Thursday, September 30, 2010

No Women in Gaming (Pt... etc.)

A few folks shared this one on Twitter, and it really does sum up something that a very large percentage of female gamers have seen happen at least once.  (Click image to embiggen; original source.)

Sometimes, it's a no-win situation.  Please note, I'm not saying always.  It's very different in competitive gaming (anything with a PvP element) than in broader gaming discussions.  But oh lordy, does this ever happen.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Not-so-weekly Playlist

Quick post-mortems on the games I've been playing lately:

1.) Puzzle Quest 2 (DS): Either they made this game way too easy, or I am the best Puzzle Quest player ever to be born.  And I don't flatter myself to think it's the latter.  I set the game to "hard" and on my first storyline playthrough, didn't lose a single fight.  Not a one.  Admittedly, this may be because I picked Barbarian, and because I knew how best to combo some spells from a long-in-remission addiction to the first game, but...

I did create a second character, Assassin class, and she's lost two fights in the under-10 game, so there's something to it.  Maybe it's just horribly unbalanced?  Other than that, though, I've enjoyed it.  I miss some of the features of the first (sacking cities, money from cities, consistent foes after completing the story) but overall it's not a bad game.

2.) Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within (PC): When the acting makes you long to have Tim Curry's southern accent back, or when every. single. sentence out of any character's mouth is instant MST3K fodder... well.  I love me some old-school adventure games and this is a definite great example of the FMV era of the mid and late 1990s, but it's a profoundly silly game and it wants to be serious.  As I said, accurately, on Twitter... #gaygermanoperawerewolfvoodooking

 3.) Divinity II: Ego Draconis (PC): I wrote before about how much this game hooked me.  And it did.  Except the end-game stage is flat-out awful.  Just like in the first game, an 80% awesome title falls flat when you cross the Line Of No Return.  Also, it's the buggiest thing I've bought in 15 years.  Twice I had to go back to an hours-old save to recoup after game-halting bugs, and once I had to send my save file to Larian for them to fix it for me.  Not.  Cool.  Even worse?  I hear they have a patch ready to go for most of these bugs but have been withholding it in North America until their DLC launches in October.  Their excuse is that they're not allowed to release too many patches for a 360 product (and this was a dual-platform release).  I'm actually quite pissed off at Larian over this one.  Translation errors and small bugs I can handle.  But game-stopping errors?  Multiple times in multiple locations across the game?  Lrn 2 QA, dammit.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

How an MMO lost its fan

I never got into WoW.  Never liked it: hated the art, hated the controls (felt like I was steering a cow through water), hated the camera, really hated the UI, and didn't particularly enjoy the community.  Such is life.

But for me, there was EQ2.

A guy I dated for a couple of years (still a good friend) sat me down at his PC one day very late in 2004, when I was visiting (long-distance relationship) and he had to go to work.  "This is EQ2," he said. "Roll a character.  I think you'll like it."

When he came home from work nearly 9 hours later, I was still at the PC.  I'd gotten up once to use the bathroom but had forgotten to eat or get dressed.  But what I did have was Freeport citizenship.

For my birthday, two months later, he bought me a high-end video card and I bought myself the game.  Thus my main and I came to share a birth date.  I jumped in, feet first, and level by painful level eventually ended up at 50 -- then the cap -- with a guild and a horse and some low-level skill at raiding.

He played on Test and so I, too, played on Test.  I loved the small community, the low server population, the deep sense of all being in it together, and especially the direct interaction with the QA and Dev teams.  We could make suggestions directly to the people who changed the game, and see our thoughts appear in later patches.  We were the ones trying out the new zones and the new quests, the ones who had to figure out everything for ourselves because the walkthroughs hadn't been written yet.

18 months later, he and I split up.  EQ2 and I did not.  By then I was the leader of my small guild, after it had been through some serious drama.  (The guild's founder got hired by SOE as a GM, and so couldn't play with us any more, though we did sometimes still chat.)  I played in several apartments, in several cities, and into my next serious relationship.  I leveled to 60, to 70, to 80, lost friends, made new friends, found my old friends again.  I took a few months off, came back, felt like I had never left.  Patches always changed mechanics, of course, and sometimes very significantly (tradeskilling March 2005 vs. tradeskilling March 2009? no comparison!).  Some changes were for the better, some for the worse, but I was willing to ride them out.  Something, after a few weeks or a month or two, always made me want to go back to Norrath, back to my 5 -- now 6 -- room house in Freeport, back to wearing Assassin blacks and stealthing around and hoping Cheap Shot would take.  (Even after discovering with my Fury and Shadowknight that Assassin was EQ2 on Hard Mode, I always went back to my main.)

