Can we move past violence simulators? Because Batman is boring.

So here’s the thing. Before we get any further, let me disclaim that I LOVED Batman as a kid. The Batman animated series was one of the best cartoons on television when I was growing up, and I watched a ton of it! I’ve also seen all of the Batman movies – yes even the George Clooney one with the weird nipple armor.) I also very much enjoy video games that are violent. I own no less than three Mass Effect hoodies, have played every Final Fantasy game released by Sony (even Lightning Returns), and have been known to conquer civilizations because they annoyed in Civilization.

Never the less, because of what I’m about to say, I’m sure some people will try to paint me as Jack Thompson-esque reactionary who hates Batman. Which, you know. Whatever. Nothing I say will stop that, so let’s kick some internet beehives, shall we?

Batman has gotten boring

The older I get, the less interesting Batman becomes. Kid-Me loved Batman and his awesome jet and cool techno toys! But Adult Me? Well Adult Me thinks that Batman is nothing more than a weird, traumatized sociopath with too much money and anger, who spends much of his time and effort punishing the people (street-level criminals) least responsible for actually creating the social problems plaguing Gotham City.

I get that in a lot of ways he’s intended as a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy. He’s a kid who gets to grow up super rich, inherit billions that he doesn’t have to work for, use lots of cool techno toys to beat up people who piss him off, and sleep with lots of women in the guise of needing “cover” for his crime-fighting activities. But Batman is also a goddamn paragon of toxic masculinity.

Recently, my husband wanted to try watching Gotham – since several friends had been saying good things about it. But I can tell you the exact moment when I stopped giving a shit about the show. It came about eleven or so minutes in, when Alfred shows up to take Bruce home after his parents have just been murdered in front of him. And the VERY FIRST THING he says to young Bruce is to MAN UP SON. Of course, he doesn’t use those words, but he does tell young Bruce to stop crying. You know, stiff upper lip and all that. And for the rest of the episode, whenever young Bruce shows up, young Bruce struggles to choke back his feelings while Alfred hovers, scowling, in the background, the embodiment of the “proper” masculine reaction to grief. (Which is to say, to display no emotions other than looking grumpy or sort of constipated.)

…yeah. No. I get enough toxic masculinity hurled at me here on the internet. I don’t need to spend my free time watching a drama that’s basically TOXIC MASCULINITY: THE ORIGIN STORY.

The thing is, pop culture is increasingly starting to shift when it comes to portrayals of Batman. Finally, finally there is a recognition that Grimdark Batman is an inherently ridiculous character. From the Lego Movie’s take on Batman (which in my head has become the canonical Batman[1]), to the meme that spawned a thousand spin-off memes:

my_parents_are_deeaaaaaad

Unfortunately, when it comes to video games, it seems like Grimdark Batman is here to stay, simply because AAA game studios really aren’t any good at making games that AREN’T violence simulators – which necessitates a portrayal of the hyper-violent, emotionless, bastion of toxic masculinity version of Batman that has become so familiar from the movies and television series like Gotham.

Take, for example, the Arkham City games, in which you play Batman beating the ever-living snot out of… okay, out of really a pretty astonishing number of people:

darkness
Side note: I was a little uncomfortable with how easy it was to find screenshots of Batman beating up all, or mostly black dudes.

When “find the thing” and “kill the dudes” is the only sort of story that most game studios know how to produce, is it any wonder that Grimdark Batman is the only Batman we get in games made for adults? (I’m not including Lego Batman here.) The AAA game studios have put a lot of brainpower into innovating improvements in the area of graphics, UI design, and accessibility of gameplay – while putting pretty much no brainpower into innovating ways of telling stories that don’t center on violence.

How to make Batman actually interesting

The thing is, I think it would honestly take very little modification to make Batman an emotionally rich and compelling character. What if instead of telling young Bruce to MAN UP SON, Alfred instead teaches Bruce that it’s okay to express your feelings and be emotionally vulnerable? And what if, after that, Alfred became a real father figure to Bruce instead of being an emotionally distant butler/nanny? A Bruce Wayne capable of expressing a damn emotion, who dons the cape despite also knowing that systemic injustice is the real cause of the crime that he fights? Shit, that’s way more interesting than Grimdark “I growl all my dialogue” Batman.

batman
Click through for larger, more readable version

Heh.

…stupid jokes about Catman aside, honestly the Batman game I would love to play would be one in which Batman struggles to balance the philanthropic work needed to heal the damage caused by deep systemic injustice with his work as a hero who keeps ordinary citizens safe from violent crime. One where the social work of building community is actually part of the game and something that’s not glossed over in cutscenes.

It would be totally doable! One of my favorite RPGs for the PS2 was Dark Chronicle – a game in which there is a huge cataclysm, after which the two heroes have to go through dungeons and fight monsters to defeat The Big Evil while also helping various communities rebuild after their homes were destroyed:

dark-chronicle
Gathering resources to build buildings and deciding optimal placement is totally part of the game. It’s strangely addictive.

Modeling something like that and applying it to the Batman story would honestly not be too huge a task. This is a game design problem that I’m fully confident that game studios could solve… if they could be bothered to care. But the AAA game industry is hugely male-dominated, and largely guided by the pervasive (and inaccurate) myth that women don’t play video games in any significant numbers. So until the landscape of AAA game development changes significantly, which I don’t expect any time soon, I imagine that I won’t be playing any Batman games any time soon. I’ve got many more interesting games to catch up on.


[1] Whenever anyone mentions Batman, the first thing that pops into my head is DARKNESSSS. NO PARENTSSSS.

Games I won’t let my daughter play

Here’s the thing about having a three year old daughter. I write a lot about feminism, but even I wasn’t prepared for how goddamn early the cultural indoctrination happens. My daughter’s birthday was only three months ago, and yet she has already been infected with pink and with princesses. Her favorite toys are now princesses, her favorite movies are princess movies, and she insists that she herself is a princess (when she’s not insisting that she’s a fish). And every day she asks to wear dresses.

It wouldn’t be so bad if that’s as far as it went. I could handle having a pink-obsessed, princess-loving, dress-wearing daughter if she hadn’t also accepted all of the garbage that goes along with that. But more than once I have heard her observe, unprompted!, that “girls can’t” do… you name it. Mundane activities. Like “drive”. Even worse was when she said “a proper woman should…”

She never finished the sentence, so I don’t know what would have come next. But honestly, I don’t need to, because I know how that script reads and I know what it leads to – the same issues that I am still struggling with myself in my thirties surrounding my own internalized guilt about being generally pretty crappy at adhering to standard expectations of feminine behavior. Which breaks my fucking heart, because my daughter is three. She makes up stories about her toys, loves climbing things, and is so intensely curious and innocent. So the fact that she, AT THE AGE OF THREE has already internalized the idea that being female makes her LESS…

Well. It makes me want to punch the goddamn universe in the face.

