Critique of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Strategic Butt Coverings” video

Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency fame is back for Season 2 of the polarizing “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series with the release of “Strategic Butt Coverings.” Sarkeesian is retooling the series, in part due to the mental abuse of her critics and the physical toll this project has taken on her body. Though I disagree with most everything Sarkeesian espouses, I certainly don’t wish ill on her as a person. She’s had a busy couple years with the Tropes series, so the newer, shorter videos are a welcome change of pace.

In this video, Sarkeesian compares how the butts of female and male characters are depicted differently in video games. In short, games tend to emphasize the assets of female characters, but not male characters. Instead, designers employ a variety of visual design tricks to deemphasize male butts as much as possible, even in games that provide a third-person view of the character.

She uses a couple dozen examples to show the double standard, though admits that not all video game characters are treated this way:

Of course, not all games with male protagonists keep the character’s butt obscured or out of frame like these games do. The real issue is one of emphasis and definition; a significant portion of third-person games with female protagonists call attention to those characters’ butts in a way that’s meant to be sexually appealing to the presumed straight male player.

As far as her observations go, Sarkeesian showed me some things that I wasn’t aware of. Certainly female butts are emphasized in many video games: this wasn’t a surprise to me. I’m not interested in countering this argument with examples of non-sexualized female characters, like Princesses Peach, Daisy, or Zelda. Her examples from Arkham Knight and Gears of War of how designers will go to great lengths to hide male butts are illuminating.

What bothers me, however, are the implications of Sarkeesian’s brand of feminism as it relates to the bodies of real men and women. But before I get to that, watch her video: it’s a short one.

Getting to know a character

Sarkeesian opens the video with a very provocative assumption of game designers’ motives:

If you want to get to know a character, learn about their interests, goals, or desires, their butt is probably not going to give you that information. It won’t tell you much about who they are, or what they’re thinking or feeling at any given time. But video game designers often choose to put tremendous focus on the butts of certain characters, while going to almost absurd lengths to avoid calling attention to the butts of others.

Her opening is so full of hyperbole that I found myself laughing. In Sarkeesian’s view, female butts are the primary way designers want us to engage with a female character. Designers care more about the woman’s butt than anything else.

But if that were the case, why do games like Bayonetta and Tomb Raider have such lengthy plot lines and cutscenes? Do players really reduce female characters to their butts?

According to Sarkeesian, if a character has an attractive butt, then the player is somehow compelled to see the character solely through her asset, as if the butt is the lens by which players actually understand female characters.

Her hyperbolic outrage is a strawman, and made me think of this wonderful, off-color comic copyright Nathan Bulmer:

Man checks out a girl's butt

Modeling real-life fashion

Like I said in the intro, I can’t really argue with Sarkeesian’s observations. She says of Catwoman:

In Batman: Arkham City for instance, the player’s gaze is drawn to Catwoman’s behind, which is emphasized by her costume and exaggerated hip sway.

Then later says of male characters:

There are a few examples of male protagonists who are wearing clothing that calls attention to their butts but for the most part, men’s butts, even when visible in the frame, are deemphasized. Plenty of male heroes wear baggy pants or jeans…

And here is where Sarkeesian’s argument diverges from reality. Yes, digital artists design the butts of female and male characters differently. But if you think about the male and female sexes, aren’t there biological differences between the two? On a whole, on average? Women’s bodies tend to be shaped differently than men’s bodies.

Not exclusively, of course. But women’s bodies tend to have a higher percentage of fat than male bodies. And women, I think, have much more variability in their shapes, from hip size to bust size to hip-to-chest ratio to hip-to-waist ratio and waist-to-chest ratio. I think one reason women tend to spend more time looking for clothes than men is that they are almost forced to: their bodies have much more variability, and what fits one woman might not fit another woman. And because women have to hunt harder for properly fitting clothes, they naturally are going to know more about fashion than the average man.

After all, just think of one of the biggest changes a woman’s body can undergo: pregnancy. A woman’s body shape will change many times over the course of nine months, and after the baby is born, her new body will likely be different than her old body.

I don’t think it’s out-of-line, then, to point out that men and women, biologically, have different body shapes.

What also contributes, though, to the “double-standard” in how female and male butts are depicted are the real fashion choices of real women. Women often wear clothes, in real life, that emphasizes their rear end.

