Mass Appeal vs. Accessibility in Video Games

There is a difference between “mass appeal” and “accessibility,” though some word-slingers and comment fanatics find the terms interchangeable. Who uses them determines a large part of their meaning, as a lot of gaming discussion also determines who belongs to the “in group” and who belongs to the “out group.” Games striving for mass appeal tend to come from a series or lineage of some sort that include conventions that appeal to hardcore gamers but also attempt to broaden their audience by watering down complex features. The phrase is used pejoratively, devaluing other gaming styles while calling out developers with their eye on gaining more customers. Accessibility is a design philosophy that opens up games to more people without changing the experience for the original audience. It also aims to value a plurality of gaming styles instead of “one over all others,” such as higher difficulties being the ultimate vision or true version of a game.

Arguments concerning mass appeal and accessibility frequently occur over RPGs, a genre going through an identity crisis by trying to satisfy the old guard while fighting stagnation by expanding into new territory (the purgatory of the “give us something new but keep everything the same” demand of gamers). A focus on stats or numbers in general is often included in many gamers’ definitions of what an RPG is, but the focus on micromanaging numbers is the only one way to express character progression. It is far more likely that statistical progression is a given and that a game is built around such progression rather than an organic component of what it means to be an RPG.

Assigning numerical values to attributes at character creation, adding points as you level up, the chance that the player can find their character build irreparably flawed well into the game—all of these tie into the feeling that we get playing RPGs, which is centered around character progression. However, these qualities are not necessary for a successful game of this sort. Consider the shift away from traditional character creation in The Elder Scrolls (in which all of the decisions dealing with numbers are translated into different mechanics in the game). Many called foul at this change and journalists still see Bethesda’s games as primed more for mass consumption but very little actually changed.

The focus on player input in the series involves a larger amount of people managing their character’s progression without being inundated with extraneous information. Anyone who has played earlier Elder Scrolls games will find themselves doing the same exact things with a similar amount if not more flexibility in Skyrim. This is because deciding 5-point differences between Charisma and Intelligence is simply one way to influence skills that panders to the tastes to a particular set of people, while it isn’t a loss of experience to simply pick pockets to become better at it and it allows enjoying perks if you want to specialize.

Styles of play remain the same without traditional specializations, with abilities and the game-world funneling players into the usual warrior, rogue, and mage trifecta while allowing for some experimentation if players want the challenge. On the other end of the RPG spectrum, you have games like Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II that maintain a standard set of statistics with little benefit. With numbered requirements for skills and equipment, the player is doing work that the computer could be doing instead and the system offers little in terms of flexibility.

Putting points into attributes doesn’t offer some players much in terms of game interaction, such stats exist only for those who enjoy watching the numerical value of attack values and armor points rise and fall. For RPGs that show some of the strongest concentration on character development through narrative development, the old draping of D&D character sheets are anachronistic. This is only the start of a conversation about some of the Final Fantasy games, which would remain largely unaffected as gaming experiences if you took away the status screens showing the party members described in numbers.

The tension between “hardcore” players and a wider audience echoes the politics of the relationship that developers and gamers have with game design. The diversity of RPG styles doesn’t match the increasing range of identities in the player base, which is important because of how much interaction is necessary for enjoying games. The backlash that social minorities are combating in gaming is similar to the resistance to valuing other experiences besides the simulation or abstraction of technical skills in gaming culture, and the demographics that represent each side aren’t too different. Video games reflect themes and skills found in boys’ styles of play as children, and any introduction of qualities that are different from that (especially if tagged as feminine) are cast out as inferior “casual” games. The movement of making games accessible gives designers the opportunity to boil down what works without the trappings of conventions that exist “just because they’ve always been there” and establish new ways of interacting that would be unavailable in generic RPGs.

Numbers and stats in RPGs don’t have to go away forever but probably deserve to be more niche than they are currently. Taking the lead from Skyrim and Dragon Age II, there are other directions that the core idea of character progression can go that don’t involve a superficial process that blocks enjoyment for the current “out group.” As the genre and all of gaming struggles with its identity and direction, a critical look at how we resort to convention and whose convention is valued will reveal roadblocks once assumed to be essential mainstays of the medium.

Werner Herzog, the Power Fantasy

A current struggle in the gaming community is a call for more common and better-realized depictions of minority characters, from women to people of color to the LGBT. We still wrestle with questions on what would be different about games if minorities populated more casts and, eventually, what a game with only minorities would look like. Absolute Obedience attempts at this, giving the player two gay men as a main characters, both secret agents who do strange espionage-esque work in what seems to be post-World War II Germany. They are each given a unique set of assignments to complete (that the player is graded on) that typically include seducing the target, all who are men. It’s a meld between typical dating sims and visual novels, where you have a roster of romantic interests to pursue, but there are few choices and the main appeal lies in the narration. If you choose agent Louise Hardwich, you can pick up a mission that has you seducing the heir to a mafia family, Werner Herzog, renown as arrogant, hyper-masculine playboy. Louise’s client is a famous female prostitute Werner frequents, who frames this mission as a prank to undo the hyperbolic manly image Werner shows off.

It’s easy to write this off as a stereotype; gay men are over-sexed deviants who pine for straight guys to give them at once chance to switch teams. However, we need to look at the intended audience Absolute Obedience. While this game is categorized as a Boy Love (BL) or yaoi game, these are ultimately under the otome genre, which are games aimed specifically at heterosexual women. Looking to the history of fanfiction, which is arguably the progenitor of visual novels, yaoi and slash were centered around a community of straight women, not gay men. Louise’s pursuit to “turn” Werner is a sublimation of straight women’s desire for men that cannot happen between heterosexual couples. We can see themes of power, equity, ambiguity, and identity, all issues related to gender politics women have gone through, and which some argue straight men haven’t yet. Absolute Obedience misses the mark on depicting admirable gay male protagonists by serving an audience rarely pandered to in games. The player can see this in Werner’s gendered behavior in the game; while he is extremely affectionate and giving to all the prostitutes he sleeps with (while also advocating against human trafficking), he only sees men as intelligent and capable business partners and worth respecting. Even though he’s straight when Louise meets him, the woman player needs to take the role of a man to explore his character.