Now, to be sure, as terrible as I feel about it, my spouse and I can’t be held entirely accountable. Since she’s in daycare, she spends more time with other people than she does with us. And even if she didn’t, it’s impossible to control for every exposure to possibly harmful media, because we have to leave the damn house on a daily basis.

Still, it doesn’t prevent me from putting a lot of thought into the sorts of media, games included, that I will allow her to consume while at home. Because while it may be impossible to prevent her from internalizing the core beliefs of our sexist culture, I certainly can do my best to expose her to alternative points of view during her formative years. The problem is that, when I try to come up with titles that I would be okay introducing her to, I don’t come up with a whole lot that she actually can play.

 

Things that are most definitely Not Allowed

1) Games with Damsels in Distress

First, my daughter will not be allowed to play any games that revolve around saving a damsel in distress. Period. It’s bad enough that at the age of three she’s already learning to think of herself as less capable than boys. But given that she’s obsessed with princesses, and well, a lot of damsels in video games are… fucking princesses…

Damsels

Yeah. So right off the hop, that rules out any game in the Super Mario series, except for Super Mario Brothers 2, since Peach is actually playable in that one. If asked, I’ll refuse to acknowledge any other game in the series. (Just like how I think it’s really sad that they never made a sequel to X-Men 2, or how Spider Man 3 never happened. Wink wink, nudge nudge) Mario Kart is all right, of course, since the characters are just color in those, but even Super Princess Peach (the one game that Peach starred in as her own title) will be verboten, since her superpowers in that game are basically having emotions and crying. So, you know, fuck that noise.

Likewise, any Zelda game. Zelda gets damseled in EVERY SINGLE ONE, even the ones where she turns into Shiek. And yes, Hyrule Warriors is a game, and yes you can play Zelda, and no she doesn’t get damseled. But Zelda’s costume design is a cleavagey boobplate nightmare, and she actually attacks people by pulling glowing energy OUT OF HER DAMN BITS to attack people. NO I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. Plus there’s also Shia, whose design is just a hot mess of pointless sexualization and that brings us back to nooooope. No Zelda.

Plus, you know, all those other games where women get damseled. You know, Donkey Kong, StarFox, Ico… (I could go on and on, but really it’s just easier to link to part 1 of the Feminist Frequency video on damsels, because really the list is just depressingly long.) That shit just isn’t going to exist in my house.

2) Any game with fridged female characters

Because Jesus Christ, do I really even need to explain why the trope of fridged women is a terrible idea to introduce as commonplace to a three year old girl?

Fridge

So, you know, thankfully this spares me from having to prevent her from playing a lot of games that I’m personally attached to. Games like StarCraft (which fridges Kerrigan), Max Payne (fridges his wife and daughter), and God of War (fridges his wife and daughter) have never really been my cup of tea.

However, one of my all time favorite games, a game that I replay every few years because I absolutely adore the gameplay and will never get tired of it, is Final Fantasy Tactics. And FFTactics unfortunately manages to have not one, but two damsels in distress (Alma and Princess Ovelia – again with the princesses!). But you also have a fridged woman – Delita’s sister Teta. So as much as it breaks my heart to ban Tactics, because really it’s a flawless example of a tactical RPG, Tactics goes on the shit list too.

Along with, you know, every fucking game featured in part TWO of FemFreq’s Damsel series. So, just with our first two points, we’re already running out of games that can be considered.

3) Games with pointless fucking fanservice

I certainly don’t want my daughter to internalize the idea that being strong and competent requires being sexually pleasing to men. Nor do I want her to internalize unhealthy lessons about how she “should” look, because our culture is already saturated with toxic imagery that holds women to literally impossible standards of beauty. I don’t need to add to that bombardment by exposing her to that kind of bullshit in media that is meant to entertain.

Objectified

Unfortunately, that means mostly no online roleplaying games. Certainly not League of Legends, or really any MOBA. Or… you know, really any MMO, except Dark Age of Camelot or Lord of the Rings Online. Except… wait. No, almost none of the major lore characters are women, and hell, almost none of the minor lore characters are women either. So… just Dark Age then. Yes I know that it’s unspeakably ancient and a second-gen MMO that hasn’t kept up with standard MMO UI innovations, but that’s just the price she’ll have to pay. Oh and she’ll have to play on a roleplaying server so doesn’t run into female toons with names like “Muffeater” or “Sweettits” – yes both actual honest to god names I have literally seen.

What else…

Well, as far as single player games go, no Mortal Kombat or Soul Calibur. Or, you know, really any fighting games at all, because fighting games are the goddamn reason why “jiggle physics” are even a thing in the first place. It does make me a bit sad, because I lost hundreds of hours to the original Soul Calibur and to Soul Calibur 2; also, Mortal Kombat 1 was one of the first games that my brother and I purchased for ourself and I have many fond memories of playing it. But … yeah. No.

Sadly, #3 means I’ll also have to outlaw a good portion of the Final Fantasy games. It will be hard, and sad, and I will struggle with temptation, but it has to be done. Frankly, anything past Final Fantasy X-2 just has to go. From the ridiculous, ass-exposing shorts Yuna wears in X-2, to Fran’s awful lingerie ninja outfit in XII, to Vanille’s outfit and porny battle noises in XIII… yeah. I did think about outlawing X, but really X is mostly equal opportunity with it’s objectification, so it can stay. Especially because Yuna is one of my favorite female protagonists in games. (Even if her outfit has a stupid amount of sideboob for someone who is traveling across the damn continent and fighting monsters.)

Most heartbreaking, however, is the fact that I will have to outlaw Mass Effect 2 and 3 because of the ridiculously sexualized female companions. Mass Effect 2 has Miranda of the Ass Cleavage, Samara the Space MILF, and Jack of the Ridiculous Nipple Straps, and given that they’re in your party they’re pretty inescapable. Mass Effect 3 is a bit better, but EDI still gets her fucking awful sex-droid body, not to mention that Jack and Miranda still make cameos, so… no Mass Effect 2 or 3, which kills Mass Effect altogether since ME1 is really not all that playable since the stupid Mako missions are required.

And can we just have a moment of silence, because honestly my N7 hoodie is one of my most treasured possessions, and I am still ridiculously excited about getting the reversible Paragon/Renegade hoodie for my birthday this year.

…shit. We’re down to a handful of games here, but there are more things I want to ban. Like…

4) Games with no female characters, or smurfettes, or female characters who are only important for their connection to male characters

Games with NO female characters? That should be fairly obvious, I’d think. Games with smurfettes, though, those have to go too. That particular brand of under-representation really contributes to the notion that women always have to compete with one another – because if half of the population are women, but only 20% or so are heroic, that means that other women who are competent must be the enemy. And while we’re at it we’ll also lump in games who feature female characters that are only important because of their connection to male characters, because that is deprotagonizing and heteronormative as fuck and seriously it’s almost 2016 and I want my daughter to learn that she has the power to make a difference in the world.

