Post Conflict World Building: The Force Awakens vs. The Legend of Korra

When a major fantasy series reaches its conclusion, the viewer is often left with a feeling of optimism. The foes have been vanquished, evil is defeated, and our heroes finally have peace. But what happens when that fantasy series is so popular that viewers demand a sequel? How can the writers continue to build their world after the major conflict is resolved?

Star Wars fans have long been preoccupied with this question. After Return of the Jedi ended there was a slew of media products that continued the stories of Luke, Han, Leia, and the others. When Episode VII: The Force Awakens was announced, fans received some devastating, but also curious news: the Expanded Universe would have no bearing on the story of Episode VII. J.J. Abrams and crew were starting fresh, picking up the story 30 years after Jedi.

However, in throwing out the canonical mythology of Star Wars, Abrams’ team created a huge challenge: how do they make The Force Awakens exciting given that the Empire has been defeated? And how can they possibly top the tension and conflict felt in the Original Trilogy?

I’m of the opinion that The Force Awakens, for all of its strengths, made several missteps in its attempt to continue the Star Wars mythology in the wake of the Empire’s collapse.

But before I explain why, I want to examine the post-conflict world building present in the Avatar: The Last Airbender sequel, The Legend of Korra. The creators of Korra faced a similar challenge to Abram’s team, and found a way to make Korra feel fresh, even though the central conflict of Airbender was long resolved.

The Fire Nation and the Hundred Year War

Avatar: The Last Airbender (TLA) is a fantasy martial arts show about a world made up of four people groups: the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads. Each society is centered around one of the four elements. The Avatar’s job is to keep the world in balance. The intro explains it concisely.

However, before TLA begins, the world is thrown into chaos. The Fire Nation declares war on the world. They commit genocide and wipe out the Air Nomads. Then over the course of a hundred years, they wage war on the Water Tribe and Earth Kingdom.

Aang, the Avatar, ran away from his duties and accidentally froze himself in ice. There he remained, hidden in the sea, for a hundred years, until two Water Tribe peasants freed him.

The central conflict of TLA is clear: the Fire Nation is on the verge of conquering the world, and the Avatar has to stop them.

In fact, at the end of Season 2 (of 3), the Fire Nation succeeds, finally conquering the Earth Kingdom, by far the largest people group. The situation is hopeless, but Aang and friends manage to defeat the Fire Lord and end the war.

The series ends with our heroes hopeful for the future. They know that the world must be rebuilt, and know it will take a lot of effort.

Korra picks up the story 70 years later

TLA was hugely successful for Nickelodeon, and it’s my favorite animated series of all time. The show is perfect in its execution, from the story to the visuals to the music to the voice acting to the characters.

When Nick announced in 2010 that Avatar was receiving a sequel, I was excited, though I had some trepidation. How could The Legend of Korra possibly live up to the scope of TLA? The original series was about saving the world, and the stakes couldn’t have been higher: a hundred year war, a missing avatar, the destruction of an entire people group, and the conquering of the biggest nation.

The short answer is: Korra could never create a conflict greater than TLA. The creators—Michael Dante DiMartino and Brian Konietzko—knew this, and they didn’t try.

Korra takes place 70 years after TLA. Aang is dead, as are many of his friends. A new avatar, Korra, has been reborn. She’s now charged with keeping the world in balance.

Korra ran for four seasons, 52 episodes, almost as long as TLA’s run (61 episodes). Instead of having one central conflict, Korra instead has four smaller conflicts. These conflicts never begin to approach the scope of TLA, and that’s okay. By having more tightly focused conflicts, the creators showed us more of the world, and exposed the characters to new challenges that didn’t come up in TLA.

Stories, at their core, are about characters, and DiMartino and Konietzko created an ensemble cast of characters who felt like real people. Just because Korra didn’t have as big of a conflict as TLA didn’t mean the show was automatically lesser than TLA (side note, Korra is a lesser show than TLA, but that has more to do with pacing and story problems, as well as a botched production and release schedule).

The four conflicts in Korra show us new facets of the world and are interesting in their own right. Season 1 is about an anti-bender revolution that believes that the benders, the heroes of the Hundred Years War, are bad people. Season 2 is about a civil war between the Northern and Southern Water Tribes about which tribe should control access to the Spirit World. Season 3 is about overthrowing the government and throwing the world into chaos. Season 4 is about the rise of a totalitarian Earth Empire.

The story of TLA also continued in the comics. We see the struggles of Fire Lord Zuko and Avatar Aang as they annex land from the Earth Kingdom to make Republic City, a place where people of all nations can live. We see the creation of Toph’s metalbending school. Each new arc in the comics explores consequences of the fall of the Fire Nation.

The creators of TLA found meaningful ways to continue the story, world building, and characters in both a sequel TV series and comics. So far, the Avatar mythology hasn’t tried to top the central conflict of the first story, and that’s for the better.

With that background, let’s look at how The Force Awakens struggled in its execution, namely in trying to make a conflict bigger than the Original Trilogy in a way that didn’t make logical sense.

Star Wars’ post-Empire challenge

When Star Wars: A New Hope begins, the stakes are set incredibly high, and it’s very clear from the opening scene what they are. The Empire is a massive, all-powerful operation. The Rebels are a ragtag group of freedom fighters with dirty, substandard ships. Midway through the movie, the Empire demonstrates the height of their power: they can blow up entire planets.

The Rebels have a brief victory in the destruction of the Death Star, but in The Empire Strikes Back their base gets destroyed, and in Return of the Jedi the Empire has already rebuilt their planet-killing machine.

By the end of the movie, all the conflicts are resolved: the Emperor is killed, Darth Vader is redeemed, and the second Death Star is destroyed. Similarly to TLA, the viewer is treated to an optimistic few minutes of denouement. Leia and Han fall in love, Luke mourns his father and sees the ghosts of his trainers, and the galaxy celebrates the fall of the Empire.

The viewer feels good: all the conflicts are resolved, right?

