PLAYING THE LAME Presents: “Kicking Sand In a Girl’s Face Isn’t Cute When You’re An Adult.”
by Mark B. on June 25, 2012

PRESENTS:

“Kicking sand in a girl’s face isn’t cute when you’re an adult.”

Or

“E3 brings out the sexism in all of us.”

So, I was going to write a column discussing the subtle differences between Hannah Montana: The Movie and its video game counterpart, and I still intend to get to that eventually. I could explain the reason behind such a column now, but to be honest, there’s really no fun in that. It’s more fun to leave you, the reader, wondering what, precisely, is wrong with me for a week or so while you wait for that explanation that will (I assure you) be far less exciting than you think. Regardless, I’ve found a topic I want to discuss a bit, not because it’s a good topic to discuss, and not because it’s a topic I’m terribly happy about, but rather because of the exact opposite reasons. See, E3 happened, as I’m sure you’re aware, and in the course of the time following the event, a lot of things have happened that have been very unfortunate and put an exclamation point on our general lack of enlightenment when it comes to women in video gaming. I’ve read a fairly large amount of articles discussing how poorly women were treated at the event, seen trailers that make it apparent their creators have no positive opinion of women, and generally been linked to a fairly large amount of controversies and debates about things that, frankly, are rather unpleasant and rude.

I feel like I want to talk about this a bit. I hope you’ll indulge me.


So, for the record, I am a self-described “equalist”, insofar as it relates to the regarding of gender and sexuality. I don’t know if such a term actually exists, and if it does I am almost certain I’m using it incorrectly, but my beliefs on gender relations and gender identity are as such: I don’t give two a damn what sex you’ve been assigned or what gender you identify as, I prefer to treat people equally in all respects. I’m not advertising this as a way of making myself look “better” so to say, and I’d be a fool to believe that the world is based around such a thing. Rather, my points are that I want to see everyone treated equally. I think the exact same thing about homosexuals and transgendered people as I do heterosexuals: some of them are okay, some of them are terrible, and I don’t feel like my opinions of the people I meet should be based on anything but whether they’re okay or terrible. I think gender inequality is absurd, I think mocking or reviling people who don’t identify as their assigned sex is inane, and I generally feel like people are people, end sentence period. This isn’t a mentality limited to gender either; I don’t care about race, color, religion, or anything else on a base level, because that in and of itself tells us nothing about a person of any real substance. As the joke goes, there’s no reason to hate someone based on reasons of genetics or faith when you can get to know them and hate them for lots of other reasons.

But it’s the gender equality aspect in specific that I want to address today, because in the past few weeks we’ve had to deal with a lot of issues relating to gender equality, or more accurately gender inequality, and I’m not especially pleased about where things have gone. Now, I wouldn’t ever call myself the most qualified person to discuss the role of women in gaming as a whole, because my own views are, frankly, somewhat inconsistent. I like it when female characters are of more reasonable physical proportions (IE don’t have boobs bigger than their head and tiny waists), but I’m also perfectly fine with cheesecake in my games. I fully believe that games like Bayonetta, Oneechanbara, Dead or Alive Xtreme 2, Rumble Roses XX and Lollipop Chainsaw are largely sexist in their depictions of their main characters, but I also like three of those five games despite this, as DOAX2 is mediocre and I’ve not played Lollipop Chainsaw (and don’t expect to like it). Now, it’s true that I’m not the sort of person to defend Bayonetta and crucify other games for being “sexist”, as let’s be honest, all of the above games are flagrantly targeted toward male gamers and not even a little ashamed about this, but the point is, I’m fine with cheesecake in my games. I understand the difference between a shirtless male and a shirtless female psychologically. I understand that Brock Lesnar in a speedo conveys “strength” while Dixie Clements in the same conveys “sex appeal”. I get the subtext of the situation fine. I just happen to be the sort of person that understands the situation and still says, “Yeah, Mai Shiranui from King of Fighters is fine”.

So I’m probably not the most well equipped person to have this conversation.