Manz

So, uh, let’s see. Well, much as I loved Sonic, none of the early Sonic games, because they only had Sonic, Tails, and Robotnik, all of whom are male. It also means pretty much nothing by Blizzard, especially anything based on WarCraft IP. (Except Blizzard already DQs themselves with their copious amounts of pointless sexualization of female characters, so I guess that’s really a non-issue.)

Sadly, this also catches up games that I’ve even been playing pretty recently. Bastion is totally guilty of this; Zia is “central”, but only in that the McGuffin is her father’s journal, and Zulf and the Kid wind up fighting over her. Sure she sorta has an opinion for what you should choose at the end, but you can totally ignore her if you want, because why would you listen to a girl?

Oh god, we’re really down to almost nothing here, but there’s just one more thing that I have to ban and that’s…

5) Games that are casually misogynist

hitman_dead_woman

There’s enough casual misogyny in the world without it being packaged as entertainment. Bad enough that she’s going to have to learn that casual misogyny is a thing without me having to introduce the concept of casual misogyny AS ENTERTAINMENT.

So, you know, Grand Theft Auto. The Arkham games. The entire Hitman series…

So. Uh. I guess that leaves… puzzle games? Which isn’t so bad because I love puzzle games! Like, Katamari is one of my favorite games ever! Except… wait. No. No Katamari, because it’s about The King and The Prince, and it takes a long time to unlock The Princess. And there is a Queen, but only in the intro, and she only seems to exist to be pretty and make pies and…

…you know what, maybe I’d better just stop there.

Rape is not edgy, creative, or original [TW][CW]

[Trigger/Content Warning for frank discussions of awful portrayals of rape]

This isn’t the post that I was going to write today.

Originally, I had been planning on writing about my experience facilitating a game (that I wrote) called Autonomy, which centers around forcing men to have an embodied experience of sexism and gender-based injustice. It was a powerful, cathartic, and borderline traumatic (in a good way!) experience that I do very much want to share.

But all of that was before a friend linked to this piece by Emma Boyle on Gadgette, in which she writes about the character Quiet in the new Metal Gear Solid: Phantom Pain, and the many and sundry ways that Quiet is very much not an empowered feminist-friendly character:

quiet-2-640x360-640x360

And now there are so many fucked up things about her design that I want to yell at the internet about! So very, very many fucked up things! Like:

  • Quiet is arguably the least clothed female character in the MGS series (it’s a little hard to tell in this screenshot, but those are ripped nylons that Quiet is wearing, not pants), which is – frankly – sort of impressive, given how very not clothed many female characters in the MGS series are.
  • Quiet doesn’t dress that way because she chooses to; she dresses that way because she has to. Her backstory is that she’s photosynthetic, so wearing clothes would LITERALLY SUFFOCATE HER. You know, BECAUSE SCIENCE.
  • Speaking of BECAUSE SCIENCE, there is another character in the MGS series – The End – who is also photosynthetic, who does actually get to wear clothes. You know, on account of him not being a woman. (Funny, that.)
  • Quiet also DOESN’T TALK. At all. Because really, isn’t it just so hard to objectify a woman when she goes and opens her mouth and reminds you that she’s a human being with thoughts, feelings, and an inner life of her own? Yeah. Better to have her just not talk at all.
  • And let’s not forget the shit cherry on the shit sundae: the series creator, Hideo Kojima, tried to shame people who expressed concern about the problematic design of the character by saying that once the full story was released, critics would “feel ashamed of their words and deeds”. Because it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that of course people who are expressing criticism of a fictional character who embodies many problematic tropes are the bad guys, not the guy who actually created the character in the first place.

[headdesk]

All of those things are fucked up, and any of them are things that I could easily get a full-length post out of. However, the thing that I am angriest about is the disturbingly scripted near-rape sequence that Quiet is only able to save herself from because sexualization:

At a later point in the game there’s a distressing scene where Quiet is attacked. Quiet is taken captive and dressed in prisoner clothing, which, in covering her skin, causes her to slowly suffocate. In this scene, a guard grabs Quiet by the throat and forces her head into a tank of water, holding her head under the surface until she stops resisting him. The camera zooms in on her lifeless face, holding there whilst the player can hear the sound of a zip being undone and Quiet’s clothing being removed. It’s with this removal of her clothing that Quiet’s skin is once again exposed and, able to breathe, she overpowers her attackers and escapes a grotesque rape. There’s a video, but we’re not going to link to it because it’s triggering and horrible. — Emma Boyle, Gadgette – A games company just came up with the worst excuse ever for their half-dressed female character

It’s bad enough that the BECAUSE SCIENCE that is used to justify Quiet being so undressed in the first place actually extends to the point that wearing clothes will actually kill her. Because as much as I hate choice feminism (“what I choose is automatically feminist because I identify as a feminist and I choose it”), that would still actually be better than a female character created by men whose only two choices are 1) wear revealing clothing or 2) die. But the near-rape on top of all that is, honestly, repellant. Repugnant. Horrifying.

And sadly, I’m pretty positive that Hideo Kojima thought that he was being “edgy” and “creative”. “Hey look! I set up a character who needs to expose skin to live, so that later when the villains think she is powerless and they want to victimize her they’re actually giving her what she needs to get the power to save herself! What a reversal! Hot damn, I am a genius!”

NO. NO YOU AREN’T. NOT EVEN A LITTLE BIT.

And here’s why:

RAPE IS NOT EDGY

“Edgy” is the word that a lot of (male) creators like to use when they describe work that contains rape or attempted rape as a plot point. But here’s the problem with that.

Work that is legitimately edgy is either at the forefront of a trend or the start of an entirely new trend. It is experimental or avant-garde, and by fucking definition definitely not mainstream.

Now I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but rape is kind of an epidemic in our society, and it’s been that way for, I dunno, just about all of fucking human history. Still, one might be able to make a claim that art featuring rape was “edgy” if our media and culture actually recognized the horror of the prevalence of rape in our society and it was taboo to portray rape and sexual violence in art. But rape in media, especially geek media, is depressingly common.

And yet, there are all these creators, these male creators who think that using rape to make their work DARK and GRITTY somehow makes their work “edgy” – because somehow they all lose sight of the fact that GRIMDARK is the new mainstream. You see it from creators like Hideki Kamiya’s portrayal of Bayonetta as a sexually “empowered” and “liberated” woman who still suffers rape as a penalty for mechanical failure. Or George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, which is often touted as this revolutionary work of “realistic”, “edgy” “dark fantasy” – and yet everything about the books only reflects the power dynamics of patriarchy as it exists in the real world. Even Joss Whedon, whose work I am actually a fan of despite his tendency to fall into the same problematic traps regarding gender and race repeatedly, tried with Dollhouse to write a series that would be challenging and thought-provoking and wound up just being uncomfortably rapey.