Well, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes of thought to realize that ROTJ doesn’t definitively end the conflict. Sure, the Emperor is dead and the Death Star is gone, but the Empire is huge. There are millions of soldiers spread across the galaxy, and countless Star Destroyers and TIE Fighters. And as anybody knows from history, toppling a dictator isn’t the end of any country’s struggles. All it does is create a power vacuum.

The Expanded Universe understood this. The first EU novels I read were Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future, which concern Grand Admiral Thrawn, who attempts to pull together the last vestiges of the Empire to resist the New Republic. When I read those novels, the storyline of the EU instantly made sense: the Rebel’s actions at the end of ROTJ did not fully defeat the Empire. It would take years to recover from a generation of tyranny.

The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after ROTJ. Just as the Legend of Korra couldn’t replicate the magnitude of the conflict in TLA, there’s no way that the new Star Wars trilogy could replicate the magnitude of conflict in the Original Trilogy.

But that didn’t stop Abrams and team from trying.

The Force Awaken’s missteps

Star Wars is a series where you have to suspend your disbelief in many ways. It’s not science fiction: the way spaceships jet in and out of hyperspace like it’s no big deal wouldn’t actually work.

So it might be reading into it a bit too much, but researchers have calculated what the cost of building two Death Stars would be, and the amount is staggering. One estimate is $419 quintillion (billion billion). I’m not exactly sure how big the galaxy of Star Wars is, but even if there were thousands of systems containing intelligent life paying taxes to the Empire, this is an awfully large sum of money.

And the Rebels blew up both projects! The result should be a galaxy-wide economic depression, one that would take generations to recover from.

Considering that, how did the First Order manage to rise up in the first place? Sure, there would’ve been a power vacuum after the defeat of the Emperor. It’s reasonable to conclude, as the Hand of Thrawn series did, that splinter groups would arise.

The First Order, though, isn’t made up of the leftover parts of the Empire. Their ships are new, the stormtrooper armor is new, and somehow they found the resources to create an even more powerful weapon than the Death Star, one that can destroy not one planet at a time, but multiple planets and/or moons! And it also destroys suns in the process.

Our hero Finn says that he’s been raised since birth to be a stormtrooper. He looks about 20 in the film, so considering that The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after Jedi, that means that the First Order must have arisen very near the beginning. How else would they be so organized that they are already raising babies to be stormtroopers?

For all the flaws that the Prequel Trilogy had, one thing they did well was show how Palpatine slowly, over the course of a decade, set all the pieces in place for the rise of his Empire. We see in Attack of the Clones that Palpatine was already planning the creation of the first Death Star, something that wouldn’t be complete until some 25 years later.

The First Order, then, would’ve had considerably less capital to work with than Palpatine did, given that the galaxy would likely be in an economic depression (not to mention the political chaos caused by the formation of the New Republic). And yet somehow the First Order was able to achieve dominance faster, and to a greater extent, than the Empire before it.

Abrams and crew, by the end of The Force Awakens, have somehow created a threat greater than the Empire ever was, but in a way that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

How the Force Awakens should’ve approached world building

The EU was on the right track with the understanding that the Empire wouldn’t completely collapse overnight. Others would attempt to fill the power vacuum, using the remnants of the Empire’s force.

And the New Republic, while its goals were certainly noble, would have a difficult time actually establishing a galaxy-wide government. How exactly could one government somehow maintain control of so many disparate systems? In The Phantom Menace, we saw that the Old Republic couldn’t even handle a simple trade dispute on a backwoods planet.

The Force Awakens should’ve began with both the fledgling New Republic and the resistant First Order each vying for power. And there would be no “Resistance” separate from the New Republic. Why would the New Republic be financing a secret organization that shares their same goals for peace in the galaxy? Why exactly didn’t the New Republic have an army, considering that many people would remember how well it worked out for the Old Republic when they didn’t have an army?

The Prequel Trilogy was criticized, rightfully so, for having far too much politics, far too much talking and legislating. Those criticisms have been well-voiced the past 15 years.

The Force Awakens, however, shows us absolutely nothing about how the New Republic functions. The viewer is treated to about 10 seconds of footage about the New Republic. We see a new planet and a new city that we know nothing about. We see dozens of people standing on a balcony, presumably the leaders of the New Republic? And then there’s a flash of light as the planets are vaporized by Starkiller Base.

It’s like Abrams wanted to reset the Star Wars universe as quickly as possible, to return us to the classic conflict of the Underdogs vs. a repressive Empire. The Legend or Korra recognized that it couldn’t top a Hundred Years War, so it didn’t even try. The Force Awakens did try, and hurt itself in the process.

The Force Awakens actually succeeded the most at world building in the first few minutes that we meet Rey. We see her scavenging through a deserted Star Destroyer and selling the parts. As she speeds into town, we see several downed Star Destroyers, the artifacts of a war a generation removed. Rey even lives in a broken down AT-AT!

Downed Star Destroyer in The Force Awakens

Those first few minutes with Rey are my favorite part of the movie. They provide a glimpse of how far the galaxy has to go in healing itself from the Empire. And isn’t that how military conflicts in real life resolve, after decades and decades of rebuilding? After all, the Great Wall of China was designed to protect the country against invaders. Post-World War II Germany was segregated into Eastern and Western sections for two generations. Many countries in Asia still have landmines buried from the result of wars long past.

And many nations around the world, including the United States, are still using military equipment that’s several generations old! The First Order shouldn’t be outfitted with shiny new black Star Destroyers. They should be using equipment from the Empire days that’s visibly degraded. You know how Han’s Millennium Falcon is always breaking down? Why aren’t the TIE Fighters doing the same thing?

The Force Awakens should’ve opened with a scrappy New Republic, struggling to keep everything hanging together. And the aggressors should’ve been the remnants of the Empire, jury rigging whatever equipment they could find just to keep their army functioning.

The citizens of the New Republic should be frustrated with the lack of progress that the galaxy’s made in recovering from the Empire. And the First Order should step in to show them a clear alternative, a group of people who believes they can return the galaxy to the glory days of the Empire.

