Review: Are the Star Wars Little Golden Books Appropriate for Kids?

As the world approached the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in December 2015, Disney got a several month jump start on merchandising. Star Wars products started appearing everywhere, on everything. I was quite surprised to find that Star Wars had even taken over my local grocery store!

Next to the birthday cards was a little stand with Little Golden Books, that generations-old beloved children’s series. Among the 30 or so titles were Star Wars books! One for each movie!

The artwork in these books is great, but immediately a question arose in my mind: is Star Wars the best series to adapt for books largely targeted at preschoolers? All the films are there: even Revenge of the Sith, which is rated PG-13.

I love Star Wars, and I loved it as a child. But I wasn’t exposed to it until I was about 8 or 9 (and this was before the Prequel Trilogy came out).

After purchasing the books, and then reading them several times (they don’t take long), I’ve concluded that these adaptations are ultimately unsuccessful. The violence is toned down, so on that front, they are “safe” for kids. However, the Prequel Trilogy is so convoluted that I’m still not sure, after 15 years of puzzling over it, I understand all the plot points.

Boiling these complicated films down to 23-page stories for children is challenging. Let’s look at each book and see where the problems arise.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

Cover of Star Wars The Phantom Menace Little Golden Book

The story opens with a shot of the Jedi flying to the Trade Federation command ship above Naboo. The classic words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” greet the reader. Followed by a massive block of text:

The peaceful planet of Naboo is under a blockage from the greedy Trade Federation! The Galactic Republic quickly sends Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi to help. They are Jedi Knights, guardians of justice and masters of the Force—a power that connects all living things.

But when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan arrive, they are attacked by battle droids! The Jedi defend themselves with their lightsabers, but they are outnumbered and must flee the Trade Federation battleship.

Wow, already there’s a lot going on: and this is the first page! So many nouns are mentioned: could a child follow all of this? Most of the action is contained within the words, not the pictures. That entire second paragraph sounds pretty exciting. Too bad the only visual is a partial page illustration of Obi-Wan slicing one battle droid in half.

As the story progresses, it’s immediately clear what the problem is with these books: too many characters, not enough space to develop them. On pages 3-4 we are introduced to Jar Jar Binks and Boss Noss. On pages 5-6, Queen Amidala and Viceroy Gunray. On pages 7-8, R2-D2, Darth Sidious, and Darth Maul.

On pages 9-10, we are introduced to five (!) new characters: Padmé, Anakin, Watto, C-3PO, and Shmi Skywalker It’s not until pages 11-12 that we get our first break in all the introductions: no new characters! Pages 11-12 cover the podracing sequence.

On page 13 we see Qui-Gon and Darth Maul duel for the first time, and then on page 14 it’s back to new characters. Yoda is mentioned by name, though two members of the Jedi Council are in the background, evaluating Anakin’s readiness for Jedi training.

We’re past the halfway point, and fortunately, no new characters are introduced the rest of the tale. But we’ve already had 15 named characters in as many pages: the book’s only 23 pages long!

As far as the adaptation goes, the book sticks close to the movie. We see Padmé reveal herself as Amidala to the Gungans. Then the Jedi battle Darth Maul and the Gungans fight the droid army. Anakin even gets two pages where he goes to space and destroys the droid control ship!

On pages 21-22, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan finish the duel with Darth Maul. The illustration is striking, but look at how much text is used to explain the action:

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan battle Darth Maul

In the palace, the Jedi fight Darth Maul together. But the Sith Lord is driven by the power of anger and hate. Darth Maul strikes Qui-Gon down with his double-sided lightsaber and knocks Obi-Wan into a deep pit. Just when it seems that Obi-Wan is defeated, the Jedi springs into action and destroys Darth Maul with one mighty blow!

Obi-Wan runs to his master’s side. With his last breath, Qui-Gon asks Obi-Wan to train Anakin as a Jedi.

Now you see how the story avoids mentioning the stabbing of Qui-Gon and the slicing of Darth Maul in two.

The story ends with the main characters celebrating on Naboo. Boss Nass holds up that glowy sphere thing (no explanation of what that is, of course, just like in the movie).

The artwork in the book is fantastic: praise goes to illustrator Heather Martinez. But instead of telling a coherent story, adapter Courtney Carbone tried to fit all the major plot points in. While she did the best with what she had to work with, maybe the real problem is The Phantom Menace itself: maybe it can’t be simplified in a coherent way.

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones Little Golden Book

AotC opens with Padmé arriving on Coruscant, now a senator, no longer a queen. Her ship blows up, but she survives! No mention of her body double dying, however.

As in The Phantom Menace, the first few sentences of this book are incredibly dense:

The galaxy is divided. Many planets are leaving the Republic to join the Separatist movement.

I’m not sure if preschoolers understand what a Republic is, or what a Separatist movement entails. And if they’re already confused, tough cookies: the book will never explain it.

Maybe the problem isn’t with the book: maybe it’s with me. As I read those first couple sentences I realized that I still don’t fully understand what the central conflict of the Prequel Trilogy is. In TPM, some group called the Trade Federation was blocking trade to Naboo. Who is the Trade Federation? I still don’t know. Why did they not want to trade with Naboo? And why did they have their own army?

In AotC, the Separatists uses droids, and our pal Viceroy Gunray appears here and there. So did the Trade Federation become the Separatist movement? Why do the Separatists want to separate from the Republic? Is it because the Republic told them in TPM that they can’t blockade a planet?

And why does the Republic care if a few planets decide to leave: do they not have that freedom? After all, from the looks of the Senate chambers, it appears that there are thousands of systems in the Republic already.

I’m so confused.

Anyway, back to the story. Like TPM, AotC introduces a ton of named characters: 15 in this book as well. On pages 3-4 we are introduced to Obi-Wan and Anakin. R2 is seen in the background, as is the assassin droid that tries to kill Padmé.

On pages 5-6 we meet the assassin, Zam Wesell—hey, I learned something! I never knew what that assassin’s name was.

Page 7 shows us the entirety of Padmé and Anakin’s love story on Naboo. Palpatine is mentioned, but never seen (the first book didn’t mention him at all).

On page 8 we are introduced to Jango and Boba Fett, and see the Kaminoans in the background, along with the clone troopers. Hey, we’re making some progress! At least that overweight alien diner cook Jax isn’t mentioned.

AotC is more action-focused than TPM, and perhaps that’s a reflection of the movie being more streamlined. Pages 9-10 show Obi-Wan and Jango battle, both on land and in space.

Pages 11-12 show Anakin’s showdown with the Sand People. I always thought that this was the point in the Prequel Trilogy that Anakin irrevocably turned to the Dark Side. I actually like that scene a lot; it’s powerful. The book, naturally, sanitizes it for young readers:

The young Jedi races into the desert to rescue his mother, but he is too late. He finds her just in time to say goodbye. Anakin feels rage and anger growing inside him—and that is not the way of the Jedi.

On pages 13-14 we’re introduced to more characters: Dooku, C-3PO, and the Geonosians. Mace Windu shows up on page 17.

Pages 13-22 are more tightly focused than TPM. For half the book we are on Geonosis: we see Anakin, Padmé and Obi-Wan get captured, then they escape the area. The Jedi descend to fight the droids. Then Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Yoda fight Count Dooku. There are fewer new characters introduced, and this part might be the easiest for children to follow, as the plot is at least coherent, though the extreme violence of this part of the movie is missing.

Here’s how Jango Fett’s death is described:

Jango Fett tries to blast Mace, but the Jedi Master is much too powerful and strikes the bounty hunter down with one blow!

The accompanying visual is Jango on one page, shooting his blasters, and Mace on the other side, deflecting blaster shots with his lightsaber.

One part that I thought was funny was this panel:

Count Dooki fights Obi-Wan and Anakin with lightsabers.

Count Dooku has twin crimson lightsabers? I don’t remember that part of the movie! The only person in that fight with two sabers is Anakin after he picks up Obi-Wan’s. I’m sure it’s an honest mistake, but I think its humorous when children’s books have errors of fact like this. After all, how long does it take to copy edit a children’s book?

