I wanted to put a post together over the weekend but it ended up getting taken over by Scribblenauts.
Posts Tagged ‘video games’
Black male player: Wanted Meter starts at two stars. When the player is on foot, all white NPCs within eyeshot will cross to the opposite side of the street. Game can only be played on Very Hard difficulty level (does GTA have one?).
Asian female player: Wanted Meter starts at one star. When on foot, all white male NPCs within 20′ radius will run to player and proposition her (dialogue takes about half an hour to click through). Add one to Wanted Meter each time she rejects advances. If player has short hair, rejected NPCs will call her a lesbian.
Black male player: when other friendly characters are present, the game will not progress until the player is the first to open door/turn corner/walk down hallway/other situation which places him in mortal danger. also includes new Second Person Perspective camera, which remains fixed on white NPCs for duration of game. Game ends when player is killed, zombified, and killed again.
Latino male/female player: Game ends when player is killed, zombified, and killed again. (Game duration: five minutes.)
Asian female player: see Ada Wong.
Black male player: Player character has Afro instead of horns. Also, mysterious black shadows trying to separate Black male PC from white female NPC are now mysterious figures in white robes and hoods.
Asian female player: No penalties are called on opposing team.
Young white female player: Opposing attorney is Kanye West.
Bonnie Ruberg blogged over at Heroine Sheik about her piece over at Gamasutra, “Women in Games: The Gamasutra 20”. Which is great! We need more pieces about women in the gaming industry – lord knows there aren’t enough of them (women, and pieces about them).
But, being the long-time veteran of the Internet that I am, I already knew what was coming before I even opened up the 21-page article. Click.
And so on, and so on.
From what I can gather, the article’s nominees were recommended and deliberated by a panel of Gamasutra editors. Now of course I don’t know who was on that panel, but I’m willing to guess they’re white, too. So we have a panel of white people in a white-dominant industry talking about some of the other great white people they know. I get that it’s also a white male-dominated industry, so I’m all for pieces like these that highlight the important work that non-white-men are doing in the industry, but it seems pretty shitty to give women of color the short end of the stick.
The tricky thing about all of this is, I doubt any of this was intentional in the least; I can’t imagine Ms. Ruberg calling a secret meeting of her local chapter of the Gamasutra White Supremacists to figure out Yet Another Way To Keep Those Pesky Colored Folk Down. In fact, I have no doubt that the article’s nomination process sounded like a perfectly good idea at the time, whatever it was – and it could have been something as innocuous as a few people getting together and talking about women that they really admired in the biz. The point to take away from all of this is not that the gaming industry is racist (if you’re taking that away from this article, you must be a newbie to this blog) but rather, if the status quo is an industry that excludes people of color AND women, doing a project aimed at promoting the women in the industry without any kind of thought for race produces a project that still leaves plenty of people feeling screwed. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The response to this kind of criticism is, inevitably, along one of two lines:
1. We would have more women of color on the list, except they just didn’t seem to measure up along our eminently objective standards of XYZ. This basically translates to, “women of color just aren’t good enough to hack it with us. That’s not racist at all!” Um, yeah.
2. Well, Pat, since you’re so smart, what women of color would you have added? To which I say, considering I don’t work in The Industry, I haven’t the faintest idea. But I wonder: was Nichol Bradford, Global Director of Strategic Growth at Vivendi Games (parent company to Blizzard Entertainment, among others) was ever considered for nomination? Considering her rather impassioned speech at last year’s GDC, and the work she’s doing with arguably the most influential gaming company of the last few years, I can’t imagine it would have been for lack of impact.
That’s enough from me at the moment – I’m currently still reeling from a bout with tonsilitis. Peace.
So far I’ve managed to make my way, through, oh, the first 5% of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas so far – I’m still doing the initial gang missions and all. From what I hear, it’s not really one of those games that anyone ever bothers to finish, so I’m not too worried about it.
I actually brought it up while talking to The Lady last night, and she mentioned that all she had heard about it was that it was a horribly irresponsible game, because it doesn’t really teach about the consequences of taking certain actions. Actions like stealing cars, killing people, eating nothing but fast food, provoking the National Guard, and so on. Which is true, for the most part; it sets you in a somewhat realistic world and lets you go wild – things like committing felonies or getting killed are inconveniences readily remedied by reloading an earlier save. Cars are in endless supply, so why bother driving safely? For that matter, so are people, so who cares if you accidentally run over a few people while pulling out of the driveway?
