Apologies, ya’ll. I know you haven’t heard much from me lately. Partly it’s that I’ve been busy; this is the time of year when my day job ratchets up, and since I’m still plowing full speed ahead on the UMSP, I don’t have a ton of spare brain. What little I’ve got has mostly been channeled into stress relief — hanging out with local folks, long meditative walks on snowy evenings, and among other things, gaming. But lately the gaming has been… shall we say, less than fun?
Frex: I preordered DmC, the rebooted version of the not-exactly-venerable Devil May Cry series, because I’ve loved this series practically from jump. And even though I had some misgivings about the reboot, I got a chance to play a demo at San Diego Comic Con last year and thought it was awesome. Still, writergirl’s got a book to finish, so when I received my copy I set it aside — gotta have something to reward myself with when I’m done with the book.
Anyway, one of the things I’ve always loved about this series was that it was kind of equal-opportunity sexy. I don’t object to a sexual element in art or fiction or entertainment, if you haven’t guessed that from my writing. What I object to is the way that sexual element is usually women’s (often unrealistic) bodies or parts thereof, or women’s suffering, and that these pieces of women are so often present solely as men’s wank-material. I welcome sexy women when they’re presented as whole people in their own right who are uninterested in (or defiant of) the men gazing at them, or when they’re appealing to the female gaze instead of the male. There have been some scantily-clad women along the way in the DMCs, but that kind of worked because a) in a lot of cases those women acknowledged the oversexualization of their appearance in a tongue-in-cheek way, and b) the hero was often almost as scantily clad. And besides the fact that the DMC women had motivations and interesting stories of their own, there was a lot more sexual tension between the hero and his evil twin brother than there was with any of the ladies. (Yeah, I know, but it’s true.) And female gamers noticed.* I have no idea of the demographics of this series’s audience, but anecdotally I know a lot of ladies who love them some DMC. When a game like this is done right, nearly everyone gets to have fun.
And the first trailer for the game, with its strategically-placed slice of pizza, hinted that the “fun for all” paradigm of the series was still intact. The new Dante’s not as hot as he used to be, but the gameplay per the demo was just as fun as before, the level designs looked imaginative and almost baroque in their beauty, and the rebooted story sounded a bit silly — but it was silly before. The silly was part of the fun.
But then I saw this marketing poster for the game. And I’m like, are you shitting me?
It’s more than just the ridiculous butt-shots of the women in this image, complete with translucent boy shorts. It’s the contempt and humiliation in the way this is arranged — contempt on the part of Dante, a character who until lately has treated the women around him like people and not props; and humiliation on the part of the women. They’re groveling at his feet, clinging to him slavishly, even as he pantomimes shooting one of them in the face with his oh-so-phallic finger. Because women getting shot by their sexual partners is soooo hot and edgy, don’tcha know.
This poster means something’s changed about the series. I’m no longer sure if it’s going to be the “fun for all” actionfest it used to be, and which I was so anticipating. You don’t market a game this way when you want everyone to play it; you market it this way when you want men to play and women to stay the fuck away. I can see that the new development team is hoping to bring a newer, cooler aesthetic to the series… but misogyny isn’t new or cool, and seeing this is really making me regret having preordered the game. Now instead of booting it up in eager anticipation, I’ll be inwardly cringing as I play, braced for that first sexist slap in the face.
Well, I haven’t unwrapped it yet. I’ll wait ’til I see some feminist reviews before I do. If my fears turn out to be correct, maybe I can return it. If not, I guess I’ll find something else to do with it.
Meanwhile I’ve been playing Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. When I first started playing a couple of months ago, it worked well as pleasant stress relief. Despite the dire warnings of other Skyrim fans, it didn’t become a time sink, mostly because it’s not my kind of game. I like RPGs, but I prefer those with an interesting plot and complex characterization — features that Skyrim lacks entirely. Skyrim is, however, an awesome sandbox game, with an absolutely enormous gameworld in which to wander freely and kill things or maybe just look at the scenery. I’ve mostly done the latter, and found it a great way to relax before bedtime. (Reminds me of another favorite game in this way: Shadow of the Colossus American style.)
