Friday, June 10, 2011

Platonic Forms of the Marginalized

E3 was held this week in Los Angeles.  Among the myriad games shown at the convention was a "reboot" of the Tomb Raider franchise.  In both the CG trailer and gameplay demonstration, the series' central protagonist, Lara Croft, is presented in a fashion that is distinctly different from earlier titles in the series.  Her new appearance is more realistic, her physical and emotional reactions to injury and danger are more fragile, and in general she comes across as more human, less superhuman.

Whether this is a good or bad shift for the franchise, I have seen a sizable amount of gamer (and developer) scrutiny directed at the changes.  The attention goes beyond what is typical for changes to the main character of a franchise (cf. reactions to Dante's redesign in Ninja Theory's DmC) because Lara Croft is a rare thing in video games: a high profile female protagonist.  Because most console gamers are male, most game developers are male, and most game protagonists are male, successful female protagonists draw an inordinate amount of attention.

A good portion of the discussions I've seen have focused on Lara as a representation of women and on how female gamers will react to Lara's new design: her reduced physical strength, her physical brawls with intimidating men groping at her, and virtually everything that could relate to her attractiveness.  Though women make up pretty darn close to half of our world's population, they are still largely under-represented in games and in the online gamer community.  This marginalization, whether actively caused or passively continued, means that many people will hold individuals of the marginalized group up as representatives of that group.  Not many people debate Marcus Fenix's value as a representative of Caucasian male protagonists in video games because he's one of hundreds that cover a range including Guybrush Threepwood, Mario, Alan Wake, and Cloud Strife.  Whatever type of Caucasian male you like (assuming you like playing as a Caucasian male) is there for you somewhere.  Go hog wild.

Individuals often express this process of comparison and criticism in relation to an individual's expectations of normativity and how a character should relate to the individual's normative standards.  The individual does not judge the validity of the character primarily on its representation as a human being (i.e. simply as a realized, believable character), but on its representation of the marginalized classes people associate with it.  Of course, this is an impossible standard for any character to meet: despite normativity being established through social interaction, the standards are still understood and judged by individuals.

Though this process happens with minority groups in real-life professions constantly (e.g. female firefighters, Muslim American politicians), audiences often don't see their expectations of characters meeting normative standards as critically flawed because characters are fictitious, the products of one or more writers and the actors who portray them.  Audiences believe that it is not only possible, but an admirable goal for writers to meet their particular normative standards.

This brings me to my own experience with normative audience expectations of a character in a marginalized group: Arcade Gannon.  Arcade is a companion I wrote for Fallout: New Vegas.  In addition to being a Caucasian male, a doctor, and a swell guy, Arcade is also gay.  Though Arcade has no more than five lines out of several hundred that relate to his sexuality (and even those are, at most, strong implications), players have given more attention to his sexuality than any other aspect of his character.  Perhaps the most heated discussions were generated by an article Jim Sterling wrote titled Homosexuality and Fallout: New Vegas: A gay marriage made in gay Heaven.  At the heart of the debate was Jim's assertion that Arcade was a great gay character because his sexuality is so downplayed, so "unremarkable".  Internet posters far and wide both supported and contested this view, often explicitly stating their preferences for how gay characters should be portrayed.  Like Lara Croft's sex, Arcade Gannon's sexuality dominated the definition and discussion of his character.

The obvious problem is that no character can meet every individual's expectations of how a group should be represented.  Despite this, as long as a group is significantly marginalized among characters in media, whether due to simple omission or active exclusion, audiences will continue to turn rare specimens into exemplars.  So, what should we do?  I think that writers (game or otherwise) are already on the right track, but should continue to do the following:

* Represent marginalized groups when sensible.  Diversity helps broaden the appeal of our media, can add interesting dimensions to thematic exploration, and in some cases may even generate themes that would otherwise go unexplored.
* Consider your audience, but remember that they don't have one voice and they aren't all loud.  We write, broadly, to entertain.  Under that expansive canopy, we direct our efforts toward specific groups.  It's a little dehumanizing to reduce them to demographics, but still, we aren't writing for everyone.  It's our job to be the arbiter of propriety among them.
* Write good characters.  It's important for all characters, but it's especially important for a character drawing inordinate audience attention because she's an Asian lesbian Muslim.  Audiences perceive a character as having depth if the various competing aspects of its personality resonate believably with each other, with the story, and with the themes you're trying to explore.  This also applies in comedy, where a writer's temptation to use minority association as a punchline is often high.
* Understand and accept that we cannot write the Perfect X to meet all fan expectations of X.  The best we can do is continue to broaden the margins of the marginalized, provide enough nuanced X characters that there's no need for any individual to stand in for the whole group.

