoid contention). So on a human level, yes, we're all going to have some differences, and yes, we all do things that are flatly unacceptable to others.

    The quest shouldn't be for acceptance, even if one isn't a religious sort, it should be for tolerance. We're just all too different to make any sort of universal acceptance realistic... especially since the drive for that naturally chases the lowest common denominator. I know, maybe that's a bit pedantic, but I think it's important to note the differences since I've met far too many people who conflate the two, especially when thinking that Jesus was accepting. He was tolerant. Tolerance is about civility, acceptance is something else entirely.

    I firmly believe that we should indeed try to be tolerant. We do not, however, need to accept everything that other people offer or demand.

    ...especially because we can't help but work from what we know. It's that mirror thing again; we see what we know more often than we know what we see. So how do we make *games* more tolerant or encourage tolerance? Honestly, I think the lion's share of that is on the players' heads in the first place. Games function as conversations; all we can do as devs is handle our end. We can try not to be judgmental and prejudiced, and that's wise, and we can try to keep our stories from being silly and jaundiced, but the players will always take things and run with them.

    There's nothing we can do about that, and I think it's a fool's errand to try. Just as in a conversation between me and someone else in the real world, I can only control myself, and trying to control the other guy never works out (and is, in fact, intolerant). I think that as devs, we need to be tolerant of what the players bring to the table, and just do our best to keep our own house in order.

    Comment by Tesh — 16 August, 2010 @ 10:07 AM

  37. Sexism & WoW: Responses and Relevant Reading

    [...] people to support their worldview, just as an author might write an essay to persuade the reader. - Games as a Mirror [...]

    Pingback by Decoding Dragons — 13 March, 2012 @ 1:08 AM

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