Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Oct 21, 2009
Unlike the radical individualism that marks and perhaps romanticizes the protagonists of Grand Theft Auto, Saint's Row succeeds in creating a positive response to the Saints through their representation of them as a gang of slightly more thoughtful, slightly more opened minded thugs.

Most games based on the Grand Theft Auto formula of creating an open world, in which a player in the form of a criminal is allowed free reign to explore and dominate a world, have a tendency to attempt to distinguish themselves from this forerunner in some fundamental kind of way.  Games like The Godfather or Scarface have attempted various ways of changing up the open world formula by grafting area control and economic development elements into the mix of shooting and driving components that form the basis of GTA-style gameplay.


These additions to gameplay are welcome enough to fans of this form of crime fiction.  They also seem appropriate given that the player is taking on the role of a criminal and being allowed to play out the “business” of being a member of an organized crime syndicate or gang seems a sensible choice for building a more complex gaming system. 


However not all GTA clones have sought to make major innovations in the genre. Realizing the successfulness of the series lies in the experience of ripping off cars and creating mayhem alongside its generally satirical and absurd tone, THQ’s Saint’s Row (while sometimes making some subtle improvements to certain weaknesses of the GTA-style “thug simulator”) has largely chosen to adhere to the basic gameplay concepts and generally parodic qualities of its source of inspiration.  This tendency has led to a number of folks observing that the game is something of a GTA “clone” (a truly dreaded term given its usual implications of merely being a rip off of a more successful original).


Nevertheless, I would argue that the Saint’s Row series does distinguish itself from GTA in some subtle ways that are perhaps more related to some of its presentation of criminality than in its approach to gameplay.  While GTA games tend to focus on a kind of central and largely solitary protagonist, there is a greater emphasis on collectivism in Saint’s Row that is interestingly very much antithetical to exclusive individuality as its gang culture is rather radically inclusive.


Now the notion of radical inclusivity should at once raise some eyebrows when discussing gang social dynamics.  Seemingly much of the gangster lifestyle can be equated to a kind of tribalism that may be related to territorial interests or even hereditary or biological ones.  Gangs form around territory and shared interests, and thus, gang members surround themselves with fellows of similar socioeconomic backgrounds as themselves.  Or gangs are organized, like the Mafia, around family units that similarly have related social and economic interests that they wish to defend.  In either case, most gangs have a tendency towards homogeneity rather than towards recruitment of a diverse membership.


The original Saint’s Row certainly represented this tendency clearly through the gangs opposed to the 3rd Street Saints.  Los Carnales, the Westside Rollerz, and the Vice Kings all had a pretty homogeneous racial make-up (race being a relatively easy visual marker for representing such commonality) as each was largely made up of Spanish, Asian and white, and black gang members respectively.  Curiously, the gang that the player’s avatar finds himself a part of distinguishes itself from these three gangs through its racial diversity rather than its racial and ethnic homogeneity.  The Saints colors, purple, are the only color that marks this group’s unity unlike its opposition whose skin colors were largely as common to one another as their chosen gang colors (the Westside Rollerz represented some slight degree of diversity with their seemingly biracial make-up, however, the Rollerz social class represented by their more suburban territory might serve as a further homogenizing element).


Given the positive valorization of racial and ethnic diversity in contemporary Western culture, the Saints embrace of inclusivity has a subtle effect on the player’s perception of the gang.  They are clearly the most civilized of these warring tribes of thugs, since they are so progressive and open minded.  Unlike the radical individualism that marks and perhaps romanticizes the protagonists of Grand Theft Auto, Saint’s Row succeeds in creating a positive response to the Saints through their representation of them as a gang of slightly more thoughtful, slightly more opened minded thugs.


The gang’s leadership is similarly marked with this commitment to diversity as the Saints’s leader Julius is black and his lieutenants are Asian and white (though there are no major hispanic leaders).  This inclusive make-up is even helpful to the gang, since its members find themselves more capable of slipping moles into their rivals ranks; they have members that “look like” their rivals.  Diversity here is not simply a mark of the civilized, but it also demonstrates how such a strategy of inclusivity is advantageous and “smarter” than racial homogeneity.


Of course, some of the reason for the racial diversity of the Saints might be attributed to THQ’s decision to give players of Saint’s Row considerably more freedom in creating an avatar of that player’s own design.  Unlike Grand Theft Auto, whose characters are necessarily defined by the game’s narrative, Saint’s Row contains a fairly robust character creation system that allows the player to design their ideal criminal’s appearance, including racial characteristics. 


