Sunday, 2 September 2012

Design Decisions Raped My Computer Game

Trigger Warning: This post discusses rape and the dismissal and trivialisation of rape in the media. The last section of the post contains a quote from Harriet J describing her experiences as a rape survivor that may be triggering.

The past few weeks have seen the issue of rape prominently in the media spotlight. From British MP George Galloway’s classification of the rape of sleeping women as “bad sexual ettiquitte” to US Republican Todd Akin’s distinction between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” rape and his ideas about the ability of the female body to respond to them, rape and its definition have been discussed extensively across the mainstream media. It is perhaps timely then that the gaming press now finds itself with its own spurious redefinition of rape to contend with.

Cory Davis, lead designer at development studio Yager for Spec Ops - The Line, a title focussed on its single player campaign’s meditation on the morality of warfare, spoke out against publisher 2k Games over the inclusion of a multiplayer mode developed by a second studio to “check a box”. As part of an article with the Polygon section of online magazine the Verge, Davis stated:

“The multiplayer game's tone is entirely different, the game mechanics were raped to make it happen, and it was a waste of money. No one is playing it, and I don't even feel like it's part of the overall package — it's another game rammed onto the disk like a cancerous growth, threatening to destroy the best things about the experience that the team at Yager put their heart and souls into creating.”

Reports on Davis’ comments were carried in Joystiq, Rock Paper Shotgun, Strategy Informer, EGM Now, Kotaku and Eurogamer among others. In all instances, there was no particular mention of Davis’ misuse of the word rape beyond reference to his “strong language” in general, while several of these outlets chose Davis’ questionable usage of “cancerous” as worthy of inclusion in their story’s headline. When studio Darkside, responsible for the game’s multiplayer portion, issued a response, they too engaged with Davis’ remarks without commenting on his choice of language.

To many gamers, this misuse of the word “raped” will be familiar. In gaming culture the word is often used to refer to being crushingly defeated and in some communities is thrown around quite liberally. It is perhaps because of this, and in spite of the recent controversies in the wider press, that the response to Davis’ comments in the gaming press has totally ignored his abuse of the word “rape”.

In her incisive 2010 analysis of games journalism, “No Cheering In The Press Box”, AJ Glasser talks about games journalism’s status as essentially an “enthusiast press” and criticizes the “...self-destructive cycle that begins when journalists behave like an audience because they're filling the dual role of professional and fan.” While she forms her criticism within the context of feedback between a professional press and games developers, the same criticism can also be made of the failure of the gaming press to reflect on gaming norms and culture.

It is inconceivable that a content producer in any other medium or industry could make a statement which so casually trivializes not only the act of rape but the experiences of rape survivors and not have their language remarked on if not outright condemned by that industry’s press.

While rape is an issue that affects men and transgender individuals as well as women, statistics on the first two groups are hard to come by. We do know from various studies into rape and sexual violence in the US, however, that somewhere between 15% and 20% of women have survived rape, that’s around 1 in 5 people in what the Entertainment Software Association calls “one of the industry’s fastest growing demographics”. What this translates to is a sizable number of gamers likely to be not only alienated, but hurt and disturbed by the trivial use of the word rape by gamers, by developers and the failure of the gaming press to challenge this behaviour.

I contacted Davis via his Twitter account (@Snak3Fist) to challenge his comments.
@Snak3Fist its pretty disgusting that you throw around "rape" to discuss design decisions in a video game. You ought to publish a retraction

Davis responded by attempting to turn the issue into a topical joke, riffing on Todd Akin’s widely condemned statement that women who are “legitimately” raped are able to automatically terminate any resulting pregnancy.
@Skipjack451 True. I should have been more specific. It was actually "Illegitimate Rape" because we did eventually birth the Multiplayer.

When I challenged Davis on the inappropriate nature of attempting to turn the issue of rape into a joke, I received no reply.
@Snak3Fist thats really not funny and youre being unbelievably disrespectful and callous toward rape survivors by trying to make this a joke

Davis did, however, post up this quote from author Hunter S. Thompson.

“Life has become immeasurably better since I have been forced to stop taking it seriously.” ― Hunter S. Thompson

The timing of this tweet would seem to suggest Davis was obliquely suggesting that both I and another Twitter user, @mescalineeyes, who had complained about Davis’ usage of the “cancerous” were taking things too seriously. This would certainly be consistent with the attitude belied by Davis’ attempt to turn his comments on rape into a joke.

