Thursday, August 01, 2013

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Character Flaws: Thoughts on the Dragon's Crown Review Controversy

Dragon's crown
Janine "Iris Ophelia" Hawkins' ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style

Even prior to its release, side-scrolling fantasy beat-'em-up Dragon's Crown has been been in the headlines for all the worst reasons. When trailers were released earlier this year many people recoiled at the art style and animation, and the game's lead artist (who is also the president of developer Vanillaware) responded to one critique in particular by implying that if the male writer of the piece didn't like the bizarre endowments of the female characters, he might prefer the burly dwarven men instead. Get it? It's a gay joke. Needless to say that didn't go over well, and an apology followed shortly thereafter.

Now that the game has actually been released reviews are being posted. Turns out it's a beautiful and fun game that still has some serious problems, one of which being how it handles its female characters. Many reviews have brought this up, but Danielle Riendeau's coverage on Polygon has been one of the most controversial, even though she doesn't focus unduly on any one aspect of the game over another. The most extreme reactions have been questioning whether women should be allowed to review games like Dragon's Crown in the first place, likening it to "a WW2 casualty reviewing Call of Duty". Yes, that's a real thing that a human being said, just in case you needed to be reminded that the internet is kind of a horrible place. Then again sometimes it's pretty okay, too.

No matter which side of the issue you're on there's a lot that needs to be discussed, so I'm going to try to share my own response to all this as clearly and succinctly as possible.

Female monk warrior

This isn't just about sex, breasts, or butts.

Sex isn't bad. About half of humanity has boobs. Pretty much all of humanity has butts and thighs and other assorted parts. A person/character doesn't automatically deserve less respect because they have big boobs. That is not immediately a sign that they have less value than someone with a "normal" chest. The same goes for clothing. What someone, real or fictional, is wearing should not be the deciding factor in how much respect they deserve.

Last night someone asked me and some friends during a Dragon's Crown stream what we thought of Catherine, another game published by Atlus that was somewhat cheesecake-heavy, and which game was "worse". The fact is that Catherine is a game that is trying to tackle gender and sexuality in a mature way, featuring a main character who is struggling with the impulse to eat cheesecake all the time instead of the balanced meals he's used to. It's presented as an incredibly important struggle, at that, with severe consequences. While its depictions aren't perfect it's not even in the same sphere as Dragon's Crown. During that same stream someone also asked about Isabella in Dragon Age 2, and again there's really no comparison. Isabella was a sexual character because that was her personality. More to the point, she had a personality. She was a three-dimensional character with many facets, one of which was her sexuality. That doesn't make her a trashy or a bad character by nature. Sex on its own is not weakness.

When a female character is designed solely to elicit the most basic kind of attention from men, when the extent of her role is being splayed out on the screen or being the vulnerable squealing impetus for the hero's actions, that's when it becomes a problem. It's boring and easy, relying on crude and familiar stereotypes people can identify without the work that would be needed to add any extra depth. I really appreciated that Danielle Riendeau pointed out in her review that as off-putting as the distorted anatomy of the female characters is, they are still kick-ass character with agency and intent. The same can't be said for the vast majority of female NPCs in the game including the "female monk warrior" shown above, and that's where a lot of the truly objectionable content in Dragon's Crown comes from.

This game's style is probably rooted in genre parody and satire, but that doesn't make it good parody or satire.

If you want to comment on the ridiculous tropes of the fantasy genre, then cool. Do that. Comment. Say something. Make a statement. Don't just reproduce it and leave it wallowing there for people to draw their own conclusions.

"Oh but you know how Japan is about these things," is another excuse that's coming up often during this discussion, as if that explains everything (and isn't also pretty racist to boot). Japan is the same country that produces the amazing girl-positive films of Hayao Miyazaki, while American and European developers have made their fair share of gross and poorly-thought out characters.

Maybe people are just people and sometimes they make good choices and sometimes they don't.

 

That said, if you play or want to play Dragon's Crown, you're not a "bad" person.