But realistically speaking, it falls to everyone to say, “Hey, this kind of sucks a lot. Change it” and force this sort of change. It falls to all of us, regardless of our position, to not defend games that negatively portray someone’s gender, race, or religion. There’s a quote (attributed to a few people) that goes, “Evil prospers when good men do nothing”, and while I am neither willing to say that sexism in gaming is evil, nor that I am good, the point is that, “maybe you should do something if you object”, and, well, this is me doing something. I might not be the best equipped person to have this discussion, and I might not be intelligent or well versed enough to express the viewpoints I have on the situation in a meaningful way, but I’m going to make an effort to do so, with a minimum of profane language and libel, because I feel like everyone should, and hey, that means me too. This isn’t a thing about, “WOO LOOK I’M A MAN TALKING ABOUT WOMEN’S ROLE IN GAMING,” because while Lord knows more men probably should be talking about this, I don’t want this to be about my gender in the least. This is an “everyone” party. Everyone needs to talk about this. Everyone needs to be involved. More importantly, MORE people need to be involved. So… to the best I am capable of doing so, I want to do my part.

So let’s talk about Tomb Raider.

So I haven’t been on board with the Tomb Raider reboot for a while now. I haven’t really spread this around the site to any significant degree, but I’ve made it known on my Twitter account for a while, to the point where I actually gained followers because of it. My viewpoint on the matter is simple: I don’t feel like the existing Lara Croft, as we know her, is a character that needed to completely be rebooted from the ground up for the current generation of gaming. The character is basically Batman crossed with Indiana Jones, and if we could simply stop focusing on her tits for five minutes she’d be an amazing character. She speaks multiple languages, is an expert marksman and a master gymnast, and can fight quite well in hand to hand combat. Hey, even if you wanted to “go back to her roots”, her backstory is that the plane she was in crashed on a mountain and she had to survive on her wits and skills to reach civilization. I think I speak for a good amount of gamers when I say we would play that game because it would be awesome, and no one needed to completely re-write the character or change around her origin story in order to give us this story leading to her eventual rise as the character we know.

Sadly, neither I nor anyone I’ve spoken to on the subject is in charge of the development process over at Crystal Dynamics, because the upcoming self-titled Tomb Raider game coming from the developer is a straight reboot, and one that, until recently, people were pretty pleased about. Not that there was much to be pleased about; until E3 this year, everything about the game that we knew could be summed up in two sentences: “It looks like Uncharted, which is in and of itself aping off of Tomb Raider,” and, “Lara’s boobs are smaller and she’s wearing pants now.” Congratulating the game for looking like it was going to retain the same formula as its predecessors is… asinine, to be honest, so more than a few people chose to congratulate the game for making Lara look less sexual than she had in prior games. Now, this is a fine enough point to congratulate the developers on, by itself, but this could have just as easily been accomplished with the original character. Lara’s cup size, while a defining aspect of her existence, is not a defining aspect of her character, and putting pants on the character was literally as easy as rendering her in pants. The aesthetic changes, to my mind and the minds of others, were fine, but did not immediately justify rebooting the entire series, and were not cause for celebration.

Which brings us to E3.

So, for those who have been living under a rock for the past few weeks, the Tomb Raider trailer shown at E3 this year focused on how the developers intend to “break down” the Lara Croft character they’ve created from whole cloth, to rebuild her as a hero, one presumes. The trailer itself showcases our new Lara going through some fairly unfortunate circumstances; she has to escape being bound to the ceiling by setting the bag she’s in on fire, impales herself on a rib bone, falls down a lot of steep inclines, watches her best friend die before her eyes, and basically has what can charitably be described as, “the worst day ever.” This culminates in a man taking her captive and vaguely attempting to sexually assault her, before she presumably plugs him between the eyes and progresses onward to becoming the character she’s supposed to be. The developers originally described this as Lara being almost raped, then changed their minds and stopped calling an attempted rape scene an attempted rape scene, instead choosing to highlight how this is a point where Lara is forced to kill a man, and the emotional weight associated with this, which is… fine, I guess? Putting emphasis on how this is the first time she has to kill another human being is a fine enough character development, and if handled properly, it can be done well enough, but there’s a fairly big problem with all of the above, and how one expects it to be handled in the game.

