Enjoying problematic video games

One of my favorite game franchises has long been Final Fantasy, much to the chagrin of some elitist nerds for whom the series of JRPGs represents an erosion of the concept of the RPG. Regardless, its take on mythological creatures, even in its Super Nintendo days, served to clue me in on a small piece of context with regard to religion, from which I synthesised a deeper understanding of religion as mythology. (I’d detailed this in my deconversion story in Mission Creep — it was Behemoth and Leviathan in Final Fantasy 2 that gave me the clues I needed, if you’re wondering.)

That’s right, the video game franchise actually helped me to become an atheist — perhaps not singlehandedly, but it was certainly some scaffolding for my building my epistemology. So, even with its warts, of which there are numerous, and even with the side-eye I get from other gamers, it holds a place in my heart.

And yet, I still must criticise, even if I know that doing so might paint me as a studio-shill Social Justice Warrior journalist-sans-journal, and thus a target for the culture of entitlement that is GamerGate.


The really funny thing about GamerGate (if there is, indeed, something funny about it) is that it claims to be a consumer revolt against “shills” of so-called “triple A” studios. The humour in this is that it apparently defines “shills” as anyone who criticises games from a “Social Justice Warrior” (read: feminist) perspective, irrespective of these critics’ actual targets — e.g. if they’re criticising for the oversexualised characters a mostly-lauded game by Platinum Games / Nintendo / Sega, Bayonetta 2, where all the other game review sites gave universally high marks, they’re somehow still “unethical” despite criticising a AAA-studio game simply by virtue of their feminist ideology. While on the one hand it claims to be about the morality of getting positive game reviews in exchange for favours, it turns a blind eye to pro-GamerGate TotalBiscuit, who did a positive review of a game for which he actually provided voice acting. It’s a movement defined entirely by the core participants’ antifeminist (and often blatantly misogynist) views, and their entitlement over the industry that historically has catered to them and them alone.

The majority of the transgressions GamerGate attacks never actually happened, including the seminal event that spawned the “revolt”, wherein game designer Zoe Quinn supposedly had sex with a game reviewer in exchange for a positive review — though no such review has ever been found, and no evidence of any sex or untoward relationship has ever been revealed despite Gators’ concerted digging at the behest of Quinn’s ex-boyfriend.

This has created a culture wherein the only political bent that is acceptable to evince in game reviews is that shared by proponents of GamerGate — such diverse games-haters as Christina Hoff Sommers and Milo Yiannopoulos. GamerGate has repeatedly sided with antifeminists who themselves literally want to destroy games — even cozying up to Jack FUCKING Thompson after he criticised Anita Sarkeesian. They ostensibly go after “SJWs” for creating echo chambers where it’s impossible to have opinions other than their own, and yet there are so many of these social-justice aware game critics and even game designers being silenced by terroristic death threats that so many people are being drummed out of gaming in general out of fear of reprisal, out of fear of backlash from entitled antifeminist assholes. And don’t you dare tell me that’s a novel idea, that people are being drummed out of movements by harassment and that that constitutes a more real form of censorship than blocking harassers and assholes on social media.

And yet, it’s possible to criticise culture itself, using a particular medium as a reflection of that culture, without hating that medium. In fact, genuinely engaging with the subject matter of a particular scene or trope rarely happens when someone is actually trying to destroy a particular medium. Take Fox News’ freakout over Mass Effect supposedly containing full-frontal nudity and explicit, controllable sex scenes, when it did nothing of the sort. Take Jack Thompson’s continual misrepresentation of what can and cannot be done in video games, and tenuous and contrafactual proffered connections between mass-murderers and said video games. Take the Comics Code, grossly restricting what sorts of stories could be told in “funny books” because comics “were for kids”. Take every furore over every off-colour joke in every cartoon because, of course, cartoons are aimed at kids — even ones as regularly transgressive as South Park.

These are all examples of trying to squash a medium instead of engaging with a problematic message.

I, like many other people who choose to criticise video games, love video games.

