The Problem with Men and Feminism, as Illustrated by Two Conversations in The Witcher 3

— SPOILERS FOR THE WITCHER 3: HEARTS OF STONE 

I have Geralt visit his long-time friend Shani at her home in Oxenfurt. He encounters her in the middle of a business conversation with a group of Redanian soldiers, who have enlisted her help to brew a potent antivenom. When she leaves the room to prepare the medicine, the soldiers immediately begin to make rowdy remarks about Shani’s stunning looks and ask Geralt whether he has any romantic feelings for her. I’m annoyed at their behaviour and opt to have Geralt tell them it’s none of their business what he thinks of her. However, the soldiers are persistent, and the dialogue interface leaves me with two options: tell them Shani is indeed very beautiful, or tell them he has no feelings for her at all.

“Hang on,” I say to myself, “why can’t I tell them to *fuck off*? Where is the option to make clear to these men that this isn’t how anyone should talk about the doctor who’s making a life-saving antivenom for their troops as we speak?” 

Reluctantly, I let Geralt confirm Shani’s beauty–the other option would have been a lie on his part (and mine). When Shani returns, the soldiers act completely professional and leave without further incident.

Before I continue, allow me a brief but ultimately relevant digression into ‘real-life’ feminist theory. In Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto (2017), Jessa Crispin interrupts her fantastically fierce critique of contemporary feminism to directly address those men who have dared to pick up her book. In this passage, she makes it quite clear that she, as a woman, a feminist and an author, does not want to be made responsible for men’s engagement with feminist ideas. This sentiment (“It is not my job to make feminism easy or understandable to you,” she writes) is justifiable because, indeed: is it not that man’s own responsibility to develop his own understanding of the movement, instead of asking women to present their struggle for equality in such a way that requires as little thought and effort as possible on his part? The answer to that is, of course, a loud ‘yes’. In Crispin’s argument I sense a deep frustration with men’s attitude towards feminism, one which I myself have begun to feel quite strongly in the past year and which was recently exacerbated by the scene I describe above.

While it is easy to criticise women and feminists for not sufficiently facilitating men when presenting their ideas, it is far less easy–and far less commonplace–to spark an actual conversation about the position of men within feminist movements. And even when I do see such conversations, they go in either of two directions: ‘men cannot be feminists’ or ‘all men should be feminists’. At first glance, Crispin runs the risk of siding with the former; after all, stating, “Do not e-mail me, do not get in touch. Deal with your own shit for once” does not encourage any kind of positive dialogue, and therefore does not help to win men for the cause of gender equality. The question that underlies this stance, however, is not ‘can/should men be feminists?’ but rather ‘who bears the burden for men’s engagement with feminism?’. I believe Crispin’s harsh words are not an expression of misandry (as this write-up in the LA Review would argue) but of a genuine and acute exasperation with the fact that it is almost always up to women to convey their feminist wishes and ideals to men. In this situation, women are doing the hard work required to achieve emancipation; they face resistance and backlash, make sacrifices, and willingly go against the grain of society. Meanwhile, men stand idly by, occasionally shouting some words of encouragement–though not too loudly, lest any other men hear them.

Having spent the entire evening together at a wedding, Shani and Geralt find that they are still attracted to each other. For me, the wedding itself was awful, as we were forced to spend it with an exquisitely irritating former bandit called Vlodimir, who insisted on constantly making romantic advances towards Shani despite her telling him that nothing would happen between them. Perhaps even more irritating were the game’s obvious efforts to make Vlodimir a likeable character: he was given a lot of dialogue, filled to the brim with flowery language and crude jokes; Shani would respond with glee to his flirting; and Geralt was, again, hardly ever able to rebuke Vlodimir’s antics–not even when he forcefully kissed Shani after a dance. Everyone else at the wedding had thoroughly been enjoying themselves; I had spent most of the time groaning at the screen.

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God, I hate this guy.

I am therefore quite surprised at the conversations between Shani and Geralt in the moments after that wedding, the moments leading up to them taking a boat out to the middle of the nearby lake and making love in the light of the moon. Shani explains to Geralt that her mother wanted her to find a husband at the Oxenfurt Academy, but she found no one who was “even slightly amusing.” She fears her mother must think there’s something wrong with her because she’s still unmarried. Geralt, unprompted by me, then says: “Oh please, Shani. It’s the thirteenth century. Women don’t go to the Academy to find a husband. They go to learn, pursue their passion. You did that. I’m sure your mother appreciates it. You got a doctorate, have your own practice, been at the front line many times. You’re a good person. Not a thing wrong with you.”

I’m delighted and frustrated at the same time. Clearly, Geralt knows Shani well and values her deeply as a person. Clearly, Geralt has some idea of progressive values and women’s emancipation. Talking to myself again: “Why do I only get to see this side of Geralt now, when he’s wooing Shani? Where was ‘it’s-the-thirteenth-century’ Geralt when those men were being disrespectful towards his dear friend?”

I believe men can be feminists. I also believe not all men should be feminists, for the same reason that I do not believe all women should be feminists: if everyone living right now would identify as a ‘feminist’, the word would lose its meaning, its power, its danger.