Indeed, the race and ethnicity of GTA characters are deeply wedded to the storyline that Rockstar has in mind for each installment of the series, and thus, the sort of freedom that Saint’s Row is looking for in crafting a character seems unlikely given the significance of various characters’ backgrounds.  Tommy Vercetti’s Italian heritage links him to his Mafia roots, CJ Johnson is a young black man from a Los Santos ‘hood, and Niko Bellic hails from an unnamed Eastern European country that has been devastated by war and left Niko with an axe to grind and a killer instinct.  The story of an inclusive gang allows Saint’s Row to give the player more freedom in crafting a racial identity of their own without interfering with the story.


Interestingly, this same system’s expansion in Saint’s Row adds an even more radically progressive inclusivity to the identity politics of Saint’s Row.  Since the protagonist of the first game was badly burned in an explosion on a yacht at the conclusion of the first game, Saint’s Row begins by allowing the player to once again select this character’s appearance.  The attempted assassination of the character becomes a useful conceit for justifying this change as reconstructive surgery.  What is especially radical about this chance to “update” the character’s look (assuming the player played the first game) is that not only can the player choose to change up the character’s hair and eye color alongside his race, but it is that the main character’s gender can be reassigned as well.


To my knowledge, no other open world crime game has allowed the player to play as a woman, let alone as a transgendered character.


Before considering this decision’s implications for the player, though, it should be noted that Saint’s Row 2 largely maintains its distinctions between the “good gang” and the “bad gangs” through racial unity and diversity.  Saint’s Row 2 concerns conflicts with a Japanese gang and an Afro-Caribbean gang.  A third gang, the Brotherhood, is interestingly more homogeneous in nature, which is especially interesting because they initially attempt to form a truce with the newly reformed Saints, suggesting, perhaps, that this more inclusive style of gang membership does lend itself towards more peaceable and civilizing tendencies.


Returning to the reconfiguration of the player’s avatar, though, players who adopt a new racial identity may certainly note how easily they are once again adopted into the Saints despite their change in appearance, but a player who adopts the role of a transgendered gangster will likewise find that their former colleagues have managed to maintain an extremely progressive stance towards identity, which might be surprising given the radical nature of their change


Now, I don’t want to make too much of the scripting that acknowledges identity and identity change in the second game as it is largely played as a joke, but I find it notable that the nature of the joke largely changes based on the player’s choices in reshaping their identity and their choices made during the prior game.  In that sense, Saint’s Row exhibits a really interesting consequence of a medium that allows its audience to alter the course of the narrative.  While a script is in place for the game regardless of those choices (the linear narrative will remain regardless of the player’s choices about character creation), the way that those lines are interpreted by the player are directly affected by such choices and thus do alter the message of the text because the context in which the lines are understood changes their signification.


The notion that meanings need to be reconsidered under certain contexts are common enough in literary works.  For example in Natheniel Hawthorn’s Scarlet Letter, Hawthorn acknowledges a symbol’s meaning can change given its context in a number of ways and that when such changes occur that their consequences are meaningful whether that meaning be intended or not.  The Scarlet Letter A itself is intended by the Puritans to mark Hester Prynne as an adulterous.  However, since Hester is allowed to design it herself, she sews an emblem that is highly decorative and ostentatious, something potentially beautiful.  When she emerges before the Puritan women with the A on, they are offended by its message, both because it is emblematic of Hester’s sin but also because it is so ornate and beautifully made that it also suggests a defiance in its wearer (probably very much an intended message on Hester’s part).  Later in the novel, a Native American visiting the Puritan community sees Hester’s A and assumes that she is a personage of great honor and power.  This alternate reading of the A results in an unintended message that nevertheless has consequences as it alters the way that he chooses to behave towards her. 


To illustrate what I mean in the context of the Saint’s Row series, players who choose to play both Saint’s Row and Saint’s Row 2 as a man are likely to find Johnny Gatt’s comments (Gatt is a former lieutenant in the Saints) to be mildly amusing when he notes that the player looks like he has changed in some way and asks the protagonist, “Did you do something with your hair?”  If the player has altered their race, this comment takes on an understated and ironic tone However, the joke reads even more differently when the player has chosen to adopt a female role for the second game.  Gatt’s wildly, understated comment is all the more ironic in this context, but it is also serves as a kind of reassurance that Gatt still recognizes and is not rejecting the appearance of the character. 


Thus while joking, Gatt still seems pretty accepting of a big, big change in the character.  In this context, the superficiality with which he treats the transformation becomes a kind of acknowledgement of an essential respect for the character, especially because this comment is one of the game’s few acknowledgements of such a radical identity shift.  Gatt’s interactions with the character then revert to something resembling the general camaraderie that his character showed towards this same individual towards the close of the first game.  Thus, unlike just choosing a new eye color for a character and having Gatt shrug it off, Gatt’s joking acknowledgment of radical identity reassignment, followed by his resumed comfort with the character speaks quietly but clearly to a sense that the character’s essential self is respected regardless of what physical changes have been made to the character.


