Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Beyond the Girl Gamer 2.2: We all live in a...

Beyond the Girl Gamer: Introduction | 1.1 | 1.2 | 1.3 | 1.4 | 2.1  -------------------------------------------------------------------------------

There are a lot of dead women in L. A. Noire.  The entire Homicide Desk sequence of the game is devoted to finding murdered broads, in fact.  It seems Los Angeles is just teeming with men who seem likely to strangle their girlfriends and wives, and that drunken dames are just leaping from bars left and right, waiting to be gruesome victims.

I am more okay with this than you would expect.

The casual racism and misogyny in L.A. Noire are never* gratuitous and might, in fact, be mitigated, as compared to some of the realities of the time.  This game strives, at its core, to be representational art.  Team Bondi / Rockstar went to an extraordinary amount of effort to recreate Los Angeles circa 1947 with as much detail and fidelity as possible.  The buildings, the streets, and the fashions are all as close to authentic as the developers could manage -- and so, too, are the attitudes.  Even the cases themselves, in classic Law and Order style, are drawn from actual historical events. 

There's actually a reason for photographing a woman's body close-up like an object, this time.

L. A. Noire is meant to represent faithfully a specific historical era, and it is meant to re-create faithfully (in spirit, at least) a specific art form -- the film noir -- that sprang from the same historical era.  Whether or not it succeeds at anything is a matter for debate, but no-one can argue that our current notions of race and gender equality applied 64 years ago, because they didn't.  We may still have miles to go, in search of a truly equal society, but the strides taken over the course of the 20th century cannot be overlooked.

And in fact, the game is based on the notion that its audience have, indeed, come through the 20th century understanding that violence against women is bad.  The designers count on the player having a certain reaction to the cases Cole Phelps is called upon to solve and to the story of Cole Phelps himself.  The intentional anachronism in the game is that 1947 Los Angeles is being measured against 2011 mores.

The playability of L. A. Noire relies on the difference between "contains" and "condones."  The space in time, and the space in cultural evolution over those decades, are a required baseline for understanding the game's subtext.  We are meant to understand that a character's attitude toward non-white citizens, or his attitude toward women, is part of the story of this character.  And we are meant to understand that rudeness and cruelty are signals: a cop's brushing off "dames" and insisting he have his way are signs to us within the context of the narrative that this man is A Problem.

Roy Earle is, how shall we say?  A world-class asshole.

That is the defense I can mount of visible racism and sexism in a game world: sometimes, it really does tell a story.  But having provided this "it's okay" discussion of L. A. Noire standing how it does, and having its own merits, we now need to ask the uncomfortable questions.  Highest among them is this: why is this the story we always tell?

Gaming has the potential to be anything.  A completely digital, completely constructed world can be anyplace we choose in time and in space, with avatars that look like anything and anyone.  We can inhabit settings as far-flung as the human imagination can conjure.  So given that a true historical drama is going to need to confront the unpleasantries of history -- why are we always plumbing the same histories?

Moreover, when we do plumb these same histories, we're willing to rely on an audience having a 21st-century understanding of civilization -- but we're unwilling ever to directly comment on those changes.  The periphery and the subtext are as close as we ever get.  Thus, even when serious problems are justifiable in the context of the narrative, we're still left with our same challenge from chapter 2.1: this game and this world are an artificial construct, entirely built for modern consumption, and we must filter it through the lenses of our current understanding.

For all that we can tell any story in a game, usually our western-developed stories -- of all play-type genres -- tend to be set in one of a few archetypal worlds:
  • High fantasy
  • Low fantasy
  • Space opera style science fiction
  • Near-term science fiction
  • Modern urban (Grand Theft Auto, Heavy Rain)
  • Fictionalized History (Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire)
  • Modern Military or Military-esque (Tom Clancy games, Modern Warfare, Battlefield 2)
  • Historical Military or Military-esque (every WWII game ever)
There are more, and obviously, these genre-classification walls aren't absolute, but I think they are the biggest buckets and manage to catch a hefty percentage of narrative games.  (Some games arguably combine world-types, as well.)

As in the case of L. A. Noire above, some of our game-world types do operate, by necessity, within the constraints of real-world historical rules.  If I were to play a World War II-era military game, I certainly wouldn't except to have women infantry among my units!  Nor would I expect to find women among my ranks if I were arranging pixelated knights Templar around a digital Jerusalem.

But historically-themed games are not, generally, among the worst offenders.  (Indeed, the Assassin's Creed franchise handles women in a plausibly-recreated renaissance Florence and Rome better than I would have expected.)  The bigger problem, instead, shows up in our most fictional universes. Gender roles, expectations, and stereotypes common to our history and to our present-day worlds have this amazing way of persisting through worlds that are fully constructed, have never existed, and are not ours at all.