That said, we need more feminist men. By that I do not mean the ‘feminist men’ as I often see them today, who write heartwarming Facebook posts about their wives and mothers on International Women’s Day, who believe inviting a privileged group of women into a hierarchy built by and for men is true emancipation, who think that women can achieve gender equality without any effort or help from their male companions. I do not mean men like Geralt, who holds progressive ideas but only articulates them when it’s convenient (and will get him laid) and not when it’s hard (and might get him into a fight). I mean the men who will refuse to partake in systems that exclude women and force men into narrowly defined forms of masculinity. I mean the men who will critically examine how they themselves contribute to those systems’ continued existence, and how they can help to expand the range of socially accepted ‘masculine’ behaviours. I mean the version of Geralt who would have been able to tell those Redanian soldiers to get some respect for the best combat medic in the North instead of going along with their game, regardless of the potential risks to his safety or status.

I realise, of course, that this may be too much to ask from a triple-A game studio. While men holding progressive beliefs are (thankfully) not so rare anymore, men calling out other men for sexist behaviour remain an uncommon phenomenon. It must simply not have occurred to the writers at CD Projekt Red that this would be an equally valid and effective way of demonstrating his love for Shani, rather than saying “Shani’s a beautiful woman.” It would go against my argument here to not hold the (mostly male) writers of The Witcher 3 accountable for this missed opportunity, but it seems to me they also did not have many examples to draw inspiration from. The inability to play Geralt as a feminist, in my view, is only a symptom of a broader problem: when it comes to their participation in feminist movements, men have been far too passive and not self-reflexive enough. The feminist man who smashes the patriarchy alongside his female fellows and willingly sacrifices his own social status in favour of a better world is an image that even I sometimes find hard to conjure (though John Oliver recently set a good example).

It is high time for men to start taking responsibility for their own participation in the feminist struggle instead of staying quiet at the sidelines, lazily waiting for women to change society for the better. They should acknowledge that they have more of a role to play in this movement than being enthusiastic-but-uncritical cheerleaders. Geralt should be able to tell those Redanian soldiers to *fuck off*.

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What about Education? Shifting Away from ‘Violence in Video Games’

Today, the position of video games within general popular culture remains somewhat precarious. Gaming is already ‘mainstream’, but its position as such isn’t as consistently present in the public eye as older media—and arguably, not even as strong as some more recently popularised media like online social media and video platforms, despite the fact that, for instance, the global video game industry has been larger than the global music industry in terms of revenue for several years now. We might consider video games to be the mainstream medium that remains on the fringe of what is generally seen as ‘mainstream’. I find this a curious phenomenon, and it certainly has many possible causes; one might be the various cultural anxieties that still surround the medium, despite it having been available for commercial use since the early 1970s.
The particular concern I’m thinking of–the title of this piece gives it away–is the idea that violent video games cause real violence. This is especially prevalent in the United States, and while it has been around since the conception of video games as a medium, it flared up in earnest around the late 1990s, especially after the 1999 school shooting at Columbine. The perpetrators were, amongst other things, avid players of Doom and Quake, two of the most popular and influential first-person shooters of their time. Anti-game activists like Jack Thompson began to claim that video games were “training our kids to kill.” However, research into the real-life consequences of violent video game play has never shown any direct link between gamic violence and real-life violence. Playing a murderer in a virtual environment will not make you a murderer in the ‘real world’.

Now, admittedly, video games themselves and the technologies behind them do not really help with alleviating the allegations made against them: the most popular video games do often contain rather extreme violence in which the player directly participates, and rare is the game in which violence is not the best or even the only option for conflict resolution. Combine that with the fact that most military organisations use computer-simulated environments like Full Spectrum Warrior to train their soldiers, that the US has developed America’s Army, a ‘propaganda game’ to increase recruitment numbers, and that Anders Breivik called Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 a suitable instrument for training to become a terrorist, and the case does not seem to be in the favour of video games despite evidence in their defence. But even that evidence might be difficult to validate because, while there is quite clearly no causal link between shooting someone in-game and shooting someone in real life, the exact effects of violent video game play on general aggressiveness, hostility, and insensitivity to violent acts are still somewhat contested.
This stems, among other things, from a recurring problem: there is no good definition of what constitutes a ‘violent’ video game.1 The most innocent-looking games, such as Super Mario Bros. or Rayman Origins contain depictions of (cartoonish) violence and death, though without blood or gore. Moreover, different genres of games depict violence differently; killing a horde of gangsters in Grand Theft Auto looks and feels quite different from razing an entire city to the ground in Age of Empires. How to account for these great differences, and for the ways in which such depictions of violence intersect with other gameplay systems? How does a game’s competitiveness affect aggression levels after playing, or how does the significance of the violence change when the player is forced to participate in it? The great variety and relatively young age of the medium make answers to these questions difficult, but nonetheless worth investigating. The sooner we understand the impact video games have on society at large, the sooner we can dispel these fears and move on.