There is little else to say regarding the gender reassignment possibilities in Saint’s Row 2, and while it may well be that the game’s developers didn’t bother to seek to explore the complexity of this issue in the game’s script, the near silent acceptance of such transformation tends to speak volumes in the context of the game’s commitment to accepting and embracing diverse identities.  Maybe it is just a character creation thing but curiously that mere mechanism sends rather interesting messages whether intended to do so or not about the nature of assigning identity through appearance.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009
We may have to reconsider who we are as we play out the sexual experiences of someone else.
Only one thing could’ve dragged me away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window.
—Ralphie, A Christmas Story (1983), MGM/UA Entertainment

Much like the “major award” won by Ralphie’s father in A Christmas Story, contemporary video games with “the snap of a few sparks, and a quick whiff of ozone” tend to offer rather ideal, if incomplete images of lurid matter to their audience.  Indeed, sexuality tends to get treated in one of two distinct ways these days. 


The first treatment appeals to Ralphie’s voyeuristic curiosity at the sight of the simulation of an adult female leg in its electrified form, the infamous leg lamp itself.  Getting to view some T&A in a Leisure Suit Larry game as a result of solving some puzzles or beating some mini-game or getting to ogle Dead or Alive babes clad in the scanty suits that took a lot of effort and deductive skill to convince those women to put on are both ways of treating electric (or stimulatory) versions of sex as if such images are indeed “a major award”.  After all, they serve as a visual reward for the player’s efforts in the game.


The second common treatment of sex is to reduce it to manual operations, seemingly a more suitable and participatory effort than other media can usually provide in their expressions of the pornographic. Film, television, and books can merely offer the same fleeting voyeurism of the aforementioned games, but video games offer the opportunity to participate in the representation of sex by potentially simulating its process and not merely by representing images similar to it as a Playboy magazine might. 


While Ralphie’s groping of the leg lamp in A Christmas Story has a certain passionate pubescent charm to it, efforts of the manual variety in recent video games maintain the cold, plastic feel of a mannequin leg and teach probably less about effective groping than Ralphie’s initial efforts at such business.  The sex mini-game in God of War reduces sex to the stabbing motions of button mashing (while obscuring the activity as the camera modestly turns its gaze away from the ménage à trois that Kratos is participating in).  Similarly modest is the Saint’s Row “ho-ing” mini-game that allows only the view of a bathroom door behind which some lurid behavior is apparently occurring between the player’s avatar and a john.  The only participation in this activity is represented by some odd manipulations of the right and left sticks of the controller that vaguely resembles the mechanics of a rhythm game.


Such efforts reduce sexual representation to some kind of weirdly mechanical process. Participating in simulated sexual acts in these games seem to maybe offer less insight into what sex is about than traditional passive, voyeuristic pornography does.


That is why I was fascinated by a recent interview with David Cage of Quantic Dream, the developer of the forthcoming Heavy Rain.  In the interview published in the October 2009 issue of Game Informer, the interviewer comments on a sequence in the E3 demo of the game, in which one of the game’s protagonists, Madison, is forced to strip at gun point by a mob boss.  The interviewer reports that playing this sequence “made me feel uncomfortable”.  Cage responds by saying:


Fantastic.  You know what?  That is exactly what we wanted.  Exactly.  It was really funny to read the reactions to this scene because people were kind of confused.  They really feel uncomfortable because it’s a really strange situation . . . You control a girl and you’re forced to strip in front of a guy, and the guy is really disgusting . . . Yes, it’s a strong moment for the character.  But if we managed to make you feel uncomfortable it is because at some point we made you believe you were Madison.


If I am interpreting Cage’s thinking correctly, he seems to be suggesting that Heavy Rain is moving beyond the voyeuristic simulations of sexuality offered by countless other forms of more passive media and also beyond simply making a participatory simulation of sexuality into a mere simulation of the “‘ol in-out, in-out”.  Instead, what seems to be offered here is a potential simulation of some of the psychology of the sexual experience. 


In this particular instance, the psychology is particularly fascinating as it is likely a rather novel experience for the largest demographic of video game players, males.  If feminist theory concerning the tendency for women to become the object of the male gaze holds any credence, the experience of being made object to that gaze may be an entirely new experience for many players.  Indeed, it may also be an uncomfortable one as traditional gender roles and perspectives may be tested and reversed as a result of being made to “believe you were Madison” because players will participate in this humiliating act rather than merely view it.


Certainly, Cage and Quantic Dream’s efforts are not entirely new.  Many video game players have toyed with gender bending experiments such as playing avatars that represent themselves as the opposite of their own gender.  I have played female avatars in online games and have noted differences in the ways that I am treated when playing as a female character as opposed to a male character.  Largely, my own experience had led me to observe that I seemed to receive a lot more gifts from other players when playing as a female (which may suggest something about cultural norms and expectations concerning male-female relationships). 