In her excellent deconstruction of the trivialization of rape through humour, Harriet J offers this incredibly powerful account of her experiences of hearing friends joking about rape:

“Hope the conversation does not continue extolling the virtues of rape, making saying nothing harder. Hate yourself for saying nothing. Notice girl sitting on the porch of the house next to you who has heard what was said. Notice her similar reactions. Hate yourself more for saying nothing, because she has probably been raped, too, because you don’t know any woman who hasn’t. Hate your friend, because he doesn’t know that every woman he knows has been raped. Have minor flashbacks of what was done to you. No feeling the sun, the breeze now, just his hand on your shoulder to get leverage. Simmer with stopped-up rage that this thing he did, his hand on your shoulder, has just been joked about as fun and exciting. Simmer with stopped-up rage that you said nothing then, too, even though that’s not really true. You just said nothing that was listened to, deemed important. Like your silence and obvious rage is being ignored now. Stop enjoying the day. Stop enjoying the company of your friend. Make a mental note to withdraw from others before they can casually, “jokingly” remind you of your rape. Feel bad. It’s not like they know you were raped. Feel angry. It’s not like you’re ever going to tell them, now. Feel alone and angry. Assume bitterly that you will feel this way forever.”

It is this kind of reaction and these kinds of feelings that Davis’ comments and his flippant response are likely to stir up in any rape survivors that come across them. The failure of the gaming press to challenge Davis over his comments will further this distress by making it seem as though his language is acceptable and normal and that the reaction of rape survivors is unwarranted or illegitimate. Combined with the continuing status of “rape” as a piece of gaming terminology, this perpetuates a situation where gaming remains an exclusive domain unwelcoming to women and rape survivors.

While the response to the recent scandal over the sexual harassment of a female participant at the Cross Assault gaming tournament showed that attitudes are slowly changing and that there is a clear grassroots desire for gaming communities to become more welcoming and inclusive, the gaming press must do more to support and reflect this feeling and to show that games have the potential to become a mature and professional medium.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

It's Not All Bad News: Gamers Back EA Backing Gay Marriage

I'm a little late to the party on this one, but the comments on this article over at Joystiq are pretty positive.The article briefly announces that EA have joined a coalition of US companies opposing the Defence Of Marriage Act, a piece of anti-gay marriage legislation, prompting an inevitable flamewar in the comments section but with a surprising slant. Until the comments get overrun by a pretty transparent forums invasion, there is a really strong presence of commenters making articulate and uncompromising pro-gay marriage arguments and taking apart the relatively few bigots who stick their head above the parapet.

Maybe this is something to do with Joystiq's community or maybe it is indicative of a wider shift in demographics and attitudes within the gaming community, but either way it's really positive to see this kind of support for equal rights coming out of a scene where homophobia used to be the baseline.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Raid: Redemption - How Computer Games Ruined Movies

The Raid is a bad movie. Sorry to be all contrarian but there it is. It is a really bad movie and is bad in many ways. The most offensive ways it is bad are a) it is boring and b) it advances a horrible sociopolitical agenda. If you liked this movie it is probably because you are dumb and did not notice that it was very boring and the loose moral framework it attempts to use to justify the interminable violence is really ugly and stupid.

In The Raid, the Indonesian equivalent of a SWAT team raids a tower block because it is full of criminals and being a criminal is basically the worst fucking thing you can be. As a criminal your death is not just necessary, it is so necessary as to supercede due process or even any real understanding of what kind of criminal you are and why. We are told, vaguely, that these criminals are murderers, rapists and drug addicts. That’s probably the broadest swathe of the law breaking spectrum short of including music pirates and terrorists. All these wretched, inhuman monsters live in this borderline derelict tower block because there’s a crime lord guy on the top floor and he rents the place out as a sort of exclusive residence for ne’er-do-wellers.

Oh but then it turns out that there also some normal people there, like children, and a man with a sick wife, who somehow manage to live amongst these psychotic, drug-addled killers. Whatever. All that matters is that (most of) the people that live there are bad. We know they are bad because they wear shitty clothes and live in squalor. In one early scene, as armed police storm into people’s apartments without warning and handcuff them with cable ties, we are treated to a shot of the shit-soaked trousers of a drug addict. Disgusting. God I hope someone kills all these gross people. Oh cool, turns out that’s basically the whole movie.

It’s not unfair to say that if you want to watch The Raid but don’t want to have to actually watch The Raid because it is a bad movie, you can get an equivalent experience by looping the hallway shootout scene from Leon for about 2 days, interspersed with some pro pen-twiddling footage, but you have to imagine the pen is like some skanky drug addict and the hand is a noble hero cop.

When Orwell wrote about the vision of a boot stamping on a human face forever, he was probably writing about this film because that is basically all that happens and it lasts forever. Occasionally the 5th or 6th or whatever wall keeps the action and the “story” separate begins to leak and some amount of plot development seeps in. In these moments, the stupefying whirling of knives, limbs or entire bloodied bodies is replaced by lots of growling and dick waving and rank pulling and talking about the lives of MY MEN. There’s an interesting symmetry here because this happens to be as boring and predictable as the fighting.

I mean, its 2012 and someone has made a martial arts movie which contains a scene where the protagonist is cornered and outnumbered by a mob of expendable unnamed bad guys and there’s a tense moment where everyone just stares at each other and then the bad guys start yelling and running at the good guy and somehow wind up fighting him one by one and then he wins. I dunno I guess I sort of assumed that this sort of shit went out of fashion the same time I lost interest in it (age 15 years old).