There’s a scene right before the Starkiller Base fires when General Hux, dressed in black, gives a stirring speech about the majesty of power to crowds of assembled troops. Abrams was clearly drawing off Nazi imagery, and I think the Nazis provide a useful, albeit clichéd, lens for understanding the First Order. That’s fine, but Abrams misstepped by paralleling the Nazis at the height of their power: he should’ve paralleled the Nazis during their rise to power.

In the 1930s, Hitler arose to speak to the needs and desires of the German people. He promised a return to glory. He spoke to people who were fed up with the economic depression they were experiencing, caused in part by crippling debt from World War I.

I don’t think Starkiller Base was the correct plot device in the Force Awakens. It should’ve been something much smaller scale—after all, how can the Star Wars team possibly top this conflict by Episode IX? It would’ve been wise, though, if the First Order, by the end of the movie, managed to destroy, or at least significantly damage, the fragile New Republic.

Then, in Episode VIII, we’d see a shift in power. The New Republic and the First Order are no longer co-equals. The First Order clearly has the advantage, and the collapsing New Republic becomes the seed of the new Resistance.

The Force Awakens has already succeeded in introducing several new lovable, human, relatable characters. The Legend of Korra proved that if you have strong characters and strong relationships, you can still have a successful story, even if the scope of the conflict doesn’t match the level of the previous series.

If only the Force Awakens had shown similar discretion.

~Dennis

Feminists are giving Rey from the Force Awakens far too much credit

Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens is universally loved by critics and moviegoers. Finally, a female lead in Star Wars!—so the praise can be boiled down to.

I’ve seen Episode VII twice now and I agree, Rey is a great character. I have no complaints about her, unlike some, who think she’s “too good” at the stuff she does.

However, women critics are absolutely gushing over her portrayal, as if Rey was the female sci-fi heroine we’ve been waiting all of human history for. And now she’s arrived, ushering in a new area of equality on the big screen.

But are these praises justified?

Let’s look at what women are saying about Rey.

Rey cleans parts on Jakku

Patricia Karvelas’ column in The Guardian, headlined “Star Wars is a game-changer, awakening the feminist force in little girls everywhere,” speaks of Rey in prophetic tones. Karvelas writes (emphasis added):

[Rey] never doubts herself, the scenes of her flying the Millennium Falcon are the most empowering scenes the Star Wars machine have ever produced. The dialogue between her and Han Solo finally provides the feminist punch-the-air moment we’ve all been desperately waiting for.

She goes on to say:

The character of Rey is a game changer for the little girls around the world who have been disgracefully ignored by the Star Wars empire for decades.

While it’s true that the Star Wars movies don’t have a lot of female characters (ignoring the wide Expanded Universe), is Rey really the character we’ve been desperately waiting for?

Rebecca Carroll describes Rey as “a next generation badass boss bitch that we and Princess Leia can be proud of.” I’m not even sure what that means. Rey isn’t really a leader in Episode VII.

Meg Heckman wrote for the USA Today:

The Force Awakens is, in many ways, a feminist reinterpretation of the original Star Wars movie that wowed audiences nearly 40 years ago.

Tasha Robinson wrote for The Verge:

We may have reached peak Strong Female Character with Rey. Yes, she should be an extreme outlier, not a model for every female character to aspire to, just as not every male character in the movies should be Captain America or Ethan Hunt. But she should also be allowed to be as unquestionably superlative a protagonist as they are.

So I guess Rey is as good as female characters will ever get. There’s no possible way they can be improved. Should storytellers pack their bags and go home now?

Casey Cipriani wrote for Bustle, in a piece entitled “Why Rey in ‘The Force Awakens’ is the feminist hero we’ve all been waiting for”:

Thanks to its passing of the Bechdel test, its group of significant female roles, and, most majorly, its lead character of Rey, this newest Star Wars installment is doing wonders for women in film.

While the most vocal supporters of Rey, for good reason, are women, men are also falling over themselves to praise Rey. Shawn Binder wrote for Distractify:

Rey, played with aplomb by Daisey Ridley, is a tour-de-force of feminism and general badassery. Sure, there were other women in the Star Wars universe before her who were tough and powerful in their own right, but Rey is the first complex hero of the franchise that just happens to be a woman.

When Rey lit up the screen for the first time, girls everywhere finally had a major player in a blockbuster they could relate to.

Notice how the great female characters of the Star Wars universe are so quickly pushed aside. Princess Leia is great, but she wasn’t the main character. Complex heroines like Mara Jade or Ahsoka are glossed over because they didn’t appear in the main Star Wars movies.

Rey and Finn in the Millennium Falcon

Again, this post isn’t designed to take anything away from Rey as a character. She’s a great character in her own right. But a revolutionary, transformative character? Only if you define the parameters for “revolutionary” so narrowly that she’s the only character who can meet the criteria, namely, that to be revolutionary, a female character has to be the main hero of a Star Wars movie specifically.

But what of all the other female characters in fantasy and science fiction? Feminists aren’t looking hard enough if they believe that Rey is the character we’ve all been waiting for. As David French wrote in the National Review:

But for the feminist Left, the past is a yawning abyss of sexism. It’s almost like they haven’t actually watched the last 40 years of science fiction.

Over the last month, I’ve witnessed the praise for Rey with disbelief and confusion. Maybe I’m getting something wrong. Was there really no good female character before Rey? Is Rey really a game-changer for little girls? Have we really “arrived” at a utopia of equality?

I can think of scores of strong female characters, from a variety of media, who were trailblazers long before Rey was conceived. Ripley from Alien. Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop. Blossom, Buttercup and Bubbles from The Powerpuff Girls. April O’Neil from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Cheetara from the ThunderCats. All the Sailor Scouts from the Sailor Moon series. Melfina, Aisha Clanclan, and Suzuka from Outlaw Star. Kagome from Inuyasha. Terra and Celes from Final Fantasy VI. Tifa from Final Fantasy VII. Yuna from Final Fantasy X. Lightning, Fang, Serah, and Vanille from Final Fantasy XIII. Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, and Bayonetta from Bayonetta.