In order to be truly, legitimately edgy, Phantom Pain would have to actively subvert and reverse common gender tropes and stereotypes. Instead, everything about the game, writing, and character design only serves to reinforce the status quo of patriarchy – which makes it about as far from edgy as it is possible to get.

RAPE IS NOT CREATIVE OR ORIGINAL

The reliance of geek writers on rape isn’t creative. Creativity is experimenting with new thoughts, ideas, and processes to create something original. It’s taking something familiar and using it in a way that it wasn’t intended for, or using it in a way that it’s never been used before. It’s throwing out ideas about how a problem “should” be solved and trying approaches that “shouldn’t” work just to see what happens. Creativity is not reaching for the same tool every time you have a problem that needs solving, even if that tool is not the ideal tool for the problem at hand. When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. And the problem is that for a depressingly large number of (usually but not exclusively) male writers, their go-to hammer is rape.

But when the default answer to “I need to show this person is evil, how do I do that” is “rape”, that’s not creative.

When the default answer is “I need to have this female character had to have overcome adversity in the past, what is it that she has overcome” is “rape”, that’s not creative.

When the default answer to “I need this female character to suffer a setback, what should happen to cause that setback” is “rape”, that is not creative.

I could write thousands, if not tens of thousands of words about how unbelievably fucking common rape is in geek media. But I’ve already done that, or tried to, and I was only able to just barely scratch the surface. It would be entirely possible to devote this blog to only writing about rape in gaming, and I would still never run out of material because seriously gaming is legit kind of obsessed with rape and it’s depressing.

TL;DR: JUST DON’T FUCKING WRITE ABOUT RAPE

It’s to the point where my advice to creators is now – does your idea include rape? Great. Scrap it and start over. Because I have literally never seen an instance of rape in any piece of media that I have consumed that I would say was handled well.

Every time I have seen rape in a piece of media, it has been about deprotagonizing women, either by punishing them for being strong or explaining their strength by victimizing in their backstory. It is about reducing women to plot objects that can be violated for the sake of story whenever it is convenient.

And it’s always about the reactions OF THE MEN to the rape, and never about the victim’s experience and journey. What’s important when someone (almost always a woman) is raped in a piece of fiction is how that rape gives strength of conviction and tragic purpose to the male protagonist in achieving their Plot Objective. You never get to experience stories about the experiences of the victim, of trying to navigate a system that blames and re-victimizes women for their own rapes, or of trying to balance recovery with the expectations of how “good” victims should behave – expectations which are often at odds with what will actually help in recovering.

Even when you have a character get raped and then get revenge on their rapist, that is such a simplistic, reductive take on rape that just isn’t helpful. The reality of rape is that in many cases, women have social, practical, or emotional ties to their attackers and violently attacking or killing their rapist would only be further traumatizing. That sort of story line also comes with the implication that women who don’t want to lash out violently at their attacker feel that way because they are weak. And if they were truly strong and “empowered”, they would hurt their attacker just as bad as they themselves were hurt, if not worse.

So despite the fact that I’m really not a fan of blanket “just don’t write about [x] in [y]” type rules, I’m calling it. We’re done. We all had our chance and we proved we couldn’t handle the responsibility. So from now on, JUST DON’T FUCKING WRITE ABOUT RAPE.

My script for the next big AAA blockbuster

12action_reacher

The sun shining weakly through dirty mini-blinds wakes you. You grunt stoically and get out of bed, not paying attention to the stunningly gorgeous blonde sleeping next to you. She meant nothing. She could only ever mean nothing because you are hollow and empty inside.

You shuffle into the bathroom and lean on the sink, moodily looking into the mirror. Your grizzled reflection stares back at you, the image of a man who has seen too much and done terrible things. Handsome, generically white features and a square jaw twist into a scowl as you look at yourself. It is the beginning of a new day, and you are alone – except for that gorgeous blonde, who doesn’t count because she is not your wife, who is dead.

The gorgeous blonde sits up when you return and she is naked because that is how people have sex when they are heterosexual, manly men, and you definitely had sex last night because you are so very manly.

“Last night was great,” she purrs. “But I never did get your name.”

“That doesn’t matter.” You scowl. “None of it matters now.”

She sighs and motions for you to come back to bed, but you turn away and scowl. “The sex that we had last night was great, but it mean nothing because I am hollow and empty inside. No one can ever replace my wife, who is dead.”

The gorgeous blonde frowned. “I thought you said she was kidnapped and you were going to rescue her.”

“Yeah. That. Whatever.” You stare broodily into the middle distance for several minutes until she gets up to take a shower. No one understands you.

Guns. You have guns but you need more. You scowl as you think about how much you need guns. You always need more guns.

“I need more guns,” you growl to that annoying person who insists on tagging along with you, whom you definitely are not emotionally attached to because your wife is dead.

“More guns? You already have ten guns. How are you going to carry that many guns?”

He doesn’t understand. They never understand. Your life is void of meaning or joy and you just want to shoot things. “I have to avenge my wife, who is dead. They killed her in front of me and now my life is void of meaning and joy because she is dead.”

That annoying person rolls his eyes. “She’s probably not even dead, she’s just been kidnapped.” He adds something else, a pithy comment to lighten the mood but you don’t hear it because you are too busy thinking about guns.

“JUST GET ME MORE GUNS OR I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU,” you snarl, cursing because you are gritty and edgy and definitely not for kids. “I’ll kill you because I’ll do whatever it takes. I don’t care if it makes me a monster because morality is for people with wives, which I don’t have because she was killed.”

“You mean kidnapped.”

“Whatever. I’ve moved past that now.” You have too many people to shoot to worry about the small stuff now. “Just get me more guns.”

At last you’ve made it to where your enemy is making his last stand. It’s been a long road full of violence and death, and your hands are covered in blood but none of that matters.

You storm in, guns blazing, murdering everything that moves. One of the guards throws down his gun and holds up his hands, sobbing as he begs you to just let him live. You shoot him in the face and move on. He feels nothing now that he is dead, just like you. Your wife is dead.

You lose track of the number of people you kill before you finally make it to the room where your enemy is. There is a woman behind him who is tied to a chair, but you don’t pay any attention to her because she is not important. You have to avenge your wife, who is dead.

“I am here to get revenge for my wife,” you grunt. “Who is dead.”

“I’m not dead,” the woman in the corner says. “I’m right here.”

You grit your teeth, too focused on your enemy to listen to some woman. “She was the best thing that ever happened to me. I didn’t deserve her because she was a shining being too good for this sinful world, and I will make you pay for killing her.”

“I’m quite alive, actually.”

Your enemy smirks. “Don’t you realize? This was all just a test. A test which you passed with flying colors.”

You scowl, mostly because that’s the only facial expression you’re capable of anymore.