It’s a trope.

Break the Cutie, as TV Tropes describes it, is a common trope where the writers introduce a likable character, then proceed to break them down, by way of inflicting all sorts of horrible punishments on them through various terrible Acts of God. It’s a common trope in storytelling in general, and often happens to female characters in gaming; for every Isaac Clarke in Dead Space, there are five Jin’s from Dead Island or Liara’s in Mass Effect or Heather Mason’s in Silent Hill 3 or… you get the point. That there are male examples of this trope does not disqualify that there are notably more female examples, in gaming and in general, and the fact that the development team is on the record as stating that they wanted the player to “want to protect” Lara does nothing to discourage the belief that this is the case here. It doesn’t matter if you, as a player, projected yourself on the character, using her as a strong character who is powerful and gifted, because the developer rejects your interests in the character and supplants them with their own. It, again, bears noting here that we could have done the same basic concept, that is, Lara as the inexperienced youngster fighting for her survival, with the existing character to begin with, and that putting the character into this position can be considered, well, somewhat chauvinistic. I mean, I didn’t want to protect Isaac Clarke, after all, and I doubt most players did; I wanted to find answers and get away from the fleshy monstrosities chasing me. That the developer makes it apparent that this concept was their end goal casts the wrong sort of light on their project before it even reaches store shelves, and given that this is a complete reimagining of the protagonist, that’s not a good starting point.

Further, however, we also come to the more recent example in gaming of breaking down established characters to “humanize” them, which, when dealing with women, almost always involves dehumanizing them and making them into victims. The now classic example of this is Metroid: Other M, which turned series protagonist Samus Aran from a silent Metroid wrecking mercenary who was competent and skilled into a whining mess with daddy issues. Less popular an example, but no less extreme, was The 3rd Birthday, the third game in the Parasite Eve series, which took franchise heroine Aya Breya and essentially made her subservient to men who treated her like a tool. That Aya herself had already been through her Break the Cutie moments in the first game and had come away from them stronger and more powerful, in a way that was logical and actually really well written, was completely tossed aside in favor of what is arguably one of the worst cases of character assassination ever in gaming. Lara in Tomb Raider is essentially in a similar position: given a character who is strong and independent, the writers choose not to play to those strengths or to expand the character’s empathy, but to break the character down and make them behave like a woman, or at least, like a stereotype of one, to “humanize” them.

If you ask people who the strongest female protagonist in fiction is, most likely you’ll receive the answer “Ellen Ripley” from a lot of them, and there’s a reason for this. Ripley was, indeed, a scared and poorly equipped character in the film Alien, because she was encountering a new alien species no one had ever encountered before, and it wanted to eat her face. That’s a disconcerting experience for anyone, and the fact that her male cohorts on the ship reacted as badly as she did made the point that Ripley wasn’t weak because of her position in life or her gender, but because JESUS LOOK AT THIS THING THAT WANTS TO KILL ME, and it worked. By Aliens, Ripley was one of the strongest characters in the film, growing from a shocked and scared character who’d lost an astonishingly large amount of time in cryosleep into one of the most iconic protagonists in action movie history, in one movie. Ripley is an icon because she’s written in a way that allows her to exist outside of her gender, that allows her to be strong because that is who she is, and it feels like people could learn a lesson from that… one they seem uninterested in learning, for whatever reason.

At the end of the day, right now, we have no idea what will ultimately become of our new Lara Croft, but from the educated guesses we can make, she will “grow” into a strong character at the end of her game, even though she was already such a character until she was rebooted. We can gather that Lara will start the game off weak and powerless and go through a substantial amount of trials to get to the end of this journey, and maybe, possibly, the character will come through this a stronger and more well rounded character for it. But replacing a strong character who could have used some tweaking with a character who has to be “broken” to really become who the developers want her to be is a step backwards, and honestly, it doesn’t matter if the end result is good as a game, because it didn’t need to exist in the first place. Breaking a character for the sake of starting over and trying to “humanize” them has been done before, and it hasn’t worked very well for Aya or Samus. Call me a cynic, but I don’t see Lara coming out of this better for it, because at the end of the day, I don’t understand the reason for it in the first place, and the only reason I can come up with for this specific turn of events has to do with the fact that Lara Croft isn’t a man.