Louise approaches his objective to bed Werner by playing his ego against him, a familiar trope from advice columns for women that adopts a calculating mentality to tear a man down from his self-ordained pedestal. The choices you need to get an ‘A’ rating tell you clearly that you must never submit to Werner, never allow him to understand what’s on Louise’s mind and never give him the chance to be dominant. Werner eventually slips, referring to Louise as beautiful and talking to him as if to a woman, while mentally respecting the personality attributes he associates with men. When Louise eventually gets Werner to a bedroom, the scene takes on ambiguous rape qualities that are commonly found in pornography, where one participant starts out unwilling and eventually begins to enjoy what’s going on. Unaware that he would be bottoming (being penetrated) for Louise, Werner begins to struggle (oh, did I forget to mention that Louise carries around a whip with him at all times?) against what he perceived as humiliation, as his masculine persona avoided being treated like a woman at all costs. Even though this is a sexually explicit scene, it’s the action of feminizing a heterosexual man that’s erotic. As women’s gender is allowed more flexibility in expression of masculine traits, society still doesn’t allow men that same ambiguity and other men are typically the ones to bully each other into acting “like a man.” This scene is a forbidden fruit of sorts, revealing the aspect straight men try their hardest to avoid expressing and setting it up as sexually satisfying for straight women.

Making the correct choices, Louise’s cold and manipulative exterior eventually gives way to Werner, and starts to fall in love. There are many times Werner will try to flip the roles back to what they are “supposed” to be, but this results in a low score for the mission. It’s not until he accepts his new, ambiguous identity and performs with skill bottoming during sex that Louise realizes he’s grown affectionate for him. The true ending depicts a scene where Werner leaves behind a group of women escorting him to an upper-class party to join Louise instead, the first instance Werner shows affection for another man in public. This follows the erotic arc of queering a heterosexual man’s sexual identity, by an open announcement of his taboo lover. Werner serves as an example as a latent sexual tension surrounding straight men in relation to their sexuality to other identities, as well as revealing the politics of depicting male homosexuality for a audience of women.

An Escape of One’s Own

(Trigger warning for the recounting of sensitive transgender-related experiences)

Around the turn into the 20th Century, there were many questions about women. One of them was “Why aren’t there many women writers?” The typical answers ranged from men’s predisposition to artistic ability to women being too fragile and unintelligent to push through the rigor needed to be a writer. Writers are usually men, in a male artistic culture, and that’s just how it was; any woman who became notable was seen as performing something masculine.

A certain rabble-rouser, a woman writer, provided a different answer. She said in a society that didn’t send women to school, had them rely on men for financial survival, and often didn’t allow their own private space was the reason. The few women who wrote didn’t need to rely on anyone else; they had education, an income, and a room of their own to write. Her example was imagining if Shakespeare had a sister who possessed the same innate genius as he did. Because of customs and expectations of the time, Shakespeare would be encouraged to write after being sent to school and given opportunity to earn his own money and establish a career. This sister, however, would always be a part of a family unit and not sent to school. She would constantly be pressured to focus on getting married and putting her energy to raising a household, leaving no time or privacy for writing that her brother would have. So, in contemporary times, why aren’t there as many women and other minorities in gaming compared to the main demographic of straight, white men?

I’m often asked why I have to drag identity labels into gaming discussions. Why does it matter that I’m a multi-racial, polysexual, possibly polyamorous, able-bodied transgender woman? Must I trumpet this everywhere I go? There’s an assumption that games have nothing to do with gender, sexuality, and other politics, just FUN. That’s the real reason we’re here, right? Part of identifying as a ‘gamer’ is treating games like an escape. To leave reality for a bit to forget about the troubles and limitations that plagues our lives.

The problem is games aren’t an escape for everyone looking for one. In fact, they provide an escape for a very particular identity that only sometimes overlaps with others’. As children, we didn’t really notice this dissonance, but growing up as a gamer, you notice something doesn’t feel quite right. This is evident by the demographic of those who would self-identify as a gamer and the image the industry continues to portray to attract and distance certain identities. The way our community is structured, games will often jolt minorities out of their escape and back into the reality they wanted a break from. This isn’t only from the offensive and dismissive depictions of minority identities in games, but also from gaming journalism and social gatherings. How could this be? Shouldn’t everyone be used to it by now? We all know everyone isn’t an 18-24-year-old straight guy, so just ignore it and look to the content we do enjoy.

Wrong.

Material that perpetuates the hegemonic culture of gaming does so by putting down the alternative. Content that is often a battlefield for being sexist or racist aren’t just ignorable or benign fan-service. This can boil down to an argument about offensive language, the idea that a person chooses to be offended by words and it isn’t the fault of the speaker/writer. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Ever heard of the Stroop Test? It looks like this:

Stroop-Test

You are asked to quickly go through the list, naming the color of the font of each word. In this example, you would have to read aloud “Green, Yellow, Red, Green” and so on. The results of this test show that we cannot disassociate the word from what we are “supposed” to see. If we chose to be affected by those words, a person could go through this test without preparation flawlessly. Needless to say, that doesn’t happen. We are affected by what we see and cannot control what it makes us think. In the Stroop test, what is offensive would be the printed word, and the idea that it’s a joke or means something less serious would be the font color. For that reason, when someone writes or speaks offensive or triggering material, they are actually forcing the subject to feel whatever they associate with those words. Speaking homophobic language to someone who has received any negative feelings for said words makes them relive those emotions, whether it’s pain, disgust, or inferiority. There is no absolution from using words and writing content that perpetuate the discriminatory attitudes of gaming culture. That isn’t being true to gaming, that isn’t providing an escape. You’re the ones dragging the ugly from reality into our sacred space, not the minorities.