“Yes, that’s right. I created you in a lab to be the perfect soldier. And now that you’ve come back to me, we will–”

“Shut up,” you say as you shoot him in the face. He falls over, gurgling, and dies. After everything that has happened, your enemy is gone and your journey is over, but you feel nothing. You haven’t felt anything since your wife died.

“Aren’t you going to untie me?” the woman in the chair asks.

You think about your lost wife and wish she could be here to share this moment with you. You almost shed a tear, but you clench your fists and think about punching kittens until the feeling passes, except that you don’t have those anymore now that your wife is dead.

“Nathan? Are you even listening?”

“That person doesn’t exist anymore,” you rasp. “He is dead, like my wife.”

“Except I’m not dead.”

You look sternly into the middle distance. She doesn’t understand. No one can ever understand. “Allison,” you whisper as you turn to leave.

“Hey! Hey! Untie me already!”

There is blood on your hands that can never be removed, and you are alone. So, so alone. “I will never forget you,” you promise as you walk back down the hallway toward the stairs that will take you to the surface.

“Nathan? Nathan!”

-fin-

I’m not anti-sex, video games just suck at not failing at it

One of the charges that routinely gets hurled at me is that I’m a sex-hating prude that hates sex in games and thinks that people who put sex in games are just the worst. Which is pretty ludicrous, but it’s the lowest-hanging fruit of dismissive criticism aside from “she’s crazy”, which means it’s something I hear a lot. For a lot of people, it’s easier to attack the messenger than it is to engage with the message, especially when the message is openly critical of something that you like.

However, it’s also true that about 99% of the things that I write here pertaining to sex and female sexuality as they are portrayed in video games are harshly critical. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since writing my last post, because Bayonetta is a character that you really can’t write about without examining how her sexuality is portrayed and how that portrayal is actively harmful.

Sex in videogames: seriously, why is it so bad?

The reality is that as a medium, video games are 10-15 years behind other art forms in their portrayal of female sexuality[1]. That’s not to say that the rest of art and pop culture get it right – there are still an awful lot of terrible things to be found in movies, comics, and television. But there are also a wealth of examples of non-video-game pop culture in which female sexuality isn’t demonized, punished, or objectified[2].

As for video games…? Even after wracking my brains, I was only able to come up with a handful of games with totally positive portrayals of female sexuality, and even then half of those had caveats:

good_depictions

Although romance has been a staple of the Final Fantasy series, it’s been pretty much void of sex, with the exception of that not-a-sex-scene-that’s-still-totally-a-sex-scene in FFX. Which is a shame, because as much as Squeenix fails at costume design, their writers are really top notch at writing believable female characters who are a mix of strong and vulnerable and everything in between. And despite the fact that they didn’t technically have sex, I thought X’s not-a-sex-scene was a really touching portrayal of Yuna and Tidus allowing themselves to be mutually vulnerable to each other. (And you will never convince me that they weren’t totally having sex offscreen and that the music montage was just some epic afterglow.)

BioWare is a better example in that its sex scenes are actually sex scenes, although this hasn’t always been the case. While Dragon Age: Origins takes the cake for the BioWare romance I found most compelling (I know he’s not to everyone’s taste, but my female warden fell for Alistair so frigging hard), the fact that the designers chickened out and rendered all of the sex scenes with characters in their underwear really bugged me. It actually felt more objectifying than the Mass Effect series’ sex scenes, which were underwear free, just because at least Mass Effect wasn’t specifically calling attention to people’s junk.

Still, ridiculous underwear aside, BioWare has done really well in their portrayals of female sexuality. There are women who are lesbians, bisexual, hetero, and cheerfully ambiguous. They have women who just want casual sex, women who are after romance, and women who aren’t really sure what they want. And none of these women are presented as wrong, or as being punished for their sexuality. Even better, there’s no difference between how sex scenes are handled between FemShep and BroShep. No matter who you play, there’s real tenderness there.

And sure, there are missteps. Like Morrigan’s blatant and stereotypical sexuality, or Jack with her ridiculous nipple straps and her MaleShep romance option of fixing her with sex, which I just find really terrible. (Seriously, feminists get told all the damn time that what we need to “fix” us is a good dicking, so I find that trope particularly offensive.)

But beyond Final Fantasy and recent BioWare titles, I was stuck. An informal straw poll on Google+ yielded a few more like Saint’s Row IV (which I haven’t played) – a notable example that was put forth by several people. (I’ll admit to being surprised.) Gone Home also came up, as did The Sims[3]. ..aaaand that was about all any of us could come up with. Sadly, it seems AAA game studios (that aren’t BioWare) simply don’t have a clue how to write sexual content that doesn’t exist to solely to objectify female characters.

Not that that should come as a surprise. 88 percent of game industry devs are male, and it’s been well documented that harassment for women in the industry is pretty much a given. (Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, Elizabeth Shoemaker-Sampat, Jennifer Hepler, Jade Raymond… the list is very long and very depressing.) Much as we think of games as an interactive medium, interactions have to be programmed. Every interaction has to be scripted and its potential outcomes defined, and the people doing that programming are largely white and male – and all of that is happening in an environment steeped in misogyny and brogramming culture.

Is it any wonder, then, that AAA games nearly always fail to deliver genuine portrayals of female sexuality? How can they, when the few women in the industry can’t effectively advocate for themselves, let alone for a fictional female character? So when AAA game studios try to include honest portrayals of female sexuality, the result is nearly always something like this:

So_romantic

Oof. Right in the feels.

But you know what? It doesn’t have to be this way.

Sex in tabletop game design: an example to be emulated [4]

The conversation about how to handle sex at the table is hardly a new one in tabletop land. Of course, being a different medium, that conversation has resulted in different tools. Some of those tools can best be described as “safety nets” – tools to help people feel safe in playing through content that makes them vulnerable. I’m only going to mention those tangentially as a separate conversation worth being aware of; though if you’re not familiar with lines and veils  and the X-Card, you should definitely read up on them.

What I find more interesting, however – at least for the purposes of this conversation – is the different mechanical approaches that varying designers have taken to solving this problem of how to address sex in a mechanical way in ways that feel meaningful, without resorting to cheap stereotypes. While this is far from an exhaustive catalog of games worth considering, here are some games that explicitly include sex mechanics I have played and enjoyed:

1) Kagematsu – a game in which the sole male character (a ronin) is played by a woman, and all of the other characters are trying to seduce him with the purpose of convincing him to stay and protect their village. In playing this, I loved how it greatly inverted players’ default point of view.

2) Apocalypse World focuses on the consequences that result from sex, with custom sex moves that only take effect after characters have sex, and with varying results, depending on just who it is that’s doing it. (And let me tell you, things get real interesting when it’s two PCs having sex.)