I’ve been on college campuses for 12 years now, in many different parts of the country, both as a student and a professor. I’ve seen thousands of young women. All generalizations fall apart on some level; all students, male and female, display great diversity in their fashion choices.

That said, there are several fashion trends of young women that emphasize their butts. Many students wear yoga pants or black leggings-as-pants. I’m not here to condemn them or support them for their fashion choices: I’m just making an observation. And while they might wear yoga pants or leggings because they are “comfy”, these garments are tight and they do emphasize the exact shape of a woman’s butt, jiggles and all.

Women sometimes where designer jeans that have sparkly rhinestone hearts plastered on the back pockets. Women athletes wear sweatpants with their last names emblazoned across the butt. They wear short shorts that show off not only the curves of their backside, but even their pelvis.

I lived in Florida for three years, and one fad that surprised me was the “under butt” style of shorts. Florida is hot, so naturally men and women don’t wear much clothing. And this was only a small minority of women, but some wore shorts so short that you could see the bottom curve of their butt cheeks.

Now, perhaps women are forced to show off their backsides because that’s the only kind of bottoms they are able to purchase in stores. After all, even women’s dress pants and skirts tend to be tight. But whatever shadowy forces are at work in society to shape women’s rears, wearing shorts that are so short that they show off a woman’s “under butt” is a conscious choice. Societal expectations of gender roles are not that controlling.

Sarkeesian says that men in video games tend to wear baggy clothes. That’s true in games, but that’s also true in real life. Whether men wear jeans, shorts, or dress pants (about the only three options men have for bottoms, compared to the multitude of choices for women), these garments tend to be baggy. Let me offer one possible explanation why men’s bottom garments are baggier: men have external genitalia, genitalia that can often change shape and size throughout the day, so men want more freedom in their clothes, not less.

(Discounting, of course, the minority of men who favor skinny jeans—that fashion seems so uncomfortable to me.)

To bring this long tangent to a close, I think many digital artists are simply modeling reality. They design male and female butts differently because 1) male and female bodies are different, and 2) men and women’s fashion options are very different in real life.

Of course, games are fantasy spaces, and plenty of video games (and related anime and comic book series) have pushed the limits of fantasy fashion. In other words, games don’t have to model real-world fashion choices, as they often do not. But even fantasy games have a basis in reality. That’s why male and female characters in fantasy spaces tend to look like men and women in real life.

Who’s being disconnected from the character here?

Sarkeesian’s observations are accurate, but her point misses the mark. Why is it wrong if a female’s butt is depicted?

[T]he emphasis placed on the butts of female characters communicates to players that this is what’s important, this is what you should be paying attention to. It communicates that the character is a sexual object designed for players to look at and enjoy. And by explicitly encouraging you to ogle and objectify the character, the game is implicitly discouraging you from identifying directly with her. [emphasis added]

Sarkeesian gives too much credit to the power of butts. Perhaps well-crafted butts cause her to disengage from a female character, but they don’t do that for me. I recently conducted a research project in which I analyzed games with overly sexualized female characters. The games were the standard culprits—Tomb Raider, Bayonetta, Dead or Alive, and Lollipop Chainsaw.

I chose to analyze these games for a specific reason. These games are often criticized for how female characters are modeled—and usually that’s where the criticism starts and ends, with the character’s appearance. After all, it’s impossible to argue that a character like Bayonetta is not sexualized:

Bayonetta 2 Box

However, when I actually played Bayonetta, I realized that she, along with the game, actually had quite a bit of depth. Bayonetta’s certainly aware of her sexuality, but she’s not a whore. She has a “look, don’t touch” mentality. She flaunts her body, but doesn’t really tease the male characters with it. Her main pursuer, a male journalist, gets close to touching her from time to time, but doesn’t succeed. Nor does he see Bayonetta as a body to be conquered.

Bayonetta has a tricky past, and she wrestles with the darkness (she is a witch) but also the light: she helps people, and cares for those closest to her. She is strong, courageous, and capable. She’s not prone to negative emotions, and she’s rarely scared or sad. There’s even an undercurrent of motherhood throughout the game, as a little girl insists on calling Bayonetta “mommy” even though Bayonetta insists she is nothing of the sort.