This relates to my own experience, both with advocating for diversity in games and a recent realization I exhibit qualities similar to someone who has posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in relation to my transgender identity. The best way I can describe it is having an instant flashback to an extremely uncomfortable experience where I feel the same intense emotions I did at the time, be it embarrassment, shame, anxiety, depression, the list goes on. These flashbacks are triggered from simple association; I’ll be thinking of something that is similar to my experience, my mind will link it, and the thoughts overwhelm me. To the point where I have to verbally tell myself to stop thinking. And sometimes I can’t do this, because I’m in a public setting and I don’t want people to worry or think there’s something wrong with me. There are events in the gaming community that triggers these experiences for me, especially the overwhelming hopelessness of under-representation. I have to wrestle with many feelings as I try to enjoy games in a culture that panders to an identity that only sexualizes women and doesn’t encourage many other depictions other than ridiculous proportions to serve as eye candy. When I see the women and sexuality of Mass Effect 2 and Catherine, I am reminded of how I’m treated as an exotic sex object as a transgender woman. How I endure messages from dating sites curious about my body, left frustrated from first dates that try to grope me in their cars without my permission, cried when someone tried to pay me for what I thought was finally the first time I’d get into a relationship. When journalists, developers, and average gamers tell me gaming is for just for people who play games, looking for that escape, what they are actually doing is requesting me to settle for someone else’s escape, where I am still marginalized. They are telling me to sacrifice my enjoyment and my safe place for the hedonism of others. I know journalists, writers, and developers are reading this: can you still tell me everything is just fine?

So, what do we do? Where can we find an escape of our own? Places like The Border House and Gay Gamer are a start, by distilling what we get from gaming and what we still need. As a recent event shows us, there’s still progress to be had in creating safe places for minority groups to actual naturally and forget about reality. This isn’t discrimination against white straight men because the hegemonic identity is still accepted into these spaces, and encouraged to contribute and participate. But we can’t stay in our corners forever, we need to learn what works and take it back to the main gaming community. And those who claim to be allies of minorities should welcome us and our experience instead of paralyzing progressive movement with red tape. I understand people need to make money, but I hope those people also understand they are willingly preserving a gaming community that doesn’t include me. When you all go back to your Excell sheets and Word documents, remember what you’re designing and writing had an original goal. To create that safe escape for people who need a break from life, to foster a community that mediates their interaction with reality through games. Now do that for everyone.

Tsukuba Muneshige, the Meta-Samurai

Dating sims defy a lot of logic. Describing them to someone who’s never heard of them would paint them as a game aimed for girls; relationship focused, sappy, a social simulator. But as every other genre and the medium of video games itself, the main demographic consists of men while women are associated with a sub-genre. Yo-Jin-Bo is an otome game, a genre visual novels and dating sims made for women to play, or at least have a female playable character. From what I can tell, these are what the gaming industry thinks women want in a dating sim as they continue to apply conventions based on a male demographic. Tuskuba Muneshige fits that bill, blending tropes of “the nice guy” and “the stalwart protector” in a typical shoujo anime motif. Your character, Sayori, is a typical high school girl who finds a magical artifact that transports her to a feudal Japan-like world, caught in a life-threatening situation and ends up guarded by an Unwanted Harem of attractive men. All of these men vie for her affection and vow with their lives to protect her; every girl’s dream, right?

Except this isn’t just an attempt to create a game, or genre, for women’s wish fulfillment, but also men’s. I chose Muneshige mostly because I felt sorry for him. He was the guy in the movies passed over because he wasn’t as exciting, or enough of a jerk. Always waiting for the main woman to come to her senses and realize she’s been in love with him the entire time. I wanted to reward that, and maybe even appreciate a little of that myself. In most dating sims, you learn to like your chosen object of affection because you spend your time and actions pleasing them, or trying to figure out how to get them to like you more. The choices of how to manage your day, what to buy, what to say, create an emotional investment that the player expects a return on. However, Yo-Jin-Bo doesn’t have this mechanic; rather, the choices and variants seem to rest mostly on whom to end up with, not how. This creates a one-sided dynamic where the player doesn’t learn to like their romance options, but the characters develop and pursue their relationship with Sayori. Muneshige’s persistence on protecting the player and controlling his sexual drive (making note of it instead of keeping it to himself) reflects the “white knight” mentality that “should” be valued in reality. Instead of learning that he has this type of personality and whether you like him, the question becomes can you reject him, knowing you shouldn’t. Sayori’s thoughts turn to what some do and don’t deserve rather than figuring out her own feelings, making the game a strange reverse otome. Since the player character doesn’t really change throughout the story, the focus is on the men’s intentions, leaving room for men players to identify more with the game than women.

Yo-Jin-Bo also accommodates men by breaking the fourth wall for comedic effect. It’s constantly reminding you that this is a game, and not to take it too seriously. All of the romance options are well aware they are in a dating sim and struggle to be with the player in the end. Each character has their own way of doing so, and Muneshige’s is telling terrible puns on subject matter that exists in contemporary reality and doesn’t exist in his world. This is what contrasts this character with the others; he’s absorbed in pleasing Sayori despite how bad he is at it while the other men call on erotic tropes from anime fandom to interact with the player. The game also enjoys putting the male characters into yaoi-tropey situations, and Muneshige is one of the few that plays up this sort of fan-service for women. His scene is purely comical and innocent in its result; it portrays him as sensitive, open-minded, and willing to please while evoking the awkwardness in trying to appear attractive to your love interest. This changes in group settings, where the respectful boy-next-door joins in on gawking and begging for varying degrees of sexual interaction. Whenever the game starts to get romantic, the tone breaks and releases the tension where heterosexual men might feel uncomfortable playing.

This game isn’t obviously marketed to men or as something of universal experience, but the predominate presence of men in visual novel and dating sim culture only allows an otome game to go so far. Yo-Jin-Bo is a hyperbole of a very small genre; there are many games where the same tropes are subtle and easy to miss if you’re not analyzing it. Maybe this game hints at changing the structure in an attempt to figure out what women want in a dating sim? On the other hand, perhaps it’s a serendipitous product that shifts the agency and game away from the player in favor of the suitors? Either way, this prompts an exploration as to how dating in games would differ for women, or if the current method is appropriate for all genders.

Arianna Bell-Essai, the Teacher’s Vixen

Ah, dating a minor. Your student even! The beauty and tragedy of visual novels is the chance to engage in relationships you wouldn’t have considered, or don’t have access to. Dangerous territory doesn’t begin to describe the experience available to us that maybe we shouldn’t, like Arianna. When you first meet her, she seems so… unremarkable. Not the prettiest, or smartest, but nice enough. Drop her in a setting where you’re her teacher who can watch all of her private interactions, and she becomes anxiety incarnate. You see, Don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story takes place in the near future, where students interact on Amie, a Facebook-like social service, where the main character, Mr. John Rook, can view the private messages between his students. Mr. Rook watches Arianna gush over him in private, spinning dreams about a romance everyone knows is a bad idea.