Though it may be a long time before we see as many female protagonists as male protagonists -- and we may never see a high percentage of gay, black, or transgendered characters -- we can hopefully reach the point where audiences discuss these various descriptors and associations within the context of the story and its themes.  When we get to that point,  audiences will see them as more than just Platonic forms struggling to escape from yesterday's margins.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Roman Legion: Fact, Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic Fiction in History, The Eagle, Fallout: New Vegas, Long Blog Post Titles

I should probably get to bed but I've wanted to write something about our (very) old friends the Roman Legion. I wasn't a student of classic history and, outside of taking a bit of Latin, I never had a huge amount of direct exposure to the subject.  Most of my knowledge about "the" Roman Empire came through studying their (violent) contact with the rest of the world.  For example, Roman Britain.  The revolt of the Iceni under Boudica, the concurrent attack on Mona, and the (unrelated) disappearance of the 9th Legion from York were my favorite episodes.


When I heard that the new film The Eagle was being made, I was excited.  The disappearance of the 9th Legion aka Legio IX Hispana is a cool subject.  I saw the movie and thought it was... okay.  I think one of the problems is that the Roman Legion isn't portrayed as being particularly great for the Britons and the Britons are portrayed as being ... well, not anything.  They don't seem to have much character outside of really disliking Romans and having some cool Scottish Deerhounds.  Considering the gravitas (yeah I went there) given to retrieving the eagle, the importance of Rome isn't built up that much outside of the main character regularly suggesting, "The eagle... is everything... that is... Rome!" with varying tones of profundity.

When they manage to bring the eagle back, it's a moment of triumph, but who cares?  There's never a time where you can go, "Yeah, I guess this aspect of Roman Britain is really cool and the Britons sure are dumb/bad, so this is a Good Thing(tm)."  Not that I'm advocating such a Braveheart-y portrayal, but if you're going to end on a high note, you have to build to it.

Alternately, Roman Britain could have been portrayed as being a mixed bag of things that were occasionally good for the Britons but almost always oppressively terrible, with the Britons being portrayed as an oppressed people who also regularly did horrible things to each other in spite of having a common enemy.  Because that's pretty much what Roman Britain was: Roman legions stomping on local faces and building some roads while Britons occasionally caused the Romans some grief when they weren't busy killing and/or selling each other out.  The hero could have reached this same conclusion, retrieved the eagle, and decided that the only important thing it symbolized was the character of his father during his final moments.  There would be no triumphant, celebratory return of the eagle to Roman politicians, just a son coming to terms with the legacy of his father and his own place in the world.  That's how I would have ended it, mostly because I think that the world and most of our societies have been differing dark shades of awful, so I find it hard to celebrate any of them.

On a related note, a lot of folks have asked me about the Legion in Fallout: New Vegas and why they aren't more fully fleshed out.  The real answer is "time", and I would have liked to have more locations, characters, and quests for the Legion.  Even so, the Legion was always intended to be a faction that was initially presented as terrible, much like the NCR is initially presented as heroic, with revelations over the course of the story causing you to question that initial impression in a larger context.  Caesar shows a very warped plan for how the Legion can bring order to the Mojave, and there are suggestions that regions under Legion control do enjoy a sort of "Pax Romana", but there isn't enough concrete evidence for the player to directly witness to really sell it.  Even so, under the most ideal of portrayals, it was never my intention for the Legion to become a heroic faction.  Their methods and approach would have always been unflinchingly brutal, with proven results and a clear plan to reproduce that success being the only potentially redeeming qualities of the group.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Complaining About Politically Active, Intellectual Lazy People

I am fed up with the laziness Americans, in general, show toward political awareness and criticism in this information age.  By this, I do not mean that I am fed up with political apathy, nor do I mean that I am fed up with low voter turn-out.  I also don't mean to hold up other republics as shining examples in comparison to us, but we project ourselves as a beacon of what a constitutional republic should be; it would be nice to live up to that standard.  Much of what of what I'm writing is similar in tone to general critiques of political discourse in recent years.  I don't feel like I have a particularly brilliant insight into our political landscape, but I felt the need to write about it because it greatly troubles me.