However, this limited sort of experience was not placed in the context of a story or a character whose entire personality is coded as female (my avatar was always driven by my own personality as I am not one to play “in character” in games, not attempting then to specifically act like the character that I am playing in the context of the gaming world).  Adding layers of storytelling and the more objective, dramatic qualities of scripted and directed behaviors into this mix may produce more focused statements on sexuality than we have seen in gaming thus far and may push this participatory art in directions that the passive arts are limited in exploring.  Because we may have to reconsider who we are as we play out the experiences of someone else.  Games have the potential to create empathy with characters rather than the sympathy that film or books might evoke in watching someone else suffer or experience pleasure. 


Such illumination might shed some interesting light on sexual issues by provoking emotional responses from players invested in “being” their characters rather than practicing the merely mechanical aspects of sex as if it were a mere game or puzzle to be solved.  I am hoping that more developers are willing to produce a more interesting and insightful vision of real sex through the simulation of the electric, rather than offering us the same leering peeks at it through the window that we have had before.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Oct 7, 2009
This week our Moving Pixels writers decided to play a game of telephone. Leading off with some observations about considering whether or not the idea of “ganking” can be applied to single player experiences, L.B. Jeffries began a discussion that has considered what rules mean to players. G. Christopher Williams is now continuing this discussion by considering the differences between what we mean by playing and gaming and how those ideas relate to rules and the freedom of violating them. Nick Dinicola will conclude our series on Friday, so please do stop by for the discussion's conclusion.

In yesterday’s Moving Pixels Column, L.B. Jeffries considered the concept of “ganking”, a term commonly applied to multiplayer gaming experiences and how the problematic concept of players finding loopholes to circumvent rules in a game might additionally apply to single player experiences.  Jeffries began his essay with a kind of real life example of how a system might be “ganked”, which I guess is a good enough place as any to respond to some of his intriguing thoughts on the issue of how rules and the violation of rules might boil down to a desire on the part of players to simply have the freedom to merely “play”.


Jeffries’s initial real life example considered the decision to enact a law to ban highway signs along certain stretches of roadway in order to beautify them. When the owners of the billboards brought suit against the government for essentially seizing their property, courts upheld the law but required that the owners pay the billboard owners in order to cover their losses.  Since the government couldn’t pay, the owners maintained their billboards.  The intended rules still exist in this scenario, but they have also have been effectively circumvented.  Thus, the system allows for violating the rules despite the rules continued existence—something akin to ganking.


Jeffries goes on to offer some quite compelling examples of how players then might want or need to be able to violate some rules in order to better enjoy the “system” within a game.  While I hesitate to propose a counter argument to this in a political sense (I consider myself a staunch libertarian and thus desire to align myself against rules on general principle and promote freedom) nevertheless, as I have considered Jeffries ideas, it occurred to me that one problem that I have with this notion of encouraging player “freedom” might be an idea that I was troubled by that is embedded in his real life scenario.  Sometimes laws and rules aren’t good to begin with.  It may not be that we need to abolish law but that we need better law.  The “ganking” that occurred as a result of these rules becoming problematic in practice may indicate that the weakness of the design of a rules system (indicated by the potential collapse or lack of necessity for a rule altogether) may indicate that the rules themselves are weak ones and needed to be reconsidered altogether.


To return for the moment to questions of system ganking that apply to multi-player games for instance, I am reminded of the problem that exists for many co-operative MMORPGs concerning power leveling.  Since characters in a role playing game gain power by gaining experience (usually through combat) in a role playing system, the obvious temptation to circumvent the standard rules of gaining experience at a controlled rate by killing monsters exists.  Often players do so by piggybacking on the greater powers and leach additional experience from other higher level characters by teaming with them in order to kill monsters that lower level players should be unable to kill.  Since much of the challenge of the game is predicated on a rules system that suggests how quickly a character may be developed, nevertheless, players do not often want to go through this “grind” and often for good reason.  If your pals play City of Heroes every night for 4-6 hours at a time, and you would like to join them but you are burdened with real life responsibilities like a spouse and a job, taking the time to level up alongside them might become difficult for you.  Since you can’t stay up until 3AM every night, you are going to quickly fall behind your friends and find that you can’t play at their level: the “rules” are prohibitive when it comes to low level characters challenging mid to high level content.