The list goes on. Whether the medium is film, television, animation, comics, or video games, there are plenty of likable female protagonists for girls and boys to look up to. Are there as many strong female characters as there are male characters? Probably not: the Lord of the Rings is very male-heavy. Our fictive landscape still needs new female characters that speak to a modern audience, just as we still need new male characters that speak to a modern audience.

Humanity is incredibly diverse, and storytellers haven’t yet exhausted the well of character possibilities.

Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What bothers me most about the excessive praise of Rey is that feminists are erasing the accomplishments of previous female protagonists. I’m not sure why. To perpetuate this narrative that women are criminally disadvantaged compared to men in all measures of success, including representation in sci-fi and fantasy media? I don’t know why they are doing this.

Remember back to May 2015. Mad Max: Fury Road was released to near universal acclaim. And for good reason: I think the movie is every bit as awesome as people say. One of the most surprising aspects of the film was the depth of the female co-lead Furiosa, who was proclaimed as a feminist hero. Women media critics everywhere praised Furiosa. They spoke of her in the same prophetic tones now reserved for Rey: we finally have the female action hero we’ve been waiting for!

So what happened between the release of Fury Road and the Force Awakens? Did equality take a step back in six months? Of course not. They’ve simply forgotten their own history of progress.

The evidence for game-changing female characters goes back decades. For a useful point of comparison (not that this character was the game changer, but simply a game-changer long before Rey), look at Sarah Connor from the Terminator series. Released in 1984, the Terminator gave audiences a very strong character in Sarah Connor. She’s an everyday woman, down on her luck, but through her strength and courage, she faces and triumphs over a robotic threat.

In 1991, we return to Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. She’s gotten even stronger, and she has a conviction that the world is ending, even though nobody believes her. Integral to Sarah’s identity is her status as a mother, something that should not be overlooked.

Some feminists believe that having a female action hero who simply beats up a lot of people isn’t enough, and is actually sexist. That’s the argument Celina Durgin makes in the National Review about the new Supergirl TV show. A female character who is simply strong is just a male character in female clothing. That essence that makes women different than men is lost.

For Sarah Connor, her femininity is tied to motherhood; she’s the protector of John Connor, the leader of the resistance against the machines. But she’s also a herald and prophet of the end-times, doing anything she can to prevent the machines becoming self-aware.

She’s was game-changing feminist hero—30 years before Rey graced the silver screen.

To conclude, Rey is an excellent character and a worthy addition to not only the Star Wars pantheon of heroes, but the pantheon of sci-fi and fantasy heroines. Critics could do well to remember the long, transformative history of female characters in sci-fi and fantasy media because Rey is hardly breaking new ground.

~Dennis

Theatre Review: Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom

In 2014 I saw a play about video games entitled Leveling Up. In 2015 I saw my second play about video games: Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom. The play is by Jennifer Haley and was performed by the Bloomsburg University Players. As in Leveling Up, this play examines the dichotomy between fantasy and reality, and ultimately concludes that video games can dangerously warp one’s sense of reality.

This post is not a review of this specific run of the play—the performances of the actors, the set design, the costumes—but rather, an analysis of the themes conveyed by this work. I’ll also be making comparisons to my review of Leveling Up, since both plays cover much the same territory.

Spoilers abound in this post!

A suburban neighborhood dripping with blood

Cover of the Neighborhood 3 playbill

Synopsis

The story follows the lives of several teenagers and their parents. The teens are into the latest video game, Neighborhood 3, a zombie killing game. The hook in Neighborhood 3 is that the game uses GPS to recreate a person’s neighborhood in-game. When the kids go house to house in the game, they are exploring their own neighborhood, protecting their own houses.

The families live in an affluent suburban neighborhood. The parents are largely clueless about what their kids are doing after school, but are concerned nonetheless. Whenever the parents attempt to talk to the kids about their excessive gameplay, the kids blow them off, whine, or run away.

As the kids get more into the game, buzz starts to grow about the so-called “final house.” Some kids are too scared to enter, and quit playing the game. Others, though, press on. The kids collect a variety of weapons, either in-game or in real-life. By the third act of the play, it starts to become unclear when the actors are “in-game” or “in real life,” reflecting how the teens’ dual realities are merging.

It’s never clearly stated, but it seems like the “final house” is each kid’s own  house. In-game, the kids must enter their own house and kill the zombies. But because the kids are getting their realities mixed up, they end up killing their parents.

The play ends after one kid in particular kills his mother after she harasses him all night to get off the game.

Fantasy vs. Reality, redux

After rereading my analysis of Leveling Up, I think I could largely repost what I wrote for that play here. N3 is strongest in the beginning, when it shows how faulty the artificial division of “fantasy” and “reality” is. As for the kids, they spend hours playing this game, which to an outsider, might look like a waste of time. But they are socializing and bonding with each other and forming friendships (and in one case, possibly a romantic relationship).

Do they spend a lot of time on the game? Sure. But this seems like a game that has a definite end, and some of the kids realize they are playing it too much. The kids are caught up in a fad. It’s unclear whether it lasts a week, two weeks, or more, but the fad grows and then fades rather quickly. The kids are ultimately engaging in harmless, if fantastical, fun.

While the parents do not understand the fantasy of the game, they are caught up in their own fantasy. They live in perfect suburbia, where every house looks the same and homeowners’ associations fault anybody who steps outside the lawn care guidelines. One of the parents, a judge, is an alcoholic, but some of the characters, particularly the judge’s wife, are too dumb to confront him about it, maintaining the facade of his fantasy life.

The parents are also under the delusion that they have control over their kids. They send their kids to fancy schools that require uniforms, and they try to set boundaries on when they must be home. And yet whatever control they think they have over their kids evaporates as soon as the kids step into the virtual world, where they can do anything.

Leveling Up, in the first half, covered these same themes. That play was also strongest when it pointed out that real life can be fantasy, and video games can be reality.

Like in Leveling Up, Haley comes to largely the same conclusion by the end of N3: the fantasy of video games is worse than the fantasy of real life, and the fantasy is so compelling that it can drive people to murder.