3) Much to my regret, I have yet to play Monsterhearts as anything other than a convention game. Still, Monsterhearts is a fantastic game for exploring themes of emerging sexuality – queer or otherwise – and the confusion that this can cause. As an Apocalypse World derivative, Monsterhearts has sex moves. However, it’s worth noting that a Monsterhearts-specific move lets all PCs make rolls to turn someone on – the person targeted is either turned on or not as determined by the dice.

Of course, the main thing that all of these systems have in common is that these are systems that aren’t exclusively engineered to model violence. Violence is definitely a large part of Apocalypse World, because hey – apocalypse. But Apocalypse World is also designed to model relationships, sex, fucking, psychic horror, and general social dysfunction. Monsterhearts does include harm (damage), but that’s far less central to the system than the mechanics modeling relationships, obligation, arousal, and sex. And Kagematsu doesn’t even have any violence mechanics at all! Kagematsu’s rules focus on modeling affection versus desperation, and about the most violent thing that players can choose to do mechanically is slap Kagematsu – which doesn’t leave any lasting effect, aside from the effect on what he thinks of you.

These sorts of mechanics lead to sex that feels messy and vulnerable and real. Sex that can feel fun or fraught; romantic or deeply unhealthy or even both; complicated and wonderful and meaningful. And the mechanics drive that story!

The best example I have witnessed of this is actually something that just happened in an Apocalypse World campaign that I’m part of. My character and another PC had been “circling the drain” (as I had previously described our relationship), with sex as an almost-inevitable conclusion that we somehow hadn’t managed until the end of our most recent session. And when it did finally happen, I was so very excited because of this little rule on my character sheet:

quarantine
For those of you familiar with AW, it was my Quarantine and the Hocus. Yes it was just as messed up as it sounds.

And let me tell you, knowing that this was a move that was going to come into play, the rest of the players were super invested in the scene! There wasn’t any phone-checking or side conversations, because the Quarantine sex move is so goddamn sweet in a post-apocalyptic world composed almost entirely of awfulness! Which is how this happened:

loved-oh-snap

And then the rest of the scene happened, and it was great and we moved on with our lives. It wasn’t until later that it really struck me that people had reacted as if we were playing D&D and I’d just rolled a one-shot on a dragon, which just goes to show why I love Apocalypse World so very much. It is absolutely possible to get player investment and excitement in things other than death and violence!

The problem is that the complete lack of these sorts of mechanics is where the majority of video games run into problems. The majority of AAA video games are violence simulators, with a couple other sub-systems thrown in. And that’s not to decry their worth as games – I’ll admit that I find using Adrenaline’s slow-mo effect in Mass Effect to line up a sniper rifle shot through an eye-slit in a riot shield immensely satisfying! But when 90% or more of a game’s mechanics revolve around various flavors of how to kill things, it shouldn’t be surprising that portrayals of female sexuality wind up as hollow retreads of awful sexist stereotypes.

Even BioWare games, which I feel generally handle female sexuality pretty well, rely on an incredibly shallow sub-system slapped on top of their violence simulator. If you do things a, b, and c and say things x, y, and z – you can accumulate enough points sleep with a woman, so long as the option has been programmed to allow you to do so. Their very sophisticated script-writing obscures the fact that the only design that has gone into modeling character relationships is a simple system of one-time bonuses and penalties, hidden behind pretty graphics and clever dialogue.

And as a game designer, I just feel like we can do so much better! Yes video games are a different medium with different constraints than tabletop. But tabletop designers have been learning from video game design for years. Maybe it’s time for video game devs to start looking at tabletop systems for solutions to the problem of how to use mechanical systems to drive satisfying stories about sex and relationships.

Sadly, until that happens I think the best we can expect is a thin veneer of romance on top of games about killing things and taking their stuff.

[1] Worth noting, that I’m almost exclusively writing about cisgender female sexuality here, simply because of the dearth of examples available to me.

[2] Granted, those examples are almost always indie-affiliated. But that’s a different conundrum.

[3] Which I wouldn’t have thought of, since the Sims don’t have any character beyond what the player constructs for them. But at the same time, any punishment of female Sims for having sex comes entirely from the player and not from the game. And given that having recreational sex is an entirely different option from having procreative sex, the mechanics are pretty darn feminist.

[4] I’m going to speak specifically about indie tabletop design, mostly because that’s the type of game that I play and the type of games that my friends design. That’s not to say that there aren’t games outside of Indie Tabletop Land that might not also provide positive examples.

On Bayonetta 2 and Female Sexuality in Video Games [TW]

[TW: The first part of this post contains some content looking at rape-as-punishment-of-in-game-failure, as well as a link to a rapey cut scene.]

Recently, I had a decent-sized traffic spike on my old post about Bayonetta and the male gaze… from three years ago. (Usually that post averages 200-300 direct links per month; in October of this year it got 3700+.) Apparently, a bunch of guys on Reddit got really sore that I said nasty things about Bayonetta and hate-read the article so they could talk about how terrible I was.

…weird. And they say the feminists are just “looking for things to be offended by”.

My reaction initially was along the lines of ‘oh well – I feel pretty much everything I said about Bayonetta back then certainly applies to the new game’, so I’d planned on leaving well enough alone. But a few things caught my attention recently that made me think it would be worth revisiting. So first, some thoughts, and then a redraw.

Part the first: you can oppose #GamerGate and still be misogynist

One of the things that made me want to revisit Bayonetta is that her creator, Hideki Kamiya, has actually gained a small amount of notoriety as a game dev opposed to #GamerGate who attracted moderate levels of harassment. (And by that I mean that he was harassed by #GG proponents, but certainly not anything comparable to what women like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian have faced.)

However, it’s very important to remember that even though he opposes #GamerGate, Hideki Kamiya is still very much a misogynist. Here are just a few things he’s said about Bayonetta in the past:

Well, if I had to pick one, I would say it is the scene where Joy first appears in the game, with Bayonetta and her impostor getting into a pose battle. That was my way of expressing the feminine notion that, to one woman, all other women are enemies. Even women walking by each other will check out what the other is wearing, and might smolder a bit with antagonism. Women are scary. (source: Bayonetta dev: to one woman, all other women are enemies)

I strongly feel that women outside should dress like her. Like, when she does a hair attack, you’d see the skin. I want women to wear fashion like that. (1up.com: Bayonetta developer interview)

But anyway that’s how we’re creating Bayonetta’s moves and all that, and that’s actually the most fun part of this game, thinking about all that stuff. So you will be able to see what everybody in the team likes in a girl from the finished project. (1up.com: Bayonetta developer interview)

[On whether her outfit really is just hair] Yes, completely hair. That means that she’s actually naked, but naked because that’s just hair, that’s not clothing. She has strong magical powers, she’s using her strength, her magical power to keep her hair on her body, to make it form an outfit. So when she gets weak or something, she might just lose her magical power, and if that happens…you know what that means. (1up.com: Bayonetta developer interview)

In other words, Hideki Kamiya is someone who has zero problems objectifying women, whether in real life or in fiction. He also has designed Bayonetta explicitly to appeal to male sexuality, and has no problem equating a woman’s worth with her sexual appeal.