I do not want the medium to disappear — I want the medium to flourish, to continue to grow to the point of being so inclusive of so many groups that it is ubiquitous, to the point where the term “gamer” means exactly as little as “movie-goer” does today, in much the same way that I would like “atheist” to be so ubiquitous that it no longer makes sense to describe someone in terms of what they don’t believe. I want the term “gamer” to die the same death, and I’m not the only one. And some may even have a very good argument that the identity is, in fact, already dead, that we have already reached that cultural acceptance tipping point, and that the people demanding that it continue to exist are the atavistic, angry, entitled hipsters who are upset that games now accommodate so much wider a demographic than their particular self-identity.

I’ll tell you a secret about myself — when I burn out work-wise, especially because I’m putting in long hours, my blog suffers (as you may have noticed), mostly because when given the option between curtailing my blogging and curtailing my video gaming, video games always win. My life priorities are work > home-life-stuff > self-care > blogging. Video games are self-care in my books, in that they are my largest single pressure release. And in the pressure release category of activities, the only thing that would trump video games is video games while in a steaming hot bathtub. (But that might be TMI.)

I just got done pouring another 100 hrs into a replaying of Final Fantasy 12, the International Zodiac Job System version. I’d started it about three months ago, before work went to crap, while I was prepping to do the Battletoads longplay for GeekGirlCon. Even when things were at their worst, I managed to get a little slice of gaming in just about every day — excepting maybe that one day that I worked the full 24hrs straight, I guess. During my first playthrough, on a PS2, I did just about everything there was to do in the game except get Zodiark and complete the Hunt Club rare hunts; this time, with the fast-forward feature the IZJS version provides, and on an emulator on my PC in glorious 1080p, I got Zodiark to complete my esper list, and got about halfway through the rare hunts before deciding I wanted to see the ending sequence.

This game, though, sports one of the most problematic single tropes I’ve ever seen — a race of literal Playboy bunnies called the Viera. They are all, to the woman, tall, lithe, buxom, and dressed like dominatrixes. There are no male Viera in the game, and only a passing mention in the Official Strategy Guide to there even BEING male Viera.

Final Fantasy 12 is a game set in the world of Ivalice, a world first brought into existence in Final Fantasy Tactics. It’s the first instance, short of Final Fantasy X-2, where a game world in Final Fantasy was used for a second game — the trend, up until then, was to reuse tropes, villains, creatures and even the occasional character cameo (*coughGilgamesh*), but never to reuse whole worlds. But Ivalice has appeared in a number of games thereafter, including one non-Final-Fantasy game, Vagrant Story. So, the Viera race started out extraordinarily pixellated in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance for the Gameboy Advance, and by virtue of the inability of the console for the race to be oversexualised, were significantly less problematic than the representation they got in Final Fantasy 12.

Now, it’s not problematic for a person to be defined by sexuality, in and of itself. It’s significantly more problematic if they are women, because almost every instance of characters defined by their sexuality and their appeal to the opposite sex and generally designed to be a lust object to viewers, as opposed to other in-world characters, are women. The few examples I can come up with of men defined by being oversexualised are Joey from Friends and Cal from Undergrads, and while an argument could be made for Matt LeBlanc being attractive to women generally even where the character is generally annoying, certainly nobody’s actually interested in Cal (…are they?). With the Viera, nary a soul comments on Viera relationships with Humes (the human-analogue race), save Balthier who mentions that Fran deigns fit to have him as a partner, and save one easily-overlooked minor sidequest involving a creepy stalker in love with a Viera, with the endgame of that scenario being that you get them together. The rewards are minimal, so I wouldn’t even bother — hopefully this is purposeful by the game designers, to teach you that there are no rewards for being a creep. So the sexualised postures, dress mode and aggressively model-attractive body types, down to the leg structure that apparently requires stilettos, stand on their own merits as entirely unnecessary to the game. Fran, in being playable and thus front and center, and often swaying strangely in her fighting stance that looks disturbingly more like a shimmy to a good beat only she can hear, with her bordering-on-alien long legs and thong armour, is made of male gaze, making her of a piece with the rest of her race.