Until recently.

Each expansion has been more linear than the last.  The most recent, Sentinel's Fate, is 100% linear.  There's a specific A-B-C solo progression, an A-B-C group progression, and an A-B-C raid progression.  I leveled my Fury on totally different content than my Assassin from 1-80, but from 81-90, that wasn't going to be an option.  Then, on adding free-to-play, they changed the look and function of the interface rather significantly, and suddenly five years' worth of muscle memory was out the window.

I know, now, why I miss EQ2 the same way I miss college.  Because they each were significant for years of my life, and they each don't want me any more.  College is great when you're in it: you start as a freshman and the school tells you it's all about you and they love you.  Then you're a senior, and you're graduating, and it's all about you and they love you, until you realize on your way off of campus for the last time, that they're already cleaning up after you and hanging the banners to welcome next year's freshmen.  You loved the experience, but going back five years later won't be the same.

So I don't know.  I hate leaving everything I have there -- the people, the history, the character -- and walking away.  I've let my subscription lapse a number of times in the last 6 years but I always knew I'd re-up eventually.  But I took the $4.99 3-day re-up option last weekend, logged in for under an hour, and fruitlessly logged back out.  The game changed, and I think it may have lost me for real this time.  Maybe I'll go back a month or two after the 8th expansion comes out, as if for Homecoming weekend.  But SOE has decided that a different population -- a newer, fresher population -- is their target demo.  And that's cool.  Really.  I'm not one of those gamers who thinks a publisher should be in any business other than the one of making money.  I'm just sad that it regressed while I grew.

So, for the first time in many years, I'm installing other MMOs on my PC.  (I did beta-test or 30-day-trial several in the last few years, but never ended up subbing to any long-term.)  There are other shores for me to explore, and my guild and two sister-guilds are all cross-game groups.  So perhaps I shall find my friends again.  Perhaps I'll start by looking in Middle-Earth.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Strong vs. Violent (Part 3...)

I was looking back over some Twitter stuff the other day, and I discovered one of the very first things I actually tweeted, during a panel at PAX East 2010:
Strong and violent are not synonyms. If we keep acting that way, we keep undervaluing womens roles
I'd forgotten, between now and then, that I completely nailed in under 140 characters the fundamental thought that seems to drive so much talk about women in gaming, both as characters and as players.

We say, "It features a strong female character," and we tend to mean, "A female of reasonable sexiness who doesn't ever show girly emotions, and who shoots things."  But I don't think "strength" and "violence" should be synonymous.

Admittedly, this points to a much larger problem in gaming: what would we consider a non-violent strong male lead?  The best I came up with offhand is the Metal Gear Solid series; you can be a reasonably non-violent Snake much of the time, and he is a character given to serious emotion and lots of it.  MGS3 and MGS4 each contain several hours' worth of emotionally driven cut-scenes.  (Aside: I wonder how many gamer guys would be convinced to sit through a 3 hour movie with that much convoluted emoting?  But put a controller in their hands...)  And still his primary objective is generally to blow stuff up and win boss fights.

It's hard enough to think of true 3rd-person games driven by female lead characters (narrative games with a defined arc -- as opposed to games where the player has a hand in creating or defining the character).  It's even harder when you start looking for female leads who wear sensible clothes and don't travel heavily armed.

I know perfectly well that the example I need here of a strong female character is The Longest Journey but I've never actually finished that game.  I promise it's on the playlist and that I'll revisit this topic by year's end.  Meanwhile, the fact that I have to resort to an 11-year-old European adventure game to make the point at all is telling.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Look at me! I'm awesome!

I've been playing Puzzle Quest 2 on my DS.  (And I never thought I'd say this about anything, but actually I wish it were harder and more difficult.)  And I rocked a completely awesome combination of spells, luck, and strategy, and in a single turn did over 100 damage to my opponent.

And the thought I had was, "Damn.  I kind of wish we had a 360, because I want everyone to know!"

I am not a competitive gamer, I'm really not.  I tend to prefer single-player games or, barring that, cooperative multiplayer.  If I absolutely must go head to head with someone, I prefer it to be anonymously or pseudonymously online.  Why?  Because I really, really hate losing to people I know -- and I also hate winning over my friends and spouse.

But even I understand the full appeal of achievements systems, and why XBox Live,Steam, the PlayStation Network, and Windows Live all have them: because if a totally badass event happens alone, at home, and no-one sees it... did it ever really happen?