Besides, what about the positive aspects of gaming? There are many potential avenues here, but one I would like to highlight is the educational value that video games can—and already do—have. Much of this is potential is, so far, hypothetical and anecdotal, but the hypotheses and anecdotes are plentiful. It would not be a stretch to say that we all know someone whose level of English was already fairly high by the time they got to high school because they played video games. Some of us, including myself, learned medieval history from games like Assassin’s Creed, a franchise which is now including a non-violent ‘educational mode’ in its latest instalment, set in Ancient Egypt. Still, teaching players theoretical knowledge is something that video games struggle with: as soon as a game is framed as ‘educational’ in the sense of knowledge acquirement, many people will protest and say that the game is not ‘fun’ anymore–which some educational scholars refer to as the ‘Bart Simpson problem’. Some experiments have been done where players use existing, non-educational games for explicitly educational purpose, ranging from using SimCity and Civilization in geography and history classes2, to using Minecraft as a tool to virtually reconstruct ancient cities like Nineveh.

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Assassin’s Creed‘s educational mode: an action-adventure game turned history tour.

A truly good (read: consistently effective) educational tool, however, would be a game that is explicitly made to be educational, with specific learning goals in mind as the game is being produced so that the in-game goals align with and facilitate the learning process, rather than the learning process being something that is added on top of the game’s existing processes as Assassin’s Creed‘s educational mode attempts to do. There is still much uncertainty about how to do this: research shows that on many fronts, such as the balance between teacher-based and game-based learning, the transformation of implicit knowledge into explicit knowledge, and the use of narrative within the game, there is room for improvement.3 I myself am involved in the production of an educational game which aims to teach primary school children the basic ideas behind quantum physics (see: www.reddlock.com/index.php/sciencetales/), and it is clear that this development is a great challenge in part because of those reasons. If we want video games to play a larger and more effective role within the education of the younger generations, such experiments must go hand in hand with research. This will help not only to hopefully improve our education system, but also to solidify video games’ position in the public eye as medium that is to be taken seriously and that is here to stay.

Notes and references:
1. Paul J.C. Adachi and Teena Willoughby, “The Effect of Violent Video Games on Aggression: Is It more than just the Violence?” Aggression and Violent Behavior, no. 16 (2011): 61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2010.12.002
2. Jantina Huizinga, “Digital Game-Based Learning in Secondary Education.” (PhD diss., University of Amsterdam, 2017), 84.
3. Pieter Wouters and Herre van Oostendorp, “A Meta-Analytic Review of the Role of Instructional Support in Game-Based Learning.” Computers & Education 60, no. 1 (January 2013): 412-425. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2012.07.018

Some Very Brief Thoughts on the Hyper Light Drifter Soundtrack

–SPOILERS FOR HYPER LIGHT DRIFTER AHEAD–

First of all, I love the soundtrack to Hyper Light Drifter. Okay, I love the entire game, but the musical score stands out among the things I love about it. The 138-minute-long album was composed by Rich Vreeland (a.k.a. Disasterpeace), previously known for his work on FezMini Metro and the 2014 horror film It Follows. The songs range from ambient 8-bit synth tunes to full-blown dubstep, often reminiscent of Vangelis’ phenomenal work on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Like the music in that 1982 cyberpunk classic, the soundtrack to Hyper Light Drifter is woven expertly into the very fabric of the game. Every song in the score fits its context perfectly: from the heavily reverberating, sweeping chords of “The Winding Ridge” that accompany the mountainous northern section, to the quiet and tentative electronic sound of “The Abyss” that plays while you explore the eponymous area in the game. The tracks crossfade into each other depending on your location so smoothly that you can barely notice a change. It’s all just rather excellent.
(By the way, each song title links to the song on YouTube, in case you want to get a better idea of what I’m talking about here.)

Then, at the end of the game, as the Drifter dies and the credits roll, we find “Panacea”, which is six minutes and four seconds of absolutely beautiful, melancholic, gutwrenching piano music. The piece is the very opposite of the rest of the sountrack in terms of sound: instead of synthesizers and drum machines, we hear a grand piano–or rather, a room in which someone is playing a grand piano. We hear the subtle thuds of the keys being pressed, the notes echo softly through the open space, and we can even hear the pianist himself move and breathe at one point. This makes the piece feel very grounded and intimate, which is exactly what you need after you’ve just defeated the last boss and then helplessly watched the dying Drifter slump against a rock. “Panacea” does its name justice as a musical cure for the emotional wounds we’ve suffered at the hands of the game.

Like I said, this track’s intimate, personal sound contrasts heavily with the unfamiliar, otherworldly atmosphere that the rest of the soundtrack produces. Pieces like “The Midnight Wood” and “The Gaunlet” are eerie and give the player a sense of looming threat as they roam the world. Tracks such as “The Last General” and “The Sentients”, which play during boss battles, are overwhelming and full of urgency, bringing the hidden threats to the fore and confronting them directly. Lastly, “Chimera”, the piece that accompanies the game’s final boss fight, is loaded with lethal tension and existential dread. Heavy distortion and a nerve-racking drum beat fill the player with paralysing fear, making this last battle the most terrifying of all. 

The remnants of creatures and dangers long past still haunt the world, reminding you that you’re never safe.

You spend the entire game fearing for your life, surrounded by death and decay, on an epic quest that inevitably only leads to more death and decay, no matter how hard you try. The musical score helps to create this atmosphere, playing in the background as the Drifter roams the world and kills magnificent foes in the search for a cure for their mysterious illness.1 When that quest proves fruitless and the Drifter’s world and life come undone, the score takes over completely and becomes the soothing musical epilogue to the tragic adventure that is Hyper Light Drifter. In these final moments, softly reverberating piano sounds embrace and heal your sadness and anger like the benevolent goddess they were named after. “There was no cure for the Drifter,” she whispers, “but with death comes peace and that must count for something.”