This indicates a conflict of the needs of the player and the designer in generating rules for playing. Perhaps, then, a compromise or reconsideration of the rules might resolve this problem.  Interestingly, City of Heroes implemented rules to deal with power leveling and to address the needs of the casual gamer.  A “sidekick” system was put into place that allowed a lower level player to become a sidekick to an upper level player, effectively increasing the low level player to the level of the high level player (thus, allowing low level players to participate temporarily in higher level content areas with their friends).  However, experience gains were adjusted so that the low level character did not gain access to high level experience.  An inverted version of this system (the name of which escapes me) was also implemented allowing high level characters to essentially “sidekick down” to low level content and again adjustments were made for experience point gains.  While these rules still contained some problems, they were a better “law” than the one currently in place as they allowed for what players wanted to do without violating the intentions of the system.  Additionally, such solutions indicate that the answer to resolving system ganking might not always be met by “nerfing” or by simply letting rules become purposeless (as in Jeffries’s example).  Sometimes adjustments can be made to make a law better and suit the needs of the player’s interests and the designer’s intentions, a balancing of needs.


One type of single player “ganking” of the system that has always bugged me is the exponential growth of economies in simulation and other types of games.  While in games like The Sims the player usually begins the game with scarce funds, eventually (and generally quite early in my experience) an efficient player will find that his own personal income will rise as a result of taking good jobs and managing resources well at a rate that far outstrips the cost of items that that cash is intended to buy.  Once you have a couple million simoleons buying whatever is necessary for your sim home becomes an invisible expense as you generally can simply buy at leisure, reducing the challenge of managing resources in a game whose rules partly (if not wholly) depend on keeping a handle on an economy.  While we could just chalk these moments up to a kind of lovely sense of freedom that this experience creates for the player (getting to experiment without effort with every item in the game), that the system can be ganked economically may just indicate that the rules of economy are badly implemented and that, for the next iteration of the game (or games like it), that better rules might be put into place that maintain the intended challenges of the game.


One such solution to the economics issue is a recognition that stop gaps need to be created on progressive economies and assigning ways of encouraging the player to starategize about managing resources better.  For instance, things like time limits might be helpful.  Generally, more traditional economic board board games like Puerto Rico, Caylus, and Agricola have recognized such problems and attempted to resolve them in this way.  All three games concern creating mechanisms to generate resources in the most efficient ways possible in order to score the most points to win the game.  Since building an economic machine that is efficient and that is unencumbered by random acts of God that might interfere with a real life economy means that eventually profits will boom wildly out of control, designers like Uwe Rosenberg and Andreas Seyfarth have placed limits like a certain amount of turns to play or game ending conditions that halt production before it becomes absurd.  As my recent review of Majesty 2 observes, such limiting factors can be put in place in the scenarios of an RTS in order to control for the hyper-production that ruins the challenge of struggling with resources rather than finding this essential element of the challenge of playing such game to be only burdensome at the game’s start.  Again, this isn’t an example of abolishing or ignoring the rules of a system but adjusting them to balance the competing needs of player and designer.


I am assuming in some sense that most players, ironically, are interested less in “play” (a term that I associate with freedom and the violation of rules), perhaps, than they are in “gaming” (a term that I associate with challenge, competition, and learning how to function well within a system of rules).  I, also, do think some questions might also be raised about the desirability of gaming (the pleasure derived from knowing that you have won a game because you played within the rules well) and the desirability of experimentation, or more simply put, “cheating” (the desire to see if you can gank the system by breaking the rules well).  But, perhaps, those are issues that Nick Dinicola will address on Friday.


This discussion began with Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 1: Considering “Ganking” the System in Video Games and concludes with Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 3: The Right to “Gank” the System in Video Games.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Sep 30, 2009
The advertising may be selling itself rather than the product.

Yeah, I know.  Sex sells.


Indeed, when I teach advertising analysis as an exercise in practicing interpretation and evaluating rhetorical techniques in my freshmen composition classes, I often have students that astutely point out this phenomenon.  I do like to point out that selling a product via sex, though, can be a relatively more complex process than that two word phrase might otherwise imply.  Once we begin comparing advertisements targeted at different types of audiences (heterosexual men, heterosexual women, homosexual men, homosexual women), it generally becomes apparent that this sales technique depends on some interestingly different expectations of how those audiences want their sex served up that may reveal some differences between expectations along gender lines or that might reveal some stereotypes that we have about sexuality and gender.


Evony: The very definition of subtlety

Which brings me to the weirdly sexed up and, what appears to me to be, the overly simplistic and badly marketed Evony campaign.  I should note that a number of other folks have spilled a fair amount of virtual ink on the topic of Evony and its marketing.  I suppose that the fact that Evony has generated as much conversation about its ads as it has does indicate that at least the ads themselves have been successful in getting the game some attention and that it is probably largely related to its extremely straightforward and audacious “sex sells” mentality.  That the game has had much less virtual ink spilled about the game itself, however, may indicate the campaign’s relative lack of success at getting folks to actually play the game.  The advertising may be selling itself rather than the product.