Final Fantasy X has another character whose design is exceedingly problematic, in Lulu, not only for her copious, impossibly nipple-free, and physics-defying, cleavage, but for her black-magic caricature of obeah voodoo despite being the closest of the characters to #FFFFFF on the colour spectrum. This in a game that features racism and prejudice very heavily as a thematic element, and with one of the main characters, Wakka, being patterned after Hawaiian or Samoan culture, along with all the other denizens of the island of Besaid. The main problem with Lulu is that the caricature is never addressed — nobody encounters Lulu’s family or culture at any stage in either FFX or FFX-2, so it stands simply as a caricature in isolation of all the appropriation and problematic representation of a whole culture that’s going on in the service of making yet another exotic beauty made of male gaze.

And yet, I buy these games, and play them, and play them to virtually 100% completion in many cases — even Final Fantasy X-2, which I got the “good ending” where Yuna revives Tidus (spoilers!!), which literally requires 100% completion. And that’s a game where three girls go on a Charlie’s Angels quest wherein their chief power is the ability to change outfits mid-battle, where their abilities very literally come from cosplay. It’s a game where the designers seem to have cloistered themselves in a room and brainstormed on how to “pinkify” (meaning, cynically appeal to what men think women want) the game series. And I still enjoyed the hell out of it as a game — a very fun game with extremely problematic parts.

Here’s the kicker: I paid for that game, and all my other games, and all my consoles, and even the computer on which I write this essay, with my own money. I likely have spent significantly more time playing video games of all genres in my lifetime than your average GamerGate supporter, and very likely several orders of magnitude more than some particularly cynical manipulative antifeminists who have latched onto that “movement” in hopes of furthering their malign cause. And I shouldn’t need to present my credentials to do so, but even if I did, I have the absolute, unqualified right to form an informed opinion about the games that I play. And freedom of speech — that principle so many Gators don’t understand — grants me the unqualified right to speak that opinion, as I’m doing here.

By criticising the heavily problematic parts of games that do not exist in a vacuum, that exist within a cultural lens where there are actual problems with gender in our Western society, I intend to help shine a light on those problems. I do so using a medium that I understand well, that I enjoy myself, and that other gamers, who might never have been exposed to critical thoughts about gender outside of the twisted funhouse mirror versions they fight when they gird their loins for battle against straw feminists, might actually understand.

I come not to bury games, but to play them and then kvetch about the parts that could have used rethinking. In the same way that you might complain about a game about depression whose game-like elements are nearly hidden among all the prose, I might complain about a game that uses a tired and hackneyed trope in order to shoehorn a lot of T and A someplace it doesn’t belong just to appeal to a demographic it thinks it’s supposed to cater to at the expense of another, vaster demographic who might be turned off by same. And all the while, I’ll do my damnedest to give that game a fairer shake than anyone seems to be giving the author of the former example.

It’s okay to like games and also to not like some elements of some games. It’s, further, perfectly okay to talk about those problematic elements. Complaining about games does not a “social justice warrior” make. And harassing people until they stop giving their opinions out of fear of reprisal is the real censorship here.

You self-proclaimed “gamers”, to whom entire industries cater at their own expense, complaining that feminists are silencing you — you sweet children of summer — sound to my ears just like world-renowned multimillionaire Richard Dawkins when he compains that he feels silenced by feminists who dare critique him, despite the fact that he continues to be a well known author with books and frequent speaking engagements out the ass. Would that we could all be so silenced as you!

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Enjoying problematic video games
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6 thoughts on “Enjoying problematic video games

  1. 1

    But Ivalice has appeared in a number of games thereafter, including one non-Final-Fantasy game, Vagrant Story.

    …which came out six years beforehand.

  2. 2

    Final Fantasy Tactics came out in 1997, and Vagrant Story in 2000. The game dev claimed it to take place in Ivalice, though its events are rarely mentioned elsewhere in Ivalice-based games.