Still, some people point to Bayonetta as a character to be celebrated because empowerment! And choice feminism! Bayonetta’s chosen to be this way!

But that ignores the fact that Bayonetta is not real. All of the choices she makes – how to dress, how to act, who to flirt with and when – are actually being made by her creator, whose only priority is to present Bayonetta as a sexual object that is pleasing to men. Her sexuality isn’t presented as something to be celebrated – it’s something that is explicitly punished.

Part of Bayonetta 2 includes a secret fight against Rodin, a character from the first game who is a friend of Bayonetta’s. Unfortunately, the sequence that plays if you actually lose this boss fight is… suuuuper rapetastic.

If you win the fight, Bayonetta doesn’t have sex with Rodin. Sex is only something that happens if you lose. And yeah, a lot of people would argue that the flirtatious dialogue at the beginning of the scene means that it’s not rape. I mean, how can it be rape if she flirted with him, right? But that’s just victim-blaming of the worst sort. I point again to the fact that Bayonetta only has sex with Rodin if she loses; if sex can only happen with violence, that looks an awful lot like rape.

And then there’s just the whole way it’s presented. Bayonetta is naked lying face down, trying to cover herself while Rodin smokes a cigarette. All of which really just screams rape to me – especially when you consider that “rape” is (disgustingly) still widely used as a synonym for “defeat” by many gamers.

I hate Bayonetta as a character and all of the hollow, awful stereotypes about female sexuality that she represents, but I still find this sequence utterly repugnant.Yes Bayonetta is presented as in charge and blatant in her sexuality. Yes she is aggressively flirtatious. Yes she dresses provocatively. But she is not “asking for it”. No woman is ever “asking for it”.

This is categorically not what female empowerment looks like.

Maybe Kamiya isn’t a misogynist in the sense of hating women. I really can’t say – I’ve never met the guy, nor am I ever likely to have the chance to. But in terms of being someone who promotes the objectification of women and perpetuates toxic sexist stereotypes? Absolutely he is a misogynist.

Besides, have you seen her character design?

Part two: everything about Bayonetta is wrong

So here’s the image that I decided to work with:

20140615210025!Cereza_Bayonetta_2_renderHoo boy. Looking at this, I’m actually a little terrified of Hideki Kamiya, because Bayonetta isn’t even remotely human. Clearly Kamiya has a fetish for weirdly elongated, rubber-boned snake women. Literally every part of her body is wrong.

Let’s start with the easy part. Heads:

Bayonetta-heads

Bayonetta is a whopping nine heads tall. So if you at Bayonetta and think “wow, her head looks really small”, that’s because it’s weirdly tiny. The average human is 7 heads tall, with half a head variance on either side. That’s an extra two heads of height!

Furthermore, Bayonetta’s legs by themselves are 6 heads tall. So just like Hyung Tae Kim’s anatomy nightmares, you could put Bayonetta’s head on just her legs and it would be as tall as a real human. Brr. (I did try to draw that, by the way, but it wasn’t nearly as funny as I’d hoped.)

When doing redraws, parsing the anatomy is usually pretty simple. But with Bayonetta, I found myself stumped and had to resort to drawing part of her skeleton to figure out what was going on:

Bayonetta-skeleton

Oh god. My head hurts.

Looking at this, about the only thing that I can give Bayonetta’s creators for is that she does, at least, have a ribcage and internal organs. However, Bayonetta’s spine is just ridiculous – it’s bent at a 130 degree angle there. And sure, there are contortionists out there who can sit on their own heads, but even they can’t fold their spine sharply in half in the middle.

There’s also this confusing thing that happens in order to elongate Bayonetta’s breasts (we’ll come back to that in a second) that results in her having the world’s longest sternum. The average human sternum is 17cm (6.69 inches) – and is significantly shorter in women. But despite spending way too much time trying to figure out a base for an estimate, all I can say is that her sternum is just too long, okay?

Her arms are also weirdly messed up:

Bayonetta-boobs-elbow

 

To be honest, I don’t know what the fuck is happening with her right arm, other than her shoulder is completely dislocated. I can partially dislocate one of my shoulders (on purpose) and I still can’t reach backwards that far. As for the rest of her arm… Man, I don’t know. I mean, it looks like it might be correct? But the foreshortening combined with the extreme anatomy distortion makes it really hard to tell.

As for her left arm, it’s waaaay hyper-extended. Now I’ll admit that it’s actually not beyond the realm of anatomical possibility – I have a few friends with hyper-bendy elbows and they like to squick me out by bending them freakily. (Stop it bendy friends!) But a choice was clearly made to hyper extend the arm so that the foreshortened hand wouldn’t block the view of her breasts, which. Okay. I guess most dudes don’t share my squick over elbow hyper-extension, but it still strikes me as really weird.

And her breasts! (I said I’d come back to those…) I can’t get over how weird and elongated they are. They look like baguettes stapled to her torso and… just… what? What’s up with that? I mean, when’s the last time you heard a guy say “hey, look at the sub buns on that chick”? Never, that’s when. Because normal humans fetishize round breasts. Melons. Basketballs. Not baguettes.

But the thing I find most disconcerting of all is Bayonetta’s pelvis:

Bayonetta-pelvis

When I was drawing her skeleton, I was weirded out by how tall Bayonetta’s pelvis is. It just seemed out of proportion, and way too large in comparison to the ribcage. So I drew a perspective box around the pelvis, duplicated the layer, rotated it, and stuck it on top of the ribcage. And her ribcage is only a tiiiny bit bigger than her pelvis, which is just about a million kinds of wrong:
Human-SkeletonThe pelvis on this (real, not fake) skeleton is slightly more than HALF the height of the ribcage. It’s true that there is an awful lot of variance in the length of the human ribcage, but we’re not talking anywhere near enough variance to make Bayonetta’s freaky pelvis remotely plausible.

All of which leaves me incredibly stymied. Normally this is the point where I’d try to correct everything and redraw the figure over the original art with normal human proportions. But in this instance, I’ll concede defeat because really – what’s the point? When literally everything about Bayonetta is wrong, it seems easier to just point you to photos of Bayonetta cosplayers. (Who, it’s worth noting, still manage to be very sexy despite their handicap of having an “ordinary” human skeleton.)

Concluding thoughts

There’s a legal concept that I find useful in this situation – namely, fruit of the poison tree. Basically, Bayonetta is not an empowering feminist figure, because everything that she is has been tainted by the deeply-held misogyny of her creators. At no point does Bayonetta have any real agency over her sexuality because she is entirely fictional. Rather than being a celebration of female sexuality, Bayonetta is a shallow stereotype constructed out of sexist stereotypes and objectification who only serves as a mirror for the misogynist views of the people who designed her.