But a movie being really boring and predictable isn’t enough of a heinous crime to make me feel like I have to write a review about it. No, it has to be kind of offensive in some way and being a tiresome, pious lefty, this film’s approach to violence, law enforcement, militarism and the value of human life offends me. Not in a Mary Whitehouse way. Just in a sort of really disappointed in you kind of way.

Inevitably, the film is head over fucking tits in love with the police and guns and being macho. At the end of the film, one character finally decides he can’t take this bullshit anymore and decides to blow his fucking brains out. I guess maybe he was supposed to be the one we relate to, but I was already considering opening an artery about an hour and forty minutes earlier so too late bro. Anyway, the camera pours over the body of this revolver being pressed against quivering flesh and its pretty gross really. Here’s a guy about to kill himself and the most interesting thing about that is the gun he is going to use to do it. Turns out its out of bullets anyway (spoiler lol), which is actually a recurring thing in The Raid and I can only assume meticulous detail was paid to how many rounds are discharged by each revolver so that you can count along at home and get a massive kick out of it if you’re some sort of sociopathic gun-worshiping ubernerd. In which case you are basically this film’s key demographic anyway.

The first fatality in the film, clocking in about 20 seconds before the expiration of my will to live, is some guy sat out back of this building watching TV and reading a magazine. I guess maybe he’s supposed to be a spotter or something but he seems pretty chill. Then a cop sneaks up behind him and chokes him to death with garrote wire. Not to be a buzz kill or anything but even if he is some kind of drug addled rapist murder spotter who is going to raise the alarm if he spots the cops, surely if you can sneak up on him you could just, I don’t know, arrest him and charge/release him later? Rather than just crushing his windpipe while he’s just chilling out totally unarmed and not posing any kind of direct threat?

Right after this, we get a classy montage of drug addled scum being variously cable tied, beaten up, and having their mouths duct-taped shut in bed as the police storm through the building. I don’t get why these guys are OK to live but that guy out front wasn’t. Maybe murdering people in their own homes is verboten according to some sort of psycho-cop honour system. Oh wait, that’s the entire premise of the film.

Later on there’s a cool bit where the cops run into a kid in the hallway. Incredibly, they manage to resist the urge to just riddle him with bullets and instead tell him not to do anything stupid, which in itself is kind of a stupid idea because all the cool kids know not to trust the police. He’s a cool kid so he runs off and the cops shoot him through a door. We see the bullet in slow motion as it rips through the wood and then through his neck.

Some weak minded sorts might feel there are some pretty heavy moral questions that arise when a child is deliberately killed by law enforcement personnel. The film is steadfast however in its belief in the ineffable nature of the divine apparatus of state sanctioned violence. You see, the child just has time to warn another child that the police are here, setting off an alarm which alerts the whole building and puts The Mission in jeopardy, in a stroke brilliantly illustrating that the killing of a child is totally necessary for the greater good of militarised policing. It doesn’t quibble with the little things, like how comes there are kids in a building full of hardened criminals? Are these children also murderers, rapists and drug addicts? Are they being coerced? Do they have families living there? Did the police know that there were likely to be children in the building? Shouldn’t they take measures to avoid killing kids?

All that comes if it is one cop gets a bit angry, but then tears off in pursuit of the second child, narrowly missing his chance to also become a child murderer. Too bad mate, better luck next time. The incident is never addressed again.

That said, adults don’t fare much better. They pour in from around corners, behind doors, through the ceiling or from just out of frame. They are an unending river of bodies waiting to be shot, stabbed, punched, kicked, have their heads smashed into walls, throats crushed, backs and noses and various limbs broken, to be assaulted and executed in many and varied ways. The onslaught is at times so relentless that the movie goes beyond glamorizing extreme violence, it actually makes it boring. The sheer scale of the horde feels as if it dwarfs even the Amorphous Angry Black Mob from Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, the previous record holder for Expansive Mass of Dehumanised Cannon Fodder.

Roger Ebert has it right when he says the film is like a video game. The same tawdry logic that underpins Man vs Human Wave games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor is at the core of this film’s being. There was even a moment when, after the music swelled heroically as one of the protagonists graphically slit a man’s throat with a broken tube light, I swear I heard the Xbox Achievement Unlocked sound. Whether I imagined it or not, it wouldn’t be out of place. Having made it that far through the movie I should have gotten something back at least.