Specifically, I am filled with intense disappointment for an American voting society that has such incredible and unprecedented access to a wide spectrum of information but chooses to squander it -- a society that dehumanizes and demonizes political opponents that are more visible and exposed than ever, simplifies complex discourse to snide partisan jokes, and overlooks sober political debate in favor of media cheerleading.

Despite all of the incredible communication and education resources available to us, as a society we generally remain politically hostile, obstinately partisan, short-sighted, lazy, bull-headed, and willfully ignorant.

In 1993, I turned eighteen and became eligible to vote.  Since then, in less than twenty years, here are some of the things that I, and many other internet-active Americans, can now do that were not possible (or at least practical for many people) then:

* Look at the full text, often with ongoing edits, of bills submitted to state and federal legislative bodies.
* Read the non-partisan analyses of bills by government officials, such as a legislative analyst.
* Look up how any representative has voted on any given bill ever.
* Look up the historical context of almost anything in our own past or the past of any civilization ever recorded.

In addition to those enormously valuable things, we also have the ability to do things like:

* Stream major legislative sessions from C-SPAN or look them up later on a variety of video sites.
* Read myriad sides and aspects of political debates in literally hundreds of venues that are friendly, hostile, or mixed relative to our own views.
* Watch, read, listen to, and respond to to the broader opinions and concerns of political figures, professional journalists, bloggers, private citizens, and all sorts of people from different backgrounds all over the world.
* Have our internet browsers automatically translate foreign websites into languages we can read, giving us access to primary documents, news articles, conversations, etc. -- basically everything we see above, but for the entire world.

Most people who are politically active on the internet do not do these things.  I feel comfortable writing this because the evidence, though based on casual observation, is impressive in its consistency.  People do not look at, much less read, the full text of bills.  They wouldn't even be able to tell you where to find the text of bills, nor do they seem to care.  The blogs that cover events of political significance rarely even bother to give the names of the very important bills being discussed, and almost never the numbers by which they can be properly identified.  I will stop short of speculating on the reasons for these omissions, but I will say that it is lazy, unhelpful to serious political analysis, and intellectually indefensible.

In general, politically active people do not read non-partisan analyses of a bill; they read partisan analyses of those non-partisan analyses.  They don't look up voting records themselves; they listen to the cherry-picked, context-free slams from polemicists.  Voters don't learn historical facts, absorb different analyses, and formulate their own opinions; they listen to other people spin historical narratives that wrap up selective facts into a story that fits their predispositions.  We don't seriously read the "other side" of a debate to understand perspectives; we skim selective quotations that cast our most disagreeable political opponents in the harshest light.

Despite having enormous resources of information available to us, every day our society largely spurns the opportunity to learn more about how our world has worked, how it has failed, and what people are trying to do about it today.  So much more is immediately available to us, both passively and actively, than ever has been before.  A lot of it is irrelevant, confusing, and infuriating.  Too bad.  It requires our effort to sort through.  Whatever your education, whatever your background, whatever your occupation, the world is constantly changing, and we all must continuously engage the rest of the world to make any serious critical analysis of how we should move forward.  If we float along on a sea of second-hand information and opinions put out by partisans and media outlets, we're politically active while being politically brain dead.

We become politically active to accomplish things.  If a goal is well-reasoned and a course is sound, all the critical analysis, slams, and distractions in the world can't detract from that.  I work with a literacy program that promotes literacy in part because it is believed to be an essential part of participating in a democratic society.  There are millions of people in this country who strive and struggle every day to read, write, listen, and speak with the people around them -- simply to do basic things.  If you're reading this right now, you have the ability to access and analyze -- and contribute to -- a staggering, unprecedented amount of information that can inform your participation in our government and in political culture.  I'm not saying it's easy.  I'm not saying it doesn't take time.  But compared to the entire history of the world, it has never been easier than it is right now.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Actually, Some Developers Should Read Their Forums

Jeff Vogel from Spiderweb Software wrote a blog post about how creators should not read their forums.  I don't think he's entirely wrong; a lot of creators -- game designers, artists, authors -- will probably never be able to read forums.  But if you care about how your creations are received by actual consumers, you should.

Please understand that I mean that in a sort of "flowing wave" aikido sense, not in the sense that we need to sagely nod our heads and actually accept everything that people say and write.  A lot of critical feedback is noise, a lot of it is only relevant to a small number of people (sometimes it's actually just one person), and a lot of it is misdirected or poorly expressed (i.e. the problem a person expresses is not actually the cause of their frustration).