And the developers who worked on it aren't bad people either. You're entitled to like what you like. Even though I find Scarlet Blade repugnant, I still like the idea of giant robots and laser whips and all that pulpy sci-fi stuff. I may feel conflicted about it, but even if I didn't I'm entitled to feel however I feel.

The problem starts when someone decides that their feelings are the only valid feelings, or that their perspective on the issue is the only one worth having.

It can be incredibly difficult to change your line of thought from "that person's ideas are wrong" to "that person's ideas are different", but when it comes to topics like this it's something that more people really should force themselves to do. Tattoo it on yourself Memento-style if you have to. Seriously.

If the issues at hand don't affect you, you need to understand that you have a certain degree of privilege.

Some people are affected, and your feelings and experiences don't invalidate theirs. If this didn't legitimately bother people, no one would be talking about it. It wouldn't even be a traffic hook because no one would care. Period. Telling them not to be upset will not magically erase the reason why they are upset.

The fact that the game upsets them might keep them from enjoying it, and that's both valid and normal.

You don't need to remind them that it's "just a game", but again this is something that's usually said from a place of privilege. If you haven't been upset in this way, it can be genuinely difficult to put yourself in that person's shoes, and it's not easy for me to come up with any kind of snappy metaphor that might help.

I think the best I can do is ask you to imagine the thing that has bothered you most in your life, something that is a recurring theme, a source of anxiety. Maybe it's a bad relationship with a family member, maybe it's a childhood trauma, maybe it's an illness or another issue. Maybe you're very patriotic or you're a fan of something that you don't like seeing put down. Like videogames. Now imagine that your favorite form of media threw that issue around casually in almost every other release. Sometimes they treat it well, but more often than not they don't. The issue is usually reduced to its most stereotypical form, and if you want to engage with this media at all you have to have your nose rubbed in it regularly.

Maybe that would affect how much you enjoy it.

Reviews are not written inside of a vaccuum, they are written by people with concerns, and that's good.

A game with blatant racism shouldn't get a pass because the racism itself isn't a gameplay mechanic, but that's the case many people are trying to make about Dragon's Crown. Reviews generated by emotionless robots evaluating only the technical merits or shortcomings of a game don't have a place here. You would never review a movie on purely technical terms, and games should be the same.

If it's in the game, it's fair for it to be in any review as well.

Critique ≠ Dislike

As Anita Sarkeesian says when prefacing her videos, critique does not equal hatred or even dislike for a subject. You can absolutely criticize something you don't give a shit about, but that's not the default position -- I love Bioshock Infinite for example, but I have some serious misgivings about it as well. In a lot of ways my enjoyment of that game is why I'm so critical of it, because I want to fix the flaws in an experience that I personally value. The critiques of what we enjoy are often the ones that come easiest because those are the things we care about most. This kind of critique is absolutely vital in developing and advancing the media we create and consume.

1500 words later I think that's all I can muster on this subject for now. If you want to hear more I'd suggest watching this video by Totalbiscuit in response to the reactions to Danielle Riendeau's original piece on Polygon. Alternately, the next episode of Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs. Women in Video Games just went up on YouTube and addresses the problems with kind of half-baked satire I mentioned in this post, so I highly recommend watching it as well.

Please share this post with people you like:

Mixed reality iris 2013Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.

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NetDwarf

It's not a satire that makes such characters, it's a 'Grotesque' - an art style the developers chose for their project(western example - Warhammer 40k). And yes, I like it.
Actually, if jealaous or frustrated people could force developers to make all characters up to people ideas, it would be a mess of a product, who would like to play some 40 year old office loser guy or white trash trailer lady without frontal teeth. Generally speaking, it's the same story as 'ugly people on tv'. Back in the day we had none of them, but later some superbrains decided that we need to watch same dorks as we are. So this is when jersey shore kicked in/irony mark/.
Consider the discussed game an 'other better world', where we can be the ones we can't be irl no matter how hard we try.

Iggy

My wife and I dine frequently at a Thai place downtown, just down the street from a game shop. In the front window, bigger than life, is a cardboard stand-up of one of these types of female figures, advertising a card-based RPG.