I should mention, though, too, that a lot of this attention has drawn some charges against Evony that go beyond mere marketing issues.  In one of the rare reviews about the gameplay itself over at the Massively Multiplayer Online Gaming news site, Ark’s Ark, a columnist called Arkenor has observed that Evonycontains in game text that bears a suspicious similarity to the text of games from the Civilization series.  Additionally, Arkenor notes that a piece of software called iEvony that is downloadable from the Evony web site “just wants all your instant messenger login details so it can send messages to people on your behalf.”  He suggests that this is part of Evony‘s additional layers of less overt viral marketing.  Nic, a writer for The Big Critique web site, makes similar claims that “this game ripped off its graphics and descriptions from other games [and] includes new software that raises privacy issues.”


With that bit of warning concerning the potentially less obvious aspects of the possible shadiness of Evony aside, though, I am frankly still just baffled by the way that Evony has been sold to gamers.  As the information that Arkenor’s article suggests, Evony is a simulation game in the tradition of Civilization, a fairly hardcore economic management and combat simulation that has no clear connection beyond a medieval theme (and that theme does not even emerge in all of its ads anyway) to the game itself.


Evony is a little less sexy in person

What I am trying to get at here is that while a lot of games try to sell themselves on sexual content, those games usually also contain some element of sexual content.  I just published a piece last week about “The Bodies of Lara Croft and Rubi Malone” that in part defended the representations of these female protagonists of the Tomb Raider series and Wet.  However, I would not ever claim that either Lara or Rubi are not highly sexualized characters in games that in part are selling themselves on that sexuality.  Indeed, as I observed in my recent review of Wet, the game is in part interested in sexuality as it emerges in the exploitation cinema stylistics that it apes. If Wet contains some sexy images, well, it is game that is in part about the topic of sex.  However, unlike Tomb Raider or Wet, Evony is a less than sexy game.  It is a sim.  And it is certainly not some sexy sim.


In that regard, I really don’t understand how the PR minds that are pushing Evony expect to maintain a player base for this game when it simply isn’t offering what it’s advertising.  Sure, it will garner attention and some hardcore sim players like sex, too (hard to believe I know), but those looking for sexual content are going to look away pretty quickly from this game, which ostensibly intends to make money on in game purchases made to enhance this otherwise freeware style of game.  When the money gets made through the play of the game, you better hope that the user is actually there for the game.


This might sort of be what the game is about

Now, the marketing of the game initially was considerably less sexually fixated.  Instead, early ads seemed to play up the medieval themes of the game with an image of a knight brandishing a sword and the like.  Frankly, if that wasn’t doing the trick for luring in players either, I can understand why.  The image is not especially eye catching (it’s a fairly generic bit of art), but this early iteration of the ad campaign shows the same slightly off target marketing of the current one.  The single image of the knight might imply an action-oriented game moreso than a simulation or strategy game to a gamer, so any player that might click on the ad might similarly be disappointed with the game that they are actually getting and might not hang on long enough to drop some virtual coin on it.  It isn’t the clearest representation of the product.  It touches on theme, but theme isn’t the only selling point for a game.


It also begs the question of where ad space is being purchased in any case for these games.  If banners for Evony are showing up on sites frequented by strategy and simulation fans, the confusion of the imagery with what kind of game is being sold might be less problematic than it is on a site with a broader gaming audience.  Gamers get signs like medieval themes and swords, they may not associate that with simulation, though.  As I understand it, Google has added features that aid advertisers (and maybe consumers) by targeting ads towards Google users’ search interests, but the Evony campaign hearkens back to the mystification of advertisers during the 1990s about how to use the web to advertise.  During that era, many advertisers seemed to think that getting any ad space on the kinds of sites with the biggest hit counts during that time period, largely sites about video games or that might feature pictures of Cindy Margolis was a good idea, even though, the 18 to 35 male, computer nerd demographic that frequented those sites might not be the best group to market your fabric softener or gardening tools to (selling Cheetos might have been a more sensible bet).  I also maintain that just because you are targeting gamers, that you might realize that there are more specific venues to target the right kinds and that if you do know that your banners will be showing up on a general gaming site that making your message about what your game is much less ambiguous helps a lot.


In other words as an advertiser, you might do well to attempt to play up the nature of your game to an audience that actually wants to play that kind of game.  I promise that there is a whole audience out there that really wants to play a good economic sim with interesting combat options and tricky decisions about resource management.  You might just want to tell them that your game contains those elements.  You could also probably throw some sex into the mix if the game contains it, but curiously enough, people feel ripped off when they don’t get what they seemed to have been promised.  In the end, the more specifically targeted audience (that doesn’t feel misled) is the most likely group to spend some money on your game and tell their friends about it.  All this might seem really obvious: be truthful about what you are advertising, sell to the right audience, etc.  But recall how “obvious” the idea that “sex sells” alone is supposed to be.


Evony: Desperate much?