The book ends with Anakin’s marriage to Padmé on Naboo. His robot hand is not shown.

Overall, this book is slightly better than TPM due to its more focused plot. But it still introduces a bantha load of characters when it doesn’t have the space to develop more than a handful of them.

Let’s conclude this review by looking at the final book, based on the most violent film in the trilogy.

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith Little Golden Book cover

The story opens with a beautiful picture of the chaotic space battle over Coruscant. After the obligatory Star Wars beginning, little readers are once again greeted with a dense two-paragraph intro the introduces a ton of characters and political terms:

War rages between the Separatist army and the Galactic Republic. Evil General Grievous and his droid army have just captured Chancellor Palpatine, leader of the Galatic Senate! The brave Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker blast off in their starfighters to rescue him.

With the help of their astromech droid R2-D2, Anakin and Obi-Wan evade the Separatist vulture droids and land on General Grievous’s flagship.

On page 3, there’s an illustration of Anakin and Dooku clashing with sabers. The text summarizes Dooku’s defeat, beheading unmentioned:

Vwoosh! Dooku attacks with his crimson lightsaber. Obi-Wan is knocked aside, but Anakin defeats Dooku on his own.

This book makes some quick cuts to the plot of the movie. After Anakin lands Grievous’ ship on Coruscant and says hello to Padmé, the immediate next page introduces us to Yoda and Chewbacca fighting on Kashyyyk. The page after that shows Obi-Wan on Utapau riding the lizard thing. At least I learned something else from these books: that lizard is called a varactyl.

From there, Obi-Wan fights Grievous on page 9, and Palpatine reveals to Anakin on page 10 that he’s Darth Sidious.

The plot of pages 11-12 are hamstrung by LGB’s obvious need to censor the violence. On page 11, Mace Windu enters Sidious’ office and attacks him: Sidious stands opposite him on page 12. But then with no explanation, Sidious suddenly looks different on the bottom of page 12:

Anakin kneels before Sidious.

The Sith Lord sends Mace Windu crashing through a window! Anakin kneels before his new master.

Why does Sidiou look different? Who knows? No explanation is given for the preschool readers. Maybe the publishers think that little kids are too stupid to notice the character change.

From here, the story hews closely to the plot of the movie. Anakin attacks the Jedi temple. Order 66 is issued (though it’s not called that in the book). Sidious declares himself Emperor, and Obi-Wan and Anakin fight on Mustafar.

The Mustafar battle is interesting: four illustrations are provided of Anakin and Obi-Wan battling, just various lightsaber poses. Then two pages later we are introduced to Darth Vader in robotic suit. Here’s the explanation given for why Anakin now looks differently:

“I hate you!” Anakin cries.

Saddened that he had to destroy his friend, Obi-Wan leaves the planet with Padmé.

At least on the two-page spread when the Emperor greets the new robotic Vader readers are not subjected to Vader’s infamous “Noooooo!”

The book ends with the introduction of yet two more characters: Owen Lars and his wife (unnamed) holding a baby Luke while Obi-Wan smiles in the background.

Conclusion

I’m being a little harsh and nit-picky on these books, I realize. They are children’s books after all. But Star Wars, especially the Prequel Trilogy, is not appropriate for preschoolers, the 2-5 age bracket that the books are targeted at. It’s inappropriate not just because of the violence, but because of the complexity of the films as far as the politics go.

I wouldn’t say these books are without merit, though. I think the target audience is actually adults like myself. As summaries of the films go, they are accurate, and again, the artwork is amazing.

The Little Golden Book format doesn’t seem conducive to summarizing two-hour science fiction movies. A better take would be shorter stories, based on certain characters in the Star Wars universe, that are better suited to the reading and cognitive level of preschoolers.

Thankfully, such a series exists. LGB recently released their “I am” series of Star Wars books: I am a Droid, I am a Jedi, and I am a Pilot. And more are forthcoming this summer. I haven’t seen these books in the store yet, but based on Amazon reviews, it seems these books are a better match for their target audience.

For $5 each, the movie adaptation books are a fun bit of nostalgia for adult audiences. If I pick up the books based on the Original Trilogy, I suspect I’ll have more affinity for them based on my overall appreciation of that trilogy.

Has anybody else read any of the Star Wars Little Golden Books? What’s your assessment of their quality?

~Dennis

Critique of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Women as Reward” videos

After a long absence, Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency is back with another critique of the video game industry’s treatment of female characters, this time with her video “Women as Reward.” This is her longest video yet, and is supplemented by a second video, “Women as Reward – Special DLC Mini-Episode.”

In these videos, she’s critical of the way video games use women to reward players, both during the game and at the conclusion. Women’s bodies and sexuality are the rewards for a quest completed. Sarkeesian’s describes the videos this way:

This episode explores the numerous ways in which the Women as Reward trope manifests in video games. The trope occurs when women or women’s bodies are employed as rewards for player actions, a pattern which frames female bodies and sexuality as collectible or consumable and positions women as status symbols designed to validate the masculinity of presumed straight male players. We then discuss how this trope both reflects and reinforces the pervasive, socially constructed mentality of male entitlement that operates in the background of our culture. [YouTube description of “Women as Reward”]

In the shorter, second video, Sarkeesian is critical of the way alternative, sexualized costumes can be purchased for female characters in the form of DLC (downloadable content).

While I agree with Sarkeesian more than usual in these two videos, her ideas aren’t free from criticism (something other bloggers seem to be forgetting).

If you want to watch her videos before reading on, here they are. I’ll see you in 42 minutes.

Areas of agreement

Sarkeesian describes many ways women’s bodies and sexuality are offered up as rewards for players: through unlockable (or purchasable) sexy costumes, through Easter eggs that reward players with sexual content, or as in-game mechanisms for rewarding a player after completing a mission, such as freed women who then seduce and sleep with male protagonists.

This trope has some overlap with Sarkeesian’s previous ideas about women as damsels in distress. She distinguishes between the two tropes:

While the Damsel in Distress trope uses women as a plot device to motivate male heroes, the Women as Reward trope presents women as a formalized reward mechanism, meaning that the reward is coded into the game system itself. The result of this incentive structure is that access to women’s bodies, women’s affection or women’s sexuality is reduced to a simple equation that guarantees delivery as long as the correct set of inputs are entered into the system.

Personally, I don’t play many mature games, and the ones I do play tend to be mature because of violence and war themes, not sexual content. I’m not interested in sleeping with digital women, not because I see that as sexist, but it feels inauthentic to pursue “fake” relationships in place of real relationships.

I don’t care to unlock or download sexualized costumes for female characters, such as the numerous bikini costumes in games like Dead or Alive. But I also don’t like to download non-sexualized, even silly, alternate costumes either. I think game designers use costumes to inform our interpretation of a character’s background, history, and motivations: reskinning a character creates a mental stumbling block for me between what I see on the screen and who I “know” the character to “be.”

For example, Tina from Dead or Alive 5 wears some revealing outfits, no doubt about it. However, she has a history, in-game, of being a professional wrestler. If you’ve ever watched any professional wrestling, you know that the “divas” tend to wear very little clothing. And yet, so do the men (some of my favorite wrestlers like The Rock and Stone Cold wear black underwear and boots; pretty standard). Wrestling is, in part, a celebration of athletic bodies, and baggy, loose clothes can get in the way of the sport.

Thus, a costume like this seems appropriate for Tina’s character:

Tina from Dead or Alive 5, wearing American flag bra.

But a costume like this, one of the DLC “showstopper” costumes, seems inappropriate given her character:

Tina from Dead or Alive 5 wearing sheer sexy costume.

This isn’t to say that I think sexual content should be eliminated from a game. I think if a compelling, in-game reason for it exists, then I’m fine with it. The same goes, by the way, for violence. But sex for the sake of titillation, for rewarding the player? I can do without it.

“Presumed straight male players”

Sarkeesian’s argument—in all her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games videos—is that these video games are designed for male players:

The trope frames female bodies as collectible, as tractable or as consumable, and positions women as status symbols designed to validate the masculinity of presumed straight male players.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, women make up almost half of the video game playing audience. I can understand, a bit, this alienation women like Sarkeesian feel: I can’t think of too many games where men are the “dudes in distress”, where female players can have sex with male characters, or where men are sexualized in the same way women are.