I really enjoyed playing Bayonetta. And honestly? Once the action gets going, she moves so fast, and so much is happening on the screen, that there is often little time to “ogle” her body. Sarkeesian insists that the design of female butts reduces these characters to their butts, but I think she’s the one who is reducing female characters to their bodies.

Are costumes like Bayonetta’s over-the-top? Obviously, clearly, undoubtedly. On the other hand, look at how cool her costume design is. The diamonds going up her legs, the neon heel pistols, the silky hair tied up with charms, the frilly sleeves. And as I pointed out before, many women love cosplaying as these characters.

The emergent view of the body, according to Sarkeesian

I’ve studied Sarkeesian long enough that I’m starting to understand what her feminism is rooted in. Now, I’m making some assumptions here; even though her body of work is quite largely, I don’t know what she thinks about other feminist causes, such as abortion rights, equal pay, discrepancies in women’s health care, etc. It might be safe to assume she holds standard liberal, feminist views on women’s rights issues, but I don’t want to assume.

I also want to be careful about labeling her philosophy in language she has not used. After all, while I hold a high view of women and believe that women are just as capable and valuable as men, I would bristle at somebody labeling me a feminist. That’s because my support of women is fueled by a different philosophy (namely, Christianity) and is not fueled by the contemporary academic well of feminism.

All that said, Sarkeesian’s view of the body, particularly the female body, does remind me of two philosophies.

First, for all of her liberal leanings, Sarkeesian’s view of the female body is strangely conservative, even Puritan. I really do wonder what she thinks of women who consciously choose to dress provocatively, who choose to flaunt their bodies, who choose to embrace their sexuality. As I’ve said before, there are strains of feminism that celebrate the female body, even going as far to support women who make a career out of pornography.

Occasionally Sarkeesian will praise a video game that depicts females “correctly.” And these women are usually covered up and have small chests and flat butts. Her conservative leanings on the female body get dangerously close to “body shaming,” the act of criticizing women not only for their fashion choices, but even the very shapes of their bodies, which are often out of their control.

When I think of the female college students I work with on a daily basis, most of them are thin. And body shapes vary dramatically in all the areas I’ve already enumerated. So when Sarkeesian criticizes somebody like Lara Croft for having the perfect, rounded butt, I wonder: what does she think about actual women with that same rear-end shape? What does she think of women who also wear tight shorts, just like Croft?

Every week I see women joggers run by my house in tight shorts and sports bras. Lara Croft is similarly athletic, climbing the ruins of ancient civilizations, often in places like jungles and tropical islands. In a way, her tight clothing is appropriate for the athletic feats she performs.

Second, a related philosophy, going all the way back to ancient societies, is mind-body dualism. This philosophy exists in many forms, and even early forms of Christianity (as well as other religions) have embraced this philosophy. It’s really hard to gloss over dualism, but essentially, dualists see the mind and body as completely separate entities.

And usually, dualists see the body as lesser than the mind. The body is a flawed, imperfect vessel for the mind. For example, in the Christian heresy of Gnosticism, the flesh is seen as wholly separate from the mind. Even farther, the flesh is seen as sinful and corrupted: the body is a prison that our souls need to escape from.

Certainly Sarkeesian is not Gnostic. But she seems to have some disdain for the female body. She says in this video:

Third-person games with female protagonists typically display those characters in a way that gives players a full-body view. A classic example of this is the original Tomb Raider games, which are presented from a third-person perspective wherein protagonist Lara Croft’s entire body is visible. In these early Tomb Raider games, Lara’s butt is typically right in the center of the screen…

I’m not sure what’s so offensive about her observation. Most video games feature a third-person view, the entire body of the character visible. This camera orientation goes back 30+ years to the days of Donkey Kong. Now, those who have played 3D third-person games know that the camera can often be adjusted on the fly. The camera might default so that the center of the person is in the middle of the screen, but the camera can also take many other positions.

And is it really so offensive that the butt is in the middle of the screen? If not the butt, then what part of the body? If it was the character’s head, would Sarkeesian be arguing that the camera supports a fetishization of the female head? The butt is roughly in the middle of the body: legs are below, torso is above.

This very practical camera orientation has nothing to do with butts. By this logic, the 2D platforming games also fetishize Mario’s butt. When Mario eats a Super Mushroom, he’s two squares tall: the bottom square is his legs and butt; the top square is his torso and head.