As we glance in the store at the morbidly fat dudes rolling their d20s or pushing around Warhammer figures, my wife always glances at the busty female in the window and says something like "nerds gotta have dreams."

Pussycat Catnap

I eagerly await your review of Scarlet Blade.

This kind of thing is nothing new. Which is not to say it is ok.

Blackface, and Native American Mascots on sports are also nothing new.

It needs to change. NOW.

But SL, with its proud promotion of Gorean culture - is the last place of credibility to attack this from. The SL community attacking gender bias would be like Apartheid South Africa protesting Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

Pot, meet Kettle.

Which is not to accuse you, or I, of that... But to say that we should be looking in our own house before pointing at that of others.


2103

@ Catnip.. "what?"

Pussycat Catnap

This sort of style is also not all that different from what one sees in SL with the 'prim attachments'.

So again - one from the SL community should look back to the SL community before casting a stone at another community.

They may have some serious problems over there in their game with negative gender bias. But again, we have Goreans and prim bosoms... its just as bad if not worse here.

Archangel Mortenwold

I'd say Danielle Riendeau's review is fairly objective, and rightly points out the flaws in artwork and misogynistic portrayal of women. Breast size aside, having thighs and buttocks that are so large in proportion to the rest of the body that they make the female PCs look freakish doesn't exactly impress me. Repetitive action isn't exactly a winner, either.

Kim Anubis

NetDwarf, I'm sorry you feel you are a "dork." If you continue to project that on others this way you might even get someone to confirm it. Maybe instead, like a former "office loser guy" we all know, you should seek out the red pill.

SexistRoidrageGuy

Amazing that people can look at Dragon's Crown artwork and be offended by the portrayal of women. Personally when I look at the art, I'm offended as a human being at the depiction of anatomy.

Maybe I'm just a jerk biased against people with horrible skeletal and muscular deformities.

Kim Anubis

SexistRoidrageGuy (hilarious name!), my initial reaction was similar to yours. After all, at least two guys in the pic at the top of this article have freakish shoulders that wouldn't fit through a doorway. But I think there is a difference. Did you see that video? None of the male characters have a giant "lance" bouncing and twanging wildly in front of them every time they turn around, similar to the female character's breasts. The female character art does not, like the male, exaggerate strong muscles -- for her, it's just T and A. Where's the female character with the exaggerated powerful muscles, and the sexy male with the booty shorts and giant package?

Pussycat, I've been thinking about your comments. The difference is that, for anyone who wants to play this game (and many others in the same genre) if you play a female character you end up with an exaggerated sexualized avatar with physical characteristics that would, in reality, actually hinder her in combat. It's giant boobs and a skimpy outfit that armors nothing but those, or you have to play as a dude, all too often.

Whereas, in SL, having giant ones each bigger than your head is only optional, third party, and if someone wants them they need to be shopped for or built and voluntarily attached. As far as stock avatars go, SL is pretty good about that sort of thing -- there's a chest slider for female avs, but there's a package slider for the males, too! Of course, it still isn't perfect. Last I checked, avatar physics will affect the T and A, but there's no way to adjust the bounce of a male package. That would bring us round to discussing why bouncing boobs are okay but a bouncing package might require more than a G rating, but that's a larger cultural issue.

NetDwarf

Kim, there is an Amazon female character, made of muscles. I think it is supposed to meet your expectations. Please, don't judge whole game by short video.
As to me, I'm starting to think that there is nothing wrong with game, but with certain players it is. Seriously, look, male gamers are playing dude characters. Also they are playing female characters, monster characters, robot charecters, animals, undead, aliens and so on. And nobody was whinning about those characters ain't go well with players personality or anything. But here comes Iris.
If developers really wanted to offend players, they would do it million times harder, literally making people run for butt treat.

Kim Anubis

NetDwarf, thanks for telling me about the muscular female character. Still, doesn't sound as if there is much sexy eye candy for the ladies, but oh well. It isn't as if I think that every game must please everyone and offend no one. It's just frustrating, sometimes, as a woman who prefers to play a female character, that often my only option is hypersexualized and not properly armored, whereas the male characters usually appear to be prepared for battle. This is, in fact, one of the reasons I don't really bother with that sort of game anymore.

