Archive for the ‘Gaming the System’ Category

Parts 1 and 2 of Anita Sarkeesian’s video series examining gender tropes in video games are now available, and are embedded below. In addition to exploring some of the things that most gamers probably don’t think about, the story of Sarkeesian’s series also serves to remind us that misogyny is alive and well in America. Shortly after launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the series, Sarkeesian was inundated with attacks (she gives a personal account here):

Two hours is all it took for her video to go viral with over 100+ misogynist comments. The same video that would later garner tens of thousands of comments and over 300,000 views was barely the tip of the iceberg. What started as typical internet backlash soon grew to include threats of extreme violence on several of Sarkeesian’s personal profiles.

Her social media accounts were targets of false reports of fraud, spam and even terrorism. Hackers tried to break into her website and email account. Some even attempted to locate and distribute her personal information including email, phone and home address. Sarkeesian’s Wikipedia page was edited to include sexism, racism and pornographic images. Finally, a game was made in her likeness called, “Beat the Bitch Up,” where upon a few clicks her picture would grow to be increasingly battered and bruised.

In the time since her campaign launched, it doesn’t seem like the internet has grown up much, as comments on websites linking to the work demonstrate. Commenters on completely unrelated videos also invoke Sarkeesian in a negative way, such as those regarding a version of Donkey Kong that a father hacked to allow his daughter to play as a girl (incidentally, the father in this case inverted the very trope that Sarkeesian talks about in these videos). Reading comments like these is disheartening, but it is good to see that Sarkeesian has not backed away from her efforts. The fact that her Kickstarter campaign far exceeded her goals is also a sign that not everybody on the internet is a sexist asshole – the backlash has also allowed her to reach a wider audience. Enjoy!

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On Facebook I recently came across a game called “Spent” that lets you spend a month in the life of a person who makes just above minimum wage (don’t worry, you don’t need a Facebook account to play it). The game is made by a group called Urban Ministries of Durham in North Carolina and progresses day by day as you deal with various situations (what do you buy at the grocery store? Do you deal with your health problems or put them off?) that people in poverty may face. As you make decisions the game provides information (the sources and information that they provide is summarized here). Essentially, it is like Life except you don’t get to choose a station wagon and there don’t seem to be any happy endings.

It seems like this might be a good game to have students play before a class discussion or assignment on poverty in order to help them contextualize the sorts of choices that people in poverty have to make on a daily basis.

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A recent post by D.B. Grady at The Atlantic criticizes the ad campaign for Modern Warfare 3, the latest in Activision’s hugely successful Call of Duty video game series. In part, it reads:

The advertisement trivializes combat and sanitizes war. If this were September 10, 2001, maybe it wouldn’t be quite so bad. Those who are too young to remember Vietnam might indulge in combat fantasies of resting heart rates while rocket-propelled grenades whiz by, and of flinty glares while emptying a magazine into the enemy. But after ten years of constant war, of thousands of amputees and flag-draped coffins, of hundreds of grief-stricken communities, did nobody involved in this commercial raise a hand and say, “You know, this is probably a little crass. Maybe we could just show footage from the game.”

Responding to this, Ben Kuchera at Ars Technica notes that the problem isn’t with the advertising but with the game itself:

For gamers, there is nothing new or striking about how the ad shows war, because that’s the way the game shows war: we wear the skin of a soldier and take part in armed conflict as if it were a thrill ride. We design our in-game avatars, and we virtually kill people in locations based on the real world, with dramatic music and a presentation that seems to tell us the game is a very serious thing. All the while, we’re cheering on our kill-streaks and laughing as bodies fly hither and yon. From the outside looking in, or if you’re not familiar with war games, it is a very disturbing way to spend your free time.

The imagery used in the ad may be shocking to non-gamers, but the ad itself isn’t the problem. The popularity of this sanitized, no-consequences form of virtual war is what should have critics talking. Activision didn’t have to create a commercial to sell millions of copies of Modern Warfare 3, the game would have been a monstrous hit without this commercial; gamers have been drowning themselves in pixelated bloodshed and gleeful violent for decades.