Super Mario World screenshot

Learning from a character’s appearance

To go back to Sarkeesian’s opening statement: I agree, you can’t learn anything about a character’s interests, goals, or desires by looking at their butt. But does that mean you can’t learn anything at all about them based on their physical appearance? Does not the entirety of their physical appearance tell the player something about who they are? Body shapes and clothing choices can tell us what drives a character, how they take care of themselves, even how they see themselves.

This is why I bring up dualism. Sarkeesian seemingly wants a world in which characters have no sexuality, dress plainly, have square, flat bodies, and do not let their body dictate anything about who they are. She ends her video by saying:

So to be clear, the solution here is not to simply show more butts of male characters. Equal opportunity butt display is definitely not the answer. Rather, the solution is to deemphasize the rear ends of female characters … This is not an impossible task given that game designers do this all the time with their male characters. It’s time they started consistently doing it with their female characters, too.

The rear ends of female characters should be deemphasized, should be depicted in the same hidden, shadowy ways that male butts are depicted. No butts for anybody!

Just as a person who shows up to a job interview in a suit versus somebody who choose up in jeans tells us something about the person, a video game character who wears tight clothes tells us something about who they are, and a character who wears baggy clothes tells us something as well.

Before playing Dead or Alive, all I’d ever heard was that the game oversexualized female characters, especially in the chest area. Each character has a range of costumes, and when you mix in DLC, you can get teeny tiny lingerie and bathing suit costumes for all the female characters.

However, the default costumes do tell us something about the female characters. Body shape and fashion choices matter. They aren’t a distraction, or objectification, as Sarkeesian believes. Just look at the range of DoA female characters. If you’ve played the game, you’re already familiar with who these characters are.

If not, tell me if you can’t figure out, at least a little, who these characters are, based on their dress:

Dead or Alive 5: Hitomi

Dead or Alive 5: Kokoro

Dead or Alive 5: Leifang

Dead or Alive 5: Lisa

Dead or Alive 5: Mila

Dead or Alive 5: Sarah

Dead or Alive 5: Tina

On some level, it’s the responsibility of every player to figure out what kind of characters they like, and which they don’t. Sarkeesian bemoans that she can’t identify with female characters, but insists that we should be able to identify with them as people. Yet she also argues that characters are designed by people, that they are not independent creations, that they are subjugated by game developers. She views female characters as being autonomous, though objectified, beings who are at the same time lacking in agency.

It’s becoming clear to me that Sarkeesian holds the female body in low regard, and believes that who a person is should be divorced from the form of their body. That’s not to say that a character’s personhood is wholly determined by the shape of their body. But there can be a middle ground: a character’s personhood and body are both important.

I’ll wrap up my thoughts on the matter for now: my analysis is 3+ times the word count of Sarkeesian’s video. At the very least, her views are generative of much discussion.

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

The Role of Graphics in Video Games

When it comes to video game graphics, I’m generally of the school of thought that while graphics are nice, they aren’t the most important part of a video game. I can appreciate a beautiful game when I see one, but I’m no “graphics snob,” obsessed with having the most powerful PC or the latest generation consoles the moment they are released.

Gameplay comes first, I’ve always thought. That’s why I can still appreciate games like Super Mario Bros. (1985), the Legend of Zelda (1986), Super Mario World (1990), Final Fantasy VI (1994) and Zombies Ate My Neighbors (1993), even though these graphics are “outdated” by today’s standards. Even modern games designed to have a “retro” look take certain liberties with their graphics, doing things that actual mid-1980s and early-1990s games weren’t capable of (for example, check out this fantastic explanation of the graphics created for Shovel Knight).

But then, I saw the five-part series on video game graphics by YouTuber Ahoy titled A Brief History of Graphics. In this series, Ahoy charts the evolution of video game graphics, from the earliest games to today’s 3D masterpieces.

As I watched, my view on graphics started to evolve. Maybe graphics aren’t purely aesthetic touches, as I’ve often believed. Ahoy begins the first video by saying, “They say graphics aren’t important. But every game I’ve ever played has had them.”

After watching the series, I crafted three theses about graphics: graphics must not hamper the gameplay experience; graphics should expand gameplay possibilities; and graphics should be aesthetically pleasing only after the first two conditions are met.