The effect is of course that The Enemy, whoever they happen to be, are not to be mourned or understood or viewed as human at all. This is nothing especially new, but The Raid, like most video games, can scarcely even bring itself to humanise the protagonists. Yeah yeah, there’s some set up where we see the main hero cop praying at home, working out and then strapping on his Glock before kissing his pregnant wife goodbye and having a poignant moment with his old man. But out of 20 cops, only a handful have names, less than that have any real character outside of the role they play in the movie. A character’s goodness or badness is defined, not by anything about the character themselves, but purely by which team they are on. Essentially, being a cop, even a cop who murders children and assaults people in their homes, makes you good, and being a criminal, even if you are just addicted to an illicit substance, makes you bad. So it's not just the endless, inescapable violence and brutality of the film that is dehumanising, it is also the laziness of its writing.

This might not seem like a big deal, after all it’s just a dumb movie for dumb people, but the problem is how this crude sketch of morality reinforces received attitudes about things happening in the real world, from police brutality to imperialism. It’s not hard to read the movie as essentially apologia for NATO’s current obsession with removing dictators from select countries through the application of overwhelming and largely indiscriminate force. In The Raid, the suspicion that even the innocent dead probably did something to deserve it is realised again and again.

Of course, there’s plenty of other levels to how dreadful this movie is. There are, at most, four female characters in the whole movie. The two most prominent, the Hero’s Wife and the Sick Wife of Sympathic Hell-House Resident, are only seen lying stricken in bed, dependent upon the protection of their men. They don’t speak. The only woman who speaks is a drug addict who is sat by her bed who is started by the protagonist bursting through her window. The other female character may not actually be female because she was involved in a fight, and during fight scenes the camera begins to have a seizure and jerks around so much its hard to see who exactly it is that is getting their head caved in with a filing cabinet. In any case, it’s not particularly edifying that the only female character to be seen standing up in the movie gets her face pulped by the male lead. Maybe there needs to be some kind of Bechdel test for martial arts movies revolving around how many named women kick the shit out of each other for reasons other than trying to woo the male lead etc.

Then there’s the similiarly predictable racial element. Is it just my guilty white liberal imagination or were the protagonists all substantially more caucasian looking than the antagonists? Does it matter that the writer/director of this Indonesian martial arts movie is actually a tubby white guy from Wales? Does that say something about exploitation and representation?

Who the fuck knows. No one should even care because no one should watch this stupid shitty movie it is literally the most boring dumbest shit I ever seen God and yeah I know that’s a lot of words I just wrote about a dumb stupid shit film but it’s getting like 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and someone has to do something.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Cross Assault, Sexual Harrassment and the Gaming Press

As Capcom’s Street Fighter X Tekken promotional tournament and reality TV show Cross Assault draws to a close, it is almost certain that the event will be remembered by much of the gaming community for the appalling treatment of one of the show’s female contestants. The nature of the harassment suffered by Mirana “Super Yan” Pakozdi and the outrageous comments of her harasser sparked debate across the gaming community yet the form this debate took, shaped at least in part by the gaming media, is illustrative of the problems still faced in making gaming a safe and inclusive space.

Featuring a $25,000 grand prize and drawing in promising talent from the Tekken and Street Fighter professional communities, Cross Assault was intended to serve the dual purpose of building anticipation for Street Fighter X Tekken as well as bolster Capcom’s attempts to bring the fighting game scene out of the underground and into line with more high profile eSports movements.

It is surprising, then, that Capcom should have failed so thoroughly to make the tournament a safe space for its participants, first allowing a female player to be sexually harassed to the point where she forfeited a match, and then attempting to respond to the fallout with an apology that fails to directly acknowledge the incident.

Pakozdi, one of five Tekken players competing in the tournament, was subject to repeated sexual comments and behaviour by her team coach, Aris Bakhtanians, over the course of several days. On the first day alone, these comments ranged from speculation about Pakozdi’s bra size (which apparently prompted spectators on the Internet to change their chat handles to references to different parts of Pakozdi’s body), discussing the notion of her “mud wrestling” with another woman and Bakhtanians “getting the winner”, to asking how Pakozdi smelt.

One exchange saw Bakhtanians repeatedly make comments about Pakozdi’s thighs and breasts and suggest she remove her shirt. When Pakozdi complains that his comments are making her uncomfortable and putting her off her game, Bakhtanians responds by again telling her to take off her shirt and explaining that he is teaching her to concentrate while being heckled. He then suggests to suggest that Pakozdi should wear a skirt for the benefit of viewers watching the live feed.

In another exchange Bakhtanians stands over Pakozdi and criticises her for a mistake, telling her that if she makes another mistake he will smell her “real close... I’m going to say his [Pakozdi’s boyfriend’s] name while I’m smelling you.” Despite Pakozdi pleading with Bakhtanians to stop, he continues to taunt her. He later leans over Pakozdi and repeats his threats to smell her, prompting Pakozdi to leave the room.

In a separate incident, Bakhtanians takes control of the live stream camera and repeatedly focuses it on Pakozdi’s breasts and crotch.

Writing on her twitter account, Pakozdi said Bakhtanians “made my life incredibly hard and hasn't helped me with [dealing with hecklers] at all. He made it way worse” and explained her decision not to attend the tournament’s final round on the basis that “I don't think the whole community is like that but enough people are that it scared me away from going to Final Round.”