The rational thing to do would be to turn her down, and it’s pretty easy. It’s almost as if the game expects you to reject her advances. I felt kinda bad, but she fades into the scenery and is that secret you wish you never knew. However, it’s when you choose to date Arianna that you learn something about her, and yourself. Let’s not lie to ourselves, we’re gamers; if a choice exists, we’re going to play it. And that’s what a good game would encourage. I wanted to know, well, what would happen if I did date her. Will I be reprimanded? Is this just for naughty pictures at the end? Am I a horrible human being?

For now, yes, and I should feel terrible. I squirmed giving into the morbid curiosity of what it’s like to date a teenaged student of mine. If I didn’t feel like a complete creep, the game’s message would be lost on me. Mr. Rook is similar to Vincent from Catherine, but handled a lot more deftly. Both are immature and emphasize traits appropriated by their gender role in society. However, you learn Rook is a flawed character by actively looking through his students’ personal lives and not concentrating on his job. I couldn’t relate to Rook when he felt aroused by Arianna, and I was glad the game wasn’t forcing me to do so.

You know whom I do relate to? Arianna.

I was Arianna once. So “my” relationship with her had a particular insight. It was strange to be on the other end of the situation, to read the thoughts of the teacher instead of the student. The trope paints characters like Arianna as the predator, the seductress that grips at a man’s weakness so that he can’t control himself. Mr. Rook shows us that convention teaches us that the young, nubile vixen is the one in control, and men are hapless victims to the forbidden fruit of their sex drives. No – that’s not the whole story. I was young and unprofessional, and like Arianna, naïve enough to think I could accomplish anything I tried hard at, clandestine relationships with my superiors included. Relationships like these are romanticized, right? I thought I had to search out the older, more mature types, that I was beyond the boys my age. I thought of my teachers the same way I thought about Trowa Barton and Seifer; I was lonely and wanted to chase a fantasy. So did Arianna. She felt inexperienced, alone, and left out with most of her classmates dating each other.

This doesn’t amount to Arianna being a manipulative sex kitten, but a young, immature girl. And it takes an immature adult to date someone where there’s a conflict of interest. These teacher-student relationships show there is still a fascination with “deflowering” a girl, both in reality and in games. The game’s title says it all; it isn’t the player’s story, or Rook’s story, but students’. Both Rook and I treated them like objects to interact with, to game. He did whatever made his life the most interesting, and I assumed invading their privacy would clue me in on their intentions. Arianna fooled us both at the end when she used Amie as a part of her fantasy.

Don’t take it personally, babe… doesn’t exotify Rook’s romance with Arianna, but it does make it incredibly uncomfortable and dissonant so the player feels like something wrong is happening. While you feel better ignoring her, the story receives an added layer of depth if you explore Arianna’s character. You’ll feel like crap doing it, but few games give you morally ambiguous situations to navigate and duly punish your character for their questionable actions.

Derek Nevine, The Anti-Gamer

Derek Nevine is the star. Best player on the basketball team, hottest guy on campus, and even has the coolest theme music! We all know someone like Derek, that guy who effortlessly has the world revolve around him and gets what he wants. Even though he was just event triggers and art on my screen, I still felt a little intimidated by him. I was skeptical when he resorted to flattery so quickly and asked me out. Or asked the protagonist, Merui; it’s difficult to guess whose emotions are really involved in the romantic parts of visual novels. However, there is one thing that is clear from the design of the game:

You’re supposed to hate him.

He’s supposed to awaken those awkward feelings of inferiority and ineptitude gamers feel from those socially successful in high school, or any environment we’re forced to be social in. Merui’s other potential lovers sneer at him and his reputation, warning you of his false appearances and playboy attitude. Gaining his affection reinforces the stereotype of hyperbolized femininity: you must buy Merui the sexy outfits at the store, ignore her studies in favor of watching TV and going to the mall, and make Merui play hard to get to retain his interest. The real sting comes at the end when you find out he’s Alistair, a jerk who trolls Merui in the MMO all the characters play. He’s the title character, and the only reason there’s a story to play. He gets to be a gamer AND the popular guy at school? Something doesn’t feel right!

While it’s unsettling to see someone like him is a gamer too, it makes sense that he’s representative of the kind of people we don’t like online. I wasn’t surprised when the bonus scene revealed he was the least liked datable character in fan polls. If the player didn’t get Merui’s stats just right and played a perfect game to get Derek’s special ending, he reveals his trick and dumps them. This is unlike the other characters who have been looking out for Merui, trying to protect her the entire game and will date her indefinitely. She is punished for pursing the popular guy and ignoring the advances of her fellow nerds.

Confession time: Derek was my favorite.

Yes, yes, he’s a total ass and I should have known better, but that’s what I like about his character. He felt the most human because he was the most complicated. Unlike the other characters, he doesn’t force Merui to drudge through his baggage or suffer through insults until he sees the light and falls in love. What the player might not catch when romancing Derek is how he actually listens to Merui: when Merui wants to pay for her own ice cream, she damn well does. She tells him to stop acting like the white knight, because she can walk on her own feet, thanks. There is an equity that is missing in the other relationships. My experience with Derek made me feel that is was okay to indulge in stereotypically feminine activities, that splurging my lunch money on a hot dress doesn’t make me a bad person, and it doesn’t make him a bad person either.

While I found the process of attaining his affections extremely problematic, they also existed in lesser degrees for the other boys. All the guys preferred you to wear certain clothes, Derek just happened to like the typical expensive and sexy ones. On a game design level, all of your love interests are rather similar, and this informs our interpretation of Merui’s romantic situation. After making the right choices, you find out that Derek uses games as an escape as well. His problems seem trite to the underdog characters, but so real to him that he needs games to vent. Just like everyone else. Merui’s predicament with attracting these guys reflects women gamers’ tightrope act of managing their presence in the gaming community. Women who appear to spend too much time on their appearance and stereotypically feminine activities are shamed unless they are doing it in a geek-appropriate manner. Dress as nice as you are smart. Act as a defenseless damsel as much as you shoot zombies.