The videos have been embedded at the bottom of this post for ease of reference. If you’d like to watch them first before I expand on my theses, feel free to scroll down.

Thesis 1: Graphics Must Not Hamper the Gameplay Experience

Obviously graphics are needed to some degree in video games. Without any graphics, we’d only have games, not “video” games. The lowest threshold that games need to cross is having functional, utilitarian graphics. Can we at least see the characters? Does the game operate without crashing? Does the game accurately detect when we hit enemies? Does the game run at a consistent speed?

Most games meet these minimum guidelines, but there are a surprising number of games throughout history that are “broken,” not because the concept didn’t work (though there are examples of those games as well), but because the graphics are so poor that the game is frustrating to play at best, and impossible to play at worst.

I remember playing many NES games where the graphics negatively detracted from the game. Human characters looked monstrous and grotesque. Backgrounds were muddy. Projectiles launched from weapons disappeared and then reappeared when you least expected them to.

In the early days of 3D graphics, the mid-1990s, it wasn’t uncommon for polygonal characters to walk through walls that should be solid, or fall through floors, or fly over the edge of the map, only to see an eternal expanse.

One of the most famous “broken” games due to graphics was the Pac-Man port for the Atari 2600. You probably know what the arcade version of Pac-Man looks like: little round yellow ball, eating white pellets and colored ghosts, navigating a blue and black maze. A simple game, sure, but at the time it had some of the best (and smoothest) graphics in arcade games.

The game was ported to the Atari 2600, bringing the title into the homes of millions. However, due to the limitations of the Atari, the game didn’t look like the arcade. See the video below for gameplay footage:

Not only are the colors all wrong, but the worst part is the flickering ghosts. The reason the ghosts flicker is that the Atari wasn’t powerful enough to draw all the objects on the screen at the same time. Four moving ghosts was too much for the processor to handle. So two ghosts appear in one frame, then the other two ghosts appear in the second frame, back and forth, back and forth.

I suppose the developers thought they were being clever, perhaps thinking that the ghosts would flicker so fast that your eye wouldn’t be able to tell that only two are on screen at once. But your eye can tell. And the game was a miserable commercial failure, mostly because the graphics severely hampered the gameplay experience.

Thesis 2: Graphics Should Expand Gameplay Possibilities

Let’s assume your game beats the very low threshold of unworkable graphics. The next challenge is to use graphics to expand gameplay possibilities. One observation that is very clear in A Brief History of Graphics is that with advances in graphics come new types of games. When side-scrolling was invented, more expansive games were possible. As game systems got more powerful, they could have more objects on the screen at once, leading to more intense racing and shooting games.

With the advent of 3D graphics, games offered players more directions of movement, no longer restricting them to the 2D plane.

Watching these videos, this is when I had my big revelation. The video games that are often heralded as advancing graphics are often more than just pretty images for the eye. The games that break new ground in graphics technology also offer fresh gameplay opportunities.

Consider the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) for the Nintendo 64. For the first time, Link adventured in a three-dimensional realm. The game was more than just a graphical upgrade of the existing Zelda formula. The third dimension added new challenges to Zelda. Now puzzles had to be thought through in three-dimensions. Link didn’t just push and pull blocks from left to right, but up and down as well.

Link’s weapons, most notably the arrow and hookshot, required movement across the third plane. If the player just ran around with his eyes level, he’d miss secrets, doors, or switches hidden high up or very low.

Or consider the evolution of first-person shooters. Some of the earliest examples, Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and Doom (1993), only allowed the player to shoot enemies along a horizontal axis. In Doom, while enemies might physically appear in a higher location than the player, the player couldn’t actually aim their gun at the enemy. They just needed to make sure the gun was lined up with the enemy vertically, and bam! Enemy gone.

But as FPSs got more sophisticated, so did aiming. Now players had a lot more control over where their shots were going, making the game more challenging.

Too many games, however, have awesome graphics that simply don’t expand gameplay possibilities. I own a Nintendo 3DS, but I never use the 3D feature, for example. Viewing a game in 3D doesn’t offer anything new in terms of gameplay. I’m not even sure it makes the games look better either, as the 3DS has to be held at a very specific angle otherwise you’ll see double images.