When we discuss ways that the media leads to desensitization it is important to remember which medium is leading the charge. Increasingly, this medium is video games. This doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy violent games any more than we shouldn’t enjoy The Bourne Identity, but I think it does mean that the dialog surrounding these games needs to mature so that we can think critically about their effects.


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Once in a while, a large corporation does something nice (of course, once in a while, the same corporation goes to court over the likenesses of student athletes).  In this case, though, Electronic Arts responded to a young girl’s request to allow the creation of female players in NHL 12.  Even if the corporation saw it as a publicity opportunity, it is still a nice example of social action on the part of Lexi Peters:

“I asked my dad, ‘Why aren’t there girls in the NHL video game?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, write a letter.’ So, I did,” Lexi told the Globe and Mail from her home in Buffalo, N.Y.

She sent a typewritten letter to the executives of one the largest video game makers in the world, asking them to add women players.

She wrote: “It is unfair to women and girl hockey players around the world, many of them who play and enjoy your game. I have created a character of myself, except I have to be represented by a male and that’s not fun.”

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Users of Microsoft’s Xbox Live online video game service are now free to express their sexuality in their gamertags (the names that others see when online).  While users have been banned from the service in the past for having gamertags such as “thegayergamer,” the latest terms of service allow them to use the following terms:


The fact that gamers are no longer limited in the expression of their sexuality is a obviously a good thing.  Unfortunately, a number of 15-year-old boys are likely to use these changes to further fuel their homophobic attacks.

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People who want to be accountants, chemists, and sociologists aren’t the only ones who go to college.  College Humor has dug up the college schedules of video game stars Mario, Link, and Fox McCloud.  I am glad that the course on “Woman Studies: Vulnerability and Frequency of Capture” includes an attempt at prevention, though this seems to be a prime example of blaming the victim.

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I’ve talked about sex and sales in the past and today I came across the blog of an anonymous auto show model via her post at Jalopnik.  Of course, auto shows aren’t the only place where “booth babes” are on display.  Other notable industries that employ them include video games and consumer electronics, though given the history of car magazines that feature scantily-clad models, the auto industry may have a deeper connection to them than others.  A highlight from the Jalopnik post:

Despite our appearance (which is dictated head-to-toe by the marketing department of the manufacturer we represent, including wardrobe, hair and makeup) most of us are not just there to be your eye candy. We have extensive training from the very engineers that design these vehicles. We have piles upon piles of confidential and public industry information we spend months studying before we take a single step onto the show floor. If we don’t know the answer to your question it isn’t because we’re dumb, as you too often imply, it is because there is not an answer available to us.

Also, because we’re not dumb, we know that one of the reasons we’re there is exactly because we’re attractive and direct your attention to whatever we’re standing next to. I don’t object to being a sex symbol. I object to objectification. When you ask me, even in jest, “Do you come with the car?”, do you know what you are implying? Let me fill you in: that I am nothing more than an accessory to be bought, like 20-inch rims or a stereo upgrade. It’s not cute, it’s degrading.

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Last week Shamus posted the above NY Post cartoon on scatterplot, which the editor of the Post claimed “is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut. It broadly mocks Washington’s efforts to revive the economy” but I argued was “a clear parody of two unrelated things, which we tie together with racial subtext.”  This has been discussed everywhere, but for another sociological take you can check out the racism review.  The same day, Penny Arcade posted the following comic:

The above comic is referring to the depiction of African villagers in the upcoming Resident Evil 5 video game, which is also discussed here.  Connecting these topics is the notion that one’s interpretation of each is affected by the history of racism in the United States and, likely, one’s racial experience.  It seems that a broader portrayal of African Americans in the popular culture would be a good way to begin weakening these associations.

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Race in games

Darion White on the portrayal of African American video game characters:

Black characters in video games aren’t difficult to find, but rare is the well-rounded and positive black protagonist. Black characters in games habitually range from stereotypical to non-existent. In contrast, black gamers consume a great deal of the medium and are a vastly growing and contributing demographic in the community. Why not create and implement characters that are actually relatable or who boast innovative societal behaviors?

Additional views on race in video games can be found here and, of course, here.

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