Even if many of these games are made by men, and directed at boys and men, that doesn’t mean that all women are offended by sexualization of female characters. In fact, it seems like some women are actually empowered.

If you want myriad evidence, simply go to Google Images, Flickr, or other photo-sharing sites, type the name of your favorite sexualized female character (Lara Croft, Bayonetta, Chun-Li, Jill Valentine, etc., etc.,) followed by “cosplay” or “costume” and you’ll find hundreds, thousands of examples of women who dress up in the sexualized costumes that Sarkeesian and others condemn.

Go ahead and open a new tab right now. It’ll take you five seconds to find pictures like this:

Lara Croft cosplay

Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider series; photo by menard_mickael

Bayonetta cosplay

Bayonetta from the Bayonetta series; photo by Vincent Milum Jr

Chun-Li cosplay

Chun-Li from the Street Fighter series; photo by Shelby Asistio

Kasume cosplay

Kasume from the Dead or Alive series; photo by Pikawil

Juliet Starling cosplay

Juliet Starling from Lollipop Chainsaw; photo by Pikawil

These kind of photos go on and on. I show these photos not to condemn or support the women who cosplay; it’s up to them if they want to dress like these characters, and it’s up to the reader to determine whether or not these costumes are acceptable.

My point, though, is that Sarkeesian’s “presumed straight male players” is itself a presumption. And it’s one that falls apart when a thinker engages with the wider context of video games, rather than focusing almost exclusively on what happens in a game (as Sarkeesian tends to do).

Sarkeesian’s critique doesn’t speak for all feminists, either. One line of feminist thinking says that women’s bodies should be liberated from the shackles of conformity. Some argue that woman don’t really have a freedom unless they use it.

Under this line of thinking, women who choose to dress in sexualized ways, women who choose to be proud of their bodies, women who choose to wear what they want—critics be damned—should be praised, respected, and honored. This is the philosophy behind the Free the Nipple campaign, which wants to destigmatize female toplessness (specifically, the prohibition against seeing a woman’s nipple, when all other parts of the breast are more commonly seen, such as cleavage, side boob, under boob, and so on).

I realize the example of cosplay is only anecdotal evidence; certainly not all women find sexualization of female characters liberating. However, we’re talking about a lot of anecdotes here. Tens of thousands of fans cosplay at the dozens of anime, sci-fi, fantasy, and video game conventions each year. Not every woman dresses in sexy costumes, but some do. The weight of that evidence piles up, countering Sarkeesian’s narrative that these games were explicitly designed for male players and nobody else.

Male entitlement

Why does it matter if women are seen as rewards? What is Sarkeesian really talking about in these videos?

Her argument boils down to male entitlement:

The Women as Reward trope helps foster a sense of entitlement where players are encouraged to view women as something they’ve earned the right to by virtue of their gaming actions, skills or accomplishments.

She goes onto say:

By presenting sex as an end goal of men’s interactions or relationships with women, these games frame sexual encounters as challenges to be overcome.

This is a common argument from feminists, that society teaches men that they are entitled to women’s bodies. Sarkeesian isn’t against all sexual activity in video games, though I’m not sure she’s ever presented an example of sex that she’s satisfied with (she hints that perhaps the same-sex relationships in the Mass Effect series are okay). She’s against a certain kind of sexual activity:

By presenting sex as a goal and then presenting players with an award for accomplishing that goal, these achievements function as a form of trophyism. Simply put, trophyism is the tendency for men to view women as objects to be collected and displayed as status symbols of their sexual prowess or virility.

She then provides several examples of how male entitlement manifests as real-world behaviors:

We see [male entitlement] manifest whenever a man orders a woman to show him her “tits,” or makes demands during an online game that a woman send him nude or sexual photos. We see it in real-world spaces whenever men catcall women on the street. We see it whenever a man gropes a woman at an event or convention. We see it whenever a man expects sex in return for buying a woman dinner. At its most serious, male entitlement is the mentality that serves as the foundation for the epidemics of date rape and sexual assault in our society.

By now, Sarkeesian knows that her rhetoric is often interpreted as hatred against all males. She’s quick to say that this mindset doesn’t affect every male, but rather:

Male entitlement operates in the background of our culture; it’s a socially constructed mentality that is so deeply ingrained that it’s often invisible, operating as an unquestioned base assumption.

And this is where I part company, that male entitlement is unquestioned in our society. Really? This is a common argument that often goes unchallenged. Presented simply, feminists say, “Men are taught that they are studs because of their sexual prowess, whereas women are shamed and called sluts.”

But I’m not sure how true this is. I was never raised by my family to believe that men were entitled to women’s bodies. My friends weren’t raised that way. The media that I consume–cartoons, anime, sci-fi and fantasy, comics, video games–usually show healthy romantic relationships, show men caring for women and women caring for men.

In college, I got involved with Christian groups and found that in these communities, sexual prowess is greatly frowned upon. Men feel guilty when they take advantage of women. Men strive to “keep each other accountable,” and encourage one another to treat women with respect.

Male entitlement is certainly NOT an unchallenged assumption, at least here in America. If we’re talking about certain parts of the Middle East or other developing countries, that’s a different story. In those countries, men take advantage of women. But the gender issues in those countries are too difficult to sort out in this post. Additionally, Sarkeesian usually confines her critique of gender roles to American society, so we’ll stick with that focus.

Sarkeesian persuades, rather than educates

What this all boils down to, in Sarkeesian’s mind, is education. She makes her videos to educate her audience—hopefully men and video game developers—that there are problems in society that need to be changed. She says:

The good news is that because male entitlement is a learned attitude, it can, through education and conscious effort, be unlearned. And game systems are capable of being part of that transformative process.

As somebody who works in higher education and has taught students for many years, including on the topic of video games, I wholeheartedly agree that education is power. And I believe that video games, even games that weren’t explicitly designed for this purpose, can be educational. In fact, I think you can learn more about life from something like the Legend of Zelda than you can from a dedicated educational game.

I don’t doubt Sarkeesian’s intentions, and I know she’s doing what she thinks is right. She examines these issues thoroughly and her videos have great production values.

However, as a whole, I’m not sure she’s actually educating people. She’s persuading them, and there’s a difference.

The persuader gathers evidence, selectively, and makes a case for why their idea or plan is better than a different idea or plan. Persuasion plays a major role in our democracy. As somebody who used to write opinion articles (and perhaps still does on this blog) and who teaches opinion writing to students, I’ll be the first to extol the virtues of persuasion.

The educator, on the other hand, selects evidence that’s relevant for the issue under discussion, but they select ALL relevant evidence, not evidence from one side. They present multiple sides to the student of culture.

The educator takes the time to examine an issue in-depth, and their job is to distill the wider discussion so that an audience can understand the contours of the issue.

But their job doesn’t stop there. The educator then shows students different paths they can walk down, and encourages them to look into the issue further.

Sarkeesian is not educating us about how men should treat women, or how women should be portrayed in video games. She’s presenting a list of do’s and don’ts—mostly don’ts.

Show women as equally strong as men.

Don’t show women in risqué clothing.

Show men who save the world because of a sense of justice.

Don’t show men saving the world because a woman is waiting for him at the end.

Sarkeesian is a persuader. After studying her for two years now, this is the conclusion I’ve come to.

There’s a place for persuasion. And people respond to her with persuasive arguments.

That can be a good thing, if the other side engages in the debate. But Sarkeesian doesn’t engage. She puts her views out there, then doesn’t respond to others. She’s not interested in others’ opinions (comment sections remain closed on all her videos).

Don’t confuse her for an educator. She provides a list of morals and rules. Some of her rules are good, and I’ve agreed with her here and in the past.

But she doesn’t challenge you to study the issue on your own. She doesn’t challenge you to form your own opinion. And she doesn’t question her own assumptions.

Or if she does, she’s not showing you her educational process: only the end result of her education.