A fundamental question about video games?

I’m not sure if Haley, or Deborah Zoe Laufer (the playwright behind Leveling Up), are gamers. Based on the way the characters in both plays talk about games, and the way the games are conveyed, it seems like the playwrights aren’t exactly enthusiasts of the medium: the characterizations feel close to reality, but off. It seems, though, that for some people (mostly outsiders to the medium) the fundamental question to explore about video games is: what’s the line between fantasy and reality?

For the past three decades, movies and television shows have asked about this line in some form or another. Tron (1982) and WarGames (1983) ask these questions. In QuestWorld, seen in The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest (1996), sometimes the characters get trapped in the virtual world. The Matrix trilogy showed us that virtual worlds can be more real than the real world. In Sword Art Online (2009) the same ideas from QuestWorld are revisited on a grander scale. All of these stories examine these issues much more effectively than Leveling Up or N3.

As a lifelong gamer, I’m not sure if these are the most interesting questions for pop culture to ask about video games. To me, the line between fantasy and reality seems clear. I recognize the many realities of video games and the many fantasies of reality. In fact, the more I play video games, the line between the two becomes clearer, not blurrier.

And for the many gamer friends I have, it seems they know where that line is as well.

But to outsiders, perhaps this is not only the most interesting line of questions to ask, but also the most vital. After all, how can somebody who spends hours killing something in a virtual world not be affected by it? How can video games not teach people how to kill and destroy? This line of questioning isn’t a casual one either. As a mass communication researcher, I am well-versed in the line of research investigating the effects of video games, particularly in the area of violence. For some, it’s clear that video games do influence people to be violent.

But as somebody with a PhD in mass communication, who’s looked at these research reports, I find the evidence the people get the lines between video games and reality confused shoddy, weak, and overextended.

A better question

This isn’t to say that pop culture shouldn’t explore these issues of fantasy and reality in video games. For some people, these are important questions to ask. But as a gamer, plays like Leveling Up and Neighborhood 3 are asking level 1 questions about fantasy and reality. And the conclusion to that level is this: yes, virtual worlds can be both real and fake, just as the physical world is both real and fake.

Next question, next level, please.

So what are the level 2, the level 3, and the level 4 questions about video games? I don’t have a solid answer yet, but I’ll share with you some thoughts. I think these storytellers, regardless of the medium, are onto something exploring fantasy and reality. It’s just like how all robot stories are essentially about the same thing: what if robots become sentient? What if robots come alive? Can robots become human?

As a lover of fantasy media, and a writer of fantasy stories myself, I have a huge personal stake in the theory of fantasy. For me, fantasy media (and I’m using fantasy very broadly here to mean created works, regardless of whether they feature swords and dragons and magic) are about showing us new worlds. Fantasy stories take readers, viewers, and players to new worlds, and allow them to explore.

One should not engage a fantasy world out of dissatisfaction with “the real world.” Fantasy helps people like me understand the real world better.

Neighborhood 3 sounds like a compelling game, if it were real. Is it really so creepy to have a game where you run around a virtual simulacrum of your own neighborhood, shooting zombies out of your house and the houses of your neighbors? My brother and I did the same thing when we were kids, only in “the real world.” Our backyard and side lot became dozens of different worlds. The playground at school was a multitude of worlds. Fantasy allowed me to see these spaces in many different ways, to see the possibilities of what they could be.

So let’s move past stories that ask level 1 questions about the line between fantasy and reality in video games. Let’s create stories (fantasies) about video games that show the depths of virtual worlds, how virtual worlds can be mapped many times over onto “the real world,” not in an effort to hide the real world, but to expand it.

~Dennis

According to Anita Sarkeesian, fantasy should reflect reality…except when it shouldn’t

Feminist Frequency began broadening its video game-related content last month by releasing video reviews of popular games. So far they’ve reviewed Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and Rise of the Tomb Raider, particularly because both games made strides in their respective series by including more feminist-friendly female characters.

As far as video game reviews go, I don’t really have a problem with either. The reviewers (Sarkeesian for Syndicate, and Carolyn Petit for Tomb Raider) provide fair analyses of the games, though they are more concerned about the narrative and story than gameplay. Some day I’d like to play RotTR, but I’ve never had any desire to play an AC game.

This post, then, is not so much a critique of these individual game reviews. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that Sarkeesian provides a lot of material for my posts (partly because she refuses to engage in dialogue on her own social media spaces). Rather, this post is about an underlying idea espoused by Feminist Frequency. The idea was stated so elegantly in her ACS review and I want to unpack it here, because for all the Sarkeesian critics out there, it might explain where she’s coming from with her criticism.

The challenge of fantasies set in the past

Let’s begin by talking about fantasy works in general. The fantasy genre is easily my favorite in fiction, from books to comics to video games to movies to shows and more, fantasy brings me to worlds that open up my imagination and creativity.

However, I have always resisted the idea of fantasy as escape from reality. To me, I don’t want to escape reality, not even for a bit: I like reality just fine. Instead, fantasy that resonates shows me new ways of looking at reality. The world is a magical place, and in many ways, the world is more fantastical than any mental creation. To me, fantasy can illuminate my understanding of human nature by stripping away the trappings of the ordinary. Fantasy can be a metaphor for a better way of living.

As somebody who has written my own fantasy for years (nothing published yet, but hopefully someday!), I’ve often thought about the challenge of writing fantasy set in the past.

Some fantasy is set in the future (Star Wars) and some fantasy is set in the present (Harry Potter), but classically, fantasy has been set in the past. Sometimes fantasy reflects a past version of our own world (Lord of the Rings), while other times fantasy reflects a made-up world that, technologically and socially, is less developed than our present reality (Avatar: The Last Airbender).

Writing fantasy set in the past presents several obstacles, mostly in terms of how human relationships and societal norms are depicted. For example, if a fantasy story is set in the past, does that mean the story should depict a patriarchal system governed by kings and queens? Should racism be alive and present? Should men be the fighters and women the housewives? Should gay and lesbian characters be scorned?