Capcom and the individuals responsible for the production of the show apparently did nothing to intervene as Bakhtanians’ behaviour continued over the following days, resulting in Pakozdi forfeiting a match and leaving the tournament. Instead, Capcom issued the following statement:

“The views and opinions expressed by cast members in the live Internet program 'Cross Assault' do not reflect those of Capcom. As a company, Capcom believes that everyone should be treated with respect. This particular issue was brought to our attention and has been addressed. We sincerely apologize to anyone that was offended by any comments expressed during the show.”

That the statement refers to the “views and opinions” of contestants suggests the statement was prompted by a separate event which occurred on day 5 of the tournament, after Jared Rea, a community manager from the show’s streaming provider, speculated that aggressive, sexualised language may be alienating potential fans from the growing fighting game community. This inspired Bakhtanians to engage in a lengthy rant in which he declared that sexual harassment and aggressive sexual behaviour were an integral part of fighting game culture and that it would be “unethical” to challenge it.

Capcom are right to distance themselves from such comments, but such a move seems deeply incongruous when the company has failed to provide any statement regarding the actual sexual harassment that occurred on the show and its own failure to ensure this behaviour was curtailed. This suggests that to Capcom, distancing themselves from Bakhtanians’ outrageous views is more important than acknowledging and engaging with the indefensible harassment and bullying that Pakozdi was subject to.

This approach reframes the entire incident, placing Bakhtanians and his misogynistic views at the very centre of the issue and reduces his disturbing and aggressive behaviour toward Pakozdi to background context. Coverage of the incident in the gaming press has been limited, but what exposure there is has been characterised by the tendency to follow Capcom’s example in engaging primarily with the “debate” over whether sexual harassment should be a protected as an integral part of fighting games culture and in the process elevating Bakhtanians’ profile as a sort of cultural anti-hero, while ignoring or minimising his abusive behaviour toward Pakozdi.

Destructoid’s coverage is particularly guilty of this. Despite providing a video that captures the full scope of Bakhtanians behaviour and Pakozdi’s increasing distress, the article refers to “ostensibly lewd comments” made by Bakhtanians “according to Pakozdi” and “Pakozdi’s claims of mistreatment by notorious bearded gentleman Aris Bakhtanians.” In addition to celebrating Bakhtanians as a controversial figure, the choice of language clearly suggests an element of uncertainty over the nature of Bakhtanians comments and the reliability of Pakozdi’s account. This is compounded by a suggestion that readers check out the discussion on the forums of the Shoryuken community for “some spirited arguments from both sides of the fence” in spite of the fact that “some online community members... have firmly sided against Pakodzi.” All this under the jovial headline “Sexual harassment and fightin’ drama, together at last.”

Giant Bomb’s article focuses explicitly on Bakhtanians defence of misogyny. Undera headline “When Passions Flare, Lines Are Crossed”, which likely refers to Bakhtanians’ “passion” for the fighting game community, although it could also be read as implying, dangerously, that his harassment of Pakodzi was based out of misplaced desire, the article provides an extended blow-by-blow of Bakhtanians’ exchange with Rea on the subject of whether aggressive misogyny has a place in gaming culture laid out across a pair of transcripts. Pakodzi’s departure is suggested to have been prompted by this exchange, with her bullying by Bakhtanian’s being referred to only in passing and characterised by the selected quote “Miranda, I wanna know your bra size.” Again, this occurs despite an embedded video which captures Bakhtanians behaviour in full.

Of the all the outlets that covered the event, Original Gamer’s coverage is the worst, referring to Pakozdi’s “issues” with her coach over “possible harassment” and noting that “many are questioning the decision to give up the chance at $25,000.“ If the article drips with contempt for Pakozdi, the site is quick to identify itself with Bakhtanians, highlighting the fact that he “has been interviewed on this site”, complete with hyperlink. In a follow up story regarding Bakhtanians’ issuing of an apology (which, predictably given the nature of the coverage, is expressing contrition for his defence of misogynistic behaviour, rather than for having actually engaged in such behaviour himself), Original Gamer complain about other news sites being “more than happy to take this situation and run with it to advance their agendas”.

By contrast, a surprisingly well-rounded article is presented by Penny Arcade Reporter. Many readers will no doubt be aware that until as recently as the end of last year the Penny Arcade franchise was at the centre of an on-going controversy over the comic’s repeated usage of rape jokes and the reluctance of the strip’s creators to engage with the criticism this elicited from the community.

It is potentially a sign of a maturation within the Penny Arcade brand that the Reporter’s article on the event, despite leading with the controversy over Bakhtanians’ views, engages with Pakozdi’s experiences. Although Bakhtanians rant is presented in transcript while his behaviour toward Pakozdi is buried in a video link, Penny Arcade explicitly and unreservedly criticise Bakhtanians’ behaviour and the failure of the event’s organisers to step in when it became clear things were getting out of hand.