Game on,
~Dennis

Anita Sarkeesian’s positive female characters in video games

Throughout 2013 and 2014, Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency made a lot of headlines in the video game community. Her video series “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” is critical of the depiction and uses of female characters in games. On the whole, she finds that all too often female characters are sexualized, abused, and made the objects of male conquests.

While many people, especially the journalism community, have been supportive of Feminist Frequency, many more rank and file gamers have been critical. Remove from the discussion the anonymous rabbles that issue death threats and spew verbal abuse against Sarkeesian. Intelligent and thoughtful gamers have looked at her critiques and asked, “Why are you so negative about the depictions of females in video games? What about all of the positive female characters who don’t fit your narrative of oppression?”

In the three previous posts I’ve critiqued Sarkeesian, that’s been one of my main objections. I acknowledge that female characters are often sexualized to the point of absurdity. But as a longtime gamer, I can think of numerous examples of positive female characters in games (e.g., such as the two or three dozen female characters in the Final Fantasy series).

Thankfully, Sarkeesian has started addressing this criticism with her new mini-series, Positive Female Characters in Video Games. I’ve been waiting for months now to write this post, in the hopes that she’d post a few more videos on this topic.

As of now, there are only two videos, so let’s look at her analysis in each.

The Scythian: Sword and Sworcery


Sarkeesian begins her series by examining a character known only as “the Scythian” from the indie game Sword & Sworcery. In short, the game pays homage to the Legend of Zelda series: there’s exploration, combat, and environmental puzzle solving. There are also a few differences: the character doesn’t level up throughout the game, but gets weaker. There’s less combat than Zelda. And the protagonist is a female.

These differences shouldn’t be interpreted as a critique of Zelda, as if Sword & Sworcery is a better game. It’s just a different game.

Sarkeesian discusses at length how the Scythian “subverts” traditional gender roles because she doesn’t appear female:

Thankfully, the game doesn’t resort to clear gendered signifiers like a pink outfit or a pretty bow in her hair, nor does it present her gender as some kind of surprise twist like we see in the original Metroid.

She goes on to say:

It’s not just in the visual sense that the Scythian lacks clear definition. We know very little about her history, and nothing about why she has undertaken the quest to defeat an ancient evil. While games often give us images of heroes who are fated to defeat evil forces, it’s rare for these heroes of myth to be women. Like many video game heroes, the Scythian is essentially a silent protagonist, a figure defined primarily by her actions, which makes her a blank slate for all players to project themselves onto.

What strikes me as curious is that Sarkeesian looks to the Scythian as a positive female character, yet visually she looks male, and on her quest, she does all the things that male protagonists do. She ends by saying:

Sword & Sworcery gives us a female protagonist and encourages us to see her as a hero first and foremost, one who also just happens to be a woman.

In effect, Sarkeesian is saying that female characters are positive if they are indistinguishable from male characters: visually, thematically, purposely.

Yet in her previous Ms. Male video, Sarkeesian critiqued female characters that were essentially carbon copies of male characters, albeit with a visual signifier like a ribbon or bow in their hair.

Personally, I think it’s fine if a female character is androgynous, as it’s fine when male characters are androgynous (to use Final Fantasy again, I’m thinking of some of the male characters, like Vaan or Kuja).

But I wouldn’t say that female characters are better when they are androgynous, as it seems Sarkeesian is saying. Men and women are different. For one, their body shapes, on average, are different, so including those differences in a video game isn’t sexist: it’s a matter of art reflecting reality.

Many of Sarkeesian’s critics have pointed out various positive female characters in games, characters who “just happen” to be a woman. Dixie Kong is one of my favorite female characters in this regard. She’s just as strong, just as fast, just as capable as Diddy Kong. She’s a clone in every regard, except for her special ability. She “just happens” to be a woman.

Yet if you’ve been following Sarkeesian’s work, you’ll find that she doesn’t believe a character can “just happen” to be a woman. In other words, a character cannot be judged on their own merits apart from their gender. In her feminist worldview, gender is inextricably linked to a character (or in the real world, a person), and the history of gendered violence cannot be easily untangled from women.

There’s a discrepancy, then, between Sarkeesian’s arguments in this video and her arguments in past videos. I won’t, however, go so far as to say she’s a hypocrite, as some have said. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe, the more she researches these topics, her own views on women are changing. Maybe she’s starting to see, as many have long argued, that female characters can “just happen” to be female, and the history of gendered violence doesn’t have to inform our appreciation of these female characters.

Jade: Beyond Good and Evil


For the second video, Sarkeesian extols Jade from Beyond Good and Evil. Like Sword & Sworcery, I haven’t played Beyond Good and Evil, though I hear great things about the game all the time.

And before Sarkeesian started this mini-series, many critics referred her to this game as an example of a positive female character.

On the surface, then, it appears that Jade is universally recognized as a strong character, so Sarkeesian made a safe choice in highlighting her.

As usual, I have a few quibbles with her analysis.

In the beginning, Sarkeesian discusses Jade’s appearance:

We learn about who characters are not just from the things they say and do, but also from how they look: visual design is an important way for game designers to communicate information at a glance about a character’s experience and personality traits. Sadly, women in games are often depicted in wildly impractical, sexualized clothing designed to make them appealing to straight male players. But Jade isn’t designed to fulfill someone else’s fantasy. The midriff top is a little silly, but for the most part, she looks like someone who is dressed to accommodate her own needs. I mean, you don’t get much more practical than cargo pants.

The part that bothers me is the throwaway comment that Jade’s midriff top is “a little silly.” It’s almost as if Sarkeesian finds female characters acceptable only after all hints of sexuality and conventional attractiveness are eliminated. I’m surprised Sarkeesian didn’t go farther and mention Jade’s exceedingly thin waist.

This criticism bothers me because it runs counter to so much popular feminist discourse. In recent years, pop culture feminists have criticized people who engage in “slut-shaming.” Slut-shaming is the social stigma, usually levied at women, that comes from critiques of female bodies and appearance. Feminists decry slut-shaming; in general, I think they are on point here.

For example, they say dress codes–often at high schools or places of work–stigmatize women more than men. They say society (made up of both men and women, as women can shame other women) picks on women, holding them to different standards than men. In this worldview, the patriarchy tries to control women, in part, through a woman’s dress.

Feminists have popularized this idea across social media and college campuses, so much so that whenever somebody, often a male, criticizes the way a woman looks or dresses, they are outed as “slut-shamers,” and ridiculed.

That means that I, as a male, cannot and should not criticize–even comment on–a woman’s appearance or dress. In this worldview, women are autonomous agents, and only they get to decide what they wear. If they want to dress conservatively, that’s fine. If they want to dress provocatively and show off some skin, that’s their decision, and critics, especially men, better shut up and let them be.

It’s interesting, then, that Sarkeesian points out that Jade’s midriff top is “a little silly.” Why? Is not Jade an autonomous woman? Sarkeesian certainly thinks so in the rest of her analysis. A man didn’t dress Jade when she got up in the morning, did he?

In my mind, as I bow to feminist thinking on this issue, I cannot comment on Jade’s appearance, other than affirming the choices that she’s already made. So if she wants to wear a midriff top, good for her.

Certainly millions of high school and college women choose to dress the same way.

(And for the record, I have no problem with Jade’s appearance).

My second contention with this video comes toward the end:

In this early scene, Jade is trapped until Pey’j appears, throwing her a staff she uses to free herself and overcome the destructive alien force.

Pey’j: Hang on Jade! I’m coming! Free yourself, Jade. I’ll create a diversion.

It may seem like a minor detail, but the fact that Pey’j tells Jade to free herself, instead of doing it for her, is incredibly important. He assists her but doesn’t rescue her. He knows that even in this situation, she’s far from helpless, and the fact that Pey’j treats her as a capable partner encourages us to see her that way, too.

This moment also evokes a sense of mutual respect and partnership between these two characters, in a way that is all too rare for female characters in gaming.

Eventually, Uncle Pey’j is kidnapped, and Jade is determined to rescue him.