While I was working on this piece, a deeply relevant essay appeared at the Border House.  In The Skyhook Society, Quinnae describes this phenomenon:

It is hardly groundbreaking at this point to say that the social worlds painted in many video games and other fantasy environments tend to be based on politically charged ideas about gender, race, and so forth. Despite being wildly fantastic or surreal they are, just as often, presenting the player or the reader with a social world that is depressingly familiar. A world where the humans are white, where the power holders are men, where heterosexuality remains compulsory, where any sort of trans-ness is not even on the horizon; in other words a world with very familiar relations of ruling.

She goes on to describe how the deep-seated and often unexamined need to replicate real-world power structures in fantasy worlds can render them structurally incoherent.  The core of her argument is a call for more thought put into the construction of gaming worlds, and less "default" behavior in general.

Even a game that has some excellent tendencies within, in terms of race and gender, can fall down in its universe construction.  While taking on the universe from the deck of the Normandy, has Commander Shepard ever met a female salarian?  (No.)  What about a female turian?  (No.)  And of course no female krogan.

"There are reasons," one argues.  "The salarian matriarchy system!  The genophage!  Well, Garrus used to have a turian girlfriend!"

Those aren't reasons. Those are in-character explanations for a design choice that a team at BioWare consciously or unconsciously made.  Humans, in the future, do indeed come in an array of racial options, and in both male and female versions, but with only one exception (the quarians), this ability to extend the imagination on-screen apparently only covers the human race.  Well, except for when you can come up with an entire race of fictional female hotties.

Justicar Samara, older than the city of Boston, will kill you with her cleavage.

In general, though, I feel the most structurally incoherent societies we see in geekdom are in our fantasy worlds.  This is our sword-and-sorcery plane, our modern nerdery made incarnate.  Our RPGs pretty much all take place here (indeed, the fantasy setting tends to be one of the unspoken markers of the genre).  The high fantasy universe is easy to mock because it's so ubiquitous.  Post-Tolkien and post-Gygax, we're all familiar with the tropes of orcs, elves, and a version of the British middle ages that never was.

A game can include female characters galore, and yet still find itself an example of incoherent world-building that doesn't take gender or sex into account in any way.  Divine Divinity and Divinity II are guilty of this: you can create a female Divine in the first game and name her anything you like, yet by its sequel, the hero of the first game is canonized as Lucian, a goody-two-shoes of a man if ever there was one.  The first game mainly portrays female NPCs as servants, nobles, locals, or witches -- and though not ideal, this is at least theoretically consistent.  By the second, nearly all groups, factions, and character types are a fairly hefty gender mix.  Men and women both guard town walls, or oppose you with malice (i.e. swords), or are dungeon bosses.  And yet women who get lines or quest segments are still mostly there to be plot devices, rather than to be characters with agency.  Your player character can be female, and yet nearly the entire game is designed around the responses of a male player character.  Simply put, the player can't afford to think about any of it too long, because none of it makes sense on examination.

But the Divinity games really aren't about deep storytelling; they're about getting an awesome weapon and some awesome skills and slaughtering orcs and trolls 'cause they're there.  Fair enough.  On the other hand, Dragon Age is indeed about a deep narrative, and a carefully built world. In the interest of full and honest disclosure: I still haven't been able to make myself play Dragon Age: Origins.  I started to and got bogged down in gameplay mechanics that I strongly dislike.  But Kris Ligman has played it, thoroughly.

In all fairness, most characters, even the ladies, wear way more than she does.

In a really solid piece about this kind of incoherent society, Ligman gripes about half-thought-through world-building, as it applies to class.  Her character of choice was a dwarf, a member of a despised underclass.  The player character, of course, rises to fame and power and general badassery, because that's the game we play.  It's what RPGs are for.  But although she intentionally created a very specific kind of character, the game failed to follow through on any promise of coherent recognition:

No one cares where I’m from, only that I look damned heroic right now.   ... [T]hough several game narratives exhibit an awareness of class, race, and the intersections of those two, the games themselves as systems display an exasperatingly predictable upper middle class image of social mobility, reliant upon fantasies of self-made wealth achieved at the expense of others and the local ecosystem.
Although she's writing about the incoherence of class markers, the truth persists with all out-of-"norm" characterizations in most games.  The NPCs are perhaps the result of a coin toss, but they all behave and are written in a way that results in world structures that don't hold up, or that show a lack of imagination.

The culture of medieval Britain was indeed rigid in a certain way.  So was Rome, or the Tang Dynasty.  So is 21st century Manhattan, or19th century Paris.  But any world in a game is none of these places.  Any world in a game is an intentional, theoretically thoughtful construction by a 21st century team of writers, artists, and coders.  So why do these fictional worlds keep clinging to real-world biases?

The long and the short of it all is, I can only second Quinnae's challenge to game designers (and in fact to all creators of fiction):

Ask yourself critical questions about the division of labour, ethnicity, and gender. Ask yourself if heterosexuality needs to operate in your world exactly the same way it operates in ours. Ask yourself if your culture needs to be an appropriating parody of a human culture, or if every human in your world must be white. Demand of yourself explanations for these things. What you will be weaving in the process is a proper social structure that can hold up your world, one that will almost automatically make it notably different from our own. It will put your world’s various power dynamics at a tantalising remove from our own, making it feel all the more creatively alien and unique. The most interesting fantasy worlds I’ve seen are ones that do make some kind of accounting for their social systems, that possess identifiable structure, rather than unsupported mirroring of the real world.