Notes and references:
1. Hyper Light Drifter was intended to be a game that terminal heart disease patients, like its lead developer Alx Preston, could identify with. For more on that, see this short VICE documentary

Dying Quietly by a Campfire: The Meaning of Death in Hyper Light Drifter

–SPOILERS FOR HYPER LIGHT DRIFTER AHEAD–

You’ve traversed sky-high mountains and dense forests, killed hordes of villainous creatures, and bested great monsters to get to this point. It was a rough journey full of many defeats and few victories. Now, you enter the Abyss to confront it, your final challenge. As the demonic being rises before you, you tremble with fear and excitement. Despite the arduous and difficult battle, you eventually overcome the being’s terrific power and strike the killing blow. A sense of triumph–but then you suffer a horrible coughing fit, worse than any of the ones you had before. The Abyss, the entire universe starts to crumble around you. Triumph is replaced with confusion and fear and disbelief: you thought you beat this!
The mysterious black dog that’s been following you around this entire time appears in the doorway and calmly signals for you to come. You chase it through a disintegrating world, surrounded by darkness, with only the road before you illuminated. You arrive at a strangely familiar-looking scene: a forest clearing with a great dog-like stone statue and a burning campfire. As the world ends and a certain peace envelops you, you lean against the statue, and you die, basking in the light and warmth of the fire. The dog watches from above as rocks and trees come tumbling down and the image fades into bright pink and then black.

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As wordlessly poetic as death can be.

This is the ending to Hyper Light Drifter (2016), an action role-playing game about… well, it’s not entirely clear what it’s about. The game itself gives clues, but refuses to explain itself to you: the story is told solely in images, not in words. If my description of its final moments were confusing or vague that’s entirely the point, because the entire game is like that. While playing Hyper Light Drifter, you’re never completely sure about what is going on, or why you’re fighting all of these monsters, or why you die when it’s all over. The only certainties you really have are the things you’re doing and the things you’re feeling while doing the things you’re doing.
One of the things you’re inevitably doing is dying, and probably a lot of it. In Hyper Light Drifter, death as a ‘fail state’, i.e. as a consequence of player failure, seems at first to be the standard ‘trial-and-error’ type of death. After all, you die, you respawn, and you try again. In addition, the game implicitly encourages normalisation–which I’ll explain in a bit. However, I would argue that death has another purpose in this game: it is also meaningful death.

Now, the purpose of death in video games has been discussed more often than you might think. Rolf Nohr analyses video game death as a process of ‘normalisation’: according to him, the idea of respawning after death to try again is meant to push the player to play the game in the ‘ideal way’, to optimise their play and adapt to the game’s systems.1 Hyper Light Drifter also makes use of this, because it’s usually quite obvious why you died: you forgot an enemy who was shooting at you from behind, you misread the boss’s attack pattern, or you simply weren’t quick enough to dodge. You can almost always immediately see how you can do better. This goes for many video games, but it’s not the whole story. Jason Tocci questions the necessity of death as a game mechanic and notes that it is the result of particular historical contingencies that led to death being the primary way in which video games signify failure. One of his main gripes with the standard trial-and-error deaths in video games is that they interrupt the game’s narrative, which often makes games incapable of creating a fully coherent narrative. Next to naming some alternatives for such deaths in video games, Tocci mentions two other relevant types of examples: ‘purposeful deaths’ and ‘inevitable deaths’:

  • Purposeful deaths–or rather, ‘meaningful deaths’–are “death scenes that attempt to contribute something to the general narrative tone. There may be no explanation for how the protagonist returns from death, but the death itself invites a moment of spectatorship”. Examples of this are the gruesome death scenes in survival and horror games such as Tomb Raider (2013) or Resident Evil 4, which emphasise the harsh conditions and terrible dangers that their protagonists face.
  • Inevitable deaths are death scenes within the narrative of the game. They are not brought about by the player’s failures or choices, but will simply happen once they reach a certain point in the game. According to Tocci, such “forced failure”, like at the end of Shadow of the Colossus, creates a sense of tragedy that would be absent in games that simply always let you respawn and try again until you get a successful outcome.2
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“And, in the end,” as one critic writes, “all you have to show for it is a pile of dead bodies.”

Like I said, in Hyper Light Drifter, death as a fail state occurs a lot, which is because it is not a particularly easy game. The combat mechanics by themselves are simple enough, but the enemies in the world are comparatively tough and often come in large groups, forcing you to think fast and to constantly evade attacks from all angles. At the normal difficulty setting, five hits or less means death: time slows down and stops as your character loses their life, and the screen fades from a deep purple into black. Health packs can be found throughout the world, but they are rare, so you’ll often have to face a room full of enemies with less health than you’d like. The game’s treacherous level design also increases the difficulty of combat, because you need to always be acutely aware of anything and everything that is occurring on the battlefield.
What you feel as you die over and over again is rather predictable: frustration, disbelief, anger. Some will feel discouraged and quit playing, others will be strengthened in their determination to beat the game and keep going. Then, when you overcome a particularly difficult area or finally defeat a boss, you feel relieved and triumphant. However, the game itself only modestly celebrates your victories: the Drifter smashes their sword into the ground and then simply goes on as if nothing awesome just happened. There is constantly a contrast between crushing defeat and understated victory, between spectacular death and unremarkable survival. It’s as if the game is telling you, “Yes, hooray, you just defeated that boss, but don’t get cocky because you’ll definitely die some more soon”. The harshness and spectacle with which player death is presented, combined with this lack of celebration, contributes to a general sense of being under threat that pervades the entire game.