There's a phenomenon I've touched on before, where all gaming to an extent becomes narrative gaming.  Tetris may not have a story, but we tell stories about our own experiences playing it.  "I totally hit level 9 and then, like BAM!  The blue piece I needed!"  And in this sense, we gamers are no different from people out there playing soccer, or watching football, or going fishing, or driving to work.  We assemble stories around us.  But instead of a photo of us holding up a 5' long fish, we have virtual achievements and scroll through pages of pixellated trophies.

Alas, I, on my DS at home, get no trophy.  But believe me, y'all: it was this big!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

If It's For Women, It Must Be Stupid. (Pt. 2 of many)

In reality, 40% of gamers are women.  And yet we keep fighting this constant uphill battle against the perception that gaming is a man's industry: dominated by men, designed for men and boys, with marketers and designers and male players all sitting around completely unaware that there's this big female audience they could tap into.  Gaming is something that boys and men who haven't outgrown being boys do, right?  There will continue to be "no" women in gaming for as long as gamers go around defining games as "those things which exclude women."

There's a lot behind this.  History plays a part, to be sure; girls and women are much more a part of the scene now than, say, 25 years ago.  But why hasn't perception been able to get closer to reality? 

Well, in part, it's because if women like it, it must be stupid.  This is a phenomenon that applies to most media -- books, movies, television -- but seems to apply doubly so in gaming.  The concept is so deeply ingrained in the gaming community that some of the worst perpetrators of it, in my experience, are other girls and women.  I have most assuredly been guilty of it myself.  So let's unpack this cycle a little.

The gamer community, like any community, defines itself both in terms of what it is and in terms of what it isn't.  And as the expansion of gaming technology has brought more tools (portables, PCs, Macs, consoles, phones) to the table, the community has buckled down.  No longer restricted to the guy who had the time, money, and lack of other social demands required in order to achieve a difficult goal, gaming's been blown wide open.  68% of American households contain video game consumers.  In the Americas, sales of the Wii -- in 2010, years after its release -- continue to blow away sales of other consoles:

But the Wii is a source of derision for "real" gamers.  It's too "casual."  It's not "hardcore" enough.  Right?  We've all heard it.  We've all seen it, in comments on game news sites.  We might have written it.  Or we, the "dedicated" gamers, might have let our Wiis collect dust since 2008 while we played reflex-action blood-spattered HD games on our other consoles.

But Nintendo, with its marketing strategy, reminded us of an unassailable set of facts: There have always been girls and women in gaming.  Gamers have always come in different races and ages and income brackets.  Someone who plays Tetris for an hour at a time three times a week is a video game consumer, just as someone who raids in WoW for eight hours a night is.  Nintendo hasn't so much blown open the demographics -- though they have -- as they've blown open the debate and the recognition.

No-one has said, in eighty years, "all watchers of movies fit the same demographic." Television has a dozen competing networks per demographic.  And yet we maintain this overwrought, antiquated cultural insistence that all gamers are one type, one thing only.  And it comes as much from inside of the gamer community as from outside of it.  Why?

Because if it's designed for, marketed to, or primarily consumed by women, it doesn't count.

A 24-year-old male who spends 5 hours every weeknight online in Modern Warfare 2, is a "hardcore gamer."  He is the definition and perpetuation of the industry.  A 24-year-old female who spends 5 hours every weeknight devoting herself to the ins and outs of the lives of her Sims is... nothing.  A 35-year-old female who spends 5 hours every weeknight fluttering around the low-cost options on Yahoo Games is less than nothing.

In fact, in the Kotaku post I cited before, with the terrible music video, one commenter says it out loud:

this song is fucking terrible. Stan Lee and Seth Green are cool though and those girls are hot. Probably never touched anything outside Halo/wii/WoW though.

Because if you're female, even the exact same games the boys play (Halo, WoW) don't count.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Why Gender Issues Matter In Gaming (pt. 1 of many)

There's a video making the nerd rounds, based on Katy Perry's "California Gurls," which, incidentally, I hate so seethingly much and with such a burning passion that if the opening chord sounds on the radio in the car, my husband or I will smack the power button so fast that the antenna gets confused.

(I drive a mid-90s car with an oh-so-high-tech retractable antenna that doesn't work as well in 2010 as the mid-90s designers had hoped.)

Kotaku posted a link to this video today under the header Geek and Gamer Girls Will Likely Be Irritated By This Video.  (You can watch the video at that link as well.)  As always, what I went looking for were the comments.  A sample:
I'm not sure what's terrible about this -- they're cosplaying, I see geek girls doing that all the time at cons -- regarding the rolling around naked, it's a music video: you can't forget that.  --jayntampa

Female commenter here.