As a quick side note, it’s important to point out that a kidnapped male character saved by a woman and a kidnapped female character saved by a man are not equivalent, because while a damsel in distress reinforces longstanding regressive myths about women as a group being weak or helpless specifically because of their gender, a dude in distress does not reinforce any such ideas about men.

It’s this idea, that the history of violence against men and women are different, that probably earns Sarkeesian the most criticism. Her larger narrative is not only that violence against men and women are, historically and presently, different, but she goes even further to contend that the history of violence against women is worse than the history of violence against men.

Perhaps in some circumstances, but maybe not in all. I don’t think it’s healthy to try and “prove” which gender has suffered more through violence. But if you want to talk about real-life “dudes in distress,” look no further than the concept of prisoners of war. For thousands of years, across all civilizations, men have been the primary participants in wars between nations.

Civilians of all age groups and genders are killed, of course. But soldiers, by and large, are male, even today. Men suffer uncalculable violence on the frontlines, afterward from temporary and permanent battle wounds, and sometimes as prisoners of war.

In real life, men often do become “dudes in distress.” To cite only one example more than 400,000 soldiers were imprisoned during the American Civil War, about equally between the North and the South. Furthermore, 56,000 soldiers died in captivity.

I’ll concede to Sarkeesian that women, in literature and video games, are captured and imprisoned more often than men. However, this is a concession with a caveat: it really depends on which example of media we are discussing. Taking The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as one example: yes, Zelda is a female and she’s imprisoned (at the end of the game), but throughout the game, Link also saves many other people from imprisonment, such as half a dozen Gorons and four male carpenters (held in a prison run by women).

I am leery, then, in conceding that the history of violence, including imprisonment, is worse for women than men. In some cases it is worse, certainly. Women are more likely to be the victims of domestic abuse, for example, and that’s wrong. And yes, in many cases violence is gendered. But I won’t play this game in trying to determine which gender has it worse.

Violence in any form is wrong, regardless of the perpetrator, victim, or circumstances.

What I can say about Beyond Good and Evil, then, is that both a main male character and main female character are in distress, and they help each other. Their “distress,” then, is fairly balanced. That doesn’t make it right or wrong. The game simply offers one way of telling a story, a different way of creating conflict.

To paraphrase Sarkeesian from an earlier video, Jade is imprisoned and she “just happens” to be a female, and Pey’j is imprisoned, and he “just happens” to be a male.

Game on,
~Dennis

In Defense of Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII logo

I’ve been a Final Fantasy fan for more than 20 years now, as might be evident from my recent posts on Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call and Final Fantasy I. In 2010, Square-Enix released Final Fantasy XIII, the first FF for the seventh-generation of video game consoles. After playing Final Fantasy X, then XII, then oddly IX, I was ready for the latest adventure.

Of the seventh-gen consoles, I only own the Wii. I borrowed my brother’s Xbox 360, bought the game at the full price of $60, and settled in for the 50-hour quest.

And then a year later I played through the entire game again. Another 50 hours.

FFXIII has received its share of criticism, unfortunately. Most reviewers, and gamers, criticize the game for three reasons: the story is convoluted, the game is nothing more than a trek through corridors, and the game doesn’t open up until 2/3 of the way through. In this post, I’ll put those criticisms to rest.

FFXIII is one of the best of the series, a refreshing change of pace that reinvents nearly everything that had grown stale in the FF series.

A stripped down adventure

FFXIII is streamlined. The creators dispensed with the clutter and clichés of JRPGs, clichés pioneered by the FF series. Towns are nonexistent in FFXIII (well, towns that are safe havens). Gone are the inns, the shops, the endless townspeople who sometimes offer good advice, but most of the time say nothing of consequence.

Gone are the multitude of stats for each character: strength, agility, speed, defense, magic, magic defense, stamina, luck, so on and so on. Only two stats remain: strength and magic.

Healing is accomplished out of battle. In fact, everybody fully heals after each battle, so inns are useless, as are potions (though potions still remain). No longer do you need to equip armor for your characters, headgear and gauntlets and breastplates and shoes. You can equip some accessories, and weapons are modified at the save points, but the modifications really aren’t necessary.

The overworld is gone, as are airships. Dungeons lack puzzles.

Many fans were extremely upset that FFXIII stripped away nearly all of these elements. What’s left of the game without all these things? In short: the best parts of Final Fantasy—the combat and the story.

At first, I was a little shocked to see so many of the familiar conventions of the series left by the wayside. But I found over the course of the adventure that I didn’t miss any of it. That’s not to say I don’t like exploring towns, solving puzzles, and optimizing my armor and weapon choices. But what I learned was, if I wanted that style of game, I could always go back to FFVI and FFVII. It was time to move on from those trappings, and FFXIII’s creators knew it.

Combat is fun again

Combat in the FF series has always been easy. In the early FFs, a four-person party was too much (and FFIV went overboard with a five-man party). Most battles consist of this: selecting “Fight” for each character, watching your four characters plus 2-6 enemies perform their basic attacks, then repeat. Magic and healing and defensive postures are necessary on some boss battles, but 90% of the time, you can get away with mashing “A” or “X” when a battle starts, choosing the default options.

Combat used to bog down in the “grind,” those parts of the game when you arbitrarily had to level up your characters so that you could face the next boss. FFVI had an obnoxiously long grind at the end of that game, as you had to prepare 12 characters for the final battle.

In FFXIII, grinding is unnecessary (unless you want to take on the optional side quests, which I never found the need to).

What makes combat in FFXIII most interesting, though, is the paradigm system. You have three characters in your party, and each has three roles (later six if you want). Commanders are the leaders of the party; ravagers cast magic, healers heal, and so on. Before the battle begins, you set up your paradigms, and at any time in battle, you can switch.

For example, I might begin a battle with Lightning as the commander and Sazh and Vanille as ravagers. Then I might switch to an all-ravager paradigm, and if I get hurt, maybe switch to a healer-commander-healer paradigm.

Paradigm switching happens in a couple seconds, and is absolutely necessary to winning quickly. See, the enemies have a “stagger meter” that fills up with each hit. The more hits, the higher the meter goes. When it reaches a certain point, usually 300%, the enemy’s defenses temporarily fall, allowing you to do massive damage. Staggering an enemy is important, as it’s common by the end of the game for an enemy to have millions of hit points.

Now, if you didn’t care much for the fighting, you could just hit “Auto” each round, having the computer choose your attacks for you. But FFXIII does something unique compared to the other FFs: at the end of the battle, it rates you out of five stars based on how fast you completed the battle. The rating isn’t really important (maybe you get better item drops with more stars), but for me, it was a challenge to try to get five stars as much as possible.

I set up my paradigms in such a way so that I did as much damage as fast as possible. I had to constantly watch the stagger meter, as when you aren’t attacking, the meter slowly drains. This simple addition, the post-battle rating, made combat exciting for me.

Some people criticize FFXIII for only giving you control of your leader character. The computer plays as the other two. But the focus has changed: it’s not about controlling everybody’s actions anymore. As I said, in previous FFs, most of the time you just select “Attack” anyway. This time, the focus is on managing your paradigms, and keeping tabs on your party’s health and status second by second.

FFXIII does not have turn-based combat, but real-time, which makes battles a lot more intense. And because you are healed at the end of each battle, the monsters are a lot more aggressive in attacking your characters. In previous FFs, you could often complete a battle without taking any damage, or very little. In FFXIII, all characters take massive damage each fight, so in-battle healing is now that much more crucial.

There are no magic points to worry about either. By fully reviving the party after each battle, the game can make every battle deadly.

And deadly they are. Another great fix to combat is, if you die, you immediately respawn right before that battle took place. Set-up the paradigms differently, and away you go, right back in the action! No more respawning at save points found 30 minutes in the past.

Final Fantasy XIII PS3 game cover

Lightning, the protagonist of the game, was a divisive character, as she had a steely, cold personality.

A story that flips the script

The story in all FFs is basically the same: your group of nobodies rebels against the government/church/monster overlords, slowly gets stronger as the adventure progresses, and finally takes on the boss, the ruler of the world, sometimes a godlike creature. The balance of the entire planet is in your hands, and you inevitably save it.