As anyone reasonably boned up on their pop culture knows, it’s exactly this irresponsible escapism that irks so many people: once you get past the sensationalist ignorance like “it’s a rape and murder simulator!” or, more recently, the whole “Drunk driving is rewarded in GTA IV!” gaffe courtesy of the Parents Television Council (who?), what scares people about this game is that it’s so easy to kill, maim, steal, etc. when we’re controlling a virtual avatar in a virtual world that has no real permanent consequences whatsoever.
To people who play games, however, this isn’t really news to us at all. We should all know by now how easy it is to be horrible to other people who are actually on the other end of the TV screen (see: every instance anyone has been called anything derogatory on XBox Live, ever). Why would it be surprising that some polygons might be steamrolled because they stood between me and the Cluck ‘n’ Bell in San Andreas? But once the rules change so that our behavior affects the way we play the game, people are, by and large, just as nice as they can be. That is to say, if we made San Andreas issue in-game moving violations, people would behave better, and the rest of the game would have to be redesigned to make it not be boring, because right now, the game has been designed with a certain set of rules, one of which goes something like “it’s totally okay if the player drives irresponsibly.”
Since San Andreas is set in a realistic setting (well, compared to other video games, at least), the violence raises controversy. DOOM raised controversy oh-so-long-ago because people called it a “murder simulator”, but the days in which people would pick fights over that alone are over. Now, killing zombies, aliens, Nazis, etc. is for the most part, if not approved behavior, at least not something that would make the evening news. If the games we’re playing take place in something remotely resembling the real world, on the other hand, people go nuts. This marks a dramatic shift in the public’s common sense: it is less the action (shooting things with guns) but the action’s context that people are responding to. Phrased this way, it seems like even the critics are developing a more refined way to read and respond to video games. If I were a parent – and I say this as someone who has played video games practically since I could walk – I imagine I would be ever vigilant about the games my children played. And as they grew up, and matured, I think I would be less worried about the generic actions involved in the video game, and more concerned with the context in which the actions occurred. No Postal for them.
But what would happen if we were to offer a different context for the violence? After all, the use of violence is still a highly morally contentious issue. San Andreas doesn’t really give me much of a morally compelling context for driving like a homicidal maniac or performing drive-bys because the game is aimed at white people who want the escapist thrill of living in the urban jungle known as The Streets, where violence is a perfectly permissible way to deal with anything. Everything – the setting, the dialogue, the missions, christ, the CARS – it’s all cribbed from ’90s gangsta rap and Friday. But where all that spoke to actual experiences, San Andreas takes them as “authentic” packaging and sells it to white boys who just want to have an excuse to say “nigga” a few times to their also-white friends. Really, I bet white people love this stuff because Ice Cube could be gangsta (N.W.A.–era Ice Cube, not Are We There Yet?-era Ice Cube) even while he’s in his twenties and still living with his parents. That just doesn’t fly with white people these days, I guess.
So let’s take parts of San Andreas and complicate it a little bit. Let’s give the game a reason to be violent, and let the player choose to be violent, but don’t make it easy for him or her to do so. Let’s tell a story which is controversial not because people can be violent in a realistic-looking video game, but because the violence itself is controversial.
Let’s set it in mid-1960s Oakland, California, and call it Any Means Necessary.
Let’s make a video game about the Black Panthers.
For those of you who do know what the Black Panther Party was, you’ll know that it was nothing if not controversial. While I believe others could expound on the ideological basis of the organization (their Ten Points might be a good start), I will say that gangsta rap and San Andreas was not the first time people saw black men with guns. Picture this:
The opening scene would give us a shot at a middle-aged black man (voiced by Danny Glover – he was part of the SFSU Third World Liberation Front!) sitting in a prison cell and writing a letter to a loved one. At this point, the details surrounding his situation are vague; all we know is that he is on Death Row for committing some sort of violent crime, and he’s writing his letters both to come to terms with his past and as a form of memoir. These letter-writing cutscenes mark the beginning of major chapters in his life, which correspond to the chapters of the game. As the game progresses, we lead our protagonist through formative experiences that lead him to resonate with the message of the Panthers, eventually leading up to him joining up, starting his own chapter in his neighborhood, and working in all kinds of ways to empower his community.