Playing as the tiny and fragile Drifter, you move through the world high-strung, fully aware that dangers are ever-present, multiform and manifold. This is, of course, exactly the point. If the Drifter was able to just stroll merrily through rooms full of enemies and never met these numerous and horrific ends, the player would feel far more powerful than the game wants them to feel. Death in Hyper Light Drifter serves to create a very specific, threatening atmosphere. It helps to give the player a constant sense of impending doom. The game’s final death scene, then, is the culmination of that effort: the Drifter confronts the being that has been haunting them since the beginning of the game and even manages to kill it. For a brief moment, the image focusses on the Drifter, slashing their opponent and dealing the final blow. For a brief moment, survival becomes potentially spectacular. For a brief moment, you might expect the game to finally congratulate you on your victory.

And you know what happens next. The roles have suddenly been reversed. For just a little while, life seems spectacular and thunderous and celebratory because you defeated the evil! Then, the spectacle is interrupted and death comes to signify the understated and the unremarkable. Hyper Light Drifter won’t give you a victory, but it will give you one of the most impactful video game endings I have ever played. It’s bittersweet, simultaneously cynical and beautiful.

That whole journey, for naught but a quiet death near a campfire.

 

 

Notes and references:
1. Rolf Nohr, “Restart after Death: ‘Self-optimizing’, ‘Normalism’ and ‘Re-entry’ in Computer Games.” In The Game Culture Reader, eds. Jason C. Thompson and Marc A. Ouellette (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholar Publishing, 2012): 82-83.
2. A more in-depth exploration on the absence of tragedy in video games can be found here.

“I Don’t Let Men Control Me”: Gender and Sexuality in NieR:Automata

I’m going to provide a short feminist critique on a video game.

As some of you may be aware, video games have a rather complicated relationship with issues of gender and sexuality. Actually, ‘complicated’ proves to be a bit of a euphemism here: many, many games are filled with sexist and downright misogynistic imagery. Too often, video games depict women as ‘damsels in distress’ or sexualised background decoration. There is a nagging lack of well-written, fully-developed female protagonists–and those that actually exist are quite frequently just female iterations of what might as well have been a male character. Other problems include, among many others: casual violence against women, presenting sex as a commodity or reward, and the under- and misrepresentation of LGBTQ+ people.1
The sexism in video games is not limited to the medium itself, but also to the culture surrounding it: generally speaking, video game culture can be exceptionally sexist, homophobic, and regressive. While this has been shifting over the past two decades or so, white heterosexual young men are still the hegemonic force in game culture and therefore remain the key demographic of most of the gaming industry. There have certainly been efforts to make the medium more broadly accessible and inviting to women and LGBTQ+ people, but they are always–always–met with some degree of backlash. Men who openly advocate gender equality in video games are seen as disappointments to their community. Women who do the same are met with rape and death threats. When the word ‘gender’ is involved, things tend to get real ugly, real fast.

With these issues in mind, NieR:Automata (PlatinumGames, 2017) can feel like a breath of fresh air: two out of its three protagonists are female, and many of its most memorable secondary characters are women or have no clear gender. The game turns gender stereotypes upside down and plays with them a lot, whilst still retaining a degree of nuance: 2B, the main female protagonist, is generally cold and unemotional; in contrast, 9S, the male protagonist, is constantly excited, spontaneous and childlike. One of their closest allies is a machine named Pascal, who is referred to with ‘he’ by others, has a feminine voice and is depicted as a caregiver for his village’s children. Next to these characters, there are plenty of women who behave in typically ‘feminine’ ways: 2B’s handler falls in love with another YoRHa2 officer and practically becomes a teenage girl because of it; a similar thing happens to the female groupies of the machine philosopher Jean-Paul.

At the same time, the romantic relationships between the androids of YoRHa are implied to usually be lesbian relationships, and nobody in the game seems to mind that at all, which is nice for a change. Often, when media deal with a non-heterosexual relationship they will do this in either of two ways: they pay too much attention to it, causing the relationship to feel overtly artificial and fake; or they pay too little attention to it, causing the relationship to feel inferior to other depicted (heterosexual) relationships. NieR:Automata is one of those games that talks about queer relationships the way we should hopefully all talk about queer relationships one day: as no different, no more and no less than any other type of relationship. For YoRHa’s androids, love is love.

There’s many more positive things to say about NieR:Automata, from its excellent incorporation of its main themes into its gameplay mechanics to the utter brilliance of its plot. Those things aren’t really of much interest here though, so I’ll instead focus on a more contentious aspect of the game: 2B’s body. For those who haven’t played it, this is how she is depicted in the game:

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What’s with women in media always wearing high heels during combat situations?

