Archive for the 'Games' Category

03
Jul
12

No Girls Allowed

In recent days, the games industry and wider gaming scene as we all know and love it has become a very different place to be, whether physically as in the E3 Expo in LA, or digitally in multiplayer game spaces, or in any online arena. In the space of a few days, women in a variety of roles at the heart of games have been threatened with physical violence and rape in a tide of humiliation and vitriol that is as sudden as it is overt. When even the mainstream BBC is picking up articles about sexual harassment in the world of video gaming, then you know this is serious business. So what’s changed?

The fact is that women are being silenced, threatened with violence, rape and even death by a vast tide of commentators online. Rather than simply being underrepresented, as we are all very used to by now, we women in games are suddenly being denied a voice from within our own sub-culture, in almost every area:

Feminist Frequency blogger Anita Sarkeesian sought crowd-sourced funding for her Tropes VS. Women Kickstarter Project, a commentary and educational tool on how female characters are designed and used in games. She received literally thousands of threats of violence, rape and death. Her Wikipedia page was repeatedly defaced with pornography. Threats were made against her person. This happened before the project was even funded.

In game development, women haven’t been faring any better:  Jennifer Hepler, games writer at Bioware, was recently the recipient of a great deal of explicit and threatening hatred for voicing the opinion that it might be good to allow players to skip the combat, if they are more interested in the narrative aspect of the game they were playing.

This year there was a considerable online backlash to articles highlighting the poor working conditions of the Booth Babes which continue to grace the stands at the annual E3 Expo in Los Angeles. By contrast, the articles in the games press which asked viewers to “rate” the women on their physical attributes, received only limited criticism, although it was encouraging that this came from within the industry’s more powerful presences, such as games industry.biz and from industry insiders on twitter. This gave many of us women in games a ray of hope.

But things were about to get worse – when the most recent symptom of the new wave of misogyny in games culture came from an interview with Crystal Dynamics’ Exec producer Ron Rosenberg on Kotaku.com. Rosenberg enthused how new Tomb Raider game features Lara Croft’s origin story, and explained that one of the most “enticing” things about the new Tomb Raider reboot was so see her as “more human”, which he described thus: “Lara Croft will suffer” he says, and tells how she is taken prisoner and is about to be raped by scavengers on an island until she is “literally a cornered animal”. This is shocking material: Someone needs to explain to Rosenberg the difference between humanizing and dehumanizing a character.

And not just any character. By disempowering  the best known female game heroine of all time, in a story of humiliation and torture porn dressed up in a dark and edgy origin story, Crystal Dynamic are rubber stamping the use of rape and the threat of sexual violence in games, and by extension in the wider games culture. What’s important about Lara’s fate is that some very big players in the games industry have shown themselves complicit in this new wave of misogyny and the proliferation and perceived acceptability of rape culture as a core and natural part of games and their culture – no matter how much furious backpedalling has happened since. This is normalising rape, and is making Rape Culture normal.

All this combines to make an atmosphere in games that is toxic to women, and is especially toxic to its own. Women who know and love the medium just as much as the rest of the sub-culture does, have the right to an opinion and to voice that opinion. Professional game developer women have the right to talk about their work without fear of backlash in the form of verbal abuse and very real threats of extreme violence and rape. What was once considered the relatively inconsequential act of a few internet trolls has become a wave of very real hatred that has the potential to rip the games industry in two and alienate what is now considered to be 50% of the gaming public. After all, women enjoyed playing Lara Croft in Tombraider until now. But with Lara now reduced to vulnerable rape bait, who could blame the gaming woman for rejecting this new games culture?

I’ve been part of the UK games industry for 17 years; I spent 13 years as an artist in game development before breaking away to teach games courses here at Bradford University. In all that time I have never once felt that I didn’t have a voice or a right to be there. I earned my place in the gang just like everyone else did; by loving the medium, by helping to make it better, by creating and commenting and contributing, and by just being part of it for a very long time. Yes, as women in games we have all at one time complained that Lara Croft had unrealistic physical proportions, and yes, I have spent the last seven years campaigning to get more women into game development (the average is still around 6% of women in the UK game dev workforce), but this has always been welcomed as a valid argument. It was agreed that this would be at least one way to help make the entire games industry better.

But the future doesn’t bright for women in games. For a culture that abhors censorship and criticism of itself from outsiders, it isn’t half quick to criticise from inside. The atmosphere for women has gone from welcome minority to persona non grata within a scarily short space of time.  I feel that all women connected to the industry are now at risk of being censored or self-censoring in fear of the deluge of outspoken misogyny in public discourse. I’m certain if this article is ever published (oops, here I am doing it now), I’ll be next for a verbal “raping”, with comments about my body or sexuality, complete with threats of real life rape and violence.

But I will not be deterred, and neither will many other women in games. Actress Aysha Tyler responded to her abuse after she hosted the E3 press conference with a smart and heartfelt list of her gaming history and accomplishments as a voice actor in games. Clever Pie, with Isabel Fay received national coverage of their Thank You Hater video, a very witty response to trolling and online abuse.  Foz Meadows wrote an outstanding essay on her Shattersnipe blog, deconstructing the wider implications behind this Rape Culture which I strongly advise everyone to read. (Edit: There is now also an excellent rebuttal of some of the main refusenik views on the issue too.)