The gameplay is set in a fairly open-ended environment, like GTA, but with less emphasis on all the crazy stuff you can drive, since the game isn’t solely about stealing stuff. The plot is advanced by missions of varying complexity; instead of taking inspiration from GTA here, I’d prefer to steal a page from Fallout‘s book. When our protagonist has to negotiate potentially violent situations (say, against white racist vigilantes, criminal elements inside the community trying to co-opt the movement, the police, etc.), give him a choice of branching dialogue options that can give him the option of resolving conflicts without violence. Borrow GTA‘s repetition-based skill system (the more you do X, the better you get at doing X) and apply it not only to combat skills but also negotiation, discussion, persuasion, and debate. Anyone involved in organizing knows how many goddamn meetings are involved whenever you do anything; let the player role-play himself and his own politics in in-game conversations that affect the way the plot unfolds.
One of GTA‘s strengths is the incredible degree to which a player can immerse himself in the game-world. The cities of San Andreas are deep, detailed, and easily interacted with. However – with the exception of a gang turf defense mini-game – the focus is less on the communities you inhabit and more about what you can do with your protagonist, C.J. – feeding him, working out, tricking out the car, and so on. Instead, let’s make our protagonist as strong as his community; if the player invests the time to improve his community (along the lines of the Ten Point Plan, perhaps) and forge alliances with other marginalized groups, he’ll be rewarded with stronger skills, more allies, and different plot events that eventually help to determine which ending (oh, there will be multiple) the player receives. Even aspects of San Andreas like eating and working out can be adapted; bonus points for eating well, making proper nutrition more accessible to poor communities, training and teaching forms unarmed combat (“They say karate means empty hand, so it’s perfect for the poor man” – Dead Prez). And if the player’s Panthers turn out to be as male-dominated and misogynist as the real ones were criticized as being, that too would have an adverse effect on the community’s formation as a whole.
As I mentioned earlier, the ways in which the player improves (or neglects) his communities and resolves certain key missions will affect the ending. Because of this, it’d be ideal to make the game beatable in roughly ten hours or so for the first playthrough, but readily resumable (a New Game+ mode, perhaps) so that the player’s community developments won’t reset each time. If you want plot details, though, you’re going to have to help me make this game first. 😉 Ultimately, the player would have to decide what kind of vision they wanted to play out, and what role (if any) force plays in achieving that vision. The goal of the game’s design being, of course, to highlight that tension and turn the violence of San Andreas into something meaningful.
Oh, and I’d want Yuri Kochiyama as an unlockable character.
I imagine game designers are pretty guarded about some of their ideas, but I can’t imagine anyone out there is exactly chomping at the bit to make a game that critically interrogates race in the United States. If anyone out there wants to make this game, hire me on as a consultant. I could do this all day.
So everyone’s favorite games artisté, Jason Rohrer (I have yet to figure out exactly how you pronounce his last name: Rawr? Rorr-rer? Row-rurrr?) has come up with another eloquent little game-ette, this one based around the horrors of police brutality and “Don’t taze me, bro!”. Apparently he’s set up shop as the artist-in-residence for the Escapist, so it’s over here. Sadly, I haven’t been able to play it, as it’s only available in a Windows executable and given his previous games it’d probably take longer to boot up Parallels than it would to actually play the damn game.
However, I figured that I would be remiss in talking about a game about police brutality without looking at how it affected people of color. After all, it’s no secret that police seem to beat on people of color – black men in particular – rather disproportionately than other folk. So I thought I’d make my own game about police brutality. Except I can’t code, and apparently there aren’t any working StarCraft map editors for Mac OS X, and it’s way too much work to do anything else for a game that would basically be a few seconds of you getting completely owned by guys with guns. And tasers. And cars. So the game is on hold, for the time being, until someone wants to give me a job as a game designer.