Finally, what advertisers might need to learn is that gamers might best be understood by what their name implies, those who like to play games.  As the legendary flop, BMX XXX succeeded in demonstrating, just slapping some pornography on top of a game about BMX tricks is not a sure fire way to get product flying off the shelves.  Gamers interested in BMX tricks might first and foremost be more interested in playing a really well designed game in the genre.  Not that gamers don’t like sex, but maybe it should make sense to include sexuality when it is appropriate and, well, sensible (bikes and strippers, wha?).  Additionally, it might even be worth considering how the audience (be they male or female, straight or gay) might respond to sexual imagery in terms of the plot, themes, and gameplay itself and not simply assume that sex is the sole reason that anything can or will ever be sold to the public.  Quite honestly when I look at the ads for Evony, they look more like a satire on sex in advertising than anything else.  Frankly, a game that satirized advertising sounds more interesting to me and might justify an advertising campaign this absurd.


Maybe I’m wrong, though, and Evony‘s marketing campaign has led to its publishers and developers making money hand over fist.  If so, though, why do they look so desperate to me?


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Sep 23, 2009
The complicated reactions that gamers have to Lara and Rubi might suggest that their representations are, well, at least somewhat complicated.

I deeply admire the audacity of the title of Bethesda’s Wet.  “Wet” refers to the protagonist, Rubi Malone’s, occupation as assassin (skilled at such “wetwork”) and also implies a less than subtle bit of sexual innuendo.  Given Wet‘s overt exploitation cinema influences, the ability to work that genre of film’s two dominant interests, violence and sex, into just one three letter word is pretty clever. 


Character concept art for Wet

Curiously, though, despite the come hither look of the game’s box art, nevertheless, Rubi is an only somewhat sexy female lead.  As my wife observed on seeing the character in game (rather than in the more overtly sexy box art imagery), “I kind of like her; she’s not really that pretty.”


A couple of weeks ago, L.B. Jeffries wrote about “Miconceptions About the Female Avatar” elsewhere in Moving Pixels. Jeffries used a study, “Hypersexualized Females in Digital Games: Do Men Want Them, Do Women Want to Be Them?” as the basis for his discussion of how women may react positively to “hypersexualized” female avatars in games.  As defined by the study, hypersexuality is represented in games that tend to exaggerate the sexual characteristics of female characters.  Specifically, the 34D-24-35 measurements of Lara Croft were cited as the “embodiment” of this kind of hypersexual representation.


Lara Croft in Tomb Raider Anniversary

Lara is an interesting (and due to her notoriety as something like the first sex symbol of video games, of course, obvious) choice in discussing the topic of how women respond to female representations in games.  Female gamers have long expressed a variety of opinions, from appreciation to dismay, in response to the character and her appearance.  While the study, which was interested in seeing how men and women responded to a female protagonist of different body types from thin to curvy to hypersexualized, controlled for additional representational issues like clothing and the like in some way (the female models that they selected for their test subjects to respond to all wore the same clothing styles regardless of body type and were featured in the same game), Rubi Malone’s recent appearance, and Lara’s too for that matter, got me interested in considering more than the mere shape of female avatars but what other visual and aural markers might tell a player about these women.


Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

While Jessica Rabbit’s observation about the representational qualities of her own hypersexualized body suggests that exaggerated curves might provoke a negative ethical evaluation of an individual: “I’m not bad.  I’m just drawn that way.”  That Ms. Rabbit is generally “drawn” in an off the shoulder cabaret costume slit nearly up to the top of her thigh in addition to the application of her pouty make-up might also contribute to her assumption that people’s negative perceptions of her are related to the sight of her body and what it is interpreted as suggesting about her character.


In that regard, I find that both Lara and Rubi, who have each provoked both positive and negative responses regarding what they look like, are interesting, since what they wear marks them and might alter perceptions concerning how they should be interpreted in addition to interpretations that might arise from their exaggerated silhouettes. 


To begin by examining the appearance of the first lady of video games, Lara’s most essential representational marker in addition to her body is probably her voice, and even more specifically, her accent.  For Americans in particular, I think that the British accent evokes an irrational correlation with sophistication and culture.  Lara “sounds” elegant to the American ear, since she speaks the King’s English in what is perceived to be a traditionally aristocratic way (of course, Lady Lara Croft is also quite literally aristocratic).  This element of Lara extends from aural cues to her own visual representation.  Hair pulled back in a pony tail or braids might signal casualness or even childishness, but when severely drawn back (as Lara’s most often is), it also signals sophistication and elegance.  Up-dos suggest formality and seriousness of purpose.  Such elegance does also extend to her wardrobe.