Not that I’d likely be the only person to feel this way, of course. Anita Sarkeesian, who Wikipedia describes as “an American feminist media critic who focuses on depictions of women in popular culture”, runs a website, Feminist Frequency, where she posts videos that discuss her point of view on women and how they’re portrayed in media. She’d made a series titled “Tropes vs. Women” a while back that focused on female tropes in films, and while I don’t personally agree with everything she’s said ever, I think this is a pretty good series that has a lot of good points to make. Well, Anita decided she wanted to take on a similar series that would focus on women in video gaming, and as she professes to be a gamer herself, this seems like a pretty great idea; Anita comes across as intelligent and well equipped to make her points, and since she enjoys the medium, she should, one would expect, have valid criticisms to make about it.

Which, of course, brought out the Internet Hate Machine in full force.

The gist of the situation is that a bunch of people were apparently upset about Anita’s intentions and absolutely ransacked her on the internet. Her Wikipedia page was defaced multiple times, her Youtube page was bombarded with hate speech, her Kickstarter page was brutalized, and she was made into public enemy number one by a bunch of people who apparently can’t handle the idea of a woman talking about video games. She was called all sorts of derogatory words, her ethnicity was besmirched, and she was assaulted with various “get in the kitchen” and “make me a sandwich” comments for… I honestly don’t even know what reason. In the end, her Kickstarter ended up generating somewhere around twenty six times the amount she needed to fund the videos in the first place, so we can theoretically say that this was a net win, but…

Look, let’s take a trip back in time a bit, shall we? Let’s jump into the Wayback machine and go all the way back to 2007, where we can reflect on something I’ve taken to calling “The Jade Raymond Incident”. For those who don’t remember this, you can read this wonderful summary from You Are Dumb that I love so very much, but the gist goes like this. Jade Raymond was the producer on a gaming project known as Assassin’s Creed. She was very excited about this, and made every effort to tell everyone so, and that’s not surprising; it was a huge project for her, she was enthusiastic about it, and she wanted other people to be as well. So, Jade went out into the world, as the producer for a AAA game mind you, and told everyone why they should be excited about this game. Her behavior was no different from, say, a Shigeru Miyamoto or a Hideo Kojima or a Cliff Bleszinski (well, okay, maybe a little nicer than Cliff), and she did basically nothing to differentiate herself from a producer who was proud of their work and wanted everyone to like it.

So of course someone dehumanized her for this.

More specifically, she was dehumanized by a webcomic artist who I will not name here, as despite the fact that I know his name, the name of his project at the time, and the name of his current project, I absolutely refuse to give him ANY publicity (and FYI, if you name him in the comments, yes, your comment is getting deleted, full stop). Said artist decided that Jade going out into the world to discuss her game was worth what can only be described as an ignorant response, so he drew a comic that 1.) indicated Jade Raymond is an idiot who was only hyping the game because of her looks, and 2.) illustrated her blowing people to generate interest. He later claimed that he did this because he felt that Raymond was only put into this position because of the way she looked, and not as, hypothetically speaking, a way to generate interest in his terrible webcomic through manufactured controversy. If you look at the You Are Dumb article above, you can also see the lovely (lack of) fallout, as people came to the defense of this act, citing (among other things) that this wasn’t an attack on women so much as an attack on one woman, and of course, that she had it coming because she was all over the promotional material for the game.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the rub: if you do the same job as a man in the video game industry, and perform the same actions as a man in the video game industry, someone, somewhere, will call you out because of your gender if you are a woman. It doesn’t matter that Raymond was also the producer of The Sims Online for Electronic Arts. It doesn’t matter, after the fact, that she was also the producer for Assassin’s Creed II, or that she was promoted to the role of Managing Director of Ubisoft Toronto in 2009. She tried to do what men do in the industry, and was made into a whore for this, even though she did nothing different from her male counterparts. She produced a game, talked about it in public because she was excited about it, and was sexually vilified for doing so based on nothing more than the fact that someone, somewhere, decided they didn’t like the fact that a woman was in this position.