And this is a costume you can dress her up in if you buy the latest DLC, fittingly named ‘Revealing Outfit’:

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Fighting in her underwear and even higher heels. Right. Someone should make a parody to address how ridicuous this is.

Okay, so, uhm, yeah. There’s some issues here.

Now, I probably don’t really need to point out what’s wrong with what 2B looks like. It’s a familiar problem: female characters get overly sexualised to cater to video games’ straight male audience.3 When those digital women are also playable characters, like in NieR:Automata, things don’t change very much–in fact, they usually get worse because these women are now constantly visible and must therefore be even more pleasing to the eye than background characters. Not only is 2B constantly exposed to varying degrees, you can also control what kind of clothing she gets to wear, you can look at her body from every possible angle, and, naturally, you can control her movements. During one of the game’s many sidequests, 2B says, “I don’t let men control me”, but of course the player–who will, in many cases, be a man–does control her. He can let her jump graciously through the air, he can make her walk elegantly across a reflective puddle of water, and he can have her climb up a ladder and then adjust the game’s camera angle to reveal her underwear. Power fantasy much?

Then, around the middle part of the game, something happens: Adam, one of the game’s main antagonists, hacks 9S’s mind and starts talking to him about how “all who live are slaves to desire” and more such profundities. In that moment, he states abruptly,
“You’re thinking about how much you want to **** 2B, aren’t you?”
At this point, it is already clear that 9S is in love with 2B, but the bluntness and suddenness with which the statement is made causes it to resonate beyond 9S’s feelings towards his partner. It becomes a comment on the stereotypical young, heterosexual, male gamers who find 2B’s seductively short skirt and alluring digital curves to be one of the game’s primary initial selling points, as the game’s online reviews also demonstrate. (“Oh, and don’t forget the butts, those are important too,” writes one Steam reviewer.) Through Adam and 9S’s conversation, NieR:Automata forces us to consider the implications of desiring 2B’s digital body–or even to simply admit that her body is desirable at all. The game lays bare the complexities of sexuality in the context of digital technologies by allowing us to lust after our avatar’s bodies freely, before bluntly asking, “What are you doing?”

The question is whether this one statement by itself, however impactful it may be, justifies the constant voyeurism that the game clearly encourages. The game’s director, Yoko Taro, has said that he simply “really like[s] girls”, which doesn’t really do the case of ‘NieR:Automata as criticism of the sexualisation of digital women’ any good. The ‘Revealing Outfit’ that comes with the latest DLC also doesn’t help. Nevermind the fact that, when the player self-destructs, 2B’s skirt is removed when she respawns. That’s not feminism, that’s fan service!

Some very interesting pieces have already been written on how this game deals with sex and love, and they all make very good points about the function of the general sexiness that pervades the entire game–2B’s body alone is, after all, not the only titillating part of NieR:Automata. However, all of them seem to ignore or downplay its implications for video game culture. Some will even actively distance themselves from such discussion, when precisely this game can be interpreted in so many different ways! All of those different interpretations have different implications for attaining social justice in popular media, and not all of those implications are necessarily sexist. While NieR:Automata does perpetuate the sexualisation of women in video games without a clear and explicit diegetic goal, it also presents us with interesting, threedimensional and positively bad-ass female protagonists. Additionally, the game destabilises gender norms, and it normalises homosexual relationships to boot. And those things are pretty cool, at least.

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Other good stuff in NieR:Automata: smooth gameplay, great UI, gorgeous setting. Other bad stuff: its android characters are really, overwhelmingly white. Also, the PC port sucks.

It is perhaps important to note that the game’s merits don’t make up for its flaws, but also that the game’s flaws don’t necessarily (with many exceptions!) take away from its strengths. The goal of analyses such as this one is not to pretend that whether a game has a ‘feminist message’ or not is the only measure of quality; instead, they serve to point out the lessons that designers and audiences can learn from the material presented to us. A brief list of such lessons to be learnt from NieR:Automata, based on this post:
– Games with female leads and lots of character development for those leads will not be worse for it–on the contrary!
– Games without rigid gender stereotypes are not any less fun due to that lack of stereotypes–if anything, the experience feels more playful!
– Games that contain explicitly homosexual relationships are rather cool, because, well, we hardly ever see them in popular media!
– Games that sexualise their female characters may be fun for straight men, but they facilitate potentially harmful male power fantasies, and women/LGBT+ people might feel excluded or unwelcome because of such depictions!

Did I say this was going to be a *short* analysis? Whoops.

 

Notes and references:
1. Hopefully everyone knows what this means by now, but just in case: ‘LGBT+’ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and any other (that’s the ‘+’) non-heterosexual/non-cisgender identities, such as Intersex or Asexual.
2. ‘YoRHa’ is the organisation that the game’s protagonists belong to, an army of androids, created to protect humanity from the alien invaders who created an army of machines to conquer Earth.
3. For a good overview of how this works within the industry, check out the chapter “Designing Militarized Masculinity” in Stephen Kline et al., Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture and Marketing (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2003): 246-68.