This trope makes for a compelling story arc and gameplay, but how you do change up this all-too-common script? FFXIII found just the way to do it. Instead of trying to save the world from a godlike monster, your characters are the godlike monsters, tasked with destroying the very world they love!

The story is admittedly a little complicated, but let me try to make it simple. In FFXIII, there are two worlds, Cocoon and Pulse. Each world is managed by overseers, godlike creatures called fal’Cie. The fal’Cie treat humans as their pets, providing for all their needs: food, light, heat, technology. Humans live in advanced, futuristic societies because everything was given to them by their benevolent overlords.

The fal’Cie are unable, however, to directly intervene in human affairs. So when they need something accomplished, they call a human to do their bidding. Humans who are called by the fal’Cie are branded, turning into l’Cie. The l’Cie have two options: complete their Focus, or mission, or ignore their Focus. If they ignore their Focus, they become Cieth, undead zombies. Nobody wants that.

However, if they complete their Focus, they are turned to crystal and given eternal life. So the in-game fable goes. But who knows if they actually get eternal life?

In the beginning of the game, our six heroes awaken a fal’Cie from slumber and are branded as l’Cie. The heroes live on Cocoon, and Cocoonian society is afraid of anything from Pulse due to a war far in the past. Our heroes stumbled upon a Pulse fal’Cie, living on Cocoon, so they are branded Pulse l’Cie, which marks them as enemies in the eyes of the Cocoonians.

It takes a while, but eventually our heroes figure out their Focus: Destroy Cocoon. This is how the script is flipped around. The heroes become more and more godlike as the story progresses, so certainly they have the power to destroy their home planet. But, of course, they don’t want to do that.

So they are presented with a quandary: destroy their home planet and fulfill their Focus? Or ignore their Focus and become Cieth, and likely doom the planet anyway as others would surely be made l’Cie to complete the Focus.

The story is not about stopping some godlike even being from conquering the world, but it’s about these Pulse l’Cie avoiding their fate to save the planet they love. They don’t want to destroy the planet, they don’t want to turn Cieth, and they don’t want to turn into crystal. The story is about fate versus freewill, destiny versus freedom.

Not only is the overall story amazing, but the individual dramas of the characters are the best of any FF game. In FFXIII, it seems like every character belongs together in your party: there is no dead weight.

Compare this to FFIX, for instance, in which one party member is a fat monster named Quina. You find him in a swamp, trying to catch frogs, which he loves to eat. His only motivation for joining your quest, I kid you not, is “I will join you so I can find more frogs to eat.” Really? What a dramatic letdown.

Let’s talk about those hallways

So the battle system and story are excellent, the best of any FF game, but what about the world? What is there to interact with, if not towns or an overworld? In short: nothing. Most worlds consist of nothing more than long tunnels. You run down the hallway, fighting monsters, and every 5-10 minutes are treated to a cutscene. Repeat.

In the beginning of the game, you run along a road, then a bridge.

After getting branded by the Pulse fal’Cie, you run along a crystalized lake, a long corridor through crystalized water.

Later you run down a tunnel bored through stone. Sometimes you run through a city, but it consists of one street, with all alleyways and cross streets blocked off, then you turn a corner, and surprise!, you run down another straight street.

Occasionally there are tiny branches off the main road, and in a couple places you might have two slightly different paths to take, each leading to the same destination. 97% of the game’s environments are tunnels, hallways, or streets.

And that’s okay. If you want an open-world to explore, play another game. I’m fine with the hallways because 1) they look beautiful, 2) the soundtrack is amazing (I’ve been listening to it almost every week for four years now), but most importantly, 3) the hallways keep the game focused on its strong points: battle and storytelling.

You are out of battle for no more than 5-15 seconds in most cases. The action of the battles is what drives the game forward, not the exploration. And the linear nature of the game allows the creators to tell a tight, focused story. You won’t get sidetracked by sidequests in FFXIII. To story is always moving forward, and that’s a good thing.

The game holds your hand for the first 35 hours

Penny Arcade expressed a common critique of FFXIII’s hand-holding, one shared by many:

Final Fantasy XIII comicHere’s what critics are referring to. In the first 2/3 of the game, you have no control over who is in your party. Six playable characters are at your disposal, but sometimes you only play as one, sometimes two, and sometimes three. The combinations are always determined by the game, dictated by the story. Not all of the main characters are in the same place at the same time.

Still, many people wanted to be able to access all six characters, and all six paradigm classes far sooner. I found, though, that once the game “opened up” it was a lot less interesting to play. Here’s why.

By forcing me to use certain characters together, I had to work within their limitations. Playing the Lightning and Hope party for a good chunk of the game was challenging, as was the Sazh and Vanille group. I appreciated that each character only specialized in three paradigms.

Once they had access to all paradigms, whatever individuality they had was lost. Everybody can be every class. Is that really what gamers wanted?

I found that I constructed my party based on certain paradigms I was trying to create. For a long time, Sazh was always in my three-man party because he had the ability Haste, which let me finish those battles twice as fast! But later Hope gets Haste, and becomes his combination of moves was more versatile, Sazh was gone and Hope replaced him for the remainder of the game.

And Snow, sadly, one of my favorite characters, fought almost no battles the last 15 hours of the game. He just didn’t have the right combination of specialized paradigms. So his experience points just built up and up and up: I had no reason to level him.

The only change I wish they made to FFXIII was that they randomized the parties on repeat playthroughs somehow. When I played the game a second time, I found myself constructing the exact same parties as the first time around once the game “opened up.”

See how this desire for an “open” game is actually more constricting in practice?

Gamers also longed to get away from all the hallway running. As previously explained, though, I enjoyed the hallway running. At the 2/3 mark, your party travels to Pulse for one chapter (of 13). Most of Pulse is also hallway running, but at one very specific point there is an extremely large “open” area. A big field, really, filled with dozens of new monsters, most more powerful than your party. It can take a couple hours to cross this field, given how many monsters there are. There are a few nooks on the periphery that introduce you to side bosses, but grinding just to fight these dinosaurs isn’t worth it, in my mind.

After Pulse, you go back to hallway running for the remainder of the game. So the game never really does open up.

The idea of an open-world FF, however, is mostly an illusion. If you play through previous FFs, such as IV, VI, VII, IX, X, or XII, you’ll find that the games are mostly linear. You travel from town to town, and while there is usually a big “field” to explore in between each town, there is usually only one entrance and one exit from those fields.

Now, usually these previous FFs opened up at some point, giving you an airship that let you travel anywhere you wanted. In my opinion, these open-world parts of the previous FFs, though, always came at the expense of the story. No longer was the story in the hands of the developers.

Conclusion

Every Final Fantasy fan has an opinion about which games are the “best” in the series. Comparing the games, though, is difficult, as only a handful of games ever appear for a single system. Every few years, advances in video game technology open up new possibilities for the genre.

In my estimation, the two best Final Fantasies are FFVI and FFXIII—a tie, but for different reasons. In the case of FFVI, the sum of its parts is greater than the whole; in the case of FFXIII, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Maybe I’ll talk about FFVI some other day, but I think it’s easy to see that, while FFXIII might be lacking in many areas compared to other JRPGs, when it excels, it soars above the competition.

Final Fantasy has always been a series that reinvents itself with every game. Compare this series to something like Mario, Pokemon, or Zelda, and it’s easy to see why. While Nintendo can get away with coasting on tried-and-true formulas and nostalgia, the creators of Final Fantasy have always challenged themselves to make something new.

FFXIII was that new thing I was looking for. The classic JRPG formula, established mostly by FF, is great, and whenever I want to experience it again, I have FFIV and VI and VII. By the time Square got to FFIX, the formula was dead. There’s nothing wrong with FFIX, per se, but there’s nothing fresh.

FFXIII’s combination of action, story, graphics, and music has inspired me in a way few other games have. The story, the music, and all of the lush scenery are constantly running through my head, motivating me in my day to day life.