Many people say that Super Mario 3D Land (2011) and the Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (2013) do use the 3D effect successful for some puzzles. I think those claims are debatable. I played both games to completion without using the 3D effect and I got through just fine.

Of course, not every game can break new frontiers graphically. Not every game can have a major graphics innovation, such as side-scrolling or 3D movement. With each new breakthrough in graphics technology, it’s acceptable for games to have a period where they figure out how to exploit that technology to the fullest.

Thesis 3: Graphics Should be Aesthetically Pleasing Only After the First Two Conditions are Met

Finally, if a game’s graphics are both unbroken and they expand gameplay possibilities, then fine-tuning the graphics so they are as aesthetically pleasing as possible is acceptable. Graphics can set the mood for a game, and so adding stylistic flourishes is sometimes necessary to set the tone.

One of the most beautiful games that satisfies this third thesis is Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island for the SNES (1995). The game looks like it was drawn with crayons, which fits the more childlike, cutesy atmosphere. I’m sure Miyamoto’s team had to come up with some new graphical technology to achieve this effect. Yoshi’s Island certainly plays very differently than Super Mario World, but that’s due more to the design than the graphics, I think.

Still, working with established graphics technology (and limitations), Miyamoto’s team came up with a very beautiful game that sets it apart for all other games of that era.

If you aren’t familiar with the game, check out the gameplay video below:

When it comes to 3D games, I think developers have hit a plateau where graphics aren’t really adding anything new to the gameplay. I think this happened around the sixth generation of video game consoles (PS2, Xbox, and GameCube). The previous generation was the first generation with 3D graphics, and video games went through a lot of growing pains. Many of them couldn’t satisfy the first condition, let alone the second.

By the sixth generation, 3D games were bigger, making adventures like Grand Theft Auto III possible (2001). Recently I played through Kingdom Hearts II (2005) and was blown away by how good the graphics still looked. I know there’s an HD remaster of Kingdom Hearts II out now, and I’ll probably get it someday, but do the HD graphics really change or enhance how the game is played? Probably not.

One of my favorite games from the seventh generation was Final Fantasy XIII (2009), which I wrote about recently. The graphics are stunning, to be sure, but the same basic gameplay and story would’ve probably been possible on the PS2 and Xbox. Maybe the environments would’ve been a little smaller, and maybe there’d be a few less partial and light effects on the screen, but would that serious hurt the gameplay experience?

Because aesthetically pleasing graphics are now skipping over the second condition I outlined, I haven’t been as excited for the latest generation of consoles. What can the PS4 and Xbox One really do that their previous iterations couldn’t? Will the improved graphics on these systems really lead to new types of games? So far I’m skeptical.

I do have a Wii U, and I appreciate that Nintendo is at least trying new innovations, graphically, with the inclusion of the second screen. Nintendo’s previous console, the Wii, was starting to show its age graphically. The Wii had trouble creating large environments, such as the kind seen in the Grand Theft Auto titles. So the Wii didn’t have many games with massive overworlds. But is that a real loss?

The bigger a game gets, the more I feel lost. I heard somebody remark  once that Grand Theft Auto V is experienced more through the smartphone “map” display than from the actual graphics on the screen, at least when driving. The world is so big you have to use the map to set destination points, and from there, you follow the yellow line on the mini map to get to your destination, only seeing the beautiful cityscapes through your peripheral vision. The game is so big that such a mini map is needed, but at what cost?

Everybody is saying that the next big expansion of graphics will come with competent virtual reality. Perhaps. But I’m holding my breath for now.

In conclusions, graphics are important to video games, but they are most important when the second condition is met, when graphics expand gameplay possibilities. Aesthetically sophisticated games are nice, but if the graphics come at the expense of gameplay, then perhaps developers should invest more money and time in developing a solid game first before worrying about making it shiny and pretty.

Game on
~Dennis

A Brief History of Graphics





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

What Being a Gamer Means to Me

The word “gamer” often inspires a lot of discussion among video game aficionados. Sometimes the word is preceded by qualifiers, like “casual,” “hardcore,” or “serious.” Sometimes gamers are divided by their platform of choice: “PC gamers,” “console gamers,” or “mobile gamers.”

But what does this term “gamer” even mean?

Many have tried to answer this question in some form or another. Maybe it’s pointless to search for an all-encompassing definition. The takeaway from many of these discussions is often: game playing is too diverse to come up with a definition that fits everybody. And that’s true.