“Breathing With Meaning”: What Non-Magical Magic Tells Us About Fantasy Fiction

Last week I wrote about magic, and how the systematisation of video game magic causes the phenomenon to become distinctly non-magical. I focused mainly on magic as a combat mechanic, but my statement that game developers “rewrite the laws of nature in such a way that magic can come to ‘exist’” extends to all forms of magic in their game worlds. This may include things like elevators (Guild Wars 2), transportation services offered by non-player characters (The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind), long-distance communication devices (The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings), et cetera. To once again reiterate the point I made in my previous post (this is the last time, I swear): these phenomena are presented as if they are magical, but their very existence nullifies that ‘magic-ness’, both in video games and in other media that depict magic. Keeping all of that in mind, what does this alternative understanding of magic in fantasy fiction tell us about fantasy fiction itself?

Before I get to this question, I should talk about the ‘fantasy versus science fiction’ debate. No, that’s not the ‘Lord of the Rings vs. Star Wars‘ debate, I intend to keep well away from that one. (That said, LotR is better.) The debate I’m referring to revolves around the question of which of the two genres is better suited to provide social criticism. A rather common view is that science fiction is the most capable of this, since it usually attempts to ‘predict’ the future. Often, sci-fi uses the contemporary social, political and technological situation as a starting point. It then extrapolates from that situation an imagined future in which the possible consequences of some of its aspects–whether positively or negatively–are heavily amplified. Since the genre is thereby mostly rooted in our own material reality, it can very effectively question or comment on the flaws of our current social structure.

Now, I don’t intend to question sci-fi’s capacity for societal critique, but I do object to fantasy then being dismissed as an ‘ahistorical’ and ‘escapist’ genre, incapable of saying anything meaningful about contemporary social issues.1 In fact, fantasy fiction has a whole lot of things to say, we just need to be willing to listen. This is where Ted Friedman’s wonderful essay, “The Politics of Magic”, comes in:

The key to fantasy’s contemporary resonance […] lies in the way the genre negotiates two intertwined preoccupations of our era: technology and nature. […] At a time of both great technological advances and looming ecological catastrophe, the fantasy genre provides writers, directors, game designers, and audiences an opportunity to reimagine their relationships with both their machines and their environment.2

According to Friedman, fantasy gives us a chance to reflect on our connection to modern technology because the genre’s primary trope, magic, “serves the role in fantasy that technology does in science fiction–and in fact, the role that technology serves in real life”. Magic is not just non-magical, it’s very much technological: it’s “the fictional force that makes tools work in fantasy worlds”. It’s what powers the elevators, transporters and communication devices I mentioned in the introduction. However, since we supposedly cannot comprehend this ‘fictional force’ (it is still presented as being ‘magic’, after all), these technologies become devices that we simply expect to function without understanding how or why they work. For Friedman, this makes for a sursprisingly accurate “metaphor for representing our alienated relationship to [modern-day] technology”. Similarly to the magical technologies in fantasy fiction, we don’t know how the real-life technologies we use everyday work anymore either. Who can still single-handedly fix their car engine, or their washing machine, or their smartphone? As far as most of us are concerned, “it might as well be magic”.

In addition, fantasy can also help us to rethink our relationship with nature. Even though magic isn’t actually magical anymore, fantasy still wants to make us believe that it is. Friedman notes that magic does not only drive the fantasy world’s technologies; it also facilitates the existence of “talking animals, self-aware plants, and landscapes that breathe with meaning”. Magic creates connections between human and animal, between civilised society and savage nature, and shows us that there is–hypothetically–much to be learned from those creatures and entities that we normally deem ‘below us’. At the very least, it suggests that the human perspective on things might not always be the most well-rounded or rational one: for example, when humans destroy their environment in fantasy fiction, magic allows the environment itself to protest–the rise of the Ents in Lord of the Rings, defending their forest from Saruman’s corruption, comes to mind here.

Wrath-of-the-Ents-treebeard-33433582-1600-959
The Battle of Isengard, the “last march of the Ents”, nature refusing to make room for technology.

The two-faced nature of ‘magic’–presenting itself as magical when it is, in fact, technological–makes the phenomenon a suitable way to represent our relationship with both technology and nature. By incorporating magic, this potent metaphor, into the very fabric of its universes, fantasy offers us a way to reflect on those relationships in a similar way that science fiction does. It shows us alternative ways to think about the divide between technology and nature, and about our own disconnect with both of them. If we strip away the medieval setting and the archaisms, fantasy worlds become tentative answers to the question, “How might we live with far-advanced technology, whilst still trying to co-exist in harmony with our natural environment?” While some may look at fantasy and see a purely escapist imaginary scene, those with a more trained eye might spot that its landscapes are, in fact, breathing with meaning.

P.S. I very much intend to analyse at least one fantasy video game (The Witcher) from this theoretical perspective. However, that will have to wait because next week, for the sake of variety, I want to write about something that isn’t magic- or fantasy-related.

 

Notes and references:
1. That’s a very, very brief summary of the argument made in: Frederic Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: the Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005): 57-71.
2. Ted Friedman, “The Politics of Magic: Fantasy Media, Technology, and Nature in the 21st Century.” TedFriedman.com, 21 January 2014, https://tedfriedman.com/2014/01/21/the-politics-of-magic/. I’d recommend reading the entire article if you’re interested, it’s quite good.

Taking Issue with ‘Magic’ in Video Games

What is magic?