Not only that, but the article highlights Bakhtanians’s defence of gamers chanting “bitch” and calling for a female character to be raped as indicative of his views, which are themselves presented negatively.

More problematic is the statement that “This may be the first time in the history of video games that someone had said that removing sexual harassment is ethically unjust.” While this passage is clearly intended to suggest disbelief at Bakhtanians’ defence of misogyny, it also serves to imply his behaviour and opinions are isolated. As last year’s outrage over a Battlefield 3 launch party that banned women from attending illustrated, misogyny and male entitlement not only span genres, but that elements of these communities are willing to defend this behaviour just as vociferously and uncompromisingly as Bakhtanians.

While it is heartening that both the games media and the wider gaming community have roundly condemned the idea of sexual harassment being a key part of fighting game culture, it is troubling the way that this debate -and it has been a debate- has completely overshadowed the televised sexual harassment of a young woman. It would be unthinkable in any other sporting community for a female competitor to be treated in such a way, even more so for subsequent coverage to be dedicated to the incoherent and defiant misogynist ranting of the perpetrator. If eSports and professional gaming wish to become as established and respected as physical sports, more must be done to foster an inclusive and safe environment for participants from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Similarly, the gaming community as a whole is no stranger to grassroots outrage. When Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 was announced as lacking a dedicated server mode for its PC release, a high profile if somewhat uncommitted boycott of the game was announced by furious gamers. If the omission of a particular networking mode triggered that level of vocal condemnation, what are we to make of the near-silence that has met Capcom and their partners’ inability to protect a contestant in one of their tournaments from prolonged and aggressive sexual harassment?

The failure of the gaming media to appropriately frame their reportage is unlikely to be the product of the sort of deeply held hatred for women and defensiveness of privilege that Bakhtanians espouses. Rather, the habitual framing of the story around the experiences of the male figure and the presentation of Pakodzi’s experiences as of dubious reliability are more likely the product of habitual assumptions borne out of unchallenged patriarchal thinking. While perhaps less overtly hateful and dangerous, the consequences of allowing these prejudices to go unchecked are still deeply damaging to the community, in this instance resulting in an opportunity to present a meaningful challenge against sexism and misogyny in gaming to be all but passed up.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Hotly anticipated by fans of the seminal original Deus Ex: Human Revolution has garnered generally favourable reviews from critics and players alike. In particular, the title has captured attention for its philosophical and allegorical aspects. What do the controversial mechanical body augmentations at the centre of the game’s narrative represent? Abortion? Universal Healthcare? Racism? Here is the first of many spoilers in this review: they don’t represent anything because the game is an incoherent, half-finished mess.

The game’s plot attempts to concern itself with the moral, social and political ramifications of the widespread availability of mechanical implants and augmentations which grant the recipient superhuman abilities. The player character, Adam Jensen, is stuffed full of these augmentations after he is mortally wounded in a mysterious attack on his place of work., and gains the power to punch through walls, go invisible, run really fast, jump really high, shoot perfectly straight and be really charming in conversation even though he dresses like he’s about to ambush you into a conversation about the lasting influence of the Trigun series on contemporary anime.

At least initially the game sets up some interesting ideas. The introductory credit sequence shows Jensen undergoing augmentation surgery and one of the closing shots shows us the inside of his chest cavity illuminated with circuitry and corporate logos. Reference is made in some of the readable books that litter the environment to special augmented-only sporting events and their popularity relative to their vanilla counterparts. Outside the corporate skyscraper that serves as your main staging ground throughout the game, we are told that there are demonstrations, and later riots, taking place as tensions rise in the public debate over augmentations.

When the game attempts to enter this debate, however, all these interesting ideas vanish. The voices presented in favour of augmentations are corporate types like your boss David Sarif who believe that augmentations have the ability to “unlock mankind’s potential” and are unequivocally A Good Thing. The cautious middle ground is represented by a slimeball political lobbyist William Taggart, who you might also recognise as Senator Robert Kelly from the X-Men franchise. He believes that augmentations are dangerous and should be heavily regulated by the government. He is presented as the moderate voice of the extreme and unruly anti-augmentation mob which is only ever glimpsed in full-on lynching mode.

The concerns, goals and composition of the anti-augmentation movement are never clearly defined. Painted in broad strokes as a sort fundamentalist, religious movement (which religion is never addressed), championed by a conspiratorial talk radio host who is clearly patterned after Alex Jones, the movement would appear to be conceptualised as akin to today’s right-wing American Christian militia movements, with placards and signs linked the anti-augmentation movement explicitly referencing anti-abortion and segregationist slogans. In presentation, however, the protesters are clearly intended to resemble the punks and anarchists typically associated with the activist left, sporting mohawks and ragged clothes. This incongruity is never explored or explained and similarly the substance of the anti-augmentation movement’s position is never fleshed out. Even when characters mention a lack of augmentation for the poor and the advantages this provides to the rich, the game shows no awareness of the impact of class divisions in social struggles. Having created an explicitly political space, the game then proceeds to avoid engaging with matters of political ideology at all, leaving the anti-augmentation crowd as a violent, amorphous mob.