And yet, as unprofitable as labels often become, in my mind, I still categorize people I meet as gamers and non-gamers. Self-avowed gamers seem to be able to discriminate between gamers and people who simply play games. And while athletes like baseball players, football players, basketball players, and volleyball players certainly spend a lot of time practicing, preparing, and performing, most gamers, from whom I’ve interacted with, usually don’t consider athletes “gamers.”

So rather than trying to find one definition that suits everybody, I’ll elucidate my qualifications for labeling somebody a gamer. I offer this only as a way of sparking discussion; while I certainly enjoy playing games with non-gamers, and want as many people as possible to experience the joys of gaming, connecting with gamers provides me a kind of joy that can’t be experienced directly with people who play games.

1. Gamers derive a significant amount of satisfaction from gaming

People usually play games because they are fun. Games are primarily a form of entertainment: that much is obvious. People who pursue games solely for fun often substitute gameplay for different fun activities: other media consumption, exercise, travel, dining, or any number of other hobbies. Gaming is fun, but the gamer doesn’t pursue games solely for fun.

What I have experienced through games is a much deeper satisfaction. Oftentimes gaming is frustrating. Playing a game for an hour without saving, and accidentally turning off the game and losing all of one’s progress, is not fun. Not understanding the controls of a complex game is not fun. Grinding in an RPG for hours on end to get to the next level, or take on the super-powerful secret boss, is not fun. Gaming is often work, but when completed, that work brings a lasting satisfaction.

Gamers play games not just because they want to have fun, but because they have a need, a deep-rooted desire to experience something great. Games fill a slot in a gamer’s heart intended for something other than fun.

2. Gamers invest time and resources in gaming

A gamer spends a lot of time playing games and a lot of money buying games, right? Somebody who has disposable resources. But being a gamer isn’t strictly determined by an amount of time or money that is spent on games. Rather, gamers invest resources in gaming.

What’s the difference between spending resources and investing resources? For me, investment is about thinking of the long-term health of one’s gaming. Sometimes that means buying a game now, because it is cheap or hard-to-find, and playing it later. Sometimes it means playing older games in a franchise so that one can understand the current games. Sometimes that means purposing playing games outside of one’s comfort zone just to see what all the hype is about. And sometimes it means following all of the developments in the industry to understand the trajectory of the avocation.

A gamer, though, does not often “waste” time gaming. If the gaming is a waste–maybe the game itself is broken or unenjoyable to play, or maybe too much effect is require to obtain a substandard game–then the gamer has no time for it. Not all games are created equal–gamers understand this–so resources need to be invested, not wasted.

3. Gamers game confidently

At first I was going to suggest that gamers are good at games. A gamer is somebody who understands the rules, understands the point of the game, and does their best to play at an acceptable level. After all, would you really call somebody an athlete if they can’t run more than a quarter of a mile or catch a ball? While competence usually follows from serious gaming, many gamers struggle when they first pick up a new game, especially in a genre they have little experience with. When playing a new game, many gamers will struggle, but they get better.

What marks a gamer from a non-gamer, though, has more to do with confidence. A gamer doesn’t get easily frustrated just because she can’t figure out the controls within the first five minutes. A gamer doesn’t give up just because he doesn’t understand the “meta” of Magic: The Gathering. Gamers are confident that, in time, they will learn the rules, they will learn the controls, they will understand the meta, and they will get better.

Gamers are not people who give up easily.

4. Gamers exploit the mechanics of games

This point follows from the first. The mechanics of a game are simply the rules by which that game operates. The mechanics dictate what actions can be performed in the game and which cannot. They dictate how the game is played, under which situations, in which environment. They can be obvious rules such as the “win condition” for a game, or they can be subtle, such as knowing how many frames of animation it takes for Chun-Li to execute her attacks.

Gamers have a way of seeing past the surface presentation of the game to understand the underlying structure. They can see that the original Legend of Zelda is in many ways the same game as Metroid Prime, even though the games are visually extremely different and control in different ways. And once gamers understand the mechanics of the game, they work to exploit them.