But recently I decided to try engaging with the game’s very thin plot, despite its tiresome “chosen one” trope and the utter lack of relevant stakes for my character. I’ve been playing as a Redguard — that’s the black people, though they have straight hair** and pretty much the same morphological features as the other races — a foreigner in a land caught up in a civil war. All the NPCs are obsessed with the war and its two factions, but my character has no background, no family, no reason for even being in Skyrim other than plot convenience, so I haven’t bothered to side with either faction and for the most part don’t care what they do as long as they don’t get in my way. It doesn’t help that one side consists of paternalistic colonizers who’ve happily wiped out the indigenous culture and are trying to suppress the (subsequent) local religion, while the other side are ethnic supremacists. Also it turns out that my character is the embodiment of an ancient Nord legend — Nords being one of several flavors of white people in the game, this one clearly meant to reference ancient Scandinavian peoples — which, since my character’s not a Nord, apparently means she’s got “the heart of a Nord”. Yay, my black person gets to be an honorary white person. I’m all aflutter.
This is a minor irritation. It’s obvious the game developers didn’t think much about how the characters in their fantasy nation would logically react to having a dark-skinned foreigner and a woman — and this is definitely a patriarchial, nationalistic, xenophobic culture — as their much-lauded savior. I don’t think the developers thought much about the characterization for this game at all, let alone on a level that acknowledges the impacts of race and gender and other socioeconomic factors, and their intersections, on worldbuilding. But here’s what’s irritating: the game pays lip service to these issues, even though it doesn’t engage with them on a deeper level. NPCs definitely notice that my character is black. I got very, very sick of the guards in every town saying things like, “Stay out of trouble, Redguard” in passing — and WTF was up with the constant smirking comments about the “curved swords” of Redguard men? This doesn’t happen for characters of other races, as far as I can tell; when the NPCs speak to each other I don’t notice them addressing each other as “Imperial” or “Breton” or “Nord” (the three other human races, which are pale-skinned), or making veiled jokes about another group’s genitalia. NPCs also notice that my character is a woman: I have no idea if this happens for male player characters, but it feels like every other female NPC I meet immediately starts telling me how nice it is to meet a woman and what it’s like to be a woman in Skyrim. (Because what else do women talk about?) The game does make it clear that Skyrim’s perfectly fine with women as fighters and guards and lumber-millers and such, but it’s also clear that these women are exceptional, or perhaps forced into these roles by the fact that the men are off at war; most women in this world are homemakers. Yet no one bats an eyelash when their Nord ubermensch — and this is mensch in the non-Yiddish sense; every other “Dragonborn” mentioned in the game has been male — turns out to be a black woman.
So the game addresses race and gender on a superficial level, but there’s no acknowledgement of what these things mean in a race-obsessed, heavily gendered setting. It simply doesn’t make sense for them to mean nothing — unless you figure the developers just weren’t that interested in incorporating realistic sociology into their game. To a degree I don’t blame them for that; they probably didn’t have time to study both programming and social science in school. Also, I’m guessing they didn’t want their game to feel chock full o’ bigotry, because not many people think that’s fun.
But here’s the problem: beneath this airy, we-can-all-just-get-along surface are solidly bigoted bones. And the developers’ failure to address this stuff on the surface level just makes the deep-rooted ick that much more noticeable.
Because they really, really like their racial essentialism, in this game. In the world in which Skyrim takes place, all black people are really, really athletic. “Natural warriors,” even.*** This kind of blanket attribution gets done to the three white races too, note; Nords are also naturally good warriors, and further they’re naturally cold-tolerant. The latter trait actually makes a bit of microevolutionary sense given that they come from a tundra climate and probably wouldn’t live long if they couldn’t handle cold well, although that stops making sense when you realize the game is talking about magical-blast-of-ice-level cold, not climate tolerance. But what are we to make of the fact that all Redguards have a near-magical “Adrenaline Rush” ability that makes them turn Michael Jordan for a few minutes? And where’s the microevolutionary sense in their innate propensity to be good physical fighters and “quick of foot”? Do they come from a land where everyone from infants to adults fights at the drop of a hat, and sprints or plays basketball in between life-and-death struggles? What else could possibly make them biologically predisposed towards violence and being good at sports?