Thoughts on Lightning Returns and cultural appropriation [SPOILERS]

[NOTE: I’m just about to finish Day 10, so please no spoilers on things that come after that.]

I was having a conversation with my husband the other night about cultural appropriation and Lightning Returns, in which I had occasion to make the following comparison: “It’s like an Evangelical white Texan decided to write a game about Hinduism. That’s how wrong it gets everything.”

And I’d really like to expand on that! But before we go any further, let’s break down the specific example I’m talking about.

Lightning Returns: the most bonkers take on Catholicism ever

So firstly, let’s just get started with the fact that in 13-1, Lightning becomes the pawn of the fal’cie, nigh-omnipotent servants of an omnipotent but mostly absent god who created the world and then abandoned it. She then spends the entire game fighting against entities that are roughly analogous to archangels, and soundly kicks their asses. And somewhere in there she somehow befriends Odin and he becomes her beating-things-up buddy, because, I dunno, I guess he just really likes that her name is Lightning?

Then in 13-2, she’s suddenly abducted by a goddess of Death-but-not-really(?) and turned into a valkyrie. And now in 13-3, she’s back working for God again, and she is literally the savior. As in, that is her title now – Savior Comma The[1].

So now 13-3, Lightning Returns, stars Lightning, The Savior, chosen of God – Bhunivelze the Lord of Light, who apparently decided that priestly robes were passe and that Lightning should have priestly bondage wear instead.

Lightning_LR_screenshot
Fetish messiah ftw

And then there’s a bunch of stuff about the end of the world because it’s Squeenix and let’s just cut to the fact that “God’s” base of operations is The Ark, which looks like a fevered acid-trip conjured by the love child of a Futurist and an Art Nouveau aficionado. And that weird tree there? Oh, don’t mind that, that’s just The Tree of Life, AKA Yggdrasil, AKA the World Tree of Norse mythology:

Ark_screenshot

Why is Yggdrasil a plot point in a game that is literally about making Lightning the Christian Bondage Wear Messiah? Let’s not worry about that, okay? Let’s also not worry about that in 13-3, Lightning saves a white chocobo named The Angel of Valhalla, who was really – surprise! – Odin all along! Only Odin is a giant white chicken now, because reasons. And Odin, Valhalla, and Yggdrasil… well Norse culture only predates Christianity by, like, a couple centuries, and Scandinavia is, like, in the same hemisphere and Norse people and Christians are both white, or you know, mostly white, or okay there are non-white Christians but we just won’t pay attention to them because that’s not important.

REASONS.

So, okay, Lightning the Bondage Messiah has been chosen by God to save the souls of as many people as she can before the end of the world so that they can live again in the new world that God is going to create. And no, none of that sentence was in any way a metaphor, because here is Lightning doing some sweet, sweet, soul saving:

saving souls

Oh, and then there’s the official church of God, who are, like, God’s official homies. Only they’re called “The Order”, and they are totes Catholic because seriously check out this badass Cathedral:

photo 2 - Copy

But even though the Order are God’s official homies, they’re also preparing to fuck up God’s shit by doing a ritual to destroy all of the dead souls still hanging around and shit, which would ruin God’s promise to bring back Lightning’s dead sister after she helps him save the world and stuff. Because holding family members hostage is something that totally happened, like for real the New Testament was full of DO WHAT I SAY JESUS OR I WILL FUCKING SHIV MARY SERIOUSLY DO NOT FUCK WITH ME JESUS.

Oh, and even though I haven’t finished the game, I know for realz that Lightning is going to wind up beating up and maybe killing God because Squeenix is telegraphing it so hard, which is also legit Christian, because don’t you remember that time that Jesus and God had that throwdown in the Octagon?

Jesus confirms that is totally what happened.

…I think you probably get the idea by now.

So what does this have to do with cultural appropriation?

What exactly does and does not count as cultural appropriation is always tricky to pin down. Myself, I would say that although Lightning Returns is a bizarre and misinterpretation of Catholic Christianity, I would not call it cultural appropriation, simply because of the context of the two cultures in question. While Japan did not suffer as many ill effects of Western colonial oppression as other Asian countries, it still left an indelible mark on Japanese society. And in general, it is certainly true that Christianity was often a tool of colonial oppression.

And yes Japan does have a history of colonialism itself, and yes it does have a problem with racism against non-Yamato-Japanese. But Japan has never colonized the West, nor has it attempted to forcibly convert Western people or otherwise destroy Western religion. And bizarrely-worded t-shirts aside, it certainly doesn’t have a history of selling misrepresentations of Western religion and culture for profit in such a way that would comprise a threat to the integrity of said religion and culture.

So while Lightning Returns is a deeply weird take on Christianity that some might find offensive (I don’t, but I could understand people who do), I don’t think it’s fair to call it cultural appropriation.

So why go on at such length? Because I think the close-but-not-quite nature of Lightning Returns makes it a useful illustration of what cultural appropriation looks like for people who might not be accustomed to looking out for such things.

There are, unfortunately, a lot of game writers out there who see nothing wrong with raiding non-European cultures for game fodder. Because these cultures are often seen as “inspiration” and not as cultures that belong to real, living people, the result can be big, dumb pastiches of stereotypes and misinterpretations that read as bizarre at best to members of that culture. And because the majority of game developers are still, sadly, white, it only perpetuates the cultural trend of white people commodifying and profiting from the cultures of groups that they themselves have historically victimized.

There’s nothing inherently wrong about writing a game about or set in a culture that you are not a part of. I’m a firm believer in promoting the stories of marginalized groups of people! Hell, I wrote a game set in the Reconquista specifically because I was bothered by the erasure of PoC from European history. But it is wrong to write a game about a culture that isn’t yours if you don’t treat it as something worthy of respect.

Which is where we come back to Lightning Returns as a useful example of What Not To Do!

Looking at Lightning Returns, we have:

* Casual conflation of two distinct cultures from ethnically similar but distinct groups of people (Norse paganism =/ Christianity)

* Use of a cultural or religious symbols to argue for the destruction of that culture or religion (because come on, I don’t have to have finished the game to know that Lightning is going to try to kill God)

* Characters represented in such a way that would be offensive to a significant portion of the real-world members of that culture (Lightning’s bondage messiah gear)

* Representation of a religious figure/cultural hero as something antithetical to their traditional representation. (Jesus was a Jewish carpenter and prophet, not a pink-haired Japanese sword-wielding lady badass who beats up gods for fun.)

So, you know, if you’re struggling with the whole “how not to do cultural appropriation”, you can at least not do those things, which will be a start.

[1] Because a Buffy reference seemed appropriate.

[2] Only it’s Thor that’s the Norse Thunder God, not Odin, but let’s not get sidetracked…