Now by exploit, I don’t necessarily mean cheating (e.g., when playing a tabletop game, a gamer won’t lean back in her chair to peek at the cards in an opponent’s hand). Games feature a variety of rules and actions the player can perform, and no two executions of a game are likely to be the same. Great games present players with many choices for what to do at any given time: the gamer can assess the situation and figure out what move is optimal to perform at a given time. Gamers find the most efficient ways of harvesting resources or dispatching of enemies. They are not directionless; they play with a purpose.

Gamers don’t just get to the end of the game and call it good. Every gamer finds different ways to be satisfied by a game: playing it as fast as possible, playing it on hard mode, or trying to find 100% of the secrets. Whatever their given play style, a gamer exploits a game’s mechanics to his advantage and satisfaction.

5. Gamers can appreciate games they don’t enjoy playing

Simply put: there are too many games out there. I contend that if humans never invented another game–from video games to card games to board games to sports–we could all find more than enough games to keep us satisfied for the rest of our earthly lives. Gamers begrudgingly accept that they can’t play all the great games out there, so they tend to stick with a few genres that make them most happy. I tend to play Nintendo games (Mario, Zelda, Metroid, etc.), JRPGs, German-style board games, and the occasional building/sim game, racing game, and fighting game.

Gamers can appreciate, though, games of other genres, even if they don’t spend a lot of time playing those games or even like them that much. I’ve never been much for collectable card games, but I find all of the play mechanics behind Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh, and all the others extremely interesting. I’ve never wanted to invest the time and money into learning these games, but I can understand the appeal of them.

Gamers aren’t elitist, in my mind. People who proclaim that one platform is superior to another (PS4 vs. Wii-U vs. PC) or people who write off entire franchises because of some quality they dislike (such as those who hate Call of Duty for releasing a new game every year) are only borderline gamers, in my opinion.

Now, this doesn’t mean that gamers can’t have strong opinions about games: there are certainly many individual games I dislike and I have reasons for those dislikes. At the same time, though, I can appreciate the game for what it is: something that brings other people satisfaction. Rather than choosing arrogance and choosing to disengage with other gamers, I find it more profitable to understand why people like that game.

6. Gamers understand the language of gaming

As with all pursuits and industries, gaming carries a large amount of jargon and slang. When my brother and I talk gaming, for instance, we might as well be speaking another language because our parents don’t understand what we are talking about. In gaming, there are jargon for genres, play mechanics, character-types, attack styles, energy systems, treasure collecting, and on and on and on.

Once I tried to teach a friend how to play a simplified version of Dungeons & Dragons that I was working on. I was trying to boil the game down to it’s essence. But my description of the rules broke down when I was trying to explain the concept of “hit points.” She didn’t understand. It took several minutes to explain what “hit points” are.

Knowing the slang terms, though, is not enough for the gamer. Many of the same systems and mechanics find their way into numerous games, sometimes games that are quite different from one another. And other times, developers will change the name of a system or mechanic to give their game a different auditory feel. But gamers see through these gimmicks. They know that whether we’re talking about hit points, health, life, energy, units, or hearts, it all amounts to the same thing: a measure of the amount of damage a person can take before dying.

7. Gamers spread their love of gaming

Sadly, many self-avowed gamers fail in this final criterion. I knew many people in college who spent days and nights playing their favorite games, whether Halo 2 or EVE Online. Many would’ve considered themselves gamers, and probably would’ve fulfilled most of the criteria in this post.

However, these individuals were isolated. They played by themselves (or with friends online), but they were so enthralled by their favorite games, and played at such a high level, that it was impossible for them to play games with non-gamers. Gamers who isolate and surround themselves with other hardcore gamers do not contribute to the long-term viability of gaming. In some cases, they turn people away from gaming, perpetuating stereotypes that gamers are otakus playing alone in the dark.

A gamer with a heart for expanding the industry find ways of gaming with non-gamers. Sometimes that means playing games that really aren’t that good, like Monopoly. Other times, because of the gamer’s more extensive knowledge of different types of games, that means knowing which game to recommend to which friend.

Gaming can be a pretty lonely pursuit if a gamer doesn’t have anybody to game with. Gamers, then, often look for ways of introducing people to new types of games, and in turn, being receptive to new games from others.

* * *

This is what being a gamer means to me. After 1800 words, I’m not sure how close I am to fully defining the term, but this is a start. I’m curious, Reader, do you consider yourself a gamer, and if so, what does the label mean to you?

Game on,
~Dennis