So it’s time to speak out while we still can. Before the current high percentage of women gamers world-wide is driven away, and games culture censors itself back into the dark ages. Because the industry needs growth and these are already challenging times. Games, you need us to survive.

29
Sep
09

Casual means casual: no hardcore gaming allowed!

I have just discovered why casual games are casual: By their very nature they do not permit hardcore gaming ways. How? I tell you!

Let’s pretend for a minute that I haven’t reached a new personal low by setting up a puppet email account on googlemail with the express intention of then setting up an even more puppety FaceBook account in order to ping gifts back and forth between the real me and the pretend me on FarmVille. Yes, let’s pretend that never happened at all, because the shame of it is hot and uncomfortable, and it feels dreadfully akin to cheating. Yes, I am forced into cheating, in order to actually play the game as much as I want to. What the *&%$ is up with that?

Let us then put aside the core social networking gaming mechanic of FV that relies entirely on how many of your Facebook chums are playing FarmVille, or at least have opened a farm, looked at it twice and then never bothered with it again. As my experiment with a puppet account shows, if you don’t got the mates then you don’t got the XP. Those without friends must play longer and slower than those with friends. It’s like being the fat kid at school sports day all over again!

And then we should never speak of the real-time aspect of your farm on FV, that moves inexorably on the clock, where crops grow, mature and if failed to harvest, wither and die in the time it takes to do a full day’s work and forget about them. Heaven forefend  you should be able to play when you want to, or for how long. That’s just not casual, people!

Instead, let’s focus on the most farcically stupid feature of casual games on social networks, which is the fact that they are irretrievably reliant on the social network itself. And if that goes down for maintenance, so does your game. Doh!

All this has reminded me, in a roundabout and rather wonderful way, that even though I occasionally dally with casual gaming, I am underneath it all, and where it really counts, a hardcore gamer. And all it took for me to find this out, was to utterly break a casual game.

Thank you Facebook!

25
Sep
09

Reverting to type prediction = true!

It seems I was unusually prescient in my statement that playing the Sims 3 would lead me down a slippery path to casual gaming, and archetypal girl gamer fodder. Thankfully I have managed to steer clear of the Imagine series until now, but I have slipped into the life-sucking vortex that is FarmVille on Facebook.

This may, hopefully, be an extension of my vicarious gardening ways in the Sims 3, but Farmville has the added addiction of XP and leveling up (sweet, sweet leveling up!), as well as the frisson of competition with your peers.

I am now a shame-faced Facebook Botherer. You know the kind, the ones who you barely see IRL but who keep spamming your request box with free hugs, drinks, flowers, cause invitations, and now – at least in my case – free f*****g Fig Trees.

This particular journey in self loathing is entirely fuelled by the social networking game mechanics at the heart of FarmVille, and like any good addict, I am looking forward to bottoming out on free-gift-giving and friendly-farm leaf-raking to get that fix of sweet, nourishing FV coinage. Only then can I make the slow recovery into the relative politeness of introspective social networking (you know, where you only read other people’s comments on your posts) where I safely belong.

In the meantime I will return to check on my quick-fix raspberries (harvest in 2 hours), my morning and evening fix of rice (harvest in 12 hours) and my long term intoxication of wheat (harvest in 4 days) while slavishly farming for XP (pun intended) and spamming all your inboxes for fun and profit. Would you like to be my neighbour?

21
Sep
09

Do as I say: Autonomy in the Sims 3

At the risk of turning this blog into some kind of Sims-centric experience (I do play other games too, I promise), I have again come across a gameplay mechanic in the Sims 3 that has taken me by surprise. This time it’s the concept of autonomy in player controlled games, which in the Sims, includes ageing, childcare and someur moralising on the part of the game designers.

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with autonomy in the Sims, especially ageing. On the one hand it can become immensely tedious to play the same poor schmuck day after day, knowing that ultimately there isn’t really any point in what you’re doing, and that eventually you will have learned every skill, bought every item (try singing that to the tune of “Climb Every Mountain”) and woohooed with every single inhabitant of your town (or is that just me?). Life in the Sims is so empty sometimes that I wonder if the Sims 4 will have an afterlife Simulator beyond the basic haunting experience already included. Time for a little spirituality in Riverview perhaps? Will I be able to build a church or Temple or Synagogue in the Sims 4?

Anyway, I digress. Back to ageing and autonomy.

On the other hand, ageing in the Sims 3, with its new mechanic of autonomous and active Sims even when you’re not playing their household, unearths some really weird quirks in the design. I decided to experiment with an entire town populated by young metallers and alternative types. That’s what including Emo haircuts in the game does for you: I created several large households of young weirdos in the town with the specific purpose of becoming romantic entanglement fodder for my single player-sims. It was like living in Doningon in 1988, during Monster of Rock season!

After forcing my newly created and active Sim to spend several weeks shunning the town to max out the gardening skill, I found that the relative nature of time and autonomous birthdays in the town had meant that half my young and buff creations had grown up, got married, had children and many had even progressed into decrepitude. The horror!