On the one hand, having modern social relations in a fantasy set in the past can feel out of place. In the time of Middle-Earth, for instance, would gay hobbits be openly embraced by the citizens of the Shire? It seems unlikely.

But on the other hand, fantasy is not written for people living hundreds of years ago: it’s written for people in the present moment. Fantasy needs to speak to people where they are at now. If fantasy doesn’t resonate with a modern audience, then I’m afraid it might veer into escapism. And maybe that’s fine for some people, but it’s not for me.

This tension is seen in Peter Jackson’s dual trilogies on Middle-Earth. The Lord of the Rings was criticized by some audiences for having far too many male characters, and the female characters it did have were mostly relegate to support roles (save Eowyn). Many fans of LOTR defended the casting decisions, not only for being faithful to the books, but because “that’s how it was back then.” Men were the heroes, women stayed at home. It seems like that’s been the pattern in all human societies throughout history, right or wrong.

A few years pass, and the criticisms compound, and Jackson gets another crack at the fantasy bat with The Hobbit trilogy. Jackson wanted the movies to appeal to a wider audience, so he created a bad ass female warrior, Tauriel. She didn’t appear in the books, and was added to the movies specifically so make the cast slightly less male dominated (but only ever so slightly).

Many people contend Jackson didn’t go far enough in the inclusiveness department. Regardless, it’s clear he was willing to see fantasy not as a reflection of a bygone society, but rather as something that modern audiences could relate to.

“Realism is not really the goal”

Which brings us to Sarkeesian. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate takes place during the Industrial Revolution in London, England. The game scores many points with Sarkeesian for having a non-sexualized, capable female co-lead. She even praises the game for including an Indian character and a trans character:

Evie and Jacob’s allies also include Henry Green, a British Indian Assassin, and Ned Wynert, a successful thief who just happens to be a trans man and no one in the world thinks anything of it. These characters play supporting or minor roles but their inclusion is notable.

The AC series is rooted in historical fantasy. I’m sure the developers at Ubisoft take extensive liberties with the history, but they at least try to get the look and feel of the time periods accurate. And some people think they do very well on the architectural, and occasionally on the social, front.

Knowing this, when I heard Sarkeesian’s praise of an Indian and trans man, my initial thought was, “But wait! Society at that time wouldn’t have been so accepting of these people.” I’m sure players with more skin in the AC game than I have would think the same way.

However, Sarkeesian immediately justifies her praise by saying:

While it might seem “unrealistic” to imagine women, people of color and trans folks who are treated and respected as full human beings in 1868, realism is not really the goal in a game where Assassins and Templars have been waging a centuries’ old war over artifacts created by an ancient civilization, and where you can leap from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral into a pile of leaves and walk away unharmed. The inclusion of these characters works not because of realism but because of believability and internal consistency. That believability is a result of the developers’ conscious decision to make the presence of these characters normalized and respected by everyone else in the game.

Okay, now it makes sense. Sarkeesian is fine if the game isn’t “realistic” from a historical sense because she doesn’t care about the context of the past. She cares about the present. Because she wants the modern gamer to have an inclusive worldview, it’s acceptable, then, for a historical fantasy game to also have an inclusive worldview.

So far, I have no criticisms for Sarkeesian. In fact, her distillation that “realism” doesn’t make sense for fantasy games actually clears up something I’ve long suspected about her ideology. To her, it’s not so much that the historical context of the game doesn’t matter: instead, she doesn’t think the game’s context matters at all. The only thing that matters is the context of the real world.

And to Sarkeesian, the world is a dangerous place for women, and media can make it a better place by showing us a fantasy of a better world, an idealized world.

To some extent, I’m sympathetic with this viewpoint. As a lover of fantasy, I find that the works that best connect with me are those that speak to my personal situation—which is to say, the modern context. My favorite television series of all time is Avatar: The Last Airbender, a show that Sarkeesian would likely sympathize with (she lists it on her Resources page, but she’s never discussed it as far as I know). The creators created a fantasy world set in the past technologically, but socially, it’s a very inclusive show. The show goes out of its way to present believable and inspiring heroes of both genders, all races, and in Korra, even alternative sexual identities.

If you remember back to her Damsel in Distress: Part 2 video, Sarkeesian briefly addressed a criticism of her analysis. In that series, she was talking about the way that female characters are made into “damsels” that have to be saved by male protagonists. She also talked about how violence against women is justified by the game’s narrative, which she thought didn’t matter in the wider context of violence against women:

Of course, if you look at any of these games in isolation, you will be able to find incidental narrative circumstances that can be used to explain away the inclusion of violence against women as a plot device. But just because a particular event might “makes sense” within the internal logic of a fictional narrative – that doesn’t, in and of itself justify its use. Games don’t exist in a vacuum and therefore can’t be divorced from the larger cultural context of the real world.

It’s especially troubling in-light of the serious real life epidemic of violence against women facing the female population on this planet.

Okay. At least she’s being consistent here. This ACS video review, then, clearly identifies the Sarkeesian approach to fantasy, and it is this: fantasy should reflect our present reality, not historical realities. A fantasy’s context cannot be separated from the context of our real world, and furthermore, the real world context takes precedence over the fantasy context if the two are ever in conflict.

When you formulate your own opinion on Sarkeesian’s work, keep her philosophy in mind. This is the ideology her criticisms are rooted in. This is how she prefers fantasy storylines be constructed. Right or wrong, this is what makes sense to her.

Except when it doesn’t.

“A noble and extraordinary goal”

Later in her review of ACS, she talks about the extensive amount of violence in the game, particularly how the violence is used to “save” Londoners from their captors:

The narrative presents all the ills plaguing the London of 1868 as a result of the evil Templars, and presents the solution to those ills as killing lots and lots of people. Fighting to liberate the oppressed working classes of London would, in reality, be a noble and extraordinary goal, but reducing such an important issue to an excuse for violent AAA game mechanics does little more than trivialize it. Freeing child laborers in each district is as simple as following signs that say “KILL” and “FREE” on the heads of targets. And for all of the Frye twins’ charms and good intentions, they are outsiders taking over a struggle that they have no part of. The game presents them as liberators freeing London from oppression, but they’re really just conquerors, replacing one crime syndicate’s rule with another’s.