I didn't really take any offense to the video. If anything, I laughed quite a bit, because there was some clever bits that they snuck in there.

Does it make girl gamers seem anything more than sexed up woman who play video games in sexy outfits? Not so much.

As a gamer myself (yeah, I left out the girl prefix) I've always been slightly sensitive to the plight of female video gamers. We're like a lot of you guys, we like to chill around in comfy clothes and play long gaming sessions. And it isn't just RPGs or anime style games, considering I'm always up for a good round of headshotting.  --FinerFrenzy

fail on multiple levels. This only allows more "i'm a gamer too" girls to spawn.

THINGS THAT ARE FOR MEN ONLY: Cigars, Poker, Video Games. (not a complete list) -- buddhatooda
And one exchange that summarizes a lot of the discussion:

I don't understand why females can't just call themselves gamers. It doesn't make you any special to add the fact that you're female. I treat any and every person who plays games the same. -- NekuSakuruba
Being female stands as a modifier of what would be the "standard" mode of being human: male.  I'm just explaining what seems to be the reason why the term "gamer girl" exists.  -- Fernando Jorge

More importantly, not all female gamers are like that. Chance is, REAL female gamers hardly make a big deal about their gender when they're gaming. Girls who don't know jack about gaming are more likely to make a big fuss whenever they happen to play a game for a bit.

Not to mention, sometimes it's not the female player who wants to make herself special or anything; its the male players that don't threat her normally once they find out. :/ -- Ossidiana

A (members-locked) discussion from the "Inclusive Geeks" community summed up a lot of the double standard going on in this discussion, and one that is repeated every time issues of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, and so on come up in gaming.  It's the "It's Just A Game / You're Taking It Too Seriously" argument -- one that is summed up well in Games Aren't Art, After All, Say Angry Gamers.  LiveJournal user sparklyappolion summed up the argument thus:

It's like the article said (or touched upon, at least): gamers want the legitimacy that comes with an artistic medium. This might have its roots in the stereotype that games are just time-wasters not to be taken seriously, and that gamers are awkward shut-ins. The gamers stand up and say, "Hey, no, we're pretty competent people and these games have a lot of thought and beaut to them," and I can't blame them for that.

HOWEVER, I can blame them for demanding the recognition without doing the work, which I think this is an example of. As soon as someone says, "Well, something's gotta change if games are gonna be considered art," these gamers put up their hands and back away from the situation. They don't want to actually have to change the way they play, think about, or experience games; they just want people to take games seriously. They don't realize that you can't have one without the other.
 Right.  Silly wimminz!  It's just a game!

Next in the series: If It's For Women, It Must Be Stupid and the corollary, If You're Female, What You Play Doesn't Count.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"Holy crap, I'm a GIRL!"

In the very early stages of Portal, the orange and blue portals are set up so that you can see yourself passing through them.  Listening to the audio commentary, you learn that the developers created this room so that you, the player, would understand how the portals really worked; you needed to understand that orange and blue were two sides of the same coin, and that you were passing through the coin, no matter where its sides lay.

But I passed through the portal, saw myself, and understood something else entirely.  "HOLY @&*%, I'M A GIRL," I shouted happily, to the eternal annoyance and confusion of my roommate.  ("What, you didn't figure that out twenty-odd years ago?")

Overwhelmingly, fixed (as opposed to characters you can fully customize, as in an MMORPG or recent BioWare titles etc.) video game protagonists are straight, white, and male.  This is not news.  Sometimes there's a strong narrative reason for a character to be the way s/he is; other times, not so much.  Sometimes the player character and his fixed narrative have a strong place in the game (any iteration of Metal Gear Solid, for example) other times, the character is more transparent and the player is truly conceiving of him- or herself in the first person.

And admittedly in Portal, the fact that you are Chelle doesn't matter much.  Sometimes you catch a glimpse of yourself, but the game exists primarily in the first person and every player I've ever known felt that he or she was in a one-on-one battle of wits with GLaDOS.  The character has no back-story given, so you write your own.

But: Portal presents a game where nothing about the player character really matters, so they flipped the coin and it came up female.  And that's something we really don't see often, and definitely not enough.

I've been working on posts around this topic for a month, and keep coming up with thousands of words, rather than the few hundred which are suited to a blog post.  Luckily, a blog gets to keep going.  I'll write more about the whys, hows, and what-to-dos another time.