Related reading:  Tanner Higgin, The Trap of Representation

*Caveat: we are, at present, only halfway through the Vice desk and still have probably a third of the game to go, if not slightly more.  If some crap does get gratuitous as the game concludes, you can rest assured that I will have a great deal to say about it.


  1. why are we always plumbing the same histories?

    Because they're the histories that we are most familiar with. Familiarity of setting is easier on the storyteller and the audience. It cuts down on the amount of tedious explanation of setting that is required to get your audience to a basic understanding of the imaginary world you are constructing around them (See also: the endless, tired, redundant explanatory dialogue crammed into Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 1. Stories you don't have to work to understand sell better. Worlds you don't have to build from scratch and keep consistent get out the door faster (see also: Westeros). This is most assuredly a cross-cultural phenomenon and long term. How many times has Journey to the West been retold? How many times has the Chinese Warring States period been rehashed in video games alone? How many samurai movies and games continue to be made in Japan? 

    So why do these fictional worlds keep clinging to real-world biases?

    The problem is that world building is a distinct skill. For most fantasy/sci-fi writers, whatever the medium, the world around their story is secondary at best. They need a world to set their story in so they throw some scenery into the background, grabbing bits and pieces that seem to fit from whatever is near to hand. Many great world builders are awful writers. Many amazing writers are bad at the high level thinking and background work required to keep a realistic fictional universe spinning on its own power. There have not been that many people that can do it well, and write well on top of that. The best tend to require massive volumes with long explanations designed to make it feel like you're not being wrung through a history class. There are exceptions but most of them churn out book after book instead of piling it all into a few. 

  2. The questions were rhetorical, you know.  ;)  But yes, you're right that it's certainly easier to be lazy; it's also acceptable, and expected, and, in a certain kind of way, cost-efficient.

    What we the consumers must do, then, is reward those who make the attempt, and support (and expect) quality over laziness.

  3. Yeah, I knew. The post is actually a slashed version of what I was writing and kept getting distracted from, instead of waiting for days to get all the points that I wanted to make down in a coherent manner.

    My point was more that the job is so monumental that I'm not sure quality is ever going to happen straight out the gate on any new video game world. The time horizons on writers involvement in projects is too short, and what little I know of the structure of story development in game studios (which is all third hand, I admit) doesn't seem conducive to the kind of processes that the people who do create quality, large scale secondary worlds go through. There's little time for iteration, deliberation and full rewrites when they become inevitably necessary. It's easier when your focus is on a smaller portion of the world. 

    This is, oddly enough, one of the reasons I think that Dragon Age 2 is so much better than Dragon Age: Origins. The (relatively) laser focus on Kirkwall and environs lets them rework and integrate the horrible mess they slopped down on the "page" in the first game. 

    I wasn't even thinking of Enslaved when I mentioned Journey to the West, but all the Chinese (and Japanese) versions of it that keep being made through the years. I'm not sure the horrible world design mattered so much, since the writing seemed to ignore it totally, beyond designating when obstacles should be thrown up. I admit, the aquarium scene caused me to vent a bit...

  4. I'm not convinced it's entirely an issue of laziness (though, surely, that must factor in).  For one, there are often so [i]many[/i] details to create and specify, it helps to have a base on which to build you're world. 
    But, I wonder if the bigger issue is that the world-creators are not even aware of their own biases.  There are certain templates that we gravitate towards, and we simply don't question many of their core elements. It's not so much that designers outright ignore these issues so much as they take them as a matter of course.  It's a fault due to lack of imagination.
    That said, I don't exactly begrudge them for this, either: it's often comfortable to be playing within the largely familiar territory of [i]Dragon Age[/i], and exploring the history, people, and dilemmas of a such a world is sometimes like exploring the history, people, and dilemmas of our own.
    Though, I agree, it is often nice to find a completely different kind of place as well, like [i]Planescape[/i].

  5. But, I wonder if the bigger issue is that the world-creators are not
    even aware of their own biases.  There are certain templates that we
    gravitate towards, and we simply don't question many of their core
    elements. It's not so much that designers outright ignore these issues
    so much as they take them as a matter of course.

    Bingo!  And we call that "privilege."  Indeed, there is an inherent bias present.  Gaming is still overwhelmingly male, white, and straight.  Hell, as much awareness as I try to have, I'm still two out of those three myself, and plenty more voices far more marginalized than I are still clamoring to be heard.

    I think, personally, the real key to broadening our scope is to get writers asking, "why."  Just, "why," about everything.  "Okay, so here we have this guy -- "  "Why?"  "Okay, so the princess is really fair and blonde -- "  "Why?"  "Okay, so this pickpocket is a short, dark kid -- "  "Why?"