Now Sarkeesian is critical of the game for not reflecting the historical past appropriately. She supports the goal of liberating the oppressed, but says that the game “trivializes” this issue.

She doesn’t really offer any solutions for how the game should address the oppressed working classes, other than that killing shouldn’t be part of the solution. And her criticism that the game clearly identifies who to kill and who to free suggests that she wants shades of gray in the game. Beyond this, I’m not sure exactly how she thinks the issue should be addressed. She just wants the game to be more responsible with its history.

But maybe this isn’t a contradiction in her ideology at all. Maybe she wants the game to bend history even more to make a statement not about the oppressed working classes on 19th Century London, but wants the game to make a statement about modern day oppression. If so, I’m really not sure how that would be accomplished.

Which modern day oppression should the game address? Child workers in China? Trafficked sex slaves in America? Oppression of women and Christians in certain states of the Middle East?

For all my sympathies in making historical fantasy reflective of the present situation, this is where that ideology breaks down. If you divorce a fantasy world entirely from its context, and try to instead force the present context on it, you lose something both in the storytelling AND the message. A work of fantasy that doesn’t engage with its past at all risks becoming an allegory like Animal Farm. And if you’re going to venture into allegory territory, why be esoteric about your intentions? Why not strip away the allegory and make a modern critique?

Game on,
~Dennis

Theatre Review: Leveling Up, a Play about Video Games

Three 20-something dudes live in an apartment and spend all day playing video games, occasionally joined by their bubbly girl friend. The best gamer of the lot, Ian, takes a job with the NSA involving assassination drones, but can he separate reality from fantasy? This is the question playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer returns to throughout the 90-minute production of Leveling Up.

I saw this play back in March at the Hippodrome Theatre in Gainesville, Fla. This post is not so much a review of this specific run of the play (I’m not really that into theatre so I don’t have the vocabulary to convey what makes one performance of a script better than another), but this post is rather an analysis of the mixed messages present in Leveling Up.

Spoilers full-steam ahead!

Synopsis

The story is centered on four characters, each a different type of gamer. Ian is a professional gamer and spends the majority of his day playing MMORPGs. He gathers high-level loot and sells it online for fat stacks of cash. Chuck is a blackjack dealer in Vegas and plays games competently. He’s calm and easygoing, but spends all his free time in-game. Zander is a loud, crass, frat-boy-esque freeloader who doesn’t pay rent and plays games casually but not with any real skill. Finally, Zander’s girlfriend Jeannie is the most “normal” (and I say that because I think she’s intended to be the character we relate the most to) and is currently finishing up an undergraduate program in psychology. She plays games with the boys but likely doesn’t engage with the hobby outside of their company.

The beginning of the play establishes quite clearly that these three guys are supposed to be losers who spend all day playing “fake” games. They don’t have much of a future, and Jeannie constantly presses them to do something with their lives. Conflict is initiated when Zander logs into Ian’s MMO account (apparently Ian shared his password with him) and sells some fancy item on eBay for $12,000. Ian flips out because that item is actually worth $30,000+. Zander pays Ian $10,000, keeping $2,000 for himself, but promises that he’ll pay Ian back. Yeah right.

While the friends make fun of Ian’s career, he retorts that Zander has nothing going for him as he is without a job and Ian pays his share of the rent. Zander promises that he can get a job.

Zander eventually gets a job selling some sort of health supplement, but before he can get the product he has to sign-up five other people and charge them a deposit. The other friends clearly see that this business opportunity is a pyramid scheme, but Zander refuses to hear them out. Ian, too, wants to show that he can get a “real” job. His gaming abilities are recognized by the NSA, who hire him to work for their drone program.

With this set-up, the story follows these four individuals over the course of several weeks, and we watch the ups and downs of their careers. Ian explains to his friends that he doesn’t know if the drone missions he conducts are real or not. Half the time they are simulated so that the soldiers don’t know if they are actually killing people. Initially this provides him some solace, but as the story progresses, Ian becomes destabilized when he can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

Zander eventually gets the money for his business scheme from Jeannie’s college friends, but as soon as he turns it in to the company, the company ditches town and he never hears from them again.

The play also has a romantic subplot involving Jeannie and the three guys. Zander is her boyfriend, but Chuck and Ian like her too. Chuck and Jeannie engage in some cyber-sex-like activities in an online game, which they both feel guilty about. Ian, once he’s descended into mental instability, assaults Jeannie and practically throttles her on the couch.

Eventually, the boys decide to put their games behind them. The play ends when they “go outside” for a burger.

Fantasy vs. Reality

Leveling Up is strongest when it explores the false dichotomy of fantasy vs. reality. In both the play and in contemporary American society, games and virtual realities are seen as “fake” and life outside of the game is considered “real.” Not only is the physical world privileged as “the real world,” but it is assumed to be more important than anything that happens through a computer screen. Leveling Up begins by reinforcing this split between realms, but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that life in the real world can be fake, and life in the digital world can be real.

For example, in the beginning of the play, Ian’s friends make fun of him for spending all his time playing MMORPGs. He says, though, that he’s not just playing with virtual characters, but that there are people on the other side of the screen, real friends with whom he has connections. He knows these friends very well, and he says that these friends count on him to be in-game to complete group missions. These friendships yield real benefits for Ian; he makes his living playing these games with them.

Contrast these digital friendships to his friendship with his roommate Zander. Ian and Zander might occupy a physical space, but they aren’t exactly close friends anymore (it is suggested that they were better friends at one time). While Ian can count on his digital friends to show up to work on time, he cannot count on Zander to even pay rent.

The cyber sex scene between Chuck and Jeannie also reinforces the idea that things that happen in the digital realm are real. Chuck introduces Jeannie to a Second Life/Sims-like game where they design their own characters, create lives for them, and dress them up. Chuck dresses Jeannie’s character up in something risque, which Jeannie is uncomfortable with, but Chuck insists that it is not Jeannie wearing those hooker boots, but “Daphne,” her character.