Meanwhile, the creator of said comic now runs a webcomic devoted to a specific brand of fetish pornography that revolves around physically abusing and killing women, which I present with no further comment, instead allowing the reader to infer exactly what that says about him as a human being.

So let’s take that information five years forward and look at the Anita Sarkeesian situation. If you read the YAD article linked above, you likely took away from that, above all else, a general despair that “nerds”, as the author discusses them, ultimately cannot be any better, no matter what he might hope. This isn’t meant, mind you, as a derogatory strike against “nerds” themselves, as the author is a self-professed nerd and, as someone who agrees with his assessment, I am as well. It’s meant, rather, as an observation that we, as members of the nerd collective, would very much like it if those of the group who continue to behave poorly would please stop doing so, because it makes the rest of us look… fairly terrible in comparison. The writer lamented the realization that no, many nerds simply cannot be better, using the Jade Raymond situation as proof that people will defend the indefensible for God only knows what reason, especially when “the indefensible” is mocking a woman for daring to play in “our” sandbox.

That was five years ago, and things have gotten worse.

Anita isn’t developing a game. She has nothing to do with any game development at this time. She is, at best, a game critic, no different from a Jim Sterling, a Jeff Gerstmann, a Phil Kollar, or… well, me. She opted to ask for funding to make a video series discussing feminine tropes in video gaming, which is basically no different from, say, Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw expecting The Escapist to pay him to make his Zero Punctuation videos every week, except that she was asking for crowdfunding instead of a paying gig. She is, literally, doing the same thing a substantial amount of people in the industry do on a daily basis (albeit with a narrower focus), and there is, literally, no rational reason for anyone, anywhere, ever to be upset about this. The videos do not even exist yet, so there isn’t even a point to object from. The entirety of the objection one could raise amounts to, “a woman wants to make videos about how women are treated in video games”, and people are already doing that, now. One more is not something to be reviled and hated because this is a thing that has happened already, and will continue to happen, until society ends or the heat death of the universe consumes us all.

I literally do not understand.

CLOSING COMMENTS:

The point I’m trying to make with these examples is a simple one: regardless of how much progress we can claim to have made in gaming, women are still basically being treated somewhat poorly when it all comes down to it. The problem isn’t so much one of sexism in and of itself, rather, but a sort of dishonest sexism that has developed in the past few years, where we allow the sexism to exist, but defend the actions as not sexist after the fact, citing “let it play out”, or “we want to humanize our character”, or “men are made fun of all the time” or whatever. Indirect sexism defended by false equivalence is, to my mind, more detrimental than anything else at this point, largely because it pretends not to be something it is.

I finally got around to watching the Hitman trailer that everyone had been talking about, the one with the nuns trying to kill Agent 47. A lot of people have pointed out how blatantly sexualized it is, and they’re basically correct: it’s several women in impractical bondage attire and overly ridiculous high heels attempting to kill a trained assassin in practical clothes, and there’s nothing about it that’s not sexist or absurd. That said, I can appreciate that sort of blatant sexism, on a functional level; while I still abhor it, and think it’s absolutely ridiculous, I appreciate that the developers aren’t pretending the game is something it’s not. They’re very up-front about their women-as-sex-objects mentality going into the game, and while I can’t applaud them for that, I can at least appreciate that they’re not lying to the gaming community about it, so while I have no intention of buying the game, I appreciate their honesty.

I don’t appreciate the dishonesty in hiding behind an anonymous name and calling a woman a whore because she wants to make videos you don’t agree with. I don’t appreciate the dishonesty in breaking down a strong character into a weak character to generate the need for the player to want to protect her. I don’t appreciate people condemning women for being all over a product they created, in the same way their male counterparts are, just because she’s a woman. It’s a very dishonest sort of anti-female response to the situation, and one that implies not only a conscious or subconscious disapproval of strong women, but also one that implies that the person knows this is wrong when they hide from their views or step out into the world to defend this.