I wasn’t fully aware of the implications of this until I decided to return to an earlier Sim to continue her leet gardening development and to test the mechanic of gifting omni plant seeds to other sims. To my surprise she had decided to become a single mother, accidental pregnancy having been eliminated from the game in an early patch (how telling is that?). So I was faced with the prospect of playing a single parent against my will. The game had chosen this for me.

I think I lasted 3 in-game days playing the dutiful parent before I became irritated by the needful toddler in the household, and decided the baby had to go. Luckily the Sims has a long-standing game mechanic where children don’t have to die to go away – sufficient neglect will trigger Child Protection services who remove the kid from the household. This was a sure-fire and guilt-free way to get back to my single Sim, or so I thought. It took 3 game-days before Child Protection showed up. 3 days of the child crying constantly, hungry, tired and soiling itself. It rattled the bars  like a n prisoner, throwing the most disturbing tantrums I have ever seen in a game, as I, with increasing disgust at myself, refused to let the mother see to her child’s needs.

The mother too was becoming distraught, despite the distraction activities I lined up for her. For starters, the mother was unable to sleep while her baby was crying. Even if the child was at one end of the lot and she at the other. It simply wasn’t allowed. I found this to be highly hypocritical of the designers, given the large amount of autonomy built into the Sims 3. After all, if they could choose when to eat, sleep, woohoo and even have birthdays/get older, then why was the basic human requirement of rest forbidden to a parent?

I found the only way to get any rest was to head over to the Day Spa to get a package treatment, which restores 50% of energy to the Sim. In the mean time the babysitter I hired by default when a Sim leaves the house without their offspring, did nothing to alleviate the child’s suffering. One the one had I was relieved, at least now I knew that Child Services would be on their way soon enough, but on the other I wondered why a babysitter hired explicitly to care for a child when the parent was gone, would not even bother to feed or change a baby? How could she stand to be in the house when all this was going on? Given the autonomy all over the Sims 3, why wasn’t there any autonomy here too? Especially as the game is l so gung-ho for implicit moralising, I expected there to be a severe telling off from the babysitter, but she just took my $75 and went home.

So after 3 in-game days of the kind of play that really wasn’t any fun at all, Child Services finally showed up and took the child away. This of course triggered a highly emotional scene from the mother, and a hell of a negative mood modifier for a further 3 days. By this point I was so sickened by doing what I felt I had been coerced into doing by the game, that I knew I could never play this poor Sim again. The fun had definitely been taken out of this particular game.

I felt dirty, and cruel. How could the designers force me to go through this, just to undo an AI autonomy action that I as the player had no say in at all? Just so I could play the Sim I had spent hundreds of in-game days building and shaping? Isn’t this the ultimate punishment to the player, for – I don’t know – playing the game as it was fucking intended?

I felt so utterly guilty about the entire episode that I deleted the whole town. I had to bring about the apocalypse for Riverview and all of its inhabitants, because of Free Will. Even though I had set it to “Low” in the game options.
And now I can’t help but wonder: Is this how God feels about us?

08
Sep
09

Sims – is gaming living vicariously?

Recently, I have become an utter sucker for the Sims 3. This, after many Sims-free years playing “proper” games like Dawn of War and Vampire: Bloodlines. Being a woman gamer I am almost ashamed of the hours I’ve been pumping into playing the Sims over the last month or two, feeling like I’m reverting to type, becoming predicatable in my gaming habits.

Who knows, any minute now I might pick up Braintraining on the DS, and then it’s a slippery slope down to the Imagine series and Barbie Horse Riding Adventures (hello Blitz! *waves*) and suddenly I’m Nicole Kidman or Giles bloody Brandreth and not the veteran game dev survivor with the cool Necron wristwatch.

OK, so I digress: What has really surprised me is the fervor with which I have become obsessed with gardening in the Sims 3. Character after character is created with one goal in mind: Max out the gardening skill, complete the gardening opportunities until they can plant the Omni plant, and then live off the land, happily ever after.

At first it was Steak plants – the ultimate cash crop. Well, until you get to Money trees, which are really the ultimate cash crop. Then it was the Omni plant, which is handy for Deathfish growing so my Sim could dine on Ambrosia daily and never age (also quite telling!). Now I’m thinking of growing gold bullion on the Omni plant, or trying cut diamonds to see if that’s more financially efficient. I even wish there were other types of fruit (like Cantaloupe melon, not just Watermelon) to grow.

And then I realised that this all coincided with my current kitchen windowsill harvest of tomatoes, bell peppers and chillies IRL. I’ve been yearning for some proper outdoor space that can accommodate a greenhouse for some time, and even fantasizing about growing all kinds of delicious food, but also roses and  – suprise – a tree or two!

I’ve been told this is something that happens to women of a certain age: We all go self-sufficiency crazy and start talking like Felicity Kendall, but is this why I have become such a keen simulated gardener? Am I living vicariously through my Sims? And if so, should I start worrying when I make them pick fights at the supermarket, for a laugh?