After her character is dressed, Jeannie begins playing the game with Chuck. Jeannie tries talking to Chuck verbally about the game, but he insists she type everything out with the keyboard. That’s how her in-game character talks to Chuck’s in-game character. As there is no computer screen for the audience to look at, the audience has to imagine what exactly the characters are doing. It’s heavily suggested that Chuck’s character is trying to put the moves on Jeannie’s character. At first Jeannie feels conflicted about this, as she does have a boyfriend and this feels a little like cheating, but Chuck convinces her it’s “just a game.” The two friends type away furiously at their keyboard, all the while getting sexually stimulated by whatever their characters are doing in-game.

Eventually the roommates return and Chuck and Jeannie hide their keyboards and turn the game off, instantly feeling guilty. Some days later, Chuck and Jeannie talk about the incident and both feel guilty about it. Even though Chuck and Jeannie did not “do” anything with each other “in real life,” their in-game characters engaged in something approximating cheating. Even though it’s “just a game,” the two know that they crossed a line.

In several ways, then, Leveling Up shows that things that happen in-game are in fact very real and have real consequences. These scenes are brilliantly contrasted with Zander’s storyline involving his pyramid scheme. Zander is selling a real physical product from a real company, and he recruits real people to give him real money to buy into the scheme. No part of this storyline takes place inside a video game. And yet, when it is revealed that the company was indeed a sham by snookering Zander, Laufer once again turns the fantasy/reality dichotomy on its head by showing that things that happen in the “real world” can in fact be very fake and false.

But Laufer undercuts her own message

The first two-thirds of the play expertly examined the realness of fantasy and the falseness of reality, while also showing that virtual worlds sometimes are just fantasy and sometimes the real world is more important (like when you need money to eat). I had a lot of sympathy for all the characters, and thought that if these people were real I might even be friends with them. I am not at all bothered by the amount of games Ian, Chuck, and Zander play, nor do I find their behavior and lifestyle immature and childish. But that’s not the impression I got from Leveling Up. By the last third of the play, it seems that the playwright really believes that these boys are immature and does everything in her power to undercut their storylines.

As mentioned, Ian is involved in a drone assassination program (he verifies target coordinates or something). We barely see him at the job before he has a mental breakdown. He doesn’t know if the people he’s helping to kill are actually real or not, but after some time working for the NSA, he assumes that at least some of those missions had to be real, and he must be somehow complicit in the deaths of others, including civilians. At this point Laufer seems to be saying to the audience, “See! I told you video games were bad and now look what’s happened! Ian is a wreck because his view of reality is dangerously skewed.”

But is that really how it would happen? Maybe. But the gamers I know are all very much grounded in reality. While some people can get addicted to video games, Ian doesn’t seem to exhibit those symptoms. Yes, he plays a lot of games, but he’s playing for a purpose. He’s making money off those games. I wouldn’t call him addicted in the same way I would’ve call a professional athlete addicted to exercise just because they spend their career exercising all day.

The end of the play is by far the most baffling and contradicts the message of the first part completely. As I said, Laufer did an excellent job showing how the fantasy/reality dichotomy is too simplistic, and yet by the end, she seems to be saying, “But seriously, the real world is still more important than the fantasy world.” Ian quits his job at the NSA and is once again grounded in reality. Zander gets some sort of job, I can’t remember what. Jeannie finishes school, and when Chuck asks if she wants to play that Second Life game again, she’s like, “No, that’s alright. I don’t really do that anymore.” She makes it sound like either a huge period of time has passed or she really got over that gaming fad fast.

By the end, she invites the boys to leave the apartment and have real food, a real burger, in a real restaurant. The play finishes when the characters go outside (even though it’s been shown countless times that they do leave the apartment for work and school). Chuck looks over their basement gaming hole smugly, as if thinking to himself, “Now we’ve outgrown all these games. Time to get busy living in the real world.”

But what’s so wrong with games? Why did the characters have to abandon their hobby, and in Ian’s case, his livelihood?

How do non-gamers perceive this play?

That’s one question I asked myself over and over again as I watched this. In the showing I attended there were about 100 people in the audience, and maybe only 20 were college-aged. More than half were senior citizens (maybe loyal theatre patrons?). When they look at these characters and the way they play games, do they sympathize with them like I do? Or do they judge them as worthless young kids who really are wasting their lives with these games? Did the non-gamers in the audience leave with a newfound appreciation for gamer culture? Of course I have no way of knowing, but considering the play’s “moral,” I have a suspicion that for some people this play reinforced negative stereotypes they held toward gamers.

Just for comparison’s sake, I looked up a couple reviews of the play by others in Gainesville who had seen it. I have no idea who these writers are and what their relation is to video games, if any, by the way they describe these characters confirms that at least some people left this play holding negative stereotypes about gamers (emphasis added):

  • “Make no mistake. The Hippodrome Theatre’s new production of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s ‘Leveling Up’ is not an onstage episode of ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ Rather it is a tragicomedy that will put you in stitches and then make you feel a bit tacky for having laughed at these wretched descendants of Peter Pan’s lost boys.” (Cunningham)
  • “That Ian’s ‘people’ are mostly the disembodied voices of other gamers he interacts with in his virtual wars seems irrelevant until he takes the NSA job, becomes a drone operator …” (Cunningham)
  • “The Hippodrome Theater’s second play of 2014 transports you into a three-bedroom apartment where the only guiding light appears to be that emanating from a television.  And that is fine with the three young roommates — video gamers who stare at the TV endlessly, with a zombie-like existence for endless hours. (Sanford)

In the end, Leveling Up began as a great and much needed look at the differences between fantasy and reality, and the inherent contradictions in both, yet ends with a halfhearted attack on the value of gaming and a defense of “real life.” I am glad I saw the play, but the play’s execution reveals that society still has a ways to go before gamers aren’t automatically judged as mindless zombies disconnected from the real world.

~Dennis