What interests me the most is how easy it is to miss this. It’s doesn’t feel good at all to win Derek’s affection, especially when you know he’s Alistair. The gamer in me to see all the possible endings defied what felt right by going through Derek’s romance, but his “perfect” ending really tied things into perspective. Besides the gag-worthy amount of sap inherent to visual novels, these simulated relationships teach us something about ourselves. Dating sim games for men far outnumber the ones for women, offering rare glimpses of our side of the affair. Even rarer is the honesty from an experience of a woman gamer, and Re: Alistair++ provides a starting point for that conversation.

On Men’s Sexualization in Video Games

Sexuality in games is a contentious topic. Few see video games as open or mature enough to express ideas and create experiences concerning sexuality for players to explore. It’s also rarely pleasant to talk about the topic, usually any arguments settle on the accusation of games as serving as wish fulfillment for heterosexual men and the more vocal of said demographic replying with a “So what?” What’s often overlooked is the possibility of the sexualization of men, as if it’s not an option.

My title is misleading; games don’t usually sexualize men. As frequently suggested when discussing the Male Gaze theory in film studies and neatly tied into relevancy for our purposes by Kate Cox in “The Gamer’s Gaze,” men are not sexualized in most media (“The Gamer Gaze, part 1”, Your Critic is in Another Castle, 20 June 2011). Because there is a large presence of the heterosexual man’s identity in the development process and in gaming’s audience, the perceived “neutral” vision of game design takes on the influence of the socially appropriate interests specific to straight men. The lack of men’s sexualization is a product of the average straight guy’s impulse to avoid appearing or feeling gay. Men have a fig leaf of sorts when it comes to camera work and character design, while women get more attention and exposure. What sexual bits we do see are “safe” for heterosexual men to view without feeling like they’re watching something “gay,” such as muscular arms or exposed torsos. A common counter-argument concerns the issue of men’s impossible body image in games, which is definitely important, but mostly a different discussion to tackle. The aesthetic of muscles denote strength, agency, and power for the assumed male player to relate to, while emphasis on T&A when viewing women only serves as fan-service. Both rely on problematic ideals, but there is still a power relation present in this representation that favors men.

There are a couple of games that are often cited as examples of sexualizing men, namely Masaya’s Cho Aniki and Namco Bandai Games’s Muscle March. Both games have muscular men in barely any clothing, often viewed in risqué, homoerotic poses. While sexualization is afoot in these titles, these games don’t violate the Gamer Gaze because the men presented in the games are also presented through a completely absurd aesthetic. The design of the game creates a silly context that the player doesn’t take seriously; instead, they laugh at the men and see the nudity as off-the-wall humor. These games don’t give the player room to fantasize or a roving eye to admire the characters’ bodies.

What we consider sexual body parts and how we cover or expose them in media helps us figure out how to depict sexualized men. Women’s breasts are seen as sexual in many cultures (to varying degrees), and along with that, come laws forbidding women from exposing them in public. If men’s chests and arms evoked the same kind of sexual focus, they would find themselves in a similar situation. We should note, however, that it is legal and often expected that women partially expose their breasts despite their sexual connotation, effectively always leaving themselves on display. This is the launching point for women’s sexualization in general media by emphasizing what is illegal/improper to show in public without crossing a line. Because the only area that is taboo on men is below the belt, men’s chests and arms don’t threaten anyone’s sexuality. Sexualizing men would involve drawing focus and emphasis to their goods in a manner similar to how we currently do with women: by featuring them in low-rise pants and underwear, tight jeans to emphasis their bulge and butt shape, etc. Because it violates the prevailing Male Gaze ingrained in all of us, this can seem like an uncomfortable idea. However, media geared towards gay men already uses and exploits this technique. Because men’s sexualization primarily appears in a homoerotic context, it’s not surprise why it’s relatively absent in games.

While clothing is a large part of women’s sexualization in games, the camera plays a role by directing the player’s attention to their bodies. Cox provides a video of Madison’s shower scene in Heavy Rain, in which the camera “checks her out” by gliding up and down to view the different angles of her body. Compare this scene to an earlier one when a fellow protagonist, Ethan, takes a shower as well. This scene is shorter, and the movement is more about avoiding looking at him directly than checking him out. The camera provides a few glimpses of his chest and backside, but you feel that you’re watching something that you shouldn’t be rather than experiencing any form of interest or arousal. Examples like these link the cinematography of games (and arguably all media) to pornography, a genre that the distilled Male Gaze calls home. The player crosses into something pornographic when watching Madison but into something awkward when seeing Ethan. However, the further away (and more aware) that a player is from the straight male identity, the more clearly these moments stand out. Because pornography typically has straight male consumption in mind, its politics leak into games by highlighting how they look at women and other men in porn. We would have to look to pornography made for women and gay men and apply how the camera looks at the performers for a holistic approach to sexualizing characters.

There is resistance to sexualizing anyone, but the true issue lies in who sexualized characters are for and how often this happens. In essence, recognizing how we sexualize people equips us with tools to even out the playing field, creating more women who aren’t on screen for a man’s viewing pleasure and allowing players to enjoy the male figure every once in a while. Coupled with an awareness of body image politics and encouraging more character models that stray from Aphrodite and the Adonis, video games can become a more egalitarian medium for expression.

The Fantasy Cyborg: Reading Passing Narratives in Dragon Age

(Spoiler warning for the Dragon Age series)

Topics about social minorities in video games typically manifest in the relationship humans have with other sentient characters of their world or universe. Games often present humanity as space-warfaring Americans or in a setting reminiscent of feudal England, making the “Other” someone of a different species or robot of some sort, since contemporary minority rights don’t exist in these situations. Games haven’t produced a sizable amount of characters that make their cross-species (like Half-Elves) or cyborg identity important to the theme or action, effectively cutting out a large portion of already scant analysis on multi-racial and transgender politics in games.

Passing narratives, the experiences of a multi-racial or transgender character in relation to the identity society views them as, in media appear in LeiLani Nishime’s “The Mulatto Cyborg,” citing cyborg characters from films as expressions of anxiety over miscegenation. While the popular imagining of cyborgs are part human, part machine beings, the mages from the Dragon Age series act as a high fantasy response as part human, part spirit characters. Mages can receive equal treatment if their mage status is unknown. However, once revealed, they receive skepticism, whether they are good or evil, a practitioner of blood magic or not. Most of the mages that travel with the Warden and Hawke live passing as human while managing their cyborg identity. Using Nishime’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Mulatto Cyborg” structure, Dragon Age II shows a successful beginning of representing multi-racial and transgender politics. Whereas the multi-racial cyborg negotiates between multiple races, the transgender cyborg balances their transgender identity with a ‘recognized’ one of their society, usually as a woman or man.