Meanwhile, Taggart, the “moderate” voice in favour of government regulation is presented as unpleasant and manipulative. In their first encounter, Taggart attempts to provoke an aggressive from Jensen by needling him about the attack which left Jensen requiring extensive augmentation to survive. Although he is shown to be genuine in his beliefs that augmentation technology needs to be regulated to ensure the safety of humanity, he is never portrayed as likable or trust worthy. It is eventually revealed that his assistant was involved, without Taggart’s knowledge, in organising the attack on Sarif Industries and kidnapping Jensen’s former lover.

By contrast not matter how duplicious or manipulative Sarif is revealed to have been, his warm, paternal relationship with Jensen is never compromised. He is consistently presented as an idealist, committed to unlocking humanity’s full potential at any cost. He even overtly rebuffs the overtures of the Illuminati to bring him into their fold.

It is clear from the way these key players are presented who we are supposed to identify with and where our sympathies are intended to lie. Given the suspicion that the original Deus Ex had for corporations and power elites, this change of tone could not be more jarring or concerning. Where Deus Ex championed social and individual freedom, Human Revolution is enamoured with technology and the myth of the friendly corporation.

When the game attempts to root the augmentation debate in the language of previous real world social struggles, the game’s political incoherence and infatuation with power elites becomes intolerable. In downtown Detroit, a sign in a restaurant window reads “Augmented People enter through back door” because the debate is like racism and augmented people are the blacks. Further down the street a discarded protest sign reads “I regret my augmentation” because the debate is like the abortion debate and augmented people are like women seeking abortions. Sound bites uttered by unnamed NPCs make reference to employers handing out augmentations and support to workers as perks, because hey it’s like universal healthcare and augmented people are like workers too poor to afford health insurance.

The biggest problem here is that in all of these instances it is conservative, religious, corporate and right-wing interests which have opposed social change, fostered racism, opposed the right of women to choose, and countered moves to introduce universal healthcare. These groups, powerful groups that wield immense social power and privilege, tend to be rich, white, heterosexual and male in some combination.

It is uncomfortable, bordering on offensive, to watch a game which focuses primarily on the experiences of rich, white heterosexual men, who are so privileged that they can afford to enhance their bodies beyond the abilities of other human beings, attempt to tie their experiences to those of real people who have suffered racism, or those who have been abused by anti-abortion activists, whose experiences represent precisely a lack of privilege. In essence, the game takes the aesthetic of the real oppression of real marginalised groups, and attempts to use it to add gravitas to an incomprehensible yarn about cyborgs and whether being a cyborg is fun or not fun, OK or not OK, and in the process creates a world where virtuous power elites are victimised by a cruel and superstitious proletariat.

Predictably then, the game’s representation of marginalised group leaves much to be desired. Square Enix have already been forced to publicly apologise for the inclusion of a black character who is found shucking and jiving and rooting through trash. There has so far been no outcry over a conversation option in China, where you can tell a local that “you all look the same to me”.

The primary female character, Megan Reed is a fantastic scientist at the head of her field. Don’t worry though, not only is she hot but you get to see her O face during the introductory credit sequence. Her and the player character have a romantic past together, but it is implied she is now involved with your boss. Later, her duplicity is expanded as it is revealed that she, somehow, did something with your DNA without your permission and used it to make a medical breakthrough which could potentially save or enhance the lives of millions of people. She begs your forgiveness. You fix her with the stern glare. After the closing credits, it is revealed she goes to work for Bob Page, the arch villain in Deus Ex.

You are also variously betrayed and aided by a holographic female news reader who is used by the the conspirators to deliver biased news coverage of events. As far as Human Revolution is concerned, women cannot be trusted. Also, she has a crush on you.

There are two female antagonists, neither of which does much to improve matters. Zhao is the head of a Chinese medical technology company which specialises in making knock-off copies of American goods. She is a central figure in the conspiracy to replace the computer chips that allow augmented humans to control their mechanical limbs with a compromised version that will allow the Illuminati to take wholesale control of individuals. When you confront her in her private chambers, she can’t keep her hands off you. She is hysterical and pleads innocence. She repeatedly places her hands all over your chest. Mercifully it is because she is using her sexuality to try to distract you, rather than because she has the genuine hots for you but it’s not really much better that again the game presents as a woman as deceptive and treacherous. After cock teasing you for a while, she throws you into a trap and gloats that “men never fail to underestimate women.” When you meet again later on, assuming the player avoided making the obvious mistake of installing one of the compromised biochips, Jensen gets to return the quip, reasserting his masculinity.