The World Ends With You is responsible for the lack of updates over the past week. I guess that’s the up-side of writing about video games; I have no qualms about calling gaming-time my “fieldwork” for the blog and sleeping well at night. And, frankly, games rarely catch my attention like TWEWY, so when it does happen it feels like a disservice not to ride it until it’s over.
For starters: the game is a breath of fresh air. I rarely find myself playing much in the Japanese RPG realm; too often, I find, most of these games are timesinks just as bad as World of WarCraft. I am a bit more willing to make exceptions on the DS, because DS games tend to be shorter by nature (see Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Rings of Fate and my under-10-hour finish time), and designing for the DS seems to push games into far more interesting realms than their console counterparts. The World Ends With You is one of these games – while it is, at its heart, a Japanese RPG in all its grinding glory, all the standard dynamics are tweaked just a little bit to make it interesting. I’m by no means a completist, but TWEWY makes me want to be one far more than any other game I’ve played in the last few years. The combat system is an inspired mix of Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword hack-and-slash and micromanaging abilities, the dynamic difficulties and amazing variety in weapon “pins” keep the combat interesting, and the game doesn’t make you grind or throw you in hundreds of completely random battles – basically, it’s a JRPG at its very best.
I recall reading somewhere that the game was designed after the setting. I imagine that’s not always the safest design strategy, but in the case of TWEWY, which is set in Japan’s teen-pop-culture-land Shibuya, it works just fine. Having spent plenty of time in Shibuya myself, I can appreciate how playing the game – and, in particular, the mind-reading dynamic and Neku’s perpetual loneliness amid a sea of people – reflects a lot of the thoughts and feelings I had while kicking it there myself. Even the map design slightly resembles the actual place, with names changed around some of the prominent spots (Shibuya 109 becomes “104”) and other places, like Dougenzaka or Hachiko faithfully kept in. Sadly, they didn’t include any of my haunts (Guinness Records! Shibuya Kaikan!), but I digress. TWEWY is a traditional JRPG designed around Shibuya’s unique sense of space, and it works very, very well.
You’ll be seeing this a lot – Neku is an Emo.
Part of the game’s allure is that nothing is completely reduced to a video game interaction. NPCs don’t just show up once and disappear, for the most part; the story is very good about keeping the characters versatile, and well-written.
It makes me wonder what kind of other games could be designed around a real-world physical space. And, of course, since this is Token Minorities, it makes me wonder how that kind of game design philosophy could be used to bring out race as a theme. I must admit that I’ve had a predilection for the “hood movie” genre lately, with Friday on the better side and Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood on the not-so-great side. Still, I’d love to play a game where my protagonist was a Friday era Ice Cube, navigating life’s daily challenges as a young black man. Give him the ability to read minds – and maybe the occasional departure into a white upper-class neighborhood – and it’d have lots of potential. Something like Do The Right Thing could work well too.
From a theoretical standpoint, this might be a more promising angle to work in race as a central design theme for a video game. Part of the socially constructed nature of race is that its meanings are constantly in flux; the meanings that we ascribe to race aren’t universal but differ according to time, physical space, and politics. Even words like “Asian” or “Black” don’t necessarily mean the same things – see “Asian” in England, which is generally analogous to “Southeast Asian”, vs. “Oriental”, which refers to East Asians but has commonly fallen out of favor in the United States. Basically, the “racial common sense” (Hi Omi and Winant!) differs by community. Instead of designing a game aimed at addressing Race with a Capital R as it applies to the US – why not set a game in the hood? In the inner city? In the South? In Chinatown? – and design the game around that particular locality, complete with its racial common sense.
It’s that last bit that games set in the hood, etc. have largely failed to do so far. Yes, there are a precious few games with people-of-color protagonists. Some of them have even managed to take the California gangsta-rap life and translate that into a video game experience a la GTA San Andreas. But it needs that last step: a game design, and a complementary story with realistic and well-written characters, that makes the effort to recreate the full experience of a person of color and tell a story about race, rather than offer up the experience with a voyeuristic, identity-tourism (Hi Lisa Nakamura!) appeal.
To be frank, that last step could very well be the difference between a game made in a predominantly white industry, and a game made by a progressive development studio composed of people of color.