The Good Mage

The Good Cyborg is the tragic figure trying to become more (white, cisgender) human, but still outcast by society. In Dragon Age: Origins, the player encounters Tranquil mages, who celebrate their disconnection from the Fade even though it came at a high cost. Many mages volunteer for the Rite of Tranquility, as a self-loathing mage can be convinced to do in the mage starting section of Origins. The plight of the good mage rests in the essentialism of society; once born outside of the standard, one could never hope to achieve the status of a “true” human. The Tranquil are often put into positions of servitude and practical application that mages are absent from, now seen as acceptable and safe to interact with other humans. The player’s interaction with one such Tranquil shopkeeper broaches the topic of humanity, implying the general assumption of the Tranquil being less than human and mage. As Nishime puts it, the Good Cyborgs are nostalgic for something that never existed for them, and can only occur inside their own minds. It is telling that taking away the mage’s connection with the Fade and spirits takes away what is mage-like about them, and leaves something other than human as a result.

The Bad Mage

These mages confirm the suspicions and accusations made against their kind by the Templars and Chantry. How the player encounters them is telling: the main character battles demons and blood mages, many in scenes of destruction and rebellion. Dramatic cut scenes depict the use of blood magic and demonic transformation than any other type of magic, mirroring the unmasking of the Bad Cyborgs in films like The Terminator. They embrace dealings with demons and any grab at power that their magic affords them. Rejecting humanity by attacking it, Bad Mages resonate with the fears our culture has of identities that defy binaries. Dragon Age II’s Meredith plays on this anxiety by highlighting the mages’ ability to hide amongst the populace and strike down the everyday person, very similar rhetoric to opponents of minority rights. This also places value in being purely human, with anything different on the path to taint that purity. Nishime observes the only way towards redemption for Bad Cyborgs and Mages alike: total sacrifice and submission. Meredith acknowledges this sacrifice near the end of the game, but forces it on the mages, seeing the “people” of Kirkwall the real victims, not the mages. Juxtaposed in this manner, mages are second-class humans without all the rights that come along with being human, even if they are well behaved.

The Mixed/Trans Mage

Instead of looking to pass as completely human or of the Fade, the Mixed/Trans Mage embraces their hybridity and shapes their circumstances to fit their identity. These characters disturb and confuse onlookers by occupying a space that lies outside of the binary of good and bad. The progressive tone of the Dragon Age series arises from the many Mixed/Trans Mages the player can encounter, namely Morrigan, Anders, and Merrill. Mage-skeptical characters, such as Alistair, Fenris, and Aveline, are bewildered each time they attempt to apply the Good/Bad Mage mentality on them only to hear a rebuttal traversing into a gray area. Much like multi-racial and transgender people in reality, these characters manage their lives under the pressure to pass as standard while typecast as the bad cyborg and avoiding the fate of the good one. They often talk to the player as a teacher or from an enlightened viewpoint of someone who sees the social construction of being human and a mage. What is confusing to both Dragon Age’s society and our own is the perceived hubris of the Mixed/Trans Mage; why are these people being so loud? Who are they to disrupt the natural order of things? Why do we have to change for them?

Dragon Age II’s Passing Narratives

The struggles Anders and Merrill fight to achieve their identity-driven objectives while negotiating respect with their party members and evading Templars successfully speak to passing and identity issues for multi-racial and transgender people. Anders’ struggle with Justice describes how these minorities fair in the current social climate in reality, fearing the persecution of those who don’t understand him while controlling his deserved anger from being destructive. No one has answers for Anders’ problems other than to be a good, patient mage, and eventually society might change to make things better. This frustration builds in a culture for which there is no outlet for his feelings, much like predicament of multi-racial and transgender people finding little comfort in their allies while performing saint-like behavior around the oppressors. Anders’ story shows that society will not change quickly enough for the Mixed/Trans Cyborg, and instead, a cataclysmic change to the oppressive structure must occur. Merrill has even more hybridity to her identity; she is a Dalish who lives in the city, alienated from her clan, humans, and city elves while also marginalized for her blood magic. Her tense dialogue with Anders reveals the need for a pluralistic look on their issues, as Anders is quick to criticize Merrill despite their similar paths. Dragon Age II tells a tragic story of the Mixed/Trans Cyborg that tries to hold onto their roots while developing their borderless identity: instead of eliminating an overarching institution, Merrill can only be free once the bond with family that holds her back is destroyed.

Identifying the Mixed/Trans Cyborg/Mage amongst the numerous Good and Bad ones serves as a tool for not only reading multi-racial and transgender topics in games, but also creating successful minority characters overall. Development teams need more encouragement to include these identities and their issues in games; revealing and discussing passing narratives will lend material for more diverse game characters.

It’s Time to Talk About it: Atlus, Naoto, and Transphobia

(Trigger Warning: Transphobia, Passing Anxiety)

(Spoiler Warning: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, Shin Megami Tensi: Persona 4, Catherine)

Earlier this year, I wrote a research paper on representations of gender and sexuality in video games where I chose Bayonetta from her eponymous game and Naoto in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. The wealth of critical discussion on Bayonetta speaks for itself; I had no trouble supporting my own argument about her because of the importance the gaming community attributed to shaming or empowering her (and, of course, options other than these). However, my research on Naoto resulted in pretty much nothing; from what I could tell, the gaming community felt he (it is debatable which pronoun to use, so I am using he as it is my interpretation from my playthrough) was a cross-dresser and would be referred to as a woman. There are mentions of Naoto in articles related to Kanji’s (a fellow party member) questions about sexuality, but nothing at all about the complicated politics the game design promotes in concern to transgender topics. So let this be an ode to Naoto, as he deserves a critical analysis, but also my questioning of and challenge to Atlus about their representation of transgender characters. While Persona 4 makes the player interact with the issues surrounding someone who is transgender, the games before and after featured transgender characters more in the background. It shows a deliberate move by the development team to include transgender characters in their games, and therefore make a statement about them; it is extremely rare for a transgender character to appear in a game, much less three in a row. I investigate Altus’ position on transgender topics (as shown in their games) while informed through their depiction of Naoto in the context of these other characters.

In Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, your party gets a small reprieve on an island, where the boys eventually go to the beach to pick up women. They are unsuccessful until they meet one that seems especially receptive to them, who will “show them a thing or two” and is otherwise outlandishly suggestive. Before she can take anyone back to her room, a party member notices she has hair on her chin, outing her as transgender; she admits her plan in tricking the boys and keeps the offer of sex open before departing. To say the least, this is an atrocious depiction of trans-women that relies on the sexual anxieties and (perceived) deviances of heterosexual men. Many took it as a comical and lighthearted scene from the rest of the morbid and dreary storyline, however, this is one of the very few ways trans-women are characterized in media overall, which is extremely unrealistic and damaging. Persona 3 carries on transphobia by failing to offer a character different from conventional imagining of trans-women as sexual deviants deceiving hapless heterosexual men. It also relegates them strictly to the sexual realm, as if that is the only place transgender women appear, and those are the only qualities unique to this group of people.

Based on that experience alone, seeing Naoto in Persona 4 would seem to be a cause for celebration, as he is an extremely well written character and overall engaging and respectable. However, the extremely problematic character Erica in Catherine throws the intentions behind Naoto into question. There is little information during gameplay to let the player know Erica is transgender, however in hindsight, these hints are rather malicious. Throughout Vincent’s time in the game’s bar, he and his friends are amicable to Erica but also say rather disparaging things about her femininity. The group of men seems to put up with Erica rather than appreciate her friendship, and is vaguely trying to steer away the youngest member, naïve Toby, from pursuing his attraction for her. The second hint comes when Erica shares that she is starting to have nightmares, which only men are supposed to be having, however it is easy to overlook this, as it appears everyone who goes to the bar has these dreams. The player finds out directly only if they achieve the True Lover’s Ending, when it is implied the guys told Toby Erica is transgender and expresses regret losing his virginity to her. It might be tempting to say that because the only real overt transphobia comes from the main villain, who happens to be her employer, and that Atlus is taking a favorable position on transgender representation in Catherine. However, like the character in Persona 3, she is the deviant, sexual trickster who seduces unsuspecting men to their sexuality questioning doom. Her friends don’t show any support and have extremely little respect for her identity as a woman; as well, her boss is constantly hitting on her, despite that he was punishing her for transitioning into a woman and seeking romance as a trans-woman. Erica herself is a great character with relatable dialogue for the most part, but the politics surrounding her doesn’t provide any optimism for trans-folk and their allies.

Transgender topics were blips in these games, which is why they more so provide the context of how Naoto is interpreted rather than stand on their own to inform the player how Atlus, or gaming overall, is treating transgender characters. A brief synopsis of Naoto’s presence in Persona 4: Naoto is a 16-year-old detective prodigy that appears at first as a mysterious character with clues surrounding the murder cases. His appearance is noteworthy as Kanji starts feeling attracted to him, and this is a tense topic as he is apparently struggling with his sexuality (that’s a whole other topic). Naoto’s relationship with the group is tense at first as he realizes they harbor secrets relating to the case, but they all see him as respectable, intelligent, and capable (it is also worth mentioning that he has a resemblance to male protagonists in other Shin Megami Tensei games). He eventually uses his fan following, who calls him the ‘Detective Prince,’ to his advantage to gain a lead in the case. In the Jungian-like TV world where Naoto confronts his ‘Shadow,’ the player finds out that Naoto is female and the Shadow wants to perform sexual reassignment surgery on him. As this scene depicts, Naoto presents himself as a man because of the environment of the police force; no one would take him seriously if he were a woman. After defeating his Shadow, Naoto decides he doesn’t need to become a male to succeed as a detective, and joins the party.

This is when Atlus promptly fails Gender 101. The game text begins to refer to Naoto as she and her, and makes no distinction between sex and gender. Whenever there is a need to divide the characters along the lines of gender, Naoto appears with the women instead of the men. In general, they keep his personality the same and make more references to androgyny to keep in line with the character they have built up. The game continues to depict Naoto as an awesome personality through the main storyline, and receives a generally warm acceptance by everyone even though there is a question about his true sex. However, the essentialist attitude similar to the antagonist’s in Catherine exposes a lack of understanding about transgender issues and tucks in an almost sinister transphobia in what seems to be overwhelming support and popularity for Naoto as a character. Most (if not all) people who are transgender face an internal struggle with sexual reassignment. There is a heavy amount of reinforcement from society to have it in order to achieve (some amount of) social acceptance. This is a source of tremendous anxiety, especially for those cannot attain resources that allow them to transition. More importantly, not everyone wants to change their sex, or better yet, don’t feel that changing their sex should be a requirement to being treated as the gender they identify as. I saw that scene with Naoto at first as a brave proclamation to continue as a man without aiming to become male, only to be confused and devastated when the game started to turn him into a woman. This happens in attention to the assumed romantic and sexual intentions of the player by making Naoto accessible as to not threaten the assumed player’s (a heterosexual man) gender and sexuality. Because all of the females are open for romance (don’t get me started on just that thought), the logic of the game decides Naoto should be as well, and he becomes the antithesis of what he wants during his Social Link with the protagonist. There is a clear disconnect between the Naoto in the main story and the Naoto in the Social Link. While you are able to become intimate with Naoto while encouraging him to still be a man, there are options for you to persuade him to act and dress as a woman. What makes this disturbing is Naoto’s identity hinges on the player’s choices, and the gameplay mechanics encourage the player to nudge Naoto towards becoming a woman. For instance, the first trigger that can initiate romance with Naoto when choosing “I’m glad you’re a girl” when he is having a moment wishing he was born male. The second romance flag comes when you choose to protect Naoto from harm, for which the protagonist frustrates him by making him feel weak when treated as a woman.