Lara Croft in Tomb Raider Anniversary

While most often garbed in short shorts and a skin tight sleeveless shirt, such attire is often not seen as formal attire so such a notion might seem counter to this claim.  Nevertheless, simplicity is a synonym for elegance in both science and fashion.  Lady Croft is certainly not planning to attend a dinner party in her outfit, but then again, she is raiding tombs not garden parties and casual but elegant (or simple and basic) attire does exist.  Affluent New York casual fashions are often dominated by single toned tank tops and crisp jeans.  Lara is also not wearing spandex booty shorts and generally not sporting cleavage in her most iconic attire.  Her shorts are shorts, and they look expensive, not hoochy.


In other words, Lara might be understood as sexy as a result of her possessing hypersexual curves, but she really doesn’t look like someone that you would pick up at a dive bar.  Her clothing marks her otherwise and adds an additional layer that communicates a message beyond her availability (indeed, it may suggest a lack thereof).  She looks expensive, not cheap.


Bayonetta concept art

Compare Lara’s simple, sexy, but fashionable outfit to that of the clothing options of the protagonist of the forthcoming Bayonetta or any one of the female combatants of the Dead or Alive series, and you will see that Lara’s hypersexuality is tempered by an effort to mark her body with something other than mere sexual presence.  Bayonetta‘s glasses might mark her as “smart” but naughty librarian seems a more accurate interpretation considering the other elements of her costuming and how they relate to that one seemingly “intellectual” representational quality of the character.


Wet‘s Rubi Malone also has additional messages layered onto (or possibly over) her possibly hypersexualized body as well (I am unaware of whether Rubi’s measurements have been publicized, but she appears to be slightly less busty than Lara).  Despite being a protagonist who is modeled on female characters from a cinematic style oriented towards fairly overt sexual representation (in addition to probably Lara Croft whose stance in game is quite similar as are many of her jumping animations), Rubi’s foul (foul, not sexy, unless you consider lines like, “Hey, fucktard” and “Fuck you, door” to be sexy) mouth and rock and roll clothing style suggest a degree of toughness that again speaks more a message of a lack of availability than of a woman of questionable moral character (you know, the whole “I’m not bad” business that Ms. Rabbit is complaining about). 


Rubi is not elegant like Lara.  As noted, her mouth suggests otherwise.  So too, do her tattoos, a marker most traditionally associated with the lower or working classes or counter cultures, not high culture.  Her tattoos are interesting, though, like the economic and social classes that they have historically been associated with (sailors, criminals, and the like), they mark her as “tough.” Contemporarily, tattoos have become a fashionable accessory, however, sometimes (especially for women) they additionally suggest a sexual quality as the lower back tattoo’s description in the vernacular, the “tramp stamp”, attests to.  While Rubi shows a slight amount of midriff and lower back, her tattoos remain in less sexualized locations on her body.  Her arm is tatted; she is not, however, “tramp stamped” as these markings do not appear in the vicinity of more sexualized areas of the body, like the bare lower back. 


Rubi Malone in Wet

In this regard, what Rubi is not wearing becomes most significant when contrasting what is typically associated with “sexiness” to what she is actually wearing.  Again, she does bare her midriff, though, only maybe an inch and a half or so.  She is not wearing a low ride cut to further emphasize skin or anything else one might expect a female avatar that is showing skin like the midriff to normally wear.  Instead, Rubi wears more clothing that marks her as “tough” rather than sexy: a leather jacket (again, a very counter culture or even criminal marker, evoking rock and roll, punk, or a Mafia vibe), military fatigues, and combat boots that are not (as they so often are for video game characters) stretching all the way up the calf but more like an actual soldier’s combat boots (an occupation associated with toughness and rigor) that end about mid-calf.


I am not attempting to suggest that Lara and Rubi are not representations of women that are not sexualized or not in part subject to the gaze of their viewers (though the question of whether avatars are watched becomes complicated in a medium in which what you watch is something that you are also “being”—that is a subject for another lengthier discussion, though) and likely in part intended to be objects of desire for their viewers.  But what I am suggesting is that the sexualized body is complicated by clothing and other markers that may alter and refine the message being sent in such representations.  Lara is both sexy and elegant (or expensive) and Rubi is both sexy and tough.  Both characters have at least two layers (and, okay, it might only be two, but I think that that is one more than many avatars both male and female often get in their visual representations) and that those layers may modify one another in significant ways that alter how players (both male and female) might respond to them either positively or negatively.  Fundamentally, I don’t think either character’s appearance reduces them to a woman who can be seen as “merely sexy.”


My wife says she likes Rubi because (not in spite of) the fact that she isn’t exactly pretty.  What makes her “not exactly” pretty might be that other element that can be read on her body.  Rubi’s clothing might be communicating a message more loudly than her body.  She might be sexy, but on first glance, she looked pretty damned tough to me.  The complicated reactions that gamers have to Lara and Rubi might suggest that their representations are, well, at least somewhat complicated.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements
PopMatters' LUCY Giveaway! in PopMatters's Hangs on LockerDome

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.