So what if it’s linear? I know of no other game that promises 50 hours of unique content, an ever-progressing story and ever-changing monsters. There is no need to backtrack. The game has no padding, no sections that repeat themselves just to make the game longer. No, it’s a 50-hour trip straight through without sidequests, no shorter, no longer.

True, about 8-9 hours of that 50 is cinematics and cutscenes, but the FF series has always been about telling stories. And this is a story you can get invested in, because you play as these characters, you develop these characters, and while you don’t control their outcome, you experience their successes and failures right beside them.

Game on,
~Dennis

Critique of Anita Sarkeesian’s ‘Women as Background Decoration part 2’

Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency fame recently released a new video criticizing the portrayal of women in video games. This is part of her “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series, a series that has gotten much acclaim–and 10 fold the amount of criticism. You can read my previous critiques of Sarkeesian’s videos to get up to speed on the nature of this discussion (“Ms. Male” critique and “Women as Background Decoration part 1” critique).

She defines the Women as Background Decoration trope as follows:

The subset of largely insignificant non-playable female characters whose sexuality or victimhood is exploited as a way to infuse edgy, gritty or racy flavoring into game worlds. These sexually objectified female bodies are designed to function as environmental texture while titillating presumed straight male players.

In this video, she continues that argument by stressing “how sexualized female bodies often occupy a dual role as both sexual playthings and the perpetual victims of male violence.”

Watch the video below first, as I’ll be referencing specific parts of her argument that are troubling or deserve more analysis.

My experience with these games

Let me start this critique by saying that of the 29 games she references in this video, I’ve only played one (Super Mario Galaxy, which isn’t even related to her main argument) and I’ve seen in action only parts of three games: GTAIV, GTAV, and Watch Dogs. As a game scholar and teacher, though, I am familiar with all the rest. So I write this critique not as somebody who personally plays these games for entertainment and takes offense at somebody else telling me my games are bad. I play very few Mature titles, as most of the time I don’t find those kind of games enjoyable.

On the whole, I agree with much of her argument. Women are often portrayed as sex objects in these games, far more often than men, and that’s a problem. The problem isn’t with any individual game, in my opinion, but with the proportion of games like this out there. I recognize the value of most of the games she analyzes as both forms of entertainment and in many cases social commentaries. It is troubling when you survey the entire landscape of games and find some many examples of these games.

But as I’ve long thought, individual developers can’t necessarily be held accountable for the actions of an entire industry, just because the games they make happen to be similar to the games others make.

While I agree with maybe 70% of what she says,she tends to overextend her argument,  as is typical of her videos, and pull on threads that, instead of having the intended effect of strengthening her argument, actually work against her and undercurrent the foundation she has successfully laid.

I offer the following critiques of parts of her argument, not as a way of nitpicking, but as a way of separating the chaff from the wheat. Every time she releases a video, the gamer community finds itself in a tizzy for two weeks. Sarkeesian receives ever uglier harassment and taunting (this time she even had to leave her house and call the police on account of personal threats against her family).

But there’s no need for vitriol: I write this critique for fellow gamers. Sarkeesian’s videos strike a nerve with many of us, myself included. When we separate the less-than-thoughtful parts of her argument, what we are left with is a reasonable critique about the state of women in video games.

What’s the difference between sexualized murder and murder?

Early in the video, she shows several examples of dead NPCs (non-playable characters). There is a difference between them:

A grisly example can be found in Bioshock 2 where mutilated eroticized female bodies are seen scattered throughout The Pink Pearl bordello area in Siren Alley.

Again we can compare the way the murdered male bodies are displayed and notice the distinct lack of sexualization in their presentation. The male corpses may be designed to evoke a sense of horror or disgust, but it’s not coupled with elements of sexual titillation in the same way that female bodies are.

Often in her videos, she presents an observation and considers that the critique. Okay, so female corpses are often sexualized, but is that the most serious issue here? Isn’t the fact that people are dead a little more important? A female character might be sexually assaulted before death, but maybe the male character was tortured (non-sexually) before death. Can we really say one is worse than the other, just because one happens to be gendered and one is not?

She attempts to explain why this is bad:

This Drop Dead Gorgeous trope, as it’s called, is commonly used in other forms of mass media, especially in fashion advertising. It is the collusion of violence done to women’s bodies and the fact that it is often sexualized. The idea being that a dead woman is still inherently beautiful, even if her body has been maimed, her life stolen from her, something arousing still remains available for male consumption.

Here she makes a big assumption. Perhaps the developers intend the dead, sexualized female to be “available for male consumption” (visually, I guess?), but how does she know that’s how players interpret it? In my experience, when I see dead characters in a video game, whether sexualized or not, I know something serious has happened. It can pack an emotional punch. Is she upset with the idea that a woman can still be inherently beautiful in death? How should a dead woman instead be seen: as inherently ugly and disgusting?

Cultures around the world often have immense respect for the dead (especially for family and friends). I don’t think viewing a corpse as ugly would be very honoring to the dead. I’ve been to four open casket funerals, and all individuals were dressed up by the funeral home to look as handsome as possible. So when we take away the idea that dead bodies can’t be seen as beautiful, and when we take away the assumption that men are “consuming” these bodies when they look at them, we are left with no explanation as to what the difference is between a dead, non-sexualized male and a dead, sexualized female, other than an observation about the manner of their deaths.

NPCs are necessary, but are always undeveloped

A main point of her argument is that sexualized females serve the plot in superficial ways:

During one mission in Far Cry 3 the players watch from the sidelines as a pimp beats up a female prostitute of color in a shanty town.

The women who fulfill this trope in gaming universes are sometimes designed to occupy minor narrative roles but more often than not they’re just hollow shells, empty representations with little to no personality or individuality to speak of.

A narrative in any medium–movie, novel, television, play, or video games–is filled with major characters and minor characters. By their nature, minor characters have little depth. The storyteller cannot give a fleshed out backstory for everybody (if you do you’ll end up with something bloated like The Game of Thrones). In the games she analyzes, there are plenty of male characters who are also beat, harassed, or killed in ways to advance the plot (though admittedly, often not in a sexualized way). But these NPCs don’t have much depth either.

I’m the kind of person who tries to have a consistent life philosophy, grounded in principles that work for many situations. I don’t like the idea of criticizing some certain instance but not criticizing other certain instances of similar quality. Yes, these female NPCs are undeveloped, but so are the males: so what?

Perhaps violence in general is Sarkeesian’s bigger concern

Sarkeesian is very prominently a feminist critic and a defender of women’s rights; that much is obvious. And while most of her material is focused on critiquing depictions of women in video games, occasionally she betrays a different motivation:

So in addition to helping paint a gritty picture for the rest of the game experience, this kind of sexualized violence against inessential female characters is exploited by developers as a sort of cheap one-note character development for the “bad guys”.

It’s a lazy shorthand for “evil” meant to further motivate the protagonist to take the villain down and help justify the excessive violence committed by the player in these games.

Some key words here: “lazy shorthand” and “justify the excessive violence.” Point taken: often times the villains in video games are shallow (I still don’t understand Bowser’s fixation with the Princess. He clearly has an empire in the Mushroom Kingdom and is a much more decisive and capable ruler than the Princess is). But if a villain was fleshed out and had depth, would that still justify excessive violence committed against him? Probably not. Notice the term she uses: excessive. I don’t know Sarkeesian’s motives for sure, as she never talks about violence divorced from gender, but maybe she’s equally bothered by the levels of violence present in many mature games.

From my experience with Mature titles, most of the violence is actually male-on-male, non-gendered violence. And that’s totally fine to be against excessive violence in video games–like I said near the beginning, I don’t play a lot of Mature titles, in part because the violence does get to be too much after a while. But excessive violence in games is a separate issue from gendered violence, and when the two are conflated in the same line of argument without proper analysis of one, then the argument falls flat.

The definition of “mature”

This is a small point, but as a scholar of communication, individual word choices and semantics are important to me. She wraps up most of her observations with this preliminary conclusion:

These women and their bodies are sacrificed in the name of infusing “mature themes” into gaming stories. But there is nothing “mature” about flippantly evoking shades of female trauma.