Feredova, who is not named directly in the game, is one of the three “Tyrants”; augmented mercenaries who attack you at the beginning of the game and provide the game’s infuriatingly out of place boss fights. Miraculously, she wears an outfit which reveals very little flesh and she is sensibly proportioned. However, her augmented legs make her appear to be walking in stilettos. She literally does not have a voice: she does not speak and is implied to be mute in the comic books which flesh out the game’s backstory. When it comes time for her and Jensen to have their boss fight together, she struts in seductively and chews on her lip in a suggestive fashion. Like Zhao, as a woman, her threat to Jensen is explicitly tied to her sexuality. Notably, of the three Tyrant bosses, Feredova is the only one it is suggested that Jensen might save.

Perhaps most conspicuous of all, however, is that in a game preoccupied with what are essentially super-powered prosthetics, there is scarcely any discussion of disability. There are only two disabled characters in the game. One is a legless beggar in China who you cannot speak to because he only speaks Mandarin. The other is Hugh Darrow, a conflicted, reclusive genius who invented augmentations but comes to resent them because he has a rare genetic condition which prevents him from being augmented himself. He walks with a brace and cane and his resentment of augmented people leads him to turn them all into zombies.

While it is possible that some of the augmented characters you encounter may have had disabilities before they were augmented, this is never made explicit, despite the fact that these voices could make the most powerful and credible case in favour of augmentation. Conversely, the voices of people with disabilities who feel they should not be expected to conform to the expectations of abled society by becoming augmented could provide not only a rich and provocative counter-argument, but also give the disabled community visibility in the medium in a direct and meaningful way. For a group of people profoundly underrepresented in all media, this represents a particularly egregious missed opportunity.

This is ultimately what should have been at the heart of Human Revolution. The game should have been an exploration of our relationships with our own bodies and how our bodies define us as a species and as communities. This is a traditionally deep subject area and could have provided more than enough themes and conflicts and questions to power a game that was willing to engage with them.

Instead, all these ideas and even the notion of the debate itself gets lost within a game so bereft of its own ideas that it winds up haphazardly aping the motions of the first Deus Ex. The structure of the first half the game will feel suspiciously familiar to fans of the original. You are based in an American urban hub, exploring alleyways and apartments. You then undertake a mission in a large warehouse. Then you fly off to China, where you must deal with Triads who are operating out of a nightclub. Meanwhile more subtle “homages”, from door codes to music leitmotifs, begin to pile up until by the time you are stumbling across eye-rolling references to the infamous soda machine mix up in the first game they have become utterly suffocating.

Even the essence of Deus Ex’s plot is copied over into Human Revolution, and it is this decision which is probably most to blame for Human Revolution’s failure to engage with its own premise. Both games are concerned with the protagonist uncovering a shadowy corporate conspiracy. But where Deus Ex is a game primarily concerned with questions of power and secrecy, Human Revolution is supposedly concerned with the implications of mechanical augmentation for the concept of humanity. As a result, Human Revolution’s plot carries both the game and the player further and further away from the ideas it sets up in its opening. You dart back and forth from China to Detroit trying to find out who blew you up in the introduction and why, but for all the sidequests and emails and ebooks the game never really comes to grips with the debate supposedly at its core.

By the mid-point, the rickety conspiracy story is in full swing and the pros and cons of augmentation are vanishing into the distance. By the end of the game you are off the edge of the map. Anti-augmentation mobs have been replaced by literal hordes of zombies. You wade through them on an artificial island built by Hugh Darrow. He built the island partly to showcase the abilities of augment humans, but also so he could then use it to broadcast a signal which would turn all augmented humans into zombies, ruining the plans of the Illuminati and warning the world about the dangers of augmentation. What?

If there is an elegant way to illustrate the root cause of these myriad failings, it has to be this: Where Deus Ex was peppered with literary allusions and references that advanced its themes and exposed its influence, Human Revolution settles instead for obnoxious quotations from stoner movies and other video games which distract not only from the core themes but also from the very tone of the game.

Deus Ex alluded to literary works such as GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow amongst scores of others. In contrast, Human Revolution bombards the player with ebooks that contain nothing but impenetrable medical jargon about its invented augmentations. During a side quest, a central NPC makes an obvious, jarring reference to The Big Lebowksi. Emails at a secret lab contain a transcript of the health screening briefing from Half Life’s introductory tram ride. Other emails in the same lab, supposedly a site where sinister experiments are carried out on kidnapped augmented individuals, discuss bestiality porn being displayed on one character’s computer in a self-indulgent and florid manner which is entirely inappropriate for the atmosphere the developers are clearly trying to foster. On top of the game’s other failings, this last one really is a show-stopper.

Ultimately, Human Revolution is what happens when you task a development team who are clearly politically illiterate and poorly-read to create a follow up to a game whose success and longevity are at least partially due to the political awareness and literary familiarity of the development team. What you get is a dumb, crass game; a spiritual sequel without the spirit.