It used to be worse, I’m told — earlier iterations of the Elder Scrolls series framed the Redguards as good warriors but incapable of using magic or diplomacy. That’s because using magic relied on stats for Intelligence and Willpower, and diplomacy relied on Personality, in all of which Redguards automatically got a -10 penalty. So in other words, they were strong and fast, but too dumb and weak-willed and boorish to be anything but warriors. The developers only stopped doing this when fans basically begged them to stop being racist (and trigger warning for a bingo card’s worth of racism apology at that link from other fans). But Skyrim, the latest entry in the series, did in fact drop the Redguard intelligence penalty, so I guess they thought about it. Maybe.
Yeah, I get that all this comes from Dungeons & Dragons, which literally wrote the book on using racial essentialism as a game mechanic and is pretty much the father of all American RPGs. But there comes a point in every genre in which the people creating current material should see the flaws in What Came Before, and not replicate those flaws entire. Maybe the Skyrim developers did see it; the Nords got an intelligence penalty too, though this feels to me like a half-assed attempt to say “It’s not racist because look; white people too!” But the Nords are one of three white races; the others are the Romanesque Imperials and the Frenchified Bretons, the latter of whom are supposed to be the distant descendants of Nords raped by elves. (Because, in true essentialist fashion, one of the elven subgroups consists of innately eugenics-obsessed supremacist assholes. I’m not even going to touch on the essentialism applied to the non-humans in this game series.) So within the game world we can point to other white ethnic groups which aren’t inherently stupid, but we have no such luxury with the Redguards.
Oh! Also! The Redguards don’t derive from the same ancestral root as the other humans of this world. I guess they appeared via some kind of parallel evolution, maybe from a subhuman offshoot of the other three races. Like… some kind of missing link.
Yes, there are cultures in the real world that encourage certain behaviors and adaptive traits. Skyrim doesn’t frame these things as cultural or behavioral, though. The player is never introduced to the exceptions — because there aren’t any, as far as I can tell. The stereotypes are never challenged or shown to be false. There are no background stories to explain why the Bretons are biologically predisposed (-5!) to dislike Redguards on sight, or why even Khajit who’ve lived in Skyrim for all of their lives still speak with a faux “gypsy” accent. All of these things, in Skyrim, are inborn and incontrovertible. The core assumption of this game is that people aren’t people — that is, unique and individual and dynamic. In this game people are objects, absolutes, stereotypes, caricatures. Not real people at all.
I didn’t realize all this at first, note. I was just merrily playing along, not really thinking about the stats I’d seen during the character creation phase, offing dragons and buying real estate. But the more I interacted with the characters of this game, the more I caught hints of these built-in assumptions and essentials, and gradually that made me uncomfortable. So I started digging, and that’s when I realized what was so hinky about this game. The problem with Skyrim is that it purports to deliver only harmless fantastic bigotry, the kind of surface stuff that rarely offends anyone — but beneath that surface it’s teeming with unquestioned, deliberately-replicated, real-world stereotypes and contempt.
So I’m sending Skyrim back to GameFly, and I’m leaving DmC in Besame Mucho’s capable paws while I research it, and in the meantime I’m gonna go back to playing Dragon Age (which isn’t perfect either, but at least isn’t rage-inducingly bad). Or something else. Suggestions welcome — just please make sure it’s not something I’m going to want to throw across the room? My walls thank you.
Just a reminder to all — this blog is on permanent moderation. Frequent commenters’ replies will appear immediately, but newbies sit in queue until I can approve them. Since I tend to get more abusive flak when I talk about games than any other subject — seriously — it seems appropriate to mention this again now.
ETA: Realized a) how freaking huge that DmC marketing poster was, and b) that I might be sending undue amounts of traffic to somebody else’s server for that very large image; d’oh. Dl’ed and posted the image here myself. Also, minor edits for clarity.
* For this and other female-gaze-friendly eye candy, visit Virus AC74′s Deviantart page!
** Dear game developers: please program in some curly hair. It’s not that motherfucking hard; you’re just not trying. No love, Nora.
*** I am carefully restraining my eyeroll until the end of the paragraph, where I make my point.