  3. 4

    I’ve been playing video games for nearly forty years and it never occurred to me to call myself a gamer or that being a gamer was an an actual thing someone could be as opposed to someone who just loves games. I have other hobbies too and I don’t identify myself in terms of those activities either. I don’t voraciously defend the knife-throwing community, for example. When some of its members say or do sexist things. I say “don’t do that” and the response is dissatisfied mumbling at the very worst. Of course, I’m male. Perhaps the response would be very different if I weren’t. And by definition I don’t know what people are saying about me behind my back, but they aren’t threatening to rape or – more likely – stab me. They either suck up or ignore the criticism, I don’t know which.

    I don’t mean to suggest that the community doesn’t have a problem with sexism. The community almost certainly does contain flagrant sexists and insofar as it has a leadership at all, the leadership is probably doing nothing about it.

    I play games (a lot) but I’m not a Gamer. I throw knives (when I can) but I’m not a Knife Thrower. My identity isn’t wrapped up with those activities, they’re just things I do. I have a cat, but I’m not a Cat Person. I’ve even been known to own dogs from time to time.

    It’s obvious that many people who identify as gamers see their hobby differently, though. Criticism of games is deeply personal to them. I feel some of that when the media portray – as they usually do – gaming as something other than a legitimate hobby, adult gamers as immature or even somehow sinister (by definition, I mean, we know many are actually sinister) and games as universally destructive of society. I feel rage, but I feel it against the arguments and the judgemental attitude that comes with and leads to those arguments, not against the people making those arguments. I’ve never felt inclined to threaten anyone who criticises me directly, let alone anyone who criticises my hobbies.

    Above all, I get some of it. I get the exuberance of counter-culture. I get the excitement of being part of a frowned-upon community. The impulse for civil disobedience is about the only instinct I have. I get it.

    But I don’t get why communities bully their own members and I don’t get the feeding frenzy. I don’t get it when reactions to patently obvious problems such as sexist tropes, sexist people and sexist reactions are writ large. I don’t get it when members of a community *could* say “Hm. You know what? You’re right. We could make games more inclusive and less shit” but in fact say “Die bitch die and I’ll rape your corpse”.

    Back on topic: I really enjoyed what might be the most sexist (and buggiest) game of all time: The Witcher. The first one. The second one was shit. But I played the first one again recently and the sexism was close to vomit-inducing. Women – even the supposedly strong female NPCs – are there only to fuck. The story is very slightly different if you choose to fuck one woman over another. You are forced to take an interest in a woman’s adopted child (specifically, you have to deny the child something he wants) in order to fuck her. Oh, and you have to buy her a specific kind of ring because as we all know bitches be crazy.

    There isn’t a woman in that game that you can’t fuck and get XP for the fucking. There are random women who will fuck you if you give them flowers and it doesn’t help the story along. The supposedly strong female NPCs can all be fucked if you play your cards right. If you do play your cards right, the scantily-clad NPCs will certainly fuck you for flowers.

    Holy fuck is this problematic. But it’s a pretty good game. There’s attention to detail. There’s a compelling backstory. There’s exceptionally good art. Enough people think it’s a good game for actual novels to be written set in the world of the witcher.

    You know, we should experiment. If we prodded the Witcher community, I wonder who’d get the worst of the backlash. I’m only kidding: measuring would be good, but we already know the outcome.

  4. 5

    @latsot:

    Enough people think it’s a good game for actual novels to be written set in the world of the witcher.

    The original stories came more than a decade before the game, as did a tabletop RPG.

  5. 6

    The male gaze in Mass Effect 2 made me cringe during my recent re-play of the trilogy. During one conversation there’s a lingering close-up on Miranda’s arse, as she bends over a desk for some reason. Just horrible. And this from BioWare, probably the most progressive of the big developers. They did slightly better with Isabela in Dragon Age II, despite her outward appearance. A strong, assertive woman who loves sex in many forms but isn’t defined by her sexuality. She has her own character arc and motivations, and makes her own choices, playing a significant role in the plot (she ended up saving the main character’s life in my story). Also, she’s a badass pirate and has some great one-liners (“I like big boats, I cannot lie”). I haven’t played it yet but apparently Dragon Age: Inquisition has a trans character whose story was extensively re-written after the writer consulted with trans people. So yeah, hopefully things are changing.

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