Seriously, what is magic? I don’t know. Nobody really does. Aside from the question of whether it even really exists in the first place–it doesn’t, in case you were wondering–it has always been rather unclear what the term ‘magic’ exactly means. Magic is always presented as something that is beyond us mere mortals, a phenomenon that bends and/or breaks the laws of nature as we know them. According to Christopher Lehrich, “magic appears to be a way of labeling for future consideration that which has no reality to label, that which potentially violates reality”.1 It is a word that necessarily cannot refer to anything that is materially real. It is the unexplainable, the incomprehensible, the unthinkable. And yet, we all have a set of mental images that we can link to the concept: from the spectacular spells you can cast in Dragon Age to the subtle ‘Signs’ in The Witcher. Hell, the whole fantasy video game genre is based around the simple assertion that, in its fictional worlds, magic is real and omnipresent. In these games, magic becomes part of everyday life, normal instead of non-existent. It is clear that ‘real’ magic and video game magic are two entirely different things, but how can we understand this contrast between them? And, what does it tell us about the idea of magic more broadly?

Video games in the fantasy genre take their versions of magic one step further than other media. Not only do they depict magic, they also systematise magic. Game developers don’t just have to come up with an answer to the question of what magic would look like in this world they’re creating; they also need to consider how their idea of magic would work as a system, as part of their world’s metaphysical structure. While novelists and film producers can focus on the aesthetics of magic, game developers need to take the mechanical workings of magic into account as well. Armour that protects you from fire damage cannot just be “fire-resistant”, it needs to specify exactly how much fire damage it will ward off. A bolt of lightning cannot simply cause a bit of a shock and a third-degree burn wound, the game’s code needs to detail how long that shock will last, how much damage the bolt will cause to your character’s health points, and so forth.

This systematisation of magic seeps into other aspects of gameplay and game world. Spells and other forms of magic are often part of hierarchies and different categories, and can usually be upgraded to have additional effects or do more damage. The Storm Bolt spell in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, for instance, can be leveled up with ‘ability points’ to increase its damage output, stun duration and area of effect. Moreover, if the player upgrades two other abilities in their ‘Sorcery ability tree’, they can enhance the spell even further. We are never really told how this works diegetically2 and that’s arguably not necessary either, because this point-based upgrade mechanic has existed for decades, finding its roots in Dungeons and Dragons. It’s just how things are done around here.
Furthermore, in many games there is a limit to how often the player can cast their spells. Broadly speaking, there are two ways of creating such limits: ‘cooldown times’ on spells and ‘mana’. Cooldown time means that a spell cannot be used again for a set period of time after casting: the more powerful the spell, the longer its cooldown time will be. Mana, a slightly problematic concept also referred to as magicka, is most often seen as the mystical force from which magic draws its power.3 Similar to their health bar, the player character possesses a certain amount of ‘mana points’, and every spell costs mana points to be cast. Once these run out, the player cannot cast any more spells until their mana/magicka is replenished.

Lightning_Damage
Casting the Shock Bolt spell in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, with the blue mana points bar displayed in the top left corner.

What I’m getting at with these examples is that video game magic is decidedly not the mysterious, untamed, invisible force that we usually think of ‘real’ magic as being. Instead, it is, like the rest of the virtual world it inhabits, very much grounded in rules. Video game magic requires such rules to be able to exist in the game world, because the game’s artificial, coded nature demands that everything in it is quantifiable. Any player-induced in-game action needs to met with a measurable, pre-determined in-game reaction. It’s no coincidence that this sounds suspiciously like Newton’s third law of motion: what developers do when they are programming the rules for a game is essentially the writing of fictional laws of physics. When they include magic of any kind in their game, they rewrite the laws of nature in such a way that magic can come to ‘exist’. Video game magic then works like any other game mechanic: a hunter’s flaming arrow and a mage’s fireball may look and feel different, but on a very basic level, they are both projectiles that will deal a certain amount of fire damage on impact.4

Hopefully, it’s clear now what the fundamental difference between ‘real’ magic and video game magic is. As we usually see it, magic in the real world would be something that breaks natural laws, it would be something supernatural. In video games, there is no room for the supernatural, because magic is already part of the game world’s natural laws. Because of this systematisation I have described, video game magic is never truly ‘magical’: though presented as mysterious, dangerous and arcane, it becomes quantified, regulated and mundane. Therefore, what we visualise when we think about the broader concept of ‘magic’ isn’t actually anything close to that, because it will often be based on video game (or any other medium’s version of) magic. ‘Real’ magic can never really be magic, if that makes any sense.

Something proving its non-existence by existing, what does that remind me of?

 

Notes and references:
1. Christopher Lehrich, The Occult Mind: Magic in Theory and Practice (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2007): 164.
2. When an aspect of a game is ‘diegetic’, it means that this aspect is part of a game’s narrative world, which is also called ‘diegesis’. ‘Non-diegetic’ aspects are typically things like the menu screen, loading screen and interface; they are instrumental to the whole gaming experience, but exist distinctly outside of the game’s fiction.
3. For an example of how this is construed within game narratives, see: http://en.uesp.net/wiki/Lore:Magic.
4. William Sims Bainbridge, eGods: Faith versus Fantasy in Computer Gaming (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013): 167.