If this happens to you often enough, atop things like, say, a little sexual discrimination in the workplace, or being groped by some clownshoe on the bus, and then you go home to play a new game and there are, yet again, a bunch of battle-ready male characters and (in many games) just a giant-boobed waif or two, it can feel like the last straw. It can just grind down your patience, you know?

I don't think developers set out to offend, and I don't think there should be rules or restrictions requiring, "For every hypermuscular male avatar there must be a corresponding hypermuscular female avatar," etc. It's just that a lot of people don't seem to be aware of the issue at all, and some men react so defensively when it is brought up that they spout some horrible insults and filth in a purposely hurtful way, which just makes the whole situation worse.

Some of us spent most of our gaming years being the one girl among the guys. Back even before video games were around we were playing with dice and character sheets -- and asked time after time to have our character screw a guard to get the party out of jail. There has been an increase in women gamers though, and maybe women younger than myself haven't had as many negative experiences pile up. But if none of us ever spoke up, it might never have begun to change.

Btw, thank you again for coming back and discussing this further. Makes me think you weren't being intentionally offensive with the "white trash" racial-and-classist slur and the inaccurate characterization of people who live in trailers. The line between humor and offensiveness can be very fine, and just as if is hard to tell if you're going to offend someone, it can be equally hard to tell whether someone intended to offend.

Pussycat Catnap

@Kim: Good points.

I wasn't trying to say SL as a whole is equally guilty. Not by a long shot.

But I was trying to point out that the same subculture that motivates this game also exists within SL. That we should be cautious of telling others to clean their house unless we're willing to go dust the living room in our flat as well or at first.

While not everyone who "puts on the prims" in SL is recreating the style here, and more importantly: the disempowerement politics of that style... there ARE those who do.

Counter Point case: Penny Patton, the champion of avatar size/proportions, also runs/ran a roleplay sim based on part of this kind of visual: extreme chests. BUT her sim features it from an empowerment angle. Its subtle enough that you might miss it at first glance - but there is a strong difference.

But the on point case: Many 'interracial' sims are full of people sporting this look and using it as a way to denigrate 'African women' by doing their "features" to an extreme, and coupling with a got-no-class attitude as a part of XXX-roleplay...

I have however NOT found this visual in the action and fantasy roleplay here much... mainly because in SL there is a curious belief among RPers that any scantily or unclad female is a slave not allowed to [effectively] use weapons...

The meme this review talks about seems to instead be making fun of 'action women' by over-doing the scanty bit and the 'anatomy'... which is a different form of disempowerment than that found in SL...

The offense is found in that the women become not people for themselves, but for visual entertainment.

Put this way: When you play one on the male toons you are "meant" to identify with that hero and take on his persona. He is "you" in the game. When you play on one of the female toons you are there as an observer, watching her bounce around, and taking an indirect perspective on the game.

- That mentality is best illustrated in comments from many MMO players on forums like WoW forums where, when asked why they play a 'female blood elf' the answer comes back as 'what kind of butt they wish to stare at while playing the game.' Such players do not self-identify with their toon, they observe it. But WoW's toons are not exaggerated (in this way), so there this is a player's choice, and other players will instead answer how they identify with that character.

But here... the female toon is intentionally designed to be '3rd party observed', while the male toon is intentionally designed to be '1st party self identified hero.'

(SL, like WoW - doesn't force the choice. But it has the look, and so you can find whether or not the problem is present by looking instead to the context in which that look shows up. IN the game reviewed here, there is only one context present... and it is the prime example context of a '3rd party observer objectification'.)

...

I'm a little buzzwordy there, as my ideas are still forming. They've been in my head for a long time but not expressed much before, so my wording is not as good as it could be...

Kim Anubis

Pussycat, that was a great post! I think I finally really understand where you're coming from. Thank you for taking the time to write that, especially the part about identifying with a character versus selecting it on the basis of the rear view -- that's pure truth!

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