There are some good reasons to read our forums, even with all of the problems they present.  I don't think I need to explain the benefits of reading fan forums, but I do think it's worth explaining why those who are interested in fan feedback should just Deal With It.

Perception Matters
Sometimes audiences are stupid.  Sometimes, it's us, the dumb creators, who assume idiotic things.  Ultimately, it doesn't really matter who's at fault; the issue is that there is a disconnect.  "Communication" has the same roots as "commune" -- sharing, imparting, all that good stuff.  It's our responsibility to give players the tools they need to play the game.  It's the artist's responsibility to speak to the viewer using a visual language they can interpret.  Not everyone will be up to the challenge -- and not everyone is in the intended audience -- but sometimes we make stupid choices and the viewer, audience, or reader really can't be blamed for not "getting it".  Gauging perception is how we determine the extent to which our intended audience can "step up" and how much we need to "reach down".  But to gauge perception, we need to accept that...

Reality Is Still Out There
This applies both to how you accept fan reactions and how you reconcile those reactions with what you know about the work you did.   A nerd yelling in the forest is still angry, regardless of whether or not you're around to hear it.  Ignoring critical feedback doesn't mean that feedback doesn't exist, and it doesn't mean that the person wasn't upset.  If we have any interest in understanding the things that make people angry, we have to actually consider what they're saying.  You can't separate the wheat from the chaff if you say, "Ugh that chaff is so gross!" and make a dismissive frowny face at the whole pile.

Conversely, what a person perceives, imagines, hypothesizes, and ultimately expresses does not necessarily have any bearing on reality.  You know what you did.  You know how you did it.  You know the hours you put in.  You know what you made and how it works.  Anything a person says to the contrary is ultimately irrelevant unless they're in a position to legitimately defame you.  Being able to step back and stabilize ourselves with the anchor of what "is" allows us to compare that to whatever wild things an individual perceives or claims to perceive.  Keeping reality in mind gives us the mental distance we need to observe the flames without being burned.  But...

If You Can't Take the Heat, GTFO
Many creators make products to sell to people.  It's our job.  Well over a million people just paid around $50-$60 USD for something I helped make.  If it doesn't work right or if they feel the product was misrepresented, it makes sense that they would be upset.  The extent to which their reaction is justifiable or reasonable depends on what's going on, but sometimes, we actually did do something really bad.  Sometimes, we can step back and realize that if we experienced the same problem on our own, we would kick our own (collective) asses.

We have to accept that we make mistakes and we have to understand that it can really ruin someone's day.  What we make is entertainment, but it's entertainment that can just as easily generate crushing lows as euphoric highs.  A while ago, one of my co-workers received an e-mail from a gamer saying that she credits one of our games with saving her life.  It shocked my co-worker.  I've received similar e-mails in the past, going all the way back to to my early days at Black Isle.  It shocks me every time it happens as well.  I make video games, most of which I don't even think are anything to get excited about one way or another.  Sometimes it's hard to accept how much what we make can impact people, positively and negatively, but this goes back to what I wrote above: reality is still out there.  Sometimes we make people really happy.  Sometimes we really upset them.  Most people have no strong feelings about what we make.  They look at it, poke at it, get bored, and move on.  That's life.  It's important to accept and understand these things.

Not To Be Understood, But To Understand
Our message boards aren't really there for us to make ourselves heard.  They're not there for us to defend ourselves (though they can be useful for explaining things or clearing up confusion).  They're there for people to express themselves to each other and to us.  Sometimes, it can be useful for us to serenely participate or make some statements of fact, but often it's best just for us to take in the field, eliminate the noise, and tune in on the ideas and threads that can really help improve how our creations are received.

It doesn't matter if there isn't a consensus.  It doesn't matter if there's noise or confusion or if there are ideas spread across many different threads.  You're the arbiter.  You can do it.  Your job is to use critical thinking and make difficult choices.

And sifting through all of that stuff, you're going to see a lot of harsh words.  Some of it will be at your company, some of it may be right at you.  But after a while, you can take anything.  You don't need to get angry.  You don't need to feel bad.  There's no word, no phrase, no type of insult, no emotion that you can't brush off.  If you're honest with yourself and level with others, you can take whatever's thrown at you.  Accept the helpful, even when it initially stings.  Reject the irrelevant, even when it feels good.  As long as we care about what our audiences think, we've got to be willing to dig through some mud to understand it.  If it helps us refine our techniques, improve what we create, and be more honest with ourselves, it will all be worth it in the end.