At the end of the day, women make up nearly half of the video gaming market at this moment.

At the end of the day, women are basically equally as good and bad at things as men are.

At the end of the day, stronger female characters strengthen the storytelling of the games they are in, which strengthens the industry.

At the end of the day, strong criticism of what developers are doing wrong will encourage developers to stop doing these things wrong.

At the end of the day, improving our treatment of women in the industry, as people and as characters, improves the industry.

No one is coming to take away your bikini-clad heaving bosoms or your sexually provocative poses. Those will exist until the aforementioned societal collapse-slash-heat death of the universe, because there will forever be a market for that. There should, however, be a market that says, “Hey, we understand women like games too, so maybe we should make games that aren’t insulting to them” and runs with that concept. Yes, there are games that are doing this, and yes, many of these games are very good, but we could be, and should be, doing better. We should not be attacking women who want to be a part of what we do because they’ve dared to play in our sandbox. We should not be ruining strong characters by “breaking them down” to develop them when there are other, better, ways to perform this task. We should not be producing promotional trailers that sound like, according to some people, “the audio track from a snuff film” when you cannot see the video.

We should be better than this.

We need to be better than this.

More of us, men and women alike, need to be better than this.

Just a thought.




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Mark B.

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  • secondwhiteline

    Amen, brother. I think it was on the Penny Arcade forums that I saw the most intelligent, practical argument against the new Tomb Raider. To sum it up, it was basically: survival is not merely “moving forward,” as the game designers have been quoted as saying, but instead a process of making tough decisions (not necessarily violent ones!) under extreme duress. The new Tomb Raider presents a fictional world in which every right decision Lara Croft makes only causes her further suffering and requires of her more extreme violence. So their whole defense, that the game is a realistic portrayal of a survival situation, is complete bull. It’s torture porn, straight-up. I’m a huge cult and exploitation movie fan, but those movies don’t lie to me and pretend they’re United 93, you know? Foxy Brown is Foxy Brown.

    Hey, that Jade Raymond comic, that wouldn’t have been made by someone who was a target of Your Webcomic is Bad and You Should Feel Bad, was it? That controversy escaped me when it happened, but I’m pretty sure I know which scumbag you’re talking about.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Aaron-Sirois/100000150433651 Aaron Sirois

    I’m willing to give some of those comic supporters the benefit of the doubt. People have a tendency to overcompensate when something they like is attacked, and thus will start spouting off nonsense. I do it all the time, and I fight that tendency like crazy. In conversations with people, I’ve come close to both calling Mass Effect 2 great and terrible, when I merely feel it was enjoyable, just because the person I was talking to had an extreme opinion that I didn’t agree with. So I’m sure there would be a significant faction of those supporters who were just reacting to someone criticizing the comic they liked. They were wrong to do so, but it comes natural. Humans being humans and all.

    And now I can’t look at anything Tomb Raider related without a snort of contempt. Thanks Mark! (I did enjoy the article and agree with pretty much all of it though.)

  • Mark B.

    That’s a really fair point, actually; I feel like the game COULD (key word) do something interesting with the character if the developer goes in the right direction with it, but at this point it looks like more of a situation where they beat the crap out of the character for hours for no adequately explained reason. From the trailer, all that’s really shown is Lara getting the mess beaten out of her for several minutes, Lara killing a deer, and some climbing and balancing on her part, which is certainly an indication that there’s a game somewhere in there, but even in the Farcry 3 trailer that works off of a similar premise, your character spends several minutes WRECKING EVERYTHING, and it comes across more as fighting for survival and less as being beaten into a bloody mess. It’s just handled poorly and, if the trailer is indicative of the final game, pretending to be something it’s not.

    Yes, yes he was at one point. I went back and looked up the entry, and the fact that John Solomon called the guy a creepy pervert OVER FOUR YEARS AGO says more to make my point for me than anything I ever could. So there’s that.

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