The games that she analyzes are rated “Mature,” but that word means: not appropriate for children. She even begins her video by saying the content is graphic and not appropriate for children. The “Mature” rating does not mean “sophisticated,” “nuanced,” or “deep.” A think many adults are well-aware that games rated “Mature” don’t necessarily contain deep and sophisticated philosophies and critiques of the world: but they do know that these games contain violence and sex.

But as before, Sarkeesian is making an assumption about how players react to these games. Perhaps to Sarkeesian, who is well-versed in feminist philosophy and is intimately aware of the issues of female harassment, gendered violence, and female trauma (I don’t mean from personal experience–I don’t know much about her personal life–but she’s certainly studied these issues for a long time), the rendering of traumatized females in video games is not sophisticated, but shallow. I understand.

People are at different levels, though, with their maturity. Perhaps to some people, these simplistic depictions of female suffering are deeply meaningful. As a male, I can’t understand what it’s like to be traumatized the same way women are. And in my media consumption, I don’t often come across depictions of female suffering. For me, then, when I see a female character brutalized in a video game, it does shake me out of my complacency and start me thinking about women’s issues.

Maybe other players have the same experience and find that these games are indeed “mature,” in other words, “sophisticated.”

The difference between replicating and critiquing

There is a clear difference between replicating something and critiquing it. It’s not enough to simply present misery as miserable and exploitation as exploitative. Reproduction is not, in and of itself, a critical commentary. A critique must actually center on characters exploring, challenging, changing or struggling with oppressive social systems.

But the game stories we’ve been discussing in this episode do not center or focus on women’s struggles, women’s perseverance or women’s survival in the face of oppression. Nor are these narratives seriously interested in any sort of critical analysis or exploration of the emotional ramifications of violence against women on either a cultural or an interpersonal level.

I’ve been an amateur student of the arts for many years. I’ll freely admit I do not know much about art theory and philosophy, but I do know a bit. And as an artist myself, I learned long ago that it is impossible to objectively replicate something found in nature. No matter what the medium is, there are always choices by the artist about what to include and what not to include. In this way, even the replication of something, like female oppression, is an act riddled with subjectivity.

Some artists even go so far as to suggest that their works do not have intended or subliminal commentaries associated with them. Some artists just create and let the audience draw meaning from there.

In this way, then, perhaps the games analyzed by Sarkeesian can be seen as critical commentaries on some aspect of life and society. She says that these narratives are not “seriously interested” in exploring these issues, but now she’s making an assumption about the developers behind these games. How does she know what the developers, as artists, intended? Perhaps to them, their games both replicate reality (albeit imperfectly) and critique it at the same time. Certainly many people have interpreted the GTA series as one long social commentary, in spite of GTA’s sexism, violence, profanity, drug use, and racism.

Now, we could argue that, if these games are indeed intended to be critiques that perhaps the critique isn’t effective, or isn’t effective for everybody. That would be fair. But when you remove the artist’s motivations behind their artwork, and open the door for individual subjective interpretations of art, then you’ll likely find an entire range of reactions to these games: some will see them as mindless and devoid of artistic merit, whereas others might be deeply impacted by the images they see.

Are viewers comfortable with these games?

The truth is that these games do not expose some kind of “gritty reality” of women’s lives or sexual trauma, but instead sanitise violence against women and make it comfortably consumable.

She makes this argument in many videos, that the depictions of women in media “normalize” violence and oppression against women, that frequent consumption of sexist media “desensitizes” people to reality. But again, she’s making an assumption about how players react to these games.

I think by the end of her video, I’ve finally hit on my main problem with Sarkeesian’s entire line of argument in all of her videos. She primarily examines content, not people. She is using a research technique broadly called “qualitative content analysis.” I’ve conducted both quantitative and qualitative content analyses over the years: I even published a qualitative analysis of the television show Death Note and its embrace of apocalyptic religion. Analyzing media content is one thing, but this research methodology has two serious shortcomings: it tells us little about what the creators of said media actually intended, and it tells us nothing about how consumers of media react.

If you want to know how people react to these video games, there’s a simple solution: go talk to people and ask them what they think! Observe them, survey them, interview them…there are numerous methodologies.

How does Sarkeesian know that gamers are “comfortable” with  these depictions of women in games? Just because a person buys a game doesn’t mean they are comfortable with 100% of the content (or even that they see the objectionable content). Just because a person isn’t publishing a public video critique on YouTube doesn’t mean that they are comfortable with the game’s content.

Video games aren’t just for entertainment and fun: a person can have many emotional reactions to video games. I know when I see a woman brutalized in a video game it bothers me. Does that mean I stop playing the game? Not necessarily. Sometimes I trek on because I think that the game does have a social commentary intertwined with entertaining game play.

The Shawshank Redemption is one of my favorite movies, but it’s very brutal and most of the time isn’t comfortable to watch. So I don’t watch it all the time. But I understand the value of the movie, even in its uncomfortableness.

Just because a game features something over and over again doesn’t mean that with each viewing, players get more comfortable with its content.

Maybe some people really do see violence as inevitable

These games also tend to frame misogyny and sexual exploitation as an everlasting fact of life, as something inescapable and unchangeable.

I’ve played my share of violent games over the years, and have seen plenty of ultra-violent movies as well. Currently, there is a media trend, as she identifies, of gritty, dark stories where even the heroes commit serious acts of violence. And sometimes at the end of these stories, the hero is miserable: think The Dark Knight. Now, I don’t understand the motives of any of these storytellers. Maybe some of them really do revel in the violence they create and are entertained by it.

But over years, I’ve come up with a different conjecture. Maybe some storytellers really do see violence as an inescapable and unchangeable reality of life. Certainly there is evidence for this (the entire recorded history of humanity is filled with violence). And maybe some storytellers haven’t been exposed to, or haven’t accepted, more hopeful philosophies of life. Maybe they really do live in the darkness and can’t envision a world without grisly violence.

While I don’t hold that worldview, I don’t begrudge those who do. Maybe that philosophy is the natural consequence of the life they’ve lived up to this point. Should those people be prevented from presenting their view of “reality as they know it” just because somebody doesn’t think that view of reality is accurate?

A mixed conclusion

She ends her video with this:

The truth is that objectification and sexual violence are neither normal nor inevitable. We do not have to accept them as some kind of necessary cultural backdrop in our media stories. Contrary to popular belief, the system of patriarchy has not existed for all of history across all time and all cultures. And as such it can be changed. It is possible to imagine fictional worlds, even of the dark, twisted dystopian variety, where the oppression and exploitation of women is not framed as something expected and inevitable.

When we see fictional universes challenging or even transcending systemic gender oppression, it subverts the dominant paradigm within our collective consciousness, and helps make a more just society feel possible, tangible and within reach.

Here’s what I take away. She’s saying simply: stop depicting sexual violence as an inevitable part of reality, because reality can be changed. I’m not clear what a universe that “transcends” systematic gender oppression looks like, but I’m guessing it means that, in a fictional universe, systematic gender oppression does not exist, and instead of storytellers focusing on that aspect of life, they can then be free to focus on other aspects, perhaps other forms of oppression. Am I getting close?

It seems like she wants these transcendent universes to be on display so that a more just society “feels possible.” In other words, these transcendent universes serve as a model in our consciousness, something to strive toward.

That seems a laudable goal, one I share, but I’d argue such universes already exist (the worlds of Final Fantasy seem pretty transcendent on the gender front, as does the Legend of Zelda [though Sarkeesian disagrees with that]).

Earlier in her video, she said this:

Now, to be clear, I’m certainly not saying stories seriously examining the issues surrounding domestic or sexual violence are off limits for interactive media – however if game makers do attempt to address these themes, they need to approach the topic with the subtlety, gravity and respect that the subject deserves.

So on the one hand, she wants developers to include stories of female trauma, but only if they fit a certain critical mold. But on the other, she wants stories that transcend gender, whatever that means.

But I’ve said too much as it is. For a proper conclusion, reread my section “my experience with these games.” Enough from me: what are your thoughts, Reader?

Game on,
~Dennis