All of this is after he expresses little interest in wanting a relationship, and that he makes no indication of his sexual orientation; the game allows the player to force him into the romantic fantasies of a heterosexual man. If this wasn’t enough, there is a scene after you confess your love for Naoto when he asks the player if they want him to start talking with a higher pitch to his voice to sound more feminine, and if they choose to have a higher pitch, he will dress up in a girl’s school uniform during the Christmas event. This event is more poignant in the Japanese version of this scene; instead of the pitch of his voice, he asks the protagonist if he minded Naoto’s use of ‘boku,’ which is the ‘I’ that men use. Telling him that you want him to stop prompts the above scene, but you also can opt for Naoto to stay the same. The scene when Naoto dresses up in a girl’s uniform completely transforms his personality; he’s now always blushing, stammering, quiet, scrunched up as much as he can into himself. Very typical Japanese schoolgirl as this is just before an implied sexual scene. This scene trivializes the pressure transgender people feel to perform their gender well enough not to violate their partner’s sense of sexuality, and the incredible burden to make sure they are always passing as the desired gender. Naoto’s Social Link was an extreme waste of an opportunity to explore the intricacies of a relationship when at least one partner is transgender, something I don’t think I’ve ever been able to witness in the media.

I do find value in Atlus including transgender characters in their games, but in order for these instances to be progressive, they have to be positive and enlightening depictions. Each one of these characters appeared in the game and interacted with the player in a way that is specific to heterosexual men, and uses said culture to define their character arcs. Despite the flaws Atlus implanted into Naoto, I enjoyed his character and explored my feelings of being romantically attracted to a trans-man (which wasn’t something I considered at the time), and find this type of game to be a powerful avenue to promote diversity and understanding of those underrepresented in the media. It also shows how much other characters in games revolve around how they relate to heterosexual men, which prompts said group to inform game developers of their interest in more diverse viewpoints.

Diversity Watch: Bastion

As a sort of closing thoughts on my time with Bastion, I’m curious as to how I can further my agenda of promoting diversity in games, or seeing how games are an artifact of a culture’s stance on diversity. This isn’t meant to scold Bastion by not fulfilling their quota of minorities, but letting it speak for itself.

Race and Ethnicity

For all the fear that the industry has about touching the topic of race and ethnicity, Bastion pushes the topic out there and lets the player interpret it. What is disheartening is how easily players can overlook this tension and participate in the usual brand xenophobia (and anti-environmentalism at that) that is produced from video games. Bastion makes use of race to draw on the player’s cultural understanding of them against us, of a nation against savages. The Ura draw on the qualities of the Far East (they even live in the East) to act as markers when juxtaposed against the kid and Rucks’ racial features; they have paler skin with dark hair, superstitious about a pantheon of gods, move around the map sharp and quickly (reminiscent of ninjas), and Zulf’s personal item is a hookah. This wouldn’t be so noticeable if Rucks and the kid weren’t depicted as very western (bulky males, caucasian facial features, imperialistic culture, science-orientated), however it goes a step further and marks them as very American. I was personally shocked when I first heard Rucks’ voice and then confused when I saw him; the voice actor was particular in using a tone and diction that is reminiscent of African-American (I use this term to identify a specific group of people, not to be PC) local color stories. So when I saw that Rucks was depicted as caucasian, my rationalization was assuming the team was looking for an aesthetic that was patently American. Following this line of thinking, I’m sure someone can come up with an interesting interpretation of seeing the US against its eastern anxieties (most of the Middle East, China, North Korea) in Bastion. However, that’s not my goal here; it’s possible that those with a differing ethnicity than the canon American one would be able to identify with the wrong done to Zulf, but it would be a difficult claim as you kill more and more Ura to get to your goal. Rucks’ excuse for killing all these people is flimsy and ethnocentric, as I could imagine a different reaction if Caeldonian lives were the ones at stake (or maybe they are, and that’s why it’s easy to kill Ura).

There’s also the tucked away issue about Zia’s liminal status when it comes to her ethnicity; she was raised in Caeldonia, but her race is of the Ura. There are mixed messages with the plot point of Zia running off to meet Zulf, and the implications of him claiming her as an Ura. It is unclear if Zia ever felt a sense of belonging, though this might be implied by the very subtle hints of the kid’s affection towards her.

Gender and Sexuality

The game assumes heteronormativity and doesn’t make any grand statements about gender. Bastion follows many traditions in this genre; the main character is a young male who identifies as a (conventionally Western) man and uses many typical props that suggest masculinity. There are some neat twists on the weapons in the game, but they are the same from every other: every type of gun you can think of and a bunch of melee weapons that require strength rather than anything else. One of the upgrades for the Bastion is a distillery which indicates that the kid is drinking throughout his adventures; I have nothing against drinking, but it is a common trope of masculinity to be a hard drinker, and this cannot go unnoticed if the main character is continually called ‘the kid.’ I find it problematic in an abstract way when boys in video games are assumed to have weapon and combat competency, or at least how prevalent this type of character is in video games. Rucks reinforces these expectations by the actions he points out the kid doing; I remember feeling a little put off when there was a quote of the kid having a sort of affection for one of his guns (I think there’s multiple references like these for the musket). There is little room for any other expression or identification of any other type of masculinity other than the gamer hegemonic one.

Zia’s representation as the sole woman (I’ll assume female as well) seem more to be in service of contrasting the kid’s masculinity. The (typical) emphasis on her beauty is slyly done by hearing her song and voice before you meet her. The sequence attributes the usual qualities to Zia before we even meet her; delicate sounding, beauty in an ethereal sense, a rare sight, something to chase. Rucks’ narration during this sequence is ambiguous during the first play-through as the player doesn’t know who he’s telling the story to (I assumed he was tell me the story), and it prompts the unaware listener to admire Zia as an aesthetic. Also, seeing that her personal item is a cooking pot… It doesn’t seem like Bastion is trying to leave behind any molds.

Something interesting is at work, though, when comparing the two aesthetics invoked, as they seem rather gendered. Zia’s song seems to be the audio translation of the visual representation of the game; I look at Bastion and see something beautiful and delicate. But Rucks’ narration, the only other voice of the game, gives the aesthetic more grittiness, enough so it isn’t alienating to the type of character the kid embodies. My personal observations of the themes at work in this game sprout from details like this, and I’m sure an interpretation waits to be read there.

Closing Thoughts

More could be said about age and and ableism, but they seem to just exist in the game and don’t really complicate the matter. Rucks has an interesting role as an elder, but turns out to be a threat of a harmful culture rather than an agent on his own. There is also no indication of transgender, intersexed, or asexual people, though given this allegory to America overall, it would be interesting where such characters would fit in.

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.